The Empire Under Augustus in The Encarta Encyclopedia

Augustus Caesar | Index

Encarta Encyclopedia

III. The Empire Under Augustus

Octavian's victory over Antony made him master of Rome, but it did not resolve the conflicts that had destroyed the Roman Republic. His most pressing tasks included demobilizing the huge armies, safeguarding their future loyalty, and ensuring the safety of the European frontiers that Rome had neglected during long civil wars in the east. He also needed to make the Italians an integral part of Roman social, cultural and political life. Rome had conquered people of various cultural and linguistic backgrounds who inhabited the Italian Peninsula and had only granted citizenship sparingly, causing some bitter feelings. Augustus worked to reduce class hostility and civil unrest in the capital and established an administrative apparatus to govern the empire. To accomplish these changes, he devised a new form of monarchy.

His first step was to repair the bitter wounds of civil war. On January 13 of 27 B.C., Octavian, in his own words, "transferred the Republic from my own power to the authority of the Senate and the Roman people." This action showed shrewd political planning, as Augustus used it purely for public show. The Senate awarded him the name of Augustus, and mobs demanded that he retain power. Augustus carefully retained the titles of traditional offices to disguise his absolute power. He kept only the offices of consul and proconsul and claimed that he held no more power than his colleagues. Some Romans complained that the loss of liberty was too great a price to pay for peace, but most recognized that under the so-called liberty of the Roman Republic, a few hundred men had divided the spoils of empire while the workers and the provincials suffered. The majority of Romans welcomed the peace and stability of the Augustan Age.

A. Government

Augustus did not derive his power from any single office, but from the authority of his name and his victory. In fact, he carefully pieced together a patchwork of powers that allowed him to be an absolute ruler and yet avoid the hatred Caesar aroused as dictator. In Latin, the name Augustus implies both political authority and religious respect. The Romans had for some time called Octavian imperator, a title once awarded to victorious generals that soon became associated with the ruler and thus led to the English word emperor. In 27 B.C. he was first called princeps (leading man of the state), which later became the official title of the Roman emperors. His imperium, or military authority, extended throughout the empire and was greater than the power of any other governor or general.

Augustus, in reality, held as much power as any absolute dictator, but wisely disguised it with traditional names so that the other Roman officials, and particularly senators, would still feel pride in their positions. The Senate was not an elected body; it drew its membership from the Roman aristocratic classes, primarily former magistrates who had served in important administrative posts. To be a senator was a matter of status, not a formal job. Under the republic, the Senate held great authority as the institution that preserved Roman knowledge and tradition and became the dominant force in religion, public policy, and foreign affairs. Senators jealously guarded the power and the wealth that resulted from their role in Roman government.

Augustus resigned the consulship in 23 B.C. as a gesture to satisfy senators who were anxious to receive consular honors themselves. He rarely held that title again. Augustus instead assumed the powers of a tribune, the republican official who represented the people and had the power to propose or veto legislation. The Romans heaped other honors upon him, including the office of censor, which enabled him to control the membership of the Senate. They also made him pontifex maximus, the head of the state religion, and finally pater patriae or "father of the country." These offices and titles gave Augustus no real additional power, for he already controlled every aspect of religious, civil, and military life.

Augustus's main task was to create and staff new administrative structures for the empire. During the republic, the government had ruled the provinces ineffectively. Provincial governorships were seen as opportunities for enrichment or as stepping-stones to higher office. Augustus was determined to improve imperial administration by making senators managers rather than politicians. He focused primarily on the talents of the individual senators who became policy advisors, provincial governors, military commanders, and senior administrators. An advisory council of senators set the legislative agenda and made recommendations to the emperor. This system allowed him to work with many senators whom he might later select for high office.

Augustus worked to reinvigorate the senatorial order, whose membership had declined as a result of political persecutions and civil war. Like any politician, he turned first to supporters who had proved their loyalty. During the civil wars, the Italians were his most devoted followers, and he generously included them in the new regime. Gaius Maecenas, who was descended from an Etruscan noble family, became the emperor's closest domestic advisor, and the general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who was also of Italian descent, married the emperor's daughter, Julia. Augustus even brought talented but landless Italians into the Senate by giving them the land or money necessary to meet the minimum property qualification for senators, which was 1 million sesterces (small silver coins used by the Romans).

An empire of 50 million people needed more administrators than the Senate could provide. Augustus turned to the equestrian order—those citizens with a high level of property or wealth (over 400,000 sesterces)—and asked them to perform a wide range of administrative tasks. The members of the order, known as equites, filled financial positions in Rome and abroad. They even acted as governors in some smaller provinces such as Judea, where the equestrian Pontius Pilate ruled. The highest equestrian offices commanded so much power that Augustus preferred not to entrust them to ambitious senators. These posts included the prefect, or commander, of the grain supply, the prefect of Egypt, and the praetorian prefect, who controlled troops in Rome and Italy.

In addition to establishing a basic administrative structure, Augustus also had to monitor the everyday issues of taxation and local services. As a result of the civil war, the state treasury was empty. Augustus, after his conquest of Egypt, had personally received the accumulated treasure of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and her predecessors as well as a vast ongoing income from Egyptian production, trade, and taxes. He contributed large amounts of this income to the treasury, which he carefully recorded in his public memoirs. He also replaced the corrupt private tax collectors with state employees and managed to balance Rome's budget. For the first time, he established public police and fire protection for Rome and kept close control over grain distribution and the water supply.

People in the provinces outside of Rome welcomed the new regime of Augustus with enthusiasm. Augustus planned to integrate the Italians into all aspects of Roman life. When he came to power, the people of Italy remained a mixture of different cultures. Many southern Italians still used Greek, people in the mountain areas spoke different Italic languages, and the Etruscan language had only recently died out. The economic growth that followed the long period of civil war enriched the towns and drew Italy together, but Augustus truly unified ancient Italy culturally, politically, and economically. Under his rule the provinces fared better than they had under the corrupt governors and greedy tax collectors of the republic.

In the east, Augustus initially followed the republican tradition of allowing the rulers of conquered peoples, often called subject kings, to remain in power and to administer their own territories. This policy allowed Rome to send her legions elsewhere. Eventually, however, local squabbles over royal succession led the emperors to turn kingdoms like Judea, Armenia, and Galatia into Roman provinces. In those areas the former royal estates then became the emperor's personal property, while the province as a whole was regarded as territory of the Roman state. The emperor governed the provinces that had a large military presence—western Asia, Africa, and Gaul —through his deputies. Egypt became the most reliable source of food for Italy because it was so agriculturally productive. As a result, the Roman emperors kept Egypt as personal property, governed by a prefect, and the Egyptians worshiped the emperors as successors to their own great kings, the pharaohs.

B. Moral Reform and Religious Renewal

The Romans believed that political corruption in the late republic was connected to moral decline. Immoral sexual behavior and the pursuit of political advancement led members of the upper classes to avoid marriage, divorce more frequently, and have fewer traditional relationships. As result, the Roman population, already greatly diminished by the civil wars, experienced a noticeable decline in the birth rate. In response Augustus added an important moral dimension to his political program. He passed legislation to encourage marriage and childbearing. The unmarried and the childless suffered political and financial penalties while those with three or more children received special privileges. Augustus also made adultery a criminal offense, sending his own daughter, Julia, into exile for having illicit sexual affairs.

The emperor made other efforts to be identified with the traditional Roman values typical of a conservative agrarian society with strong family networks. The Romans were hardworking and frugal, self-reliant and cautious, serious about their responsibilities and steadfast in the face of adversity. The stress on family responsibility was evident in the idea of pietas, the belief that all Romans owed loyalty to family authority and to the gods of Rome. The emperor's Italian supporters outside of the senatorial elite were devoted to traditional religion as well as conventional morality, so Augustus revived neglected ceremonies and restored 82 temples that had fallen into ruins. In commemoration of his victory at Philippi over Caesar's murderers, Augustus built a new temple to the war god, Mars, and gave him the additional title of "the Avenger." Augustus also held splendid celebrations to mark the anniversary of the founding of Rome.

C. Economy

The Augustan Age sparked a major economic revival. The emperor directly controlled coinage, taxation, and his own enormous estates, but otherwise allowed the economy to operate freely, with demand dictating prices and profits. Above all it was the end of civil war that encouraged economic growth. Roman armies could control piracy and allow maritime trade across the Mediterranean as never before.

  1. Agriculture
Farming was the basis of the Roman economy. Republican senators traditionally invested their wealth in Italian land, but the imperial peace also encouraged them to invest abroad. The Romans began to cultivate more land when they brought Mediterranean plants and more sophisticated farming methods farther north into Gaul, the Rhine River valley, and the Balkan Peninsula. Vineyards spread throughout Gaul, and olive groves were planted in North Africa. The Romans learned new techniques for farming in wet climates that allowed them to open new lands for agriculture in northern Gaul and Britain, where increasing demands for timber transformed native forests into agricultural estates.

Landowners lived in the cities or, in the case of the truly wealthy, in Rome itself. A foreman managed each estate separately. Some individual estates, called villas, were huge operations. One villa, the Boscatrecase, which was located near the Italian city of Pompeii, had 100,000 jugs of wine in storage. Large estates in the provinces had lower labor costs, which gradually undermined traditional Italian agriculture. As a result, Rome imported wheat from Egypt and Africa, wine from Gaul, and oil from Spain and Africa.

  1. Industry
Roman industry did not include mass production, and small workshops manufactured pottery, metalwork, and glass. A successful brickmaker might have owned dozens of workshops rather than one large factory. Manufacturers dispersed or decentralized their production because it was expensive to transport goods. Bricks for construction were made at the building site, or terra-cotta figurines were fashioned at the temple where they were sold. Unlike independent artisans who had their own shops, wage laborers were treated with contempt in the ancient world and worked alongside slaves.

The eastern Mediterranean was initially the manufacturing center of the Roman world, but under the empire, Gaul also experienced great industrial growth. A number of factors combined to encourage manufacturing in Gaul, including the availability of ample raw materials, the Celtic tradition of exquisite metalworking, good river transportation, and the enormous market created by the military along the northern borders of the empire. The Roman soldiers needed weapons, pottery, boots, clothing, and building materials, and they bought them from local craftspeople.

  1. Trade
Land was the safest investment for the wealthy, but trade was the only legal way to acquire a fortune quickly. Transport by sea was far cheaper than by land, but every voyage faced both financial risks and opportunities. Shipwrecks occurred frequently during this period, and now provide archaeologists with abundant information about Roman shipping routes and cargoes. The Romans shipped food and rare raw materials like colored marble throughout the Mediterranean, along with Egyptian papyrus reeds for paper, purple dye from Syria, glass from Palestine, and Spanish ironwork.

The frontiers of the empire did not hinder trade. German peddlers crossed the borders in both directions, bringing amber from the Baltic and exchanging it for Roman artifacts. However, few Romans actually took part in foreign commerce. They did not trade directly with Arabia, Africa, India, and China, but received incense, ivory, pepper, and silk from these countries through intermediaries. Asian caravans crossed the steppe to China, and Parthians controlled the caravan route to India. From the 1st century A.D., Egyptian sailors from Alexandria learned how to use the monsoon, a wind that changed direction with the seasons, to enable them to make frequent trips to India. A guidebook from ancient times for captains sailing through the Red Sea still survives.

  1. Coinage and Taxes
Merchants throughout the empire and as far away as India used Roman coins, but the monetary system primarily served as a way for the emperors to pay their troops, because the soldiers expected cash. When an emperor had insufficient income, he was forced to raise taxes, seize property, or, as a final measure, melt down existing coins and mint new ones that weighed less or contained smaller amounts of precious metals. Silver coins were a basic medium of exchange during the empire, and one of the major Roman coins, a denarius (plural, denarii), equaled four of the smaller silver coins called sesterces. During the reign of Augustus, a silver denarius weighed 5.7 gm (.20 oz) and was 99 percent pure. By A.D. 193 it had dropped to 4.3 gm (.15 oz) and was only 70 percent pure. The deficit spending of later emperors nearly halved the silver value of the coinage.

The Roman Empire taxed the people under its control, and the taxes fell most heavily on conquered peoples in the empire. Roman citizens did not have to pay the individual or head tax required of each subject of the empire, and the empire exempted Italian land from tribute. However Roman citizens did have to pay the 5 percent inheritance tax, a 1 percent sales tax, a customs or import duty, and a tax on freed slaves. Local magistrates, imperial officials, and professional tax collectors were all employed to gather taxes, and the imperial census became an important tool to identify potential taxpayers. Total taxes amounted to about 10 percent of the empire's gross national product. That percentage of tax may seem low by modern standards, but the imperial government provided minimal services. For provincials who could barely make a living, paying 10 percent of their income to the government was a considerable burden.

D. The Roman Military

Once Augustus had defeated Mark Antony, he began to reduce the empire's remaining military forces from 60 legions to 28. He then had to provide over 100,000 men with land, which was the traditional form of pension. Augustus knew that earlier seizures of land had led to insurrections, so he used the spoils of his successful Egyptian campaign against Antony and Cleopatra to purchase property for some soldiers. He settled others in 40 new colonies around the Mediterranean. These colonies provided additional security in the provinces, and eventually became important centers for spreading the Roman way of life. Augustus founded the cities of Turin in Italy; Barcelona, Spain; Nîmes, France; Trier, Germany; Tangier, Morocco, and Beirut, Lebanon.

During the republic, the general who recruited an army often armed and paid the soldiers. Augustus wanted to ensure that in the future no rebellious general could threaten the regime, so he established a central military treasury. He set funds aside for the legionaries. When they retired, they received a grant to purchase a plot of land to support their families. Augustus also tried to make his troops more professional by instituting a standard legionary command structure, system of rank, and rate of pay. Roman soldiers swore an annual oath of loyalty to the emperor. These legionaries also received their pay, bonuses, and pensions from the emperor, so they were not often tempted to follow a renegade commander.

Augustus also bound his troops to him with regular compensation rather than the prospect of booty or goods seized during war. Each legionary received an annual salary of 225 denarii, from which the military deducted the cost of food and clothing. The government supplemented these wages with an occasional bonus like the 75 denarii provided in Augustus's will. Promotions also brought enormous salary increases. In each legion 60 centurions, noncommissioned officers who came from the ranks, each received 3,750 denarii, while the head centurion earned 15,000 denarii. After 20 years of service, a legionary received land or cash equal to 14 years' pay to support him in retirement. Until A.D. 200, the military did not permit legionaries to marry, although many had unofficial wives and children living alongside the camps in makeshift towns. The land granted to the legionaries on retirement was usually located in provincial colonies where the veterans could reinforce the power of the legions.

The legionaries who made up the empire's heavy infantry were citizens, but conquered peoples provided auxiliary troops with the skills that the Romans lacked. Cavalry from Gaul, archers from Lebanon, and slingers from the Spanish island of Mallorca (who used large slingshots to hurl rocks at the enemy) all fought for Rome, and they received two-thirds of a legionary's salary. These colonial soldiers, who came from diverse cultural backgrounds, learned Latin and received Roman citizenship for themselves and their families when they retired. The auxiliaries helped bring Latin and Roman civilization to their homeland. In the early empire, the number of auxiliaries equaled the 175,000 legionaries. However, the empire's 350,000 soldiers were not an enormous force to secure 6,000 miles of frontier and to ensure internal security for an empire of 50 million people.

The Romans did not normally station legions in Italy, which was protected by the special troops known as the praetorian guard. This elite force, which was responsible for the safety of the emperor, received triple pay and special bonuses. The prefect or commander of the guard controlled access to the emperor, and later prefects acquired administrative and judicial authority. The increasing power of the praetorians had both favorable and unfavorable consequences: The guards protected some emperors but murdered others.

Augustus and his successors busied Roman troops with expanding and protecting the borders of the empire. After the civil war, Augustus turned his attention to tribal invasions in the western portion of the empire. The inscription on the Trophy of Augustus, which stands 100 feet high at La Turbie in the mountains high above Monaco, records his suppression of the stubborn Alpine tribes between Italy and France. Augustus also pacified Spain, and in 12 B.C. his stepson Drusus (Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus) conquered Germany as far as the Elbe River. Eventually Roman rule extended to the Danube River, where the new provinces of Rhaetia, Noricum, Dalmatia, Pannonia, and Moesia stretched from present-day Switzerland through Austria, Yugoslavia, and Hungary to Bulgaria on the Black Sea.

Despite the strength of the Roman military, conquest was not accomplished without resistance. The Romans did not have a large force in the Balkans, for example, and when the Pannonians rebelled against Roman rule in A.D. 6, Tiberius, another stepson of Augustus, needed three years and 100,000 men to put it down. But the greatest disaster took place in Germany. In A.D. 9, the Roman general Publius Quintilius Varus led three legions into an ambush, and they were annihilated by a Germanic tribe called the Cherusci in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This catastrophe, the worst Roman defeat in two centuries, forced the aging Augustus to adopt a policy of caution and restraint.


Copyright Statement

"The Empire Under Augustus," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001

 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Return to Bible History Online

Augustus Caesar

Images and Busts of Augustus on


Augustus Bibliography Resources

Augustus Caesar's World - By Foster, 347 Pages, Pub. 1947

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor - By Everitt, 432 Pages, Pub. 2007

Related Content