Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > The Reign Of Augustus Caesar - b.C. 31-a.d. 14

The Reign Of Augustus Caesar - b.C. 31-a.d. 14

Augustus, being now the emperor of Rome, sought to win the affections of his people. He lived with republican simplicity in a plain house on the Palatine Hill, and educated his family with great strictness and frugality. His public conduct was designed to conceal his unbounded power. He rejected all unworthy members from the Senate, and limited the number of the Senators to six hundred. The Comitia of the Centuries was still allowed to pass laws and elect magistrates, but gradually these powers were taken away, until, in the reign of Tiberius, they are mentioned no more. The emperor's chief counselors in public affairs were his four friends, M. Vipsanius Agrippa, C. Cilnius Mæcenas, M. Valerius Messala, and Asinius Pollio, all persons of excellent talents, and devoted to their master. Agrippa aided him greatly in embellishing the city of Rome with new buildings, and the Pantheon, which was built in the Campus Martins, still bears the inscription, M. Vipsanius Agrippa, consul tertium. Augustus was accustomed to say that he found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble.

To secure the peace of the capital, and to extirpate the robbers who filled its streets, Augustus divided Rome into fourteen regions, and each region into several smaller divisions called Vici: a magistrate was placed over each Vicus, and all these officers were under the command of the city prefect. A police force, Vigiles, seven hundred in number, was also provided, who succeeded in restoring the public peace. Italy, in a similar manner, was divided into regions, and local magistrates were appointed, who made life and property every where secure.

We must notice briefly the extent and condition of that vast empire, over which Augustus ruled - too vast, in fact, to be subjected to the control of a single intellect. Italy, the peculiar province of the emperor, had lost a large part of its free population, whose place was supplied by slaves; military colonies were numerous, a kind of settlement which never tended to advance the prosperity of the country; the cities were declining, and many of them almost abandoned. The north of Italy, however, still retained a portion of its former prosperity; its great droves of swine supplied the people of Rome with a large part of their food; vineyards also abounded there, and the wine-vats of upper Italy were said to be often larger than houses. Coarse woolen cloths were manufactured in Liguria, and a finer wool was produced near Mutina. But Italy, once so fertile, could no longer produce its own corn, for which it depended chiefly upon Sicily, Africa, and Egypt.

The island of Sicily, too, had suffered greatly during the civil wars. Its cities were fallen into ruin, and the woods and mountains were filled with fugitive slaves, who, when captured, were taken to Rome and exposed to wild beasts in the amphitheatres. A Roman colony was planted by Augustus in the almost deserted city of Syracuse.

The condition of the extensive province of Gaul was more promising, its savage tribes having begun to adopt the arts of civilization. The Gauls purchased from southern traders such articles as they were unable to produce at home, and supplied Italy, in return, with coarse wool and cargoes of bacon. Several Roman colonies established in Gaul enjoyed various political privileges, but the people in general were oppressed with taxes and burdened with debts. The religion of the Druids was discouraged by laws which forbade human sacrifices, and, indeed, all rites opposed to the Roman faith. In Southern Gaul the city of Massilia (Marseilles) had imparted civilization to the neighboring tribes: they learned to use the Greek characters in writing, while many of the Gallic cities invited Greek teachers to open schools in their midst.

Spain, rich in gold and silver, in fine wool, and a prolific soil, traded largely with Rome. The valley of the Bætis, or Guadalquiver, was renowned for its uncommon fertility. Many of the Spaniards had already adopted the language and manners of their conquerors. Spain was divided into three provinces, Bætica, Lusitania, and Hispania Tarraconensis. Gades, or Cadiz, was one of the richest cities of the empire, and, according to Dion Cassius, had received the privilege of Roman citizenship from Julius Cæsar, whom its people had aided against Pompey's officers. The tribes in the northwest of Spain, however, were savage and unquiet, and their language, the Basque, which still exists, shows that they were never perfectly conquered by the Romans.

The northern coast of Africa, opposite to Spain, was held by Juba, a native prince, while the Roman province of Africa embraced ancient Carthage, together with a considerable territory around it. This province possessed a large trade. Cyrenaica, to the eastward, included the island of Crete, and was termed a prætorian province.

Egypt was ruled by a governor, who was always taken from the equestrian order. Two legions only were stationed in that province. Being the centre of the trade between Italy and the Indies, Egypt accumulated great wealth, and was renowned for its extensive commerce. It exported large quantities of corn to Italy, and also papyrus, the best writing material then known. The two finest kinds of papyrus were named the Augustan and the Livian. Alexandria, the sea-port of Egypt, was the second city of the empire. Its commerce was immense; and its museum, colleges, library, and literary men made it also the centre of Greek literature. Alexandria, too, was famous for its superstition and its licentiousness: the festivals and rites of Serapis had long excited the contempt of the wiser Romans.

The trade between Alexandria and the Indies was carried on through two routes: one was the famous canal which, begun by Pharaoh Necho, was completed under the government of the Ptolemies. Leaving the Nile near the southern point of the Delta, the canal, after a somewhat circuitous course, joined the Red Sea at the town of Arsinoe, near the modern town of Suez. Another route was overland from Coptos, on the Nile, across the desert, to Berenice and Myos Hormos. Along this road wells were dug or reservoirs of water provided, and thus an easy communication was kept up with the East. Heavy duties, however, were laid upon all goods entering or leaving Alexandria, and its extensive trade afforded a great revenue to the government.

From Egypt to the Ægean Sea, various provinces were created in Syria and Asia Minor. The most extensive of these were the two provinces of Syria and Asia, which were governed by lieutenants of the emperor. Judea retained a nominal independence, under the government of Herod; Jerusalem was adorned by Herod with magnificent buildings; and Antioch, Tyre, and several other eastern cities were still prosperous and luxurious. They were, however, heavily taxed, and suffered from the tyranny and exactions of their Roman rulers.

Greece, in the age of Augustus, seems to have been a scene of desolation. It was divided into two provinces, Macedonia and Achaia, both belonging to the jurisdiction of the Senate and the people. Greece had suffered greatly during the civil wars, and had never recovered its ancient prosperity. The peninsula was partly depopulated. Laconia had long lost its importance, and Messenia and Arcadia were almost deserted. Corinth and Patræ, however, were flourishing Roman colonies; Thebes was a mere village; Athens still retained its literary renown, and was always a favorite resort for cultivated Romans; but its harbor was deserted, its walls thrown down, and the energy of its people forever gone.

Macedonia had suffered equally with Greece, and no trace remained of its former power. Thus we find that the civilized world, at the accession of Augustus, was every where marked by desolation and decay.

The Roman empire, at this period, was bounded on the north by the Euxine, the Danube, the Rhine, and the British Channel; westward it reached to the Atlantic; on the south it was confined by the deserts of Africa, and on the east by Assyria and Mesopotamia. The Mediterranean Sea was wholly within the empire, and afforded an easy mode of communication with the different provinces.

The government which Augustus now established was designed to preserve the memory of the republic, while the real power remained with the emperor alone. The people were deprived of all their former importance; the Comitia were only suffered to pass upon laws proposed by the Senate, which was now wholly under the control of the emperor. Consuls and other magistrates were still chosen annually, and Augustus, in the earlier years of his reign, was accustomed to solicit votes for his favorite candidates, who, however, were always elected; later he contented himself with furnishing them with a written recommendation. The Senate met twice in every month, instead of three times, as was the former custom, except during September and October, when no meetings were held. The provinces were governed by proconsuls, several of whom were appointed by the Senate and the people; but all of them were carefully observed by the emperor. Rome itself was governed by a prefect, whose duty it was to preserve the public peace.

In this manner Augustus, by the aid of his proconsuls, held a despotic rule over all his dominions. He controlled the Senate, too, through his authority as censor, and appointed or deposed its members; and he raised the property qualification of each Senator to about $50,000. A large part of the people of the capital were maintained by the free distribution of corn; but Augustus reduced the number from 320,000 to 200,000, providing for the poorer citizens by settling them in new colonies, and his measures seem to have produced general contentment.

He was also sincerely desirous to reform the morals of the nation. Several laws were passed encouraging marriage, and in B.C. 18 he obliged the Senate to decree that marriage should be imperative upon every citizen of suitable age. Celibacy was punished by an incapacity to receive bequests, and even the childless married man was deprived of half his legacy; these efforts, however, failed, and a general license prevailed. As censor, he sought to restrain extravagance, and limited the sum to be expended upon entertainments. He insisted that the toga, the national dress, be worn at least at the public spectacles; he endeavored to preserve the distinctions of rank by providing each of the three orders with its own seats in the circus; and he plainly sought to elevate the aristocracy, and to withdraw all political power from the people. It is said, however, that he once entertained the design of resigning his authority, but was prevented from doing so by the advice of his friends, who represented to him that the Romans were no longer capable of governing themselves.

The Prætorian guard, which Augustus provided for his own protection, consisted of ten cohorts, each containing 800 or 1000 men, both cavalry and foot: of these only three cohorts were kept in the city, the others being distributed through the Italian towns. These soldiers received double pay, and were commanded by the præfectus prætorii: at a later period they became the masters of the empire.

The whole army, amounting to about 350,000 men, was encamped in various portions of his dominions. His fleet, which numbered 500 ships, was stationed chiefly at Misenum and Ravenna. His revenues arose from the contributions of the provinces, from various taxes, and from the rent of the public domain. An excise was imposed upon all goods exposed for sale, and there was also a tax upon all bachelors.

Augustus encouraged commerce and industry, built new roads, and provided the capital with an abundance of food. Games and public spectacles were exhibited to amuse the people, a free distribution of corn relieved the indigent, literature was encouraged, the arts flourished with new vigor, and the people and the Senate, pleased with present tranquillity, bestowed upon Augustus the title of the Father of his Country.

Several conspiracies, however, alarmed the emperor. In B.C. 30, Lepidus, a son of the former triumvir, had formed a plot for his destruction, which was detected by Mæcenas, and its author put to death. Another, in B.C. 22, was also unsuccessful. In A.D. 4, Cinna, a grandson of Pompey, was discovered in a similar attempt, and was pardoned at the request of Livia; he was afterward even raised to the consulship. But so intimidated was Augustus by the fear of assassination, that, toward the close of his life, he never went to a meeting of the Senate without wearing a breastplate under his robe.

The military enterprises of Augustus were in general successful. He led an army into Spain, and subdued the Cantabri and Astures, returning to Rome B.C. 24. While in Spain he founded several cities, among others Augusta Emerita (Merida), and Cæsar Augusta (Saragossa). Phraates, king of the Parthians, fearful of the Roman arms, gave up the Roman standards taken from Crassus and Antony, B.C. 20, and this event was celebrated by striking medals and by the verses of the Augustan poets. The emperor hung up the standards in a temple which he had built at Rome to Mars, the Avenger.

Tiberius and Drusus, the two sons of Livia by her former husband, were distinguished commanders, and gained many victories over the Germans; but, in B.C. 9, Drusus died from a fall from his horse. Tiberius then took the command of the army, and gained a great victory over the Sigambri. He returned to Rome B.C. 6, and triumphed; was saluted Imperator, and received the tribunitian power for five years.

Soon after, indignant at the dissolute conduct of his wife Julia, and the honors bestowed upon her sons by Agrippa, he withdrew to Rhodes, where he remained for seven years, a discontented exile. He returned to Rome in A.D. 2, and, two years after, was adopted by Augustus as his son. He next conquered a large part of Germany, and defeated several large bodies of the Marcomanni in what is now the territory of Bohemia.

But, while he was employed upon this expedition, Arminius, the German hero, excited an insurrection of his countrymen against the cruel Romans, cut off Varus, their leader, with his army, and filled Rome with alarm. Germany seemed lost. Augustus, when he heard of the disaster, exclaimed, "Varus! Varus! give me back my legions!"

Tiberius, however, together with Germanicus, the brave son of Drusus, returned to the defense of the frontier, but did not venture to penetrate into the forests beyond the Rhine.

In his domestic life Augustus was singularly unfortunate. Livia, his wife, for whom he entertained a sincere affection, was a person of strong intellect and various accomplishments; but she was descended from the Claudian family, and inherited all the pride, ambition, and love of political intrigue which marked the descendants of Appius Claudius. She was also married to a Claudius, and thus her two sons by her first husband, Tiberius and Drusus, were even more than herself Claudians. On them all Livia's affections were fixed; to secure their aggrandizement she hesitated at no effort and no crime; and when Drusus died, her son Tiberius, who resembled his mother in disposition, became the chief object of her regard. Her husband and his family wore looked upon with jealousy and dislike, and the darkest suspicions were aroused at Rome by the death, one by one, of every person who stood between Tiberius and the throne.

Livia had no child by her second marriage, and the only heir of Augustus was Julia, the daughter of his former wife, Scribonia. Julia was beautiful, intelligent, and highly educated; and Augustus, who was strongly attached to his own family, looked upon his daughter with singular affection and pride. He hoped to see her grow up pure, wise, and discreet - a new Lucretia, the representative of the ideal Roman matron; and he early accustomed Julia to practice moderation in dress, to spend hours at the spinning-wheel, and to look upon herself as destined to become the model and example of Roman women.

Julia was first married to her cousin Marcellus, the son of Octavia, a young man of excellent character, whom Augustus adopted, and probably destined as his successor; but, in B.C. 23, Marcellus died, amid the sincere grief of all the Romans. Marcellus has been made immortal by a few touching lines of Virgil.

Gold coin of Agrippa, with head of Augustus
Gold coin of Agrippa, with head of Augustus

Not long after, Augustus married Julia to his friend Agrippa, and they had five children - three sons, Caius, Lucius, and Agrippa Postumus, the latter being born after the death of his father, and two daughters, Julia and Agrippina. These children were now the hope of the people and the emperor, and objects of jealousy and dislike to Livia and Tiberius.

In B.C. 12 Agrippa died. Augustus then prevailed upon Tiberius to divorce his own wife, to whom he was sincerely attached, in order to marry Julia. Their union was an unhappy one, and, after living together for about a year, they separated forever.

The conduct of Julia, in fact, had long been marked by gross immoralities, and Augustus alone was unconscious of her unworthiness. He refused to believe that his daughter, whom he had destined to become an example of purity, had so deceived and dishonored him. At length, however, he became convinced of her guilt, and banished her (B.C. 2) to the island Pandataria (Santa Maria), off the coast of Campania, where she was treated with just severity. Her daughter Julia, who had shared in her excesses, was also sent into exile.

Meanwhile Caius and Lucius Cæsar both died suddenly. Caius was sent to the East in B.C. 1, to improve himself in military affairs, and there died, A.D. 3, from the effects of a wound given him by an assassin. Lucius, the younger, having gone on a mission to Spain in A.D. 2, fell sick and died at Massilia. About this time Tiberius had been recalled from Rhodes and intrusted with the chief care of public affairs. It was believed at Rome that Livia and her son had removed the two Cæsars by poison and assassination.

All happiness must now have fled from the breast of the emperor. He still, however, attended carefully to the duties of his station. In A.D. 4 he adopted Tiberius, together with Agrippa Postumus; Tiberius was obliged at the same time to adopt Germanicus, the eldest son of his brother Drusus. In A.D. 7 Augustus was induced to banish Agrippa Postumus, who proved unworthy of his favor, to the island of Planasia, and this act was ratified by a decree of the Senate; it was thought, however, that Livia was again the cause of this unnatural act. In A.D. 8 the poet Ovid was banished for some unknown crime.

Medal of Agrippina, showing the Carpentum, or chariot, in which the Roman ladies were accustomed to ride
Medal of Agrippina, showing the Carpentum, or chariot, in which the Roman ladies were accustomed to ride

It was in the year 5 or 7 B.C., for the true date is unknown, that Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, was born at Bethlehem, in Judea.

In A.D. 14, Augustus, aided by Tiberius, took a census - the third during his reign. His health, which had always been delicate, now rapidly declined. He had long borne with patience the infirmities of old age, and he now retired to Nola, where he died, August 19, A.D. 14, in the same room where his father had died before him. It is said that as he was dying he exclaimed to those around him, "Have I not acted my part well? It is time for the applause"

He was seventy-six years old. His subjects lamented his death with sincere grief, since they had felt the happy effects of his care. His funeral rites were performed in great solemnity; his body was burned on the Campus Martius, and his ashes were placed in the splendid mausoleum which he had built for himself and his family. The Senate ordered him to be numbered among the gods of Rome.

In appearance Augustus was of middle stature, his features regular, and his eyes of uncommon brilliancy. He was a tolerable writer, and capable of distinguishing literary merit; his chosen friends were all men of letters; and his fame with posterity rests, in a great degree, upon that circle of poets, historians, and eminent scholars by whom he was surrounded. The Augustan Age, indeed, forms one of the most remarkable periods in the history of the human intellect.

Medal of Augustus, showing the myrtle crown, or Corona ovalis
Medal of Augustus, showing the myrtle crown, or Corona ovalis

Medal of Nero, showing an Organ and a sprig of Laurel, probably designed as a prize medal for a musician
Medal of Nero, showing an Organ and a sprig of Laurel, probably designed as a prize medal for a musician
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