Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Empire of Augustus

Steve Muhlberger
This lecture will look at some aspects of Roman society in the time of Augustus and of his immediate successors, the period between 17 B.C. and 69 A.D.

The first two centuries of Rome's rule by emperors are often called the Principate, because the emperors usually tried to maintain the charade erected by Augustus, which presented them as first citizens -- first among equals.  In this lecture, we are talking about what Rome was like during the early Principate, the first quarter of that period.

But if we are going to talk about Roman society, we must decide first what we mean when we say Rome.  Do we mean the entire area under Roman rule?  Or some narrower group?

As soon as we ask this question, we come to an important realization.  The Romans and the people they ruled did not constitute a single society.  At no time in its existence was the Roman empire ever a nation-state, with one or even two languages, one or even two national identities.

During the early Principate, the Roman empire was the territory and the peoples owned and
ruled by the Roman people; and at this point nearly all Roman citizens lived in Italy, or in a scattering of overseas colonies that had been settled in the more or less recent past by Italians.  Everyone else in the empire, unless he had been granted citizenship as a sign of particular favor, was a subject.

To place the Romans in their empire we have to make a digression on the subject of Romanization.

As the empire grew older, it did tend to Romanize many of the people that it ruled.  Romanization is a vague term.  It might mean:

Many of these things had already happened in most parts of Italy and in Cisalpine Gaul, and were beginning to happen on the western coasts of the Mediterranean.  But it was a slow process.

The Romans were not evangelistic about their culture, past a certain minimal point.  The empire had been built for Rome's use and enjoyment, not for the subjects.  Use and enjoyment required
security and control.  The Romans sought to gain security and control in the same way they had at a much earlier date in Italy.  They made alliances with the leading citizens of other urban communities.

Where cities comparable to Rome (or comparable to early Rome, or any middle-sized Italian city) already existed, Rome dealt with them and was perfectly happy to let them run themselves and maintain their traditional culture.

Where cities had only a weak hold on the countryside, Rome boosted their importance.

Where there were no cities comparable to Mediterranean cities, as in western Spain or northern Gaul, the Romans had to create both the cities and a taste for urban life among the local elite.

This was the extent of their evangelism.

In the east, where urbanization was very old, there was little tendency to imitate Roman ways.
In some ways the cities of Greece or Syria were already much like Italian ones:  grapes, grain and olives were the key to life.  But in other respects, the easterners, especially Greeks, had a culture that was superior in every way -- as the Romans themselves admitted every time they put up a temple, or opened a book on philosophy.  Greek cities, and most cities in the east were Greek, did not adopt the Latin language, except for a few governmental and legal terms, and picked up on specifically Roman customs very slowly.

For Greeks, the Romans were just the tax collectors, and the empire, if it was anything, was a sphere of colonization, both for very rich and ambitious Greeks who had a taste for the fast lane in the imperial capital, for Greek merchants, and for poor Greeks who thought their talents as literary men, musicians, artisans or whatever would be more valuable in the rougher west, where Greek culture sold at a certain premium.  These colonists became part of Roman society; the stay-at-homes remained part of a Greek-speaking Hellenistic culture.

Another area not much affected during the Principate was northern Europe.  Gaul, Germany, and the Balkans had been acquired entirely for strategic reasons, and for the loot.  Roman cities were planted and encouraged in all these areas, and some took, but no one thought that these areas were really Roman.  They were cold lands and wine and olive oil were luxury imports, not daily staples.  A hundred years after the period we are talking about, Cassius Dio, a Greek-speaking governor sent to govern the Danube frontier, still thought of it as a crude and uncivilized place.  He would have felt the same about Britain or Northern Gaul.

Enough of our digression:  the point is that the distinctive Roman culture I am talking about is a culture of Italy in the year 1 A.D., or 70 A.D.

It was a rich culture, or at least, a culture with access to great riches.  The conventional estimate of the population is 1 million people.  Such a concentration of people, in a society where the vast majority were necessarily peasants or herders, would not have been possible without that huge empire.  A city of one million, in pre-industrial times, needs an immense area to draw upon for food.

This great city was in one important way, it was still a polis.  Canadians do not go
to Ottawa and say, "This is our city, more than any other city in the world."  Americans do not say that about Washington.  But Romans did say that, and feel that about Rome, and act on that basis.

The Roman attitude to their city should be compared to the attitude of the Athenians in the
time of Pericles.  They had conquered a mighty empire, and profited greatly from it.  The chief purpose of those profits was to be the glorification and beautification of their national homeland, which was not Italy, but Rome.

This is why Augustus was so proud to say that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble.  He was doing what any successful ancient citizen should do, in so far as he had the means:  give of his wealth to the benefit of his compatriots, glorifying both the community and

Some of the things that seem so odd to us about Rome make more sense if remember that it still a  polis  first and an imperial capital second -- at least at this period.  The Roman games for instance.  It is bizarre and gruesome to contemplate the efforts that the emperors and the chief senators made to entertain the urban population.  The Romans went to the edges of the earth to find exotic animals, which were brought to the city and slaughtered by hunters for the delight of the crowd.

But even if the Romans had not loved the sight of blood, there would have been some kind of spectacles.  The putting on of spectacles, games, theater, religious ceremonies were one of the
things that gave Rome, or Athens, or Babylon, the feeling of community.  Organizing or paying for such things was a proof of public spiritedness.

A century of civil war, which had not done anything to discourage the growth of Rome, but had turned it into a vast slum.  Much of Augustus's work was the physical reclamation of the city.  Much was accomplished, in large part through the diligence of Augustus's friend Agrippa, whose name still can be seen on the Pantheon today (though the building itself was rebuilt by Hadrian).

As significant, or more was the rebuilding of Roman society.   Augustus and the preceding warlords
had destroyed the old Republican regime, and many aspects of the society that had produced it.  Augustus tried to make the new society look as much as the old one as possible, and he used many old materials in his work, but the job of remaking Rome involved much effort.

Augustus was particularly concerned to restore the senate as a central institution
of the Principate.  From one point of view, the senate now had more power than for the previous century.  The popular assemblies, the battleground for much of Late Republican politics, were now slowly phased out.  Their the power of legislation and direction of policy were transferred to the senate.

Of course the emperor had a power superior to the senate's, but Augustus often took his
place in the senate though he supposedly wore a breastplate under his clothes and had senators approaching him checked for daggers.  Outside of formal sessions was careful to keep in touch with senatorial opinion.

Augustus was quite concerned to maintain a senatorial aristocracy.  His family legislation, part of an effort at moral reconstruction, attempted to ensure that senators produced male heirs to take their places.  Augustus relied on lesser men, especially the equestrians, rich non-senators, to do much of his work, but he had no desire to get rid of the senate.

But the senate and the class that provided its members, was just not the same.  It was not just the loss of political independence, the fact that no senator not of Augustus's family could hope to hold the  real  top spot in the state.  It was a loss of any real family connection to the Republican
past.  In the old days, the key members of the senate represented fierce and ancient clans whose roots went back to the foundation of the Republic.  They had old traditions, represented by their famous names and the masks of the ancestors who had held high office.

Few of these clans survived the civil wars and the proscriptions.  By the middle of the first century A.D., almost all were gone but for the Julii and the Claudii, the families of Augustus and of his wife Livia and his  stepson and successor, Tiberius.  Thus the senate was a council of the favored rich and the successful men of new families, promoted because of their usefulness to the emperor.  Some of these might hark back to the days of Republican liberty when an emperor irritated them, but those days were a very distant inspiration, hardly more alive to them then they are to us.  Public life thus had a quite different tone.

One indicator of the difference is the failure of senators in the imperial era to reproduce.  No new clans grew up to replace the older ones.  The reasons for this are not entirely clear.  Emperors could be murderous, or their favor could turn against a family in a less drastic way, ending their political careers and their membership in the senate.  But in part, upper-class men did not have children, or at least enough to ensure, in an era when disease was common, that there would be a male heir to continue the dynasty.

Here is a great contrast to Republican times.  In those days, political success was defined
by the continuation (or occasionally, establishment) of a family's political tradition.  The most successful men of the Principate seem almost indifferent to a matter that was at the heart of old Rome's public life.  It was quite easy under Roman law to adopt a suitable adult male to carry
on the family name.  But it often was not done.  In the shadow of the father of the country, the family lines of other men seemed much less important, even to them.

Throughout the Principate, the upper class was remarkably fluid.  Social mobility, formerly hemmed in by an old, heritage conscious aristocracy, increased dramatically.  We can see the results in the changed status of two groups:  free, upper-class women, and freed slaves.

For a long while, upper class women's status had been improving.  In the early days of the Republic, a woman was always under the strict supervision of some male.  When she married, her husband got control of the dowry she brought from her father's family, and she had little economic
independence.  Divorce was difficult, and for cause, and the guilty party harshly punished.

In the Late Republic, this older type of marriage continued in some clans, but most people began to use a different ceremony  in which the wife never left the guardianship of her father.  This meant
that her property and her husband's remained essentially separate; the possibility of her doing business independent of him existed.  Divorce could be no-fault, and a divorced wife would take most of her dowry with her when she left.

Why the change?  Perhaps it had something to do with politics.  Marriage alliances were considered a good way to bind families (that is, political parties) together.  Easy divorce made possible quick changes in alliance.  Certainly this possibility was exploited in the Late Republic and Early Empire.
For instance, Augustus married his only daughter Julia to two different potential heirs; when he picked Tiberius as his heir, he forced him to divorce his own wife and marry Julia.

In any case, the legal position of women of property under Roman law improved dramatically, and continued to improve.  The guardianship exercised by their male relatives became essentially meaningless; Augustus gave the privilege of doing business without a guardian to women who had
had three children.

Of course there were practical limits to this new independence.  One of the most important is that wives were usually married off in their teens to men at least ten years older.  The husband retained a
great deal of power, legal and informal, over the household, which extended to beating his wife.  But we know that divorce was common, and that some women were able to run their own lives.

The most famous examples are some of the imperial women.  Livia, Augustus's wife and Tiberius's mother, was a real political power for decades.  Messalina, the wife of the eccentric and out of touch emperor Claudius, was able to do whatever she liked, until her enemies got to her.  Agrippina the Younger, a great-grandaughter of Augustus, wife of Claudius, and mother of Nero, ran the empire for some years.  These are not typical Roman women:  there are few dynastic systems that can keep the royal women entirely away from power.  But the whole picture of upper-class female
autonomy, or at least the potential for it, is an interesting contrast to classical Athens.

Slavery in many societies is an almost insuperable barrier to social advancement, or even the attainment of a decent standard of living.  In Roman law, however, it was not quite so absolute.  Most slaves, of course, were stuck forever in unpleasant, even dangerous situations.

But upper-class Romans had always used some of their slaves for the most important work of all -- managing their estates and households.  It was also an old custom to free the most valuable of these
men.  At the decision of the master, a man might become not only free, but a Roman citizen, a most valuable status.  The master lost little, in most cases, since the freedman became a client, tied by self-interest and Roman notions of piety to his former master.  But the freedman gained much.

The extremely wealthy aristocrats of the Late Republic and Early Empire had vast properties to look after, and much of this fell to slaves or freedmen, who thus gained vast influence.  Aristocrats were particularly unwilling to deal personally in trade or manufacturing.  These were considered unfit occupations for a free man, who should be concerned with his farm and the public service.  Yet there were fortunes to be made in commerce.  Slaves and freedmen were given money to invest and enterprises to run on behalf of the master and his household.  As an incentive they were allowed to profit themselves.

Thus began the rise of the immensely wealthy freedman as a social phenomenon.   The need of aristocrats with great and scattered possessions to have trusted inferiors to run them, in other words slaves and ex-slaves, the most closely bound of client, also made rich freedmen inevitable.  The
vast properties owned by the upper classes, their wide political influence, meant that even their agents were men of great power.

But they were men who were born slave, and thus inferior, in theory, to every free citizen,
no matter how poor.  The rich freedman, visualized as a boor, a man whose soul was stained forever by servility, was an affront to decency.

There are many stories from contemporary literature that reveal the fear and resentment of the freeborn aristocrat for those whom he had formerly owned but who now were his rivals.  The freedmen of Caesar's household particularly worried them.  Since Caesar had the biggest
aristocratic household of all, he could not help using many slaves and freedmen to manage it, and these men acquired immense influence.

This is the background to a famous story told by the philosopher Seneca:  a slave named Callistus once belonged to a senator, then became a slave and then freedman in the imperial household.  As such, he became so important that his old master attempted to become one of his clients, and gathered at Callistus's door with his other clients to greet him every morning, as was
the custom.  The shame of this was great; even more shameful is that Callistus rejected his greeting, treating a senator like dirt.

It was incidents like this that sometimes made senators afraid that they were all potentially the slaves of slaves, and they often urged emperors to keep their freedmen on a short leash.

The rise of a few lucky, talented, or ruthless freedmen was not just a phenomenon of the imperial capital.  The fact is, everywhere Roman law applied it was easier to leap from the bottom of society, slavery, to great wealth, again given luck, than it was to start out a poor freeborn man and
do the same thing.  The business opportunities that a slave of a rich master got never came to the free poor.

The only hope of the poor free man for dramatic social promotion was to join the army.  That often worked too, if you survived.

To return to the freedmen:  many towns were forced to break the rules that forbade freedmen from public office, just to make sure their richest inhabitants were involved in the work and expense of running the community.  Thus Athens in the second century was recruiting freedmen into the city council at a great rate.

John Matthews discusses a very interesting senatorial edict of A.D. 52 that ruled on free women living with male slaves which casts an interesting light on the position of the lower classes, and how old distinctions between free and unfree were being lost.

According to the law, if the master was aware of the relationship, the woman would be reduced to the status of a freedwoman; if the master was unaware, she would be reduced to the status of a slave.  As Matthews says, this is a very interesting document, because it allows the historian "to visualize ..stable marital relationships freely undertaken between men and women of different legal
status, but similar occupational groups, living (no doubt) in similar social conditions and in situations where the master might not know what was going on." {768}

It is also noteworthy as an attempt to clarify the status of dependents and the rights of masters.  As we have seen, it is a world in which these things are frequently in doubt.  One reason for this, I think,
is that the status of citizen, which had once, in a smaller and simpler Roman community, had signified a similar political privilege accessible to rich and poor Romans, now, in a wider and more stratified community, is much less meaningful.

Patronage, the key institution of archaic Rome (and archaic Greece and elsewhere), will be a key institution of the Roman empire too.  The clarification of the status of dependents, the efforts of
masters to maintain their privileges, the tension between the rights of the imperial master and those of all other masters, will be increasingly important in the future.  Inequality marked all ancient societies; but this imperial world is one where inequality has made gains and the idea of a free community of equals has been diminished.


Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller,  The Roman Empire:  Economy, Society and Culture.

John Matthews, "Roman Life and Society;" Nicholas Purcell, "The Arts of Government;"
David Stockton, "The Founding of the Empire;" all in The Oxford History of the Classical

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.