Augustus and The Augustan Age

To the extent Augustus didn't abuse his powers he was a good emperor.

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During the Viet Nam War, the U.S. witnessed how little it means for Congress to have the power to declare war when the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and the President, can order troops to engage in police actions. In recent decades we've watched military dictatorships the world over wreaking havoc on civilians in the name of the martial law. And in Imperial Rome, the praetorian guard installed Claudius as the first of the militarily-elected emperors. Having power over the militia means having the power to ignore the will of the people. This was as true with Augustus as it is today.

To the extent that Augustus didn't abuse his powers, he was a good leader, but his consolidation of not only military power but also the tribunitian and proconsular in the hands of one man set the stage for the end of popular freedom.

The Roman historian Tacitus, from the early imperial period (A.D. 56?-112?), enumerates the powers Augustus swallowed:

"[Augustus] seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody's good will by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law. Opposition did not exist. War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially. They had profited from the revolution, and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous uncertainties of the old régime. Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1. 2)"
-- From The Annals of Tacitus

The peace Tacitus refers to is peace from civil war. The bait evolved into what the satirist Juvenal later describes as panem et circenses 'bread and circuses'. The other actions led to the fall of Rome's form of republican government and the rise of the single head of Rome, the princeps or emperor.


Like leaders today, Augustus sought to end vice. Definitions then were different, though. Three of the problems he faced were: extravagance, adultery, and declining birth rates among the upper classes.

Previously, morality had been an individual or family matter. Augustus wanted it to be a matter for legislation, complete with tax incentives for those who married and had children. The Romans didn't want to change their behavior. There was resistance, but in A.D. 9, the law now referred to as lex Julia et Papia passed.

Powers originally delegated the pater familias were now matters for the princeps -- Augustus. Where earlier a husband was justified in killing a man he found in bed with his wife, now it was a matter for the courts. Lest this seem humane and evidence of concern for the rights of individuals, the father of the woman caught in adultery was still allowed to kill the adulterers. [See Adulterium.]

Augustan Age Sources

Augustus was impartial in his harsh judgments. When his daughter, Julia, his child by Scribonia, was caught in adultery, she suffered the same fate as any other daughter -- exile [See Dio 55.10.12-16; Suet. Aug. 65.1, Tib. 11.4; Tac. Ann. 1.53.1; Vell. Pat. 2.100.2-5.].


Augustus was restrained in his personal use of power. He tried not to force people to do his will and left at least the appearance of choice: Augustus wanted an epic poem written about his life. While it's true that he eventually got one, he didn't punish those in his literary circle who turned him down. Augustus and his colleague, the wealthy Etruscan Maecenas (70 B.C.- A.D. 8), encouraged and supported members of the circle, including PropertiusHorace, and Vergil. Propertius didn't need the financial input, but more than that, he wasn't interested in writing epic. His shallow apology to Augustus was on the order of "I would if I could." Horace, son of a freedman, needed the patronage. Maecenas gave him a Sabine farm so he could work at leisure. At last, as unencumbered by poverty as he was now burdened by obligations, Horace wrote the and Epodes Book 4 to glorify the emperor. The Carmen Saeculare was a festival hymn composed to be performed at the ludi saeculares ('secular games'). Vergil, who likewise received remuneration, kept promising to write the epic. He died, however, before finishing The Aeneid, which is considered an ambitious attempt to join the legendary history of Rome with the glorious and noble present embodied in Emperor Augustus. [See "Horace and Augustus," by Chester G. Starr. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Jan. 1969), pp. 58-64.]

Tibullus and Ovid, two later writers in Augustus' literary circle, were under the patronage of Messalla, rather than Maecenas. Independently wealthy, highly successful Ovid, who was considered the embodiment of Augustan poetry, mocked everything. He was irreverent towards the new morality, even going so far as to write what could be viewed as guidebooks to adultery. Eventually, he went too far and was exiled by Augustus to Tomi where Ovid spent the rest of his life pleading for recall. [See DIR Augustus.]

A Hard Act To Follow

Augustus, living under the shadow of his adoptive father's assassination, was aware that the appearance of dictatorship could spell his doom. As he amassed power, Augustus took care to make it look constitutional, but all the while, power was accruing in the hands of one man -- rich, popular, smart, and long-lived. He was a hard act to follow and with the reduction of power in the Senate and people, the time was ripe for autocracy.

The two passages quoted on the preceding page, the Asian Decree, which calls Augustus the "bringer of overwhelming benefaction" and Tacitus' evaluation of him as a man who used bribes, judicial murder, and "absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law," could hardly be more different, yet they equally reflect near contemporary attitudes towards Augustus.

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Gill, N.S. "Augustus and The Augustan Age." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Augustus and The Augustan Age. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Augustus and The Augustan Age." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 27, 2021).