Text #9687"Augustus", in .
On 19 August AD 14, Augustus died while visiting Nola where his father had died. Both Tacitus and Cassius Dio wrote that Livia was rumored to have brought about Augustus’ death by poisoning fresh figs. This element features in many modern works of historical fiction pertaining to Augustus’ life, but some historians view it as likely to have been a salacious fabrication made by those who had favoured Postumus as heir, or other of Tiberius’ political enemies. Livia had long been the target of similar rumors of poisoning on the behalf of her son, most or all of which are unlikely to have been true.
Alternatively, it is possible that Livia did supply a poisoned fig (she did cultivate a variety of fig named for her that Augustus is said to have enjoyed), but did so as a means of assisted suicide rather than murder. Augustus’ health had been in decline in the months immediately before his death, and he had made significant preparations for a smooth transition in power, having at last reluctantly settled on Tiberius as his choice of heir. It is likely that Augustus was not expected to return alive from Nola, but it seems that his health improved once there; it has therefore been speculated that Augustus and Livia conspired to end his life at the anticipated time, having committed all political process to accepting Tiberius, in order to not endanger that transition.
Augustus’ famous last words were, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit”—referring to the play-acting and regal authority that he had put on as emperor. Publicly, though, his last words were, “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.” An enormous funerary procession of mourners traveled with Augustus’ body from Nola to Rome, and on the day of his burial all public and private businesses closed for the day. Tiberius and his son Drusus delivered the eulogy while standing atop two rostra. Augustus’ body was coffin-bound and cremated on a pyre close to his mausoleum. It was proclaimed that Augustus joined the company of the gods as a member of the Roman pantheon. The mausoleum was despoiled by the Goths in 410 during the Sack of Rome, and his ashes were scattered.
Augustus’ reign laid the foundations of a regime that lasted, in one form or another, for nearly fifteen hundred years through the ultimate decline of the Western Roman Empire and until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Both his adoptive surname, Caesar, and his title Augustus became the permanent titles of the rulers of the Roman Empire for fourteen centuries after his death, in use both at Old Rome and at New Rome. In many languages, Caesar became the word for Emperor, as in the German Kaiser and in the Bulgarian and subsequently Russian Tsar. The cult of Divus Augustus continued until the state religion of the Empire was changed to Christianity in 391 by Theodosius I. Consequently, there are many excellent statues and busts of the first emperor. He had composed an account of his achievements, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, to be inscribed in bronze in front of his mausoleum. Copies of the text were inscribed throughout the Empire upon his death. The inscriptions in Latin featured translations in Greek beside it, and were inscribed on many public edifices, such as the temple in Ankara dubbed the Monumentum Ancyranum, called the “queen of inscriptions” by historian Theodor Mommsen.
There are a few known written works by Augustus that have survived such as his poems Sicily, Epiphanus, and Ajax, an autobiography of 13 books, a philosophical treatise, and his written rebuttal to Brutus’ Eulogy of Cato. Historians are able to analyze existing letters penned by Augustus to others for additional facts or clues about his personal life.
Many consider Augustus to be Rome’s greatest emperor; his policies certainly extended the Empire’s life span and initiated the celebrated Pax Romana or Pax Augusta. The Roman Senate wished subsequent emperors to “be more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan”. Augustus was intelligent, decisive, and a shrewd politician, but he was not perhaps as charismatic as Julius Caesar, and was influenced on occasion by his third wife, Livia (sometimes for the worse). Nevertheless, his legacy proved more enduring. The city of Rome was utterly transformed under Augustus, with Rome’s first institutionalized police force, fire fighting force, and the establishment of the municipal prefect as a permanent office. The police force was divided into cohorts of 500 men each, while the units of firemen ranged from 500 to 1,000 men each, with 7 units assigned to 14 divided city sectors.
A praefectus vigilum, or “Prefect of the Watch” was put in charge of the vigiles, Rome’s fire brigade and police. With Rome’s civil wars at an end, Augustus was also able to create a standing army for the Roman Empire, fixed at a size of 28 legions of about 170,000 soldiers. This was supported by numerous auxiliary units of 500 soldiers each, often recruited from recently conquered areas.
With his finances securing the maintenance of roads throughout Italy, Augustus also installed an official courier system of relay stations overseen by a military officer known as the praefectus vehiculorum. Besides the advent of swifter communication among Italian polities, his extensive building of roads throughout Italy also allowed Rome’s armies to march swiftly and at an unprecedented pace across the country. In the year 6 Augustus established the aerarium militare, donating 170 million sesterces to the new military treasury that provided for both active and retired soldiers.
One of the most enduring institutions of Augustus was the establishment of the Praetorian Guard in 27 BC, originally a personal bodyguard unit on the battlefield that evolved into an imperial guard as well as an important political force in Rome. They had the power to intimidate the Senate, install new emperors, and depose ones they disliked; the last emperor they served was Maxentius, as it was Constantine I who disbanded them in the early 4th century and destroyed their barracks, the Castra Praetoria.
Although the most powerful individual in the Roman Empire, Augustus wished to embody the spirit of Republican virtue and norms. He also wanted to relate to and connect with the concerns of the plebs and lay people. He achieved this through various means of generosity and a cutting back of lavish excess. In the year 29 BC, Augustus paid 400 sesterces each to 250,000 citizens, 1,000 sesterces each to 120,000 veterans in the colonies, and spent 700 million sesterces in purchasing land for his soldiers to settle upon. He also restored 82 different temples to display his care for the Roman pantheon of deities. In 28 BC, he melted down 80 silver statues erected in his likeness and in honor of him, an attempt of his to appear frugal and modest.
The longevity of Augustus’ reign and its legacy to the Roman world should not be overlooked as a key factor in its success. As Tacitus wrote, the younger generations alive in AD 14 had never known any form of government other than the Principate. Had Augustus died earlier (in 23 BC, for instance), matters might have turned out differently. The attrition of the civil wars on the old Republican oligarchy and the longevity of Augustus, therefore, must be seen as major contributing factors in the transformation of the Roman state into a de facto monarchy in these years. Augustus’ own experience, his patience, his tact, and his political acumen also played their parts. He directed the future of the Empire down many lasting paths, from the existence of a standing professional army stationed at or near the frontiers, to the dynastic principle so often employed in the imperial succession, to the embellishment of the capital at the emperor’s expense. Augustus’ ultimate legacy was the peace and prosperity the Empire enjoyed for the next two centuries under the system he initiated. His memory was enshrined in the political ethos of the Imperial age as a paradigm of the good emperor. Every Emperor of Rome adopted his name, Caesar Augustus, which gradually lost its character as a name and eventually became a title. The Augustan era poets Virgil and Horace praised Augustus as a defender of Rome, an upholder of moral justice, and an individual who bore the brunt of responsibility in maintaining the empire.
However, for his rule of Rome and establishing the principate, Augustus has also been subjected to criticism throughout the ages. The contemporary Roman jurist Marcus Antistius Labeo (d. AD 10/11), fond of the days of pre-Augustan republican liberty in which he had been born, openly criticized the Augustan regime. In the beginning of his Annals, the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56–c.117) wrote that Augustus had cunningly subverted Republican Rome into a position of slavery. He continued to say that, with Augustus’ death and swearing of loyalty to Tiberius, the people of Rome simply traded one slaveholder for another. Tacitus, however, records two contradictory but common views of Augustus:
Intelligent people praised or criticized him in varying ways. One opinion was as follows. Filial duty and a national emergency, in which there was no place for law-abiding conduct, had driven him to civil war—and this can neither be initiated nor maintained by decent methods. He had made many concessions to Anthony and to Lepidus for the sake of vengeance on his father’s murderers. When Lepidus grew old and lazy, and Anthony’s self-indulgence got the better of him, the only possible cure for the distracted country had been government by one man. However, Augustus had put the state in order not by making himself king or dictator, but by creating the Principate. The Empire’s frontiers were on the ocean, or distant rivers. Armies, provinces, fleets, the whole system was interrelated. Roman citizens were protected by the law. Provincials were decently treated. Rome itself had been lavishly beautified. Force had been sparingly used—merely to preserve peace for the majority.
According to the second opposing opinion:
…filial duty and national crisis had been merely pretexts. In actual fact, the motive of Octavian, the future Augustus, was lust for power … There had certainly been peace, but it was a blood-stained peace of disasters and assassinations.
In a recent biography on Augustus, Anthony Everitt asserts that through the centuries, judgments on Augustus’ reign have oscillated between these two extremes but stresses that:
“Opposites do not have to be mutually exclusive, and we are not obliged to choose one or the other. The story of his career shows that Augustus was indeed ruthless, cruel, and ambitious for himself. This was only in part a personal trait, for upper-class Romans were educated to compete with one another and to excel. However, he combined an overriding concern for his personal interests with a deep-seated patriotism, based on a nostalgia of Rome’s antique virtues. In his capacity as princeps, selfishness and selflessness coexisted in his mind. While fighting for dominance, he paid little attention to legality or to the normal civilities of political life. He was devious, untrustworthy, and bloodthirsty. But once he had established his authority, he governed efficiently and justly, generally allowed freedom of speech, and promoted the rule of law. He was immensely hardworking and tried as hard as any democratic parliamentarian to treat his senatorial colleagues with respect and sensitivity. He suffered from no delusions of grandeur.”
Tacitus was of the belief that Nerva (r. 96–98) successfully “mingled two formerly alien ideas, principate and liberty”. The 3rd-century historian Cassius Dio acknowledged Augustus as a benign, moderate ruler, yet like most other historians after the death of Augustus, Dio viewed Augustus as an autocrat. The poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (AD 39–65) was of the opinion that Caesar’s victory over Pompey and the fall of Cato the Younger (95 BC–46 BC) marked the end of traditional liberty in Rome; historian Chester G. Starr, Jr. writes of his avoidance of criticizing Augustus, “perhaps Augustus was too sacred a figure to accuse directly.”
The Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), in his Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome, criticized Augustus for installing tyranny over Rome, and likened what he believed Great Britain’s virtuous constitutional monarchy to Rome’s moral Republic of the 2nd century BC. In his criticism of Augustus, the admiral and historian Thomas Gordon (1658–1741) compared Augustus to the puritanical tyrant Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). Thomas Gordon and the French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755) both remarked that Augustus was a coward in battle. In his Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, the Scottish scholar Thomas Blackwell (1701–1757) deemed Augustus a Machiavellian ruler, “a bloodthirsty vindicative usurper”, “wicked and worthless”, “a mean spirit”, and a “tyrant”.
Augustus’ public revenue reforms had a great impact on the subsequent success of the Empire. Augustus brought a far greater portion of the Empire’s expanded land base under consistent, direct taxation from Rome, instead of exacting varying, intermittent, and somewhat arbitrary tributes from each local province as Augustus’ predecessors had done. This reform greatly increased Rome’s net revenue from its territorial acquisitions, stabilized its flow, and regularized the financial relationship between Rome and the provinces, rather than provoking fresh resentments with each new arbitrary exaction of tribute.
The measures of taxation in the reign of Augustus were determined by population census, with fixed quotas for each province. Citizens of Rome and Italy paid indirect taxes, while direct taxes were exacted from the provinces. Indirect taxes included a 4% tax on the price of slaves, a 1% tax on goods sold at auction, and a 5% tax on the inheritance of estates valued at over 100,000 sesterces by persons other than the next of kin.
An equally important reform was the abolition of private tax farming, which was replaced by salaried civil service tax collectors. Private contractors that raised taxes had been the norm in the Republican era, and some had grown powerful enough to influence the amount of votes for politicians in Rome. The tax farmers had gained great infamy for their depredations, as well as great private wealth, by winning the right to tax local areas.
Rome’s revenue was the amount of the successful bids, and the tax farmers’ profits consisted of any additional amounts they could forcibly wring from the populace with Rome’s blessing. Lack of effective supervision, combined with tax farmers’ desire to maximize their profits, had produced a system of arbitrary exactions that was often barbarously cruel to taxpayers, widely (and accurately) perceived as unfair, and very harmful to investment and the economy.
The use of Egypt’s immense land rents to finance the Empire’s operations resulted from Augustus’ conquest of Egypt and the shift to a Roman form of government. As it was effectively considered Augustus’ private property rather than a province of the Empire, it became part of each succeeding emperor’s patrimonium. Instead of a legate or proconsul, Augustus installed a prefect from the equestrian class to administer Egypt and maintain its lucrative seaports; this position became the highest political achievement for any equestrian besides becoming Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. The highly productive agricultural land of Egypt yielded enormous revenues that were available to Augustus and his successors to pay for public works and military expeditions, as well as bread and circuses for the population of Rome.
During his reign the circus games resulted in the murder of 3,500 elephants.
The month of August (Latin: Augustus) is named after Augustus; until his time it was called Sextilis (named so because it had been the sixth month of the original Roman calendar and the Latin word for six is sex). Commonly repeated lore has it that August has 31 days because Augustus wanted his month to match the length of Julius Caesar’s July, but this is an invention of the 13th century scholar Johannes de Sacrobosco. Sextilis in fact had 31 days before it was renamed, and it was not chosen for its length (see Julian calendar). According to a senatus consultum quoted by Macrobius, Sextilis was renamed to honor Augustus because several of the most significant events in his rise to power, culminating in the fall of Alexandria, fell in that month.
On his deathbed, Augustus boasted “I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble.” Although there is some truth in the literal meaning of this, Cassius Dio asserts that it was a metaphor for the Empire’s strength. Marble could be found in buildings of Rome before Augustus, but it was not extensively used as a building material until the reign of Augustus. Although this did not apply to the Subura slums, which were still as rickety and fire-prone as ever, he did leave a mark on the monumental topography of the centre and of the Campus Martius, with the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) and monumental sundial, whose central gnomon was an obelisk taken from Egypt. The relief sculptures decorating the Ara Pacis visually augmented the written record of Augustus’ triumphs in the Res Gestae. Its reliefs depicted the imperial pageants of the praetorians, the Vestals, and the citizenry of Rome.
He also built the Temple of Caesar, the Baths of Agrippa, and the Forum of Augustus with its Temple of Mars Ultor. Other projects were either encouraged by him, such as the Theatre of Balbus, and Agrippa’s construction of the Pantheon, or funded by him in the name of others, often relations (e.g. Portico of Octavia, Theatre of Marcellus). Even his Mausoleum of Augustus was built before his death to house members of his family.
To celebrate his victory at the Battle of Actium, the Arch of Augustus was built in 29 BC near the entrance of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and widened in 19 BC to include a triple-arch design. There are also many buildings outside of the city of Rome that bear Augustus’ name and legacy, such as the Theatre of Mérida in modern Spain, the Maison Carrée built at Nîmes in today’s southern France, as well as the Trophy of Augustus at La Turbie, located near Monaco.
After the death of Agrippa in 12 BC, a solution had to be found in maintaining Rome’s water supply system. This came about because it was overseen by Agrippa when he served as aedile, and was even funded by him afterwards when he was a private citizen paying at his own expense. In that year, Augustus arranged a system where the Senate designated three of its members as prime commissioners in charge of the water supply and to ensure that Rome’s aqueducts did not fall into disrepair.
In the late Augustan era, the commission of five senators called the curatores locorum publicorum iudicandorum (translated as “Supervisors of Public Property”) was put in charge of maintaining public buildings and temples of the state cult. Augustus created the senatorial group of the curatores viarum (translated as “Supervisors for Roads”) for the upkeep of roads; this senatorial commission worked with local officials and contractors to organize regular repairs.
The Corinthian order of architectural style originating from ancient Greece was the dominant architectural style in the age of Augustus and the imperial phase of Rome. Suetonius once commented that Rome was unworthy of its status as an imperial capital, yet Augustus and Agrippa set out to dismantle this sentiment by transforming the appearance of Rome upon the classical Greek model.
His biographer Suetonius, writing about a century after Augustus’ death, described his appearance as: “… unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life, though he cared nothing for personal adornment. He was so far from being particular about the dressing of his hair, that he would have several barbers working in a hurry at the same time, and as for his beard he now had it clipped and now shaved, while at the very same time he would either be reading or writing something … He had clear, bright eyes … His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept; his hair was slightly curly and inclining to golden; his eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent ever so slightly inward. His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature (although Julius Marathus, his freedman and keeper of his records, says that he was five feet and nine inches, more or less 1.75 meter, in height), but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure, and was noticeable only by comparison with some taller person standing beside him. … “
His official images were very tightly controlled and idealized, drawing from a tradition of Hellenistic royal portraiture rather than the tradition of realism in Roman portraiture. He first appeared on coins at the age of 19, and from about 29 BC “the explosion in the number of Augustan portraits attests a concerted propaganda campaign aimed at dominating all aspects of civil, religious, economic and military life with Augustus’ person.” The early images did indeed depict a young man, but although there were gradual changes his images remained youthful until he died in his seventies, by which time they had “a distanced air of ageless majesty”. Among the best known of many surviving portraits are the Augustus of Prima Porta, the image on the Ara Pacis, and the Via Labicana Augustus, which shows him as a priest. Several cameo portraits include the Blacas Cameo and Gemma Augustea.
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