Ancient History & Civilisation


In the year 17 BC, between 31 May and 3 June, the city of Rome witnessed the greatest show on earth. The Games of the Ages was a festival the likes of which no Roman had ever seen before, nor would ever see again. The buzz surrounding them had been building for weeks. Heralds in ancient, traditional dress had taken to the streets of Rome and had announced in advance the extraordinary scale of events to come: three days of visually spectacular sacrifices at sanctuaries and cult places around the city, followed by seven days of chariot races, tragedies and comedies in Latin and Greek, plus stunning exhibitions of trick riders, animal hunting and mock battles. A special song had been composed for the occasion, and it was to be sung on the last day by two choruses – one of twenty-seven boys and one of twenty-seven girls – all dressed in white. The anticipated mood was of celebration, euphoria and unbounded optimism. Rome, they said, was at peace, prospering and enjoying a new golden age. But the preparations for the games hinted at a more serious purpose at work.

On the day before festivities began the priests went to the top of the Aventine, one of the seven hills of Rome, and received from citizens there the first fruits of the year. These they would distribute to the thousands of Romans attending the festival. But the fruits were not the only handout. They would also dole out sulphur, tar and torches. These were to be burnt by every citizen in a private religious ritual so that every Roman citizen might cleanse himself before the celebrations got under way. The carefully contrived publicity stunt caught on. Behind the public relations drive, however, was a powerful political idea. The real theme of the festival, indicated these preliminary activities, was systematic regeneration, mass renewal, and the purification of the whole Roman state.

The stage manager, host and master of ceremonies was Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. The theme of expiation and regeneration was for him the perfect message, the apposite note to strike. For these games would mark a watershed in Roman history. This was the moment at which Romans not only celebrated a new regime of peace and stability, but healed themselves from what had gone before: at least two decades of brutal civil war. From the moment in 49 BC that Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon until 31BCRome had been devastated by an apocalyptic period of social and political meltdown, a time in which the vast expanse of the Roman empire had seen battlefield after battlefield blackened with blood. It was blood spilt by Romans, not at the expense of their barbarian enemies, but from the veins of their very own Roman friends, cousins, brothers and fathers.

Beyond the aim of healing, however, Augustus ensured that the festival delivered a second, highly sophisticated political message. The key to it lay in the theme of history. For the Games of the Ages were celebrated by Romans every 110 years. They connected the present glorious moment with the very earliest period of the Roman republic. On the one hand, their celebration inspired a belief in Roman citizens that the republic had been ‘restored’, that there existed a harmonious continuity between Rome’s cherished ancient history and the present golden age of Augustus. On the other hand, buried deep in this message, was a quite different reality. The central, most prominent part played at the games was that played by Augustus. It was he who gave the festival to the Roman people. It was he who paid for it. It was he, above all, who at night and before a mass audience took the central role when he sacrificed a pregnant sow to Mother Earth. This starring performance communicated to the Roman people – through their emotions, through their hearts – a completely new political reality. The games were at once traditional and a highly inventive, contemporary take on tradition.

For the truth was that Augustus had not restored the republic, but had achieved just the opposite. He was in the process of ending the political freedoms of the republic. He was rebuilding the Roman state around himself and his power. He was, with subtlety and deft political skill, forging a new age – the age of the Roman emperors. The Games of the Ages in 17 BC were just one example of an extraordinary sleight of hand. They celebrated the arrival of the greatest revolution in all Roman history: Augustus’s transformation of the Roman republic into an autocracy – rule by one man.

To achieve this feat he used a whole raft of means, sometimes force, sometimes law. His preferred instrument, however, was persuasion. He deployed it to such effect that the Roman people and the élite of Roman senators and knights would give up their cherished freedoms willingly and hand over power to a single head. It was a brilliant political manoeuvre, the greatest political trick ever to be pulled off in Roman history.


The anaesthetic which dulled Augustus’s surreptitious surgery of the Roman state was peace. In bringing about this peace after so many years of war, Augustus had played a key role too. His part in concluding the civil war was far more gruesome than the one he would later like to play as emperor. Nonetheless it was a role he inhabited with commitment and will power from the very start.

When Augustus heard the news of Julius Caesar’s murder in 44 BC, he was known as plain old Gaius Octavius. He was nineteen years old and cut a surprising figure for someone who would eventually win the twenty-year-long civil war. His small, weak frame was prone to illness, his blond hair was unkempt, and his teeth were full of gaps.1 He was the son of an undistinguished ‘new man’, but that relatively humble connection to the senatorial élite was dramatically outshone by another family tie. Through his mother Atia, Octavian (as we call him) was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. More importantly, he was also Caesar’s adopted son and heir. Claiming revenge for his adoptive father’s assassination, Octavian reignited the civil war in 43 BC. In reality he was making a bid for power.

His first move was bold and calculated. He started calling himself ‘Caesar’. In the eyes of the people, the powerful, magnetic brand of Caesar’s name had been confirmed by a comet which was sighted just before sunset for seven consecutive days in 44 BC.2 To most it was proof that Octavian’s adopted father was indeed divine. After an initial period of rivalry, Octavian eventually joined forces with the dead dictator’s political ‘heir’, Mark Antony, and together they went to war with Caesar’s assassins. As a soldier Octavian was dwarfed by the giant, heroic figure of his new ally. A story did the rounds that at one battle of the civil war Octavian disappeared for two days and cowered in a marsh. He even stripped off his armour and discarded his horse, perhaps to avoid detection. He did return to his army, but long after the action had been decided.3 Behind the young man’s unswaggering manner, however, there was a vicious sting. The puny constitution of Caesar’s young heir belied the ruthlessness of his mind and the cold-blooded ease with which he took violent measures.

During the renewed civil war, for example, Octavian (along with Mark Antony) had overseen a notorious wholesale cull of their enemies in the political élite. Some three hundred conservative senators and 2000 knights were named on a proscription list, hunted down and executed.4 That is just one grim statistic provided by the ancient sources; one can only imagine the severity of punishment meted out to their other enemies. By 42 BC Octavian and Mark Anthony finally defeated the assassins of Caesar at the battle of Philippi. Brutus’s severed head was sent to Rome and thrown at the foot of Caesar’s statue. With their opponents crushed, the two men had become masters of Rome and her empire. It was only a matter of time, however, before the victorious allies turned rivals again and fought each other for sole control of the Roman world.

Today Actium is located on the tree-lined coast of northwestern Greece, north of the island of Leukada. Over 2000 years ago, on 2 September 31 BC, those silent, green hills bore witness to one of the most pivotal moments in Roman history. This was the battle of Actium. It pitted the navy of Octavian against a combined fleet of Mark Antony and his ally Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. She was now both Mark Antony’s lover and his wealthy benefactor. Since the time of her liaison with Caesar, she had realised that the future prosperity of her country depended on a favourable alliance with Rome. After Caesar’s death, she had tied her colours to Mark Antony’s mast. Now she was about to find out if her gamble would pay off. For the result of this one battle would not only bring the long civil war to a conclusive end. Actium would also decide the destiny of the Roman empire.

The scale of the encounter was indeed huge: 230 of Mark Antony’s ships were blockaded in an expansive bay by an even greater fleet under the command of Octavian’s admiral Agrippa. The ninety largest of Mark Anthony’s ships were equipped with a state-of-the-art weapon: a pure bronze ram weighing 1.5 tonnes and mounted on the prow. In ancient Rome naval conflicts were won or lost by driving these warheads into enemy ships and sinking them. In spite of this technological advantage, Mark Antony’s force was weakened by malaria and desertions: the political tide of support in Rome was turning away from him in favour of Octavian, and Mark Antony’s soldiers knew it. Octavian’s military steel had improved considerably since his first taste of battle. He was also the greater tactician. After patiently reeling the enemy fleet into action, he now took clinical advantage of its weaknesses.

Octavian and Agrippa first sent in volleys of catapult balls that had been set on fire. Then they surrounded the bronze-prowed ships of Antony and Cleopatra, trapped them with grappling hooks and used their superior numbers of soldiers to dash on board and overpower the enemy force. The battle itself was fast becoming a rather anticlimactic, one-sided engagement. Indeed, Mark Antony’s battle plan was perhaps nothing more ambitious than to break through Octavian’s blockade. He really wanted to escape to Egypt to create a stronger position from which to win the war. Once Cleopatra had successfully peeled away with a key portion of the fleet, however, the break-up of his allied fleet single-handedly took the teeth out of Mark Antony’s naval charge and brought about its complete collapse. There was no epic struggle, only a deflated, easy victory.

A Roman of the time would not have known this from the hype with which Octavian before and afterwards infused the ‘titanic’ encounter. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic poem of the Augustan age, Cleopatra’s escape was famously cast as a panic-stricken flight, typical of a weak foreigner. But that was just one element in the grandiloquent war of words. The battle of Actium was billed as nothing less than a fight between western and eastern values, between Octavian’s vigorous, pious Romanness and the immoral debauchery of Antony and Cleopatra’s union. It asked Romans to answer one simple question: did they want the vast empire to be saved by a traditional, steadfast Roman military hero, or to become the plaything of an emasculated, oriental king enslaved to a depraved exotic queen? It was presented, in short, as a worldwide clash of civilizations. By winning it, Octavian won something even more important than the military victory. He won the victor’s privilege of explaining the meaning of the war’s outcome.


The rich seam of political capital that Octavian drew from his victory was mined immediately. He founded a new Roman city near the scene of battle and called it Nicopolis, the ‘City of Victory’. At his old campsite he also ordered the construction of a massive victory monument, from the remains of which archaeologists have recently produced new information. Beautifully carved scenes depict the battle and also the triumphal procession in Rome with which Octavian celebrated his victory in 29 BC. Part of the monument was a 6-metre (20-foot) high wall which contained visually stunning ‘souvenirs’. Thirty-six of Mark Antony’s bronze prows were set in concrete and fastened on to the limestone blocks that made up the wall. The ‘beaks’ of the enemy’s ships were thus set into the landscape on a hill overlooking the site of the victory. It must have been a spectacular display befitting a spectacular triumph – one never to be forgotten. For although the limp victory did not live up to Octavian’s propaganda, its consequences certainly did.

After Actium, the victorious Octavian was master of all Rome’s armies. Victory gave him the freedom to conquer Egypt, to provoke the suicides of Mark Antony and Cleopatra (later dramatized by Plutarch and Shakespeare), and to add to Rome’s provinces all the extraordinary wealth of that far more ancient civilization. Finally, it furnished Octavian with the greatest personal fortune in all Roman history. It was money he wasted no time in spending. His goal was to honour the promises he had made during the war, and above all to secure the loyalty of the Roman army and the Roman people. It was a goal he accomplished in lavish style.

On his return to Rome he celebrated the closure of the civil war with three spectacular triumphs, he paid off his soldiers with generous cash rewards, and he gave a smaller sum to every Roman citizen. As if that were not enough to win unanimous popular support, the bountiful fields of Egypt’s Nile valley were now Rome’s granary and a secure, reliable source of the city’s grain dole. Octavian thus became the most powerful man in the Roman world. ‘At this point,’ wrote the historian Cassius Dio, ‘Octavian alone held all the power of the state for the first time.’5 There was a problem, though. The one thing that Octavian lacked within the Roman state was legitimacy.

Winning this would not be the fruit of a single battle, but the great project of his entire life. The result, and the personal reward for Octavian, would be a Roman empire ruled by a single emperor. In achieving legitimacy, however, one question would baffle the ancient world as much as it has done ours. Was Octavian an evil tyrant deviously and quietly dismantling Roman liberty? Or was he indeed a benevolent statesman who, first among equals, shared power with Roman senators and had the consent of the Roman people? Was he, in short, a wicked autocrat in all but name, or a model emperor who restored if not exactly the republic, at least constitutional government? Who really held the reins of power?

In ancient Rome, as in the government of modern states, the question is perhaps impossible to answer. In the case of Octavian the answer lies deep within poor or highly partial historical sources. The evidence that does remain (namely, Octavian’s own account of his achievements, plus inscriptions and the wealth of monuments and buildings he authorized in Rome) presents us with only a sustained, ingenious political performance – a performance from which his mask would rarely slip. Whichever view we take of Octavian, what is certain is that he cleverly robed his power in the clothes of the old republican offices. This critical strategy lies behind a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of January 27 BC.

Before he had even entered the Senate House, Octavian had heeded the key lesson of his adoptive father’s assassination. The republic had been founded on the moment when the last of the Etruscan kings was expelled by the Roman nobility. That moment crystallized those nobles’ hatred of monarchy – their distrust of a single powerful individual who dominated the state. If you exercise supreme power explicitly, suggested the events of the Ides of March 44 BC, you paid the price with your life. If Octavian did indeed hold supreme power he knew he had to disguise it. So at the meeting of the Senate, Octavian renounced all his powers and territories and handed them over to the control of the senators and the Roman people. This extraordinary gesture, however, was highly stage-managed. Just as he had acted his part, so the senators followed suit. In response, they granted Octavian the right to stand for the consulship, and also allowed a fellow consul to put forward his candidacy alongside him. On the surface at least, power had returned to the discretion of the Senate, annual elections and the assemblies of the Roman people. The republic had, it seemed, been restored.

Challenging that appearance, however were the facts of power. Just as in the last decades of the republic, an office holder’s power resided in his authority to command armies and the province in which he could exercise that authority. At the same January meeting, the Senate crucially granted Octavian an ‘extended’ province: Gaul, Syria, Egypt and Cyprus were all under his authority, and were to be commanded by him for no less than ten years. Not by coincidence, these territories bordered the frontiers of the empire and thus contained the vast majority of Roman army legions. Yes, it was true that senators elected to the second consulship would go on to govern provinces, but these were the peaceful ones. The militarily important provinces were controlled by Octavian and governed by his own appointed deputies. For this reason Octavian outstripped all his consular colleagues in the state.

Octavian’s bold balancing act was not easy to maintain. In 23 BC, for example, his holding of the consulship year after year began to smack of supreme power. Although the evidence is murky, a genuine crisis now swiftly gathered momentum, and some senators planned to kill the new ‘king’. Octavian was quick to respond. He neutralized the threat by renegotiating his position and simply changing the legal form of words that gave him control of the armies. In winning this bout with the senatorial élite one critical factor weighed in his favour: his unrivalled popularity with the Roman people. He was, after all, the man who had brought stability to a world of chaos. However he knew that the people were fickle and that he could not rely on the vagaries of public opinion for ever. So he turned his attention to cementing his stature in the people’s eyes too.

Octavian once again took inspiration from the forms of republican office and made a surprising demand of the Senate. He wanted, he said, the power accorded to a tribune of the people. In relation to the powers which gave him control of the army, this was a relatively modest office to wish for. Certainly it gave him the authority to propose and veto bills before the assembly of the people. That, however, was not the chief attraction of the post. Octavian had spotted its true potential. Drawing on the emotional resonance of its origin in the Roman republic, he would amplify the power of this lowly republican office and elevate it to a whole new status. With it he would become not just any old tribune of the people, but the iconic defender, protector and champion of the interests of all Roman citizens, not just in Rome and Italy, but across the length and breadth of the empire.

Was the creation of such a position the act of a man extemporizing, seeking new ways to ensure that stable, constitutional government was restored? Or was it more sinister? Certainly taking the office of tribune of the people suggested a strategy shared by dictators throughout history: Octavian had stealthily jumped over the heads of the political élite and aligned himself directly with the hearts and minds of the people. Once again, the guise of the old republican office was the key to Octavian’s successful adoption of the post. The senatorial heads watched his great leap and consented, if grudgingly and with hatred, all the way.


By 19 BC Octavian had secured the one thing that his adoptive father Julius Caesar had failed to achieve: both unrivalled power and political legitimacy. This unprecedented and deftly created status was summarized with the granting of a solemn, resonant title. Although a change of name might seem superficial, in Octavian’s Rome, as in modern politics, the power of a new brand cannot be underestimated.

Octavian first toyed with the idea of calling himself ‘Romulus’. It neatly cast him as the new founder of Rome. In this name was both ancient tradition but also the idea of a new age. After some consideration, however, Octavian rejected it. The connotations of a man who killed his brother to found a state left an unpleasant taste. Instead, Octavian simply made up a name. ‘Augustus’ literally means ‘sacred’ or ‘revered’ but stopped short of explicitly calling him a god. That would contradict his theme of being a citizen-leader, of being ‘first among equals’ in the republic. In the name, however, was the unmistakable hint of a relationship with the gods. It is derived from the Latin word for reading divine signs – augury. It suggested that Octavian was somehow religious, holy and deserving of special, unique respect. The name change was symptomatic of the revolution. It was unobtrusive, but potent. As Augustus’s reign continued, as his grip on power became firmer, the rattle sounding the death of political freedom became louder and louder.

It echoed, for example, at meetings of the Senate. Under the republic there was a specific order in which speakers stood up and debated the items of business at hand. Augustus maintained this routine so that everyone appeared to have a voice. Their opinions, it seemed, mattered. To some this must have been a relief. After decades of factional strife and the likes of Julius Caesar and Pompey slugging it out, life for junior senators was imaginably rosier. Ultimately, however the role-playing became tedious. The majority of the senators realized that their opinion counted for little in comparison to the wish of Augustus. To inject into senatorial discussions the show of toothsome debate, Augustus innovated: instead of hearing their opinions in a set order, he asked senators to speak on issues randomly. This made it difficult for them to agree resignedly with what the last speaker had said. He also resorted to imposing fines for non-attendance and to limiting compulsory meetings to twice a month.6

Despite these efforts, the old systems of the republic lost their vigour and gave way to autocracy. Indeed, Augustus grew to rely less and less on the Senate for formulating policy. Quite early in his rule, he formulated an advisory body of consuls and senators chosen by lot. They met in his imperial palace and not in the Senate House. As this body grew in importance, so too did the suspicion of those who were left out of it. Under future emperors, similar councils would become the target of a stock accusation: the empire was run not in tandem with the Senate, but by the emperor’s cronies, friends and freedmen. Indeed even by the end of Augustus’s life, critical information was kept from the Senate. In his will Augustus left a note about where information could be found relating to the state of the empire, to the numbers and location of Roman soldiers and to the state’s financial accounts. ‘He added the names of his freedmen and slaves from whom details could be obtained.’7 Most senators, it seemed, clearly did not know about the fundamental workings of the empire. This top-level information was now out of their hands. Such instances hint at how the substance of the republic ebbed away. Appearances, though, were scrupulously kept up.

Office holders, be they tribunes or consuls, continued to be chosen, but even if they were formally elected, they were at least nominated by Augustus. By AD 5 the lists of candidates for office brought before the people at election time contained only the names of yes-men senators whom Augustus could trust not to rock the boat. When an independent candidate stood of his own free will, Augustus’s response was methodical, befitting the unspoken logic of the new regime. A young senator called Egnatius Rufus, for example, won considerable popularity for successfully establishing a private fire-fighting service manned by his slaves. When he refused to withdraw his name from the list of candidates for the consulship, the consequence was fatal. Rufus was tried for ‘conspiracy’ and executed. The cherished, seminal power of the Roman citizen’s electoral vote was reduced to a hollow gesture.

In the administration of the empire the signs of the silent revolution were evident too; power sharing was another carefully coded performance. Men of ambition and standing could, ostensibly, have a legitimate career. Augustus scrupulously maintained the licence of individuals to pursue office in the controlled elections: giving the senatorial élite a role in government was one way to keep potential rivals at bay and, more importantly, he could not manage the empire alone. He needed the experience and the sheer manpower of senators and knights to hear and adjudicate legal cases in the city, to govern the provinces abroad, and to oversee the exaction of taxes. He also needed commanders to fight wars; under his rule the size of the Roman empire’s provinces nearly doubled. There was, however, a very fine line circumscribing office holders’ power. Those who crossed it, and thus dared to rival Augustus’s authority, paid the price for forgetting their lines. In reality, the skills now required of office holders were closer to those of a bureaucrat or a loyal deputy of Augustus. Though their ambitions were perhaps satisfied by the appearance of authority, the élite knew that the real power lay elsewhere.

It was a fact to which the senators and knights slowly grew accustomed. Naturally, the stars of those loyal to the new regime rose; office in the administration, albeit of limited responsibility, made them acquiescent. Those of a more independent leaning simply withdrew and bided their time. Perhaps they consoled themselves that this unhappy state of affairs was temporary, a symptom only of Augustus’s personal dominance within the state. At some point in the future he would be gone, they perhaps thought, and at that time there would return both the glorious republic and political freedom. For the time being, they were prepared to play along to keep the ideal alive. Augustus, however, had other ideas.

The old, idealized republic, if it had ever existed, was dead and gone for ever. Dead too was the rivalry among the senatorial élite, and the search for glory in the eyes of the Roman people, which many believed defined it. Just to make sure, in AD 6 Augustus set about implementing the most influential reform of his entire rule.


The reform of the Roman army was the key to stabilizing Augustus’s position and the age of emperors to come. The army had always been the source of the empire’s security. In the last decades of the republic, however, it had also been the chief source of conflict. This was because it had been in legionaries’ interests to go to war even if it meant fighting another Roman army. Recruited and groomed by ambitious generals with the offer of wealth, booty and land, their loyalty had been detached from the Roman state, but had become fatally up for grabs to the highest bidder (as under Julius Caesar). Augustus knew this better than anyone. In the civil war he had repaid his followers in the Roman army by forcibly booting humbler citizens off their Italian countryside properties in order to settle soldiers on them.

Now, however, that relationship changed, and the umbilical cord between commanders and troops was cut. The Roman army was at last taken out of politics and nationalized. Citizens were offered a professional career in army service, a salary and a chance for promotion. The legions, for example, were fixed by law at a core twenty-eight regular units. These were spread along the frontiers of the empire, while a new, 9000-strong élite ‘Praetorian’ army was stationed in Italy and Rome. Its men were paid three times as much as ordinary soldiers and would with time become the personal bodyguard of the emperor. For the many who chose a career in the regular army, military service was eventually set at twenty years, and, from AD 6, a fixed annual salary of 900 sesterces was decreed, but with the promise of 12,000 sesterces pension upon retirement from the army. (The minimum subsistence for a peasant family is reckoned at 500 sesterces per annum.) At first Augustus paid for the army out of his own personal wealth; his proconsular power did, after all, make him commander of most of the Roman army, and this patronage again underlined his supreme position. In AD 6, however, he took the professionalization of the army to its logical conclusion and created a military treasury, endowed it with a massive initial grant, and then funded it through taxation.

Although Augustus had improved the stability of his own position, the reform of the army was also highly risky. At the end of Augustus’s rule the legions in Gaul and Pannonia (modern-day Hungary and the Balkans to the south) seized the opportunity of the emperor’s death to renegotiate their terms of duty. Of course there were the usual gripes. They were fed up with their low pay, corrupt superior officers and the paltry prospect at the end of their service, should they live to see it, of some thin-soiled plot of land tucked far away from home; the rewards just weren’t as appetizing as they had been under the likes of Julius Caesar. What sparked the mutinies, however, was one grievance above all. Soldiers were being kept on beyond their agreed length of service; the reforms were so expensive that the Roman authorities were desperately trying to save money by delaying payment of the legionaries’ retirement bonus.

It is very hard to make financial comparisons across time, but one modern historian has valued the minimum annual state budget at 800 million sesterces. We can calculate that expenditure on the army was in the order of 445 million sesterces each year. This means that the army wiped out roughly half the empire’s annual budget.8 Augustus’s initial grant to the treasury was bountiful, but later emperors would not always find it possible to be as generous. An emperor’s ability to sustain the professional army would be the critical factor in the future security of the frontiers. Augustus had drawn the sting from the army by destroying its dependency on ambitious, big-hitting generals pursuing their own political objectives. In doing so, however, he had also created the empire’s Achilles heel, then and throughout the next five centuries.

If the first lesson of the civil war had been that the Roman army needed to be taken out of the control of ambitious generals, a second lesson followed from the first. In order for the emperor to maintain his ability to pay for the new professional army of the state, he needed to maintain the security of the tax revenues. No longer could the empire afford to allow the wealth of the provinces to fall into the hands of the generals who governed them and lined their own pockets. It was essential that taxes flowed smoothly from the provinces to the centre – to Augustus’s imperial coffers. Understanding this was key to the success of an emperor’s rule, both for Augustus and for emperors to come.

Even with such a system in place, however, twenty-eight army units were all that Rome could afford. Augustus learnt this lesson too, and it was one he learnt the hard way. For the best part of his rule, his generals had been arduously campaigning to bring Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe under Roman control. That policy appeared to be paying off. Then, in AD 9, disaster struck. As the general Quintilius Varus was concluding a successful campaigning season and returning his army to winter quarters on the Rhine, he took a route through the Teutoberg forest. Within that eerie wood, however, lay a venomous snake: an army of German warriors appeared like ghosts from behind the trees, descended on the Romans and massacred no fewer than three Roman legions. Augustus is said to have been so completely shaken by the news that ‘for months at a time he let his beard and hair grow and would hit his head against the door, shouting, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”’9

Although those legions were replaced, the sums did not add up sufficiently to risk pursuing the conquest of Germany. Augustus told his successor as much. He left the emperor Tiberius a handwritten letter strongly advising him to keep Rome within the boundaries of its current frontiers: the Atlantic Ocean in the west, Egypt and North Africa in the south, the English Channel and the rivers Rhine and Danube to the north, and the border of Roman Syria with neighbouring Parthia in the east. Although Tiberius heeded his adoptive father’s words, later emperors would not. For the time being, however, Augustus ensured that along these borders his professionalized army maintained the security of the Roman empire. It was a solid platform upon which to cultivate his age of peace.


An essential part of that peace was the creation of the ideology of the emperor. The Greek-speaking eastern provinces of the empire had long been accustomed to worshipping and glorifying the personalities of their individual Roman governors; this was a cultural hangover from the relationship between eastern subjects and their Hellenistic kings. Under Augustus, those provincials continued the practice, but transferred their worship to the figure of Augustus. He was treated like a god. Temples were built to him, and prayers, festivals and sacrifices glorified the names of Augustus and his family. Now that he had successfully weathered the early opposition to his rule, he devised ways of making his glorification an empire-wide trend. It was a task he could set to with flair.

Today, Augustus’s genius for presentation would impress even a modern spin-doctor. His favourite tactic was to make skilful use of traditional Roman history. In order to advertise to citizens his successes in foreign policy, for example, Augustus rekindled an ancient custom. He was reminded that in a more ancient era the doors to the Temple of Janus were closed at times of peace, and opened only when a war was being waged. So, when Augustus went to war with Spain in 26 BC, the doors were solemnly opened. In that campaign, Augustus, like modern imperialists, was determined to set reluctant ‘friends’ straight, and when his generals had completed the job seven years later, he referred to the victory as ‘pacification’.10 At the same time the doors of the small temple in the Forum were ceremoniously closed. It was not, however, his peace with Spain, but with Parthia that was Augustus’s greatest public relations coup.

The neighbouring empire to Rome’s east had brought about one of the republic’s most ignoble and embarrassing defeats. In 55 BC an army, commanded by a leading general of the late republic, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and his son, was utterly annihilated by superior Parthian tactics in the deserts of Arabia. Symbolic of the wound gouged into the Roman empire was the loss of Crassus’s military standards. These had become a trophy, an emblem of Parthian defiance and a totemic museum piece in that empire’s capital city. In 19 BC Augustus set about remedying this. His approach, however, did not march to the loud drumbeat of war. It moved to the quieter sounds of a diplomatic agreement, backed up with the baring of military teeth and a show of Roman force. It was enough of a threat for a new treaty with Parthia to be signed and, critically, the standards to be returned.

Back in Rome, Augustus was quick to spot and exploit the potential of the event. He magically upgraded the Parthian settlement from a peace treaty into a Roman victory to rival Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. With exuberant fanfare and pageantry, the standards were brought back into Rome, a triumphal arch was dedicated and the standards themselves were laid to rest. Their location? The new Temple of Mars the Avenger. The theme of this ‘victory’ was reiterated in the famous ‘Prima Porta’ statue of Augustus. Right in the centre of the emperor’s richly decorated breastplate was chiselled the scene of a Parthian humbly handing back the standards to a Roman. Without so much as a drop of blood being shed, the Roman ‘revenge’ was exacted.

Old Roman history put to modern political spin was also the theme of much of Augustus’s great marble building programme. In the Rome of the late republic, marble had been used sparingly and only by the very rich in the building of monuments. It was expensive because it had to be transported all the way from Greece. Under Augustus, however, a rich and far cheaper supply had been found and quarried at Carrara, in modern-day Tuscany. For this reason above all, Augustus was able to boast that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.11 He would oversee Rome’s extraordinary transformation from the dirty, chaotic rabbit warrens of the late republic into a capital city worthy of a Mediterranean-wide empire. The Altar of Peace, the Pantheon, the city’s first stone amphitheatre, and a new Temple to Apollo were just some of the fruits of his building programme. It was, however, the new Forum of Augustus that was perhaps his greatest achievement. In it, the same genius for rhetorical effect can be detected.

Two long porticoes, housing a reverent parade of historical statues, flanked either side of the Forum. On one side were the statues of Romulus, the first kings of Rome, and a series of grand Romans of the republic. On the opposite side were the marble images of Augustus’s ancestors – and a formidable, blue-blooded line-up they made too. Beginning with Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, it continued with his descendants, the kings of the city of Alba Longa, which Aeneas’s son Iulus had founded, then on to his descendants, the family of the Julii, and right down to Julius Caesar, Augustus’s adoptive father. No chance was missed to exploit his divine ancestry too. At one end of the parallel porticoes stood the great Temple of Mars the Avenger. As Aeneas was said to be the son of the goddess Venus, this deity took pride of place both inside the temple and also in its pediment. Within she stood alongside Julius Caesar and Mars; outside she was next to Romulus. Crucially, however, the Forum’s rich, sophisticated panorama of Roman history encircled one figure. Right in the middle of it, almost certainly, stood a statue of Augustus himself.

One clear political statement rang out. Augustus was the pinnacle, the summation of Roman history; he was the favoured one of the gods; he was the guardian of ancient Roman values, and the embodiment of those values in the future. The new Forum of Augustus was thus the forerunner of more recent monuments of imperialism. For example, the Victorians erected monuments that reflected the belief that their own age was the peak of civilization, and in the 1920s and 1930s, when Mussolini was seeking to assemble his new Italian empire, he too took inspiration from Augustus’s building programme.

The life of the city that flowed around this sophisticated and elegant space served only to underline Augustus’s carefully crafted script. Everywhere a Roman walked as he went about his civic administrative duties in the Forum he would see images, names and incarnations of Augustus and his glorious ancestry. The Temple of Mars also had a specific state function. Augustus suggested that whenever the Senate met to decide on declarations of war and peace, they should do so in the appropriate surroundings of that temple. Although the meetings were ostensibly collegiate affairs, the senators would not be allowed to forget one simple thing: this was Augustus’s temple, and the glory of the wars declared and the peaces agreed in it was Augustus’s too. His name was emblazoned across the front above the columns and even the building’s incarnation was rooted in his early career. The first citizen had piously vowed to build this religious precinct, so he claimed, after the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, the event that concluded the son’s war of revenge against the assassins of his father, Julius Caesar.12 From the seed of this vow had grown an oak tree of political ideology. Yes, it evoked the traditional past, the ancient virtues of the Roman republic. But it also glorified Rome’s kings, a dutiful line of succession that wove together centuries of history and reached its highest point with Augustus.

Augustus’s manipulation of history was perhaps matched only by his self-proclaimed restoration of Roman religion. His adoptive father Julius Caesar had reformed the Roman calendar in the last decades of the republic because it had grown completely out of step with the seasonal year. He corrected it by putting in place a calendar based on the solar year. It’s almost exactly the same as the one we use today. Now Caesar’s adopted son turned his attention to revitalizing the annual list of Roman religious festivals and events. Old rituals from the republic’s early history were dusted down, celebrated in the city and injected with new life. Into this resuscitation of a comforting past, however, Augustus had once again stealthily inserted himself and his family. In among the ancient festivals were less ‘antique’ moments for Roman citizens to commemorate. Augustus’s ‘restoration’ of the republic in 27 BC, for example, made an appearance. His first closing of the doors of the Temple of Janus was there too. Also deemed worthy of celebration were, of course, the first citizen’s birthday and the significant propitious days in the lives of his family. The final touch was the renaming of the month formerly known as Sextilis: now it became August. Furtively, the new age was being mapped on to the old.

Time too became a victim of Augustus’s stealth offensive. The defining symbol of this assault was not the Roman calendar but Augustus’s Horologium. This massive sundial was erected in the Campus Martius to the north of the city around 10 BC. Its marker still stands today in the Piazza Montecitorio in front of the modern Italian parliament building, but in the age of Augustus and the emperors who succeeded him it provided Roman citizens with the centrepiece of a magnificent astronomical display. A bronze line scored into the stone-paved ground marked the meridian where the sundial’s marker fell at noon, and the lines pointing out from the centre were gradated with cross-lines indicating how the shadow of the sun lengthened and shortened throughout the year. The sun that rose in the empire’s east and set in its west thus told the time in that empire’s capital city.

Augustus, however, made this very much his sundial. The marker was a red granite obelisk brought from the province that was most gloriously associated with him. Egypt was famed for its wealth and was now the bread basket of the Roman empire. It was the jewel in the empire’s crown, and the man who had first set it there was Augustus. But that connection was not his only fingerprint on the astronomical display. Augustus’s birthday fell on the same date as the autumnal equinox (23 September), and on that day the shadow was said to fall in line with Augustus’s Altar of Peace near by – another cornerstone in the ideology of the emperor. It was as if Augustus not only controlled time, but also the very movement of planets and heavenly bodies.

The height of Augustus’s association with the gods and the heavens was his Games of the Ages in 17 BC. Their impact followed hot on the heels of earlier measures undertaken by him to establish his piety towards the gods and the work of healing the Roman state. In the minds of many the civil war was thought to have taken place because Romans had neglected the gods. At its conclusion, therefore, Augustus, reconnected the state with divine favour by restoring the city’s temples and shrines. At the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol Hill he went one better. In the inner chamber he deposited ‘sixteen thousand pounds of gold, as well as pearls and precious stones to the value of fifty million sesterces’.13 The year before the Games of the Ages, Augustus’s medicine for the state took the form not of gifts to the gods, but of law reform.


In 18 BC Augustus passed a series of moral and social legislation that was both harsh and conservative. This focused on putting into law penalties and incentives to promote marriage, childbirth, sexual fidelity and moral improvement in young men. The new public laws on adultery, previously a private matter, were the most notorious. A criminal court was established to deal with sexual offences, and in certain circumstances punishment could be as severe as loss of property and exile. Women rather than men were the worst off under the law. While it was still permitted for men to have adulterous sex so long as it was with a slave or a citizen with a bad reputation, such as a prostitute, respectable citizen women could not have sex with anyone outside marriage. The law even sanctioned the right of a father to kill his daughter and her lover if they were caught in his house having non-marital sex, and also empowered a husband to kill his wife’s lover if that man was a known philanderer. If the law was the bitter medicine to enforce social cohesion, the year 17 BC laced it with sugar.

The Games of the Ages picked up on the theme of traditional Roman values such as chastity and piety. But once again tradition was a useful political instrument. The games supposedly harked back seven centuries to the very earliest history of Rome, and were said to be held every 110 years. It was not possible, therefore, for anyone to see them twice in their lifetime. For once, the billing for a show that no one had ever seen before and would never see again was, quite literally, true.14 As a result of the festival’s cyclical nature, its celebration promised an emotional moment of time travel back to the past. Crucially, however, when citizens witnessed the games in 17 BC there was no one alive who could say they were really authentic. The palette of Augustus was antique, but the paints which he was able to use were all new, bold and bright.

In the three days of sacrifices, gone were the offerings to the gods of the underworld that had been the focus in previous Games of the Ages. New gods were now in fashion. The goddess Diana (associated with fertility and childbirth), and Mother Earth (vegetation, regrowth and bountiful produce), as well the gods of Apollo (associated with peace and art) and Jupiter (Rome’s patron god) all took centre stage. The star performer, however, was not a priest or purely religious figure as a Roman might have expected. It was the head of the Roman state himself.

On the first night Augustus sacrificed nine sheep and nine goats to the Fates. It was an atmospheric, holy and magical affair. He recited a long prayer that these goddesses might bestow their favour on the power and majesty of the Roman people, on their future good health and prosperity, on the increase of the empire and, last but not least, on himself and the house of his family. The next night saw an even more spectacular ceremony. The first citizen sacrificed a pregnant sow to Mother Earth. It was as though he was searing into the hearts and minds of the massed Roman witnesses a highly charged moment of legend. This moment was imbued with the distant past, but it was a moment from which would spring the new age of the Caesars. The creation of an orderly, cohesive society of new moral Romans did, however, come apart at the seams.

One might imagine that some among the plebs, adjusting to peace and stability, were persuaded by the festival’s emotional power. So too perhaps were Augustus’s favoured senators and knights, those loyal to the new regime. The association with Rome’s past made their position in the administration seem more rooted than perhaps it actually was. As with any ‘back to basics’ political campaign, though, the very people expected to endorse it were the ones who flouted it. Most of the survivors from the old Roman aristocracy hated it. The last decades of the republic, that time of extraordinary licence and luxury, were a recent memory. The life of the witty, erudite poet Ovid is a revealing foil to that of Augustus. Ovid was a rich man of equestrian rank from Italy. For someone of his standing and intelligence, a glittering career in Augustus’s inner circle beckoned. He opted instead for a very un-Augustan life, one dedicated to sex, fun and art. In due course, Ovid became a celebrity, Rome’s foremost poet. One poem, however, proved his undoing. In it he advised young people on how to find a partner – at the theatre and at the games, for example. He even disclosed his tips on picking up respectable women. The poem, called The Art of Love, flew in the face of Augustus’s moral programme, provoking the emperor to take severe action. In AD 8 Ovid was banished to a miserable backwater of the empire, the frontier post of Tomis (now Constanta) on the Black Sea. But the poet was not the only notorious person to fall foul of Augustus’s stern laws.

In 2 BC, the same year that Ovid’s The Art of Love was perhaps published, scandal surrounding Augustus’s daughter Julia could no longer be suppressed. The rumours had long built up and now the dam burst. Julia had sold her body for money, went the riveting chatter; she had had sex on the very public spot in the Forum from which her father had proposed his ‘moral’ legislation; and one of her many lovers from the glamorous, fast set of the aristocracy was none other than the son of Augustus’s old enemy, Mark Antony. The stories may have been no more than rumours seeded in a daughter’s rebellion against a father who had long used her as a political pawn. Nonetheless, they put Augustus in a deeply embarrassing situation. They threatened to undo all his hard work. Cracks were appearing in his pious imperial edifice.

The reaction of the first citizen was merciless. He went to the Senate, denounced his own daughter, damned her memory by having all sculptures of her destroyed, then sent her into exile on Pandeteria, an island off the western coast of Italy near Campania. Although she was granted permission to move to a nicer part of Italy, she spent the rest of her life in exile. Eventually, her income withheld, she died of malnutrition. For committing exactly the same kinds of ‘crime’, Julia’s daughter was also permanently banished in AD 8. Augustus’s unsentimental show of consistency between his ‘children’ in the Roman state and his own biological children was perhaps just another performance – one designed to put his family above suspicion. This is suggested by another rumour that was doing the rounds: Augustus, the newly entitled ‘Father of the Fatherland’, was said to have been regularly provided with young girls and respectable married women for his pleasure. He would strip them naked and ‘inspect them as if they were the wares of Torianus the slave dealer.’ And the supplier of these goods? His own wife, Livia Drusilla. The stories remained, however, just gossip. The public show of rectitude had to go on.

By the time Augustus died in AD 14 his sleight of hand was completed. The Roman people and the Roman Senate had witnessed the discreet replacement of the republic with a new system of rule by one man. At every step they were persuaded, mesmerized and, if necessary, bullied into accepting that a reassuring, comforting continuity between the two eras existed. Whatever Augustus’s intention may have been, be it the sinister deception of a tyrant or a genuine attempt by a statesman to return the state to a traditionally styled constitutional government, depends on one’s point of view. It was probably a bit of both. What is certain is that there was no grand master plan. In establishing the new regime Augustus improvised as he went along albeit with inventiveness, genius and cold, sometimes cruel calculation. If some in the political élite were violently dragged into the new age kicking and screaming, the Roman people knew full well who looked after their interests most powerfully. When, in 19 BC, Rome was hit first by a plague and then a grain shortage, it was not only the people who took to the streets begging the saviour Augustus to come to their aid and sort out the crisis; so too did the Senate, and even those in the political élite who hated Augustus. He had, quite simply, made himself indispensable.

On his deathbed Augustus called for a mirror and gave instructions to his attendants that ‘his hair should be combed and his drooping features rearranged’. Afterwards he asked the friends he had summoned whether, in the comedy of life, he had played his part well. Before then sending everyone away, he quoted the last lines of a comedy by Menander:

Since the play has been so good, clap your hands

And all of you dismiss us with applause.16

Soon after his death, Augustus was deified. His corpse was deposited in perhaps his most striking building – his own mausoleum. It was located in the Campus Martius, had been under construction for the last twenty years of his reign, and is still standing in part today. Some 40 metres (130 feet) high, the original monument was crowned with a colossal bronze statue of the first Roman emperor, his most explicit display of self-glorification. The ancient traveller and geographer Strabo considered it to be the one Roman monument most worth seeing.17

But it was a typically subtle piece of glorification. The design followed the humble circular shape of an ancient Etruscan burial mound, but its execution and its description as a ‘mausoleum’ elevated it to rival one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the tomb of the ancient Carian dynast Mausolus. It was one last flourish, one last clever artifice, one last bow. The age of emperors had begun in style. It had been created by a consummate performer. Under another performer, however, that age would reach its greatest crisis.

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