Octavian returned to Rome in 30 BC hugely popular. He would remain so for the rest of his reign. He was the Caesarian leader who would prevent oligarchic counter-revolution; the military strongman who guaranteed an end to war and a new period of peace and prosperity; and the conqueror able to crush foreign enemies and extend the borders of empire. But his authority was a constitutional anomaly, his real power-base the army, and many secret enemies lurked in the dark places of the Roman state. The fate of his adoptive father was a chilling warning. Octavian’s aims, therefore, were essentially two. First, to demobilize surplus soldiers, concentrate a trimmed-down army on the frontiers, and thus demilitarize society and restore normal civil administration. Second, to reward his followers, conciliate defeated enemies, and forge a comprehensive political settlement that would reunite, enlarge and strengthen the Roman ruling class. Achieving all this would take time. Demilitarization was the first priority.
The Actium army was promptly demobilized in Octavian’s third major land resettlement – only this time dispossessed Italian landowners were compensated. It has been estimated that in Octavian’s three land resettlements of 41, 36 and 30 BC, 5 per cent of Italian land changed hands, 300,000 families received farms, and 150 million denarii was paid out. The victories the new veterans had won over foreign enemies – Balkan tribesmen and a Greek queen – were duly celebrated the following year (29 BC) in three triumphs for the Illyricum, Actium and Alexandria campaigns. Roman tradition did not permit triumphs for victories in civil war – but nor would it have suited a regime bent on conciliating old enemies to have crowed over the corpses of Brutus, Cassius, Sextus Pompeius and Mark Antony. Even so, in 28 BC, there was a purge of reactionary senators, 200 of whom were ejected from the house – though, in contrast to wartime purges, none were executed or lost their estates. The approach was clear: the victors would reap rewards, the regime would consolidate its grip, but erstwhile opponents would not be hounded to destruction, and those prepared to trim their politics might in time find ways to prosper.
Still, though, the regime lacked any appearance of stability. Princeps – leading man – was the term applied to Octavian, a title without constitutional significance whose adoption signalled the ruler’s anomalous authority. There were two successive attempts – in 27 and 23 BC – to clothe the dictator’s power with legal form and give credence to his spurious claim to have ‘restored the Republic’. It was the first of these that conferred the new name ‘Augustus’ by which Octavian was hence-forward usually known, a name which, having something of the sense of the English word ‘venerable’, symbolized the makeover that had transformed the ruler’s image since the mid-30s BC. But the first settlement soon broke down over its expectation that Augustus’s constitutional authority would depend on his holding successive annual consulships. This was unsustainable: it burdened the ruler with too much work, and, by blocking the ambition of so many potential candidates, risked alienating the senators. So after 23 BC Augustus rarely held a consulship (though from 19 BC he had a special seat in the Senate between the two consuls). Instead he enjoyed permanent tribunicia potestas (tribunician power), enabling him to posture as popular champion, and giving him the authority to convene the Senate, present legislation to the People, and function as a supreme court. He retained, moreover, the triumvirs’ power of commendatio (recommendation), effectively the right to nominate candidates for magistracies. In the provinces, his power took the form of maius imperium (greater authority) over the proconsuls who governed senatorial provinces, and proconsulare imperium (proconsular authority) in the imperial provinces (and, unlike that of all others, his imperium did not lapse when he entered Rome). The distinction was between old provinces with only small garrisons (senatorial), and frontier provinces where the bulk of the army was now stationed (imperial). Augustus’s direct control over the frontier provinces – administered by governors who were his legati (legates: representatives with delegated powers) – meant that he was, de facto, the commander-in-chief of the Roman army. More than that, he inherited the Late Republican warlords’ role of army patron: he was responsible for pay, conditions, gratuities, and retirement packages; and, in recognition of this, the soldiers on enlistment swore an oath of allegiance to the emperor. Augustus was a military dictator masquerading as an elected politician. The substance and the forms of power diverged. But for the present most men preferred not to expose this truth: too much was at stake. When, occasionally, the façade was breached, the perpetrators were promptly struck down. And when this happened, the majority looked away, preferring peace, order, a career, an easy life. Politics were privatized: no longer a collective struggle over principle and policy, they became a matter of court intrigue for personal advancement – a squabble over spoils at the summit of the enlarged administrative hierarchy.
The hierarchy’s basic structure was not new. Augustus’s aim was to gull adherents of the old order with a semblance of continuity. But Republican institutions, as well as being open to wider recruitment, were now subject to careful regulation from above. After the purge of 28 BC, the Senate’s numbers were further reduced in 18 and 13 BC, bringing an unwieldy assembly of a thousand or so down to around 600. There were strict qualifications for membership, the most important being a minimum property rating of 250,000 denarii. There was a steady infusion of new blood, of men promoted from among the most successful of the Italian municipal aristocracy, becoming first equestrians, then senators. The Senate became a mainly (but not exclusively) hereditary aristocracy of office dependent on imperial patronage. The second-division equestrian order was also regulated. The minimum property qualification was set at 100,000 denarii. Formal career paths were laid out, culminating in top imperial posts, such as the two prefectures of the Praetorian Guard, the imperial bodyguard troops in Rome, and the governorship of Egypt, a new imperial province which senators were not even permitted to visit. Equestrians also now enjoyed the exclusive right to sit in the jury-courts. For both senators and equestrians – and many others of more modest status – the number and variety of posts to which they might aspire grew rapidly.
Though incorporating much of the former Republican infrastructure and its titles, government administration was so streamlined and expanded under the emperors as to constitute something substantially new. The imperial provinces each required a governor, responsible for justice, general administration, and military affairs, and a procurator, responsible for finance; each had their own staffs; each reported directly to the emperor. Rome, now an imperial capital of a million people, was administered by ‘curators’ (curatores) or ‘prefects’ (praefecti), permanently appointed and operating singly or in boards, each in charge of a department – water-supply, sewage, the corn dole, fire service, building control, police. The men under their charge included seven 500-strong cohorts of paramilitary firefighters and nightwatchmen (cohortes vigilum), and three 1,000-strong cohorts of front-line riot police (cohortes urbanae); these were in addition to the nine 500-strong cohorts of Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard troops barracked in the city. At the highest level were men who attended upon the emperor in person, whether as counsellors of the consilium principis (perhaps best rendered as ‘Privy Council’), or as members of the imperial household, including many freedmen (liberti: freed slaves), who, though present in aristocratic households generally, in this case soon acquired a sinister reputation as gatekeepers of the ultimate source of patronage.
Beyond Rome, in Italy, the Hellenized East, and the more Romanized western provinces, local government was in the safe hands of the gentry, who were enrolled on town councils by virtue of their property-ownership. These decuriones or curiales (as they came to be known in many western provinces) formed, in effect, the third tier of the Roman aristocracy. Concerned mainly with security of property, the defence of privilege, and their own personal advancement, the decurions were a class of imperial loyalists who could be relied upon to collect taxes, maintain order, and promote Romanitas. The conservative bloc they represented was reinforced by the numerous coloniae – new settlements of Roman citizens – founded by Caesar and especially Octavian-Augustus. As noted, there were perhaps 300,000 farms owned by Caesarian veterans in Italy, the security of their land titles dependent on the regime they had helped to found and to whose defence they were therefore committed.
Even among the free poor, the regime, as far as we can judge, was popular. Peace meant that farms prospered and the trades picked up. There was work, a market for produce, a measure of security, hope for the future. In Rome especially, but in other towns too, there was much work for builders and decorators. ‘I found Rome built of bricks,’ announced Augustus. ‘I leave her clothed in marble.’(1) The exaggeration is excusable: we know of scores of monumental structures built, reconstructed or repaired in the city during Augustus’s reign, including some of the greatest, the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline, the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, and the Forum of Augustus with its dominating Temple of Mars the Avenger. We have Augustus himself to thank for much of the detail. An extraordinary contemporary document, ‘The Achievements of Divine Augustus’ (Res Gestae Divi Augusti), has survived almost complete in the form of a stone inscription from the walls of the Temple of Rome and Augustus at Ankara in Turkey. Originally, no doubt, it was publicly displayed in many parts of the empire. In it, the emperor lists the offices and honours he held, his personal expenditures for public purposes, and his deeds in war and peace. It amounts to a comprehensive political testament. It is mainly from the Res Gestae, for instance, that we learn that Augustan Rome was a city not only of great building projects, but also of handouts and spectacles. ‘To the Roman plebs I paid 300 sesterces apiece in accordance with the will of my father … I paid out of my own patrimony a largesse of 400 sesterces to every individual … These largesses of mine reached never less than 250,000 persons … I gave a gladiatorial show three times in my own name, and five times in the names of my sons or grandsons … Twice I presented in my own name an exhibition of athletes invited from all parts of the world … Twenty-six times I provided for the people hunting spectacles of African wild beasts in the Circus, the Forum, or the amphitheatres, in which about 3,500 animals were killed …’(2) Work, bread and shows were the Augustan recipe for a compliant mob.
More than any of these groups, however – more than senators, equestrians, civil servants, decurions, veterans, farmers, the mob – the regime depended on its soldiers. The army was trimmed down to a permanent force of 28 (later 25) legions, each around 5,000 men, formed of long-service professionals, all of them Roman citizens. Each legion was divided into ten cohorts, and each cohort into six centuries, such that the basic tactical sub-unit was a century of 80 heavy infantry commanded by a centurion. Each legion also had a small cavalry unit for reconnaissance and communications, and strong field artillery, perhaps 60 light arrow-shooters, and 10 heavier stone-throwers. As well as approximately 125,000 legionaries, there were roughly equal numbers of auxiliaries, non-citizen troops of the kind traditionally raised from Rome’s allies as cavalry, light infantry, and other specialists, but now organized as regulars and integrated into the standing army. Legionaries served for 20 years and enjoyed good pay and conditions of service; upon retirement they received grants of land or money generous enough to set them up as substantial members of the communities where they settled. Auxiliary service also offered good pay and conditions, plus, on completion of 25 years’ service, the grant of Roman citizenship, a highly coveted privilege.
Half or more of the state’s tax revenue was expended on the army. Much of the private wealth of the emperor – the profits of civil war now organized as a vast imperial estate – went to supplement this. The soldiers regarded the emperor as their commander-in-chief, swore allegiance to him, and remained deeply loyal as long as he remained an effective patron, a provider of pay, perks and pensions. At the core of the empire, then, was a state-army nexus of power. This was fuelled by a ‘tax-pay cycle’, in which the decurions of a thousand towns collected the local taxes across the empire, the state redistributed the revenues as payments to the army, and the soldiers spent their wages and thus pumped money back into the civil economy. The state-army nexus and the tax-pay cycle were essential characteristics of the Roman state between the 1st and 5th centuries AD.
Augustus stationed almost the whole of his army in the frontier provinces. For much of his reign the soldiers were engaged in the greatest campaigns of conquest in Roman history. In terms of territory won, Augustus was Rome’s foremost empire-builder. The turmoil of the Late Republic had brought the expansionist dynamic that powered Roman society to a peak as successive warlords competed to accumulate plundered wealth through military victory. Augustus, in this respect, stood in the line of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar. The cost of populism had, in this time, become heavily inflated. In chapters 15–17 of the Res Gestae Augustus listed some of the staggering sums paid out in his reign: 280 million denarii in gratuities to citizens and soldiers; 215 milliondenariiin compensation to landowners for veteran settlements; 80 million denarii in subventions from the emperor’s private resources to state coffers. These sums alone are equivalent to the wealth of 2,300 senators. Many other expenditures are listed in the Res Gestae, such as the 15 major construction projects recorded in chapter 19, and the 82 temples repaired in chapter 20. This unprecedented largesse could be paid for only by permanent war. Imperial expansion was, in any case, central to the regime’s ideology. Its supporters had heady expectations of further glory and conquest. As Virgil explained, Rome’s mission was to rule the world. The Augustan regime – a regime that trumpeted commitment to peace – was underwritten by sustained imperial violence.
Illyricum had been conquered in 35–34 BC, securing Italy’s northeast frontier, and providing a firm launch-pad for subsequent Roman advances across the Balkans and towards the Danube. Egypt was annexed in 30 BC. The royal treasures were carted off immediately to pay Octavian’s war-debts, and grain and tax began to flow from the land of the pharaohs to the Rome of the emperors. Thrace and Moesia (modern Bulgaria) were overrun in 29–28 BC, bringing the Roman frontier to the lower Danube. Augustus undertook a grand tour of Gaul and Spain in 27–26 BC, and a renewal of Caesar’s stalled attack on Britain was openly canvassed. Instead, however, the focus shifted to Spain, where between 26 and 19 BC the conquest of the peninsula was completed, with the north finally subjugated and a new legionary base established at Leon, bringing to an end 200 years of Roman military operations against the Celtiberian tribes. Meantime, in 25 BC, the Salassi were crushed on Italy’s north-western border, and Roman communications across the Alps to Gaul made safe. Armed diplomacy in the East secured peace with Parthia in 20 BC, symbolized by the much-acclaimed return of standards captured at Carrhae 30 years before. The northern frontier was extended to the upper Danube to create the provinces of Noricum and Raetia in 17–15 BC. The strategic offensive then reached its peak in the years 13 to 7 BC, with simultaneous invasions of Pannonia, to complete the subjugation of the Balkans, of Germany, conquered as far east as the Elbe, and of Moesia and Thrace, where a major rebellion had broken out. Facing massive armies commanded by the greatest soldiers of the age – Augustus’s two stepsons, Tiberius in Pannonia, Drusus in Germany – the resistance of Rome’s barbarian enemies wilted under the onslaught. Such huge territories were overrun in this final push that by 7 BC Augustus had doubled the size of the empire. Five hundred years of Roman imperialism had been brought to an extraordinary climax. The heady claims of Augustan propaganda seemed fully vindicated, both at home and abroad.
The culture of the Augustan Age has been admired for centuries. The Forum of Augustus, the Ara Pacis sculptures, and the poetry of Horace, Ovid and Virgil represent pinnacles of achievement. But richness of form cannot compensate for poverty of content. Augustan art served dictatorship and empire. Its themes are the vacuous propaganda messages of power. A cult of personality was constructed around the ruler, portrayed sometimes as a reincarnation of Aeneas or Romulus, legendary founders of nation and city, sometimes as Pater Patriae, the benevolent ‘Father of His Country’, sometimes as imperator, army commander and world conqueror. ‘I received the title of Augustus by decree of the Senate,’ the dictator proclaims, ‘and the doorposts of my house were publicly decked with laurels, the civic crown was fixed over my doorway, and a golden shield was set up in the Julian Senate House, which, as the inscription on this shield testifies, the Roman Senate and People gave me in recognition of my valour, clemency, justice and devotion.’(3) National rebirth was a recurring motif – a new beginning after decades of discord and civil war. Traditional cults and values were revamped – the regime represented a return to the past, to the good old days of a Republic based on courage, duty and piety. The message was that the revolution was over: nobility could breathe easy, secure again in its privileges; the Augustan aristocracy of ‘new men’ now enthusiastically embraced the ancient aristocracy of blood; all could unite to advance the cause of Roman civilization against northern barbarians and oriental despots. On the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) sculptures, the imperial family and friends appear on the south frieze, the magistrates, senators and priests of Rome on the north, new regime and old nobility thus symbolically joined. Aeneas and Romulus, mythic and metaphoric forebears of Augustus, are depicted on the west panel, female personifications of Rome and Italy amid images of abundance on the east. In the niches of the colonnades in the Forum of Augustus were statues of Roman heroes, great figures from Republican history down one side, the ancestors of the Caesars down the other. Towering over them on the far side of the piazza was the Temple of Mars the Avenger, erected to celebrate the defeat of Caesar’s assassins, men who are thus, by the victors’ disingenuous implication, portrayed as wickedly bent on destroying the harmony of the state. If form alone is the criterion, much Augustan art is stunning. If content be the measure, it is a gallery of empty-headed propaganda.
But as Augustus approached his final decline, Nemesis struck. In AD 6 the Pannonians, crushed by the might of Tiberius’s army in 12–9 BC, then crippled by military requisitions, rose in revolt. The Illyrians, conquered in 35–34 BC, immediately joined them. The occupation forces were wiped out, and Italy was threatened with invasion. Troops had to be redeployed from Germany, and only when Roman strength reached perhaps 100,000 men was it possible for the empire to go on to the offensive. Though the revolt in the Balkans had been defeated by AD 9, the weakening of the garrison in Germany necessary to achieve this proved fatal. To replace Tiberius and Drusus in Germany during the Balkan war, Augustus had appointed Publius Quintilius Varus, a man without experience of the country, who attempted to consolidate imperial control by imposing taxation and Roman jurisdiction on the recently conquered inhabitants. A young chieftain of the Cherusci tribe called Arminius, who had served as an auxiliary in the Roman army and been granted citizenship and equestrian status, was elected to lead a revolt. Varus and his three legions were lured into the Teutoburg Forest, where they were ambushed and destroyed by an army of German tribesmen. Some 25,000 soldiers perished with their commander, 10 per cent of the Roman imperial army, leaving a gaping hole in the empire’s frontier defences. It was Rome’s worst defeat since Carrhae in 53 BC, and the worst at the hands of northern barbarians since Arausio in 105 BC.
Suddenly the regime looked terribly fragile. When the news reached Rome, the Praetorian Guard was ordered on to the streets as precaution against any attempted coup. Provincial governors were retained in their posts so that the empire remained in the hands of proven loyalists. Special games were celebrated in honour of Jupiter to assuage divine anger and divert the mob. ‘Indeed,’ relates Suetonius in his biography of Augustus, ‘it is said that he took the disaster so deeply to heart that he left his hair and beard untrimmed for months, and would often beat his head on a door, shouting, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”; and he always kept the anniversary as a day of deep mourning.’(4)
Augustus’ reaction, if accurately reported, reflected the gravity of the defeat. The army had been pared down to the barest minimum needed to guard the thousands of miles of the empire’s frontiers, and yet its strategy had remained relentlessly offensive, with tens of thousands of men engaged year-on-year in new wars of conquest. Demilitarization had been essential, both to reassure the ruling class that stability and normal government had been restored, and to cut costs and release funds for regime-building largesse. The consequent army reductions had left the empire without a strategic reserve, while the ideology of the regime and the expectations of its supporters – not least the all-important professional officer class – had propelled it into an unbroken succession of military adventures. The result was that the empire was militarily overextended, such that, because it lacked reserves, one major tactical defeat risked strategic disaster. It was fortunate, indeed, that Arminius’s German host broke up after victory. The Germans were content to have destroyed their enemies, freed themselves of tax-collectors, and returned home rich in plunder. But Rome could not risk another Teutoburg Forest. Augustus halted offensive operations on all fronts. His successor – ironically the great soldier Tiberius – would maintain this policy. Not before AD 43 would the empire again mount a major military offensive. Even then, the invasion of Britain was an exceptional event, not the start of a new trend. In AD 9 the great epoch of Roman imperial expansion came to an end. The Empire, a product of 500 years of conquest, its size doubled in the 50 years of history dominated by Octavian-Augustus, would thereafter hardly grow at all. Here was a transformation of the greatest historical significance: AD 9 was nothing less than the central pivot on which the whole history of Rome turned. The empire had risen to its highest point. From this moment on, its historical trajectory flattened out. It ceased to expand. It had reached its limits. And in the course of time it would be revealed that the glory days were over for good, and that Rome was heading towards decline, fragmentation, and the eventual collapse of the Western Empire.