Ancient History & Civilisation


The New Age

This is the oath taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Romans who do business among them. ‘I swear by Zeus, Earth, Sun, all the gods and goddesses and Augustus himself that I will be favourably disposed to [Cae]sar Augustus and his children and descendants all the time of my [life] in word and deed and thought… Whatever I may see or hear being said or plotted or done against them, I will report it and I will be the enemy of the person who says or plots or does these things… If I do anything contrary to this [oath]… I pray that there may come on me, my body and soul and life, my children and all my family and whatever is of use to us, destruction, total destruction until the end of all my line and of all my descendants…’ In these same words this oath was sworn by all the [inhabitants of the land] in the temples of Augustus throughout the local districts [of Paphlagonia] by the altars [of Augustus].     Oath sworn in Paphlagonia, 6 March 3 BC

Augustus’ first moral legislation was the prelude to his celebration of a ‘new age’ in Rome. An ‘ancient’ oracle was conveniently cited to support it and, on highly questionable grounds, it was calculated to fall due in 17 BC. For three days and nights, beginning on 31 May, animal sacrifices were offered to Greek and Roman divinities under the general direction of the traditional priesthood for this occasion. The traditional items for purification were given to the people, but it was Augustus and his heir, the obscurelyborn Agrippa, who now led the proceedings. The daytime rites were an innovation: the grim gods of the underworld were replaced by the goddess of childbirth, mother Earth and such gods as Apollo, Diana and Jupiter. Like so much of Augustus’ professed conservatism, the apparently traditional occasion was reshaped in a new way.

On the final day, a specially commissioned hymn was sung by two fine choruses, one of twenty-seven boys, one of twenty-seven girls, all of whose parents were still living. The hymn was performed twice by these trusting young patriots, once to Apollo at the recently built temple on the Palatine hill, once to Jupiter on the Capitol, the ‘father’ god of the Romans. The hymn was written by the poet Horace and we can see how it goes beyond the rituals which had preceded it. It prays for the success of the recent marriage legislation (the ‘decrees of the fathers on the yoking of women’); it evokes Rome’s Trojan past which Virgil’s great Aeneid had made so famous only two years before; it praises Augustus and asks for his every prayer to be heard; he is the descendant of Venus, the one (echoing Virgil) who is ‘superior to the one who wages war, gentle to the fallen enemy’.1 He rules far to the east, even being petitioned by ‘proud Indians’ (an Indian embassy had come to Augustus in 25 BC and agreed ‘friendship’ in 20).

Horace’s hymn evokes the birthrate, conquest and moral values (Honour and ancient Modesty). It refers to Augustus’ legendary family, the fertility of the land and Rome’s future. Such a poem was quite new for this sort of occasion. It was followed by theatrical shows, chariot racing and ‘hunts’ of wild animals which would delight the people for another week. Among the fun, nobody, least of all Horace, could have guessed that Augustus, ‘the glorious blood of Anchises and Venus’, would rule for so many more years. Horace would continue to link these themes together in his Odes, but his praises were no truer at the end of Augustus’ life than at the beginning. Prominent themes of Augustus’ dominance were to be foreign campaigns (but not always conquest), organized attention to Rome and its people (but riots and natural crises still occurred) and attempts to promote his own family and assure a successor (the one coup which repeatedly eluded him). These concerns were to be the concerns of every subsequent Roman emperor.

Before celebrating the ‘new age’, Augustus had adopted his two

grandsons, the children of his one daughter Julia and the loyal Agrippa. For once, he was surrounded bya cluster of family members, a sister, a wife and heirs. Importantly, the boys added the magic name of Caesar to their own. At the festival in 17 Augustus prayed for ‘me, my house and household’2 and over the next fifteen years, he set about marking out his two obvious successors. At a very early age, the grandsons were given magistracies; they were designated as consul years in advance (Gaius Caesar would be only twenty-one when holding this top job, usually held when about forty-two); they were tact-fully presented to the armies; they were advertised on the coinage in provincial cities. In 5 BC Gaius was made ‘head of the youth’, a special title which allowed him to preside over the order of Roman knights. Outside Rome, they and other family members received divine honours in provincial cities. Far inland, in western Asia, we find people in c. 3 BC swearing an oath of loyalty to Augustus, ‘his children and his descendants’.3

There was a large unanswered question here. The troops would like to have a family successor, another ‘Caesar’ from the line of Julius Caesar. If the heir was adopted, as in Augustus’ case, adoption did not matter to them. Such, too, was the wish of the common people of Rome, who also responded to youth and beauty. They would have loved our modern magazines and pictures of princes and princesses. But in the eyes of any thoughtful senator, the Republic was not a family affair, to be passed on by inheritance. In due course, senators would prefer to be able to elect a successor from their own number.

Between 18 and 12 BC Augustus had a junior partner whom he himself had chosen: the loyal Agrippa. It was only a sop to traditionalist opinion that his powers were formally renewable, like Augustus’ own. When Agrippa inconveniently died in 12 BC Augustus pronounced a funerary eulogy over him and the speech was circulated to provincial governors: no doubt they circulated it locally in translations. There were two branches to the emerging ‘dynasty’: Augustus’ descendants through his first wife Scribonia and their daughter Julia (the Julians), and his stepsons and descendants through his able second wife Livia (the Claudians). From these two branches, the dynasty of the next eight decades is known as the Julio-Claudians (to AD 68).

The Claudian branch began by being older and proved itself much abler. Up in the Alps, Augustus’ two Claudian stepsons turned out to be far better soldiers than he could ever be. In 9 BC the younger of the two, Drusus, died; we have recently learned that his funeral was splendid and his eulogy by Augustus was circulated through the provinces too. Probably it was accompanied by moral ‘encouragement’ to the public: when Drusus’ equally popular son died in October 19, the emperor’s testimony to him was also circulated for the benefit of ‘the youth of our children and descendants’.4 ‘Improvement’ of the young was a part of Augustus’ gratuitous programme. It impinged on the sons of senators who dressed formally and attended their fathers’ meetings, or the young knights who processed on horseback. They were parts of a vision which we still recognize: set the young examples, give them public functions and try to smother independent thought.

There was also, we realize increasingly, Augustus’ second wife, the redoubtable Livia: if only we had a memoir by her (she lived right on to AD 29). Wicked gossip claimed that she poisoned rivals and procured young girls for the moral Augustus and had them smuggled secretly into the house on the Palatine. Her public image was quite different, but these rumours show that it was not the Romans’ only perception of her. Back in 36 BC Livia had shared the ‘sacrosanctity’ of a tribune with her husband: it was a most unrepublican honour for a female, but it marked her off from Antony’s Eastern women. She then received other small honours and she helped to restore temples in Rome for cults which were associated with respectable women. In 7 BC she gave her name to a splendid public Portico in Rome which included colonnades with trompe l’œil landscape paintings and a public display of works of art (Agrippa was already said to have wanted to confiscate all private works of art and display them publicly, one reason why the Roman nobles boycotted the vulgar man’s funeral). The site of Livia’s Portico was significant. Previously, it had housed the enormous private mansion of the disreputable Vedius Pollio who had served Augustus in the East. He was denounced for his excessive luxury, including the bad example (men said) of throwing slaves into his pond of man-eating fish. His palace was demolished on its site and Livia publicized sober Concord (a matrimonial virtue) and a ‘people’s walk’ where looted Greek statues were displayed. How differently she was presenting herself from the bad women of Cicero’s rhetoric, from people like Antony’s Fulvia whose personal greed and cruelty had been alleged so as to emphasize her husband’s ‘tyrannical’ character.

Rhetoric then outran the restraint and consideration which these actions projected. After the death of Livia’s son Drusus in 9 BC, a Roman knight even wrote a poem to console her, obsequiously, as ‘the First Lady’. A spectacular recent find of inscriptions in Spain has shown us how the Senate dwelt on her virtues in an effusive response to an imperial family crisis. In AD 20 they publicly praised Livia not only for having given birth to the austere Emperor Tiberius but also for ‘her many great favours to men of every rank; she could rightly and deservedly have supreme influence in what she asked from the Senate, though she used that influence sparingly’.5 Republican traditionalists would have been horrified. Once again, this long decree was to be publicly set up for the instruction of posterity. It was to be displayed in conspicuous places in the provinces and even in the army-camps.

The moral purpose of the new age extended to buildings too. Augustus’ boast in Rome was that he found the city made of brick and left it marble. Certainly, the Rome of 30 BC had had none of the planned grandeur of the great cities of the Greek East. Even its civic centre was a rambling jumble, not fit to be the showpiece of the world. There was to be much Augustan work in the city centre, and in keeping with the new moral order, sculptors and architects tended to favour a restrained classicism. The tall marble columns of the public temples were more showy, favouring the Corinthian style of capital, but admirable though the craftsmanship is, the main sculpted monuments with Augustan themes have a controlled range of allusion and form which veer to ghastly good taste. Frequently, they express ideals of his own moral and familyr hetoric. The 30s BC had been a great era of political publicityin buildings, coins and literature. Augustan Rome continued its use of sculpture and architecture for a message.

As a result, the new Augustan era has one of its claims to be a ‘classical’ age. It is, in fact, ‘classicizing’, dependent on fifth- and fourth-century Greece: without it, Augustan public art would never have taken this direction. In its Roman context, this style implied dignity, authority and restraint in a way which had never been so in its original setting: ‘we see in the political choice of classicism an expression of the Roman order of state.’ Order, dignity and structure were also the qualities of much early Augustan literature, especially the poems of Horace and Virgil. Here, the ‘new age’ can claim to be ‘classic’, in the simple sense of first class. But its great poets, like the great oratorical prose of Cicero, had matured in the pre-Augustan age of liberty.

Apart from the classicism of the new bold stonework and the best of the new poetry, there was still the other Rome, now a teeming city of (probably) a million inhabitants, far the biggest city in the world. Social contrasts had remained amazingly extreme here. The rich lived in grand houses, but the very poor bedded down where they could; the relatively poor were crammed into tall wooden apartment blocks with thin dividing walls, the speculative landlord’s dream. Narrow winding streets surrounded these hastily built and overcrowded ‘vertical receptacles’, while erratic supplies of water went with a total absence of public transport. Most people’s Rome was both a wonder and a nightmare. It was also, of course, a slave-society. A single senator, in the 60s, owned no less than 400 slaves in his household: ‘the Senate’ (good men and true) would thus own about 250,000 of Rome’s human beings if this senator was at all typical.6 Perhaps two-fifths of the city’s (approximate) million inhabitants were slaves, and many of the rest were ex-slaves, freed but still ‘obliged’ to their ex-masters. The common citizens were the plebs, but among the plebs those who were attached to the great households were not to be confused with those of the plebs who were not. For there were ‘respectable’ plebs, and downright ‘sordid’ plebs, people who begged what they could. The modern cardboard cities of refugees in Egypt or Pakistan are the nearest we can come to imagining this ‘other Rome’, though they lack Rome’s openly accepted slavery.

This ‘other Rome’ had proved beyond the capacity, or concern, of Cicero’s beloved Republic. Under Augustus, it took its first few steps towards health and safety. By stages, a much-needed fire brigade was introduced, the Watch or vigiles, whose name lives on in modern Rome’s equivalent. The public water supply was vastly improved by new aqueducts and, in due course, by new overseers and public slaves to maintain it. In reply, rich families moved up to the hills above previously marshy ground and continued to develop new parks and fine palazzi there. A committee was appointed to attend to flooding from the river Tiber. The height of apartment blocks was limited to about seven storeys, no doubt to the speculators’ annoyance. The grain-supply acquired a new prefect; the regular gifts of free grain to designated citizens continued (about 250,000 people were now on the list). Like the public shows, the dole did not extend ‘bread and circuses’ to all the free poor, because they amounted to more than half a million people. But when backed by the grain of Egypt, the general supply of grain on sale became more stable.

As one reform succeeded another, each social order in Rome began to have defined roles, and these roles were made to seem to be worth having. The Senate continued to be very busy and senators’ functions multiplied, and yet ultimate power resided elsewhere, with the emperor. As time passed, therefore, it became harder to assure a quorum for senatorial meetings. Privileged knights had their annual processions; the common people, too, began to be more closely regulated. There were hundreds of thousands of them, after all, potentially a seething mass, as they had shown briefly after Caesar’s murder. Augustus left them with their ancient ‘tribes’, all thirty-five of them, through which gifts of corn were distributed and assemblies organized. However, he continued Julius Caesar’s controls. He strictly regulated their right to form ‘clubs’, or collegia, those political and social dangers in the republican city. Instead, the plebs had ever more shows to watch, but even here, they were to be regulated in a hierarchy of seating. This orderliness was only possible because the common spectators accepted it and were not rebellious against it. There was still no designated police force, although the fire-watchers did go on patrol. But Augustus had stationed soldiers in or near the city, the Praetorian guards and his German horse guards. They could always intervene in a crisis.

The obvious tactic, meanwhile, was divide and rule. In 7 BC Augustus split the city in to fourteen districts under ‘ward magistrates’ (vico-magistri) who were usually freedmen. These local officials celebrated cults of the Protecting Spirits, or Lares, at each ward’s crossroads. Previously, there had been ‘august Lares’: now, the same Latin words suggested the ‘Lares of Augustus’ (Lares Augusti). In cults at the crossroads, honours were also paid to the genius of Augustus, his ‘guiding spirit’. Cults, therefore, of Augustus’ own household were neatly transferred to the city’s main street corners. The presiding freedmen in these cults had the robes and insignia of real magistrates, while privileged slaves served as their assistants. One surviving altar for such a cult reflects the themes of high art, showing a scene from the legend of Aeneas the founder and the honorary shield which proclaimed Augustus’ ‘virtues’. The self-important officials took kindly to their new function and these little local shrines persisted at Rome for centuries.

Symptomatically, stone inscriptions in honour of individuals also proliferated in the Augustan city. At the top of society, full triumphs began to be reserved for members of the imperial family only. Instead, individual senators received ‘triumphal ornaments’, but commemorated themselves with public inscriptions which carefully listed each of the posts in their careers. By contrast, two great monuments commemorated high points for Augustus himself. The first, the delicately sculpted Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis), was voted by the Senate for his return from Gaul in the summer of 13 BC. It shows a lush imagery of natural abundance and a fertile mother (probably Earth) with children. Sculpted members of the imperial family accompany figures from Rome’s priesthoods, including four chief priests, veiled and preparing to sacrifice. The exact reference of the procession is disputed, but it probably records Augustus’ own assumption in March 12 BC of the Supreme Priesthood (as Pontifex Maximus), which he had tactfully left in old Lepidus’ hands until Lepidus’ recent death.7 The sculptures’ combination of family, religion and formal togas is typically Augustan.

In 2 BC Augustus’ dominance reached its climax. Again, it followed where Julius Caesar had already trod. In February he was hailed in the Senate as ‘Father of the Fatherland’ (like Julius Caesar), and in May, the long-awaited temple of Mars (the war god) as Avenger was completed. It overlooked his supreme monument, the ‘Forum of Augustus’, in the heart of the city. Beginning on 12 May, great shows publicized the opening, with gladiators and the killing of 260 lions. The entertainments were like Julius Caesar’s all over again. On a newly flooded lake, mock teams of Athenians and Persians re-enacted a sea-battle fit for the old Persian Wars of 480 BC. It was a heroic prelude to the dispatch of Augustus’ young grandson, Gaius, to ‘triumph’ in the East in his own pseudo-Persian war. Crocodile hunts then followed in the flooded Circus.

Julius Caesar had already commissioned a Forum, but Augustus’ Forum of multi-coloured marble is the supreme statement of Augustan spin. Its temple of Mars commemorated the ‘avenging’ of Julius Caesar and the ‘vengeance’ (much less bloody) on the Parthians (achieved by diplomacy). It was to be the centre-point in Rome for the public giving of honours to commanders and men of military prowess: it became the standard meeting-point, in legal contracts, for people who were granted bail. On the temple, a decently sculpted Venus, goddess of the Julian family, accompanied Romulus (dressed as a shepherd) and patriotic gods such as father Tiber. Augustus’ own name was carved at a focal point on the blocks directly below the pediment. Ancient Greek statuary, including two masterpieces of Alexander the Great, were displayed around the Forum. The novelties were the Forum’s flanking colonnades. Like other monuments and public lists in the Augustan city, they put ‘history on parade’.8 On one side, Romulus headed an array of statues of the great triumphing Roman heroes of the past, each of whom was identified with an inscribed eulogy. On the other side stood Aeneas with his Trojan father and ancestors of the Julian family. Augustus even published an edict to announce that ‘the life [of these great men] was the standard by which he wished to be weighed by the citizens as long as he lived’.9 He even hoped that the future ‘First Citizens’ would be weighed likewise.

Herodotus, the first historian, would not have been surprised by the sequel. Catastrophe followed this personal climax. Within months the public adultery of his charming daughter, Julia, was alleged and then punished: did some people wonder if Augustus’ adopted grandsons, her two children, were really Agrippa’s children as was claimed? When she remarked ‘I only invite another pilot’, it was perhaps to rebut such rumours. But the cargo, too, proved short-lived. First one then the other of these grandsons died on foreign service. New and complex dynastic arrangements were needed, which ended by giving a main role to a ‘Claudian’, Livia’s austere son Tiberius. Yet Tiberius was rumoured in 9 BC to have talked about restoring more of a ‘republic’ and he had already withdrawn into self-imposed exile in 6 BC, arguably so as to avoid holding the populist tribunician power in public. From AD 6 onwards wars on the northern frontier imposed a heavy strain on Rome’s finances and on citizen-recruitment. Both were hugely resented, including the new inheritance tax on citizens, which was introduced to help pay the army’s costs. There were seditious grumblings among the Roman plebs, a major fire in Rome, and years of famine in Italy. Augustus’ last available grandson was banished in AD 7, and in 8 adultery was prosecuted once again, this time against Augustus’ granddaughter, the younger Julia. On top of it all came the severe defeat of the legions in Germany in AD 9. It was lucky that these crises came after thirty years of domination. By now, there was, it seemed, no alternative.

What, then, was the core of the Roman revolution which could endure such continuing turbulence? From ever more parts of Italy, members of local leading families did enter the Senate and appear in the upper orders at Rome. But the revolution did not lie in this mild, ongoing enlargement of Rome’s governing class. More importantly, the proscriptions and the Civil Wars had cost lives and violently transferred property: here, indeed, there had been revolutionary terror, although the political system in Italy’s towns remained unchanged. With victory, there was a military and constitutional revolution of a different sort. In Italy, there were now twenty-eight new colonies of army veterans whom Augustus, like Sulla, had settled in his active lifetime, men loyal to himself on expropriated land. Elsewhere, the remaining army was now a standing army, loyal to Augustus as Commander. Politically, he held a bundle of powers which were detached from elected magistracies: what he wanted could thus be massaged through the political system at Rome. Freedom of political initiative was killed off: it became extremely hard, historians noted, to penetrate back to the truth of things. A smart new voting hall (Julius Caesar’s plan) was built in Rome for the people, but the candidates who were brought before its electoral assembly were increasingly agreed in advance. Such pre-selection was introduced in AD 5, perhaps as a sop to the upper class for Augustus’ dynastic arrangements of the previous year. In legislative assemblies, meanwhile, the scope for independent popular legislation or veto by a tribune had disappeared. In its place, a sense of ‘dynasty’ had been promoted. It is summed up by the new voting-centuries which were added to the people’s electoral assembly: they were named after Gaius and Lucius, Augustus’ dead grandsons. Down one side of Rome’s political space, the Forum, a smart portico commemorated them too.

On a long view, the historian Polybius would have claimed that his predictive theory had proved true. The balanced ‘oligarchy’ of the years of the Hannibalic War had first tipped towards what Polybius, at least, might have seen as ‘democracy’. In fact, it had been the use by members of the upper class of the scope for ‘popular liberty’ embedded in Rome’s constitution. Then, as the great historian of this crisis, Peter Brunt, well puts it, their ‘attempts to “restore” the powers of the people led on to monarchy, and monarchy destroyed popular freedom more completely than senatorial freedom’.10 However, this loss of popular liberty was matched by social gains for the ‘urban mob’ in the city of Rome. Improved urban amenities went with new avenues of justice. As before, the elected praetors continued to preside over public courts in the city: a fourth ‘panel’ of jurors was added and there was no longer any concern to separate senators and knights among the jurymen. Senators would put up with this mixing because the Senate, with the consuls also, became a separate court with powers to try its own members for major crimes, including extortion: knights, therefore, were kept out of the most serious senatorial trials, and the hated ‘equal liberty’ was ended.

The more drastic development was the giving of justice by new office-holders. The newlyappointed Prefect of the Citywas a senator; he dealt with cases, especially those involving the lower classes in the city, and he had the power to coerce not only slaves but those free people whose ‘audacity’ needed force. In due course, the Prefect of the Praetorian guard came to dispense justice too, as cases simply gravitated to such people with the authority to settle them.

The greatest such individual was the First Citizen himself. As the holder of a tribune’s power, Augustus could be regarded as legally liable to receive the appeals of all Roman citizens. As early as 30 BC he is said to have been given this specific power, and in 18BC it was probably made explicit in a law ‘on public violence’. As the holder of proconsular power, he could also enquire into cases and pass sentence after an inquisition by himself. His presence, on top of the pile, was a new focus of crucial judicial importance. From the provinces, meanwhile, accusations, requests and appeals gravitated to him anyway, both in civil and criminal matters, whether from Roman citizens or not. They arrived either with embassies from distant cities, or in written form, or with patient accusers or defendants who travelled to see him. An embassy even arrived from Cnidus, theoretically a free Greek city, seeking judgement in a remarkable case against a husband and wife (now seeking refuge in Rome) and the charge that, in a recent quarrel, one party had insulted another by making a slave pour a chamber pot over his head.11 Perhaps Augustus chose to go into the case so closely because the saga which the embassy presented to him was so extraordinary. It is a sign that pleas for justice, as always, spiralled upwards: Augustus soon had to arrange for cases both from Rome and abroad to be delegated to other parties. But like a Ptolemaic king before him, he could not escape the flood which his dominance attracted.

There was a final fearful symmetry. In 43 BC Augustus had begun by proscribing citizens to be put to death; in the difficult end to his reign, he reverted to attacks on freedom of expression. It is under Augustus that we first hear of ‘dangerous’ books being burned. The offence of treason against the Roman state became extended to verbal offences of libel and slander against prominent citizens. Such offences, it could be argued, insulted the moral standing of the upper class, a major theme of the new age. It was then an inevitable step to extend the offence to verbal treason against the emperor’s person, whether dead or alive. This step became evident under Augustus’ successor, Tiberius. When such cases for treason were heard in the Senate or in a court in the emperor’s presence, the emperor’s attitude during their hearing would compound the outcome of the trial.12 Through Augustus’ revolution, the upper orders had lost political freedom, while regaining civil peace and stability. But one freedom, at least, was enhanced: their freedom to prosecute each other.

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