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Augustus and the Empire

The contribution of Augustus to the consolidation and stabilization of the 'Empire' from a governing and military perspective was immense, but the legacy of the man is perhaps best exemplified in his contribution to public works and infrastructure. While Augustus was a necessity to the success of the new imperial government, veiled as a continuation of Republican ideals, without his other contributions, its continuing success may have been in jeopardy. His reinstitution of conservative policy and wide scale public improvements helped to not only bring Rome out of the ashes of a century of civil war, but established Augustus as the unassailable and unchallenged ruler of the Roman world for nearly half a century.

Legislation was introduced under Augustus that (according to his own words in the Res Gestae) "restored many traditions of the ancestors, which were falling into disuse in our age, and I handed on precedents of many things to be imitated in later generations." Among these traditions 'restored' were laws limiting public displays of extravagance. This not only helped secure his own position by limiting the political popularity of potential demagogues, but brought a semblance of refined dignity back to the Senatorial order. Reinforcing this dignity, the qualifications for entry into the upper social orders was also clearly defined. Minimum property and monetary qualifications were re-established along with identifiable symbols of public status. Slave laws were also instituted, for the main purpose of limiting the number of slaves who could be freed. This went hand in hand with limiting the afore-mentioned displays of extravagance and also helped to maintain a social status quo. Marriage laws, established to encourage the growth of the citizen population, brought back a more conservative moral foundation. While his own family, most noticeably the escapades of his daughter Julia, fell short of some of Augustus' conservative policies, his marriage to Livia for over 50 years, ending only with his death, provided a shining example for the Roman people to emulate.

Architecturally, Suetonius quotes Augustus as having said "that he found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble." Whether Augustus ever made such a statement is unknown as Suetonius certainly took liberties with historical accuracy, but the essence is certainly correct. In the Res Gestae, the only autobiographical list of imperial accomplishments ever recorded, Augustus laid claim to numerous grandiose public works. He doubled the water flow capacity of the Aqua Marcia, originally built in the mid 2nd century BC, and added 3 new aqueducts, the Julia, Virgo and Alsietina (the first two administered under Marcus Agrippa). The Via Flaminia (the road from Rome to Ariminium in NE Italy) together with many bridges along the way was also built during Augustus' tenure.

Though the exact date of the original Roman Pantheon is highly debated, there are some claims that the first structure bearing that name was built in the Augustan Age (again under the supervision of Agrippa). Though it would later be destroyed and rebuilt (twice), and not take its current recognizable shape until Hadrian, a temple to all the gods was built in 27 BC. In all, Augustus oversaw the building or reconstruction of 82 temples in Rome alone. Of these, the temple of Divine Julius, the Lupercal (the cave, likely with a monumental entrance, where Romulus and Remus were supposedly suckled by the she-wolf) three Temples dedicated to Jupiter, temples of Apollo, Quirinus, Minerva, Juno, the Lares, Penates, Mars Ultor and Cybele the Great Mother (Magna Mater), stand out in importance.

Other great monuments built included the Curia Julia (Senate House), including the attached Chalcidicum (whose purpose is debated but often identified as a great record office), the portico of the Flaminian Circus (likely built in conjunction with the improvements to the Via Flaminia), the Pulvinar at the Circus Maximus (serving as both a shrine to the gods and private seating for the imperial family and other VIPs) and the theatre at the Temple of Apollo. Other great structures were finished, repaired or rebuilt including the Capitol, the Theatre of Pompey, the Forum Julia and Basilica (started by Caesar). In addition, statues and works of art as well as other imperial building projects (like those of Agrippa in the Campius Martius) were sponsored throughout the empire.

Despite his own laws restricting public displays of extravagance, Augustus lavishly spent in dedications to the gods or for the welfare of the public. He claims to have donated one hundred million sesterces in various dedications, and thirty-five thousand pounds of gold dedicated in his triumph of 29 BC. The effect of great games was also not lost on Rome's first emperor. Much like Caesar before him and those that followed, he used the games in grand style to control the populace. He lays out numerous times in which the games were hosted in his name or in those of family members. Five times he apparently hosted grand combat tournaments involving gladiators from all over the Roman world. In a total of eight events hosted in his name or those of his family, he claims that 10,000 men fought, and in twenty-six separate events, 3,500 African beasts were killed. Perhaps more elaborate than all the others, and as a harbinger of things to come, Augustus hosted a tremendous mock naval battle in the 'Grove of the Caesars' near the Tiber (flooded by his own Aqua Alsietina) in which at least 30 full sized naval vessels (along with many smaller ones) and 3,000 men engaged in combat. Augustus understood the need for control of all aspects of Roman society, the military, the aristocratic Senate and Equestrians, and perhaps most of all, the Roman mob.

In what is often considered the Golden Age of Rome, Augustus not only rebuilt the city and advanced the Pax Romana but this era was one of pre-eminent literary achievement. Some of the greatest and most influential Latin writers in Roman history developed their various styles in this period. Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus excelled in poetry with Vergil creating one of the most revered works of the ancient world in the 'Aeneid'. The work of Livy, 'Ab Urbe Condita' (From the Founding of the City), even if often clouded by myth or propaganda, is invaluable to the study of Rome's early history and was compiled during Augustus long and industrious rule. Even the work on the Etruscans of the future Emperor Claudius (which is unfortunately lost to history) was sponsored under Augustus. In no other time in Rome's long history did so many great contributors of literature live and prosper together in one single era. Under the patronage of Augustus, along with men like Maecenas and Corvinus, Roman literature advanced to a stage to rival with their Greek predecessors.

As time passed and Augustus entered the twilight of his life, he still continued the administration of the empire, advancing its various causes, but his age and likely degenerating health required withdrawal from public perception. After nearly half a century as the sole ruler of Rome (though still veiled in Republican ideals), one of the greatest men in world history finally passed. On August 19, 14 AD, just a month before his 77th birthday, Augustus died in the town of Nola, while traveling in Campania. After having secured the stability of the Roman world by taking control of the legions and methodically garnering the powers of the Republican magistracies, Augustus left Rome with a renewed sense of identity and power. There are stories, added by later historians, that attempted to implicate his wife Livia in a plot to poison him, but the plot seems ridiculous considering Augustus' already well advanced age. For 52 years the first couple of Rome advanced Augustus' ideology and legacy, with Livia playing her part admirably, though she would certainly play a major role in the politics of future imperial rule. While the rule of the next Emperor was uncertain, Imperator Caesar Augustus, the son of the god Julius Caesar and Father of Country saved Rome from itself and laid the foundation for its further glory. 3 days after his death, Augustus was buried in his own family mausoleum and entered the Roman Imperial Cult as the Divine Augustus.

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Did you know?

Although Augustus preserved the outward form of the Roman Republic, he ruled as an autocrat for more than 40 years.


Augustus and the Empire - Related Topic: Imperial Cult


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