Augustus and the Roman Empire

model of ancient rome

From Republic to Empire

Alexander employed mercenary hoplite armies, which were funded by captured booty, notably the vast silver treasuries of the Achaemenid empire. {1-2} The later Macedonian kingdom economies were much like those of Rome, based on agriculture, construction, commerce, trade and mining. {3}  

Beginning with the overthrow of its kings, traditionally dated to 509 BC, and ending in 27 BC with Augustus assuming the mantle of empire, the Roman Republic fought and overcame surrounding states to become the foremost military and economic power of the Mediterranean world. Alliance and conquest over the first two centuries brought Roman rule over most of the Italian peninsula. During the Carthaginian wars of the following century, Rome acquired north Africa, Spain, and what is now southern France. Two centuries later, towards the end of the 1st century BC, the Republic  had expanded to include the rest of modern France, Greece and  the eastern Mediterranean countries. The last century saw the conquest of Gaul and Numidia, more conquests in  the eastern Mediterranean, and then calamitous civil wars, which only ended when Octavian imposed centralised government on its unstable and over-extended territories. {4-5}.

Vital to its rise to power were three characteristics of the Republic: the sheer professionalism of its army, the law-based legislature that made life endurable for its conquered peoples, and the indomitable belief of the Romans in their right to rule. {4}

Prior to the Punic Wars, the Roman Republic resembled a Greek city state with relatively free yeoman farmers forming the basis of a prosperous, self-sufficient economy. But the long wars with Carthage, with the Macedonian kingdoms and with the Celts — at first defensive and then offensive — turned Rome into a plunder economy.  The empire relied on booty in its expansive phase, sending tax collectors into conquered territories, which were secured by a network of roads and garrisons. Subsequently, and increasingly in the late empire, the military machine had to be supported by taxes that fell on the poorer and weaker sections of the populace. Most citizens were productive, however, and slaves were used either for the more menial tasks (mining, labour on larger estate) or as status symbols for the aristocracy. {6}

After territorial expansion, the economy became much more varied and self-supporting, though silks were imported from China and grain from north Africa. Inscriptions record 268 different occupations in the city of Rome, and 85 in Pompei. {3}
But governments did veer towards plutocracies, and individuals, as today {7}, could become enormously wealthy. Though the Empire clamoured for peace when Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus became its sole ruler on the death of Mark Antony in 30 BC, it still harboured much animosity and unfinished business. People remembered the great proscriptions where politicians had murdered thousands of leading Roman citizens for no other reason than needing their property to continue their bid for power. They recalled the tens of thousands who had perished in the civil wars, whose effects still blighted the provinces from which men and supplies had been extracted. And Rome was still a turbulent and dangerous place, periodically beset by street mobs and lacking the architecture worthy of a world power. All these matters Octavian set about remedying in his secretive and long-headed way. {8-14}  

Mindful of his great-uncle's assassination, Octavian restored the outward façade of a free Republic, with government ostensibly vested in the Senate, the executive magistrates and legislative assemblies. Behind the scenes, however, he firmly retained the powers invested in him by the Senate — supreme military commander, tribune and censor — and ensured that legions were stationed so widely around the Empire that mutinies would not easily coalesce into another claimant for the throne. He secured peace with the Parthian Empire, enlarged Rome's borders by annexing Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum and Raetia, and protected those borders further with tributary buffer states. He fostered the arts, and embarked on a wholesale reconstruction of Rome, making it worthy of its status. {8-14}  

But resentment naturally persisted. Anyone rising to the top of Roman politics was bound to make enemies, and Octavian had been especially ruthless, calculating and treacherous. Opposition saw little mercy. Offspring by Caesar and Mark Antony in Egypt were quietly done away with. Perusia, which had supported Mark Anthony's wife and brother in an insurrection against his rule in Italy, was marked out for exemplary punishment: the city was looted and burned, and some 300 Roman senators and equestrians believed sympathetic to the insurrection were executed. With eventual success, however, and particularly with the title Augustus that the Senate conveyed on one who still modestly entitled himself 'first among citizens', a new Octavian emerged. Or perhaps appeared to. Historians disagree over whether the change was real or simulated, but the new Augustus could now afford to show more clemency and statesmanship, and these qualities the successful politician now sought to promote. His slight but intelligent features appeared in statues throughout the empire. Poets of modest backgrounds like Virgil and Horace composed edifying encomiums. And the splendid new coinage struck in gold, silver and base metal was made into a universal propaganda platform. {8-14}  

Rome's Republican coinage had been largely in silver: solid but rather dull pieces that simply bore the Consul's and moneyer's names and traditional legends. All this changed in the civil wars when claimants needed large issues to pay their armies. The coins were smaller, not so well finished, and commonly bore the leaders' portraits on the obverse and some identifying image or propaganda legend on the reverse. Augustus improved on the practice. In his early pieces he appeared as avenger and liberator. Later he appeared as ruler and Rome's beneficial god. The portrait gradually became standardized but was subtly modified to appeal to all who used coinage, which was the vast majority of citizens. For employment in the eastern provinces, Augustan issues adopted a Hellenised look: a stylish portrait, modest legends and empty spaces left on the flan to emblazon the real beauty of workmanship. Often the reverse images would allude to a particular province: a handful of corn for Chios, for example, or the crocodile for Egypt. Coins struck for use in the west were more aggressive in appearance: the liberator displayed his full titles and accomplishments, and the reverse emphasized the military victories, or the trust reposed in him by the Senate, often shown by civic wreath or a bold SC: Senatus Consulto, by decree of the Senate.

Roman Empire: Augustus

denarius of Augustus obv

Roman Empire: Augustus(27 BC-AD 14). Ar denarius 3.82 g. Struck 19-18 BC at Spanish mint of Emerita. Obverse:  CAESAR AVGVSTVS, Bare head right

denarius of Augustus rev

Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS, Bare head right Reverse: OB CIVIS SERVATOS, Oak wreath with ties up in centre. (RIC I 40a; RSC 210) (for rescuing all his fellow: i.e. benefactor)'

Image was what counted, and Augustus' long reign and intrinsic power ensured the image was suitably maintained. C(aius) CAESAR IMP(erator) often appeared on obverse legends. Imperator alludes his official appointment as joint commander against Antony in January 43 BC, though Augustus was an indifferent general at best: indeed hostile sources called him a coward who left the fighting to others. Caesar refers to Julius Caesar's will by which Augustus was posthumously adopted as the great man's son: something Antony had little time for, and which rested on uncertain legal bases. But the young Augustus relentlessly pushed his claims, and basked in his great-uncle's glory when Caesar was made a god of the Roman Senate in 42 BC. The relations of Augustus with the legislature were as tangled and dubious as Caesar's had been, however. Augustan coins commonly record membership of two priestly corporations (Pontifex and Augur) at ages too young for him to be properly eligible, and the election to his first consulship, which was carried out by force. An officer marched into the Senate to show the hilt of his sword shouting, 'If you won't do it, here's what will!'

Like all good politicians, Augustus more created and drew on emotions than presented unpalatable realities. He appealed to the traditional customs of Italians in calling himself Son of a God, Chief Priest and Father of the Nation. That he was ruler of the army was not mentioned, nor that he also exerted widespread control in that peculiarly Roman way of the rich and their 'clients'. Certainly there was a popular will which could be whipped up to fury, and which it was unwise to foil, but Rome had never been fully democratic, even in Republican times, and those who wanted things done — preferment, or justice beyond what could be secured by the courts, which needed money for advocates and bribery — quietly sought favours from those who had powerful connections. By such invisible ties, by favours extended and astutely called in, the Empire was effectively governed.

Augustus had learned the lessons of power from an early age, and wisely kept his own council. He was intimate with very few, it seems, or those records have disappeared, as indeed has the vast mass of the Roman historical record. Coins survive, but have to be carefully read, as much by what they omit as what they say. Their propaganda value was exploited by all Roman emperors, but not all were as intelligent, industrious and long-lived as Augustus. Few questioned the claims that sometimes went beyond the plain facts. Following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, where he defeated Antony and Cleopatra, the young Augustus struck coins show ARMENIA CAPTA or RECAPTA (Armenia captured or recaptured) as in a victory parade, though Augustus never sent his legions to such inhospitable regions and Mark Antony, who did invade the country on his way to Parthia, suffered an inglorious defeat. {15-20} 

Was the propaganda convincing? Certainly the great majority seems to have gone along with the fictions. Cities vied with each other to emulate the marbled streets, temples and buildings of Rome, and in each of these appeared portraits or statues of the man who had done so much to bring peace and prosperity. Senators closer to Augustus were probably more sceptical. In the words of the third-century Dio Cassius: 'From now on most things that took place began to be kept secret and confidential. Even when public announcements are made, they are distrusted because they cannot be confirmed; for there is a suspicion that all sayings and actions are related to the policy of the rulers and their staffs. As a result there are many rumours about things that have never happened at all — and many things have certainly happened are quite unknown.' {19-20}

Octavian lived modestly and travelled without bodyguards. He made a show of respecting the Senate's wishes, and later allowed others to serve as consuls, but power nonetheless rested on his control of the army. The man himself was not in the slightest intimidating: of slight stature but well-proportioned, he became  rather neglectful of appearance in later years. His health was never better than indifferent. But the guarded, often cold manner concealed one the most powerful political intellects in the ancient world. He enlarged the public utility of the Roman world by constructing bridges, roads, public baths and government buildings. A disparate empire, one welded together by conquest and war, was given a common identity and faith in its destiny. Writers and poets celebrated his accomplishments. Augustus introduced a splendid new coinage, and ensured that taxes were proportionate and could be paid. After 41 years of rule, the emperor could truly say that he  'left Rome a city of marble, though I found it a city of bricks.' {1-8}

On his death, the empire covered 6.8 million sq. km and ruled over 70 m. people, some 21% of the world's population. Its economy was agrarian-based and largely self-contained. Silk was imported from China at ruinous prices, and coin hoards in India show a trade in Indian gems and southeast Asian spices, but these formed a small part of the economy. The Mediterranean lands produced wines and olive oil; the northern provinces supplied wool and animal hides; foodstuffs were grown on vast latifundia in Italy, and grain imported from Egypt and north Africa. Little of what the empire produced was of interest to India or the Han empire of China, however, and transactions here were enabled by silver. {1-8}


One of the great fascinations of Roman imperial coinage — and the series is deservedly popular for the opportunities it offers to collectors of all financial means — the rarest pieces are beyond most pockets, but a representative collection can be built up relatively cheaply — is the extraordinary range of image and information that appears. The obverse — usually the emperor but sometimes other important figures or motives — stamps authority on the issues: behind the coin stands the full power of the emperor and Roman state. On the reverse pours out an unending stream of propaganda — divinities and images alluding to the prosperity of the state and its continuing achievements. Even the  uneducated could read a little Latin, and coins served as TV news today: to mould public opinion and persuade the common citizen that government was legitimate and responsive to their needs.{9-10}

Just as the emperor's portrait appeared in pleasing statuary throughout the empire, so the portraiture on Roman coinage was especially fine and  immediately recognisable, even on worn coins, though the portraits could also be idealized, as those of Augustus and Nero notably were. Coins also portrayed important relatives, especially wives, who are shown in the latest clothes and hair-styles. Although a poor soldier, Augustus was keen to glory in his victories, but also display the virtue, piety, justice and clemancy with which he treated his enemies after Actium. Like all good politicians, Augustus appealed to the necessary fictions of the state, and is depicted as Son of a God, Chief Priest, Father of the Country, and no reference appears of his suborning the institutions of the State, or seducing the army with bonuses. {11}

The messages conveyed on Roman coins sometimes varied with the metal involved: the rich used the gold aureus, the poor were familiar with copper. {12} Most of the events depicted are 'true' in the sense that they actually happened, and the information they convey can be useful to the historian, but the depictions are also slanted to include claims and interpretations thought needful by the State. As with all historical records, coins have to be used with care and a proper grounding in what can and cannot be safely deduced from the evidence. {13}

Character of Augustus

However he appeared in his rise to power — dissimulating, cowardly, spiteful — the list of unfavourable, indeed un-Roman characteristics, is a long one — Augustus became by far the most talented and hard-working of the Roman emperors. Michael Grant says of him:

'Augustus was one of the most talented, energetic and skilful administrators that world has ever known. The enormous, far-reaching work of reorganisation and rehabilitation that he undertook in every branch of his vast Empire created a new Roman peace, in which all but the humblest classes benefited from improved communications and flourishing commerce. The autocratic régime which (learning from Caesar's mistakes) he substituted for the collapsing Republic - although challenged, from the outset, by a number of conspiracies - was to have a very long life. It brought stability, security and prosperity to an unprecedented proportion of the population for more than two hundred years; it ensured the survival and eventual transmission of the political, social, economic, and cultural heritage of the classical world — Greek and Roman alike, and it supplied the framework within which both Judaism and Christianity were disseminated.' {11}

So which was the real Augustus? The ambitious young upstart with no military experience that neither Antony or Cicero would take seriously? The remorseless politician complicit with proscriptions in which 300 senators and 2000 other gentry, all mostly innocent of Caesar's death, were done away with and their property seized? The revengeful schemer who made a savage exhibition of his power in the Perusine War? Or the wise and beneficent statesman? Probably all four. Octavian/Augustus grew in stature and character as he increasingly identified with the new Rome he was building. People rise to the occasion, and good  government operates through the institutions that  channel and encourage the better part of our human natures. Perhaps because mindful of his own transgressions, Augustus laid the practical foundations of a Mediterranean empire that in its eastern form developed and endured for 1500 years.

References and Further Reading

Need the 23 references and 2 illustration sources? Please consider the inexpensive ebook.