Classical Roman Empire

Aleksandar Jovanović

Octavian Augustus about His Life

The Roman Republic entered a period of prolonged political crisis that lasted for about a hundred years (from 133 to 31 BCE) when, finally, after a century of civil wars and bloodshed, Octavian Augustus defeated Marc Antony, the last of his opponents, and became the undisputed ruler of the Roman state. While Octavian officially reinstated the Roman Republic, in practice, he accumulated the prerogatives of several different public offices of the state in his own hands, which allowed him to rule as a monarch over the empire. Thus, in modern scholarship as much as in the writings of authors flourishing from the 2nd century CE, Augustus is labelled as the first emperor of Rome. One of the reasons behind Augustus’ rise was the fact that Rome and its people were tired of constant internal conflict and wished to see peace back in the empire. The governing system of the Roman Republic, though suited for Rome back in the days when it was a mere city-state in Italy, was becoming unsuitable for running a Mediterranean Empire. Thus, Augustus started his reign under the official guise of the Roman Republic but set in motion a series of irreversible changes that were to mark the history of Rome for the next 1500 years.

We have been extremely lucky to know how Augustus wished to be remembered as his propagandistic autobiography has survived to this day. Upon his death, Augustus willed his autobiography to be inscribed on temples of the goddess Roma and of himself around the provinces of the Roman Empire. In Italy and the western provinces, the text was available in Latin and in the eastern provinces a Greek version was added to the inscriptions to make the piece more comprehensible to the local populaces. Thus, the first text in history of Rome that was made available throughout the empire with the same content was delivered in both Latin and Greek, a practice that Roman emperors continued in the eastern provinces, and then in the Eastern Roman Empire, all the way until the 7th century CE, when Greek took over as the sole official language of the state. Augustus, then, laid the foundations of the new governing system of Rome, which was to outlive him by over a millennium.

Res Gestae Divi Augusti

In my twentieth year [44 BCE], acting on my own initiative and at my own charges, I raised an army wherewith I brought again liberty to the Republic oppressed by the dominance of a faction. Therefore did the Senate admit me to its own order by honorary decrees, in the consulship of Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius. At the same time they gave unto me rank among the consulars in the expressing of my opinion [in the Senate]; and they gave unto me the imperium. It also voted that I, as propreetor, together with the consuls, should “see to it that the state suffered no harm.” In the same year, too, when both consuls had fallen in battle, the people made me consul and triumvir for the re-establishing of the Republic.

The men who killed my father[1] I drove into exile by strictly judicial process, and then, when they took up arms against the Republic, twice I overcame them in battle.

I undertook civil and foreign wars both by land and by sea; as victor therein I showed mercy to all surviving [Roman] citizens. Foreign nations, that I could safely pardon, I preferred to spare rather than to destroy. About 500,000 Roman citizens took the military oath of allegiance to me. Rather over 300,000 of these have I settled in colonies, or sent back to their home towns (municipia) when their term of service ran out; and to all of these I have given lands bought by me, or the money for farms—and this out of my private means. I have taken 600 ships, besides those smaller than triremes.

Twice have I had the lesser triumph [i.e., the ovation]; thrice the [full] curule triumph; twenty-one times have I been saluted as “Imperator.” After that, when the Senate voted me many triumphs, I declined them. Also I often deposited the laurels in the Capitol, fulfilling the vows which I had made in battle. On account of the enterprises brought to a happy issue on land and sea by me, or by my legates, under my auspices, fifty-five times has the Senate decreed a thanksgiving unto the Immortal Gods. The number of days, too, on which thanksgiving was professed, fulfilling the Senate’s decrees, was 890. Nine kings, or children of kings, have been led before my car in my triumphs. And when I wrote these words, thirteen times had I been consul, and for the thirty-seventh year was holding the tribunician power.

The dictatorship which was offered me by the People and by the Senate, both when I was present and when I was absent, I did not accept. The annual and perpetual consulship I did not accept. Ten years in succession I was one of the “triumvirs for the reestablishing of the Republic.” Up to the day that I wrote these words I have been princeps of the Senate forty years. I have been pontifex maximus, augur, member of the “College of Fifteen for the Sacred Rites” [and of the other religious brotherhoods].

In my fifth consulship, by order of the People and the Senate, I increased the number of patricians. Three times I revised the Senate list. In my sixth consulship, with my colleague, Marcus Agrippa, I made a census of the People. [By it] the number of Roman citizens was 4,063,000. Again in the consulship of Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinus [8 BCE] I [took the census, when] the number of Roman citizens was 4,230,000. A third time . . . in the consulship of Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius [14 CE], with Tiberius Caesar as colleague, I [took the census when] the number of Roman citizens was 4,937,000. By new legislation I have restored many customs of our ancestors which had begun to fall into disuse, and I have myself also set many examples worthy of imitation by those to follow me.

By decree of the Senate my name has been included in the hymn of the Salii [Davis: as if Augustus were a god], and it has been enacted by law that as long as I live, I shall be invested with the tribunician power. I refused to be pontifex maximus in place of a colleague still living, when the people proffered me [that] priesthood which my father had held.

[The temple of] Janus Quirinus, which it was the purpose of our fathers to close when there was a victorious peace throughout the whole Roman Empire—by land and sea—and which—before my birth—had been alleged to have been closed only twice at all, since Rome was founded: thrice did the Senate order it closed while I was princeps.

To each of the Roman plebs I paid 300 sesterces[2] in accord with the last will of my father [Caesar]. In my own name in my fifth consulship [29 BCE] I gave 400 sesterces[3] from the spoils of war. Again in my tenth consulship [24 BCE] I gave from my own estate to every man [among the Romans] 400 sesterces as a donative. In my eleventh, twelve times I made distributions of food, buying grain at my own charges. And I made like gifts on several other occasions. The sum which I spent for Italian farms [for the veterans] was about 600,000,000 sesterces[4] and for lands in the provinces about 260,000,000[5] …. Four times have I aided the public treasury from my own means, to such extent that I furnished to those managing the treasury department 150,000,000 sesterces[6].

I built the Curia [Senate House], and the Chalcidicum adjacent thereunto, the temple of Apollo on the Palatine with its porticoes, the temple of the deified Julius [Caesar], the Lupercal, the portico to the Circus of Flaminius [and a vast number of other public buildings and temples].

Aqueducts which have crumbled through age I have restored, and I have doubled the water [in the aqueduct] called the Marcian by turning a new stream into its course. The Forum Julium and the basilica which was between the temple of Castor and the temple of Saturn, works begun and almost completed by my father, I finished.

Three times in my own name and five times in that of my [adoptive] sons or my grandsons I have given gladiator exhibitions; in these exhibitions about 10,000 men have fought. [Besides other games] twenty-six times in my own name, or in that of my sons and grandsons I have given hunts of African wild beasts in the circus, the Forum, the amphitheaters—and about 3500 wild beasts have been slain.

I gave the people the spectacle of a naval battle beyond the Tiber where is now the grove of the Caesars. For this purpose an excavation was made 1800 feet long and 1200 wide. In this contest thirty warships—triremes or biremes—took part, and many others smaller. About 3000 men fought on these craft beside the rowers.

I have cleared the sea from pirates. In that war with the slaves I delivered to their masters for punishment 30,000 slaves who had fled their masters and taken up arms against the Republic. The provinces of Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia swore the same allegiance to me. I have extended the boundaries of all the provinces of the Roman People which were bordered by nations not yet subjected to our sway. My fleet has navigated the ocean from the mouth of the Rhine as far as the boundaries of the Cimbri where aforetime no Roman had ever penetrated by land or by sea. The German peoples there sent their legates, seeking my friendship, and that of the Roman people. At almost the same time, by my command and under my auspices two armies have been led into Ethiopia and into Arabia, which is called Felix [“The Happy”] and very many of the enemy of both peoples have fallen in battle, and many towns have been captured.

I added Egypt to the Empire of the Roman People. When the king of Greater Armenia was killed I could have made that country a province, but I preferred after the manner of our fathers to deliver the kingdom to Tigranes [a vassal prince] … I have compelled the Parthians to give up to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies, and as suppliants to seek the friendship of the Roman people. Those [recovered] standards, moreover, I have deposited in the sanctuary located in the temple of Mars the Avenger.

In my sixth and seventh consulships [28 and 27 BCE] when I had put an end to the civil wars, after having obtained complete control of the government, by universal consent I transferred the Republic from my own dominion back to the authority of the Senate and Roman People. In return for this favor by me, I received by decree of the Senate the title Augustus, the doorposts of my house were publicly decked with laurels, a civic crown was fixed above my door, and in the Julian Curia [Senate-house] was set a golden shield, which by its inscription bore witness that it was bestowed on me, by the Senate and Roman People, on account of my valor, clemency, justice, and piety. After that time, I excelled all others in dignity, but of power I held no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.

[A kind of supplement to the inscription adds]: The sum of money which he gave into the treasury or to the Roman People or discharged soldiers was 600,000,000 denarii[7] [and names many other public works].

Questions for Consideration

  1. How does Augustus represent his power and his position in the Roman Republic?
  2. Does Augustus talk only about the people in the city of Rome, or does he refer to the inhabitants of provinces as well? Why does he feel the need to communicate with the people throughout the empire?
  3. What changes can we see in governing practices of Augustus and how does he try to justify them by using the political jargon of the Roman Republic?

  1. Arkenberg: Julius Caesar, who adopted his nephew as his son in his will
  2. Arkenberg: about $172 in 1998 dollars
  3. Arkenberg: about $229 in 1998 dollars
  4. Arkenberg: about $200,000,000 in 1998 dollars
  5. Arkenberg: about $158,600,000 in 1998 dollars
  6. Arkenberg: about $86,000,000 in 1998 dollars
  7. Arkenberg: about $1,372,000,000 in 1998 dollars


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Aleksandar Jovanović is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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