Augustus Caesar and the Pax Romana
the morning of March 15, 44 B.C., JULIUS CAESAR was assassinated by several members of the
Roman Senate. This was just one month after he had declared himself dictator of the
Roman world. In the wake of his death, three men moved forward to form a new triumvirate
which would punish Caesar's assassins and then divide up the Roman world. The members of
this triumvirate consisted of Marc Antony (consul), Lepidus (high official), and Octavian
(the grand nephew of Caesar). Up to the year 37 B.C., there was relative peace in the Roman
world. Brutus and Cassius were defeated in the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.) and Cicero, perhaps the greatest thinker
in the Roman world, had his hands and head cut off and placed in public display in the
Forum. These three men headed a republican faction against Caesar for the simple reason
that Caesar had claimed absolute power for himself. But in 37 B.C., stability appeared to
disintegrate. Antony had married Octavian's sister but had also formed some sort of
marriage contract with Cleopatra. In 31 B.C., Antony and Cleopatra's navy was beaten by
Octavian's forces at Actium. Antony fled to Alexandria where Octavian eventually followed. Antony
committed suicide while Cleopatra took the asp.
In the wake of this decisive battle, the Battle of Actium, Octavian emerged as the sole master of the Roman world and would rule the Roman Empire for 45 years, until his death in A.D.14. Although his rise to power was always suspect, he succeeded in overhauling and reforming almost every Roman institution. He also helped to establish the Roman Empire on a much more rational basis. His reforms carried the Roman Empire for almost 200 years, and this, the most creative period of the Roman Empire, is often called the Age of Augustus.
On January 13, 27 B.C., Octavian appeared before the Roman Senate and laid down his supreme powers. It was at this time that Octavian took the name of Augustus Caesar (Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus). The Senate had been purged of its dubious members and reduced from about 1000 members to 800. The majority of these men were solid supporters of Augustus (indeed, they were handpicked by Augustus). Augustus proclaimed that he had restored the Republic. The Senate voted to allow Augustus to govern in for ten years which he gladly accepted. Despite all the pomp and circumstance which accompanied this, the plain fact was that he was now left with total control of the armed forces of the Roman State. The Senate took an oath of allegiance to Augustus as emperor (imperator). In 23 B.C., Augustus was granted the authority of tribune (tribunicia potestas) for life. This enabled him to have ultimate veto power and also to deal directly with the people.
The reforms of Augustus as well as his long life contributed to the idea that he was something more than human -- he was certainly a hero, the Romans thought, perhaps even a god. His reforms of the system of Roman government were important. He compromised between inherited traditions and a changed economic, political and social reality. In other words, he effectively mixed both the old and the new, a typically Roman idea. His system of reforms save the Empire, but in the long run spelled the death of representative institutions. Augustus never did away with these institutions, he merely united them under one person -- himself. He was consul, tribune, chief priest of the civic religion and the public censor. He ruled by personal prestige: he was princeps (first citizen among equals) and pater patriae (father of the country). He was the supreme ruler, the king, the emperor and his authority (auctoritas) was absolute.
He immediately faced four distinct problems. (1) He had to secure the northern frontiers against attack. Civil wars had involved the army and had led to a weakening of the frontiers of the border. (2) The army had grown too large and unmanageable: the army formed a state within a state. (3) The urban population and small farmers had to be helped. (4) His new government had to promote confidence among the senatorial class which was necessary for efficient rule.
His reform of the administration of the provinces hit all these problems at once. First, the frontiers were consolidated. His policy was to extend the northern frontier (the Rhine and Danube Rivers) no further and to bolster what remained. Augustus reduced the size of the army and the remainder were stationed in the provinces. He provided a cash payment to those soldiers who had served for more than twenty years, thus securing their loyalty to the Roman state and not to their generals. The army was removed from Rome where they were tempted to a meddle in civic affairs. He also created the Praetorian Guard, an elite corps of 9000 men charged with defending him. Stationed at Rome, the members of the Guard were from Italy only, and received higher pay than soldiers in the Roman legions. The Guard served as the personal bodyguard to Augustus but a few decades after the death of Augustus, they often played a decisive role in the "selection" of new emperors. In the home provinces near Rome, Augustus entrusted the senatorial class. He made the senatorial aristocracy feel as if they still had power. They were, of course, losing it quickly. The reforms of Augustus stabilized the economy and made the Mediterranean basin nearly self-sufficient.
But there were flaws which soon became apparent. Economically, the system was based on a network of mutually interdependent areas. If one fell, it could hurt the whole Empire. The system of slave labor was also showing signs of deterioration. Slaves had no desire to work. Furthermore, the number of slaves had been reduced since many slave families had won their freedom by manumission. As a result, manpower was drained off the farms.
In general, the Augustan system worked fairly well, in fact, it lasted more than 200 years. It provided a material and political base of cultural achievement that rivaled the Greeks under Pericles. This is the age of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. But the Augustan reforms were not limited to political, economic and social issues alone. They also envisioned a fundamental change in Roman culture itself. Augustus tried to turn Rome into a world capital and taught the Romans to identify their destiny with the destiny of all mankind. They were the chosen people who would bring peace and stability to a violent and changing world.
A Digression: Of Greeks and Romans
It has been said that Roman culture was only a translation of Greek cultural values in terms of the needs of the Roman Empire. Such a statement denies the genius of Rome and also accepts the greatness of Greek cultural values. This leaves us with a question: "how was it that the Romans succeeded in envisioning a world civilization?" True, the Romans did find much in Greek culture that fit their own preconceived notions of the world process. But Greek culture was obsessed with the problem of individual self-cultivation. The Greeks did not really describe anything which went beyond the polis. Roman civilization on the other hand was based on man's ability to provide the good life for himself and others. The Romans looked forward to a world composed of the most diverse elements and people. The Empire would be synonymous with the world.
In general, the Romans were optimistic about life whereas the Greeks were not. The Greeks saw chaos in the world. The Romans experienced that same chaos but held out for the possibility of bringing order out of that chaos. Roman culture was based on optimism and faith in man's ability to cope with the existence of chaos. This is a very positive and optimistic idea. It exudes the confidence and courage to face the unknown. The Romans managed to translate their thought into actions. The proof is, quite simply, the Roman Empire itself. The Greeks were perhaps too intellectual. They were more concerned with extolling the virtues of the citizens of the polis. They were perhaps narrow minded since they did not see their world as a totality, as did the Romans. I suppose we could say that the Romans had a heightened awareness of human history whereas the Greeks only conceived of a Greek history.
[N.B. -- what follows are brief accounts of the emperors who followed Augustus down to about A.D. 200. For detailed information, please consult the individual essays of The Imperial Index.]
Imperial power fell to the megalomaniac, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12-41; emperor, 37-41) the third child of Augustus' adopted grandson, Germanicus, and Augustus' granddaughter, Agrippina. Gaius accompanied his parents on military campaigns and was shown to the troops wearing a miniature soldier's outfit, including a sandal called caliga, hence the nickname, Caligula. According to the will of Tiberius, Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus were joint heirs. Caligula ordered Gemellus killed and with the support of the Praetorian Prefect, he declared Tiberius will void on the grounds of insanity. Caligula than accepted the powers of the Principiate. His popularity was great but within four years he was assassinated by discontented members of his bodyguard.
Ancient and modern sources would agree -- Caligula was insane. The stories of Caligula's insanity are well known: his excessive cruelty, incestuous relationships with his sisters (he deified Drusilla), laughable military campaigns (picking up sea shells as the "spoils of war") and the plan to make his horse a consul. Of course, we could easily argue that Caligula was merely pushing the limits of the imperial cult, something already established by Augustus.
Following the murder of Caligula, Claudius (10 BC-A.D. 54; emperor, 41-54) emerged as ruler. According to one story, the Preatorian Guard found Claudius hiding behind a curtain after Caligula's brutal murder. They picked him up and declared him their emperor. He was the son of Drusus Claudius Nero, the son of Augustus's wife Livia, and Antonia, the daughter of Marc Antony. Claudius was plagued from the start because of his many defects: he drooled, stuttered, limped and was constantly ill. The historian Seutonius wrote in his Twelve Caesars, that "Claudius' mother, Antonia, often called him 'a monster: a man whom nature had not finished but had merely begun'." Claudius was secluded from public view throughout his childhood and youth.
At the death of Caligula there was talk among the Senate of restoring the Republic. Of course, various Senators proposed that they be chosen as princeps. In the end, it was the Praetorian Guard who had made the decision and Claudius, the army's choice, became Rome's fourth emperor. This is important since it shows how the Romans had not established a line of succession. Caligula had been murdered by his body guard and Claudius became princeps only through the support of the army.
Claudius' ambitious wife, Agrippina, seeing that the time was ripe to dispose of Claudius, had him poisoned with a treated mushroom. Claudius was dying but needed to be poisoned again. With Claudius finally out of the way, the princeps fell to his adopted son, Lucius Domitus Ahenobarbus, known as Nero Claudius Caesar, or Nero (37-68; emperor, 54-68). Since Nero was an adolescent, the early part of his reign was characterized by direction from Agrippina and the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (the Younger). Nero eventually married Poppaea in 62. In the same year Nero passed a series of treason laws directed at anyone he perceived to be a threat. In 64, a great fire destroyed much of Rome -- the legend is that Nero had to destroy Rome in order to rebuild it.
Nero had many enemies and there was more than one assassination plot against him. A number of the conspirators were forced to commit suicide, including Lucan, Petronious and Seneca. Continued unrest within the Senate and the provinces gave his enemies the chance to depose him but in early June 68, Nero committed suicide. He was the last of the Julio-Claudians.
Control of the Roman Empire between Augustus and Nero was based on military tyranny. In 68, Rome had four emperors, three who died early, leaving the title of princeps to Titus Flavius Vespasianus or Vespasian (9-79; emperor, 69-79). Vespasian restored the peace and brought stability to the Empire following the rule of Nero. He also established the Flavian dynasty as the legitimate successor to the throne. As an emperor Vespasian was sound in his financial dealings and restored the city and government of Rome following a series of civil wars early in his reign. Unlike the four previous emperors, Vespasian died peacefully in his sleep. His administration of the Roman Empire anticipated the period of the "Five Good Emperors."
Despite the general fear that he would become the next Nero, it was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, or Titus (30-81; emperor, 79-81), the eldest son of Vespasian and brother of Domitian, who became emperor. Titus played an important role in the assault of Jerusalem (70), an assault which showed him to be a capable, but not an innovative military leader. Tales of Titus' violence as a praetorian prefect and his sexual debauchery preceded his office. Despite his reputation, Titus was a capable ruler. Huge amounts of money poured into Rome to finance an extensive building program. The Flavian Amphitheater, or Coliseum, was built during his reign. In A.D. 79, Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum, and killing almost 4000. Titus spent huge sums of money to relieve the hardships of the people affected. Known for his generosity, Titus died in 81, after only twenty-six months in office.
Titus was succeeded by his younger brother, Titus Flavius Domitianus, or Domitian (51-96; emperor, 81-96). Titus and Domitian were not close (they were separated in age by 21 years) and so while Titus was dying, Domitian left for the praetorian camp where he was hailed as emperor. As emperor, Domitian produced a financially sound administration. After a series of catastrophes in Rome (the great fires of 64 and 80, and the civil wars of 68-69), Domitian erected, restored or completed more than fifty public buildings. In 85, Domitian made himself censor perpetuus, censor for life, and thus took charge of the conduct and morals of Rome. He was not much of a military figure and his campaigns were minor at best. It was instead his domestic policies that earned him some respects in the early years of his rule. It is odd that while Domitian was severe in his attempt to curb moral and political corruption, should turn out to be a murderer himself. The catalog of his crimes is long and he inflicted death on young and old alike. He called himself "Lord God" and spoke of himself as divine. There were numerous conspirators and in 96 he was murdered in a palace coup. The people did not mourn the loss of Domitian. That same day Domitian was succeeded by Nerva.
It was Edward Gibbon who called the period 96-180 the era of the "Five Good Emperors." It was during the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, or Nerva (30-98; emperor, 96-98), that the practice of an emperor adopting an heir rather than selecting a blood relative first began. He took an oath before the Senate that he would stop executing its members and also released those who had been imprisoned by Domitian. Although keen on maintaining a balanced budget, Nerva also built granaries, repaired the Coliseum and continued the Flavian program of road building and repair. Under pressure from the Praetorian Guard, Nerva announced the adoption of Trajan as his successor. In 98, Nerva suffered a stroke and died.
Marcus Ulpius Traianius, or Trajan (53-117; emperor, 98-117), was born near Seville in Spain. Having won distinction in the Parthian and German campaigns, he was made praetor and consul (91), was adopted by Nerva (97) as his successor and became sole ruler of Rome in 98. His long and fierce campaign against the Dacians brought the Dacian province into the Roman sphere. Although he spent most of his time away from Rome, back at the capital he used a network of informers bound to protect his policies and his person. His internal administration was sound and he also kept up a policy of public works across the Empire. Perhaps the most ambitious military man since Julius Caesar, Trajan suffered a stroke and died in 117. The day after his death, Hadrian was announced as Trajan's successor.
Publius Aeliues Hadrienus, or Hadrian (76-138; emperor, 117-138) was born in Rome but possibly in Italica, near Seville. In his youth, he was called "The Greekling," owing to his fondness for Hellenic culture. Hadrian was a military man and like many other young Romans, joined the army when he was a teenager. Rising through the ranks, he eventually became a well-respected general. Hadrian was also known for building a wall to defend Roman Britain from the Scottish Picts to the North. He reorganized the army, ruled justly and was a lover of the arts. In 138, Hadrian adopted as heir a Senator, T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, who was to be known as the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Ill and depressed, Hadrian then retired from public life and died after taking poison.
The long reign of Antoninus Pious (86-161; emperor, 138-161) has been described as the calm before the storm, a storm that would plague the reign of his successor, Marcus Aurelius. Antoninus' economic policy was conservative and yet supported a program of public works. He also promised to complete the work begun under Hadrian. He was a man of simple, benevolent and temperate character and tried to fulfill his role as pater patriae. The persecution of Christians was partly stayed by his mild measures, and Justin Martyr's Apologia was received by him with favor. The epithet Pious was conferred upon him for his defense of Hadrian's memory. By his much-loved yet worthless wife Faustina he had four children, one of whom married Marcus Aurelius, his adopted son and successor.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180; emperor, 161-180), the last of the Five Good Emperors, was one of the noblest figures of the ancient world. From 140, when he was made consul, to the death of Pious in 161, he discharged his public duties with the utmost fidelity. At the same time he devoted himself to the study of law and philosophy, especially Stoicism. The generally peaceful Marcus Aurelius was throughout his reign destined to suffer from constant wars and although in Asia, in Britain and on the Rhine the barbarians were held in check, a permanent peace was never secured. Rome was suffering from pestilence and earthquakes when the imperial colleagues led the Roman armies against the barbarians along the Danube. He was summoned to the East by a rebellion of the governor, Avidius Cassius who died at the hands of an assassin before Aurelius had arrived. Meanwhile, his wife Faustina died in an obscure village at the foot of Mount Taurus. On his way back to Rome, Aurelius visited Lower Egypt and Greece. At Athens he founded chairs in philosophy in each of the four main branches -- Platonic, Stoic, Peripatetic and Epicurean. By the end of 176 he reached Italy, and the following year Germany, where new disturbances had broken out. Victory again followed him but at last, his health gave way and he died at either Vienna or at Sirmium in Pannonia in 180.
A philosopher as well as emperor and general, Aurelius wrote the MEDITATIONS, a work which reveals the loneliness of his soul. However, as a Stoic thinker of the highest caliber, he also shows us that he did not allow himself to be saddened by his experience of life. His death was a national calamity and he became almost an object of worship to the citizens of the empire -- it is said that after his death Aurelius appeared in dreams as did the saints of the Christian era. Aurelius twice persecuted the Christians -- he undoubtedly believed Christian fanaticism and superstition were dangerous to philosophy, society and the empire.
Under the Five Good Emperors the frontiers of the Empire were consolidated to the north and to the east. The bureaucracy was opened up to all social classes, trade and agriculture flourished, and there was much public building. Although things did seem to be getting better, there were problems on the horizon. Barbarian pressures were mounting. There was a considerable decline in the slave population and the army was no longer large enough to maintain the frontier. As a result, Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Great Emperors, spent most of his time defending the frontier and as a result, spent very little time in Rome. Following his death in 180, the imperial office passed to his nineteen year old son and another madman, Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus (161-192, emperor, 180-192).
Commodus represented a throwback to Nero and Caligula. He began to dress like the god Hercules, wearing lion skins and carrying a club. He took part in gladiatorial contests and also fought wild beasts in the amphitheater. He also declared that his own age be henceforth called the "Golden Age." Commodus was finally strangled in his bath by Narcissus, an athlete, thus bringing an end to the Antonine dynasty. It was Publius Helvius Pertinax (126-193; emperor, 192-193), whose brief reign of only three months, followed that of Commodus. He was a well-educated man and taught grammar for awhile before he entered a military career. The Praetorian Guard planned a coup but Pertinax learned of the plot and stopped it. Military discipline continued to break down. Pertinax confronted his troops and was killed.
The reign of Commodus had been anything but settled so the Roman Empire was fortunate that the imperial office fell to Lucius Septimius Severus (145-211; emperor, 193-211). Although he held a positive reputation, his control of the empire was joined by bloodshed. He rejected the Senate and based his power on the army alone. Henceforth, soldiers' pay was increased, they could marry while in service and they had greater opportunities for promotion. His first act was to disband the Praetorian Guard -- he then selected a larger Praetorian Guard drawn from the provinces. He bought off the people with grain doles and circuses in the Coliseum. At his death in 211, Severus had created a larger and more expensive army, something that foreshadowed the highly bureaucratic government of the later Empire.
The rest of the 3rd century could be written off as the history of a political mess. No good leader could be found to fill the Roman office of emperor. Between 211 and 300, there were more than seventy emperors who vied for control of the Imperial office. Meanwhile, the frontiers disintegrated, the barbarian tribes began to move into the territory of the Empire itself, cities were sacked or declared their independence from Rome, slaves rebelled on the greatest states, and civic responsibility disappeared. Order was eventually restored but this order was not consistent with the ideas of the Republic nor was a consistent with the aims of Augustus Caesar. The Pax Romana was clearly at an end.
The reforms of Diocletian (c.236-305; emperor, 284-305), who brought to an end the period of "Military Anarchy" (235-284) and Constantine the Great (c.272-337; emperor, 324-337), who made Christianity the favored religion of the empire, completed the process of transformation that the 3rd century made necessary to sustain the Empire. What began as an attempt to bring peace and prosperity ended as a program to insure the very survival of the Roman Empire. Diocletian tried to bring some kind of emperor-worship to Rome but by this time the Empire could see the end. The citizens were now called upon to sacrifice everything -- wealth, property, lives -- for the preservation of the Roman State. And Diocletian demanded that he be called Dominus noster (Lord and Master), rather than princeps or imperator. More and more barbarian tribes settled in the Empire and were invited to do so as long as they paid taxes and supplied soldiers to the army. By 300, more than seventy-five percent of the army was composed of German soldiers. The army itself was barbarized and turned into an instrument of sheer oppression. In such a situation it soon became apparent that the Germans distrusted the Romans and the Romans hated the Germans in acts of blatant racism.
The Roman Empire became divided geographically and socially between East and West. Those Romans that did not join with the barbarians, showed their alienation from Rome by adopting a world-view opposed to everything that was Roman: Christianity. By the year 300, Christianity had become the largest single religion in the Roman world. It was openly hostile to Greek humanism as much as it was to Roman institutions.
It was therefore a master stroke, on the part of Constantine the Great to make Christianity the favored religion within the Roman world in the 330s. Christianity taught that the principal virtue was charity and service to the religious community. It also made the quest for salvation a communal quest, and therefore excluded no one. Furthermore, Christianity offered its benefits to all -- it could appeal to everyone. And of course, Christianity possessed a well-organized administrative body, the clergy. It was the clergy who carried out democratic elections and represented a chain of authority from priest to bishop. Christianity could have been a state within a state but it did not aspire to political power. What Constantine did was to weld the exceptionally stable religious community onto the Roman state and then use it to develop a new conception of imperial office. But this was no mere exploitation of the clergy or Christianity. Constantine's adoption of Christianity signaled the bankruptcy of classical humanism as a political creed, that secular characteristic of the Roman Republic and the Augustan Age. Christianity, therefore, signaled the abandonment of the religion of culture for what I would like to suggest became a new culture of religion.
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copyright © 2001 Steven Kreis