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Period of the reign of Augustus Octavian. History and culture

The Roman Empire. Augustus Principate

Strengthening the power of Octavian Augustus

In 27 BC, Octavian announced that he was resigning his extraordinary powers and returning power to the Senate and the people. He constantly emphasized that he differed from the other magistrates only in his authority, that he was only the first in the list of senators-princeps (hence the whole system of the early empire was called principate). In fact, he retained full power:

  • for life, he bore the title of emperor,
  • and annually received the power of a tribune — ” defender of the people»,
  • he nominated candidates for magistrates (he himself was repeatedly consul),
  • disposed of the treasury, resolved issues of war and peace,
  • negotiated with foreign kings and peoples.
Landscape of the Nile Valley. Mosaic of Praeneste. I century BC.

Landscape of the Nile Valley. Mosaic of Praeneste. I century BC.

The Senate gave him the title of Augustus – “exalted by the deity”, which gave his power a sacred character. And since even during the triumvirate, the divinity of Caesar was officially recognized, Augustus was also the “son of god”. In the eastern provinces, he was immediately deified, following the example of the Hellenistic kings. Towards the end of his reign, both in the Italian and in some provincial cities, altars dedicated to him, colleges that served his cult, appeared. The oath of his Genius (Genius was a divine force-the carrier of all human abilities, his soul) it was considered the most sacred along with the oath of Jupiter. After the death of the triumvir Lepidus, the former grand pontiff, this position also passed to Augustus. Thus he and his successors combined in their hands the fullness of military, civil, and religious power.

Changing the power system

Augustus and his supporters proclaimed that he had restored the republic. As already mentioned, for the Romans, the republic could be combined with any form of government, as long as it was legitimate and served the “common good”. The approval of Augustus was understood as the abolition of the extraordinary powers of the triumvirs and the restoration of freedom and the traditional system, although in reality, of course, the entire system of power was radically changed. Formally, the people remained sovereign, but all that the citizens once owed to the civil community, they now received thanks to the princeps. The Senate, supplemented by Augustus ‘ entourage and subordinate to him, outwardly enjoyed respect as the supreme governing body (in fact, only unimportant issues were given to its discretion), and the senators (for them, a qualification of 1 million sesterces was established) remained the first privileged class of the state. From among them, the highest command of the army, the governors of the provinces, and the prefects of Rome were appointed. Horsemen (their qualification was determined in 400 thousand sesterces) were involved in various newly created positions, in the command of military units, and from them the prefect of Egypt, the personal domain of the emperor, was appointed.

Augustus promoted to the equestrian and even senatorial classes the prominent landowners of the Italian cities in his homeland. They were particularly impressed by his commitment to the “mores of his ancestors”, which was expressed, among other things, in measures to strengthen family ties.

Outwardly, it seemed that Cicero’s program had been implemented — the unification of all classes, all the “best” for the common benefit.

Army reform

August. Marble. I century BC.

August. Marble. I century BC.

Augustus was a born statesman, a master of social demagogy. Without offending Roman traditions and emphasizing in every possible way his modesty and moderation, his devotion to antiquity, “ancestral customs”, and ancient cults (he restored old temples, forgotten religious colleges, and priestly offices), he managed to use power to solve important issues, in particular to create a state apparatus. Of the best soldiers, natives of Italy, Augustus organized, under the command of a prefect of horsemen, 9 Praetorian cohorts of the guard, stationed partly in Rome, partly in Italy. Their main task was to protect order. Praetorians served only 16, not 20, years as legionaries, often promoted to the rank of centurions of the legions. All this ensured their loyalty to the emperor.

Augustus also formed three urban cohorts, which served as police officers and reported personally to the Prefect of Rome. They were to “curb the slaves and the rabble” and keep order. The army was reduced to 25 legions, drawn from Roman citizens. They were given foot cohorts and mounted troops, which were recruited from the provinces. All these units were stationed on the borders of the state or in the provinces where any discontent could arise. The commanders of the legions, who were also governors of the provinces, reported directly to Augustus.

The” peaceful ” provinces, in which there were no troops, were under the jurisdiction of the Senate, although Augustus controlled them as well. Soldiers could now rise to the rank of centurion, and especially distinguished centurions had access to the equestrian class. After retirement, the soldiers received land allotments. So the “unholy wars” became a stronghold of solid power and order.

Reforms to support the plebs

Libya. Basalt. I century BC.

Libya. Basalt. I century BC.

Starting as Caesar’s successor, Augustus considered it necessary to win over the plebs, although the popular assemblies in Rome actually lost their importance, and then ceased to meet at all. True, the people received handouts, spectacles were arranged for them (the so-called secular games, which were celebrated once in a hundred years, were especially solemnly celebrated), and some laws were also issued in favor of the plebs. The law of Petelius was restored: the unpaid debtor, having given his property to the creditor, was free from bondage, and everything he subsequently acquired remained to him. Once again, it was allowed to organize in Rome and other cities quarterly colleges of the cult of Lares of plebeians, freedmen and slaves, but they also paid homage to the genius of Augustus.

Thus, Augustus wanted to ensure the support of the masses. At the same time, special permission was required for the creation of any boards. The organization of an illegal board was equated with an armed seizure of a public building. The plebs were thus placed under strict control. In order to prevent the penetration of “unreliable” elements into its environment, the release of slaves to freedom was normalized.

Slave policy

Augustus ‘ slave laws held a special place. According to the so-called Silanian Senatusconsult, in the event of a violent death of a master, all slaves who were under the same roof or within shouting distance and did not come to his aid were tortured and executed. Realizing, however, that it was dangerous to embitter the slaves, Augustus began to pursue a new policy towards them: a restriction was introduced on the abuse of power by the masters. The emperor personally set an example of lenient treatment of slaves and condemned the cruelty of the owners to the slaves.

Provincial policy

Under Augustus, the policy towards the provinces also changed. The role of the publicans was limited; taxes were collected only by the emperor’s agents in accordance with the censure imposed on the provinces; assemblies of prominent provincials were given the right to complain about the governors in case of dissatisfaction with their actions; colonies were founded in the provinces; persons loyal to Augustus received privileges. Such is a class capable of carrying out Roman politics in the provinces, and increasingly dependent on the emperor’s favor.

Culture in August

Augustus was very popular, he was sung both in the inscriptions of cities, and in the poems of poets, in the works of historians. According to Horace, at this time everyone began to write poetry, young men and old men, in the baths and at the table. The works of the old Roman poets and writers began to seem clumsy and even sometimes incomprehensible. And although Augustus emphasized his respect for everything originally Roman, in his reign, Roman and Greek culture finally merged into one, late-Antique culture that spread to the provinces. Roman authors mastered and improved Hellenistic styles, branches of literature, images, filling them with content close to the original Roman values.


Philosophy took a back seat to poetry. During the reign of Augustus, no new philosophical works were created, but philosophical reflections, borrowed from various philosophical trends, were woven by the poets into their works. The time of the principate of Augustus was the time of the heyday of Roman civilization. The most prominent were the poets Virgil, Horace, and Ovid.


Virgil (70-19 BC) was born near Mantua, lost his estate during the proscriptions, but received another one from Augustus and was accepted into the circle of Maecenas, an intimate of Augustus, who gathered talented authors. Even before the Battle of Actium, Virgil published the Bucolics — a collection of 10 eclogues devoted mainly to the love of shepherds and shepherdesses. But it already reflected the poet’s reverence for Octavian as a beneficent deity. Especially famous was his IV eclogue, which foreshadowed the imminent onset of the”golden age”. Later, in response to Augustus ‘ desire to revive war-torn agriculture, Virgil wrote the poem “Georgiki”. Advice to farmers is interspersed with descriptions of the nature of Italy, appeals to the rural gods — with deep reflections. Especially interesting are Virgil’s thoughts about the replacement of the golden age of Saturn with the iron age of Jupiter: under Saturn, when nature gave everything to people, they lived carefree, but Jupiter wished that in hard work people learned to invent the crafts and arts necessary for life. “Labor wins everything,” he concluded.

The most famous work of Virgil, which brought him worldwide fame, was his poem “The Aeneid”, dedicated to the wanderings of Aeneas, his love for the queen of Carthage Dido, his break with her on the orders of Jupiter, who intended him to become the ancestor of the founders of Rome, his arrival in Italy, the war with the tribes of Italy for the marriage with the daughter of the king of Latin Lavinia. The Aeneid combines the author’s love for the ancient beliefs, customs, and traditions of Italy with Greek philosophical theories about the structure of the cosmos, the doctrine of the world soul and the immortality of human souls, the posthumous fate of souls, the reward in the fields of the blessed for those who served the motherland in deed and word, and the punishment of traitors, violators of Roman loyalty, and tyrants. But the main thing in the poem was the connection of the “Roman myth” with the “myth of Augustus” that was being born. Aeneas, with the help of the prophetess Sibyl, descends into the realm of the dead to ask his father Anchises about the future: Anchises reveals to him his fate and that of Rome, which will be founded by the descendants of Aeneas and which is destined to rule over all nations, “having mercy on the submissive and taming the haughty”. Anchises shows Aeneas the souls of the kings and heroes of Rome, and the greatest of them, who fulfilled and completed the mission of Rome, the descendant of Julius Augustus, awaiting incarnation. Virgil died before he could finish the Aeneid. But even this unfinished work became the most popular monument of Roman literature.


Horace (65-8 BC), being the son of a poor freedman, meanwhile received an excellent education. For his part in the war on the side of Brutus and Cassius, he remained in disgrace for a long time, but then, at the request of Virgil, he was accepted into the circle of Maecenas and received a small estate in the Sabine Mountains. Horace’s work is diverse in subject matter, style, and size of poems. He believed that the Romans had surpassed their Greek teachers. In his work, the poet reflected the complexity and inconsistency of the modern era. Praising the old and simple life in the bosom of nature, he, however, admitted that he could not live without the Rome of Augustus, so different from the Rome of Romulus. In his poems, Epicurean invocations merge with stoic sermons of austere virtue. He wrote love poems and satires that ridiculed the vices of Roman society. Horace saw in poetry the high mission of its creator, who was called not only to entertain his readers, but above all to teach. He must improve his skill, for mediocrity “is not tolerated by the gods, nor by men, nor by booksellers.” Like other poets, Horace admired Augustus, called him a deity. For the secular games, he wrote a hymn sung by choirs of boys and girls in honor of the ancient gods of Rome and the revered Augustus Apollo. In it, he appealed to the gods to grant Rome and Augustus eternal happiness.

The dispute between Hercules and Apollo over the Delphic tripod. 28 BC.

dispute between Hercules and Apollo over the Delphic tripod. 28 BC.


Ovid (43 BC — 17 AD) became famous for his love poems, and especially the poem “Metamorphoses”, built on the basis of myths about the transformation of people into plants and animals and ending with the myth of the transformation of Julius Caesar into a star. The poem also contained the doctrine of the change of centuries and defended some of the ideas of the Pythagoreans, etc. Ovid’s poem “Fasti” was dedicated to the holidays of the Roman calendar (he managed to bring it only until June). And here the Roman tradition is constantly combined with the Greek myths transferred to the Roman soil. Augustus ‘ displeasure was aroused by Ovid’s poem “The Science of Love”, which taught how to find a mistress and deceive her husband. Augustus saw it as a mockery of his marriage laws, but the noble youth liked the poem. Despite his popularity, Augustus exiled Ovid to the city of Tomy (modern times). Constanta) on the Black Sea coast. There the poet wrote “Mournful Epistles” to Rome, describing his hard life among the barbarians, begging for forgiveness, but never found it.

Scientific thought

The “Roman myth” also found its conclusion in the Roman history written by Titus Livy. The last parts of the work have not been preserved. But even from the texts we know, the author’s goal is clear — to show how valor, patriotism, and the worship of the gods raised a small town on the Tiber to the position of the ruler of the world. The Greek Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived in Rome, in his book “Roman Antiquities” described the first stages of the history of Rome, the commonality of Roman institutions, cults, and beliefs with the Greek ones.

Many other poets, historians, and writers were also contemporaries of Augustus. He himself wrote a summary of his “deeds” (it has come down to us in Latin and Greek versions). Scientific works also multiplied. The geographer Strabo gave a description of many countries and peoples. Agrippa, who became the son-in-law of Augustus, took part in the compilation of the map of the empire. In connection with the surveying of the lands assigned to the colonies, surveyors began to compile their works, indicating the methods of surveying and measuring plots, the rules for allotting land to cities, villages, and villages. Vitruvius wrote a treatise on architecture. In it, he gave the rules for the foundation of cities with a central forum, where the temples of the most revered gods were concentrated, with paved streets, markets, with the temple of Mercury; listed the rules for the construction of public buildings — circuses, theaters, amphitheaters – and private-villas, city houses, methods of constructing mechanisms for carrying heavy loads, etc.

It is known that Augustus received writers and scientists, even if they were released, as, for example, Gigin, the author of works on grammar, literary studies, etc. Augustus made him the head of the public library established in Rome, where not only books were stored, but also authors read their works and disputes were conducted.

However, recognizing the need for education, the Romans were more interested in the practical application of the sciences, rather than their theory. As Cicero once famously pointed out, the Greeks studied geometry to know the world, while the Romans studied land to measure it.

Apollo and Diana crown the sacred pillar. 28 BC.

Apollo and Diana crown the sacred pillar. 28 BC.

Construction and architecture

Technology developed rapidly, especially construction equipment. The need to connect different parts of the empire for military and commercial needs stimulated the construction of roads, and the need for water — the construction of aqueducts, some of which have survived to this day. For the construction and repair of water pipes, Augustus allocated slaves who were specially trained in plumbing, and put a chief from among the senators at their head. One of them, Frontin, wrote an essay “On water pipes”. Agrippa built a new water supply system for Rome. Water was supplied to public fountains, baths, and private houses of the nobility, where rooms and baths were heated by hot air coming from the basements through pipes. Augustus said that if he made Rome brick, he would leave it marble. In addition to the restoration of 84 old temples, new ones were erected, of which the temples of Apollo and Vesta on Pallatina, included in the complex of the palace of Augustus, the temple of the “divine Caesar”, the temple of Mars the Avenger in the new Forum of Augustus, which continued the Forum of Caesar, and the Pantheon of Agrippa with a huge dome — a remarkable achievement of Roman technology. Not only in Rome, but also in the Italian and some provincial cities, theaters and circuses were built for gladiatorial games, animal baiting, staging land and sea battles, for which the arena was temporarily flooded with water.

The development of architecture led to the development of wall paintings, best known from the excavations of houses in Pompeii. The style of the frescoes varied, but they usually consisted of colorful paintings on mythological, historical, and everyday themes, often with landscapes, views of gardens, and rural villas. The remaining parts of the walls were covered with images of flower garlands, lamps, columns, etc. They were made by Greek and Roman masters who imitated Greek painting. Greek models were also reproduced by sculptors (most of the works of the great Greek masters are known to us in Roman copies). Their most famous creation was the “altar of Peace” dedicated by the Senate to Augustus, decorated with bas-reliefs on all sides.

On its front facade, the goddess of the Earth was depicted with the symbols of abundance and fertility— two children, ears of corn, a bull and a sheep lying at her feet; on the side-the goddess of Roma, Romulus, Remus and Aeneas, offering sacrifices, solemn processions. Numerous statues of Augustus depicted him as a general in a shell and as a great pontiff. The sculptural portraits of private individuals were distinguished by the precise rendering of features, and in this they differed from the Greek ones, which idealized the originals. An interest in human psychology was a hallmark of Roman art and literature. Both Cicero and Horace demanded from the orator, the playwright, the artist a knowledge of the character and psychology of the characters they portrayed, corresponding to their gender, age, social status, and occupation. In the speeches of Cicero, in the” Satires ” of Horace, there is a whole gallery of contemporaries with their virtues, vices, quirks, beliefs. The same gallery is given to us by Roman portraits.

Brief conclusion

The Principate of Augustus seemed to his contemporaries a golden age. One of the main ideas was the idea of “eternal Rome”. But there was a danger lurking in this peace, which was clearly manifested under the successors of Augustus. It seemed that all the desires of the society were satisfied, and the slogans for which the various strata of the society fought became slogans of official propaganda. The idea of the inviolability of the existing order was becoming fashionable. But this was accompanied by the loss of collectivist, social goals, led to alienation, the severing of ties between man and society.

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