Lecture 13. The Augustan Principate (27 BCE-14 CE): Politics and Art.

Lecture 13, Tuesday 22nd October 2019

31 BCE: Battle of Actium
Octavian defeats Antony and Cleopatra

After Actium: From Octavian to Augustus

Dio Cassius (51.1): Such was the naval battle [=Battle of Actium, 31 BCE] in which they engaged on the 2nd of September. I do not mention this date without a particular reason, nor am I, in fact, accustomed to do so; but Caesar now for the first time held all the power alone,  and consequently the years of his reign are properly reckoned from that day.

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The Meroë Augustus (27-25 BCE). Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus, excavated from under the step of a shrine of Victory in the Kushite city of Meroë. It is thought to have been ritualistically placed there after the head was deliberately removed from the rest of the statue, as a symbol of Meroitic victory over Rome. This act of destruction ironically preserved the head, which was excavated in Sudan in 1910. Strabo (17.54) tells us that statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them when they raided Roman forts and settlements in Upper Egypt in 25 BCE. Most were later returned as a result of negotiations between the Meroitic Candace (Queen) Amanirenas and the Roman general Gaius Petronius. Images: 1) photograph of the bust from the British Museum, 2) second photograph from British Museum, 3) Pleiades location of Meroë (modern Sudan), an important ancient center of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from 8th c. BCE to 4th c. CE, 4) UNESCO photograph of Meroë by Ron Van Oers (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO). Guardian article about the Meroë head featured in British Museum’s exhibit about dissent.

29 BCE: Triple Triumph

13-15th August 29 BCE: Octavian’s triple triumph at Rome, celebrating victories at Illyricum, Actium, Alexandria.

Augustus (Res Gestae4): Twice I triumphed with an ovation, and three times I enjoyed a curule triumph and twenty-one times I was named imperator.

Suetonius (Life of Augustus 22): He twice entered the city in an ovation, after the war of Philippi, again after that in Sicily,  and he celebrated three regular triumphs for his victories in Dalmatia, at Actium, and at Alexandria, all on three successive days.

Augustus’ Res Gestae

Left: what remains of the Temple of Augustus and Roma at Ancyra. Image: public domain. Right: the Latin text of the Res Gestae inscribed into the temple wall. Image: APAAME (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

Augustus’ RES GESTAE (lit. “THINGS DONE”) = A text in which Augustus himself assessed his achievements, near the end of his life. The original text (which hasn’t survived) was inscribed on bronze tablets and set up outside his family tomb (the Mausoleum). Copies were set up all over the empire. One Latin inscription (with Greek translation) was found at Ancyra, Turkey (known as Monumentum Ancyranum), inscribed in the side wall of a temple dedicated to Augustus and Roma. Read the entire Res Gestae here.

Mausoleum_of_Augustus,_RomeAugustus’ Mausoleum, erected as a dynastic monument to Augustus’ family in the Campus Martius as early as 28 BCE (Suet. Aug. 100). Image: Ethan Doyle White (CC BY-SA 4.0) via wikimedia.

Closing the Temple of Janus


Line drawing (Dennison 1902: 208) of a Neronian coin type (RIC I (2) Nero 438) showing the Temple of Janus (also closed by Nero, Suetonius Nero 13).

Augustus (Res Gestae 13): Our ancestors wanted Janus Quirinus to be closed when throughout the whole rule of the Roman people, by land and sea, peace had been secured through victory. Although before my birth it had been closed twice* in all in recorded memory from the founding of the city, the senate voted three times in my principate that it be closed.

Suetonius (Life of Augustus 22): The Temple of Janus Quirinus, which had been closed but twice before his time since the founding of the city,* he closed three times [first time after Actium, 29 BCE; second time 25 BCE; date of third time debated],  in a far shorter period, having won peace on land and sea.

*Previous closures of Temple of Janus = by Numa, and in 235 BCE after First Punic War (Liv. 1.19). The Temple of Janus as index pacis bellique, “index of peace and war” — Liv. 1.19, Pliny NH 34.33, Varro LL 5.165.

Consolidating Power

27 BCE: The “First Constitutional Settlement”

Ronald Syme (1939: 323): “In his sixth and seventh consulates [28-27 BCE] C. Julius Caesar Octavianus went through a painless and superficial transformation.”

  • Ides (13th) January 27 BCE: Octavian “hands back” his provinces and claims to have restored the republic; with Antony + Lepidus, they had been triumuiri rei publicae constituendae (“three men in charge of establishing republic”)

Augustus (Res Gestae 34): In my sixth and seventh consulates [28-27 B.C.E.], after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the senate and Roman people.

LEGES ET IVRA P[OPVLO] RESTITVIT Aureus British Museum.jpg

Golden coin (aureus) from 28 BCE. Obverse (left): head of Octavian. Text: IMP CAESAR DIVI F COS VI (Imperator Caesar, son of god, consul for the 6th time). Reverse (right): Octavian, seated on a bench, holding a scroll in his right hand, at feet (left) a scroll-box. Text: LEGES ET IVRA P[OPVLO] RESTITVIT (He has restored to the people their laws and rights). Image: British Museum.

  • 3 days later, 16th January 27 BCE: Takes the name “Augustus”

Augustus (Res Gestae 34): And for this service of mine [the “restoration”], by a senate decree, I was called Augustus and the doors of my house were publicly clothed with young laurel trees and a corona civica (oak wreath) was fixed over my door and a gold shield (clipeus virtutis = “shield of virtue”) placed in the Julian senate-house, and the inscription of that shield testified to the virtue, mercy, justice, and piety (virtus, clementia, iustitia, pietas), for which the senate and Roman people gave it to me. After that time, I exceeded all in influence (auctoritas), but I had no greater power (potestas) than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy.

Suetonius (Life of Augustus 7): Later he took the name of Gaius Caesar [44 BCE] and then the surname Augustus [27 BCE], the former by the will of his great-uncle, the latter on the motion of Munatius Plancus. For when some expressed the opinion that he ought to be called Romulus as a second founder of the city, Plancus carried the proposal that he should rather be named Augustus, on the ground that this was not merely a new title but a more honourable one, inasmuch as sacred places too, and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called “august” (augusta), from the increase (auctus) in dignity, or from movements or feeding of the birds (avium gestus gustuve), as Ennius also shows when he writes: “After by augury august illustrious Rome had been founded.”

Augustan iconography


Gold coin (aureus) of Caninius Gallus, Rome, 12 BCE. Obverse (left): head of Augustus. Reverse (right): young laurel trees beside the house of Augustus; the corona civica (oak wreath) above (RIC I(2) Aug.419). Image: British Museum.


Gold coin (aureus), 20/19 BCE (RIC I(2) Aug.50a). Obverse (left): head of Augustus; reverse (right): CAESAR AVGVSTVS above and below laurel branches. Image: British Museum via OCRE.


Gold coin (aureus), 20/19 BCE (RIC I(2) Aug.52a). Obverse (left): head of Augustus; reverse (right): the clipeus virtutis flanked by laurel trees, surrounded by SPQR  and text: CAESAR AUGUSTUS (Caesar Augustus), 20/19 BCE. Images: British Museum via OCRE.

Paul Zanker (1988: 92): “But a major difference in the new “Principate style” was that after 27 BC the impetus for honoring the ruler always came from others — the Senate, the cities, local societies, or private individuals…For those familiar with Roman tradition, such honors suggested many associations with the spirit of the old Republic, while their lack of specificity also admitted a very different interpretation…(p93) The simple honors granted Augustus in 27 BCE were thus turned into tokens of monarchical rule through their use in combination with other symbols, in particular in the decoration of temples for the ruler cult.”

  • laurel = associated with victors, associated with Apollo; laurel trees had traditionally flanked sacred buildings, the Regia and Temple of Vesta
  • corona civica (oak wreath) had traditionally been given to those who rescued comrades in battle, so Augustus now became the rescuer of the entire republic; oak tree was associated with Jupiter


Gold coin (aureus), 19/18 BCE (RIC I(2) Aug. 29a). Obverse (left): head of Augustus. Reverse (right): OB CIVIS SERVATOS (“For saving the citizens”) surrounded by oak wreath. Image: British Museum via OCRE.

Gold coin (aureus), 27 BCE (RIC I(2) Aug. 277). Obverse (left): head of Augustus, text: CAESAR COS VII CIVIBVS SERVATEIS (“Caesar consul 7th time, citizens saved”). Reverse (right): Eagle holding oak wreath, laurels in the background. Image: Münzkabinett via OCRE.


Two-layered onyx cameo depicting the eagle of Jupiter carrying the palm of victory and the corona civica (oak wreath). Possibly commemorating Octavian receiving the title “Augustus” in 27 BCE. Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image: wikimedia.


Suetonius (Life of Augustus 28): He twice thought of restoring the republic… [i.e. he thought about it, he didn’t actually do it]

  • In January 27 BCE Augustus given imperium proconsulare for 10 years over provinces of Syria, Cilicia, Cyprus, Gaul, Spain = everywhere there was a military threat
    • gave up Gallia Narbonensis and Cyprus in 22 BCE, took Dalmatia (Dio Cassius 53.12)
  • He governed these through legates (legati), who held their positions for no time limit (vs. proconsuls or propraetors in senatorial provinces, who held it for 1 year)
    • division irrelevant? Dio Cassius (53.15.4): “The emperor gives instructions to the procurators, the proconsuls, and the propraetors, in order that they may be under definite orders when they go out to their provinces.”
  • Egypt was his personal province, which made him extremely wealthy

Ronald Syme (1939: 323): “Augustus was by far the wealthiest man in the Empire, ruling Egypt as a king and giving account of it to no man.”

Strabo (17.25): But the Provinces have been divided in different ways at different times, though at the present time they are as Augustus Caesar arranged them; for when his native land committed to him the foremost place of authority and he became established as lord for life of war and peace, he divided the whole of his empire into two parts, and assigned one portion to himself and the other to the Roman people; to himself, all parts that had need of a military guard (that is, the part that was barbarian and in the neighbourhood of tribes not yet subdued, or lands that were sterile and difficult to bring under cultivation, so that, being unprovided with everything else, but well provided with strongholds, they would try to throw off the bridle and refuse obedience), and to the Roman people all the rest, in so far as it was peaceable and easy to rule without arms; and he divided each of the two portions into several Provinces, of which some are called “Provinces of Caesar” and the others “Provinces of the People.” And to “Provinces of Caesar” Caesar sends legati and procurators, dividing the countries in different ways at different times and administering them as the occasion requires, whereas to the “Provinces of the People” the people send praetors or proconsuls, and these Provinces also are brought under different divisions whenever expediency requires.

Dio Cassius (53.12): But as he wished even so to be thought democratic, while he accepted all the care and oversight of the public business, on the ground that it required some attention on his part,  yet he declared he would not personally govern all the provinces, and that in the case of such provinces as he should govern he would not do so indefinitely; and he did, in fact, restore to the senate the weaker provinces, on the ground that they were peaceful and free from war, while he retained the more powerful, alleging that they were insecure and precarious and either had enemies on their borders or were able on their own account to begin a serious revoltHis professed motive in this was that the senate might fearlessly enjoy the finest portion of the empire, while he himself had the hardships and the dangers; but his real purpose was that by this arrangement the senators will be unarmed and unprepared for battle, while he alone had arms and maintained soldiers.

Ronald Syme (1939: 323): “In truth it may be regarded merely as the legislation, and therefore strengthening, of despotic power.”

Augustus and the consulship

Augustus consulships

  • suffect consuls became normal: by resigning after 3 (or 4) months, Augustus in effect allowed a man to realize his ambitions; however, did you really want to have a role that the sole ruler of the known world had had??
  • abdication of consulship in June 23 BCE marked transformation of principate: after this, refused to be considered consular candidate; there was trouble and even rioting in Rome, in connection with consulships of 21 and 19 BCE — the people kept insisting on keeping open for him one of the two places

Ronald Syme (1939: 333): “Frail and in despair of life, Augustus returned to Rome [from Spain] in the middle of 24 BCE. He had been away about three years: Rome was politically silent, with no voice or testimony, hoping and fearing in secret. On the first day of January he entered upon his eleventh consulate with [Varro] Murena, a prominent partisan, as his colleague. Three events [23 BCE] — a state trial, a conspiracy, and a serious illness of Augustus — revealed the precarious tenure on which the peace of the world reposed. Meagre and confused, the sources defy and all but preclude the attempt to reconstruct the true history of a year that might well have been the last, and was certainly the most critical, in all the long Principate of Augustus.”

  • Marcus Primus, proconsul of Macedonia (24 or 23 BCE) was brought to trial for high treason (maiestas) for illegally making war on a Thracian tribe (Dio Cassius 54.3). He claimed to have received instructions from Marcellus (d. 23 BCE), Augustus’ nephew. Varro Murena defended Marcus Primus. Augustus appeared as a witness in the trial and denied that he had given the command (Dio Cassius 54.3).
  • A conspiracy arose against Augustus: Fannius Caepio + Varro Murena (Dio Cassius 54.3.4). The conspirators were killed without trial (Dio Cassius 54.3.4).

23 BCE: The “Second Constitutional Settlement”

  • July 1st 23 BCE, Augustus gave up the consulship forever
  • instead took on the tribunicia potestas (“tribunician power”) = right to sumbit bills to the people, right to summon senate, put motions to senate, ius intercessionis (=veto), coercitio, ius auxilii 
    • in 36 BCE he had been given sacrosanctitas of tribune for life (Syme 1939: 336)
    • in 30 BCE he had been given certain powers of tribune (Syme 1939: 336)
    • granted tribunician power to mark successors: Agrippa (18 BCE, Dio Cassius 54.12.4), Tiberius (6 BCE, Dio Cassius 55.9)

New laws for a new age

Suetonius (Life of Augustus 34): He revised existing laws and enacted some new ones, for example, on extravagance, on adultery and chastity, on bribery, and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes of citizens.

Women in the Classical World (p297): “The Augustan laws, designed to penalize those citizens who remained unmarried or childless (women between 20 and 50 and men after the age of 25) and those who committed adultery or married women or men of the “wrong” social rank or status, had as their goals the moral revitalization of the upper class, the raising of the birth rate among citizens, and the policing of sexual behaviour  in the attempt to reintroduce conservative social values and control the social conduct of an upper class seen as more interested in pleasure and autonomy than in duty and community…The laws, first issued probably in 18 BCE, and amended by supplementary legislation more than 25 years later in 9 CE as the Lex Papia Poppaea, are today known mainly in fragmentary and sometimes distorted from in the writings of later jurists and historians who cite them. Issues of marriage and reproduction that once had been mainly under the control of families now became, at least on paper, public and the purview of the community as a whole. The laws penalized people who did not marry or have children by attacking their eligibility to inherit wealth.”

Visual language of power

Suetonius (Life of Augustus 28): Since the city was not adorned as the dignity of the empire demanded, and was exposed to flood and fire, he so beautified it that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble. He made it safe too for the future, so far as human foresight could provide for this.

Augustus (Res Gestae 19-21): I built the senate-house and the Chalcidicum which adjoins it and the temple of Apollo on the Palatine with porticoes, the temple of divine Julius, the Lupercal, the portico at the Flaminian circus, which I allowed to be called by the name Octavian, after him who had earlier built in the same place, the state box at the great circus, the temple on the Capitoline of Jupiter Subduer (Feretrius) and Jupiter Thunderer (Tonans), the temple of Quirinus, the temples of Minerva and Queen Juno and Jupiter Liberator on the Aventine, the temple of the Lares at the top of the holy street (Via Sacra), the temple of the gods of the Penates on the Velian, the temple of Youth, and the temple of the Great Mother on the Palatine. (20) I rebuilt the Capitol and the theater of Pompey, each work at enormous cost, without any inscription of my name. I rebuilt aqueducts in many places that had decayed with age, and I doubled the capacity of the Marcian aqueduct by sending a new spring into its channel. I completed the Forum of Julius and the basilica which he built between the temple of Castor and the temple of Saturn, works begun and almost finished by my father. When the same basilica was burned with fire I expanded its grounds and I began it under an inscription of the name of my sons, and, if I should not complete it alive, I ordered it to be completed by my heirs. Consul for the sixth time [28 B.C.E.], I rebuilt eighty-two temples of the gods in the city by the authority of the senate, omitting nothing which ought to have been rebuilt at that time. Consul for the seventh time [27 B.C.E.], I rebuilt the Flaminian road from the city to Ariminum and all the bridges except the Mulvian and Minucian. (21 ) I built the temple of Mars Ultor on private ground and the forum of Augustus from war-spoils. I build the theater at the temple of Apollo on ground largely bought from private owners, under the name of Marcus Marcellus my son-in-law. I consecrated gifts from war-spoils in the Capitol and in the temple of divine Julius, in the temple of Apollo, in the temple of Vesta, and in the temple of Mars Ultor, which cost me about HS 100,000,000.

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 112: “The biographer Suetonius records the boast of Augustus that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble. By that he meant sun-dried brick, since kiln-fired bricks were not yet in common use. During his rule, the quarries at Carrara in northwest Italy — then called the Luna quarries — were developed. This meant for the first time Roman builders could use a white marble from Italy itself, rather than marble imported from Greek quarries.”

The Forum of Augustus

Left: plan of the Forum of Augustus. Image: “Cassius Ahenobarbus” (CC BY-SA 3.0) via wikimediaRight: Line drawing of the Forum of Augustus. Image: Vroma.org (CC-BY-SA-3.0-MIGRATED) via wikimedia.

  • dedicated 1st August 2 BCE (Dio Cassius 55.10)
  • Augustus had completed the Julian Forum, placed his own forum next to his father’s
  • Luna marble
  • exedrae (semicircular apse) behind each of the two colonnades (the Forum of Trajan will later “quote” this feature)
  • in the porticoes and exedrae there were statues of historical figures (museum/history lesson): Aeneas, Romulus, kings of Alba Longa, members of the Julian Family
  • firewall — gave forum a sense of safety and enclosure
  • central focus = Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), vowed by Octavian at Philippi 42 BCE (Suet. Aug. 29.2; Ov. Fast. 5.569‑578)
    • the statues of gods inside this temple were Mars, Venus, and Divine Julius Caesar (Divus Julius)
  • many works of art were collected in the forum
  • quadriga (4 horse chariot) dedicated to Augustus by the senate (Res Gestae 35)
  • boys put on toga uirilis (toga of manhood) here, and governors set out for their province from here (Dio Cassius 55.10)
  • Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 114: “This sculptural program was the visual counterpart to the literary statements regarding the divine and mythological ancestry written by the great Roman poet Virgil in his epic, The Aeneid, composed only a few years later.”

Rome vs. Parthia

  • 53 BCE: Marcus Crassus (triumvir) is defeated and killed at the Battle of Carrhae, losing Rome’s standards (Plutarch Crassus 23)
  • Julius Caesar had planned a military campaign against Parthia to recover lost standards (Suet. Julius 44), but was killed
  • Mark Antony spent much energy (40 BCE, 36 BCE) trying to subdue Parthia, but lost even more standards (Suet. Aug. 21)
  • 20 BCE: Augustus recovers the lost standards via diplomacy of Tiberius (Suet. Tib. 9)
    • kept in a small round temple of Mars Ultor on Capitol at Rome (Cassius Dio 54.8) until the forum Augustum was completed in 2 BCE
      • Augustus in the Res Gestae (29) writes: “I placed (reposui) those standards in the sanctuary of the temple of Mars Ultor.”
  • Augustus (Res Gestae 29): I compelled the Parthians to return to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies, and as suppliants to seek the friendship of the Roman people.

Silver denarius (RIC I(2) Aug.72), 19 BCE, depicting Mars inside a round, domed temple, holding recovered standards. Text: MARTIS VLTORIS (of Mars Ultor). Image: Münzkabinett Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Silver denarius, (RIC I(2) Aug. 287), 19-4 BCE. Obverse (left): head of Liber (=Dionysus). Text: TVRPILIANVS IIIVIR (name of the issuer, P. Petronius Turpilianus). Reverse (right): Parthian kneeling, extending standard with X-marked vexillum with right hand and holding out left hand. Text: CAESAR AVGVSTVS SIGN RECE (Augustus received the captured standards from the king). Image: Münzkabinett Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The Prima Porta Augustus

Statue-AugustusCarrara marble statue of Augustus from Prima Porta. Discovered in Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, a few miles north of Rome. Image: public domain.

Copy of the Prima Porta Augustus with restored colour. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Images: Eunostos (CC BY-SA 4.0) via wikimedia.


Detail of reconstructed painted cuirass of Prima Porta Augustus. Image: saturatedspace.com.

  • early 1st c. CE marble copy of a bronze statue c. 20 BCE set up after the return of the Parthian standards
  • evokes the Greek statue: Doryphoros (Spearbearer) by Polykleitos (440s BCE)
  • bare feet = Augustus as hero, or even god
  • Cupid riding a dolphin (bottom left) = reference to Venus, Augustus’ ancestor, mother of Cupid; dolphin symbolizes victory at Actium
  • excessive frontality (back unfinished)
  • larger than life sized (7 feet tall)
  • military breastplate closely shaped and contoured to body (nudity without nudity)
  • military cloak (rouched)
  • central scene: Parthians handing back standards from Carrhae
    • Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 123: “Above this scene, the sky god [Caelum] holds up a canopy signifying that the peace implied by the victory scene, and by the figure of Mother Earth holding a cornucopia full of fruit at the bottom of the breast-plate, is now spread throughout Augustus’ empire. Apollo and Diana at bottom left and right are paralleled by the sun god Sol and the moon goddess Luna near the emperor’s shoulders. Thus, the cosmic forces and passage of time are also included in this grand vision of Augustan peace.”