Augustus: The First Roman Emperor and Bringer of Peace

30.11.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course The mad world of the Roman emperors by James Wareing


Today, we shall learn about the first emperor, Augustus, and how coming to power after a tumultuous period, he strove to drive Rome toward a period of stability and prosperity. We will focus in particular on his reforms for social standards and his use of art to convey his ideologies.

After the civil war, Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 31 BC. Securing the approval of the population would have been a particularly significant requirement for Augustus because the concept of a man ruling alone was a notion that opposed the longstanding political belief that it was dangerous for one man to have the opportunity to obtain too much power. Wary of the impact of one man suddenly ruling Rome and the fear of a tyrant this would induce in the Roman people, he disguised his power behind constitutional reforms, never fully admitting, as later emperors would, that all the power lied with him.


Social Reforms

A major part of his reign were social reforms. He changed divorce laws, making it harder for families to be broken up, as well as making adultery a more serious crime. As a mark of how seriously he took these reforms, he exiled his own daughter, Julia, for adultery. These reforms he saw necessary for bringing stability to the Roman empire, and he was not alone in believing that a decline in moral standards had led to the violence of the last few years in Rome.


Propaganda and the Legitimizing of His Rule

In an attempt to validate his right to rule, he made particularly effective use of the arts as a form of propaganda. He commissioned The Aeneid, an epic account of the founding of Rome by Aeneas after the fall of Troy and to whom he traced back his lineage, which looked forward to the day Augustus was to rule Rome. This gave off the impression that it was his destiny to rule Rome and that he was intrinsically linked to the city’s founding.

Statues, coinage (onto which his face was etched), and temples were all used as a way of symbolizing Augustus’s power and the social changes he was striving to make. A notable example of this was the Ara Pacis. Rome itself and its greatness had to reflect the empire, and the Ara Pacis was to be seen as an example of Rome’s new prosperity and peace for all to see. The images pointed toward a new Golden Age in Roman history, while references to the fertility and prosperity of Rome were indicated in the perfect forms of the men and women adorning the work.


A Period of Peace and Stability

His reign has been associated with the phrase, “Pax Romana” (Roman Peace), to such an extent that it is often referred to as Pax Augusta. It indicates a period of time, beginning with Augustus’s reign and continuing until the late second century, of peace and prosperity for Rome, and Augustus had a large part to play in this. He expanded the empire all the way into Germany and across the Mediterranean. However, he did suffer a particularly humiliating defeat in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, with three legions and around 30,000 Roman soldiers lost.

Augustus will always be remembered for being the first emperor of Rome. It cannot be underestimated how big a change it was for Rome to suddenly have one leader, with all the power that it entailed. With this in mind, the amount of stability he was able to bring and the longevity of his rule was significant in establishing emperors in Roman society and setting Rome up for a period of peace.


Augustus’s Death

Ironically for an emperor who encouraged childbirth and penalized the unmarried and childless, Augustus did not have any children with his third wife and only a daughter by his second wife. He, therefore, approached the end of his reign without a natural heir. He died in AD 14 of natural causes and was succeeded by his adopted son, Tiberius.

Augustus’s reign, despite the chaos that preceded it, provided a strong argument for the benefits of an emperor at the top of Roman society. However, as we shall learn tomorrow, this conception was to be challenged by his successor, Tiberius.


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Recommended book

Augustus by John Williams


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