The Roman Empire On The Accession Of Augustus

Octavius, now master of the world, is generally called Augustus Caesar--the

name he assumed. He was the first of that great line of potentates whom we

call emperors. Let us, before tracing the history of the empire, take a

brief survey of its extent, resources, population, institutions, state of

society, and that development of Art, science, and literature, which we

call civilization, in the period which immediately preceded the bi
th of

Christ, when the nations were subdued, submissive to the one central

power, and at peace with each other.

The empire was not so large as it subsequently became, nor was it

at that height of power and prosperity which followed a century of peace,

when uninterrupted dominion had reconciled the world to the rule of the

Caesars. But it was the golden age of imperial domination, when arts,

science, and literature flourished, and when the world rested from

incessant wars. It was not an age of highest glory to man, since all

struggles for liberty had ceased; but it was an age of good government,

when its machinery was perfected, and the great mass of mankind felt

secure, and all classes abandoned themselves to pleasure, or gain, or

uninterrupted toils. It was the first time in the history of the world,

when there was only one central authority, and when the experiment was

to be tried, not of liberty and self-government, but of universal empire,

growing up from universal rivalries and wars--wielded by one central and

irresistible will. The spectacle of the civilized world obedient to one

master has sublimity, and moral grandeur, and suggests principles of grave

interest. The last of the great monarchies which revelation had foretold,

and the greatest of all--the iron monarchy which Daniel saw in prophetic

vision, reveals lessons of profound significance.

The empire then embraced all the countries bordering on the

Mediterranean--that great inland sea upon whose shores the most famous

cities of antiquity flourished, and toward which the tide of Assyrian and

Persian conquests had rolled, and then retreated for ever. The boundaries

of this mighty empire were great mountains, and deserts, and oceans, and

impenetrable forests. On the east lay the Parthian empire, separated from

the Roman by the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Armenian Mountains, beyond

which were other great empires not known to the Greeks, like the Indian

and the Chinese monarchies, with a different civilization. On the south

were the African deserts, not penetrated even by travelers. On the west

was the ocean; and on the north were barbaric tribes of different names

and races--Slavonic, Germanic, and Celtic. The empire extended over a

territory of one million six hundred thousand square miles, and among its

provinces were Spain, Gaul, Sicily, Africa, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor,

Achaia, Macedonia, and Illyricum--all tributary to Italy, whose capital was

Rome. The central province numbered four millions who were free, and could

furnish, if need be, seven hundred thousand foot, and seventy thousand

horse for the armies of the republic. It was dotted with cities, and

villages, and villas, and filled with statues, temples, and works of art,

brought from remotest provinces--the spoil of three hundred years of

conquest. In all the provinces were great cities, once famous and

independent--centres of luxury and wealth--Corinth, Athens, Syracuse,

Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Damascus, and Jerusalem, with

their dependent cities, all connected with each other and the capital by

granite roads, all favored by commerce, all rejoicing in a uniform

government. Rome, the great mistress who ruled over one hundred and twenty

millions, contained an immense population, variously estimated, in which

were centred whatever wealth or power had craved. This capital had become

rapidly ornamented with palaces, and temples, and works of art, with the

subjugation of Greece and Asia Minor, although it did not reach the climax

of magnificence until the time of Hadrian. In the time of Augustus, the

most imposing buildings were the capitol, restored by Sulla and Caesar,

whose gilded roof alone cost $15,000,000. The theatre of Pompey could

accommodate eighty thousand spectators, behind which was a portico of one

hundred pillars. Caesar built the Forum Julium, three hundred and forty

feet long, and two hundred wide, and commenced the still greater

structures known as the Basilica Julia and Curia Julia. The Forum Romanum

was seven hundred feet by four hundred and seventy, surrounded with

basilica, halls, porticoes, temples, and shops--the centre of architectural

splendor, as well as of life and business and pleasure. Augustus restored

the Capitoline Temple, finished the Forum and Basilica Julia, built the

Curia Julia, and founded the imperial palace on the Palatine, and erected

many temples, the most beautiful of which was that of Apollo, with columns

of African marble, and gates of ivory finely sculptured. He also erected

the Forum Augusti, the theatre of Marcellus, capable of holding twenty

thousand spectators, and that mausoleum which contained the ashes of the

imperial family to the time of Hadrian, at the entrance of which were two

Egyptian obelisks. It was the boast of this emperor, that he found the

city of brick and left her of marble. But great and beautiful as Rome was

in the Augustan era, enriched not only by his own munificence, but by the

palaces and baths which were erected by his ministers and courtiers,--the

Pantheon, the Baths of Agrippa, the Gardens of Maecenas,--it was not until

other emperors erected the Imperial Palace, the Flavian Amphitheatre, the

Forum Trajanum, the Basilica Ulpia, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the

Baths of Caracalla, the Arches of Septimius Severus and Trajan, and other

wonders, that the city became so astonishing a wonder, with its palaces,

theatres, amphitheatres, baths, fountains, bronze statues of emperors and

generals, so numerous and so grand, that we are warranted in believing its

glories, like its population, surpassed those of both Paris and London


And this capital and this empire seemed to be the domain of one

man, so vast his power, so august his dignity, absolute master of the

lives and property of one hundred and twenty millions, for the people were

now deprived of the election of magistrates and the creation of laws. How

could the greatest nobles otherwise than cringe to the supreme captain of

the armies, the prince of the Senate, and the high-priest of the national

divinities--himself, the recipient of honors only paid to gods! But

Augustus kept up the forms of the old republic--all the old offices, the

old dignities, the old festivals, the old associations. The Senate,

prostrate and powerless, still had external dignity, like the British

House of Peers. There were six hundred senators, each of whom possessed

more than one million two hundred thousand sesterces--about $50,000, when

that sum must have represented an amount equal to a million of dollars in

gold, at the present time, and some of whom had an income of one thousand

pounds a day, the spoil of the provinces they had administered.

The Roman Senate, so august under the republic, still continued,

with crippled legislative powers, to wield important functions, since the

ordinary official business was performed by them. The provinces were

governed by men selected from senatorial ranks. They wore the badges of

distinction; they had the best places in the circus and theatre; they

banqueted in the capitol at the public charge; they claimed the right to

elect emperors.

The equestrian order also continued to farm the revenues of the

provinces, and to furnish judges. The knights retained external

decorations, were required to possess property equal to one-third of the

senators, and formed an aristocratic class.

The consuls, too, ruled, but with delegated powers from the

emperor. They were his eyes, and ears, and voice, and hands; but neither

political experience nor military services were required as qualifications

of the office. They wore the wreath of laurel on their brow, the striped

robe of white and purple, and were attended with lictors. All citizens

made way for them, and dismounted when they passed, and rose in their

presence. The praetors, too, continued to be the supreme judges, and the

quaestors regulated the treasury. The tribunes existed also, but without

their former independence. The prefect of the city was a new office, and

overshadowed all other offices--appointed by the emperor as his lieutenant,

his most efficient executive minister, his deputy in his absence from the


A standing army, ever the mark of despotism, became an imperial

institution. At the head of this army were the praetorian guards, who

protected the person of the emperor, and had double pay over that of the

ordinary legionaries. They had a regular camp outside the city, and were

always on hand to suppress tumults. Twenty-five legions were regarded as

sufficient to defend the empire, and each legion was composed of six

thousand one hundred foot and seven hundred and twenty-six horse. They

were recruited with soldiers from the countries beyond Italy. Auxiliary

troops were equal to the legions, and all together numbered three hundred

and forty thousand--the standing army of the empire, stationed in the

different provinces. Naval armaments were also established in the

different seas and in great frontier rivers.

The revenue for this great force, and the general expenses of the

government, were derived from the public domains, from direct taxes, from

mines and quarries, from salt works, fisheries and forests, from customs

and excise, from the succession to property, from enfranchisement of


The monarchy instituted by Augustus, in all but the name, was a

political necessity. Pompey would have ruled as the instrument of the

aristocracy, but he would only have been primus inter pares; Caesar

recognized the people as the basis of sovereignty; Augustus based his

power on an organized military establishment, of which he was the

permanent head. All the soldiers swore personal fealty to him--all the

officers were appointed by him, directly or indirectly. But he paid

respect to ancient traditions, forms, and magistracies, especially to the

dignity of the Senate, and thus vested his military power, which was his

true power, under the forms of an aristocracy, which was the governing

power before the constitution was subverted.

It need scarcely be said that the great mass of the people were

indifferent to these political changes. The horrors of the Marian and

Sullan revolutions, the struggles of Caesar and Pompey, and the awful

massacres of the triumvirs had alarmed and disgusted all classes, and they

sought repose, security, and peace. Any government which would repress

anarchy was, to them, the best. They wished to be spared from executions

and confiscations. The great enfranchisement of foreign slaves, also,

degraded the people, and made them indifferent to the masters who should

rule over them. All races were mingled with Roman citizens. The spoliation

of estates in the civil wars cast a blight on agriculture, and the

population had declined from war and misery.

Augustus, intrenched by military power, sought to revive not

merely patrician caste, but religious customs, which had declined. Temples

were erected, and the shrines of gods were restored. Marriage was

encouraged, and the morals of the people were regulated by sumptuary laws.

Severe penalties were enacted against celibacy, to which the people had

been led by the increasing profligacy of the times, and the expenses of

living. Restrictions were placed on the manumission of slaves. The

personal habits of the imperator were simple, but dignified. His mansion

on the Palatine was moderate in size. His dress was that of a senator, and

woven by the hands of Livia and her maidens. He was courteous, sober,

decorous, and abstemious. His guests were chosen for their social

qualities. Virgil and Horace, plebeian poets, were received at his table,

as well as Pollio and Messala. He sought to guard morals, and revive

ancient traditions. He was jealous only of those who would not flatter

him. He freely spent money for games and festivals, and secured peace and

plenty within the capital, where he reigned supreme. The people

felicitated themselves on the appearance of unbounded prosperity, and

servile poets sung the praises of the emperor as if he were a god.

And, to all appearance, Rome was the most favored spot upon the

globe. Vast fleets brought corn from Gaul, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia,

Africa, and Egypt, to feed the four millions of people who possessed the

world. The capital was the emporium of all the luxuries of distant

provinces. Spices from the East, ivory, cotton, silk, pearls, diamonds,

gums thither flowed, as well as corn, oil, and wine. A vast commerce gave

unity to the empire, and brought all the great cities into communication

with each other and with Rome--the mighty mistress of lands and continents,

the directress of armies, the builder of roads, the civilizer and

conservator of all the countries which she ruled with her iron hand. There

was general security to commerce, as well as property. There were order

and law, wherever proconsular power extended. The great highways, built

originally for military purposes, extending to every part of the empire,

and crossing mountains and deserts, and forests and marshes, and studded

with pillars and post-houses, contributed vastly to the civilization of

the world.

At this time, Rome herself, though not so large and splendid as in

subsequent periods, was the most attractive place on earth. Seven

aqueducts already brought water to the city, some over stone arches, and

some by subterranean pipes. The sepulchres of twenty generations lined the

great roads which extended from the capital to the provinces. As these

roads approached the city, they became streets, and the houses were dense

and continuous. The seven original hills were covered with palaces and

temples, while the valleys were centres of a great population, in which

were the forums, the suburra, the quarter of the shops, the circus, and

the velabrum. The Palatine, especially, was occupied by the higher

nobility. Here were the famous mansions of Drusus, of Crassus, of Cicero,

of Clodius, of Scaurus, and of Augustus, together with the temples of

Cybele, of Juno Sospita, of Luna, of Febris, of Fortune, of Mars, and

Vesta. On the Capitoline were the Arx, or citadel, and the temple of

Jupiter. On the Pincian Hill were villas and gardens, including those of

Lucullus and Sallust. Every available inch of ground in the suburra and

velabrum was filled with dwellings, rising to great altitudes, even to the

level of the Capitoline summit. The temples were all constructed after the

Grecian models. The houses of the great were of immense size. The suburbs

were of extraordinary extent. The population exceeded that of all modern

cities, although it has been, perhaps, exaggerated. It was computed by

Lipsius to reach the enormous number of four millions. Nothing could be

more crowded than the streets, whose incessant din was intolerable to

those who sought repose. And they were filled with idlers, as well as

trades-people, and artisans and slaves. All classes sought the excitement

of the theater and circus--all repaired to the public baths. The

amphitheatres collected, also, unnumbered thousands within their walls to

witness the combats of beasts with man, and man with man. The gladiatorial

sports were the most exciting exhibitions ever known in ancient or modern

times, and were the most striking features of Roman society. The baths,

too, resounded with shouts and laughter, with the music of singers and of

instruments, and even by the recitations of poets and lecturers. The

luxurious Roman rose with the light of day, and received, at his levee, a

crowd of clients and retainers. He then repaired to the forum, or was

carried through the crowds on a litter. Here he presided as a judge, or

appeared as a witness or advocate, or transacted his business affairs. At

twelve, the work of the day ceased, and he retired for his midday siesta.

When this had ended, he recreated himself with the sports of the Field of

Mars, and then repaired to the baths, after which was the supper, or

principal meal, in which he indulged in the coarsest luxuries, valued more

for the cost than the elegance. He reclined at table, on a luxurious

couch, and was served by slaves, who carved for him, and filled his cup,

and poured water into his hand after every remove. He ate without knives

or forks, with his fingers only. The feast was beguiled by lively

conversation, or music and dancing.

At this period, the literature of Rome reached its highest purity

and terseness. Livy, the historian, secured the friendship of Augustus,

and his reputation was so high that an enthusiastic Spaniard traveled from

Cadiz on purpose to see him, and having gratified his curiosity,

immediately returned home. He took the dry chronicles of his country, drew

forth from them the poetry of the old traditions, and incited a patriotic

spirit. A friend of the old oligarchy, an aristocrat in all his prejudices

and habits, he heaped scorn on tribunes and demagogues, and veiled the

despotism of his imperial master. Virgil also inflamed the patriotism of

his countrymen, while he flattered the tyrant in whose sunshine he basked.

Patronized by Maecenas, countenanced by Octavius, he sung the praises of

law, of order, and of tradition, and attempted to revive an age of faith,

a love of agricultural life, a taste for the simplicities of better days,

and a veneration of the martial virtues of heroic times. Horace ridiculed

and rebuked the vices of his age, and yet obtained both riches and honors.

His matchless wit and transcendent elegance of style have been admired by

every scholar for nearly two thousand years. Propertius and Tibullus, and

Ovid, also adorned this age, never afterward equaled by the labors of men

of genius. Literature and morals went hand in hand as corruption

accomplished its work. The age of Augustus saw the highest triumph in

literature that Rome was destined to behold. Imperial tyranny was fatal to

that independence of spirit without which all literature languishes and

dies. But the limit of this work will not permit an extended notice of

Roman civilization. This has been attempted by the author in another work.