From Republic to Empire

The Roman Empire—the name commonly used today for the system of government that replaced the Republic—was born in blood: fourteen years of civil war followed Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., until Octavian finally came off victorious over every rival. A few years later, in 27 B.C.—the same date as he took the new name Augustus—he founded a new political system that prevented a renewal of the violence. He said he was restoring and improving the Republic and was not a monarch; modern historians regard the government of the Roman Empire as a disguised monarchy and refer to its rulers as “emperors.” Whatever one calls Augustus’s system of rule, it is undeniable that he ended decades of civil war by concentrating power in the hands of one ruler—himself—and reinventing the traditional value of loyalty. Under his system, citizens directed their faithfulness to the ruler and his family as the embodiment of the Roman state. Augustus retained traditional institutions of Roman government—the Senate, the ladder of offices, assemblies, courts—while ruling as an emperor but without claiming that title. Instead, he masked the new reality by referring to his position as that of princeps (“First Man”), not “king” or “dictator” (Tacitus, Annals 1.9). Augustus justified his transformation of the Republic by cloaking it in tradition, explaining that his changes rebuilt the old system to the way it could and should have existed.


43 B.C.: Octavian, nineteen years old, forces the Senate to recognize him as consul; Octavian, Lepidus, and Mark Antony form the Second Triumvirate to dominate Roman government.

42 B.C.: The Triumvirs defeat the self-proclaimed “Liberators” (the conspirators against Julius Caesar) at Philippi in Greece.

32 B.C.: To combat the alliance of Cleopatra and Antony, Octavian has the citizens in Italy and the western provinces swear an oath of loyalty to him personally.

31 B.C.: Octavian’s fleet defeats the navy of Cleopatra and Antony in the sea battle of Actium off the northwestern coast of Greece.

27 B.C.: Octavian creates the Principate as the “Restored Republic,” which we call the Roman Empire; the Senate honors him with the title Augustus (“Divinely Favored”); Augustus stations soldiers (the Praetorian Guard) in Rome for the first time in Roman history.

19 B.C.: On his deathbed Vergil asks for the Aeneid to be destroyed, but Augustus has the epic poem preserved.

8 B.C.: Augustus exiles the poet Ovid for his scandalous poetry.

2 B.C.: The Senate honors Augustus with the title “Father of his Country”; the Forum of Augustus opens in the center of Rome.

A.D. 9: Varus is defeated in Germany with the loss of three legions, ending Augustus’s plans for northern expansion.

A.D. 14: Augustus dies after forty-one years as princeps (“First Man”), the position that we call “Roman emperor.”

Augustus established his “new old Republic” gradually; inventing tradition takes time. He began his career as a young man who stopped at nothing in pursuing vengeance and power; he ended it as an old man who had brought peace to Rome at home, created a professional standing army, established a limit to Rome’s provincial territory that its military could successfully defend, beautified the capital city, supported painters and sculptors, improved the life of the urban masses, used all available media to communicate an image of himself as a successful and generous ruler, and tried to reshape Roman attitudes toward marriage and offspring to preserve the upper class. The changes that he introduced to Roman life have led historians to give the label “the Augustan Age” to the opening decades of the Roman Empire. Despite centuries of scholarship, it is still difficult to understand fully Augustus’s motives for doing what he did.


The civil wars to decide who would govern Rome following Caesar’s murder provided the historical context for the transformation of the Republic into the Empire. The original competitors for power in this war were Mark Antony and Lepidus, both experienced generals, and Octavian (not yet known as Augustus), Caesar’s nineteen-year-old grandnephew and a military novice, whose new identity as Caesar’s son earned him the loyalty of those who had loved Caesar, especially his soldiers. As a student in Greece in 44B.C., Octavian could compete with Antony and Lepidus only because his adoptive father’s military veterans supported him, expecting him to give them rewards from their dead general’s riches. Octavian led them to fight against Antony in northern Italy, but after an initial victory he marched men to Rome. The teenager, with his troops at his back, demanded to be made consul for 43 B.C., despite having never before held any public office. As with Pompey, fear made the senators grant Octavian this greatest of exceptions from the tradition of the ladder of offices.

Soon thereafter Octavian joined forces with Antony and Lepidus to wage yet more civil war against various rivals in Italy. They defeated all opposition, especially the “Liberators.” In November 43 B.C., the trio formed the so-called Second Triumvirate, which they forced the Senate to recognize as an official emergency arrangement for reconstituting the state. They ruthlessly used Sulla’s tactic of proscription to suppress their enemies, even betraying their own family members as they made deals with each other about whom to murder. They defeated the army of the “Liberators” at the battle of Philippi in northern Greece in 42 B.C. Antony and Octavian then conspired to push Lepidus into a lesser role, placating him with the governorship of northern Africa but depriving him of any real say in determining the future of Rome.

Octavian and Antony essentially divided the control of Roman territory between themselves, with Octavian controlling Italy and the west and Antony the eastern Mediterranean territories, including the rich land of Egypt. Over the following years these two then gradually turned openly hostile to one another. Antony joined forces with Cleopatra VII, the queen of Egypt. Through her wit and intelligence, she made Antony her ally and her lover. In response to this formidable alliance, Octavian rallied Romans by claiming Antony planned to make Cleopatra their foreign ruler. He transformed the residents of Italy and the western provinces into his clients by having them swear an oath of loyalty to him in 32 B.C. Octavian’s victory over Cleopatra and Antony at a naval battle off Actium in northwest Greece in 31 B.C. won the war. The lovers fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide in 30 B.C.; Cleopatra famously ended her life by allowing a poisonous snake, a symbol of royal authority, to bite her. Octavian’s capture of the resource-rich kingdom of Egypt made him Rome’s unrivaled leader and its wealthiest citizen by far.


Figure 16. This coin depicts Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt, and Mark Antony, Roman general, whom Octavian (the future Augustus) defeated in the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Greek kings after Alexander the Great had customarily put their portraits on coins, but under the Republic no Roman leader had done so before Julius Caesar; the Roman emperors made it a tradition to have their portraits on the front sides of their coins. Photo courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./www.cngcoins.com.

After distributing land to army veterans to create settlements loyal to him, Octavian in 27 B.C. announced publicly that he was restoring the Republic. He proclaimed that it was up to the Senate and the Roman people to decide how to preserve their government from this point forward. Recognizing that Octavian possessed overwhelming power in this unprecedented situation, the Senate begged him to do whatever was necessary to safeguard the restored Republic. To recognize his special status, they bestowed on him the honorary name of Augustus (“Divinely Favored”), which he accepted. Octavian had originally thought of changing his name to Romulus, to emphasize that he was a second founder of Rome, but he decided that the name of a king, no matter how treasured, was too politically dangerous.

The system of rule devised by Augustus is today called the Principate, from his title as princeps. This choice of “First Man” as a title was a brilliant move. In the Republic, that honorary designation had been awarded to the senator with the highest status, the leader other senators looked to for guidance. By using this title, Augustus implicitly claimed to carry on one of the Republic’s most valued traditions. Moreover, to appear to continue the Republic’s respect for the Senate, he insisted that he served as princeps only at the request of the senators. Periodically, he had them renew a formal approval of his status by granting him the powers of a consul and a tribune without holding the offices. In this way, the compliant senators granted the princeps what amounted to the power of an emperor, but they camouflaged the concession by claiming that this was all just a restoration, and that the Principate system was indeed an improvement in keeping with the traditions of the Republic. The ceremony of rule also remained traditional: Augustus dressed and acted like a regular citizen, not a monarch ranked socially above everyone else. His new powers were described in terms familiar to and respected by citizens, conveying the sense that nothing much was changing. In truth, Augustus revised the basic power structure of Roman politics: no official before him could ever have possessed the powers of both consul and tribune simultaneously.

In the years after 27 B.C., the continuing annual elections of consuls and other officials, the existence of the Senate, and the passing of legislation in the Assemblies maintained the appearance of a Republic. In reality, Augustus exercised power because he controlled the army and the treasury. Augustus reconfigured these institutions to secure his power: he changed the army from a citizen militia into a permanent, standing force and used imperial revenues to guarantee the soldiers’ pay. He established regular lengths of service for soldiers and a substantial bonus at retirement. To pay the added costs, Augustus imposed an inheritance tax. This direct tax on citizens, a rarity in Roman history, affected the rich, who deeply resented it.

Augustus’s changes made clear the ruler’s role as the army’s patron. The soldiers in gratitude obeyed and protected him. He sent a military expedition to expand Roman rule into what it is today Germany, but the mission’s three legions were wiped out in a disastrous ambush in A.D. 9 in the Teutoburg Forest. Augustus, in despair over his fear of rebellions and attacks and the damage from losing so many men, stopped shaving or cutting his hair for months, wandering around his house in Rome and banging his head against a door while screaming against the expedition’s fallen commander: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” (Suetonius, Life of Augustus 23). Concluding that further expansion was too dangerous, he now concentrated on having the army defend the existing perimeter of the Empire. Later emperors never gave up the dream of winning booty and glory by extending Roman territory, but none was ever able to maintain control of substantial new areas for long. Most of the army was stationed far from Rome in the provinces to provide security against internal rebellions or invasions from outside the imperial frontier zones. In the long run, as we will see, this transformation of the army into what amounted to a large-scale garrison force was to have terrible consequences for the financial stability of the Roman Empire.

Beginning in 27 B.C., for the first time in Roman history Augustus also stationed soldiers in Rome itself, called praetorians from their original role of being stationed as bodyguards close to a commander’s tent (praetorium) in the field. These troops formed the main imperial guard, though the emperor also had a small force of German mercenaries as his personal protectors, loyal only to him. The Praetorian Guard, along with these foreign bodyguards, provided a visible reminder that the ruler’s superiority was in reality guaranteed by the threat of force, not just by his moral authority derived from his respect for traditional Roman values.

Communicating the emperor’s image as a successful leader and a generous patron was essential in promoting the stability of the new system. Augustus brilliantly used media as small as coins and as large as buildings to achieve this goal. As the only mass-produced source of official messages, coins could function something like the political advertising on modern billboards or bumper stickers. Augustus’s coins proclaimed slogans such as “Restorer of Liberty” to remind people of his claim to have brought back the Republic, or “Roads Have Been Built,” to emphasize his spending his own funds to pay for highway construction.

Augustus’s building program in Rome proved his commitment to the traditional obligation of the rich to use their money for the public good. He paid for huge and highly decorated buildings, using the vast fortune he had inherited from Julius Caesar and then increased through the confiscations of the civil wars and replenished with the spoils that he won in Egypt. These building projects certainly improved public facilities, but more than that, they communicated an image of the emperor as pious, caring, and generous. The huge new forum (a public square near the old Roman Forum) that Augustus paid for in the center of the city illustrates his brilliant skill in sending messages with bricks, stone, and statues. The Forum of Augustus, formally opened in 2 B.C., centered on a temple to Mars, the Roman god of war, and Venus, the Roman goddess of love, whom he claimed as his divine ancestor. Augustus built the temple to thank the gods for the victory against the forces of Caesar’s assassins. He displayed Julius Caesar’s sword in the temple as a memorial to his adoptive father. Two-story colonnades stretched out from the temple like wings, sheltering statues of famous Roman heroes, to serve as inspirations to citizens. The Forum of Augustus also provided practical space for religious services and the ceremonies marking the passage into adulthood of upper-class boys. Most of all, it also showed the emperor’s devotion to the gods who protected Rome in war and the begetting of offspring, respect for history’s moral lessons, and unselfishness in spending money for public purposes. Augustus built his personal house on the Palatine Hill, where he lived in well-publicized simplicity and modesty as an “ordinary citizen.” Later emperors failed to follow his example, building mammoth palaces on the same hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus. There chariot racing, one of Rome’s favorite forms of public entertainment, took place before crowds of as many as two hundred thousand spectators.

Augustus himself produced a document that stands as the most significant single piece of evidence for understanding the image that he wished to present. During his long rule, he worked on a long written statement describing his accomplishments. He ordered this document to be widely published after his death, and versions were therefore inscribed in public places around the empire. Known today as the Res Gestae (“Things Done; Achievements”), it was a first-person description of his deeds as Rome’s leader and his huge personal spending for the common good. He consistently emphasized that his spectacular career had been in keeping with the traditions of the Republic: as a teenager he organized a personal army to avenge his (second) father and defend the liberty of the Republic; as victor in the civil war he refused the title of dictator when it was offered. The only position he held was that of princeps; he spent gigantic amounts of his own money to help the people; and he gained his leading position in the state not through formal power but only from the great respect that he earned for his display of traditional virtues.


Figure 17. This cameo portrays Augustus, the first Roman emperor, in the company of the gods, with scenes below of Roman soldiers piling up weapons of conquered barbarians. The two-level image expresses the supreme status that Augustus claimed and the superior power that his rule bestowed on Rome. Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons.

Historians disagree concerning Augustus’s motives. Opinions range from condemning him as a cynical despot bent on suppressing the freedoms of the Republic, to praising him as a well-intentioned reformer with no choice but to impose a disguised monarchy to stabilize a world crippled by anarchy. Perhaps the answer is that Augustus was a revolutionary bound by tradition. His problem was not new in Roman political history: how to balance society’s need for peace, its traditional commitment to its citizens’ freedom of action, and his own personal ambitions. Augustus’s solution was to employ traditional values to make changes, as seen in his reinvention of the meaning of princeps. Above all, he officially transferred the traditional paternalism of social relations—the patron-client system—to politics by making the emperor everyone’s (and especially the army’s) most important patron, with the moral authority to guide their lives. This process culminated with his being named “Father of his Country” in 2 B.C., the greatest honor Rome could grant. Coins were minted carrying this title, to proclaim the honor as widely as possible. The title implied that Romans had a ruler who governed them like a father: presiding alone at the head of the family, stern but caring, expecting obedience and loyalty from his children, and obligated to nurture them in return. The goal of such an arrangement was stability and order, not political freedom.

Despite several serious illnesses, Augustus ruled until his death at age seventy-five in A.D. 14. The great length of his reign (forty-one years) helped make permanent his changes in Roman government. As the historian Tacitus observed a century later, Augustus lived so long that by the time he died, “almost no one was still alive who had seen the Republic” (Annals 1.3). Through his longevity, support from the army, and crafty manipulation of the traditional vocabulary of politics to disguise his power, Augustus restored stability to Roman society and transformed the Republic into the Empire.


Augustus built legitimacy for his new government not only by communicating the image of a generous ruler but also by taking action to improve the lives of ordinary people. The most pressing social problems were in Rome itself, now a teeming city of more than a million inhabitants, many of whom had too little to eat. This population was vast for the ancient world; no European city would have nearly this many people again until London in the 1700s. So many people meant overcrowding. The streets were packed: “One man jabs me with his elbow, another whacks me with a pole; my legs are smeared with mud, and big feet step on me from all sides” was one later resident’s description of walking in Rome (Juvenal, Satires 3.245–248). To ease congestion, carts and wagons were banned from the streets in daytime. This regulation made nights noisy with the creaking of axles and the shouting of drivers caught in traffic jams.

Most people lived in small apartments in multistoried buildings called “islands” (insulae). Outnumbering separate houses by more than twenty-five to one, these apartment buildings had first floors that usually housed shops, bars, and simple restaurants. Graffiti of all kinds—political endorsements, rewards for the return of stolen property, personal insults, sexy rhymes, and advertising of all kinds—filled their exterior walls. The higher the floor in the building was, the cheaper the apartment. Well-off tenants occupied the lower stories. The poorest people lived high above in single rooms rented by the day, or even in slum shacks built from scrap. Some wealthier families had piped-in water, but most apartment residents had to lug buckets of drinking and cooking water up the stairs from one of the hundreds of public fountains and basins in the city’s streets.

Since Rome’s residents generated about sixty tons of human waste every day, sanitation was an enormous challenge. Most lodgings had no separate bathrooms, and so residents had to walk to one of Rome’s many public latrines, or use a bucket for a toilet at home. Apartment dwellers either flung the smelly contents of these containers out the window, or carried the buckets down to the streets to be emptied by people who made their living collecting excrement to sell to farmers for fertilizer. Officials tried to ensure that waste was disposed of outside the city’s residential areas, but there were too few personnel to enforce the regulations consistently. Archaeological excavation has uncovered hundreds of deep pits on the Esquiline Hill that had been filled with a decomposing mixture of dead bodies, animal carcasses, and sewage of all sorts not far from the city center. The area was lined with signs with warnings such as, “Gaius Sentius, son of Gaius, as praetor and by order of the Senate, has set up this line of boundary stones, to mark the area that must be kept absolutely free from dirt and animal carcasses and human corpses. It is also strictly forbidden to burn corpses here” (Lanciani, pp. 64–67). The impossibility of keeping the city clean meant that flies buzzed everywhere, and people often had stomach trouble from contaminated food and water.

To keep clean, people used public baths. Since admission fees were low, almost everyone could afford to go to these establishments daily. Scores of bath buildings were located in the city, serving like modern health clubs as centers for exercising and socializing as well as washing. Bath patrons progressed through a series of increasingly warm, humid areas until they reached a sauna-like room. Bathers swam naked in their choice of hot or cold pools. Women had full access to the public baths; the sexes bathed apart, either in separate rooms or at different times of the day.

As in all ancient cities, unsanitary conditions prevailed despite the many baths, fountains with running water, and the ongoing efforts of officials to keep the streets clean. Since bathing was thought to be particularly valuable for sick people, the baths actually contributed to the spread of communicable diseases. Furthermore, although the government built a sewer system, its contents emptied untreated into the city’s Tiber River. The technology for sanitary disposal of waste simply did not exist. People regularly left human and animal corpses in the streets, to be gnawed by vultures and dogs. The poor were not the only people affected by such conditions: a stray mutt once brought a human hand to the table where Vespasian (a future emperor) was eating lunch. Flies buzzing everywhere and a lack of mechanical refrigeration contributed to frequent gastrointestinal ailments. The most popular jewelry of the time was a necklace believed to prevent stomach trouble. Although the wealthy could not eliminate such discomforts, they made their lives more pleasant with luxuries such as snow rushed from the mountains to ice their drinks and slaves to clean their airy houses, which were built around courtyards and gardens behind high walls for privacy.

Augustus did all he could to promote the safety and health of all the people of Rome. He divided the city into fourteen regions and 265 wards, appointing ex-slaves as the leaders of “citizen watch” groups to be on the alert for traffic problems, assaults and robberies, and fires. These local officials also built loyalty to the new regime by sponsoring sacrifices at altars built in the streets to honor Augustus’s Lares (the household spirits of his ancestors). Still, unpredictable hazards characterized much of city life in the crowded capital. The inhabitants living on the upper stories of apartment buildings, too poor to own slaves to do the dirty work of the household, threw broken crockery and toilet waste out their windows, raining their garbage down like missiles on unwary pedestrians below. “If you are walking to a dinner party in Rome,” one poet remarked, “you would be foolish not to make out your will first. For every open window is a source of potential disaster” (Juvenal, Satires 3.272–274). The “islands” could be dangerous to their inhabitants as well as to people in the streets because the buildings were in constant danger of collapsing. Roman engineers, despite their expertise in using concrete, brick, and stone as durable building materials, lacked the technology to calculate precisely how much stress their constructions could stand. The real problem, however, was that builders trying to cut costs paid little attention to engineering safeguards, which led Augustus to impose a height limit of seventy feet on new apartment buildings. Often built in low-lying areas because the sunny hilltops were occupied by the homes of the rich, apartment buildings were also susceptible to floods. Fire presented an even greater risk. One of Augustus’s many services to the urban masses was to provide Rome with the first public fire department in European history. He also established Rome’s first police force, despite his reported fondness for stopping to watch the brawls that frequently broke out in Rome’s jam-packed streets. The rich hired security guards to protect themselves and their homes.

Augustus’s most important service to the urban masses was to assure them adequate and affordable food. By using his personal fortune to pay for imported grain to feed the hungry, he prevented food riots and demonstrated his respect for the Roman value of patrons supporting their clients. Government distribution of low-cost or free grain to at least some of Rome’s poor had been a tradition for decades, but the number of male recipients in Augustus’s welfare system totaled 250,000. Because many of these men had families, this statistic suggests that as many as 700,000 people depended on Augustus’s regime for their dietary staple. Poor people usually made the grain, which was not well suited for baking bread, into a watery porridge, which they washed down with inexpensive wine. If they were lucky, they might also have some beans, leeks, or a few meat scraps. The rich, as we learn from the ancient cookbook of Apicius, ate more delectable dishes, such as spiced roast pork or lobster, often flavored with sweet-and-sour sauce concocted from honey and vinegar.

Wealthy people had increasingly come to prefer spending money on such luxuries instead of on raising families. Feeling that the expense and trouble of having children threatened its high standard of living, the elite failed to reproduce itself sufficiently. Children became so rare among this social class that Augustus passed laws designed to strengthen marriages and encourage more births by granting special legal privileges to the parents of three or more children. He made adultery a criminal offense as another attempt to protect marriage. So seriously did Augustus support these reforms that he exiled his own daughter—his only child—and a granddaughter for their extramarital sex scandals. His legislation had little effect, however, and the prestigious old families withered away under the empire. Demographic research suggests that three-quarters of the families of senatorial status died out in every generation. New people from below the senatorial class who won the emperors’ favor continuously took their places in the social hierarchy.

Slaves occupied the lowest rung in society’s hierarchy and provided the basis of the imperial work force. Since Roman law still granted citizenship to freed slaves, their descendants, if they became wealthy, could rise to be members of the social elite. This possibility for upward social mobility over the long run gave slaves hope, which they needed to survive the often harsh conditions of enslavement. The slave ancestry of many ordinary Romans gave them some sympathy for current slaves, to judge from a riot that broke out in Rome in A.D. 61. A rich and prominent member of the social elite had been murdered by one of his slaves, and Roman tradition called for all the rest of his slaves to be executed, too, on the assumption that they should have known about and stopped the crime against their master. In this case, the murdered man was so wealthy that his household included some four hundred slaves, and a huge outcry arose over the proposal to put so many innocent people to death. The issue was even debated in the Senate, but the harsh tradition was upheld. When in response crowds set fires in the streets and threw stones at officials, Emperor Nero had to use soldiers to cordon off the execution site from the outraged mob of citizens (Tacitus, Annals 42–45).

Slavery in agriculture and manufacturing meant a grueling existence. Most such workers were men, although women might assist the foremen who managed gangs of rural laborers. Apuleius in a vivid novel offers this grim description of slaves at work in a flourmill: “Through the holes in their ragged clothes you could see the scars from whippings all over their bodies. Some wore only loincloths. Letters had been branded on their foreheads and irons manacled their ankles” (The Golden Ass 9.12). Worse than the mills were the mines, where the foremen constantly flogged the miners to keep them working in a life-threatening environment.

Household slaves had an easier physical existence, especially the many servants owned by the imperial family. Although households had more male slaves than female, many domestic slaves were women, working as nurses, maids, kitchen help, and clothes makers. Some male slaves ran businesses for their masters, and they were often allowed to keep part of the profits as an incentive. Women had less opportunity to earn money. Masters sometimes granted tips for sexual favors, to both female and male slaves. Female slave prostitutes, who were mostly owned by men, could sometimes make enough money to live in a small amount of physical comfort. Slaves who saved enough money would sometimes buy slaves themselves, thereby creating their own hierarchy. A man might buy a woman for a mate, and the couple could then have a semblance of family life, though legal marriage was impossible because they remained their master’s property, as did their children. If truly fortunate, slaves could save enough to buy themselves from their masters, or they could be freed in their masters’ wills. Some inscriptions on tombstones testify to affectionate feelings masters had for slaves, but even household servants could suffer miserable lives if their masters were cruel. They had no defense against harsh treatment. Even if they attacked their owners only to defend themselves against abuse, their punishment was death.

The most publicly visible slaves were gladiators: men and women who fought with weapons in public competitions. Not all gladiators were slaves, however. Prisoners of war and condemned criminals could be forced to fight, and free people also voluntarily enrolled themselves as gladiators in return for pay and celebrity. Early in the first century A.D., the Senate became alarmed at the number of citizens willingly entering this less than honorable occupation and banned members of the elite and all free-born women under twenty years old from competing. Women, perhaps daughters trained by their gladiator fathers, had first competed during the Republic. They continued to fight in public until the emperor Septimius Severus (ruled A.D. 193–211) successfully banned their appearance.

Gladiatorial shows originated as part of the ceremonies at expensive funerals; the combats became so popular that by the time of the Empire they provided entertainment at public festivals in large arenas seating tens of thousands of spectators. The most famous arena in Rome was the Colosseum, created by the emperor Vespasian and completed by his son Titus in A.D. 80. This stone amphitheater holding some fifty thousand spectators was built near the spot where there had stood a huge statue of the emperor Nero. (The statue had soared more than a hundred feet high, and as a “colossus” gave its name to the amphitheater.)

Gladiatorial combat was not always, or even often, fought to the death (except between condemned criminals) because trained gladiators were so valuable. Killing one off represented a substantial loss for the organizers of the shows. In the rare fights to the death, the crowd could shout for the defeated fighter to be spared if he or she had shown special courage. To make the fights more unpredictable, gladiators fought with different kinds of weapons. One popular match pitted a lightly armored fighter, called a “net man” because he used a net and a trident, against a more heavily armored “fish man,” so named from the design of his helmet crest. Betting was fierce, and crowds could be rowdy. One critic blasted Roman sports fans: “Look at the mob coming to the show—already they’re out of their minds! Aggressive, thoughtless, already screaming about their bets! They all share the same suspense, the same madness, the same voice” (Tertullian, On Spectacles 16). Mosaics—pictures composed from small brightly colored tiles, a favorite form of art that Romans loved to place on their floors—provide vivid images of gladiators fighting that reveal the strong emotional response these contests provoked.


Figure 18. The gladiators shown in this mosaic are armed and armored according to their different styles of fighting and their names are recorded. The most exciting gladiatorial matches often involved a heavily armored, slower-moving fighter against a lightly protected but more mobile opponent. Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Expensive gladiatorial shows became the rage under the Empire as the people came to expect this kind of spectacular entertainment from their imperial patrons. Augustus paid for more than five thousand pairs of gladiators to fight in spectacular festivals. The programs of these extravagant events also included chariot races, mock naval battles on artificial lakes, fights between humans and savage beasts, displays of exotic African animals that sometimes mangled condemned criminals as a form of capital punishment, and theatrical productions. Mimes were the most popular form of theater. These dramas of everyday life employed actresses to play female roles, as did the sexually explicit farces that were also popular with Rome’s audiences. The city’s largest theater, whose seating rising on arches held about twenty thousand people, was the Theater of Marcel-lus, named by the emperor Augustus in memory of his dead nephew.

As the Roman emperors over time abandoned Augustus’s stance as an accessible ruler and distanced themselves from ordinary people, gladiatorial shows, chariot races, and theater productions became the only venues in which the masses could communicate their discontents to the emperors, who were expected to attend the shows or send a high-ranking representative. On more than one occasion the poor rioted at festivals to express their unhappiness about a shortfall in the free grain supply.


Education changed beginning in the time of Augustus so that, like coins, architectural monuments, and public entertainments, it, too, would now serve the goals of legitimizing and strengthening the transformed system of government. Rhetoric remained education’s central subject, but it lost its traditional political bite. Under the Republic, the ability to make persuasive speeches criticizing opponents had been such a powerful weapon that it could catapult someone like Cicero, who lacked social and military distinction, to political prominence. Now, the emperor’s supremacy ruled out open political debate and freedom of speech. Under these new circumstances, ambitious men required rhetorical skills only for private legal cases, trials of government officials, and speeches in praise of the emperor on the numerous public occasions that communicated his image as an effective and generous ruler. Since political criticism was too risky, rhetorical training had less and less to do with politics. Instead of learning to make speeches on national policy, students now learned how to make an impression as a clever speaker by practicing on topics such as “a rape victim’s alternatives,” or “cures for the plague,” using an exaggerated style designed to attract attention to the speaker’s skill rather than to offer frank opinions on political matters (Tacitus, Dialogue on Orators 35.5).

Education remained a privilege of the wealthy. Rome still had no publicly financed schools, so the poor were lucky to pick up rudimentary literacy from their busy parents. Even wealthier people valued education more for its practical skills than for general knowledge or its effect on character, now that making money replaced politics as the preferred—and safe—form of social competition for men. A character in a satirical literary work of the mid-first century A.D. expressed this utilitarian attitude toward education succinctly: “I didn’t study geometry and literary criticism and worthless junk like that. I just learned how to read the letters on signs and how to work out percentages, and I learned weights, measures, and the values of the different kinds of coins” (Petronius,Satyricon 58).

Although the Roman ideal called for mothers to teach their offspring, servants or hired teachers usually looked after the children of rich families under the Empire. The children attended private elementary schools from the ages of seven to eleven to learn reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. Some children went on to the next three years of school, in which they were introduced to literature, history, and grammar. Only a few boys advanced to the study of rhetoric.

Advanced studies concerned literature, history, ethical philosophy, law, and dialectic (determining the truth by identifying contradictions in arguments). Mathematics and science were little studied except for practical use; Roman engineers and architects became extremely proficient at calculation. Rich men and women would pursue their interests in books by having slaves read aloud to them. Reading required manual dexterity as well as literacy because books, instead of being bound page by page, consisted of continuous scrolls made from the papyrus reed or animal skin. A reader had to unroll the scroll with one hand while simultaneously rolling it up with the other.

Literature and sculpture also took a new direction under Augustus, helping to communicate a positive image of the ruler, though not without conflict between the emperor and some authors and artists. So much literature blossomed at this time that modern critics regard the time of Augustus as the Golden Age of Latin literature (as opposed to the empire’s political Golden Age, which historians place in the second century A.D.). Augustus himself wrote poetry, and he supported this flourishing in literature by acting as the patron of a circle of writers and artists. His favorites, Horace (65 B.C.–8 B.C.) and Vergil (or Virgil, 70 B.C.–19 B.C.), supported his new system of government. Horace entranced audiences with the supple rhythms and subtle humor of his short poems on public and private subjects. His poem celebrating Augustus’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium became famous for its opening line “Now it’s time to start drinking!” (Odes 1.37).

Vergil became the most popular Augustan poet in later times for his long poem, the Aeneid, which he wrote both to please the emperor and to give him advice (very politely). An epic inspired by Homeric poetry, it told the legend of the Trojan Aeneas, said to be the most distant ancestor of the Romans. Vergil limited the poem’s praise of the Roman state by expressing, through the many tragic deaths of its story, a profound recognition of the price to be paid for success. The Aeneid therefore underscored the complex mix of gain and loss that followed Augustus’s transformation of politics and society. Above all, it expressed a moral code for emperors to follow: be merciful to the conquered but bring down the arrogant. Vergil had read portions of the Aeneid to Augustus and his family with great success, but on his deathbed in 19 B.C. he is reported to have asked his friends to burn the poem because he had not finished revising the text. Augustus ordered it preserved.

Authors with a more independent streak had to be careful. The historian Livy (54 B.C.–A.D. 17) composed an enormous history of Rome that did not hide the ruthless actions of Augustus and his supporters. The emperor reprimanded Livy for his frankness but did not punish him, most likely because the history also made clear that Rome’s success and stability depended on maintaining traditional values of loyalty and self-sacrifice.

The poet Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17) fared worse. With mocking wit, his erotic poems Ars Amatoria and Amores (Art of Love and Love Affairs) implicitly made fun of the emperor’s moral legislation, offering tongue-in-cheek tips for conducting illicit love affairs and picking up other men’s wives at festivals. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Transformations) reimagined myths of bizarre supernatural changes of shapes, with people becoming animals and confusions between the human and the divine, thereby undermining the tradition of accepting social hierarchy as natural and stable. In 8 B.C., Augustus coldly expressed his disapproval by exiling Ovid to a dreary town on the Black Sea, perhaps also in response to Ovid’s involvement in a sex scandal surrounding the emperor’s daughter.

Sculpture also responded to the emperor’s wishes. In the late Republic, sculpted portraits had realistically emphasized the hard wear and tear of human experience. Sculpture after Augustus became emperor began to display a much more idealized style, reminiscent of classical Greek art, or Lysippus’s fourth-century B.C. portrait of Alexander the Great. In famous works of art such as the Prima Porta statue of Augustus (now in the Vatican Museum in Rome), or the sculpted panels on the Altar of Augustan Peace (now reconstructed in a museum next to the Tiber River), the emperor had himself portrayed as calm and dignified rather than anxious and sick, as he in truth often was. As with his monumental architecture, Augustus used sculpture to project a serene image of himself as the always-in-charge restorer of the world.

Much of the poetry and the portraiture of the new empire therefore reflected Augustus’s much-publicized image of himself: the great father selflessly and generously restoring peace and prosperity to his war-torn people. He hoped that this image would persuade Romans to accept a new way of being governed, without their focusing on the hidden costs of the change. Augustus was certainly a generous patron to Rome’s poor, and he forced the rich to make financial contributions to pay for the standing army and public works. But underneath his benevolence lay a vein of ruthlessness. Many people, including friends and even relatives, had been murdered in the proscriptions of 43 B.C. Others lost their homes in the confiscations that provided land for his army veterans. Perhaps most tellingly, it was Augustus’s power as the army’s commander and patron that guaranteed the “Roman peace.” The open debate and shared decision-making by citizens that had been the most cherished ideals of the Republic had been lost—this was the price to be paid for social and political order under the Empire.

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