Transition to Empire and Rome Under Augustus

Transition to Empire

Though Rome owed its prosperity to trade in the early years, it was war which would make the city a powerful force in the ancient world. The wars with the North African city of Carthage (known as the Punic Wars, 264–146 BCE) consolidated Rome’s power and helped the city grow in wealth and prestige. Rome and Carthage were rivals in trade in the Western Mediterranean and, with Carthage defeated, Rome held almost absolute dominance over the region (there were still incursions by pirates which prevented complete Roman control of the sea). As the Republic of Rome grew in power and prestige, the city of Rome began to suffer from the effects of corruption, greed and the over-reliance on foreign slave labor.

Gangs of unemployed Romans, put out of work by the influx of slaves brought in through territorial conquests, hired themselves out as thugs to do the bidding of whatever wealthy Senator would pay them. The wealthy elite of the city, the Patricians, became ever richer at the expense of the working lower class, the Plebeians. In the 2 ndcentury BCE, the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, two Roman tribunes, lead a movement for land reform and political reform in general. Though the brothers were both killed in this cause, their efforts did spur legislative reforms and the rampant corruption of the Senate was curtailed (or, at least, the Senators became more discreet in their corrupt activities). By the time of the First Triumvirate, both the city and the Republic of Rome were in full flourish.

The demand of the Roman allies proved another source of unrest. For years, the Roman allies had paid tribute and provided soldiers for war but were not considered citizens. Like their plebian kindred years earlier, they wanted representation. It took a rebellion for things to change. Although the Senate had warned the Roman citizens that awarding these people citizenship would be dangerous, full citizenship was finally granted to all people (slaves excluded) in the entire Italian peninsula. Later, Julius Caesar would extend citizenship beyond Italy and grant it to the people of Spain and Gaul.

About this time the city witnessed a serious threat to its very survival when Marcus Tillius Cicero, the Roman statesman and poet, uncovered a conspiracy led by the Roman senator Lucius Sergius Catiline to overthrow the Roman government. Cicero also believed that the Republic was declining due to moral decay. Problems such as this together with fear and unrest came to the attention of three men in 60 BCE: Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus had gained fame by his defeat of Spartacus and his followers in 71 BCE. Pompey had distinguished himself in Spain as well as in the East. Caesar had proven himself as an able commander. Together, the three men formed what historians have named the First Triumvirate or Gang of Three.

Tensions ultimately mounted between Pompey and Caesar. Pompey was jealous of Caesar’s success and fame while Caesar wanted a return to politics. Eventually these differences brought them to battle, and in 48 BCE they met at Pharsalus. Pompey was defeated, escaping to Egypt where he was killed by Ptolemy XIII. Caesar fulfilled his destiny by securing both the eastern provinces and northern Africa, returning to Rome a hero only to be declared dictator for life. Many of his enemies, as well as several allies, saw his new position as a serious threat to the foundation of the Republic, and despite a number of popular reforms, his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BCE brought the Republic to its knees. His heir and step-son Octavian subdued Mark Antony, eventually becoming the first emperor of Rome as Augustus. The Republic was gone and in its ashes rose the Roman Empire. (61)(65)

The Roman Empire Under Augustus

Augustus ruled the empire from 31 BCE until 14 CE when he died. In that time, as he said himself, he “found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble.” Augustus reformed the laws of the city and, by extension, the empire’s, secured Rome’s borders, initiated vast building projects (carried out largely by his faithful general Agrippa, who built the first Pantheon), and secured the empire a lasting name as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political and cultural powers in history. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace), also known as the Pax Augusta, which he initiated, was a time of peace and prosperity hitherto unknown and would last over 200 years. (68)

Art During the Age of Augustus

During his reign, Augustus enacted an effective propaganda campaign to promote the legitimacy of his rule as well as to encourage moral and civic ideals among the Roman populace.

Augustan sculpture contains the rich iconography of Augustus’s reign with its strong themes of legitimacy, stability, fertility, prosperity, and religious piety. The visual motifs employed within this iconography became the standards for imperial art. (69)

Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, is one of the best examples of Augustan artistic propaganda. Not only does it demonstrate a new moral code promoted by Augustus, it also established imperial iconography. It was commissioned by the Senate in 13 BCE to honor the peace and bounty established by Augustus following his return from Hispania (Spain) and Gaul; it was consecrated on January 30, 9 BCE.

The marble altar was erected just outside the boundary of the pomerium to the north of the city along the Via Flaminia on the Campus Martius. The actual u-shaped altar sits atop a podium inside a square wall that demarcates the precinct’s sacred space. (69)

This photo shows the Ara Pacis Augustae. The actual u-shaped altar sits atop a podium inside the square wall that is seen here and demarcates the precinct's sacred space.
Figure 5-20: Ara Pacis Augustae by Manfred Heyde is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
This photo shows a detail from the processional scene on the south wall of the Ara Pacis Augustae. In the center stands Augustus next to his wife Livia. Their family stands behind the couple on all sides. The figures ascend from the wall giving them a three-dimensional quality.
Figure 5-21: The processional scene on the south wall of the Ara Pacis Augustae by MM from Wikimedia website is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The north and south walls depict a procession of life-sized figures on the upper register. These figures include men, women, children, priests, lictors, and identifiable members of the political elite during the Augustan age. The elite include Augustus, his wife Livia, his son-in-law Marcus Agrippa (who died in 12 BCE), and Tiberius, Augustus’s adopted son and successor who would marry the emperor’s widowed daughter in 11 BCE. While the altar as a whole celebrates the Augustus as a peacemaker, this scene promotes him as a pious family man. (69)

Imperial Portraiture

Augustus very carefully controlled his imperial portrait. Abandoning the veristic style of the Republican period, his portraits always showed him as an idealized young man. These portraits linked him to divinities and heroes, both mythical and historical.

He is often shown with an identifiable cowlick that was originally shown on the portraits of Alexander the Great. His lack of shoes signifies his supposed humbleness despite the great power he possessed. Two portraits of him, one as Pontifex Maximus and the other as Imperator, depict two different personae of the emperor.

Augustus’s portrait as Pontifex Maximus shows him attired with a toga over his ever-youthful head, an attribute that serves to remind viewers of his own extreme piety to the gods. (69)

This photo shows a statue of Augustus portrayed as Pontifex Maximus, attired with a toga over his ever-youthful head, an attribute that serves to remind viewers of his own extreme piety to the gods.
Figure 5-22: Augustus as Pontifex Maximus From the Via Labicana, Rome is licensed under Public Domain
The Augustus of Primaporta statue shows the influence of both Roman and Classical Greek works. Cupid rides a dolphin at Augustus' feet, a symbol of his divine ancestry.
Figure 5-23: Augustus of Prima Porta by unknown from Wikimedia website is licensed under Public Domain

The Augustus of Primaporta shows the influence of both Roman and Classical Greek works, including the Spear Bearer by Polykleitos and the Etruscan bronze Aule Metele. Assuming the role of imperator, Augustus wears military grab in a pose known as adlucotio, addressing his troops. Despite his poor health, which left him with a frail body, he appears healthy and muscular.

Cupid rides a dolphin at Augustus’ feet, a symbol of his divine ancestry. Cupid is the son of Venus, as was Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the Roman people. The Julian family traced their ancestry back to Aeneas and, therefore, consider themselves descendants of Venus

As Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, this use of iconography allows Augustus to remind viewers of his divine lineage. In addition to adopting the body language and attire of a general, the relief on the cuirass shows one of Augustus’ greatest victories — the return of the Parthian standards.

During the civil wars, a legion’s standards were lost when the legion was defeated by the Parthians. In a great feat of diplomacy, and curiously not military action, Augustus was able to negotiate the return of the standards to the legion and to Rome. Additional figures on the cuirass personify Roman gods and the arrival of Augustan peace. (69)