Augustus the Administrator

Augustus was clearly a brilliant organiser and administrator: there were few aspects of Roman life that he did not reorganise — the Senate, the lawcourts and particularly finance. Here he was particularly successful, finding Rome bankrupt, but leaving it rich. He introduced some modest new taxes – a 4% tax on the sale of slaves, 5% death duties on large estates, and a 1% sales tax. (It is amazing to modern eyes how low were the taxes in the ancient world; though it was not the taxes but the occasional levies that were disastrous when a ransom had to be paid or a tribute was levied: but it was one of the great advantages of the Pax Romana that such irregular impositions became rare).

Augustus was particularly successful with the administration of his own estates which formed a considerable part of the overall economy of the empire. The imperial estates were very extensive: not only had he inherited Julius Caesar’s estates but also those of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Indeed Egypt did not become a province at all, but rather the personal property of the emperor, ruled over by a procurator, so the very considerable income went into the Emperor’s private purse: Egypt would become a major source of income for the Emperors in the future.

A good example was his reorganisation of the currency. This had become in a chaotic state with all the members of the triumvirate issuing their own coins. Mark Anthony’s coinage was particularly bad as he allowed it to be debased, and consequently the huge numbers of Antony’s coins continued to be found in hordes down to the second century A.D.

This bronze coin of Antoninus Pius AD 138-161 showing Italia sitting on the globe is still marked SC by decree of the senate, showing that even 150 years after Augustus the senate still had a remarkable degree of authority.

Augustus introduced a completely new system. Gold and silver was to be produced by the Emperor, and he set up a new mint at Lugdunum (Lyons) in France for this purpose. However coins of smaller value, of copper and bronze was to be produced by the senate, and was stamped SC, that is Senatus consulto. The coinage maintained its purity for at least 50 years until Nero in A.D. 60 began the first stage long stage of the debasement which would ultimately ruin the Empire.

He even tried to reorganise morals: there were laws against adultery (which were not very successful) and the ius trium liberorum, the law of three children, which gave privileges to those who had more than three children: in particular women were no longer subject to the tutela, the guardianship of their fathers or husbands, and could receive inheritances in their own right, and could thus own their husbands’ estates after his death.

His administration was at its most brilliant in the provinces. The best example is in Gaul, modern France where he spent three years from 16 – 13 BC during which he reorganised the province. His main innovation was to replace the somewhat fluid system of tribes by a regular system of civitates, each with a civitas capital. He also carried out a census which was a major operation akin to our later Domesday Book in which everyone was recorded – and became available for taxation.

His biggest failure was in Germany. The river Rhine formed an obvious frontier matched by the river Danube to the south, but it was a long frontier and it would be far simpler if Germany could be conquered, and a new frontier were to be established 300 miles to the east along the river Elbe. An army was sent out under Varus which achieved considerable success until it was lured into an ambush and overwhelmed and three legions destroyed. This was the biggest defeat suffered by Augustus and changed the whole history of Europe: the long Rhine/Danube frontier was to remain a problem.

But his reorganisation of Gaul was to prove an example that would be followed elsewhere, notably in the Balkans and indeed subsequently in Britain. But in many areas the situation was fluid and boundaries had to be established and wars had to be fought and allies to be made. But eventually there would be a peace dividend, and prosperity would follow.

On to Augustus the Builder

10th August 2012