Was Augustus a success?
In our modern world, Augustus worries us. We have an inherent belief in what we call ‘democracy’, yet here is someone who overthrew democracy and replaced it by a monarchy — and with great success.
We need to re-assess our own attitudes to democracy. Our own definition of democracy is skewed: in the ancient world, democracy meant every citizen voting in the Assembly, and this only worked in a single city where all citizens could come together to exercise their choice. Our modern form of democracy depends on a representative democracy, which was something invented here in England, and only gradually and very slowly between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern world. Indeed it was not until the twentieth century that democracy, in what we consider to be its proper form, finally evolved.
Indeed, when we talk of ‘democracy’, we tend to mean something quite different: we tend to mean ‘freedom’, that is the ability to ‘do your own thing’. For this, the marketplace is in many ways superior. In democracy, if 51% of the population vote one way, then the other 49% have to follow. In the marketplace, if 51% choose Coca-Cola and 49% choose Pepsi, then 51% have Coke, and 49% have Pepsi. And this is why the Roman Empire was so successful in that they maintained a market economy and the rule of law.
They did indeed continue to have democracy at a lower level: when Pompeii was overwhelmed in A.D. 79, local elections were in progress. More importantly, the market place continues to flourish. In Britain, we can see how the pottery industry gradually coalesced from numerous small potteries to three or four large potteries, with Hadrian’s Wall being supplied with coarse pottery from the Black Burnished wares of Dorset.
More importantly, perhaps the old tribal system was replaced by a new system of local government in the civitates, as pioneered by Augustus in Gaul. The old tribal system, in effect a feudal system, where you had to work at the whim of your superior, was replaced by a system of taxation, – and though taxes are never welcome, they are nevertheless better than labouring at your lord’s arbitrary command. The Roman system had begun in the third or fourth centuries BC with the system whereby local communities were linked directly to Rome, though usually without the vote, but were given considerable freedom to live their own lives. Under Augustus this system was in effect reinstalled in the new provinces.
The new system can perhaps be seen best in the Roman villa, an undefended homestead, very different to the medieval moated manor house, where the lord needed to be defended from the peasants. The villa owner considered himself to be a free man, and something of the spirit of freedom penetrated down to the workers below, often accommodated in a nearby aisled barn – sometimes with their own baths. And there are numerous villages too, often with the round houses of the Iron Age, but with pottery you can drink from, and coins, which will give you choice of where to spend them.
The great appeal of Augustus to the Roman people was that he brought peace. After the upheavals of Marius and Sulla, and the chaos of Julius Caesar and the triumvirates, Augustus brought peace and it is significant that one of his major building was his Altar of Peace. Ronald Syme as always takes a cynical view that there was always a war somewhere in the empire, but under Augustus, troops were only stationed on the frontiers and provinces like Gaul and lowland Britain, soldiers were rarely seen. For most people in the empire, the benefits of peace, underpinned by a thriving market economy and the replacement of a tribal feudal system by the rule of law, outweighed the loss of a democracy that did not work. Peace brought prosperity, and this prosperity made the Roman empire a huge success.