Augustus was a brilliant administrator. Much of his best work can be seen in the provinces. Rome acquired an empire by accident and learned to administer it bit by bit, and one of Augustus’s greatest achievements was to go round the Empire – he visited virtually every province — and sort it out. Often this involved fighting, for a number of the provinces had only been half conquered: there were particular problems in the Balkans. But the province where he spent the most time, and where his efforts can best be seen, is Gaul, that is modern France. He visited Gaul four times, – indeed he spent three years there continuously, from 16 to 13 BC.
Since the conquest by Caesar, Gaul had been largely neglected, but it was becoming steadily more Roman. A good example is Bibracte, in central France. This was a major hillfort, the scene of two major battles in Caesar’s conquest, in 56 and 52 BC. Subsequently the hillfort developed rapidly as a Romanised town. But the site, being a hilltop, was inherently unsuitable, so Augustus moved it down into the plain, where a new town was founded 15 kms away at Augustodunum, still a thriving modern town under the name of Autun. No doubt Augustus was able to do this to a considerable extent simply by command, but presumably diplomacy was needed to persuade the leaders that a new town down in the plain would provide a better outlet for their talent and their enthusiasm. The story was repeated elsewhere, and the face of France began to take on a new look.
And then there was the necessity of establishing the administrative framework. In an early visit, Agrippa had laid out a new road system to connect the different parts, centred on Lugdunum (Lyons) in the centre of France. But a proper system of provinces needed to be established. In the South Gaul, Gallia Narbonensis had been a province for over a century but in the North three new provinces were laid out. However the problem was in the East, where two new provinces were established, of Upper and Lower Germany; whereas the Gallic provinces were essentially peaceful provinces, the two Germanies were where the troops were stationed, facing the barbarians across the Rhine.
Indeed it was here that Augustus had his biggest failure, in that he failed to conquer Germany. The German Frontier was one of the longest in the Empire, running along the Rhine and then along the Danube, and an obvious solution was to push the frontier 500 miles to the east to the Elbe. Drusus spent several years campaigning in Germany, and then Varus was sent out with three legions to complete the conquest. However in A.D. 9, there was disaster. The Germans acquired a leader of genius, one Arminius, who had already served in the Roman army; he sprang a trap, and destroyed three legions. Augustus cried out: Varus, give me back my three legions! But he was a realist and the frontier was drawn back to the Rhine and for the rest of the Roman Empire, the Germans remained barbarians.
There were administrative problems too. The boundaries of each of the new provinces had to be established, and so in 27 BC Augustus set out to carry out a census- which was an enormous undertaking, involving finding out who lived where. A big problem was that Gaulish customs concerning land involved multi-ownership: land was held in trust for the whole tribe, and this caused chaos to Roman legal practice. (Compare the problems of the British in India)
A key innovation was the establishment of the Altar of the three Gauls, set up at Lugdunum, modern Lyons, at the border of the three provinces. This was an altar to Rome and Augustus, set up by Drusus in 12 BC, inscribed with the names of all 60 civitates from the three provinces. A lesser man might have feared that this would prove a centre of Gallic, and thus anti-Roman consciousness; but Augustus realised that it was important that the Gauls should feel that not only were they Roman, but Gallic as well. He wanted to establish loyalty to himself and to Rome, but at the same time he wanted the Gauls to embrace a certain element of Gallic consciousness.
His work in Gaul is taken here as an example: he did similar work, and spent similar amounts of time in the other provinces as well; indeed in many of the other provinces there was fighting to be done, to smooth out the limits of the empire, to incorporate tribes that had not hitherto been incorporated. Everywhere there was fighting to begun to be done, barbarians to be civilised, allies to be made and civilisation to be established. In short the Roman Empire was established and everywhere prosperity increased: there was a peace dividend, and nowhere in the history of world has this peace dividend be more fruitful than in the years of the Emperor Augustus.