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Life in the Roman Empire Under Augustus

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Augustus was Rome's first emperor, and he had the job of overseeing Rome's transition out of a republic. In this lesson, we'll talk about how this changed Roman society and daily life in the Eternal City.

Life in the Early Roman Empire

In 27 BCE, the Roman Senate did something that would change history forever. They recognized a man named Octavian as the ''first citizen'' of Rome, granting him unprecedented amounts of power and the honorific name Augustus. This was a big deal. Rome had just created its first emperor.

Augustus
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Augustus, as Roman emperor, was in an interesting position. He oversaw Rome's transition from republic to empire and did so very cleverly. Throughout his entire reign, Augustus remained dedicated to the traditions and institutions of the Republic. We call this period the Augustan Principate, during which Rome was an empire under an authoritarian ruler, but still had the outward appearance of a republic of the people. So, it was an interesting time, and this extended into daily life. Roman life in this time was characterized by a fascinating mixture of Republic traditions with new, imperial ideas.

Changes in Social Classes

Equestrians

Under Augustus, daily life in Rome changed in many ways. One big one was the shift in a few major social classes. Let's start by looking at the equestrians. Equestrians were members of a high social class but were not as high as senators. They were sort of like a Roman upper middle class. This class had first been organized back in the days of the Republic, and as the name implies, was originally earned through membership in the Roman cavalry. By the end of the Republic, they were a class of businessmen and administrators.

While the senators of the Republic had often been suspicious of this administrative class, Augustus saw them as fundamental to the infrastructure of the empire. He reorganized this class, making it both part of the military and still in charge of business and building projects. He also made membership in this class open to non-Romans, and it became a popular way for people across the empire to gain more social power. For centuries, the equestrians would be amongst the most important parts of the daily administration of one of the most effectively organized empires in the world.

Freedmen

The other social class to be reorganized under Augustus was at the opposite end of the scale. Rome had many slaves, and as the empire grew, the number of slaves increased drastically. Now, Roman slaves could generally expect freedom in their lifetimes, making them a low class of Roman citizens called freedmen. Augustus worried about the impact this could have on Rome. So, he oversaw the creation of new laws that restricted the ability of Romans to free their slaves. Freeing slaves was still possible, but it was more regulated under Augustus. The big change here was that only slaves who had behaved well could be freed. The goal was to only grant citizenship to slaves who would make good Romans. With the rise of the empire, the diversity of slaves increased, so only those who seemed able to assimilate to Roman culture were freed.

Tombstone of a family of freedmen and women
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Women in the Roman Empire

Traditionally, Rome was a highly patriarchal society. Even membership in the Senate was originally limited to the oldest male of a family. While Rome would never become an egalitarian society, things did change under Augustus. Perhaps due to Augustus' obsession with publically showing respect for the traditions of Roman-style democracy and citizenship, or perhaps because the influx of outsiders led to a desire to uplift all Romans, free women gained new rights in this time.

By the end of Augustus' reign, many Roman women had the right to own their own businesses and manage their own finances. They could own, inherit, and bequest property. These changes had the greatest impact on the wealthy women of Rome, who not only had the ears of Rome's most powerful men but essentially inherited their husband's wealth and power if he died.

Elite women gained more power under Augustus
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