The Roman Empire: Government & Culture

Instructor: Jason McCollom
After the demise of the Roman Republic, Augustus presided over the early Roman Empire. In this lesson, explore elements of the government, military, and culture of imperial Rome.

The Age of Augustus (31 BCE-14 CE)

As Julius Caesar lay dying on the senate floor, he looked at his old friend Brutus, who had just stabbed him. 'Et tu, Brute?' (roughly translated as, 'You too, Brutus?') he gasped in disbelief. At least that is how Shakespeare wants us to remember the moment that the Roman Republic dissolved into civil war. What emerged from the ashes of the Republic was the Roman Empire, with victorious Octavian as its undisputed leader.

In 27 BCE the senate awarded Octavian the title Augustus, which meant the 'revered one.' But as the first Roman emperor, Augustus knew he would have to pretend that the senate and the people still had power, so he preferred the title princeps (chief citizen, or first among equals). This was just for show, however, because Augustus held most of the power in the new Roman Empire.

A bronze statue of Augustus, the first Roman emperor

Government in the Roman Empire

Augustus's power was clear in the new government structure of imperial Rome. The two central elements of government in Republican Rome were the aristocratic senate and the popular assemblies. Now, however, Augustus claimed the right to single-handedly approve or disapprove any senate decree. And though elections to the assemblies continued, Augustus and his powerful supporters ensured the winners were supportive of the emperor and imperial policies. Beginning with the reign of Augustus, therefore, electoral participation began to steadily decline, and eventually the popular assemblies would disappear.

Citizenship in the Roman Empire

In the Augustan period of the Roman Empire there were essentially three classes of citizens. The senatorial order stood at the top, with its (slowly dwindling) power concentrated in the aristocratic senate. Below, the equestrian order was made of freeborn Romans of above-average means and ancestral lineage. The masses of the lower classes, who composed of most of the free citizens of Rome, experienced a decline in their power as the popular assemblies came under the control of the emperor. Augustus understood the masses needed 'bread and circus' to divert their attention from their loss of political influence (we'll talk about this more later).

In later periods of imperial Rome, service in the Roman army became more important, as it served as a pathway to citizenship. In the late empire, citizenship was eventually extended to all free denizens in the provinces, not just those in Rome and the Italian peninsula.

The Roman Census

The inauguration of the census marked one of Augustus's key reforms. The census allowed the imperial government to accurately assess wealth and thus apply appropriate taxes, which increased the revenue of the state. The census also provided Augustus with a measure of potential soldiers for the army. Through the census, Augustus was able to create a more streamlined imperial budget and keep more accurate records of the affairs of the state.

The Roman Army

The Roman army served two key functions in the early empire. The first was to guard the frontiers of the provinces from barbarian attacks. Secondly, the army maintained domestic order, tamping down potential uprisings as the Republic gave way to the Empire. The army also served informal functions: it was an agent of upward mobility for the lower classes, and it was also a means of spreading Roman culture to the far reaches of the empire.

Roman legionnaires
roman army

Augustan Rome maintained an army of 28 legions, which came to around 150,000 soldiers (of an imperial population of about 50 million). Freeborn citizens were the only accepted legionaries. Subject peoples of Rome--those with no standing citizenship--made up auxiliary forces. Often they were granted citizenship for their service.

Finally, the newly created praetorian guard protected the emperor.

The Splendor of Rome

Augustus famously boasted he 'found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.' One of his most lasting legacies was the reconstruction of several of Rome's most important buildings. For instance, Augustus had the Roman Forum--a broad plaza flanked by public buildings, and the center of Rome's commerce--reworked with dazzling Carrara marble and other colored marbles. Basilicas were significant structures in Roman life; as oblong structures, they were used for important religious ceremonies and for other public services. The emperor ordered new basilicas constructed, such as the Basilica of Neptune, and improved the old ones.

As Livy, the great Roman historian reminds us, Augustus was the 'founder and restorer of all the temples of Rome.'

The ruins of the Roman Forum
forum ruins

Roman engineers also experimented with novel uses of the arch, dome, and vault. Coupled with the use of massive amounts of concrete, which was a first of this time period, Augustus's Rome erected huge and impressive structures across the city. Most amazing were the aqueducts that carried water from miles away to Rome. Pont du Gard in southern France, for instance, towers over the countryside as a three-story bridge built of stones, with a channel on top that carried water for over 30 miles.

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