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Augustan Military Policy

On the death of Augustus, Tiberius brought a number of documents to the senate to be read. These included advice from Augustus to his successor and to the senators. Tacitus (Annales 1.11)  reports that the advice was not to expand the empire. Dio (56.33) repeats the claim with a little more context. Holding on to existing territory was hard and the Romans should not take more territory. This, he claimed, had always been his policy. Dio (54.9)  reports a similar claim, this time in 20 BC. Suetonius (Augustus 21) gives a long list of tribes and areas conquered, then claims that Augustus did not want to expand the empire.

Peace was also part of Augustus’ monumental programme. The Ara Pacis was a monument to the peace and prosperity brought by Augustus.


Frieze from the Ara Pacis showing the benefits of Peace

The closing of the doors of the temple of Janus three times during Augustus’ reign suggests a determination to bring about peace (Res Gestae 13). Velleius Paterculus (2.97)celebrated Octavian’s return in 29 BC as a restoration of the values of peace.

Such statements run up against evidence for Augustan expansionism. This is most notable in the record of continuous military conquest in the west. But it is also in the Res Gestae in which chapters 25-33 (about 25% of the whole)  celebrate Augustan conquests or the diplomatic subjugation of foreign peoples. Additionally, the preface to the Res Gestae which was added at publication in AD 14 states that

Below is a copy of the Achievements of the Deified Augustus through which he subjugated the orb of the world to the power of the Roman people and the expenses which he undertook for the Republic and the people of Rome as inscribed in two bronze pillars which have been erected in Rome.


Gemma Augustea (Commons) (Kunsthistorische Museum)

Images of victory adorn private art, such as the Boscoreale cups, and the gemma augustea. This last is a famous art work that somehow mysteriously survives from the later Augustan period. On the lower register, we see the actions of imperial conquest. Roman soldiers engage with the aftermath of victory. Armour stripped from the defeat is raised up on a Trophaeum to monumentalise the victory. Weeping barbarians sit on the foot of the trophy, the male naked and bound. On the right side, barbarians are dragged by the Romans, either to be killed or enslaved. The woman holds her dress, suggesting that it has been torn. The allusion to sexual violence seems obvious.

On the Upper register, we see other consequences of imperial victory. A chariot arrives driven by the goddess Victoria. A togate general descends, his eyes fixed on the seated figures. He seems to be accompanied by a Roman in military dress. It would seem likely that these are Drusus or Tiberius and Germanicus, returned from campaign. The seated male figure is clearly Augustus. His star sign, Capricorn, floats above him, suggesting that his victories have been fated by the gods. He is a divine figure accompanied by the eagle of Jupiter. He is surrounded by gods and goddesses and crowned by a goddess. To his left a goddes sits holding a cornucopia, symbol of agricultural plenty, and a small child looks on to the god Augustus. Imperial conquest elevates the emperor to the divine.

Other public art and architecture was similarly militaristic. The Temple of Apollo on the Palatine was adorned with statues that recalled the victory in Egypt.


Obelisk of Montecitioro (Arpingstone: Commons)

Augustus also brought back  obelisks from Egypt with which to adorn public squares. The most famous is the one now in the piazza Montecitiorio, which was originally used a sun dial on the piazza next to the Ara Pacis. The inscription on it reads:

Imperator Caesar, son of the deified, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, hailed Imperator 12 times, consul 11 times, tribunician power for 14 years, having returned Egypt into the power of the Roman people, gave (this) to the Sun. 

The obelisk was both a religious monument and a very obvious record of his victory in Egypt.


Such structures were dwarfed by the Temple of Mars Ultor and the new Augustan Forum. The temple was promised by Octavian as part of the campaign against Caesar’s assassins, but it took a considerable length of time to bring to fruition. It was opened with lavish celebrations in 2 BC.

The Forum was a religious space, dominated by the temple and a large status of Augustus that declared Augustus Pater Patriae (father of his Native Land). It was an honour granted by the senate and people of Rome and which Augustus himself represented as the culmination of his career when he completed the Res Gestae (35) by recording its granting.

Generals were supposed set out to their provinces from this Forum, presumably after sacrificing. Young men were brought to Forum to be educated in Roman values and history. The history that was on display was familial. The Temple linked to the Julian family through representations of Aeneas, Mars and Venus. But on one flank there were also famous members of the Julian family.

Forum of Augustus Alston

Temple of Mars Ultor: Forum of Augustus

As a representation of history, it was decidedly bellicose. Famous men from history were installed into this Augustan Hall of Fame. Their achievements were always military and their conquests listed in the labels that identified these ancestral heroes.

Augustus Aegypta Capta BM

Augustan Coin: Aegypto Capta: Egypt Captured (British Museum)

For those who could not come to Rome, there were coins. These were widely distributed and celebrated Augustan military successes. Such coins appeared not just on coinage minted in Rome, but those minted in the provinces, presumably as city authorities sought to associate themselves with the victories of Augustus and display their loyalty to the regime. Victory brought wealth and this was to be seen on the money.

The poets of the period also offered up the prospect of Augustan conquests as a reason to be grateful for Augustan rule, notably in Virgil, Aeneid 6.792 and following and 851-53 and Horace, Odes 4.14 and 3.5. As the poets celebrated, so Augustus celebrated. His victories in Spain and in the East were the occasion of orchestrated public celebrations, and even if one harboured doubts about the regime, those were surely offset by the public entertainments and the gifts lavished on the people of Rome following victories.

The Romans knew that their empire was a historic achievement and that there was little to which it could compare. It gave them a sense of their own importance. More victories and imperial expansion showed that Rome was still great and on the right path. It was something behind which the people could unite.


There is  a paradox. Augustan declarations of peace and peaceful intent are matched by bellicosity and celebrations of world conquest. Augustus has some claim to be greatest ever conqueror in terms of the territory that he added to Rome’s Empire.

How do we resolve the paradox?

  • Those favourably disposed towards Augustus suggest that Augustus was drawn into wars by unstable frontiers. The Augustan plan, it seems, was to expand the Roman empire until it reached its ‘natural frontiers’. European nationalists also had similar ambitions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
    • The minor problem is the absence of a ‘natural frontier’. For every river or mountain range, there is another river or mountain range in the distance.
    • The Romans do not seem to have had a conception of the natural frontier. They crossed rivers, invaded new territories, and expanded through the first 150 years of imperial rule.
    • Natural frontiers tend to be where armies stopped.
    • Finding natural frontiers needs excellent mapping. The Romans had very little clue as to the nature of Germany or the norther Balkans. They simply did not have the information to develop such a policy.
  • Augustus changed his mind. The most explicit policy statements come in AD 14. Could Augustus have changed his mind after the revolts in the last decades of his reign?
    • Dio suggests that the more pacific policy was maintained throughout his reign.
    • The Res Gestae, which is one of the more bellicose of our sources, is also from AD 14.
  • When Augustus talked of Peace, he meant Victory. His aim was to bring peace by conquering everyone.

The paradox cannot be easily resolved. But we can see a consistent thread through Augustan military policy. There was a consistent emphasis  on imperial conquest as the route to safety and security (peace). Conquest brought material benefits to Rome. It brought glory to the emperor and his family. The military activity of Augustus and his family could be seen as justifying their extraordinary prominence: who else could ensure such military success?

Military adventurism also justified Augustus having a large army at his disposal. He had between 28 and 25 legions at various points in his career. The Republic had had no fixed number of legions. But in times of relative peace, the number dropped considerably below 25. Augustus had a large standing army. And he needed to raise money to pay for it.

Such an army brought political support. Although there was no military challenge after the death of Antony, 25 or more legions which he paid and rewarded and to which he appointed the officers was a political resource of the last resort.

He could claim that he needed an army for the many campaigns which were being undertaken.He needed the many campaigns to bring peace.

We could read the Augustan testament was warning the senators about the dangers of barbarian attack or revolt and therefore justifying Tiberius’ military policies. Similarly, when Augustus returned to Italy in 19 BC, having defeated Parthia, how was he to respond to anyone who asked why such a large army was now needed after such spectacular victories? A  claim that the world was a dangerous place) would have been politically useful.

Whatever the overall policy, Augustus, Agrippa, Tiberius, Drusus, Germanicus and a host of others connected more loosely to the imperial spent many many years leading armies. The Augustan imperial regime saw itself as providing the military leadership leadership that guaranteed further imperial expansion.

Augustus       Conquest of the West               Revolts against Rome            The Imperial Cult under Augustus       The Roman Military and Imperialism     The Crisis of Succession



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