A theme of Augustan self-presentation was his association with the plebs of Rome. This was a feature already present from the defeat of Sextus Pompeius. Pompeius had been able harass the supply routes to Italy from Africa and his control of Sicily presumably cut the flow of Sicilian grain to Rome. In defeating him, Octavian secured Sicily and the routes to Africa as well as improving security in the Italian peninsula.
Octavian was already posing as the friend of the plebs in the mid 30s. This relationship was reinforced in 33 BC when Agrippa was aedile. The late triumviral period saw significant investment in the infrastructure of Rome from which the plebs benefited directly (through better water supplies and through gifts and games) and indirectly through the work generated. This programme of investment continued after Actium as Octavian spent money on temples and posed as the restorer of Rome.
These buildings were, in way or another, democratic. The large bath house provided bathing facilities for those whose houses did not have suchfacilities. The basilica of Neptune displayed lavishly art for the people of Rome. The pool was for entertainments. And the Saepta was a multipurpose building, making provision for assemblies but also for entertainments and perhaps also for the display of art.
Augustus emphasised his close relations with the plebs with his invention of the ‘tribunician power’ (tribunicia potestas). It remained an important element in Augustus’ self-presentation to the extent that when he shared the position, it marked out his heir or his partner in power, as he did with Agrippa in 13 BC.
It is not easy to see what the tribunician power meant in practical terms for Augustus or for the plebs. It may have been the origin of the right of a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. There were various Republican laws that provided a citizen with rights of appeal or to object to a sentence or to reject a judge or a juror. Rejecting a judge would effectively mean that a case would be transferred to another judge. An appeal to the auxilium (help) of Caesar may have been a way of calling for tribunician intercession against magisterial action. This was traditionally an important means by which the people preserved their freedom against the power of the magistrates. It set Augustus up as the person who preserved the rights of citizens.
The most obvious intervention of Augustus was, however, much more direct: it was the payment of money and the supply of food to the people of Rome. For donations to the people, the key text is Res Gestae 15.
To the Roman plebs I paid out three hundred sesterces per man in accordance with the will of my father, and in my own name in my fifth consulship [29 BC] I gave four hundred sesterces apiece from the spoils of war; a second time, moreover, in my tenth consulship [24 BC] I paid out of my own patrimony four hundred sesterces per man by way of bounty, and in my eleventh consulship [23 BC] I made twelve distributions of food from grain bought at my own expense, and in the twelfth year of my tribunician power [12 BC] I gave for the third time four hundred sesterces to each man. These largesses of mine reached a number of persons never less than two hundred and fifty thousand. In the eighteenth year of my tribunician power, as consul for the twelfth time [5 BC], I gave to three hundred and twenty thousand of the city plebs sixty denarii apiece. In the colonies of my soldiers, as consul for the fifth time [28 BC], I gave one thousand sesterces to each man from the spoils of war; about one hundred and twenty thousand men in the colonies received this triumphal largesse. When consul for the thirteenth time [2 BC] I gave sixty denarii apiece to the plebs who were then receiving public grain; these were a little more than two hundred thousand persons.
The account uses sesterces and denarii. There were 4 sesterces to the denarius.
How much did the money mean?
- The annual wage of a soldier was 900 sesterces. Soldiers were far from wealthy, but not particularly poor either. Such an income should be healthily above subsistence.
- To survive for a year in Rome, but do nothing else other than survive, probably took between 110 -150 sesterces. A family would need about 250 sesterces, depending on family size.
- Real living costs, including rents, clothes, fuel, were probably significantly higher, perhaps 3 time basic subsistence costs.
A gift of 300 or 400 sesterces was never going to lift someone from poverty, but would make an enormous difference in the year it was received.
In addition, the Roman state provide grain to a large number of the plebs of Rome. The Augustan figures 200,000 men were receipt of the grain. This group, called the plebs frumentaria, were privileged. It seems as though the number of recipient was fixed at 200,000 and that when one recipient died there would be some sort of selection process to replace him. The grain would be enough to support a man and perhaps a spouse as well. The corn supply was reorganised by Augustus with the invention of specific magisterial positions related to the supply, the praefecti frumenti.
The total free male population was certainly much higher, probably at 320,000 or more. This extra population plus slaves and foreigners, plus women and children, would have had to rely on the grain markets of the city.
The contribution of the dole was probably worth about 14,400,000 sesterces per year to family budgets in Rome and the real costs, once adds administration to the provision was probably closer 30,000,000 sesterces per year.
The numbers are listed in the Res Gestae because they are meant to impress. In the period 28-23, the individual gifts must have been a significant contribution. After that, the donations become less regular, which may either reflect Augustus’ political security or his financial state. Over his reign, the most important contribution to the well-being of the plebs was the corn dole, though we should not under-estimate the emphasis in the physical infrastructure of the city through aqueducts and other building projects.
The investment in the Roman plebs was not enough to make the plebs rich. But it would have made a difference, especially earlier in the reign. The expenditure was also on a scale that dwarfed anything any ordinary senator could do. An intelligent member of the plebs would know that he depended for this money on the imperial regime: the senators would not compete.
If there was a political crisis, to whom would our intelligent poor Roman give his support? The support of the plebs became obvious in the period 22-19 BC, when Augustus was away from Rome.