Augustus’ return in 19 BC saw him initiate a widespread programme of reform.
Augustus made attempts to regulate his powers. It is unclear whether he took new powers, but, by 18 BC, he had associated Agrippa with his position. The result was that the imperial position was made more constitutionally and politically obvious
In 18 BC Augustus also engaged in a reform of the senate (Dio, 54.13-14). This was one a series of reforms which transformed the senators in legal and political function. These acts were not about filling the senate with his supporters, but about elevating the status of the senators.
Similarly, Augustus pushed through a sequence of laws that brought the powers of the state to bear on moral and familial issues. These included sexual behaviour, formation of marriages, the freeing of slaves, luxury and sitting in the theatre.
This was extensive implementation of a moral and cultural programme and like nothing previously seen in the history of Roman legislation.
This was an extension of imperial state power into a new political area. Leading figures had exercised authroity over moral behaviours and the censor might traditionally take action against someone whose behaviour was seen as dishonorable, but this was new.
Moral reform appears to have been a crucial part of the programme and was intended to bring discipline back to Roman society. It was part of a process that relates to a moral refoundation of the city, putting Augustus on a par with the the original founders of Rome.
How was Augustus able to achieve all this?
It seems that many of the ideas put into action in 19 and 18 BC and shortly after had been central to the Augustan regime for at least a decade. They were similar to the reforms of 28-27. Those reforms had emphasised the restoration of the Republic.
But Augustus had faced opposition. Some of that opposition likely focused on the paradox of an increasingly monarchic system which proclaimed its Republicanism. Moderns have also found understanding that paradox difficult and, indeed, understanding what changed in 19 BC.
But there were fundamental differences from the prior decade.
- Senate: The senatorial experience of 22-19 showed the difficult that the senate had in maintaining order without Augustus.
- Family: The presence of Agrippa at the heart of the regime, soon to be joined by Tiberius, brought stability. It turned the system from being rule by one individual (who could potentially be removed) to rule by a group.
- Morality: The direction of the legislation of 19-18 BC pointed away from a constitutional restoration towards a moral restoration. This is crucial. If the Republic is the means by which the Romans conducted themselves in public business (involving respect for the gods, for family, for the state, service in magistracies, in the army, honesty, valuing and protecting one’s fellow citizens, even working together for common good), it would seem that the Republic was blown to pieces in the civil wars and the crises of 133-44. If the question is not how to restore a stable republican political system, but how to restore a stable Rome and Roman value-systems, then a moral guardian makes sense. In this view the position of ‘Curator Morum‘, (Guardian of Morals) becomes not a quaint title, but a fundamental claim for the legitimacy of the regime.
- Imperialism: Augustan moral standing was linked to imperial success. Augustus and Agrippa were amassing an impressive roster of military victories post-civil war: Spain, Parthia, Dalmatia with major campaigns in the Balkans and in the Germany commencing. Success proved the gods were favourable. Success proved that Rome was doing well.
- Time: Augustus had been one of the two most important men in Rome for 25 years. The Republic had not functioned traditionally since 49 BC. A consul in 18 BC might have been a babe in arms when Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Augustan dominance was a fact of political life, and everyone learned to live with.
- Money and favour: Augustus had used his wealth to secure the support of his troops and of the plebs. We should not overlook his use of resources to secure senatorial support and friendship. This might take the form of offices and postings or even of direct financial support for poorer senators. Almost everyone needed Augustus’ support to achieve anything and inevitably the price of such support was political quiescence.
There was opposition and there was more work to be completed, but Augustan control was secure. The New Age could begin.