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Moral Reforms

Summary account of the Augustan laws of 19-18 BC and later revisions.

In general, Romans had defended their morality through informal means. Morality was, and is, a vague concept. There are easy things, which everyone agrees are bad, but there are other behaviors which are less easy to condemn. The Romans looked back not a definitive text from which they could assess moral behavior, but to custom. As in most other societies, social pressures tended to be employed to maintain moral disciplines and it was possible to take different positions on moral issues.

Augustus, however, decided that his moral reforms would be imposed via law.

For a law to be passed, it need to be proposed, normally by a tribune or a consul, published, and a legislative assembly called. The assembly would be taken as representative of the Roman people. It consisted of those who turned up at the appointed time in the appointed place. This population would be organised either by ‘tribe’ (a division based originally on residence) or by wealth. The passing of laws shows that the people were constitutionally sovereign. Neither the emperor nor the senate could make laws under Augustus, though they could do so later.

Since passing laws was cumbersome, such actions tended to be reserved for resolving the most important matters. Passing a law made the policy the expressed desire of the Roman people and it governed the actions of the magistrates. Laws were a community project: in theory, they defined what the community thought, what they did and who they were.

The rush of legislation (and there may have been other laws of which we know nothing) is difficult to parallel in Roman legal tradition. It suggests that Augustus saw the state as being in crisis and the extraordinary legislative activity was meant to resolve that crisis.

The laws defined this question of Roman  behavior. Since Roman behavior was closely associated with Roman identity, Augustus was also defining what it was to be Roman, which was set in law. Instead of the negotiable rule of customs, which could be argued about, laws set behavioral norms in the most authoritarian manner possible.

When laws were controversial and when they asserted behavioral norms which people might think of as private, either in matters of the family or matters of property or they expressed ideological positions that people did not agree with, then there was likely to be a problem. It might be thought that laws were not suited for governing issues such as morality. But by resorting to law, Augustus showed everyone that he thought moral behaviors were crucial to the continued functioning of the Roman state.

Some of these laws became the focus of opposition. This was concentrated on laws related to sexual and family behavior, but the Augustan legislation concerning the senate also seems also to have caused trouble.

The laws on sexual and family behavior especially pose challenges to our understanding. Conservative politicians have often worried about sexual behavior and there might be a tendency to see Augustan legislation on adultery, for instance, as a needed enforcement of social discipline. But such laws made private behavior into a state crime. Potentially, it made falling in love with the wrong person an act of opposition. Another law made having children a state responsibility. The relationship between political life, consensual sexual behaviors, and traditions of morality were complicated in antiquity, as they are in our modern age. But the rules were different in antiquity when the stories of the gods themselves abounded in extra-marital sexual encounters, a master’s access to the bodies of his slaves was a right, and the dynamics between spouses were different.

Laws took the name of the person proposing them. Thus, these laws are known as the leges Iuliae since Augustus’ proper name was C. Iulius Caesar Augustus. Some of the laws passed in the Augustan period were not put forward by Augustus himself, but seem to reflect the same ideologies as Augustan legislation propagated.

Minor Laws

  • Lex Iulia de ambitu [The Julian Law on Bribery]
  • Lex Iulia de sumptuaria [The Julian Law of Expenses]
  • The  Lex Iulia Theatralis [Law regulating where people sat in the theatre]

For general commentary on the laws see, Suetonius, Aug. 34Dio, 54.16-17

The laws, especially those on marriage and adultery, appear to have been bitterly resisted. In AD 9, there appears to have been a major demonstration against the laws (Dio, 56.1-10).

In 16 BC, Augustus left Rome for Gaul. Dio, 54.19 claims that it was because he had become so unpopular because of the laws. It was also suggested that he left because his now illegal affair with Terentia was causing hostile gossip. In the time-honoured fashion of moral legislation, Augustus was finding that the enforcement of the laws had many unfortunate consequences. He was driven to forgive some people their transgression, and thus inevitably increase the bitterness of those whose were not forgiven.

So what was at stake for Augustus?

The laws followed an agenda. There was a focus on social discipline and future generations. The reforms were also restorations and looked back to an older order, though there is every reason to believe that the fond memories of conservative Romans were based on an overly simple and romantic view of their past. They were part of the same ideology of restoration that had been at the centre of Augustan ideology since 28 BC. The future of Rome would appear, in the Augustan mind anyhow, depended on a return to the past. Returning to the past required forcing through unpopular regulations that would affect individual moral actions. These regulations restricted individual freedom and the strategies employed by families supposedly for the good of the state.

The history of civil conflict convinced most Romans that they were facing  deep-seated problems in Roman society.  The Romans conceived moral behavior as primarily a public issue. Morals defined how Roman citizens behaved towards each other. Such politeness was essential for the proper working of the Roman state. Morals also defined the relationship between parents and children, husbands and wives, families, and individuals and the state.

The Romans associated their imperial success with their high moral standards. The restoration of high moral standards was therefore seen as essential for continued Roman social and political success. The reforms implicitly and perhaps explicitly made claim for Augustus to be the moral leader of Rome. They were a justification for his hegemony. Who else could deliver those reforms? Who else could put Rome on the secure track to the future?

Thus, whether you had extra-marital sex became an issue of concern to the state. Who you married was a concern to the state? Your duty to the state was to marry. The number of children you had was a duty to the state.

  • Is it right for a state to take an interest in private consensual sexual activity?
  • Is it right for a state to regulate the number of children you have?
  • Is it right for the state to put obstructions in the way of the unmarried?

Of course, many have felt that the Augustan reforms were not the great step forward towards a  past age of virtue. They might have felt that it was a grotesque and unnecessary imposition on their individual freedoms. They may have felt that who they slept with was not an issue with which the state should concern itself. They may have thought that a renowned adulterer linking other people’s adulteries to the fundamental problems affecting the Roman state was ridiculous.

But the message from the Augustan state was that it was bringing into being a new golden age and if love poets objected, they risked trouble.


Augustus                  Reform and Order: 19-18            Roman Sexual Behaviors      Augustan Reforms of the Senate                  New Age                Poetry and the Augustan Age              Augustan Military Policy        Minor Laws       Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis               Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus/lex Papia Poppaea            Lex Fufia Caninia and Lex Aelia Sentia

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