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Rome without Augustus: 22-19

The chronology of the period 22-19 is difficult. I lay it out here in simplified form, with reference to Dio’s text.

22 BC

  • 54.1 Famine in Rome; Dictatorship offered and refused; senators locked in Curia. Augustus appointed to Care of corn supply. (Curator annonae)
  • 54. 2 Augustus takes censorship and engages in moral reforms
  • 54.3 Conspiracy of Caepio and Murena
  • 54.6 Augustus goes to in Sicily; Strife in the elections. Lollius elected along with Augustus.

21 BC

  • 54.6 Augustus refuses consulship; contested re-elections ; Lepidus elected amid violence;  Agrippa sent back to Rome: Agrippa marries Julia by July 1st.
  • 54.7 Augustus sets up colonies in Sicily. Crosses to Sparta where he honours the Spartans and ‘stays there some time’. He travels to Athens, falls out with the Athenians,  and goes to Samos (for winter).

20 BC

  • 54.7 Augustus continues East;
  • 54.8 ‘Victory’ over the Parthians.
  • 54.9 Appoints/restores client kings throughout East and returns to Athens.
  • 54.10 Contested elections in Rome: Sentius Saturninus and Augustus elected

19 BC

  • 54.8: Augustus returns to Rome in triumph
  • 54.10 Trouble in Rome. He receives an embassy and appoints consul.

Senate and People of Rome

In January 22 BC, for the first time in a decade, Augustus did not take one of the consulships. It would seem likely that the senators were delighted. Augustus was planning to leave for the East, where he had already sent Agrippa. Rome would be under their supervision. The people, however, were less enthused.

The year began with plague, floods and famine. The people blamed the senators and took matters into their own hands. The crowd trapped the senators in the senate house, extracted the lictors, the traditional assistants of the consul, and offered Augustus the dictatorship.


Statue of Lictor (Munich Museum, Antikensammlung: Jona Ledering: Livius)

He refused the office but did take on the grain supply of the city. Augustus (Res Gestae 5) claims that he resolved the issue of food supply in a few days. The crowd offered him the consulship, and once more he refused.

What was happening?

Augustus had given money to the people on his return to Rome in 24 BC. In 23 BC, he had given grain because of a food shortage (Res Gestae 15). This was in addition to the normal supply of food coming to the city.. As people eat the previous season’s harvest, it looks as though there were harvest failures in 24 and 23. Farmers have to plan for bad harvests and keep stocks. Two years of poor harvests would have exhausted reserves. The bad weather of 22 suggested another failure. In such circumstances, the price of food goes up rapidly and the beneficiaries of such price rises would be the landowners, the richest and most powerful of whom were in the senate.

Having provided for his people in 23, Augustus was no longer consul in 22 BC and it looks as though the senators either lacked the capacity or the interest in making similar provision.

Augustus Cornucopia BM

Coin associating Augustus (left) with his astrological symbol (Capricorn) and a cornucopia (on its back) symbolising plenty of food (British Museum)

As a result, the people rioted and turned to their protector, Augustus. It was a core claim of the emperor that he fed his people.

Augustus intervened. He was surely in a position to resume consular office on the back of popular support or even take the dictatorship, but he chose not to override the interests and powers of the senators. A consequence of popular discontent was that the senators were provided with a lesson in power politics.

Shut in the senate house by the angry mob, the senators were shown to be

  • unable to control the people
  • unable to provide for the citizens
  • reliant on Augustan support for their lives.

They can have had few illusions as to where power lay and that Augustus’ intervention prevented worse happening.

By the later months of 22, Augustus was in Sicily. The elections were held for the consulship. M. Lollius and Augustus were elected even though Augustus was not running for office. Augustus refused the post and an election was held for the remaining consulship, which seems to have been violent and chaotic (which is good evidence for real electoral competition in Rome). Augustus summoned the candidates and ordered them to behave (presumably early in 21 BC).

The story is told blithely, but Augustus had no power to intervene. There was a consul in office and it was presumably the consul who was presiding over the elections.  Yet, it was Augustus who called the candidates to him. This was an obvious example of Augustan auctoritas

Later in 21, Augustus moved East to Greece. Agrippa returned from Greece and went to Rome. There, he attempted to restore order to the streets. He also divorced his wife in order to marry Julia, Augustus’ daughter. If Agrippa had been removed from direct senatorial ire in 23 for fear that he was a successor to Augustus, by 21 his position was reinforced. Julia and Agrippa’s son, Gaius, was born the following year.

Agrippa was not long in Rome. He went to deal with a war in Spain . While he was away, there was a resurgence of trouble in Rome. The plebs again refused to elect more than one consul for 19 BC. Augustus appointed one of the delegation sent by the senate (again on what authority?). But he was now on his way back.

Sentius Saturninus and Egnatius Rufus

On is return, Augustus faced a ‘conspiracy’. Velleius Paterculus (2.91-92) gives us some detail. Egnatius Rufus was the supposed conspirator. He had funded fire-brigades in the city in 20 BC. These groups provided him with a presence on the street and made the senators nervous. In 19 BC, he was praetor, ignoring, as Augustus himself had done repeatedly, the normally required gap between magisterial positions. While praetor, he decided to run for the consulship. Sentius Saturninus, who was consul and therefore in charge of the electoral process, refused to accept his candidature. There was violence between the supporters of Saturninus and Rufus.

On October 12th, 19, Augustus returned to Rome. He was met by the consuls, Lucretius and Vinicius (Res Gestae 11). Saturninus appears to have died in office. Egnatius Rufus was supposedly detected in a conspiracy against Augustus and was removed.

There has to be a suspicion that Augustus simply removed a troublesome senator and rival for the support of the plebs. The more conservative senators were likely pleased at this show of authority against someone who had challenged them. Nevertheless, it looks very much as if they needed Augustus to take decisive action. They could not control the streets. They were challenged by popular opposition.

Augustus in 19


Augustus Prima Porta

Prima Porta Augustus, showing an Augustus Triumphant after the Parthian Resolution of 20 BC

Prima Porta Cuirass

Prima Porta Augustus Cuirass (VRoma)

Events from 22-19 BC had shown that the senators could not control Rome. Repeatedly, elections had been disrupted and popular violence had threatened the senators. The absent Augustus or sometime Agrippa had intervened to preserve order and efficient government. The plebs had shown their political muscle. Augustus had shown his strength. The senators had experienced their weakness. Augustus was evidently necessary for the peaceful workings of the political system.

In 19 BC, Augustus returned with a real political-diplomatic triumph. He had not fought a war against the Parthians, but they had acknowledged his authority. They had returned the standards captured in 53 BC. He had brought an end to a conflict which had been persistent but intermittent over the previous 35 years and now exerted an authority which rivalled that of Alexander the Great. He displayed his victory as a great personal triumph, equivalent to bringing the world under his own control.

The Prima Porta Augustus is a late statue of the emperor, possibly even from after his lifetime. He depicts him as a general. The breastplate shows a Parthian returning the standards to a Roman general, possibly Tiberius. Around this central scene are depicted representations of the sky, of East and West, and the sea. The image appears to suggest that Augustus was the conqueror of the world. For more detail, see here.

Agrippa was at the centre of the imperial family. The war in Spain had yet further enhanced his authority. His marriage to Julia had given Augustus a grandson. The Augustan family looked more like a royal family than ever before. By 18 BC, Augustus had been a dominant figure in Roman politics for 25 years. He was the new political reality, however nostalgic the senators may have been for the old days.

After the events of the previous four years, it was clear that the senators could not rule  without him.

Augustus                  Crisis of the Regime                            Augustan Military Policy                            Reform and Order: 19-18  BC





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