Karl Marx

Does the Reign of Augustus Deserve to be Counted Among the Happier Periods of the Roman Empire? [199]

Source: MECW Volume 1, p. 639
Written: between August 10 and 16, 1835
First published: in Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 1925
Translated from the Latin.
Transcribed: by Adam Kubik.

One who seeks to know what the Augustan age was like has many things by which he can judge it: in the first place, a comparison with other periods of Roman history; for if it is shown that the Augustan age was similar to previous periods which are termed happy, but unlike those in which, according to contemporary and recent judgment, morals had changed and become worse, the state was split into factions, and even defeats were suffered in war, from them a conclusion can be drawn about the Augustan age; then it must be inquired what the ancients said about it, what view was held by foreign peoples about the empire, whether they feared or despised it, and, finally, what was the state of the arts and sciences.

In order not to be more prolix than necessary, I shall compare with the Augustan age the finest epoch before Augustus, which was made happy by the simplicity of its morals, the striving for excellence, and the unselfishness of officials and common people, and in which Lower Italy was subjugated, and also the epoch of Nero, which was worse than any other.

At no time were the Romans more disinclined to pursue the fine arts than in the period before the Punic wars; learning was least valued since the most important men of those times chiefly devoted their efforts and labours to agriculture; eloquence was superfluous since they used few words in speaking of what had to be done and did not seek elegance of speech but attached more importance to the content; history, indeed, had no need of eloquence since it was concerned only with things done and was confined to the compilation of annals.

But the whole epoch was filled with the conflict between patricians and plebs; because from the expulsion of the kings until the first Punic war there was strife over the right of each side and a large part of history is concerned only with the laws which were made by tribunes or consuls contending keenly with one another. What in this period deserves to be praised we have already said. If we wish to describe the period of Nero, we do not need many words; for who would have to ask what this age was like, since the best citizens were killed, shameful arbitrary rule prevailed, laws were violated, the city burnt down, and the generals preferred to seek renown through peace rather than war, because they were afraid lest they should excite suspicion by deeds well done and because there was nothing to inspire them to perform great deeds.

That the Augustan age was unlike this no one can deny, for his reign was marked by its mildness. Although all freedom, even all appearance of freedom, had disappeared, institutions and laws were altered by order of the sovereign, and all powers previously possessed by the people’s tribunes, censors and consuls were now in the hands of one man, the Romans believed they themselves ruled and that emperor was only another name for the powers which the tribunes and consuls previously possessed, and they did not see that they had been deprived of their freedom. It is, however, a telling proof of mildness if the citizens can doubt who is the sovereign and whether they themselves rule or are ruled over.

In war, however, the Romans were never more fortunate, for the Parthians were subjugated, the Cantabri conquered, the Raetians and Vindelicians laid prostrate; but the Germans, the worst enemies of the Romans, whom Caesar had fought against in vain, overcame the Romans in some isolated encounters through treachery, cunning and bravery, and owing to their forests; but on the whole the power of many of the Germanic tribes was broken by Augustus granting Roman citizenship to individuals, by the weapons of experienced generals, and by the hostility which broke out among the Germanic peoples themselves.

In peace and war, therefore, the Augustan age is not to be compared with the time of Nero and even worse rulers.

The parties and conflicts, however, which occurred in the period before the Punic wars, had ceased to exist, for we see that Augustus had combined all parties, all honorary titles and all power in his own person. Hence the sovereign power could not be disunited within itself, which brings the greatest danger to every state, because thereby its authority among foreign peoples is diminished and public affairs are administered more for the ambition of individuals than for the well-being of the people.

The Augustan age should not, however, be regarded in such a way as not to see that it was inferior to that earlier period in many respects, for if morals, freedom and worth are either diminished or definitely set aside, while avarice, prodigality and intemperance prevail, that age itself cannot be called happy. But the greatness of Augustus, the institutions and laws of the men he selected in order to put the troubled state in a better condition, did a great deal to end the disorder which had been evoked by the civil wars.

For example, we see that Augustus purged the senate, into which extremely corrupt men had penetrated, of remnants of crime, by expelling from it many men whose morals were hateful to him and by admitting many others who were distinguished for their ability and intelligence.

Under the rule of Augustus, men of outstanding worth and wisdom always served the state, for who can name greater men of that period than Maecenas and Agrippa? Although the sovereign occasionally resorted to dissimulation, he apparently did not abuse his power and exercised odious force in a milder form. And if the state, as it existed before the Punic wars, was the most suitable for that time because it stimulated people to great deeds, struck terror into its enemies, and aroused a noble emulation between patricians and plebs, from which however envy was not always absent, the state, as Augustus instituted it, seems to us the most suitable for his time, for when people have grown soft and the simplicity of morals has disappeared, but the state has grown greater, a ruler is more capable than a free republic of giving freedom to the people.

We come now to the judgment of the ancients on the Augustan age.

He himself was called divine, and regarded not as a man, but rather as a god. This could not be said if one relied only on the testimony of Horace, but the distinguished historian Tacitus also speaks of Augustus and his age with the utmost respect, the greatest admiration and even love.

At no time did arts and letters flourish more, for in that age there lived a very large number of writers from whom as from a fountain-head all peoples drew learning.

Since, therefore, the state appears to have been well ordered, the ruler desirous of happiness for the people and by his authority official positions occupied by the best men, since, moreover, the Augustan age appears to be not inferior to the best periods of Roman history, but different from the worst, and since parties and dissensions are seen to have ceased, whereas arts and letters flourished, the Augustan age deserves to be counted among the better epochs and the man held in high esteem who, although everything was permitted to him, nevertheless after his accession to power had only one aim, to ensure the safety of the state.