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How Did Augustus Reorganise the Roman Senate?

Updated on February 6, 2018
Asteriaa profile image

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

The statue known as the Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century

Who was Augustus?

Born as Gaius Octavius, Augustus was born on 23 September 63 BC in Rome. In 43 BC, his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, was assassinated and in his will, Octavius, known as Octavian, was named as his heir. He fought to avenge Caesar and in 31 BC defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Afterward Augustus became the first emperor of Rome, ruling from 27 BC until his death in AD 14.

‘In my sixth and seventh consulships [28-27 BC], after I had extinguished civil wars, and at a time when with universal consent I was in complete control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my power to the dominion of the senate and people of Rome…After this time I excelled all in influence [auctoritas], although I possessed no more official power [potestas] than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies.’

— Augustus (Res Gestae Divi Augusti 34.1-3)

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Bust of Augustus, wearing the civic crown.

Bust of Augustus, wearing the Civic Crown. Glyptothek, Munich. This bust depicts the Emperor Augustus shows him wearing the Civic Crown or commonly known as the "Corona Civica". It had the most valued honors among the Ancient Roma
Bust of Augustus, wearing the Civic Crown. Glyptothek, Munich. This bust depicts the Emperor Augustus shows him wearing the Civic Crown or commonly known as the "Corona Civica". It had the most valued honors among the Ancient Roma

Augustus’ government was predominantly influenced by his relationship and reorganisation of the senate past 23 BC settlements. Augustus’ aim was to move the senate and magistrates from being chief organs of the state to being subordinate entities at Augustus’ disposal. Augustus’ relationship with the senate and magistrates was governed through his dominant aim to discretely consolidate his authoritative position. Augustus’ reorganisations of political roles and magistrates, as shown through his organisation of consuls, quaestors and praetors. Ultimately, Augustus’ auctoritas over the senate highlighted how tactically Augustus consolidated his position through discretion.

Coin of Augustus

Bare head of Emperor Augustus on the left and Victory with her wings spread on the right, at the back is a column and a shield below.
Bare head of Emperor Augustus on the left and Victory with her wings spread on the right, at the back is a column and a shield below. | Source

What were the aims of Augustus?

Augustus’ aim was to move the senate and magistrates from being chief organs of the state to being subordinate entities at Augustus’ disposal. This was clear through how Dio Cassius had stated that Augustus’s;

“... professed motive in this was that the senate might enjoy without fears the finest portions of the empire.”

Cassius explained that Augustus’ ‘professed motive’ was to command ‘self-respect’ within the senate, which was highlighted through appointing senators to newly created positions of civil administration within Rome: control of aqueducts, public works, the prefecture of the city.

In accordance to Augustus’ Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Cassius explained that Augustus retained the prestige of the consuls by opening the way for the more outstanding to govern in imperial provinces and by directing boards of senators in these specific administrative areas.

The Ara Pacis

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar in Rome dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate on July 4, 13 BC to honour the return of Augustus to Rome photo July-Oct. 2008
The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar in Rome dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate on July 4, 13 BC to honour the return of Augustus to Rome photo July-Oct. 2008 | Source

Cassius’ source provided a positive tone and suggested that Augustus’ intentions were to benefit the senate. However, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti suggested that Augustus’ motives were toward consolidating his position and to use the senate to do this. For example, contemporary historian Shotter (1991) contradicted Dio’s argument that Augustus solely attempted to share his power to the senate selflessly through stating he;

“...used them and the system of which they were a part whilst appearing to do no more than to uphold the integrity of the Republican system.”

Shotter explained how Augustus’ aims were to discretely influence the system without out rightly taking credit. Hence, Shotter’s statement demonstrated the impact of Caesar’s death on Augustus’ decision as he attempted to avoid assassination.

South of the Ara Pacis

Processional scene (south side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Processional scene (south side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Augustus' work with the senate

Augustus’ revitalisation of the senate highlighted how Augustus maintained a prevalent auctoritas of the senate, despite revoking his official powers in 23 BC. Augustus’ auctoritas and work with the senate over the senate was delineated through his statement, “I excelled all in auctoritas,” which commented on how Augustus was able to pass laws himself through several ways. Augustus’ ‘auctoritas’ that Augustus explained referenced to how he utilised his Tribunicia potestas (from 23 BC onwards) in order to present bills to the people.

This was clear through how Augustus could take action through judicial decisions, which was especially evident through his treatment of the Aediles as their traditional functions were taken away gradually. For instance, Cassius Dio ( Roman History, page 375), had explained that “In this same year...the praetors and the tribunes performed the aediles' duties,” which essentially referred to the role of the aediles from 22 BC- 6 AD.

Members of the imperial household

Augustus (far left) and members of the imperial household (south side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome)
Augustus (far left) and members of the imperial household (south side), Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome) | Source

Dio referred to the Aedile’s loss of control of corn supply (22 BC), the games in (22 BC), aqueducts in (11 BC) and fire service (AD 6.) Dio’s statement explained the meaning to Augustus’ statement through examination of the Aedile’s roles. Hence, Dio’s text supported Augustus’ statement of how he continued to maintain a significant auctoritas on the senate. Furthermore, the senate also gained the right to pass laws when its Senatus Consulta (advice) became a law, which demonstrated how Dio’s statement provided insight into Augustus’ statement. Therefore, Augustus’ work with the senate was clear through the source and Dio’s comment on Augustus’ revitalisation of the aediles.

Boscoreale cup 2

Tiberius in Triumph. Kleiner, A History of Roman Art , p. 105: "The Tiberius cup shows on one side the emperor-to-be riding in a triumphal quadriga holding a laurel branch and an eagle-tipped scepter'
Tiberius in Triumph. Kleiner, A History of Roman Art , p. 105: "The Tiberius cup shows on one side the emperor-to-be riding in a triumphal quadriga holding a laurel branch and an eagle-tipped scepter' | Source

How Augustus established a relationship with the senate

Augustus’ relationship with the senate and magistrates was governed through his dominant aim to discretely consolidate his authoritative position. Through showing the senate respect and giving members' responsibilities Augustus limited opposition and was able to use members as a part of a senatorial civil service. This was clearly reflected through Augustus’ Res Gestae Divi Augusti which explained that Augustus excelled in all actoritatas.

However, Contemporary historian Jones argued that Augustus’ care for the senate was superficial, “Augustus’ tribunician powers reduced the senate to a “rubber stamp” as he was free to do as he pleased, regardless of their consent or disapproval. His relationship with the senate to reduce it to a ‘rubber stamp’ demonstrated how he had transformed the senate into a body that would work superficially underneath him. Jone’s statement was supported through how he reduced the senate’s numbers from 1000 to 600, removed corrupt members and called speakers at random to ensure that they were contributing to the debates.

Ergo, through increasing the dignity of the senate, allowed representatives to influence the formulation of policy in the Concilium principis and essentially ensured the consolidation of Augustus’ position.

Pont du Gard aqueduct

An old Roman aqueduct near Nimes, France, ascribed to Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus (19 BCE). The structure is 883 feet long and 160 feet high. Source: Cast Iron Pipe, Standard Specifications Dimensions and Weights, 1914 (Burlington, New Jersey: US
An old Roman aqueduct near Nimes, France, ascribed to Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus (19 BCE). The structure is 883 feet long and 160 feet high. Source: Cast Iron Pipe, Standard Specifications Dimensions and Weights, 1914 (Burlington, New Jersey: US

Augustus reorganisations of political roles and magistrates, as shown through his organisation of consuls. Augustus introduced the systems of consuls ordinali (served first 6 months of the year) and the consules suffecti (2nd part of the year) which both were eligible for future admin posts such as supervision of water and grain, public works and roads. Augustus reorganised the role of the consuls to that after six years of service they were able to become a proconsul of the provinces of Asia or Africa, become a legatus properaetore, to take on responsibility for hearing provincial appeals and receive minor foreign envoys.

The ex-consuls became curators of the water supply, highways and public works (and heard appeals from the provinces). They are in charge of public duties in Rome and military commands. Due to this Contemporary historian Wells (The Roman Empire) explained that “it became the standard for the consuls of the year to resign halfway,” which reflected on how ex-consulship was desirable to gain posts in public service. Henceforth, Augustus reformed political roles of officials of consuls as highlighted through how he established public roles for ex-consulships.

Campus Martius

Model of the ancient Campus Martius around AD 300. Included porticoes Octavia (built after sister, promoting family) and Argum Nortem (Depicts Agrippa's victory of Actium)
Model of the ancient Campus Martius around AD 300. Included porticoes Octavia (built after sister, promoting family) and Argum Nortem (Depicts Agrippa's victory of Actium)

Reorganised roles of officials and magistrates

Augustus revitalised magistrates and the senate in order to stabilise the functionality of Roman politics, as shown through making positions such as questor and praetors desirable. Augustus’ Res Gestae Divi Augusti highlighted that he had significant authority, although he had officially given his powers to his colleague magistrates. This was due to his desire to metamorphose the senate to a puppet structure. This was shown through Augustus’ changes questors who were expected to serve in the provinces (Normally ten questors were chosen.)

Roles also included serving as financial officials in the senatorial provinces (quaestor pro praetor) whilst other questors held responsibilities in working for the consuls or the princeps. Augustus also made changes involving the requirements to hold quaestorship, which was now only elected by the senate.

Umbilicus Urbis Romae

The magical boundary made by Romulus and the a statue dedicated to Venus Cloacina (Goddess of the sewers)
The magical boundary made by Romulus and the a statue dedicated to Venus Cloacina (Goddess of the sewers) | Source

Furthermore, Livius’ article (2002) stated that “… emperor Augustus lowered this age to 25 years,” which reflected how Augustus attempted to make the position of Questor more desirable. Further reorganisation of the senate was highlighted through the Praetors. For example, Dio Cassius explained how praetors were the desired position as it afforded them the opportunity to manage public festivals and manage the treasury.

This reference how praetors powers preside over law courts, manage the treasury (2 of them), organise games & festivals (given to them 22 BCE onwards), assist the consuls and Augustus and participate in military commands. In essence, Augustus segmented the responsibilities of the senate amongst questors and praetors in order to increase the functionality of Roman politics.

The Roman Empire - the Age of Augustus

Conclusion

Augustus’ impact on senatorial reorganisation and relationship with the senate was a clear reflection of his auctoritas. Augustus’ aims revolved around avoiding assassination and bring the senate under his influence, as highlighted by Cassius and Shotter. Augustus’ relationship with the senate and magistrates was governed through his dominant aim to discretely consolidate his authoritative position, as shown by contemporary historian Jones. Augustus reorganised of political roles such consulship, questors and praetors in order to stabilise Rome’s political structure.

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    • Asteriaa profile image
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      Simran Singh 19 months ago from Australia

      Thankyou!

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 19 months ago

      Very well done article. I enjoyed reading it.

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