The Achievements of Augustus Caesar

Frazer Brown, Dickson College 2009

"I found Rome clothed in brick, and left it clad in marble." (Suetonius)
Augustus Caesar achieved three very significant things in his reign. Each of these three achievements can be analysed through the lens of Suetonius’ quote “I found Rome built of brick; I leave her clad in marble.” (Suetonius 1987, 28). This statement can be interpreted literally and metaphorically, and can be used to analyse Augustus’ achievements, the most obvious of which is his extensive building program designed to enhance Rome and provide employment for the urban plebeians. The building program required the importation of great quantities of marble from around the Mediterranean. He also established the Principate, a system of government that was equipped to deal with the large areas of land now possessed by Rome, to which he largely brought peace.

A literal interpretation of the statement revolves around the distinction made in Suetonius’ quote between ‘built’ and ‘clothed’. The translation of this quote is taken from Graves’ edition of The Twelve Caesars; however, other historians have translated it differently. The translations alternate between 'built', 'made', 'clad', and 'clothed'. The use of built or made instead of clad or clothed in the translations is crucial to the argument, as, if the wrong words were used, this interpretation would have no grounds. Stambaugh, when mentioning Suetonius’ quote says that:

"I found the city made of brick and left it made of marble.", crystallizes the program to make Rome look the part of world capital, exploiting a new supply of bright white marble from the quarries at Luna.... near Pisa, and coloured marbles from Africa.” (Stambaugh 1988, p 51)

Assuming Graves’ translation is used, there is strong evidence to demonstrate this interpretation. Augustus does not say that he left Rome built of marble; he says he left her clothed in marble. To observers, it could have looked like a lot of the structures were built of marble; as the white marble of the quarries in Carrara was used for the facades of public buildings (Cary and Scullard 1984, p. 305) the marble facade would have presented an imposing image of wealth and good fortune, but it also “covered a multitude of city-planning sins, sins of omission at any rate.” (Stambaugh 1988, p. 51). Bradley also mentions Augustus’ “extensive use of the ... various coloured marbles from the Mediterranean area.” (Bradley 1990, p. 450).

Augustus’ building program was carried out on a large scale. Vitruvius (cited in Lewis and Reinhold 1966, p. 67) and Suetonius both suggest that the building program was to create a city that “befitted the majesty of the empire” (Suetonius, 29). According to Suetonius (29-31), Augustus was personally responsible for the rebuilding of a large number of temples, the construction of many new ones, and the erection of brand new public buildings. Augustus himself lists sixteen temples that he constructed in Rome in section nineteen of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, and makes mention of many of the temples and works commenced by his adoptive father which he completed. He did this to demonstrate that he recognised the importance of the various structures, and to give people with sufficient means to erect buildings (for instance Marcus Agrippa, who began as a common soldier) a chance to curry favour with the populace for themselves: “... he often urged other prominent men to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones, each according to his means.” (Suetonius, 29). The bonus for Augustus in this was that, although the wealthy would gain popular favour, he himself would also acquire a portion of that same favour, purely for encouraging the constructions.

Related Article: Augustus and Propaganda
Many of Augustus’ buildings were dedicated to family members: “I began to rebuild it on an enlarged site, to be dedicated in the name of my sons” (Res Gestae, 22:3). Gaius and Lucius had a basilica named for them. Augustus’ wife, Livia, and sister, Octavia, and nephew, Marcellus, also had buildings built in their honour. This helped Augustus emphasise the importance of the imperial bloodline by making everyone aware that they were important enough through relation to ‘deserve’ monuments erected in their names. The fact that one man could erect so many buildings under his name and the names of his family, and suggest that other men follow suit, for example “putting main roads into good condition” (Bradley, footnote 41) , can be seen as an indication of Augustus’ liberalitas (generosity) and auctoritas (personal influence), and would also have served to display to the world “the grandeur of [Rome’s] history and will be a memorial to future ages” (Vitruvius cited in Lewis and Reinhold 1966, p 67). The fact that Augustus did encourage others to build these edifices lends itself to suggest that the treasury could not afford to do so.

The building program was notable because of its reach throughout the city and its effect on the people of Rome. The reach of the program was such that “no major public space was without some impressive monument to Augustus’ power, wealth and munificence” (Wells 1984, p. 86) and it would have affected every person living in the city, and a large number of the people living in nearby towns. It would have affected the city dwellers, because everybody used temples and aqueducts and roads, the poorer people would gain an income from them, and jobs would open up in maintenance and administration. It would have affected people in surrounding towns because they would be called on to supply building materials, or at the very least provide assistance in bringing foreign materials in. The program provided work for the poorer classes living in the city, and it provided everyone with new and improved places of worship and public conduct, including business. It had the added advantage of gaining prestige for Augustus, as he was providing Rome with cultural artefacts, and the populace with employment.

The metaphorical interpretation relates to Augustus’ political reforms. Because the Empire had become so huge, the old form of administration, the Republic, was no longer effective. The problem with this was that republican sentiment was still common; it was common because it was not autocratic, as the monarchy had been. This is demonstrated by the fact that there were people who were very keen to assassinate Caesar, who had an obviously autocratic trend in his seizure of power. Augustus realised this, and so kept the senate involved in the administration of the Empire and tried very hard to maintain an image of republicanism. He did this by using titles such as Princeps, meaning first citizen. This use of vague terminology helped distract people from the reality of Augustus’ regime. Not only did Augustus keep the senate involved, he used it to acquire his power and build up the importance of his person. “My name was inserted in the hymn of the Salii by a degree of the senate...and it was enacted by law that my person should be inviolable forever.” (Res Gestae,10:1).

Augustus used his immense auctoritas to influence individuals and the senate, he was also granted proconsular imperium (a form of imperium which was superior in authority to the imperium of proconsuls of other provinces) which, coupled with his tribunician potestas, gave him practically unlimited power (Bradley 1990, p. 423). By acquiring such an enormous amount of power while maintaining a republican form of government, Augustus was able to personally govern the Empire in an effective manner, while maintaining the dignity and rank of the noble senators. In reference to Suetonius’ quote, Augustus took the sturdy and effective form of government, autocracy, and put an attractive facade of ‘marble’ republicanism on it. He used a “ form to express autocratic content...” (Stambaugh 1988, p. 49).

Among the things that Augustus achieved are his extensive building program, which enhanced the appearance of Rome and provided employment for the urban plebeians, the importation of great quantities of marble from the Mediterranean for facing public buildings, and his establishment of the principate, a new system of government which was ideally suited to governing the now huge Empire. It is possible to analyse these three achievements through Suetonius’ quote “I found Rome built of brick; I leave her clad in marble.” (Suetonius, Augustus, 28). The statement has literal and metaphorical interpretations that can be used to analyse the significance of Augustus’s achievements. Augustus built many new, and rebuilt existing, public structures, literally cladding Rome’s bricks in marble in the process and creating a city worthy of being the capital of the Empire. He also, in a metaphorical sense, clothed his style of autocratic government in a facade of republicanism.


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Primary Sources:

Augustus Caesar [eds. Brunt, P.A & Moore, J.M.], Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1967

Suetonius [trans. Graves, Robert], The Twelve Caesars, Penguin, Middlesex, 1987

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin, London, 1989

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Bradley, Pamela, Ancient Rome, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990

Cary, M. & Scullard, H., A History of Rome, Macmillan, Houndmills, 1984

Earl, Donald, The Age of Augustus, Elek Books limited, London, 1968

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Kelly, Maurice, View From the Forum, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1977

Lewis, Naphtali, & Reinhold, Meyer [eds], Roman Civilization: Sourcebook II: The Empire, Harper Torchbooks, London, 1966

Scullard, H.H, From the Gracchi to Nero, Methuen, London and New York, 1985

Stambaugh, John E., The Ancient Roman City, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1988

Wells, Colin, The Roman Empire, Fontana, Glasgow, 1984