In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Augustus

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks and Sourcebooks
  • Collections of Papers
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Numismatic Evidence
  • Art and Architecture
  • Religion
  • Augustan Social Legislation
  • Roman Upper-Class Society
  • The Non-elite under Augustus
  • Finances

Classics Augustus
Alison E. Cooley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0139


Augustus, famous as Rome’s first emperor, came to power in the aftermath of his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. The benefit of hindsight allows us to view him as the founder of a new political system at Rome, known as the Principate. This neat summary obscures the fact that the period of Augustus’s rule was one of experimentation and innovation, exploring what the place of Augustus and his family should be within the structures of Roman society. The period is distinctive both for its innovative approach toward visual and material culture, notably art and architecture, coins, and inscriptions, and for claims to be restoring traditional Roman virtues, particularly in the sphere of religion. It also produced the Golden Age of Latin poetry, represented especially by Virgil, Propertius, Horace, and Ovid. Their works give insights into the moral and emotional compass of their world, engaging with public life and politics, but not in the form of propaganda. The whole of Roman society was restructured during this period. The introduction of an imperial court, with domus Augusta (“Augustan household,” i.e., the emperor and his relations) and familia Caesaris (slaves and freedmen associated with the emperor and his family) at its center, produced new structures of administration and government, while existing bodies, notably the Senate and equestrian order, were overhauled and their roles redefined. New laws on marriage, adultery, and the manumission of slaves were introduced to maintain the quality of the Roman citizen body. Financial reforms included the introduction of new coinage, setting up a new state mint at Lugdunum, and the establishment of a military treasury in Rome. Colonies were founded in many parts of the empire, and cities in both Italy and the provinces experienced a striking phase of monumental development, while the appearance of the city of Rome itself was radically modified, with particular emphasis on honoring the gods and providing amenities for the plebs. These benefits arose from the long period of peace ushered in by Augustus ending decades of civil wars, but the outbreak of peace did not exclude ongoing military campaigns beyond Italy. Augustus claimed at the end of his life that he had conquered the whole known world. Membership in the Roman army became a profession, bound to Augustus, who increasingly monopolized traditional military honors. By the time Augustus died in 14 CE, society at Rome, in Italy, and in the provinces had been radically transformed.

General Overviews

There are many biographical introductions to Augustus, of which the most up to date in English are Levick 2010, Galinsky 2012, and Goldsworthy 2014. The most influential overview of Augustus’s rise to power remains Syme 1939 (see Collections of Papers for responses to this work). Bowman, et al. 1996 offers a detailed introduction to the period, starting with a political narrative, with four chapters covering the period from the triumvirate to the death of Augustus; six chapters follow on “The Government and Administration of the Empire”; fourteen chapters are organized geographically, province by province; and it ends with seven chapters on “Roman Society and Culture under the Julio-Claudians.” The format of the series feels a little outdated given that images are not integrated within it (not even in the chapter on “Roman Art”), making it difficult for students to appreciate the role of visual images and archaeological material in the history of the Augustan era, but otherwise the clarity of analysis of political developments makes this essential reading. Non-biographical approaches offer alternative ways of interpreting the fundamental changes in Roman society that occurred under Augustus. Galinsky 1996 examines the transformation of Roman society during the Augustan era by exploring how art, architecture, epigraphy, coins, and literature illuminate Augustan ideals and values. Nicolet 1991 (translated from French) assesses the extent of geographical knowledge and demonstrates how this influenced the administration of empire and perceptions of the extent of Roman power.

  • Bowman, Alan K., Edward Champlin, and Andrew Lintott, eds. 1996. The Cambridge ancient history. Vol. 10, The Augustan empire, 43 B.C.–A.D. 69. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Important chapters include “The Triumviral Period” (Pelling) (see Political Developments: Civil Wars and Triumvirate); “The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus” (Gruen) (see Military: Ideology of Imperial Power); “The Imperial Court” (Wallace-Hadrill); “The Imperial Finances” (Rathbone); “The Army and the Navy” (Keppie); “Egypt” (Bowman); “Rome and Its Development under Augustus and His Successors” (Purcell); “The Place of Religion: Rome in the Early Empire” (Price); “Social Status and Social Legislation” (Treggiari) (see Augustan Social Legislation). Includes family trees, chronological table, extensive bibliographies.

  • Galinsky, Karl. 1996. Augustan culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Combines political, social, religious, visual, and literary sources to explore the importance of the concept of auctoritas in shaping the role of Augustus in society via innovation and experimentation. Moves away from an emphasis on Augustus himself to trace how Augustan values were promoted by a variety of different individuals and groups.

  • Galinsky, Karl. 2012. Augustus: Introduction to the life of an emperor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139045575

    Distinctive combination of a clear narrative and concise discussion of interpretative problems. Individual sources presented within their own boxes to demonstrate what underlies the analysis, allowing students to develop their own toolkit of analytical approaches. Includes maps and illustrations, a genealogical chart, timeline, note on ancient sources, further reading.

  • Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2014. Augustus: From revolutionary to emperor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

    A biography of Augustus, also published as Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), aimed at offering an introductory survey to the life of Augustus, with useful supporting materials for student readers. Adheres to the standard view of Augustus as the founder of a new political system.

  • Levick, Barbara. 2010. Augustus: Image and substance. Harlow, UK: Longman.

    Argues that Augustus single-mindedly aimed at permanent sole supremacy right from the start of his career, exploring the ways in which he pursued this. Includes discussion of opposition to Augustus and a historiographical survey of ancient and modern attitudes to Augustus. Includes chronology, family tree, glossary, maps, and illustrations.

  • Nicolet, Claude. 1991. Space, geography, and politics in the early Roman Empire. Translated by Hélène Leclerc. Jerome Lectures 19. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.12416

    Originally published in 1988 as L’inventaire du monde: Géographie et politique aux origines de l’empire romain (Paris: Fayard). Explores Roman geographical knowledge and the links between geography and politics—how the empire was described, understood, and ruled. Important analysis of Agrippa’s map, Res Gestae, techniques for controlling space, division of Rome and Italy into regions.

  • Syme, Ronald. 1939. The Roman revolution. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Interprets the rise to power of Augustus as part of the wider transformation of the Roman ruling class, notably the rise of Italian and provincial elites. Offers a negative representation, influenced by contemporary political developments in the 1930s, of Augustus as despot. Most accessible in a 2002 reissue by Oxford University Press.

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