Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Augustus' Social Legislation: a case study.

The following small case study on Augustus' social legislation was prepared by me several years ago to be presented in a Masters tutorial class. I have edited it only very slightly, and so the text seen here represents, essentially, the presentation as it originally was. Generally speaking, I still like the small commentary, and I think the views therein, while hardly controversial, are quite correct. Tasked to overhaul it entirely, I may write it somewhat differently, but generally I'm quite happy with it even in this form.


The social legislation of Augustus is one of the defining characteristics of his reign, although it is problematic in many respects. There has been a tendency in the sources and in scholarship to glaze over the entire Augustan period as having a cohesive and systematically planned objective. Zanker, for example, speaks of a “goal orientated cultural program” enacted by Augustus throughout his reign. Ostensibly, it would seem, that the purpose of this program was to heal Rome from the wounds of civil war and strife.

The aim, according to this view, is to regain the pietas of a bygone age (albeit perhaps an idealised and imagined one) – the age where Romans were real men, their women loyal and their masculine domination of Rome’s neighbours rigid and complete. The consensus was that Rome had become decadent and immoral (a view espoused by moralising writers such as Livy and Sallust) and that it was this immorality – of which adultery and debased sexuality were a feature – that had caused the gods to abandon their favoured city of Rome and allow her to almost destroy herself.

The Augustan answer to this problem was in 18 and 17 B.C.E (followed later by a revision in 9 C.E) to enact legislation making adultery a public offence, and through a system of punishment and reward to induce higher birth rates and suitable marriage among the desirable peoples of Rome. Narrowly these laws are referred to as the Lex Julia or the Julian laws.

The ancient sources for this legislation are somewhat hazy. Suetonius mentions Augustus’s revision of old laws or enactments of new ones on “extravagance, adultery, chastity, bribery and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes”, but he doesn’t really go into the specifics, preferring, instead, to paint Augustus’s seriousness on these matters by not conceding to complaining Romans in the theatre about the strictness of these laws.

In fact Suetonius has Augustus bring out Germanicus (his grandson, through the marriage of Agrippa and his daughter Julia) and his family as an exemplar, seemingly saying nothing other than epigrammatically sitting with the children on his lap (thus using the young man as a example for all to follow). The only specific Suetonius does mention is that, a revolt upon some of the law’s provisions resulted in increased rewards for childbirth and the allowing of a three year exemption on the obligation to marry following the death of a husband or wife.

That these laws were challenged in some form attests to the difficulty in glazing over the Augustan period as one in where Augustus systematically introduced planned reform across the entire social and public strata(s) to great applause and uniform acceptance.

Some more specifics for these laws can be garnered in the Digest of Paul (as part of a greater compendium of Roman law ordered by Justinian in the 6th century). One of the main aims of these laws was to punish the extramarital affairs of women. A father (a legal paterfamilias- Head of the family) was now allowed to murder his married daughter and her lover, if caught in his house or his son-in-laws committing adultery. Although he must kill both, for if only one was killed then he may be tried for murder.

The law also stipulated that a husband could not kill his wife if he found her committing adultery, but he could kill the lover without repercussions, but only if he was a criminal, actor, prostitute, slave and perhaps if he was a freedman. Furthermore, where he could kill the lover he was also allowed to injure him. If the lover was killed the husband had to divorce his wife within three days and instigate adultery charges against her. If he didn’t then he could be charged himself (it’s all rather complicated). Nevertheless, essentially adultery became a public offence, and was no longer to be dealt with privately, as such permanent law courts were set up to deal with it.

Moreover, the legislation also covered who could marry whom. The essential thrust of this legislation was to prohibit senators and up to their 3rd generation descendants marrying ex-slaves.

Another facet of the laws would seem to paint them as reactionary to the increasing immorality and influence of women. Sempronia in Sallust and Clodia in Cicero, for example, highlighted the growing promiscuity of women. Indeed the moralising here understands these women as immoral and to be acting utterly outside the correct parameters for female behaviour. Although this leads to an extensive debate on gender tensions, for the sake of this small commentary it is enough to highlight the notion that the legislation can also be read as – at least partly – reactionary to the antics of women in the recent past (the past which the laws set out to fix).

Overwhelmingly these various pieces of social legislation seem to form a cohesive policy. The stimulation of marriage and reproduction between desirable Romans and the continued chastity and security of the unions there built seems to be its aim. It’s perhaps a little dangerous to buy into that picture wholesale, though. Our knowledge of the laws is scattered, and the fact that they encountered resistance points towards the idea that implementing them was not a smooth process (indeed that a revision was required in A.D 9 also suggests this).

I think any attempt to understand the laws needs to understand the context surrounding their enactment. The idealised view is of a streamlined cultural policy enacted by Augustus as part of his greater reorganisation of the Roman state into a monarchy. The reality, I think, is a great deal muddier.

For example, the bringing back of traditional Roman pietas which in the Res Gestae Augustus tells us he instigated (8.5) by the restoration of the practices of their ancestors and the idea that Rome was born again after her dissent into moral debasement - espoused in Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, for example, where he speaks of Rome being reborn and the return of faith, peace and ancient modesty, even asking the Gods to help bring to fruition the new laws on marriage and birth – is often accepted as an imagined fiction. Analogously, even today people imagine the past as a bastion of moral excellence, and the same mechanism drove the Romans to be forever imagining their stern and masculine forebears that honoured the gods and brought many peoples under their dominion even if they may never have genuinely existed.

Even if the enactors of the laws and those affected by it believed this moral revolution tale, I think it still highlights a problem for us in fitting the legislation smoothly into the Augustan period.

Augustus’s apparent seriousness over the laws is well attested, the example Suetonius relates about the family of Germanicus in the theatre being one such example. Suetonius also tells us (89) that Augustus read a speech to the senate by a Censor called Metellus from 131.B.C about increasing the birth-rate “as if it had just been written” (the links between the past and the Augustan period in relation to social policies being highlighted). Furthermore, Tacitus tells us (3.24) that Augustus exiled his own daughter Julia (his only natural child) for breaking the adultery laws, and Tacitus also seems to feel that Augustus was perhaps overly harsh in his treatment – which could indicate just how seriously he took the laws and their enforcement.

Nevertheless, the idea that Augustus was coerced in some ways to enact these laws is also prevalent in some sources. Cassius Dio (54.16.3) suggests that Augustus only instituted the legislation under pressure from the senate and Ronald Syme (Roman Revolution, pg 453) posits the idea that the provincial elites were putting pressure on him also. These ideas conflict with the notion of Augustus being in complete charge of implementing a policy of social change and suggest that perhaps the “Augustan Party” that Syme speaks of played a larger role in seeing the laws come to fruition.

Suetonius (69) even suggests that Augustus was an adulterer, which again sets the smooth conception and enforcement of a homogeneous social policy against a rather more complex and greyer background. That he was seemingly exempt from the laws himself (he only had one daughter – Julia), highlights not only the difficulty in understanding the laws, but also the nature of Augustus’ rule – he was above everyone else – the rules, even his own ones, did not apply to him. This idea is powerfully argued by Werner Eck in the work reviewed below.

Further to these difficulties, Tacitus sees the laws as somewhat sinister (Annals. 3.28) mentioning the “tightening of the shackles”. Although Tacitus is a notorious sympathiser for the Republic, the idea he highlights about the legislation being perhaps too oppressive is reflected in Suetonius’s mention of “open revolt” and the subsequent revision of the 18/17 B.C laws in AD.9.

Overall, the social legislation of Augustus is problematic. It doesn’t quite fit into the period as easily as first understood. It is rather a mix of reactions to the period directly before Augustus secured sole rule and a mode to fix (what it believes) are the problems that caused the Civil Wars. I think they must be understood as part of a fragmentary whole. The laws were not smoothly accepted, and it’s possible that Augustus himself was not quite the moral beacon he intended to be (explaining, maybe, his treatment of his daughter in her exile and the way in which he brought her back to a more comfortable life in Italy some years later). In concluding, in abstract terms, I think it’s reasonable to see the laws as cohesive, they do seem to set out with the same ideas in mind, but with many things, once they are set into the context of genuine human relations and interaction they became much more complex.

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