There are two different views in the assessment of Augustus. In the late 19th century the great German historian Mommsen described the Augustan system as a ‘diarchy’, a system where power was shared between the Emperor and the Senate. Sir Ronald Syme on the other hand in the 1930s took the opposite view that this was all a sham. For my own part I feel that Mommsen was nearer the truth than Syme. Admittedly Augustus kept a tight grip on the real ultimate Power that is the control of the armies. Nevertheless the Senate had real power. All rulers tend to have some form of counsel of advisers whether formal or informal, but Augustus set up a system whereby the Senate was rather more than a mere counsel of advisors: indeed for the next two centuries the Senate met regularly and its debates were reported by Tacitus: they had real importance. The Senate was still the main law making body – laws were known as senatus consulta – the consultations of the Senate, and it was still the supreme court where the major criminal trials were carried out.
Indeed from the point of view of modern business practice, the secret of running a successful business is delegation, delegating powers to the individual parts of the business, whether individual countries or individual factories: you will not get a good performance unless you get the best people and will not get the best people unless you give them responsibility to make their own failures and to enjoy their own success. And this surely is what Augustus achieved with his reforms. Augustus is a model for all businessmen to follow.
The crux of his efforts lay in the Senate, and he took great care to reform the Senate. The Senate was inherited body but there was a constant election of new members and occasional purges of the unsuitable – Augustus reduced the number from 900 to 600. Within the Senate a cursus honorum, or a course of the honours was adapted or invented, going through Quaestor (finance), Aedile (public buildings), Praetor (law) to eventually Consul and after that often going out to govern a province as proconsul. My favourite post is that of the moneyers, the tresviri aere argento auro flando feriundo, the three men for the blowing and beating of silver and gold which sounds very basic but no doubt gave a good training in finance: they were among the ‘Twenty Men’ at the lowest level of the cursus honorum. At the top level after one had been a consul, one went out to govern a province and this in the days before modern communication was a position of very considerable power where major decisions had to be taken
And for the middle classes, there was a flourishing local democracy as can be seen at Pompeii, where elections were in progress when Vesuvius erupted: the election posters can still be seen on the walls. The politically ambitious, when elected, could erect new buildings, build aqueducts, put on games – at one’s own expense but nevertheless it all brought prestige and satisfaction. The process can best be seen in the letters of Pliny the Younger. Pliny left behind 10 books of his letters, of which the 10th and final book consist of the letters he sent to the Emperor Trajan when, at the height of his career, he was sent out to be governor of Bithynia, a rather small province in what is now Turkey. They are a fascinating collection, for they also include Trajan’s replies. They tend to say: this city wants to erect an aqueduct — should I allow them to do so? Trajan then replies, My dear Pliny, please don’t trouble me with such minor matters – just see that they have enough money to complete the aqueduct and let them go ahead.
But the real secret of the success of the Roman Empire is surely that it allowed the market economy to take off and flourish. In a properly functioning market economy, decisions are made at the lowest level, and the rulers take no part in everyday life, in the provision of food and shelter. Government becomes minimal government, and most people can ‘do their own thing’. The best evidence of this is the existence of villas, self-supporting farms which have nothing to do with the political system, where the inhabitants pay their way and only interact with the system in the payment of taxes: the number of successful villas is surely a testimony to the success of the Roman Empire. I am sure that consciously, Augustus was totally unaware of the concept of the market – this is a concept of the 20th century; but if something worked, he left it well alone. The underlying economy worked: he left it alone and it flourished.
My favourite example of this is a mosaic in Tunisia laid down by one Magerius. In the third century, Magerius reached the heights of his ambition. He had held some magnificent games, a wild-beast fight – in his local town, and on his dining room floor, he laid down a rather splendid mosaic in which he celebrates his games: he tells us how much he paid for them, who put them on (you hire contractors to put the games on for you) the names of the various wild beasts which were the main features of the games, and the names of the hunters who killed them. It is perhaps slightly self-important, rather too self-satisfied, but it is the testimony of a happy man who had spent his money lavishly and then laid down a mosaic to boast of his success to posterity.