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Augustus' Moral Legislation Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes

This is an extract of our Augustus' Moral Legislation document, which we sell as part of our Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes collection written by the top tier of University Of Oxford students.

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The unifying theme of Augustus' social legislation is not so much moral improvement as increased state intervention in private life. It seems that Augustus' aims were genuine when he attempted to improve the morals of the Roman state; the legislation of 18 BC was his second attempt at doing just that after his aborted efforts in 28 BC. Furthermore he clearly bought wholesale into the ideals he put forward because he banished and shamed his own daughter when she was found guilty of the indiscretions he was trying to put an end to; in fact he went far beyond the punishment set down for such women when dealing with his own offspring. However morality is an inherently private matter; crimes are not crimes just because they are immoral and immoral acts are not crimes just because they are immoral. For this reason any legislation set down by the government (that is Augustus himself) to interfere in such matters necessarily represents increased state intervention in private life. This is particularly true of the legislation of Augustus when the details of the laws are examined and aims other than simply moral improvement become clear. It is useful first, however, to examine the reasons why Augustus felt the need for such morally motivated social legislation. The last years of the Roman Republic and beyond that into the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the triumviral period were ones dominated by civil war and bloodshed; authors such as Sallust had blamed this on the decline of morality in the Roman state and the rise of vices such as avarice luxury and ambition. Similarly in the Augustan period it was the poet Horace who called upon Augustus to restore virtue in Rome as a way of re-establishing the status quo ante bellum (admittedly many decades back in time, so long had politics in Rome been in upheaval). His thinking followed that if moral decay was the cause of civil war then moral improvement would bring an end to it, in many ways he is calling for a firm governing hand that might set things right; the Roman people have been unable to do it themselves so now it is time for a man such as Augustus to take control and show them the way. In ode three of his third book he does just this, he calls for increased state intervention to enact this moral and social reform: "The just man who holds fast to his resolve is not shaken in firmness of mind by the passion of citizens demanding what is wrong, or the menace of the town's frown." He continues this idea in the twenty fourth ode when he says that civil strife will end once Augustus has put a stop to license and young boys are no longer trained to commit adultery and play Greek games but rather to hunt and pursue noble, Roman pastimes. Elsewhere, particularly ode six, he does the same and he complains of the corruption of marriage and the immoral actions of young girls with numerous lovers; the only solution is to return to the tried and tested ways of their ancestors, "What has injurious time not diminished? Our parents were not the men their fathers were and they bore children worse than themselves whose children will be baser still." It cannot be said that the call that Horace makes, the very thing which Augustus is said to have responded to, is simply a general appeal to the people to reflect upon their own morals and improve themselves because he directly urges Augustus to take matter into his

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