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Western provinces under Augustus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Young Octavian greets the centurion
Young Octavian greets the centurion | Photo: Radu Oltean

Conquest of Gaul by Caesar in 58-51 BCE was the basis of his military prestige and wealth and facilitated his struggle with Pompey. The newly conquered territories played a key role in the civil war between the two chieftains. The new province (Gallia Commata), exposed to Germanic attacks from across the Rhine, usually had its own garrison, the command of which provided political importance to the Roman generals.

From Galii Commata 3 regions emerged: Gallia Lugdunensis in the north and in the centre; Aquitania to the southwest and Gallia Belgica to the northeast. Commata’s Gaul was administered by the legate. There were no major disturbances. The Romans fought closer to the Alps, where the population remained beyond Roman control, and in Aquitaine. Between 38 and 19 BCE campaigns in Gaul were led by Marcus Agrippa, and there were also smaller clashes involving other chieftains. The Gallic tribes closer to the Rhine sought the help of the Germans, who attacked the province from across the river. Clashes between Germans and Roman troops sometimes had a dramatic course. In 16 BCE an army of Sugambri, Tencter, and Usipeti ambushed and destroyed a Roman cavalry, then surprised and defeated the army of Governor Marcus Lolius. One of the Roman legions Legio V Alaudae lost an eagle in the fight.

At the turn of the era, Agrippa began working on a system of roads facilitating communication in Gaul, and above all leading to the Rhine from the east and north of the province, as well as from Aquitaine and Spain. The two main arteries met in Lugdunum (now Lyon). The original purpose of the new communication routes was the transport of legions and supplies for the army. They complemented the waterways of the Garonne and Rhône. Over the next few years, the importance of new legion routes increased as more units were sent to the Rhine. In addition to supply convoys and troops, the new routes were increasingly used to transport luxury goods, creating new and supplying old markets along the new roads – civilians and soldiers became increasingly fond of products such as wine and tableware. It should be emphasized, however, that the Romans did not create a system of roads in Gaul from scratch – the Gallic tribes had already built routes and roads on their lands, constructed bridges over rivers and erected dikes. Many of the oppids of Gaul had artisans who catered to the wider market. Many tribes, especially in the centre of Gaul, showed great political and economic development before the Romans entered these areas.

Conquest of Gallia by Caesar
Author: undevicesimus

The conquest of these lands led to a change in the situation of the local population. While before its leaders fought among themselves for hegemony by controlling the wine transport routes, in the new reality tribal elites already competed within the imperial system of government. Gallic aristocrats were encouraged to educate their sons in the Roman way, hence rhetoric spread in Gaul. For the local elite, the possibility of working in the Roman administration, performing the function of a local official or officer, opened up. It is estimated that about 1/?of the auxiliary forces (auxilia) recruited under Augustus were Gallic conscripts.

The old customs and cults existed side by side with the Roman ones. Archaeological excavations at the turn of the era have revealed the existence of graves with weapons buried in them. Druid worship was not banned by Augustus, but the Romans forbade human sacrifice. Other Gallic religious rituals were given Roman names and increasingly took place in stone temples. However, the old tradition of celebrating them outside the city in appropriate holy places has not disappeared.

The sales market expanded – a number of goods flowed from Italy and other provinces to meet the needs of wide circles of society. The tribesmen imitated the metropolis by introducing new crops. In Gaul, in the times of Augustus, vines began to be cultivated on a massive scale and ceramic centers were established to produce for the needs of other provinces. Money exchange on the Roman model became more common, additionally enforced by the presence of legionaries. A Roman mint was established at Lugdunum, minting gold and silver coins, financing official projects and providing pay for the army. The economy relied more and more on monetary exchange.

The Romans, entering Gaul, found a characteristic division of the region. Gaul was divided into nations (singular civitas) consisting of several cities and adjacent areas. For the Romans, single cities with adjacent areas as separate entities were characteristic. Augustus recognized the Gallic civitas as a city-state with its capital in one of its constituent cities. civitas was headed by vergobret. In some capitals, the development was stimulated by the Romans themselves. The capitals were often characterized by a mixed system. They had no exact Roman layout, but almost all had a forum. Over time, one can observe the transfer of capital from hills to lower areas connected to the road network. Over time, Roman models in administration were adopted, although the old solutions were not abandoned. There was the function of praetor, but it was not a collegiate office.

The Romans, assuming power over Gaul, had to take into account the will of the local population, for whom the emperor became the highest instance of appeal. He himself often toured the provinces, supervising the work of his officials. During these travels, many communities and individual residents sought out August to present a petition or complaint to him. This was the case in 16 BCE when he was presented with a complaint against Julius Licinus, a financial official. The case concerned the calendar that the Romans introduced in Gaul to replace the ancient lunar calendar overseen by the Druids. They divided the year and designated the appropriate days for tax collection and holidays. This was not immediately understood by the people of Gaul. Julius Licinus decided to take advantage of this. He was a Gaul by birth who was captured by the Romans during Caesar’s campaign. With time, he earned the trust of the chief and lived to see the liberation. He was a procurator, which involved the task of supporting the emperor’s legates. Licinus’ task was to collect taxes in the province. He had no mercy for his countrymen. Arriving in Gaul, he decided to get rich and did his best to extract more money from the tribes than was due at every opportunity. A calendar was used for this purpose. Well, December was the last month in the old Roman calendar, which had 10 months. After Caesar’s reform, the first month was January (Ianuarius) and the last month was December (December). Licinus explained to the inhabitants of the province that the name December means in Latin the 10th month of the year and two more months – the 11th and 12th, through which they must pay the taxes due. When the Gauls complained about this to Augustus, he initially rejected some of the accusations, but could not ignore the case because of the weight of the charges. In this situation, Licinus invited Augustus himself. He defended that the extra tax money was taken to prevent the aristocrats from getting rich, which could lead to a revolt in the province. This line of defence worked, and Licinus narrowly escaped punishment.

The Alps turned out to be an area not fully pacified. In the past, the Romans bribed Alpine tribes to get passage through the passes. It was August’s merit to dedicate large resources and effort to mastering these areas. The people here lived in the higher valleys, had a looser structure and consisted of many diverse communities with leaders who held power in a small territory. The harsh living conditions created valiant warriors who organized forays into inhabited valleys and extorted tolls from traders or Roman armies wishing to pass freely through the local passes. No doubt some Alpine tribes hated the Romans. There were rumours of their cruelty – it was said that the locals killed every male Roman, as well as pregnant women with children of the same sex. After several campaigns in the Alps, Augustus decided to complete the conquest of these areas, entrusting this task to his stepsons. One of them, Drusus started in the spring of 15 BCE campaign, marching in several columns from Italy to the valley of the river Inn. Then his brother Tiberius set out from bases in Gaul. The campaign was marked by heavy skirmishes and assaults of fortified villages. By a happy coincidence, both brothers joined forces and achieved joint success on August 1 – exactly the anniversary of the victory over Egypt. By the end of the year, almost all the Alpine ranges were under the control of Roman troops. The Romans commemorated this victory with a monument erected in La Turba, on which the names of the 45 tribes defeated in the fighting were engraved. There were also small clashes in Noricum, strong resistance was put up by some Reti and Vindeliks. The subjugation of the Alpine areas made it possible to improve communication between Italy and Illyria in the south and Gaul in the north and united the Roman Empire even more.

Transalpine Gaul, in modern-day Provence, was the main base of Julius Caesar. These areas became part of the extensive provincial command entrusted to Augustus in 29 BCE. The new emperor then promised to put this province under the administration of the senate after providing its inhabitants with protection from all threats. He kept his word – most likely in 22 BCE the province came under the administration of patres and from then on was governed by a proconsul. No garrison was stationed here, but there were many colonies of veterans who were loyal to Augustus. It was an excellent recruiting ground, as their descendants followed in the footsteps of their fathers, choosing a military career. Transalpine Gaul, also called Gaul of Narbonne after the main city of the region, Narbo (nowadays Narbonne), was a more Romanized area than Gaul Commata. The local elites knew Latin and Greco-Roman culture perfectly well. Some of their representatives acquired Roman citizenship, became equites or even joined the senate. Many seats in Gaul of Narbonne resembled Roman cities in their structure, with a network of roads, a market in the centre, a basilica, a place for trade and a temple of Roman deities. Theatres and amphitheatres were soon built in most cities. A century later, Pliny the Elder rightly called the province part of Italy.

Hypocaustum floor heating system. The innovations of developed countries also reached Gaul.

The areas closest to the Atlantic were the lands of Spain, which was pacified by Agrippa after the rebellion of 19 BCE. There were only sporadic disturbances on a smaller scale. The Iberian Peninsula was divided into 3 districts: in the south, the lands of Betica, encompassing urban and rich areas, stretched. Roman culture flourished in these lands with long urban traditions. The district was handed over to the administration of the Senate around the same year as Gaul of Narbonne. The other two districts of the province were under the administration of Augustus’ legates. To the west stretched Lusitania, a calm area and therefore not having strong garrisons. The 3 legions were stationed in the newly conquered lands of Hispania Citerior, running from modern-day Galicia through the centre of the peninsula to the Atlantic. In Spain, Roman rule was also guarded by veterans’ colonies. Under Augustus, two larger colonies were established: Caesaraugusta (now Zaragoza) in Hispania Citerior on the Ebro and Augusta Emerita (now Merida) on Guadiana in Lusitania. Augusta Emerita in particular was a stately city with walls and a long bridge decorated with many arches leading to it. Agrippa gave the city an imposing stone theatre adorned with statues of himself and Augustus and inscriptions telling of the years of their tribunate. Augustus built an amphitheatre for the inhabitants, where they could discover the most Roman entertainment. In Spain, new colonies were also built or old ones were supplied with new veterans. Larger urban communities generally received forum. Cities used Roman architectural patterns. Urban life flourished, and local aristocrats and Romans settled in the province and began producing fish sauce, olive oil and wine for the markets of Italy and other provinces.

In conclusion, the western provinces of the Roman Empire under Augustus were characterized by the process of further strengthening Roman influence among the local population. Above all, its upper classes underwent Romanization, including in the management of the Roman Empire. Over time, the process of Latinization of Gaul and Spain made these provinces the most Roman in the scale of the entire empire.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Goldsworthy, From Revolutionary to Emperor, London 2015
  • Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome. The men who won the Roman Empire, London 2004

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