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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of Roman Studies
Vol. 23 (1933), pp143-148

The text is in the public domain:
Tenney Frank died in 1939.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p143  On Augustus and the Aerarium
By Tenney Frank

In a very persuasive article in the Sitzungsberichte of the Berlin Academy (1931, p772 ff.) Wilcken has argued that Augustus in the third section of his Res Gestae enumerated only the expenses that he paid out of his patrimonium, his privatum, and the manubiae, and that Mommsen, Hirschfeld, and Rostovtzeff were probably in error when they supposed that some of these payments derived from the Fiscus. To Wilcken's argument, which I accept in the main, I wish only to add some calculations of the amounts attributed to the various chests, in order to see how far his theory stands the test of practical application. And before doing this I wish also to call attention to some slight matters in his article that may need closer examination.

Wilcken's article unfortunately awakens needless scepticism when, falling into an error committed by Gardthausen (Augustus II, p852), he tells us that Augustus, despite all his gifts out of his own property, possessed nearly 600,000,000 sesterces at the end of his life (p783). Gardthausen somehow inserted an extra cipher in the sum given to the soldiers, thereby making it ten times too large. What Augustus left to his heirs was 150,000,000 sesterces (Suet. Aug. 101); and the gifts to the army and the populace came, not to 420,000,000 sesterces, but to about 90,000,000. Augustus therefore did not possess more than men like Crassus in the late Republic. He left only a sixth as much as he had received in legacies from friends (1,400,000,000, ibid., and Dio 56.32), and he may have inherited half this amount in his youth from his parents. (Octavius was considered wealthy, and Julius Caesar left him 66,000,000.)

I could also wish that Wilcken had made less use of the word 'Fiscus.' To be sure, he is careful to remind us that, when Suetonius and Tacitus use the word for the Augustan period, they are somewhat carelessly employing phrases of their own day. He also is careful to say that, though Augustus took over the cura aquarum in 11 B.C., this does not needy imply that the costs came out of the imperial Fiscus during that reign. He might have said the same for the cura viarum and the cura annonae. There is no proof that these curae meant anything at the time but administrative supervision. Since Velleius, who knew Augustus personally, speaks of the annual revenues of Egypt as flowing to the Aerarium ('in aerarium reditus contulit,' Vell. II.39), it is the part of prudence to omit the word 'Fiscus' in speaking of Augustan finances; for certainly, if there was a Fiscus, the Egyptian revenues might be expected to lodge there. I do not mean to imply that Augustus' financial secretaries did not  p144 keep provincial ledgers and handle public monies, and that, too, under Augustus's direct supervision. But these departmental offices seem to me to have been only clearing houses that balanced their accounts with the treasury (the Aerarium). And the balancing was probably done as punctually as under the Republican proconsuls like Cicero or Pompey a generation before.1

A minor error is his statement (p780) that in the late Republic it had always been the custom to pay for lands taken for colonisation. Proposals to buy were made in the Rullan and Flavian bills, but both of them were defeated. There is no evidence that the Campanian holders were indemnified in 59 B.C., nor is it likely that the Caesarian colonies in Spain, in southern Gaul, or in the East were planted on land that was bought. For political reasons the first law of 59 spoke cheerfully of paying for land, but there is little evidence of actual buying. Caesar soon spent a large part of the available money on items nearer his heart.

Now, to come to the main question of income and expenses, which Wilcken does not attempt to survey. If it turns out that the Aerarium could readily support the imperial armies, we ought to assume a single state treasury for the Augustan period, since there is no cogent evidence that there was a Fiscus. The stipend for twenty-five legions at 900 sesterces per man would come to about 140,000,000 sesterces for the year. A third of the amount should be added for transport service, the ordnance department, and food for the allies.​2 This, with the salaries of officers,​3 brings the army budget to about 220,000,000 sesterces. After Actium the old navy generally had to suffice. A tenth of the army figure would be more than enough for its support. The dole required about 24,000,000 HS.​4 The nine pretorian cohorts, the three urban cohorts, together with their officers, would require about 40,000,000 a year. The Aerarium paid out relatively little — a few million a year — for games,​5 buildings, and the like, so long as Augustus and Agrippa spent lavishly for these. Salaries were now for the first time paid on a generous scale to procurators and other men in the civil service, but the number engaged was still quite small. It would be difficult to prove that the  p145 Aerarium could have spent as much as 400,000,000 annually, though it paid for the armies.

The income of the Aerarium was well over 400,000,000.​6 In the year 62 B.C. Plutarch (Pompey, 45) says the income of the Aerarium was about 340,000,000 sesterces (85,000,000 drachmas). Since then some provinces had suffered from war; Caesar had reduced the Asiatic tribute by about 13,000,000, and the Campanian lands had been given away. On the other hand Gaul now contributed 40,000,000 (Suet. Jul. 25), Egypt as much (Vell. II.39, see below), and Spain, Numidia, Dalmatia, and Galatia brought in some new revenues. The treasury, well managed under the scrutiny of Augustus, was certainly able to bear yearly charges of over 400,000,000 sesterces, except in years of very heavy warfare. There would hardly have been any excuse in the circumstances for throwing the burden of the provincial armies on the emperor, nor could he have desired the burden, since the provinces on the Danube, the Rhine, and the Euphrates cost far more than they returned. It was not till about the middle of the following century that the outer provinces became profitable, and then, of course, the emperors were glad to take full financial charge, since it gave them independence of control. Hence, so far as these figures are concerned, we may go a step farther than Wilcken and eliminate entirely all use of the word 'Fiscus' for this period, until we get some definite proof that there was one.

Turning now to Augustus's own budget, let us see whether practical considerations compel us to assume the use of a Fiscus. As a young man he began, as we have seen, with a property (patrimonium) of 100,000,000 sesterces or over. He had to spend some of this at once for troops, but since he considered that he was serving the state in raising these troops (Res Gestae 1), he doubtless covered his losses by means of the booty of Philippi. At the end, as we have also seen, he had about 240,000,000 sesterces. His returns from his well managed patrimony must have been several millions a year, certainly enough to support his rather expensive staff of clerks, accountants, and managers in addition to his frugal household. That is to say, his property more than sufficed to support his domestic outlay.

Many of the expenses mentioned in the Res Gestae were paid out of the Egyptian booty taken in 30‑29 B.C., which was enormous. Dio (51.5 and 17.6) reveals how it could mount so high. Cleopatra had, in preparation for a long war, taken in all the temple treasures of the land, and had confiscated the properties of those hostile to her. Hence, Augustus could readily take possession of these treasures when Cleopatra died. Then he could seize all the Ptolemaic palaces and estates, the properties of the Alexandrian officers and nobles who had taken part in the war against him, and impose a heavy fine  p146 on many others. Since the later Ptolemies had given large parcels of state lands to their favourites, Augustus could thus seize relatively large areas. The fines were doubtless imposed because he preferred ready money to estates. But that Octavian sold many estates for money is clear from the number of Egyptian plots that later bore the names of Roman knights and senators.7

First his officers and the soldiers at hand received their respective bounties out of the booty (Dio 51.17.7: not mentioned in the Res Gestae, because the officers presumably had a right to a share). Next he spent 600,000,000 of this booty on land promised to his soldiers (Res Gestae 3.17; he does not here say 'ex manubiis', but Dio does — 51.17), and gave a cash bonus to the colonised soldiers amounting to 120,000,000 (Res Gestae 15). Then returning home he gave the Plebs about 100,000,000 ex manubiis (Res Gestae 3.15.12)º and paid for the Forum Augusti and the temple of Mars Ultor ex manubiis (Res Gestae 4.21). Furthermore, I should not hesitate to assume, in view of the dates, that the repairs of 82 temples planned during that triumphal year, the great triple games celebrated that same year, and the repairs of the Flaminian and other roads completed by 27 B.C. were also paid for in large part by the Egyptian booty.​8 Furthermore, it is by no means certain that all of the 260,000,000 expended for provincial land (Res Gestae 3.17) was paid out later. Ritterling (P-W XII, col. 1215) places at least three of these colonies soon after 29. In that case we may assume a further charge against Egyptian manubiae here. This sums up to well over 1,000,000,000 sesterces, all probably paid out of Egyptian booty.

What, then, in the long lists of expenses mentioned in the Res Gestae and the authors, must be charged against Augustus' private funds? We should probably omit the first item of 44 B.C. (Res Gestae 15) which devolved on Caesar's estate and for which Octavian  p147 probably was reimbursed, also the donative of 100,000,000 distributed according to the will of Agrippa in 12 B.C. (Res Gestae 15; Dio 54.29.4). We then have left the donatives of 24 B.C., about 100,000,000 sesterces (Res Gestae 15); those of 5 and 2 B.C., 76,800,000 and 48,000,000 (Res Gestae 15); the payment for provincial land, probably about 200,000,000 in 14 B.C. (Res Gestae 16); 150,000,000 to relieve the Aerarium (Res Gestae 17); and 170,000,000 to endow the pension chest (Res Gestae 17).

Then there are many buildings besides those erected and repaired in 29‑28. But few of them are large and building costs were very low.​9 Some 50,000,000 would pay for these. The games, after those of 29, would be paid for in part by Spanish, Gallic, or Dalmatian booty, in part from his private purse. We know something about the cost of games (Friedländer, Sittengeschichte10, II, p10). Perhaps those that fell to his own expense account after 29 came to another 100,000,000.

In other words the 1,400,000 sesterces which Augustus received in legacies from friends and the more than 1,000,000,000 that Egypt yielded him in manubiae would very readily cover the expenses that he lists as his own in the third section of the Res Gestae. This comparison of Augustus' personal expenses and receipts would make it quite unnecessary to assume that Augustus ever drew upon public funds for any of the expenses that he claimed as his own. In this respect the attempt to define the receipts and expenses not only lends support to Wilcken's contention, but also provides one more objection to the general belief in an imperial public treasure at this time. It now seems to me that we have no justification for using the word 'Fiscus' (at least in the singular) for the Augustan period, and furthermore that we should assume that the Aerarium was still the only recognised public treasury.

I shall venture, though with some diffidence, to make a further suggestion about the income from Egypt. It is usually assumed that the annual returns from Egypt were very great in Augustus's day;​10 in fact the Vespasianic revenues of Egypt (c. 140,000,000 denarii + 20,000,000 modii of grain) or those of Ptolemy Philadelphus (14,800 talents) are usually taken as a norm. This is wholly unreasonable. In the first place, Egypt was a wreck when the Romans arrived. The public lands had been bestowed on court favourites and officers for a century and over, and the canal system was out of order when Augustus arrived in Egypt. Secondly, Augustus, faced by the necessity of paying and colonising a huge mutinous army, needed ready money rather than future revenues for Rome. Hence he confiscated and sold all the private estates (of Cleopatra and her  p148 retinue) that he could reasonably claim as belonging to an armed opponent. It would not be like Augustus to seize 'public land' as booty — that he presumably transferred to the Aerarium.​11 But it is very probable that for many years the amount of tribute that the Aerarium could collect was small. Many years later a large part of the properties that Augustus had sold at auction to the Romans, the estates that he had bestowed on men like Agrippa and Maecenas as their share of the booty, as well as the estates that Antony's heirs were permitted to keep, came to the Fiscus by legacies and by the disintegration of the Julio-Claudian house. Vespasian was doubtless able to exploit for the Fiscus large areas that had been in private control for most of two centuries. Furthermore, beginning with Augustus and continuing with Vespasian, Egypt was being properly irrigated again and brought back to a production on the scale of early Ptolemaic days. But the Egyptian tribute of 20 B.C. could not have been more than a fraction of what could be collected in A.D. 70.

Hence, I should very much hesitate to use the orthodox tribute figures that we have from the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus and again for the day of Vespasian (Bang, in Friedländer, Sittengesch. IV.297). I should rather adopt the figure given by Velleius (II.39.2), who says that, in subjugating Egypt, Augustus brought to the revenues of the aerarium as much as his father had brought by the conquest of Rome every year. From Suetonius (Jul. 25) we know that this was 40,000,000 sesterces. 'Aurelius Victor' (Brev. 1.6) adds that in the days of Augustus 20,000,000 modii of grain were transferred from Egypt to Rome every year. In the circumstances noted above we must assume that a large part of this grain came from estates now owned by Romans, and that, of course, did not go to the public account. But I think it safe to assume that the 40,000,000 sesterces are cash returns to the Aerarium and that a part of the grain also came to the Aerarium to be used in the dole. That is to say, the state revenues of Egypt would be worth something like 50,000,000 or 60,000,000 HS., not ten times that amount as in the days of Vespasian.​12 The statement of Velleius is supported indirectly by Strabo (17.1.13), who says that Ptolemy Auletes drew 12,500 talents in tribute from Egypt. The Egyptian drachma was then so debased that it was worth only a fourth of a denarius. Hence continue sum would be about 75,000,000 HS. or slightly over the amount that we get from combining Velleius and 'Victor.'

The Author's Notes:

1 The fact that Augustus, when ill in 23 B.C., turned over military and financial accounts to the consul (Dio 53.30) does not prove that he did not balance accounts with the Aerarium regularly. At that time he had been in Gaul and Spain nearly four years and would naturally have many acta to deposit. The accounts left at the end of his life may have been a summary of his work drawn up for purposes of public justification, even if the proper officials had received statements periodically. Since Augustus also supervised all the activities of the Aerarium, and the treasury had to keep its books balanced, it is difficult to comprehend how the State's business could have been recorded unless Augustus made frequent statements. Even when Augustus took full administrative responsibility for the water system in 11 B.C., the Aerarium paid the bills (Frontinus, de aquis, 101).

2 See the Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, I, p142 (edited by Frank, Johns Hopkins Press, 1933).

3 Domaszewski, Rangordnung, p140 ff.

4 About 250,000 men (Augustus, Res Gestae, 15) received 60 modii per year. Wheat sold at about a denarius the modius at that time.

5 For the cost of the regular games see Friedländer, Sittengesch.10, II, 10. The cost of the Vigiles, instituted in A.D. 6, was defrayed by a new sales‑tax on slaves.

6 If it continued, as I assume, to receive the tribute of all the provinces.

7 See the list compiled by Rostovtzeff, Sec. & Ec. Hist., Ital. ed., p338. I do not believe, however, that Augustus turned crown lands into booty, nor that he gave any to members of his family. Augustus seems to have been scrupulous in his handling of what the Republic called ager publicus (JRS, XVII, 1927, 159). What the late Ptolemies had still left untouched as crown lands was probably assigned to the Aerarium by Octavian. What had been given by them to individuals would suffice for the confiscations of Octavian. The assumption that Octavian gave Egyptian plots to members of his family also seems to me impossible to believe (cf. my Econ. Hist., 1927, p388 ff.). Even Julius Caesar did not do that kind of thing. The agents of relatives like Livia may have bought properties at the auctions of confiscated Egyptian land, and one may be offended at such participation, but at least the legal Roman forms were probably observed. Finally, I do not believe that the emperors subsequently sold ge basilike. The estates of Cleopatra's partisans that were confiscated and sold for booty in 30‑28 would account for the land holdings of individual Romans in Egypt and for many of the later οὐσίαι that had come back through inheritance. In 1929 Rostovtzeff (Jour. Ec. and Business Hist., p326 ff.) emended several of the generalisations his larger history, but he did not include these revisions in the last edition of his Soc. & Ec. Hist.

8 The repairs of temples (Res Gestae 20) were undertaken in 28, but Augustus did not pay for all (Dio 53.2). In 29 there were triumphal games (Dio 53.1) and games given at the dedication of the Julian temple (Dio 51.2). Gladiatorial games at which war captives served as gladiators were not necessarily expensive. The inscription on the arch at Ariminum (pl. xviii, 1) was made in 27, so that the roads were probably ordered to be repaired a year or two before. Augustus does not debit the expense to the booty in his Res Gestae 20, but Suetonius (Aug. 30) does. Augustus does not include in this list the gifts taken from Egypt for the Roman temples (Res Gestae 4.24), but when he says 'they cost me 100,000,000 HS.' he implies that he might have sold this booty and used the proceeds.

9 See some items in the Economic Survey, cited above, pp153, 373 f.

10 See, for example, Bang's calculations in Friedländer, Sittengesch., IV.297.

11 There must be some reasonable meaning in the famous line of the Res Gestae: 'Aegyptum imperio populi Romani adieci.' And when the later papyri frequently use the word δημόσιος for what the Romans later spoke of as 'fiscal,' we may infer that the first arrangements of Augustus justified the use of this word. See note 7, p146 above.

12 This fact confirms our view that Octavian confiscated only private estates and assigned the ge basilike to the class of ager publicus. Finally, let us suppose that some treasury at Rome, whether the Aerarium or the Fiscus, drew from Egypt as much as 600,000,000 sesterces per year for 44 years. This would make the amazing sum of 26,000,000,000 sesterces (more than the sum total for the whole reign), of which we seem unable to find any trace in the public finances of the period!

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