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Regulating Bribery or Generosity? Augustus’ Laws on Ambitus

Brahm H. Kleinman

PhD Candidate, Department of Classics, Princeton University

Among the conspirators who are alleged by later historians to have plotted against the princeps Augustus, the senator Marcus Egnatius Rufus presents a peculiar case. According to Cassius Dio and Velleius Paterculus, Egnatius obtained the popularity of the Roman people and a series of offices in succession. When the presiding consul blocked him from canvassing for the consulship in 18 B.C., Egnatius conspired against the life of Augustus (Vell. Pat. 2.91-92; Cass. Dio, 53.24). But his plans were detected and he and his co-conspirators were imprisoned and executed.

Some scholars have associated the adoption of Augustus’ first law against ambitus (electoral malpractice and bribery) in 18 B.C. with this conspiracy (Galinsky 1996, 70, 365; Birley 2000, 716ff; Ferrary 2012, 461-462), and it has been assumed that his second ambitus law of 8 B.C. was also a response to electoral chaos (Cass. Dio, 55.5). Otherwise, these two laws have received relatively little attention, especially in comparison to other Augustan legislation. In this paper, I will examine both of these laws in the context of electoral politics under Augustus and suggest that they were more than a reaction against specific instances of disorder in elections, though these must have played a role in their proposal. Instead, I will argue that these laws against electoral malpractice and bribery were meant to project Augustus’ claims that he had restored the Republic, in the same vein as his social legislation and the Secular Games of 17 B.C. At the same time, ambitus legislation limited opportunities for Rome’s senatorial elite to display their generosity to the urban plebs. They thus formed part of the effort to ensure that the princeps and his family would be the only patrons of the city of Rome and its populace.

In my presentation, after narrating Egnatius’ conspiracy and introducing my argument, I will describe what we know of the two laws from the Digest, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius (Dig. 48.14.1; Cass. Dio, 54.16.1, 55.5.3-4; Suet. Aug. 40.2). I will analyze these passages in light of our knowledge about the state of elections during the principate of Augustus, paying particular attention to the ways he manipulated elections through his personal influence (Jones 1955; Levick 1967, 207ff; Astin 1969). Because Augustus had little overt control over elections, these laws against ambitus became useful opportunities to regulate the amounts senators could spend as they canvassed for office and to limit their competition with the princeps and candidates he supported. Several provisions in these laws also echoed late Republican solutions aimed at stopping bribery (e.g. those described at Cic. Quint. 2.15), suggesting they were partially a symbolic statement about the renewal of fairness and order to elections after years of civil war and chaos. Augustus had, after all, “restored” the Republic.

In the last section of my talk, I will expand on this conclusion by exploring the complicated relationship between “bribery” and “generosity” (benignitas or liberalitas) in political thought of the late Republic and early principate (Veyne 1976; Lintott 1990; Rosillo López 2010; Coffee 2017). Because there was no clear distinction between socially acceptable benignitas and legally condemned ambitus, Roman senators always had significant leeway to display their generosity to the Roman plebs. Augustus’ laws against ambitus were therefore also aimed at limiting senators from bestowing wealth on the Roman populace in one of the few ways left to them: canvassing. Augustus thus further positioned himself and his household as the sole benefactors of Rome, as he continued to advertise his own benefactions (RGDA 15.1; Yavetz 1969, 90ff). He created a distinction between what was allowed for a princeps and what was allowed for the rest of the senatorial elite in their interactions with the populus Romanus. The end result, as Suetonius has the later emperor Caligula say, was that “a man ought either to be frugal or Caesar” (Suet. Gai. 37.1).

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Augustan Rome

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