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Caesar Augustus

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Bust of Augustus Caesar
Bust of Augustus Caesar

Caesar Augustus (Latin: IMP·CAESAR·DIVI·F·AVGVSTVS)¹ (23 September 63 BC19 August AD 14), known earlier in his life as Gaius Octavius or Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, was the first Roman Emperor and is traditionally considered the greatest. Although he preserved the outward form of the Roman Republic, he ruled as an autocrat for more than 40 years. He ended a century of civil wars and gave Rome an era of peace, prosperity, and imperial greatness. He is generally known to historians by the title "Augustus" (revered one), which he acquired in 27 BC and as "Octavian" before then.


Augustus's rise to power

Augustus was born at Rome with the name Gaius Octavius Thurinus. His father, also Gaius Octavius, came from a respectable but undistinguished family of the equestrian order and was governor of Macedonia before his death in 58 BC. More importantly, his mother Atia was the niece of Rome's greatest general and de facto in Spain, and adopted him by testament as his heir (see also adoption in Rome). By virtue of his adoption, following Roman custom, Octavius now assumed the name C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (hereafter "Octavian").

When Caesar was assassinated in March 44 BC, his young heir was with the army at Apollonia, in what is now Albania. At the time, he was only eighteen years old, and was consistently underestimated by his rivals for power. However, he culled support by emphasizing his status as heir to Caesar and took the name Gaius Julius Caesar (probably omitting the customary Octavianus; he is called "Octavian" by historians nonetheless). He crossed over to Italy and recruited an army from among Caesar's veterans. At Rome, he found Caesar's republican assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius, in control. After a tense standoff, he formed an uneasy alliance with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus, Caesar's principal colleagues. The three formed a junta called the Second Triumvirate, and launched a purge of those allied with the assassins.

Antony and Octavian then marched against Brutus and Cassius, who had fled to the east. At Philippi in Macedonia the Caesarian army was victorious and Brutus and Cassius committed suicide (42 BC). Octavian then returned to Rome, while Antony went to Egypt, where he allied himself with Queen Cleopatra, the ex-lover of Julius Caesar and mother of Caesar's infant son Caesarion. The Roman dominions were now divided between Octavian in the west and Antony in the east.

Antony occupied himself with military campaigns in the east and a romantic affair with Cleopatra; Octavian built a network of allies in Rome, consolidated his power, and spread propaganda implying that Antony was becoming less than Roman because of his preoccupation with Egyptian affairs and traditions. The situation grew more and more tense, and finally, in 32 BC, Octavian declared war. It was quickly decided: in the bay of Actium on the western coast of Greece, the fleets met in a great battle in which many ships burned and thousands on both sides lost their lives Octavian defeated his rivals, who then fled to Egypt. He pursued them there, and after another defeat, Cleopatra and Antony committed suicide.

Octavian becomes Augustus

Augustus as a magistrate
Augustus as a magistrate

After Actium, Octavian had his work cut out for him; years of civil war had left Rome in a state of near-lawlessness. Moreover, Rome was not prepared to accept the control of a despot. Octavian was clever. First, he disbanded his armies, and held elections. Octavian was chosen for the powerful position of consul, the highest executive office of the Republic. In 27 BC, he officially returned power to the Senate of Rome, and offered to relinquish his own military supremacy and hegemony over Egypt. Not only did the Senate turn him down, he was also given control of Spain, Gaul, and Syria -- the provinces with the greatest number of troops. Shortly thereafter, the Senate gave him the name "Augustus". The title was associated with a religious ring in antiquity and is believed to be derived from auctoritas and the practises of augurs. In the mindset of contemporary religious beliefs, it would have cleverly symbolized a stamp of authority over humanity that went beyond any constitutional definition of his status.

These actions were highly abnormal from the Roman Senate, but this was not the same body of patricians that had murdered Caesar. Both Antony and Octavian had purged the Senate of suspect elements and planted it with their loyal partisans. How free a hand the Senate had in these transactions, and what backroom deals were made, remain unknown.

Augustus knew that the power he needed to rule absolutely could not be derived from his Consulship, however. In 23 BC, he renounced this office in favor of two other powers. First, he was granted the power of a tribune (tribunicia potestas), which allowed him to convene the Senate at will and lay business before it. Since the tribuneship was an office traditionally associated with the common people, this consolidated his power further. Second, he received new authority in the form of an "Imperial" power (imperium proconsulare maius, or power greater than any governor), which gave him supreme authority in all matters pertaining to territorial governance. 23 BC is the date on which Augustus is usually said to have assumed the mantle of Emperor of Rome. He more typically used a civilian title, however, Princeps, or "First Citizen". After the death of Lepidus in 13 BC he added the title of pontifex maximus.


Having gained power by means of great audacity, Augustus ruled with great prudence. In exchange for near absolute power, he gave Rome 40 years of civic peace and increasing prosperity, celebrated in history as the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. He created Rome's first permanent army and navy and stationed the legions along the Empire's borders, where they could not meddle in politics. A special unit, the Praetorian Guard, garrisoned Rome and protected the Emperor's person. He also reformed Rome's finance and tax systems.

Augustus waged no major wars. A war in the mountains of northern Spain from 26 BC to 19 BC finally resulted in that territory's conquest. After Gallic raids, the Alpine territories were conquered. Rome's borders were advanced to the natural frontier of the Danube, and the province of Galatia was occupied. Further west, an attempt to advance into Germany ended in defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. Thereafter he accepted the Rhine as the Empire's permanent border. In the east, he satisfied himself with establishing Roman control over Armenia and the Transcaucasus. He left the Parthian Empire alone.

In domestic matters, Augustus channeled the enormous wealth brought in from the Empire to keeping the army happy with generous payments, and keeping the Romans happy by beautifying the capital and staging magnificent games. He famously boasted that he "found Rome brick and left it marble." He built the Senate a new home, the Curia, and built temples to Apollo and to the Divine Julius. He also built a shrine near the Circus Maximus. It is recorded that he built both the Capitoline Temple and the Theater of Pompey without putting his name on them. He founded a ministry of transport, which built an extensive network of roads - enabling improved communication, trade, and mail. Augustus also founded the world's first fire brigade, and created a regular police force for Rome.

Bronze statue of Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens
Bronze statue of Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens

Roman rulers understood little about economics, and Augustus was no exception. Like all the Emperors, he over-taxed agriculture and spent the revenue on armies, temples, and games. Once the Empire stopped expanding, and had no more loot coming in from conquests, its economy began to stagnate and eventually decline. The reign of Augustus is thus seen in some ways as the high point of Rome's power and prosperity. Augustus settled retired soldiers on the land in an effort to revive agriculture, but the capital remained dependent on grain imports from Egypt.

Augustus also strongly supported worship of Roman gods, especially Apollo, and depicted Roman defeat of Egypt as Roman gods defeating Egypt's. He sponsored Vergil's Aeneid in the hopes that it would increase pride in Roman heritage. Augustus also launched a morality crusade, promoting marriage, family, and childbirth while discouraging luxury, "interbreeding," unrestrained sex (including prostitution and homosexuality), and adultery. It was largely unsuccessful (indeed, his own daughter was banished and subsequently perished due to it).

A patron of the arts, Augustus showered favors on poets, artists, sculptors, and architects, and his reign is considered the Golden Age of Roman literature. Horace, Livy, Ovid, and Vergil flourished under his protection, but in return, they had to pay due tribute to his genius and adhere to his standards. (Ovid was banished from Rome for violating Augustus's morality codes.) He eventually won over most of the Roman intellectual class, although many still pined in private for the Republic. His use of games and special events to celebrate himself and his family cemented his popularity. However, by the time Augustus died, it was impossible to imagine a return to the old system. The only question was who would succeed him as sole ruler.


Augustus' control of power throughout the Empire was so absolute that it allowed him to name his successor, a custom that had been abandoned and derided in Rome since the foundation of the Republic. At first, indications pointed toward his sister's son Marcellus, who had been married to Augustus' daughter Julia Caesaris. However, Marcellus died of food poisoning in 23 BC. Reports of later historians that this poisoning, and other later deaths, were caused by Augustus' wife Livia Drusilla are inconclusive at best.

After the death of Marcellus, Augustus married his daughter to his right hand man, Marcus Agrippa. This union produced five children, three sons and two daughters: Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, Vipsania Julia, Agrippina the Elder, and Postumus Agrippa, so named because he was born after Marcus Agrippa died. Augustus' intent to make the first two children his heirs was apparent when he adopted them as his own children. Augustus also showed favor to his stepsons, Livia's children from her first marriage, Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus and Tiberius Claudius, after they had conquered a large portion of Germany.

After Agrippa died in 12 BC, Livia's son Tiberius divorced his own wife and married Agrippa's widow. Tiberius shared in Augustus' tribune powers, but shortly thereafter went into retirement. After the early deaths of both Gaius and Lucius in AD 4 and AD 2 respectively, and the earlier death of his brother Drusus (9 BC), Tiberius was recalled to Rome, where he was adopted by Augustus.

On August 19, AD 14, Augustus died. Postumus Agrippa and Tiberius had been named co-heirs. However, Postumus had been banished, and was put to death around the same time. Who ordered his death is unknown, but the way was clear for Tiberius to assume the same powers that his stepfather had.

Augustus's legacy

Augustus was deified soon after his death, and both his borrowed surname, Caesar, and his title, Augustus, became the permanent titles of the rulers of Rome for the next 400 years, and were still in use at Constantinople fourteen centuries after his death, (and the derived titles "Kaiser" and "Tsar" would be used until the early part of the 20th century). The cult of the Divine Augustus continued until Constantine the Great converted the State Religion of the Empire to Christianity in the 4th century. Consequently we have many excellent statues and busts of the first, and in some ways the greatest, of the Emperors. Augustus' mausoleum also originally contained bronze pillars inscribed with a record of his life, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti.

Many consider Augustus as Rome's greatest emperor; his policies certainly extended the empire's life span and initiated the celebrated "Pax Romana or Pax Augusta." He was handsome, intelligent, decisive, and a very shrewd politician, but he was not perhaps as charismatic as the earlier Caesar or his rival Antony; as a result, Augustus is not as renowned as either man, and is often confused with Julius Caesar. Nevertheless, his legacy has proved more enduring.

The month of August (Latin Augustus) is named after Augustus; until his time it was called Sextilis.

In looking back on the reign of Augustus and its legacy to the Roman world, its longevity ought not to be overlooked as a key factor in its success. People had been born and reached middle age without knowing any form of government other than the Principate. Had Augustus died earlier (in 23 BC, for instance), matters may have turned out very differently. The attrition of the civil wars on the old Republican oligarchy and the longevity of Augustus, therefore, must be seen as major contributing factors in the transformation of the Roman state into a monarchy in these years. Augustus's own experience, his patience, his tact, and his great political acumen also played their part. He directed the future of the empire down many lasting paths, from the existence of a standing professional army stationed at or near the frontiers, to the dynastic principle so often employed in the imperial succession, to the embellishment of the capital at the emperor's expense. Augustus's ultimate legacy, however, was the peace and prosperity the empire was to enjoy for the next two centuries under the system he initiated. His memory was enshrined in the political ethos of the Imperial age as a paradigm of the good emperor; although every emperor adopted his name, Caesar Augustus, only a handful earned genuine comparison with him (Fagan).

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1- Official name of Augustus after 27 BC. The meaning in English is "Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the deified one". "Emperor" here is used as a given name (praenomen); it is not a common noun such as is the case in English today.

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