Augustus Caesar: The Incredible Life of Rome’s First Emperor

augustus_octavius_caesarSource: Fine Art America

The first and one of the greatest Roman emperors, Augustus Caesar (and his reign of 40 years) embodied the transition of the ancient Roman state from a fractured Republic to a continent-dominating Empire – guided by his impressive political intellect and effective administration.

And like many an eminent historical figure from the Roman world, his incredible legacy is strewn with its fair share of approvals and controversies. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at ten things you should know about Augustus Caesar – who addressed himself as the ‘first citizen of the state’.

The Alexander and Caesar ‘Connection’

The Temple of Hercules in Cori near Velletri – by Jakob Philipp Hackert. Source: Branipick

While being born in the city of Rome (near the Forum), on 23rd September 63 BC, Augustus was raised at his father’s home village at Velletri, around 40 miles from the ‘eternal city’. He was named Gaius Octavius Thurinus, with the Thurinus cognomen possibly commemorating his father’s (also named Gaius Octavius) victory at Thurii over rebellious slaves. And he was related to the great Julius Caesar on the maternal side, with his mother Atia being the niece of the Roman statesman.

However, when Augustus was just four years old, his father died (circa 59 BC). Consequently, his mother married Lucius Marcius Philippus, a former governor of Syria who also claimed descent from Alexander the Great. At the same, he was loath to show interest in his stepson, which inadvertently set the course for Augustus being adopted as the future heir to Caesar.

That is because, while his stepfather and mother were initially disinterested in their parenting duties, it was Julia, Caesar’s sister, who took the active role in raising Augustus, possibly till her death in circa 51 BC. And finally, the still-teenager Octavius (as Augustus was called in his younger days) remarkably impressed his uncle Caesar when he was able to cross through enemy territory (after being shipwrecked) to meet up with the latter’s forces in Hispania during the campaign against Pompey in circa 46 BC.

The Clandestine Rivalry Between Caesar’s Heirs

Vincenzo Camuccini’s depiction of the death of Julius Caesar. Leemage/Getty Images. Source: Vox

Before his assassination, Caesar had already named the young Octavius as his prime beneficiary. But Octavius, in spite of the danger surrounding him and his family after the prominent statesman’s death, took the bold decision to directly travel to Italy – the center stage of the Roman political aftermath.

He even managed to bolster his relatively modest financial capacity by taking hold of military funds originally allotted for a Parthian campaign and the annual tributes from the eastern provinces. These (sometimes clandestine) measures allowed the young Octavius to recruit Caesar’s veteran legionaries, thus forming a sort of private army of his own.

At the same time, the chaotic political scene in Rome incredibly resulted in the general amnesty for the assassins of Julius Caesar, in spite of Marcus Antonius’ opposition to this status. The situation became even direr for Antonius with many of Caesar’s former political rivals – the Optimates, including Cicero, putting their support behind Octavius against the perceived ‘recklessness’ of Antonius directed at the Republican structure of Rome.

In essence, these decisions and the related machinations put Augustus and Antonius on an inevitable collision course pertaining to the future leadership of the Roman Republic.

The Roman Senate also granted Octavius the office of propraetor imperium (commanding power), which not only legalized his private army but also gave him the power to march on to Cisalpine Gaul – to stop Antonius from besieging Mutina, the stronghold of Decimus Brutus, one of the chief instigators of Caesar’s assassination (not to be confused with Marcus Brutus – the chief assassin himself).

And while his Republican army was successful in defeating Antonius, Octavius once again showcased his shrewd political acumen by avoiding further conflict with his destined rival. He even managed to march on Rome with his eight legions to demand the revocation of a decree that would have made Antonius a declared public enemy. These seemingly antithetical measures led to the foundation of the Second Triumvirate.

The Second Triumvirate


The lull in military activities and the apparent agreement reached between Octavius and Antonius allowed for the formation of the Second Triumvirate in October of 43 BC. The junta was composed of Octavius himself (who was barely 20 years old at the time) along with Antonius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus – both from the Caesarian faction.

Essentially, as opposed to the wishes of the senators of Republican Rome, the Second Triumvirate became an instrument for reprisals against the rivals and assassins of Caesar – this time supported actively by none other than his heir Octavius.

Thus its three powerful members actively issued decrees of banishment and death, which allowed for systematic elimination and exiles of high numbers of their political enemies. Now according to some ancient Roman sources (like Cassius Dio), Octavius may not have played part in the consequent bloodshed and executions, while others (like Suetonius) claimed that the young Augustus unofficially took part in more brutal measures than the other Triumvirate members.

The ‘Son of God’

Map by edthomasten (DeviantArt)

By 42 BC, Julius Caesar was posthumously recognized as a divinity – Divus Iulius, by the Senate, possibly coaxed by the authoritative Triumvirate. And thus, Octavius, being the heir of Caesar, declared himself as the ‘son of god’ – Divi filius. And by the latter part of the year, the Triumvirate had turned its attention to the assassins of Caesar, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Philippi.

The defeat of Marcus Brutus and Cassius at the hands of the Caesarian legion led to their suicides, while also reigniting the flames of the old rivalry between Octavius and Antonius. To that end, it was Antonius who instigated the proceedings by claiming how it was his own legions (as opposed to Octavius’) that were instrumental in defeating the assassins. He also taunted Octavius’s apparent lack of courage since the latter appointed Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as the general instead of personally taking command of his troops.

Octavius for his part played his crucial (yet controversial) role in settling many of the Caesarian veterans by confiscating the lands of Roman civilians. This resulted in a rebellion led by none other than Lucius Antonius – the brother of Marcus Antonius. At the same time, the political tension was rather exacerbated by Octavius’ decision to seek a divorce from Clodia Pulchra, the stepdaughter of Antonius.

Unfortunately for the rebels, in spite of popular support in Italy, they were financially starved and ultimately forced to surrender. In the aftermath, Octavius, while pardoning Lucius (on account of his familial ties), possibly put over 300 senators and equestrians to death for siding with the rebels. Suffice it to say, such brutal measures besmirched the reputation of the young ‘Augustus’ as the heir of Caesar.

The Relegation of Lepidus

Source: WorldHistoryVolume

By 38 BC, Octavius was once more involved in the political scope and future of Italy – this time by taking part, along with Lepidus, against the ambition of Sextus Pompeius, the son of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the renowned rival of Caesar. Sextus had already taken up the title of Neptuni filius (‘son of Neptune’) by virtue of his control of the sea near Sicily.

And while Octavius initially faced his fair share of setbacks, the combined forces of the Second Triumvirate dealt a decisive blow to the naval fleet of Sextus (in circa 36 BC) – leading to his fleeing and ultimate execution at the hands of a Caesarian commander.

However, much like the aftermath of the Battle of Philippi, the Triumvirate victory led to squabbles among its members, with Lepidus audaciously attempting to claim Sicily for himself while demanding that Octavius should leave the island. But the young Augustus made his countermove by paying off most of Lepidus’ troops who abandoned the old Caesarian and defected to the former’s camp. Thus Lepidus was forced to leave the Triumvirate and was effectively exiled to his private villa at Cape Circeo.

The Clash of Titans

Antonius and Cleopatra. Source: PSJFactoids

The events in Italy were shadowed by a Roman military campaign in the east against Parthia, led by Antonius, apparently to avenge the disastrous defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC. And while it was expected that Octavius would send over 20,000 legionaries to aid his fellow triumvir, in reality, the young Augustus just sent around one-tenth of that number.

Suffice it to say, the Parthian campaign soon turned disastrous for Antonius. The relationship between the two leaders worsened further when Antonius divorced Octavia, the sister of Octavius, in favor of Cleopatra in 33 BC.

Befitting his political guile, Octavius soon took advantage of the precarious situation and started a propaganda campaign against Antonius for the latter’s supposed penchant for Greek and foreign cultures that took precedence over the welfare of Romans.

To that end, it is entirely possible that a part of Cleopatra’s enduring aura of beauty was (ironically) propagated by her enemies, namely Octavius. In that regard, many of her Roman opponents portrayed her as the wily seductress who persuaded Marcus Antonius to ‘betray’ his homeland. This scope of betrayal was fueled by Antonius’ will that was forcefully seized from the Temple of Vesta (by agents of Octavius) and then read in the Senate.

The contents possibly revealed how Antonius had plans to divide up the Roman territories in the east among his own sons. However, the most contentious point in the will relates to how Antonius put forth Caesarion – the alleged son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, as the heir to Caesar, thereby sidelining Octavius, who was widely perceived as the true (yet adopted) heir of Caesar. Consequently, in circa 32 BC, the Senate officially revoked the consulship of Antonius and declared war on Cleopatra’s regime in Egypt.

This inevitably resulted in the showdown between the two powerful rivals – Octavius and Antonius, culminating in the naval battle of Actium (31 BC), where the larger and more maneuverable fleet of the Romans under Agrippa defeated the forces of Antonius and Cleopatra. Only a year later, still pursued by the forces of Octavius, both Antonius and Cleopatra committed suicide.

The ‘Humble’ Imperator

Augustus of Prima Porta, dating from circa 1st century AD. Photo Credit:
Till Niermann. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the unceremonious death of Antonius, Octavius became the sole ruler of Rome. But unlike his predecessor Julius Caesar, Octavius did not reveal his intentions for taking up the office of ultimate power in the Roman Republic. Instead, he made cumulative arrangements that while solidifying his hold over the state and the Senate also shielded him from the ‘slanders’ of dictatorship and monarchy.

For example, in 27 BC, Octavius made a great show of relinquishing his absolute control over the Roman provinces and the armies, but in truth, he still retained the active support of many clients, veterans, nominal legionaries, and even financial institutions.

Essentially, in spite of his unprecedented political power over Rome, Octavius prudently chose to reject monarchical titles. Instead, he restored the veneers of a free Republic where he styled himself as the Princeps Civitatis (‘First Citizen of the State’).

Over time, he was handed more titles from the appeased (yet severely weakened) Senate, including the famous Augustus – ‘the illustrious one’ (that initially had a religious nuance) which alluded to his power in the provinces as Imperator, or commander-in-chief, along with his other titles of a Tribune and a Censor.

Ultimately in circa 19 BC, Augustus was finally accorded the Imperium Maius (supreme power) over every province of the Roman Empire, thereby allowing him to be the first true emperor of Rome.

The Pax Romana

Source: YouTube

However, the true achievement of Augustus Caesar pertained to what is called the Pax Romana (‘Roman Peace’) – an era of relative peace and economic stability experienced by the still burgeoning Roman realm, in spite of the dramatic expansion of their empire, including the addition of Egypt, Dalmatia, and Noricum.

This was accompanied by an ambitious rebuilding program for Rome, a bevy of reforms on taxation and civil laws, refurbishment and development of road systems, and the official creation of the infamous Praetorian Guard (discussed later in the article).

One of the major reforms initiated by Augustus focused on a centralized collection of both revenues and taxes based on state-controlled parameters instead of the earlier arbitrary measures of the Roman Republic. For example, the tributes exacted from provinces and client kingdoms were now based on agreements and logistics, as opposed to the erratic figures that often led to the deterioration of relations with Rome and the said region.

Similarly, the new tax system was driven by the population census (which equated to the rough financial capacity) of provinces – and it was administered and collected by state-appointed officials. These appointees replaced the private tax farmers (publicans) who had become unaccountable for their inconsistent services and were rather infamous for accumulating great private fortunes and profit-driven techniques.

Furthermore, Augustus was the patron of various monuments and temples in the city of Rome itself, including the Temple of Caesar, the Baths of Agrippa, the Forum of Augustus, the Arch of Augustus, and the Theater of Marcellus.

He also encouraged a range of impressive architectural projects, including the Theater of Balbus, the original Pantheon, the Theater of Merida (in Spain), along with other monumental additions at the Campus Martius.

And beyond just structural projects, the Roman Emperor also played an instrumental role in creating civic positions like the curatores locorum publicorum iudicandorum (‘Supervisors of Public Property’) and curatores viarum (‘Supervisors of Roads’) to oversee and maintain the various state-owned buildings and properties.

The Praetorian Guard

Illustration by Peter Dennis.

The ‘invention’ of the Praetorian Guard is often attributed to Emperor Augustus. And while part of this scope rings true, the precursors to the organized Praetorian Guard already served as generals during the late Republican period. To that end, both Octavius (who was later proclaimed Emperor Augustus) and his rival Marcus Antonius fielded their separate Praetorian units in numerous engagements.

In terms of history, after Octavius secured his final victory over Antonius, he resolved to symbolically unite the ‘original’ army of Julius Caesar, thereby combining both his opponent’s and his own troops. Thus the groundwork for the founding of the Praetorian Guard was laid, with the new guard unit – also consisting of veterans from the rival camp, possibly having a total strength of nine cohorts (of 500 men each).

Circa 13 BC, Augustus also reduced the period of service for his Praetorian Guards from 16 to 12 years, which was revised back to 16 years in 5 BC (while ordinary Roman Legionaries had to serve 25 years).

Interestingly enough, while Augustus inherited probably over 4,500 veteran soldiers after his major victory over Antonius, he was wise enough not to flaunt his newfound power during the mercurial times of the early Roman Empire.

So, befitting an astute administrator, the Emperor only kept around three cohorts in Rome itself (according to Suetonius), and these soldiers were billeted around the city instead of being housed in a unified camp. The other cohorts were kept stationed across the major towns of the Italian peninsula.

Moreover, during the period nearing the end of his reign, Augustus created the Urban Cohorts (Cohortes Urbanae) probably from three existing cohorts of the Praetorian Guard. The move was widely seen as a counter-balance to the rising power of the Praetorian Guard in Rome itself, especially since these new cohorts were commanded by the Urban Prefect (Praefectus Urbi) – a senatorial rank that was above the rank of the Praetorian Prefect.

However, while the Urban Cohorts were trained as a paramilitary force, their main duty was mostly limited to the streets of Rome. Simply put, they acted as variants of the heavy-duty police force, much akin to the specialized riot police of our modern times, who were tasked with controlling crowds and combating riots within the city – jobs that were often critical to maintaining order and political decorum in Rome.

The Succession Issues and Death

Reconstruction of Augustus. Source: Pinterest

Like the shadow of politics that accompanied Augustus throughout his life, it also befittingly reared its rather ugly head when the first Roman Emperor was nearing his death. The major issue had to do with the succession pertaining to quite a few candidates ranging from his own favored (yet old) general Agrippa to his own stepson the capable (yet reluctant) Tiberius – and it was the latter who, after numerous political intrigues, grudgingly took up the mantle at the age of 55. Another controversial decision from the later part of Augustus’ life related to the banishment of his own daughter and granddaughter on charges of adultery.

In any case, the great Augustus died at the Villa of Nola, in 14 AD, and reputedly, some of his last words were – Acta est fabula, plaudite (“The play is over, applaud”). However, Suetonius, his biographer, also suggests that his actual last words were on a personal level addressed to his wife Livia – “Livia, live mindful of our marriage, and farewell!”.

But interestingly enough, the official ‘last words’ from the first Roman emperor are often presented as “I found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble” – a statement that aptly represents the sheer achievements of Augustus during the Pax Romana.

Book References: Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (By Adrian Goldsworthy) / Life of Augustus (By Suetonius) / The Praetorian Guard (By Boris Rankov)

Online Sources: Ancient Encyclopedia / Britannica

Featured Image Source: Fine Art America

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