Augustus - Roman Emperor (63 BC - 14 AD)
Created | Updated Jan 29, 2010
The Julio-Claudian Emperors
Augustus | Tiberius | Caligula | Claudius | Nero
Augustus, the first ruler of the Roman Empire, is thought by many to be one of the most influential figures in Roman history. He brought an end to the previous Republic (which was beginning to come apart at the seams) and established himself as the head of the new Empire. The form of government that Augustus established proved successful enough that it would endure for over 300 years. Although neither Augustus nor his successors were perfect people, he deserves credit for almost single-handedly establishing a well-run state out of the chaos of civil war.
Augustus was born as Gaius Octavius (usually spelled Octavian in English) in 63 BC. His father (also called Octavius) was a fairly nondescript civil servant, but was lucky enough to be married to Julius Caesar's niece Atia. Unfortunately, however, the elder Octavius died suddenly when his son was only four.
It is believed that Octavian was in his late teens when he began to be noticed by his Great-Uncle Julius. As the renowned military commander celebrated his triumphs around the known world, Octavian followed him, rising quickly through the ranks of the civil service. He was often accorded honours for small roles played in the success of Julius' campaigns.
Octavian did not realise that he had been adopted as Caesar's son until Julius was famously assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC. He had been abroad, but came back to Rome in hiding1. Octavian's family urged him to deny the adoption (which by this point had come out publicly), but Octavian wanted to obey Julius' wishes. He travelled out to the Italian colonies to gather troops who would be loyal to him should conflict erupt in the aftermath of Julius' assassination.
Rise to Power
Mark Antony, Octavian's chief rival, appeared at first to ignore Octavian's gathering of resources. He was more interested in trying to oppose the efforts of his other rivals Brutus and Cassius, who wanted to gain power and support. But Antony was indirectly opposing Octavian's efforts by delaying the official recognition of his adoption and preventing him from being accorded certain public offices. As animosity grew between the pro-Caesar and anti-Caesar camps, Antony and Octavian continued to oppose each other's efforts to gain control. Octavian, as Julius' relative, was able to gain the power of much of the Roman army, but Antony was not without support. The Senate, led by the famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, officially supported Octavian as the best candidate for Consul2, which served to intensify the opposition to Antony's campaign.
In a series of brief engagements in 43 BC, Antony was defeated and fled from Italy. Far from congratulating Octavian on his efforts, though, the Senate essentially ignored him — giving him an official round of applause, but nothing more, not even the awards given to every veteran of the conflict. Octavian continued to nominate himself and Cicero as joint candidates for the Consulship, but his requests were consistently shot down. So Octavian took more direct action. Leading the regiments that he had previously gathered, he marched into Rome and took the city by force. The soldiers brought out to defend the city defected to Octavian's side, leaving the Senate with no choice but to appoint him Consul.
Once confirmed, Octavian set about managing unfinished business. He officially approved his adoption, sorted out Julius' will and tried and executed Cassius' and Brutus' supporters. But the situation remained unstable: the smallest of disputes could have set off civil war again.
Seeking to obtain stability, Octavian determined that it would be necessary to make peace with Antony. He met with Antony and another man, Marcus Æmilius Lepidus, and the three determined to rule jointly. The triumvirate did not start out well. Essentially, a reign of terror ensued, as the rulers confiscated the property of several citizens to gain wealth for themselves and ordered the murders of around 300 senators. One of the first to go was Cicero, the avowed enemy of Antony — though it would appear that Octavian lent his approval to the disposal of the influential senator.
The next task of the triumvirate was to finally vanquish Cassius and Brutus. This was achieved at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC. In the aftermath of the battle, both Cassius and Brutus killed themselves rather than be captured by those in power. Octavian, though not having distinguished himself particularly in battle, determined that he would therefore execute anyone who had been involved in Julius Caesar's murder, no matter how tenuous the connection.
The triumvirate continued to be unpopular, especially among retired soldiers whom Octavian had evicted from their land. This was the perfect set-up for the Perusine War of 41 BC: Mark Antony's brother Lucius began stirring up trouble among the veterans, dividing their loyalties between the different members of the triumvirate. Octavian took offense and besieged Lucius' forces, who eventually surrendered in 40 BC. Octavian's attack on Lucius angered Mark, who shortly after Lucius' surrender began attacking Octavian's garrison at Brundisium. It would appear that civil war was about to upset the triumvirate, but at the last possible minute outright war was avoided, as the parties signed the Pact of Brundisium. Territory was re-assigned among the three rulers: Octavian held the West; Antony, the East and Lepidus, Africa. Also, Antony married Octavia, Octavian's sister. The three then returned to Rome, amidst apparent joy on the part of the people.
The triumvirate was temporarily threatened again in the form of Sextus Pompeius, the younger son of Pompey, who had become a pirate. Antony had allied with Pompeius in the time prior to the triumvirate and on this basis Pompeius apparently expected to get something out of Brundisium. In the hopes of exacting his reward, his pirate fleet attacked several of Italy's coastal towns. In the Treaty of Misenum in 39 BC, Pompeius was given Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily in compensation and was promised a Consulship in order to keep him quiet.
However, Pompeius didn't stay quiet. Upset that the promised power had not been rendered him, he again blockaded Italy. Antony had gone to Egypt (Cleopatra having come into the picture) and Lepidus was not being particularly helpful — which left Octavian alone to face the threat from Pompeius. He did so with the help of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a competent general who readied the Roman fleet in 36 BC. However, it was to take a couple defeats before Octavian and Agrippa finally won out at the battle of Naulochus.
Made nervous by Octavian's victory, Lepidus decided to make his move for supreme power. He attacked Octavian with 22 regiments, but was soundly defeated and put under house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life. Having got one member of the triumvirate out of the way, Octavian realised that it was only a matter of time before he'd have to prove himself against Antony. He began to consolidate power.
Opposition to Antony
When Octavian returned to Rome after his defeat of Pompeius, it was to great popular acclaim. Propaganda had painted Pompeius as Rome's great enemy who was responsible for many of the common people's hardships, so it was only natural that his defeat should have occasioned great celebration. On the other hand, Antony was failing miserably in the East, meeting great opposition in the form of local rulers. This looked particularly bad in the light of Octavian's victory. In addition, Antony was embroiled in his famously sensational affair with Cleopatra. He was still married to Octavia, but had fathered two of Cleopatra's children and had adopted Eastern dress and customs. He also recognised Cleopatra's son Caesarion as the official illegitimate offspring of Julius Caesar — which would threaten Octavian's standing as Caesar's son. Octavian used all the propaganda at his disposal to stir up public displeasure towards Antony's situation. At the same time, with Agrippa's help, he reinstated services such as the public water supply which made him very popular with the inhabitants of Rome.
The situation became even more delicate when, in 32 BC, the current term of the triumvirate ended. Octavian remained in power in Rome — his security with the military meant that no one dared to challenge him. He publicly denounced Antony, which caused both the Consuls (who were Antony's supporters) and several pro-Antony senators to flee the city. Simultaneously, rumours developed surrounding Antony's relationship with Cleopatra. In response, Octavian3 obtained a copy of Antony's will (a highly illegal act — all Roman wills were considered private and sacrosanct) and discovered that he wished to be buried beside Cleopatra and expressed an interest in establishing a rival government in the East. Octavian, in response, declared war on Cleopatra (to detract from the fact that he was actually opposing Antony). Completely spontaneously, several of the Italian provinces declared oaths of loyalty to Octavian, meaning that he could now claim to be the people's choice for a leader.
Despite the insistence that it was a foreign queen that Octavian was opposing, the war was essentially Roman against Roman. All the resources of the Roman army (whether it was led by Octavian or by Antony) were brought into play. Antony and Cleopatra were defeated in the pitched battle of Actium in 31 BC (partly due to the naval strategy of Agrippa). In a surprising move, Antony's infantry, cavalry and navy all defected to Octavian's side. The lovers committed suicide in the aftermath4. Octavian was now established as the sole ruler of the Roman world (which now included Egypt).
Following the battle of Actium, the political situation of Rome was still essentially unstable. It was clear that Octavian was in power, but the only way he had of proving it was the support of the military. Needing a legal way to make his takeover official (especially one that would not leave him open to the same sort of opposition that Julius had faced) Octavian enacted three Constitutional Settlements in 27, 23 and 19 BC. He changed his name to Augustus Caesar5 and declared himself princeps, or Emperor. The Constitutional Settlements, in addition to taking the obvious step of making the office of Emperor official, made other distinctions. The Second Settlement, in particular, separated the office of Consul and the Senate from the Emperor. Although Augustus did have absolute power, he wanted to keep at least the vestiges of the Republic and ensured that the Senate had some say in legal considerations. In return for maintaining the Senate, that body granted Augustus pro-consular power — meaning that he had the ability to supersede the Consuls at any time and override their decisions.
It was necessary for Augustus to suppress several uprisings — both from groups who wanted to return to the Republic and from groups who didn't get the picture and still wanted Augustus to declare himself a dictator along the lines of Julius Caesar. That was something that Augustus particularly wanted to avoid: by slowly gaining power through taking only what the Senate offered him and insinuating himself into the people's confidence, he became far more popular than if he had simply seized power outright. Augustus took this power and began to govern.
Augustus and the Army
Even in his previous life as Octavian, Augustus had been working on making the Roman army more efficient, and he continued this task when he became Emperor. The soldiers were all volunteers and consisted of 28 standing regiments plus reserve forces. They enlisted for a prescribed term of 20 years, during which they were paid a regular wage. They also received a gift of land upon retirement. There were also special regiments of non-citizens from the provinces, which were subject to special regulations. Soldiers were required to take an oath of loyalty to Augustus in order to guard against mutiny. The great commanders who led major campaigns (such as Agrippa and Tiberius) were all hand-picked by Augustus.
Due to these improvements, the army had been established as a reasonable career choice for many young men. Augustus began to utilise his new force. He carried out active campaigns in present-day Spain and Germany and established active garrisons in Rome and other major population centres. The army guarded the borders of the Empire and helped keep newly conquered provinces like Gaul6 under control.
Augustus' new office set an important military precedent: 'there was to be no military glory but Augustus's'7. Two generals, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cornelius Gallus, distinguished themselves individually in battle and demanded that the Senate award them appropriate honours. Augustus, in turn, showed his public disapproval of these attempts, such that both men simply disappeared from society. On the other hand, Agrippa, who repeatedly proved his worth as a commander yet never asked for honours, was consistently praised by Augustus.
Augustus and the Empire
Though Augustus made sure that the Senate ceased to have any actual administrative power, he treated them with great tact and so essentially made them think that they had far more power than they in fact did. He also appointed certain senators to 'curateships' — putting particular people in charge of tasks such as the construction of aqueducts or the financial management of the City of Rome. Augustus also created a consilium, or Cabinet, which included both Consuls and a variety of other government administrators. Each of these administrators had a variety of people under his command, therefore establishing the well-run bureaucracy that remained the mainstay of Augustus' Empire.
Several new provinces were incorporated into the Empire as well. Areas that had been conquered but had no official status within the Roman world were annexed and given Roman governors. A common way for Augustus to reward someone was to make him the governor of a new province. Additionally, in 27 BC he separated the Empire into the imperial provinces, which were directly under his control, and the 'public' provinces: these, about one-fourth of the Empire, were officially under the control of the Senate (although since Augustus had pro-consular power and could overrule the Senate, everything was still essentially under his command). One could go so far as to say that the provinces flourished under Augustus. His bureaucracy ensured that they were well-managed and he managed to quell uprisings and territorial disputes while not appearing dictatorial in the way that Julius Caesar had.
Augustus and Tradition
In his new role as the guardian of Rome, Augustus became particularly interested in reviving the traditional aspects of Roman society that had been somewhat overshadowed by many years' civil war. He made clear his disapproval of 'public displays of extravagance' and imposed restrictions on married couples in an effort to cut down on the instances of divorce, adultery and childlessness. He also reinforced the Roman caste system (such as it was), establishing new requirements for being admitted into the élite circles. However, in private life Augustus appeared somewhat hypocritical: the Imperial family did not precisely live in peace and harmony and it is possible that Augustus himself was not always faithful to his wife, Livia.
There was a tradition in certain provinces of the Empire of worshipping rulers. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that some areas in the East began to treat Augustus as a god, not long after the battle of Actium. Despite Augustus' opposition to being granted divine honours (he insisted that any worship of him be coupled with that of the Roman state) a sizeable cult developed which revered him as a god. Though it would be out of the question to worship Augustus in the City of Rome itself, as this would have gone against provisions in the Constitutional Settlements, Augustus did not oppose those who worshipped him in the provinces. No matter the technicalities, it did produce a base of people who were incredibly loyal to him.
Augustus and the Arts
Augustus sought to be 'the' patron for Roman artists and writers, initiating a sort of Roman Renaissance known as the 'Augustan Age'. He undertook several public works projects to restore areas of the city and build new buildings. In particular, he funded the complete renovation of the Roman Forum, which is even today not a bad-looking ruin. Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Livy were all writing at this time. Virgil's Aeneid proved particularly popular among Roman citizens and even then was read and memorised by Roman schoolboys.
The End of Augustus' Reign
Augustus did grow more tyrannical in later life, refusing to listen to the Senate and obstructing justice. For example, he exiled Ovid in 8 AD on the basis of one of the writer's satires, which he found to be insulting. But Augustus did not really have a downfall in the traditional sense. As he grew older, he slowly withdrew from public life, leaving the workings of the Empire to his highly efficient bureaucracy when he died peacefully in his villa in 14 AD. There are some rumours that Augustus' wife Livia had her husband poisoned, as was suggested in the television series I, Claudius, but they are largely thought to be untrue.
After Augustus' death, he was obviously unable to stop the Senate from voting him divine honours. His family and the entire Empire would thereafter revere him as a god. Perhaps, at least in view of the Romans, he deserved it. Augustus left behind a well-functioning mechanism that was to survive less competent successors and all sorts of calamities for three centuries, and which is still looked upon as a pantheon of civilisation.