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Augustus Caesar (63 BCE - 14 CE) was an influential political figure of the ancient world and the very first Roman emperor. He was originally called Gaius Octavius until he added the name of his late great uncle and adopted father Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.
As a child
The man who would later become Augustus was born as Octavian of the Julii, an extremely ancient Roman family[note 1] of patricians. The Julii were, despite their nobility, fairly unknown before Julius Caesar revived the fame of the clan, and were also fairly poor, despite their claim to direct descent from the goddess Venus. During his childhood Octavian was educated in Greek philosophy in Athens. His mother was Atia, and he had a sister, Octavia Minor[note 2].
In Greece, and in Rome, Octavian gained two friends who would remain with him for his professional life: Myceneas, and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The three were fast friends, especially in adolescence.
Octavian’s fortunes changed when, upon the death of his uncle Julius Caesar, Caesar’s will was read, naming Octavian as his son-by-posthumous-adoption, not an uncommon practice in ancient Rome. Caesar had also left Octavian the duty of disbursing nearly all of the money he had accumulated to every plebeian citizen in Rome.
Following Caesar’s death
Upon his adoption, Octavian adopted his full name, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, taking his adoptive father’s name and using his own as an adjectival ending, in the Roman tradition. The new “Caesar,” as he quickly came to call himself, immediately pushed for Caesar’s will to be enforced, and his money to be distributed to the citizens. He also called for his “father,” Julius Caesar, to be deified by the Senate. As Caesar had become posthumously more popular with the plebeian class after learning that they were the beneficiaries of Caesar’s will, the citizens of Rome clamored until the Senate acceded to the demands, deifying Julius Caesar, and building his Temple on the burnt remains of the Senate House. Octavian also succeeded in having Caesar’s assassins, (Brutus and Cassius), declared enemies of the state, and also forced the Senate into condemning Caesar’s assassination officially. Brutus and Cassius immediately fled the city.
All was not well, though – Mark Antony was also attempting to portray himself as the rightful heir of Caesar’s legacy, against Octavian’s own claims. A sticking point was the enforcement of Caesar’s will: Antony felt the money was his by right, but Octavian sought to disburse it to the citizens, as Caesar had requested. The two immediately fled the city, raised armies, and fought a small battle, which Octavian’s forces quickly won, led to victory by Agrippa.
In the meantime, Brutus and Cassius, who had fled to the East to raise an army, were returning to Rome to crush Octavian, who had now become the popular favorite to be Caesar’s heir. As a result of the threat posed by Brutus and Cassius to both Antony and Octavian’s designs, the two set aside their differences, and formed a secret alliance to defeat Brutus and Cassius. They sought the financial backing of Marcus Lepidus, and formed the Second Triumvirate to the ends of crushing Brutus and Cassius, and restoring order to Rome. To prevent their secret alliance from becoming public knowledge, and to raise funds, the three triumvirs ordered many prominent citizens killed, and their property confiscated. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one such target. The Triumvirate also disbursed Caesar’s will to the plebeians, as Caesar had requested, creating instant popular favor towards Octavian and Antony.
The forces of the Second Triumvirate easily defeated Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in Greece. Octavian is said to have not participated greatly in the battle, Antony and Agrippa doing his fighting for him instead. This fostered a rumor at Rome that Caesar’s heir was no such thing, but instead a weak and effeminate philosopher.
After the reason for their alliance disappeared, Lepidus, Antony, and Octavian realized that conflict was inevitable. To postpone it for some time, the three partitioned the Roman Empire into three parts – Rome and the West went to Octavian, the wealthy East to Antony, and Africa to Lepidus. The three immediately began to consolidate their power bases for a conflict that they all knew would come.
During this time, Octavian used his station in Rome to boost his public image. He portrayed himself elaborately as the “son of a God,” that is, the son of the Deified Caesar. He commissioned elaborate gold statues and coins, carrying the blazon ‘’Oct. Caes. Div. Fili’’, or “Octavian Caesar, Son of the God.” The provisions of Caesar’s will, and his association with the popular dead ruler, made Octavian an instant favorite with the people of Rome. Thus he quickly consolidated his power.
In the run-up to the actual conflict, Octavian continued to outmaneuver his other triumvirs. He threatened Lepidus into giving up command of Africa, and retiring to serve as pontifex maximus, a politically non-threatening religious post. He portrayed Antony as “captured” by the decadent East, enslaved by love to Cleopatra, and no longer even Roman due to his great love for Egypt. He secured Antony’s secret will, which had recently been changed to request his burial in Egypt, as opposed to Rome, in the graves of his family. The Roman people were shocked to find what they saw as one of their own turning his back on Rome herself. Octavian played off of these feelings by accentuating his own “Roman-ness” by restoring old Roman traditions, such as the opening of the doors of the Temple of Janus in times of conflict, and the ceremonial casting of a spear into enemy territory by the ‘’fetiales’’, an order of Roman priests. In a re-hash of this ritual, Octavian himself acted as a ‘’fetial’’ priest, casting a spear into a plot symbolizing Egypt and Mark Antony to inaugurate the final conflict between Octavian and Antony.
Whatever doubts about Octavian’s martial prowess may have existed, they were immediately wiped away by his shocking victory over Antony at the Battle of Actium. Historians dispute whether the conflict was as large as alleged by Octavian – it most certainly was not – but Octavian’s successful portrayal of the battle as an earth-shattering event lent him credibility.
The Great Shift and the Constitutional Settlement
After the battle of Actium, Octavian stayed out of Rome for several years, securing the allegiance of the provinces, before returning to Rome in Triple Triumph over the Enemies of Rome. He never mentioned his battle against Antony as a battle against a Roman: he phrased it as a defeat of Egypt, seen clearly in coins minted during this time carrying the inscription ‘’aegypta capta’’, or “Egypt Taken.”
Upon return to Rome, Octavian met with the Senate, and “negotiated” a “Constitutional Settlement” in 27 B.C. At this “Settlement,” the Senate voted Octavian the new title “Augustus,” or, “the August One.” This title comes from the Latin word "augmentum" (an increase) or "augere" (to increase). This title reflects the position of an "augur." An augur was a soothsayer or fortuneteller who would try to divine the outcomes of events from looking at omens, especially the behavior of birds: i.e. birds circling over your head before a battle could be a bad omen. To give Octavian the title of "Augustus" was to impart a religious honor upon him. In effect, it would help portray him as a religious leader.
At the Settlement, “Augustus” nominally surrendered his official powers, and returned control of Rome to the Senate. By this action, he claims he “restored the Republic” – ‘’respublica restituta’’ – and the Senate agreed. However, they and the people together “begged” Augustus to retain some official power, which Augustus finally relented to, assuming the rank of ‘’princeps’’, or “first citizen,” and accepting the title of Consul for the year. For “restoring the Republic,” the Senate also voted Augustus the honor of the ‘’corona civica’’, or the “Civic Crown,” an honor given to soldiers who saved the lives of a fellow citizen in battle. It was argued that by restoring the Republic, Augustus had saved the freedom – and therefore the lives – of all its citizens.
Some cite this as the fall of the Roman Republic – when the Senate officially conferred ultimate power (although not in name) on the new Augustus. Reality is much more complicated. Augustus was a de facto military dictator, but instead of relying on his ultimate power (control of the legions) he created a unitary power structure which left the Republic's institutions in place, working through his vast network of clients and drawing on his personal “auctoritas” (prestige), rather than formal “potestas” (formal powers, e.g. those of a Consul). Augustus often remarked, “festina lente,” or, “make haste, slowly,” suggesting that a return to a republic would come, just not yet (or that a de facto monarchy or despotism also needed to be phased in slowly...). He never held formal imperial power, towards that end, and continually rubber-stamped his actions with the seal of republicanism. In sum, the formal tenets of Augustus’ rule show a challenging tightrope-walk between the need to hold authoritative power, to reconstruct his ravaged city, and his urge to both appear and be a republican icon. This tightrope walk officially only ended with the crisis of the 3rd century, and although it had already begun to fray during reign of Augustus' successor Tiberius, it did not do so during the Augustan age.
The Augustan image program
A denial of official power became a central theme of the new Augustan image program. It is said that he was offered the position of Dictator several times during his life, which he earnestly declined, at one point falling to his knees, tearing his toga, and begging the citizens not to ask him, for he was too weak to hold such an esteemed and powerful office. He wrote in his own official autobiography, that “I exceeded all in ‘’auctoritas’’ (informal power based on character and clientage), but I had no greater ‘'potestas’’ (formal power based on political office) than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy.”
He also resisted his own deification, which the Senate “pressed” on him during his life as well. He did not want to be seen as a new, self-obsessed tyrant, and towards that end, he even melted all gold statues of himself, re-dedicating the gold to the god Apollo, with whom Augustus nonetheless fostered a subconscious association in his subjects.
Augustus also argued that Rome must return to normalcy after 100 years of civil war. His friends Myceneas and Agrippa helped in this goal. Myceneas, through a “Poet’s Circle,” encouraged and funded panegyrical poetry praising Augustus for restoring Roman virtue and honor. Virgil received one such grant to write the Aeneid. Simultaneously, Agrippa rebuilt much of Rome that had been burned or harmed in the civil wars, but rebuilt it in grander fashion. The Pantheon was one such project, which now bears the inscription ‘’M. Agrippa, Cos. Ter., L. F., Fecit’’, or “Marcus Agrippa, Consul for the Third Time, Son of Lucius, Built This.” Agrippa also rebuilt Rome’s sewer system (the Cloaca Maxima) to wide acclaim.
Augustus’ struggle for a successor, and his death
Despite his many successes in life – immortalized in the ‘’Res Gestae Divi Augusti’’, inscribed shortly after his death – Augustus struggled in vain to find a successor who would carry on the tightrope walk that he had managed during life.
Specifically, Augustus sought his friend Agrippa to follow him as ‘’princeps’’. The succession plan is shown plainly on the friezes of the Ara Pacis Augustae, a great temple built to the Augustan era of peace, on which Agrippa walks just behind Augustus, clearly noting his intentions. Choosing his friend Agrippa over a family member suggests that Augustus did not intend Rome to become a (de facto) hereditary monarchy, but wanted Rome to remain a monarchy in the guise of an imperial republic for a while longer, under the close watch of someone he implicitly trusted.
To a degree, this would have been true, although throughout both his rule and the rule of most emperors for the next two-hundred years, save for a couple of hedonistic assholes, the Senate actually had more power than one would think, with veto powers, the institutional power to disavow an emperor, although emperors could not be impeached. Additionally, the emperor did not have the power to change local laws, that being up to the Senate. The Senate also handled legal issues and court cases, although the emperor had the ability to pardon criminals.
The genius of it all is that Auggie set it up in such a way that, technically, through this system. the title of "emperor" never actually existed as an official position, instead with the actual level of the emperor's powers being bestowed upon him by the Senate upon the ascension of a new emperor, even if the old emperor simply abdicated (which was very rare). The official title Augustus was given by the Senate was "Princeps", or "First Citizen", which was really only a symbolic gesture. Technically the early princepses, particularly Augustus and his successors over the course of the next century, stood as solely ceromonial leaders of the empire (heads of state, essentially). Princepses were given the power to annoint their ceremonial successors, and Augustus chose the man who'd become Emperor Tiberius by making him his "adopted son", which meant he was essentially his understudy. Upon the death of a princeps, the "adopted son" would go before the Senate and they would cast a ballot to ratify him. Although emperor was not an official position at all, the way the princepses became "Roman Emperors" was via this sneaky system where, after the ratification of the princeps, the Senate would then vote on the amount of power that he could yield, which, depending on the emperor, would range from ceremonial princeps, commander-in-chief/U.S. president-esque, absolute monarch, or downright dictator for life (although the first and last rarely occured, especially early on). So, basically, the executive branch was not an official branch of government, but just a singular position with some Super Overlord Senator with a bunch of titles, the most common one being "Imperator", which was the total commander in chief of armies. With that power, the emperor had nowhere near absolute control, aside from that of a high ranking senator, within the borders of the Italian peninsula, but could send his soldiers and appoint military governors literally everywhere else. Clever move, Auggie. Clever move.
Basically, the emperors were like lifelong US presidents and not monarchs, unlike most other emperors of history were. Hilariously, the emperors were generally good and the empire relatively uncorrupt, at least early on. There was always a looming fear that one day an emperor who was accidentily granted absolute control would not honor his word and overstep the boundaries of his office. This danger was realized when Agrippa predeceased Augustus. After several other potential successors also predeceased him, in the end, the son of his wife Livia, Tiberius, succeeded him. Tiberius proved ultimately unable or unwilling to maintain a similar show of deference to the trappings of Roman republicanism, though Augustus' style of imperial government would not entirely disappear until the 3rd century. Central to this was the pretense that the emperor was only the "primus inter pares" (first among equals, Sound Familiar? ), hence the designation of this era of the Roman Empire as the Principate. After the crisis of the 3rd century had resulted in the re-establishment of a far more openly despotic (and clearly monarchic) Roman Empire, this latter version 1.1 has become known as the "Dominate" (from "dominus", latin for "lord").
On his deathbed, Augustus is said to have uttered a number of cryptic remarks. First, he is said to have uttered, “have I not played my part well? Then all clap as the actor leaves the stage,” perhaps suggesting that Augustus did indeed intend Rome to be a monarchy, with him as a republican magistrate in name only. He is also said to have remarked, “behold, for I found Rome of clay, and I leave her to you of marble.”
- Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus
- Plutarch, Parallel Lives: the "Life of Antony" and the "Life of Caesar"
- Suetonius, trans. Robert Graves, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: the "Life of the Deified Caesar" and "the Life of the Deified Augustus"
- ↑ Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), 34