Two thousand yeas ago, the man born Gaius Octavius died as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. History remembers him as the first Roman Emperor. At birth the soon to be orphaned scion of an equestrian Roman house was not marked for greatness. However, the young man’s maternal grandmother happened to be the sister of Julius Caesar. As the childless Caesar rose in the political firmament, the potential future of young Octavius rose with him.
Upon the assassination of Caesar, the young Octavius discovered that he had been declared Caesar’s primary heir and adopted son. Rejecting more cautious advice Octavius would accept his inheritance, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, and upon the deification of Caesar by the Senate in 42 BC, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius – the son of a god.
In the ensuing decades the young Octavian would show himself to be an excellent politician, first allying himself with Caesar’s enemies the Optimates against Mark Antony, then forming the Second Triumvirate with Antony and Marcus Lepidus, allying with Antony to defeat Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, forcing Lepidus into retirement and then winning the final showdown against Antony and Cleopatra in the last war of the Roman Republic.
In 30 BC Octavian stood supreme in the Roman world. He was not a great general, but was capable of finding and trusting men like Marcus Agrippa. Prior to his final victory over Mark Antony he had shown extreme ruthlessness in eliminating threats. Later in life he would send his only child into exile and the time of his death his only surviving grandson would be in prison. Where he excelled was in his administrative and political acumen.
Unlike Julius Caesar he avoided the appearances of aspiring to becoming a monarch and made a great show of returning power to the Senate. In 27 BC the Senate proclaimed him Augustus and Princeps, the first citizen of Rome. For the rest of his life Augustus made a show of respecting Republican norms even as power was concentrated in him. In this he was aided by the elimination of any rivals during the long civil war and the loyalty of the army and military veterans. By settling his veterans on confiscated land, Augustus was able to reward them and trim down the size of the army. The Senate was also given control over certain pacified provinces, maintaining the republican facade. His revenue reforms stabilized the financial condition of the Empire and abolished private tax farming.
Other than a purported conspiracy in 22 BC, Augustus would rule the rest of his reign in peace with no major threats to his power – and any perceived threats would be ruthlessly eliminated.
Augustus never went on campaign after the defeat of Mark Antony. However, as the map below shows he aggressively expanded the frontiers in his reign. His stepsons Tiberius and Drusus played a major role in Rome’s expansion along the Rhine and the Danube.
On the diplomatic front, he recovered the Eagles lost to the Parthians at Carrhae by negotiations. However, Roman expansion into Germania came to an abrupt halt after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The rest of his reign would be spent consolidating the gains of earlier wars.
The last years of Augustus were darkened by uncertainty over the succession. Tiberius had proved himself to be an extremely competent general, but his marriage to Augustus’ daughter Julia had failed (in contrast to the successful marriage between his brother Drusus and Antonia (the daughter of Mark Antony and niece of Augustus)). Embittered by Augustus’ preference for younger and less qualified heirs of his own blood, he withdrew into exile in 6 BC. However, after the deaths of Augustus’ grandsons Lucius in 2 AD and Gaius in 4AD Tiberius was recalled and formally adopted as full son and heir. By 12 AD he had essentially been proclaimed co-princeps.
When Augustus died he famously uttered the phrase above, a reference to the play-acting his imperial role required. However, officially it was proclaimed that his last words were “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.” This may have been a metaphorical reference to the strength of the empire on his death. His long reign was a major factor in the success of the Principate, that we now call the Roman Empire. At the time of his death most of the residents of the Empire could not recall any other form of government and the Republic was associated with chaos and civil war.
In 8 BC the Roman month of Sextilis was renamed Augustus (i.e. August) in his honor just as Quintilis had previously been renamed Julius (i.e. July). Many of the major events of his life occurred in that month and he died in the month named after him.
The name Augustus would live on as the primary title adopted by every other Roman Emperor (along with Caesar, which soon became the title of the Emperor designate). While the life expectancy of Senators and members of the imperial family would remain low, the Empire itself would remain free of civil war until the aftermath of the death of Nero in 68 AD.
The part had been bloody, but it had been played well by the soon to be deified Emperor.Subscribe to Very Old Money by Email