Augustus: The First Roman Emperor in 5 Fascinating Facts

Augustus was Rome’s first and most celebrated Emperor. He brought an end to the bloody civil wars and ushered his Empire into an era of peace and prosperity.

Dec 28, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
augustus audience with agrippa by tadema
Audience with Agrippa, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1876, via Art UK

 

Octavian, better known as Augustus, is one of the most significant figures in world history. His fame is well deserved. Octavian brought an end to the decades of bloody conflict that tore the Roman Republic apart.

 

Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman emperor. As Augustus, he presided over numerous reforms, from the army to the economy, which bolstered Rome’s might and influence, nearly doubling the imperial territory. The new borders were protected by a professional standing army, loyal only to the emperor, while the Praetorian Guard, Augustus’ own creation, kept the ruler and the imperial family safe. Augustus’ extensive building program reshaped the landscape of the city of Rome as well as the provinces. Thanks to the emperor’s efforts, Rome could enjoy almost two centuries of relative peace and stability, which allowed it to become the ancient world’s superpower. His achievements are too numerous to list. Instead, here are five lesser-known facts about the most famous of the Romans.

 

1. Augustus’ Great-Uncle and Adopted Father Was Julius Caesar

portrait octavian sculpture
Portrait of Octavian, 35-29 BCE, via Musei Capitolini, Rome

 

After Julius Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia, died in childbirth, the great general and statesman had to look elsewhere for his much-desired heir. His great-nephew proved to be an ideal candidate. Born in 63 BCE, Gaius Octavius spent most of his early life far from his famous relative, while Caesar was busy conquering Gaul. The boy’s protective mother did not allow him to join Caesar on campaign. Eventually, she gave way, and in 46 BCE, Octavius finally left Italy to meet his famous relative. At that time, Caesar was in Spain, waging war against Pompey the Great.

 

However, on the way to Spain, Octavius was shipwrecked in hostile territory. Nevertheless, the young man (he was 17) crossed the dangerous terrain and reached Caesar’s camp. The act impressed his great uncle, who began to groom Octavius for a political career. Then, in 44 BCE, the news of Caesar’s assassination reached Octavius, while he was undertaking military training in Apollonia (modern-day Albania). Worried about his security and his future, he rushed to Rome. One could only imagine Octavius’ surprise when he realized that Caesar had adopted him and named him his only heir. Upon his adoption, Octavius took the name Gaius Julius Caesar, but we know him as Octavian.

 

2. Octavian to Augustus, Emperor in All but Name

augustus octavian cinna
The Emperor Augustus Rebuking Cornelius Cinna For His Treachery (detail), by Étienne-Jean Delécluze, 1814, via Art UK

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Octavian’s adoption ignited a bitter power struggle. What started as a campaign of revenge against Caesar’s murderers escalated into a bloody civil war between Octavian and Mark Antony. The victory at Actium in 31 BCE left Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world. Soon, the Republic was no more, its place occupied by a new polity; the Roman Empire. In 27 CE, the Senate gave Octavian the titles of Princeps (“the first citizen”) and Augustus (“the illustrious one”). Yet, while Augustus became the first Roman emperor, he was careful not to show off.

 

Since the removal of their last king, the Romans had an aversion against absolutist rule. Augustus was well aware of the fact. Thus, he did his best to portray himself as an unwilling ruler, a man who did not seek power for his own sake. Augustus never referred to himself in monarchical terms and lived in relatively modest quarters (a stark contrast with his successors). Yet, he held absolute power in the Empire. The title emperor (imperator) comes from imperium, a power that granted its holder command over a military unit (or several ones) in the Republican period. With the Republic gone, Augustus was now the only holder of the imperium maius, which gave the emperor a monopoly over the entire imperial military. Who commanded the legions, controlled the state. From Augustus onwards, imperator became the title of Roman monarchs, granted upon their ascension.

 

3. Two Friends Building an Empire

tadema audience agrippa augustus
Audience with Agrippa, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1876, via Art UK

 

Augustus was the first Roman emperor, but his Empire would not have existed without another important man. Marcus Agrippa was Augustus’ close friend, and later, a member of the imperial family. He also happened to be a general, admiral, statesman, engineer, and architect. Most importantly, in the chaotic period following Caesar’s assassination, Agrippa was loyal to a fault. In short, Agrippa was just the person Augustus needed to help build an empire. Agrippa was instrumental in gathering the support of the army, playing a vital role in winning the civil war for Octavian. He also convinced the Senate to bestow upon Octavian the imperial title of Augustus. Then, he persuaded the Senate to give Augustus control over the frontier provinces, and more importantly, the command of the armies in the area. Marcus Agrippa also oversaw the emperor’s ambitious building program, turning Rome, the “city of brick” into the “city of marble.”

 

Agrippa did all that, never seeking the limelight, power, or wealth. Unsurprisingly, once he took the supreme power, Augustus rewarded his friend. Marcus Agrippa became the second most powerful man in Rome after the emperor. He was also introduced into the imperial family, as Agrippa married Julia, Augustus’ only daughter. As the emperor had no other children, Agrippa’s three sons were considered prospective heirs, but their premature death forced Augustus to change the plan. Agrippa’s younger daughter—Agrippina—would play an instrumental role in establishing the Julio-Claudian dynasty, as both her son Caligula and her grandson Nero became Roman emperors. After Agrippa’s death, Augustus gave his best friend one last honor, placing Agrippa’s body in his own mausoleum.

 

4. Julia, the Only Child and Troublemaker

svedomsky julia painting
Julia, Daughter of Augustus in Exile, by Pavel Svedomsky, late-19th century, via art-catalog.ru

 

Although Emperor Augustus was married three times, he only had one biological child, his daughter Julia. From her very birth, Julia’s life was complicated. She was removed from her mother Scribonia and sent to live with Octavian’s third wife, Livia. Under Livia’s tutelage, Julia’s social life was strictly controlled. She could talk only with the people whom her father had vetted personally. Contrary to appearances, Octavian loved his daughter, and the draconic measures could have been the result of his unique position. As the only child of one of the most influential figures in Rome, Julia was a tempting target. She was, after all, the only person who could provide Augustus with a legitimate heir, a fact that became even more important once he became the first Roman emperor.

 

Thus, Julia was a powerful tool for building alliances. Her first husband was no one other than Augustus’ best friend, Agrippa. Julia was 25 years younger than her husband, but it seems that the marriage was a happy one. The union produced five children. Unfortunately, all three sons died too young. After Agrippa’s sudden death in 12 BCE, Augustus married Julia to Tiberius, his stepson and designated heir. Caught in an unhappy marriage, Julia engaged in relations with other men.

 

Her scandalous affairs put Augustus in a difficult position. The emperor who actively promoted family values could not afford to have a promiscuous daughter. Instead of being executed (one of the penalties for adultery), Julia was confined to a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Augustus later mitigated her punishment, transferring Julia to the mainland. However, he never forgave his daughter for her transgressions. Disowned and banned from the capital, Julia lingered in her villa until her death. Per Augustus’ specific orders, his only daughter was denied burial in the family mausoleum.

 

5. Augustus Had a Serious Heir Problem

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Detail of the bronze statue of emperor Tiberius, 37 CE, via J. Paul Getty Museum

 

Like his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, Augustus had no son of his own. In Roman society, only males could inherit the family fortune. Having only a daughter (a troublesome one at that!), the emperor spent considerable time and energy trying to find a successor. Augustus’ first choice was his nephew Marcellus, whom he married off to Julia in 25 BCE. However, Marcellus soon fell ill and died a few years later, at only 21. Finally, Julia’s union with Augustus’ friend Marcus Agrippa (25-years older than his wife) produced much-needed heirs. Unfortunately for Augustus, he could only stand and watch while his adoptive sons died one by one. 23-year-old Gaius perished first, while on the campaign in Armenia, followed by 19-year-old Lucius, who contracted a disease during his stay in Gaul. The last possible claimant was Agrippa’s third son, Postumus Agrippa. However, the boy’s violent nature forced the emperor to send the last representative of his bloodline into exile.

 

great cameo france gemma tiberiana
Great Cameo of France or Gemma Tiberiana, depicting the Julio-Claudian dynasty, 23 CE, or 50-54 CE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Augustus found himself in a difficult situation. Nearing the end of his life, the 71-year-old emperor desperately needed a legitimate successor. If he failed his fledgling Empire could collapse, plunging Rome into another civil war. While he was far from the first choice,  Tiberius Claudius was Augustus’ last hope. Livia’s son from her first marriage, Tiberius was a successful general. Together with the equally successful (but prematurely deceased) brother Drusus, he won a series of military victories on the Rhenian and Danubian frontier. Yet, the reclusive Tiberius was unwilling to take the purple. Unfortunately, he had no choice. Before naming him his heir, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his beloved wife and to marry Julia instead. The loveless marriage would not last for long, and the throne would prove to be a heavy burden for the new emperor. But Augustus did not care. In 14 CE, the first Roman emperor died, knowing that his legacy was secure.

 

Reportedly his famous last words were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”



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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.