Augustus: The First Emperor of Rome

Emperor Augustus gave Rome a renewed sense of identity and power. He led Rome through chaos, overseeing its transformation from a Republic into an Empire.

Dec 21, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
castro battle actium emperor augustus
Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century CE; with the Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672, via Royal Museums Greenwich

 

On August 19, 14 CE, the most influential man in Rome and one of the most important figures in world history died. His last words reportedly were: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Nothing could better describe the impact emperor Augustus made on the Roman world. When he was just a boy, starting his meteoric rise to power, the once-mighty Roman Republic was mired in violence and corruption. Instead of allowing its fall, Octavian, better known as Augustus—the first Roman emperor—strengthened the Roman state, using the bricks of the old political system to lay the foundations of the ancient world’s superpower:  the Roman Empire.

 

The path towards that Empire was not an easy one. It was a messy and bloody affair. It became a period of uncertainty, purges, civil wars, and military conquests. Yet, by the time the dust had settled, no obstacles remained for the emperor to carry out numerous reforms, touching upon all aspects of Roman society, from the military to the economy. To prevent the violent collapse of his Empire, Augustus spent years searching for an heir, establishing the first imperial dynasty. When his time finally arrived, Augustus could die peacefully, knowing with certainty that his task was fulfilled. The first Roman emperor restored the fortunes of the state and secured Rome against its enemies, leaving it stronger than ever before.

 

Octavian: The Future Emperor Augustus

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Portrait of Octavian, 35-29 BCE, via the Musei Capitolini

 

To an average Roman who lived in 63 BCE, the name Gaius Octavius Thurinus did not mean much. One could hardly blame them, as no one witnessing the boy’s birth would have guessed that he was destined for greatness. Yet, that boy, Octavius—also known as Octavian—was no one other than the future Emperor Augustus. The man who would build one of the most powerful, influential, and iconic states in world history: the Roman Empire.

 

However, it would be wrong to consider young Octavian a nobody. In fact, his great uncle was none other than Julius Caesar, who had yet to embark on his famed Gallic campaign. However, the boy’s mother, Caesar’s niece, did all in her power to keep young Octavian far from her famous relative. Caesar apparently did not show much interest in the young boy, who grew up in the seclusion of the family country villa, far from the political machinations of the dying Republic.

 

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Octavian did not manifest the perfect qualities of an ideal military commander as expected of an aristocrat in the Late Republic. However, he possessed a certain trait, which would eventually lead the boy towards the imperial throne; boundless ambition. Against his mother’s wishes, Octavian was determined to enter Rome’s political arena and join Caesar’s inner circle.

 

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Vercingetorix before Caesar, by Lionel Royer, 1899, Musée Crozatier, via Le Puy-en-Velay

 

He was not alone on that path. From his childhood, Octavian was accompanied and supported by his best friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Agrippa was not a member of a distinguished family such as the Iulii. Still, he had qualities Octavian lacked—physical abilities, military talent, and command skills—all the markings of a great general. Most importantly, Agrippa was loyal to a fault, a value that would make him indispensable to his friend and play a vital role in creating a future Empire.

 

Although he did not spend time with Octavian, Caesar kept an eye on his great-nephew. After all, the boy was his family. Having no son of his own, Caesar considered Octavian his potential heir. From 46 BCE onwards, Caesar began to groom Octavian for greatness. He introduced him into Rome’s political life, entrusting him with several important positions in the city. Octavian even took part in Caesar’s triumphal parades in Rome, despite having made no significant contribution at the time. Around the same time, Octavian’s mother finally gave up and allowed her son to join Caesar on his Spanish campaign against the remaining forces of his late rival, Pompey the Great.

 

However, on the way to Spain, Octavian was shipwrecked in hostile territory. Nevertheless, the young man (he was 17) and his few companions crossed the dangerous terrain, reaching Caesar’s camp. The act impressed his great uncle, who changed the content of his will upon returning to Rome, secretly naming Octavian his heir.

 

Caesar’s Heir

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Death of Caesar, by Vicenzo Camuccini, 1806, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Milano

 

Octavian still lacked the military experience required for the highest office. To remedy that, Caesar sent his young protégé to Apollonia (in modern-day Albania), where the boy undertook military training in preparation for Caesar’s upcoming campaign against Parthia in the East. The campaign, however, never came to fruition. In 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated in a Senatorial plot. More importantly, the assassination changed Octavian’s life forever, setting in motion a chain of events that would transform the whole Roman world.

 

Hearing of his great uncle’s violent end, Octavian was left with few choices. He could stay in the safety of the military camp, or he could go to Rome and fight to preserve his political status. It was here, in Apollonia, that the young man made his first fateful choice. Heeding the advice of his best friend Agrippa, Octavian departed for Rome. On the way, he discovered that Caesar had adopted him as his son and heir. With his great uncle’s inheritance and Agrippa’s help, Octavian gained the support of Caesar’s veteran troops and loyalists.

 

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Marble bust of Mark Antony, ca. 69-96 CE, via ancientrome.ru

 

By accepting Caesar’s will, Octavian became more than Caesar’s avenger. He became the rival of Mark Antony, one of Julius Caesar’s best generals, who had hoped to fill the power vacuum. To the Senate, fearful of Antony’s military strength, Caesar’s young and inexperienced heir seemed the safer option. Thus, the Senate provided Octavian with military backing and a task to defeat Mark Antony. However, instead of a destructive showdown, which the senators had hoped for, the two men decided to cooperate. Any hope of restoring the old order was dashed with the arrival of the third supporter of Caesar, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The result was a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate.

 

The Uneasy Alliance 

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Numismatic portraits of Mark Antony and Octavian, 39 BCE; and Lepidus, 43 BCE, via the British Museum

 

The Second Triumvirate that formed in 43 BCE had two primary aims. The first order of business seems to have been the elimination of Caesar’s murderers. But before the vengeful three departed to the East, they issued the infamous proscriptions. Overnight, more than 2000 influential and wealthy Romans became outlaws and were deprived of their property.

 

Those who failed to escape lost their lives. While the decree was partly motivated by a need to raise funds for the incoming conflict, this legalized murder allowed the triumviri to eliminate all their potential enemies. The extent of Octavian’s role in the purge is unclear. However, we know that the future emperor approved of the murder of his own supporter and Antony’s harsh critic, Cicero. With the homefront pacified, in 42 BCE, Octavian and Antony defeated the troops loyal to the traitors in the Battle of Philippi. Both enemy leaders, Brutus and Cassius, committed suicide.

 

Having avenged Caesar, the triumviri could now turn to the second aim of the alliance — restoring the power and stability of the Roman Republic. In other words, Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus divided the territory between themselves, effectively splitting the Republic in three. The East went to Antony. Octavian took Italy and Spain (and later, Gaul), while Lepidus got North Africa.

 

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Coin showing Agrippa wearing corona rostrata left, and sea-god Neptune on reverse, 36 BCE, via the British Museum

 

While Octavian, in theory, held valuable territory, including the city of Rome, he had to deal with a difficult task. The wars were finally over, and Octavian had to settle forty thousand veterans, including the soldiers of the defeated side. This caused quite a stir among the civilian population, who were not eager to relinquish their lands. It did not help that Octavian denied land to Mark Antony’s men. The breakup of the Triumvirate was avoided at the last moment, as Antony’s troops did not have the stomach to fight their comrades and Caesar’s heir.

 

That incident was not the end of Octavian’s troubles. Sextus Pompey, the last surviving son of Pompey the Great, still held control over the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. His naval fleet presented a threat to the grain fleets that supplied the city of Rome. To prevent a public riot and further strengthen his position, Octavian entrusted Agrippa to deal with the problem. In 37 BCE, Agrippa’s warships invaded Sicily and destroyed the naval force of the last Pompeii.

 

The Second Triumvirate fulfilled its goal, punishing Caesar’s assassins and dividing the Republic among the three grandees. However, from its very inception, it was clear to all involved that this uneasy alliance could not last for long. Conflicting interests, personal animosity, and mutual distrust guaranteed the conflict between the triumviri. First to go was Lepidus, who tried to take the island for himself, only for his legions to defect to Octavian. With Lepidus out of the picture, only two remained: Octavian in the West and Mark Antony in the East. The stage was set for the final conflict.

 

The Last War of the Republic 

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The Meeting of Anthony and Cleopatra, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885, private collection, via Sotheby’s

 

Meanwhile, the relations between the two remaining triumviri, Octavian and Mark Antony, began to deteriorate. Despite being married to Octavia, Octavian’s sister, Antony lived in Alexandria, not hiding his relationship with Cleopatra, the queen of Ptolemaic Egypt. To say that Octavian was infuriated by Antony’s behavior would be an understatement. The situation worsened after Mark Antony publicly legitimized Cleopatra’s son Caesarion as the true heir of Julius Caesar. For Octavian, who was only adopted, the legitimization of Caesar’s biological son was a grave threat. To undermine his rival and secure his position, Octavian launched a propaganda campaign, publicly denouncing Mark Antony as an oriental despot who wanted to abolish Roman traditions.

 

However, Octavian did not have to do much since Antony continued to make bad choices. First, in 34 BCE, Antony shocked the Senate by publicly announcing the distribution of Roman lands under his control to Cleopatra and her children. Then, two years later, Mark Antony divorced Octavia, an outrageous sign of disrespect. Yet, Rome, tired of constant wars, was not willing to plunge into yet another. Aware of this, Octavian decided to take a gamble. He forcibly entered the temple of the Vestal Virgins and seized Antony’s secret will, exposing it to the Roman public. This was a serious breach since no one could enter the sacred site. Yet the gamble paid off. In the will (which could have been a forgery), Antony promised further Roman possessions to Cleopatra’s children and demanded to be buried in Alexandria after his death.

 

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The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC, by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672, via Royal Museums Greenwich

 

In the Roman eyes, this was tantamount to an act of treason. But the Senate was still reluctant to go to war. After all, half of the senators still supported Caesar’s favorite general. Many of them departed to Alexandria. Despite the failure of his Parthian campaign, Antony still enjoyed the support of his troops. Always a cunning politician, Octavian blamed it all on Cleopatra, not Antony. The incoming conflict would be not between the two of them but between virtuous Rome and decadent Egypt. It was a clever choice. The same year, the outraged Senate declared war on Cleopatra.

 

In the end, the last war of the Republic was a quick and bloody affair. Although Antony possessed a larger navy, his reluctance to attack Italy directly cost him dearly. In early 31 BCE, Agrippa’s fleet blockaded the enemy ships moored on the Greek coast while Octavian’s troops cut off the supplies to Antony and Cleopatra’s main force. Faced with the prospect of starvation, Antony had no other choice but to break through the blockade. What followed was nothing less than a disaster. Agrippa and Octavian came in possession of the enemy plans, and in the Battle of Actium, Antony’s navy was annihilated. Although both he and Cleopatra managed to escape, the game was over.

 

After Octavian landed in Egypt in 30 BCE, the remainder of Antony’s forces defected to his side. Deprived of allies and soldiers, both Antony and his queen committed suicide. Octavian was now the undisputed master of Rome and the entire Mediterranean. He was only 33.

 

The First Citizen

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Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century CE, photo by Sergey Sosnovskiy, via ancientrome.ru

 

The sole ruler of the Roman dominion, Octavian began consolidating his power. He was determined not to make the same mistake as his adoptive father. The strategy was simple: to slowly consolidate his position and accept honors and power gradually. After the death of Cleopatra, Octavian took personal control of Egypt and its vast wealth, further boosting his influence and solidifying his authority. Several months later, with Agrippa’s help, Octavian convinced the Senate to give him command over Gaul, Spain, and Syria. At this point, the future emperor had total control over half of the Roman territory. Then, in 27 BCE, Octavian suddenly relinquished his powers, announcing his retirement from public life. But, of course, it was all for show, and it worked splendidly.

 

The Senate, terrified of a new civil war, begged the cunning young man to stay. When Octavian agreed, the grateful senators bestowed upon him the title of “Revered One,” or as we know it: Augustus. In 19 BCE, again, with Agrippa’s help, he was given Imperium Maius (supreme power) over every province in the Roman state, and more importantly, all the legions. As Imperator (commander-in-chief), Augustus now controlled both the government and the army. And while he prudently continued to avoid the trappings of monarchy, calling himself simply Princeps, or “First Citizen,” Augustus was emperor in all but name. The Roman Republic was no more. The age of the Roman Empire had begun.

 

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Relief depicting the Praetorian Guard (originally part of the Arch of Claudius), ca. 51-52 CE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The era of Augustus is still considered the golden age of Rome. During his reign, Augustus extended the borders of the Empire and secured peace by transferring legions to the frontier. His monopoly over the military, and the removal of the troops from the imperial heartlands, prevented another civil war. A further layer of security was added by establishing a permanent emperor’s bodyguard squad—the Praetorians—the only military unit stationed in Rome.

 

Augustus also ramped up building programs, reshaping the urban and rural landscape of the Empire. His second-in-command, Marcus Agrippa, a leading engineer and architect, personally supervised the construction of lavish public buildings such as Roman baths, aqueducts, and the Pantheon. A superb road network facilitated control over the vast Empire and bolstered trade. At the same time, a strong fleet policed the Mediterranean (united for the first and only time in history), called by the Romans – Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea.”

 

Emperor Augustus took great interest in the arts and acted as a patron of many artists. Art was, after all, a powerful tool for strengthening the emperor’s authority. Writers such as Vergil (author of the Aeneid), the historian Livy, and the poet Horace praised Augustus’ reign for bringing peace and prosperity to Rome. Augustus also paid particular attention to legal matters. He passed sweeping reforms and laws, encouraging marriage, regulating penalties for adultery, and limiting public displays of extravagance (the emperor himself lived in a modest abode). So strictly did Augustus adhere to his laws that he banished his only child, his daughter Julia for adultery! On the other hand, the emperor’s marriage to Livia for over 50 years till death did them part, provided a shining example for the Romans to emulate.

 

Quest for an Heir

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Bust of Agrippa, the second half of the 1st century CE, via the Uffizi Gallery

 

All of Augustus’ efforts in establishing and solidifying the Empire would have been in vain if he had had no successor. Thus, early in his reign, the emperor embarked on the quest of finding an heir. From the very beginning, it was evident that this mission would be a difficult one. In 23 BCE, Augustus’ nephew Marcellus died, aged only 21. That same year, Augustus, who was never of sound health, fell seriously ill. Certain he was dying and desperate to place the Empire in the hands of someone he could trust, Augustus did the only logical thing: he named his best friend Marcus Agrippa as his heir. When the emperor recovered, he formalized the decision by marrying his daughter Julia to Agrippa, creating the first step towards building a dynasty. The union produced much-needed heirs. Augustus adopted the two boys and treated them like his own sons.

 

It was not to be. The early deaths of both Gaius and Lucius in 2 and 4 CE, respectively, forced the emperor to embark on his quest again. Agrippa’s third son, Agrippa Postumus, born after Agrippa’s death, proved to be a violent and cruel man. Augustus had to look elsewhere for an heir. His two stepsons, Livia’s children from her first marriage, both had the potential required to be the second emperor of Rome. Both Drusus and Tiberius were successful military commanders who had proven themselves on the campaigns in Germania. Augustus favored Drusus, the younger and more charismatic of the two brothers, but fate intervened once again. In 9 BCE, aged only 29, Drusus fell from his horse, shattering Augustus’ plans.

 

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

 

The emperor found himself in a difficult situation. Nearing the end of his life, the 71-year-old ruler desperately needed a legitimate successor. If he failed, Augustus’ fledgling Empire could collapse, plunging Rome into another bloody war. Reclusive and moody, Tiberius was far from his first choice, but he was Augustus’ last hope. From here on, things moved quickly. Augustus adopted Tiberius as his son and heir and forced him to divorce his wife. Tiberius was reluctant to take the purple. Unfortunately, he had no say in the matter. Augustus did not care if the marriage between his daughter Julia and Tiberius would be a loveless one. Nor did he care about the throne being a heavy burden for the new emperor. All he wanted was to secure an orderly transition of power. To ensure that the Empire, built with great effort, sacrifice, and a lot of spilled blood, would endure. In this, he succeeded.

 

Augustus’ Legacy

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The Emperor Augustus Rebuking Cornelius Cinna For His Treachery, by Étienne-Jean Delécluze, 1814, via Art Uk

 

After naming Tiberius his heir, Augustus did something unexpected. The energetic emperor, who spent his entire life involved in Rome’s politics, who risked his fragile health and his very life to achieve his dream to build an Empire, withdrew from public life. For several more years, he remained the Roman emperor and even managed to write a first-person record of his life and accomplishments: Res Gestae Divi Augusti (“The Deeds of the Divine Augustus”). But the Empire was now in Tiberius’ hands. While the second emperor would not come close to the first, he would preserve Augustus’ creation.

 

Augustus’ accomplishments are too numerous to count. Through a combination of diplomacy, violence, and sheer ingenuity, the boy Gaius Octavius or Octavian outmaneuvered and defeated all his enemies, dismantling the Republic, only to rebuild it as the Roman Empire. He did not do all that alone. Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ best friend and later a member of the imperial family, loyal to a fault, worked tirelessly to help his friend realize his dream.

 

Aware that all the effort was for nothing if no one could inherit his place, Augustus spent the better part of his reign seeking a successor and building a dynasty in the process. The first imperial dynasty, the Julio-Claudians, would rule for almost half a century, bolstering the foundations of the growing Empire. As a result, the Roman Empire would last for more than a millennium (in one form or another) until its fall at the end of the Middle Ages. Augustus, of course, could not know that. Nor could he know of the profound impact his creation would have on Europe and the world.

 

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Great Cameo of France or Gemma Tiberiana, depicting Julio-Claudian dynasty), 23 CE, or 50-54 CE, via snl.no

 

When Augustus died in 14 CE, he was voted divus (divine) by the Senate. His body was cremated after a lavish funeral in a mausoleum that would host the members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. To the citizens of Rome, the monumental structure was a clear sign of the new world they were now part of. The Senate could pretend that it still retained a degree of power. Some of Augustus’ successors, like Caligula or Nero, tried to challenge that and died as a result. But despite some initial setbacks, the Roman Empire was slowly centralizing, with the man on the throne holding more and more power. Although Augustus tried to act like the Roman Republic was still alive, it was all smoke and mirrors. The old Republic had died the moment Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But the Roman Empire, Augustus’ very creation, was very much alive.



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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.