Chaos is a Ladder: Octavian and the Death of the Roman Republic

Bloody and chaotic, the last decades of the Roman Republic shook the foundations of ancient Rome. Yet, for one man — Octavian — the turmoil and violence meant power.

Feb 14, 2022By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

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The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE plunged the Roman Republic into chaos. For two decades, powerful leaders and their armies fought for control of Rome, and with it, the entire Roman world. The years of turmoil led to great bloodshed and instability, and when the dust finally settled, only one man was left standing. That man was Octavian, Caesar’s heir. Despite winning the war, Octavian was not a good general. He was, however, a highly charismatic, crafty, and ambitious young man, a political animal who would stop at nothing to achieve his aim.


Octavian lied, schemed, manipulated, even murdered (or had murder approved) to reach the top. He exploited his victory in the war, which he himself had orchestrated, to undermine whatever remained of Republican institutions, laying the foundations for a new order. However, as the first Roman emperor (Augustus), he would make Rome more influential, powerful, and wealthy. By strengthening the state, and its military, Octavian created the Roman Empire — the world’s ancient superpower.


Octavian: Caesar’s Heir

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


On 15th March 44 BCE (the ides of March), Julius Caesar was assassinated during a Senate meeting. The end of the most powerful man in Rome was somewhat ironic. He was, after all, murdered on the steps of a building erected by his fiercest rival, Pompey the Great. Caesar’s death was deemed to be the end of one-man rule and a return to Republican ideals. But the conspirators, the senators themselves, missed one crucial element. They had failed to eliminate the men whom Caesar considered his closest allies and his family. This mistake would cost them and the Republic dearly.


Only at Caesar’s funeral did the self-proclaimed “liberators” discover that their dead nemesis had outmaneuvered them. While Julius Caesar had no biological children, he had adopted his great-nephew Octavian, naming him his principal heir. 19-year-old Octavian accepted the will of his great-uncle, publicly announcing that he intended to take not only Caesar’s wealth and name but also high office. By doing this, Octavian went against all the rules, bypassing the election process. But these were unusual times, with the old Republican system teetering on the brink of collapse after decades of violent rivalry and civil war.

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


By accepting Caesar’s will, Octavian became not only the enemy of Caesar’s murderers but also the rival of Mark Antony, one of Julius Caesar’s best generals, who had hoped to fill the power vacuum. A veteran soldier and politician, Antony had no high opinion of his young rival, calling him “a boy who owes everything to a name”. But Octavian was more than just Caesar’s relative. Using his adoptive father’s inheritance and the military prestige of his close friend, Marcus Agrippa, Octavian gained the loyalty of his adoptive father’s veteran troops and loyalists. Aware that he was a young and inexperienced man, Octavian decided to use this in his favor. The Senate, fearful of Antony’s military strength, considered Caesar’s heir a lesser threat. Thus, Octavian got the Senate’s military backing and a task to defeat Mark Antony.


The Three Grandees

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


At first, Octavian played by the Senate rules. His veterans defeated Antony and pushed his rival across the Alps. However, these soldiers served Caesar’s heir, not the Senate. It did not take long for Octavian to change his strategy and chart his own path. Instead of the destructive showdown, which the senators hoped for, the two men decided to cooperate. Any hope for restoring the old order was dashed with the arrival of a third supporter of Caesar — Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. In 43 BCE, the three grandees pooled their armies and resources intending to avenge Caesar’s murder and restore the stability and prosperity of the Roman Republic.


The result was a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate. Before the vengeful three departed to the East to eliminate the “liberators,” they set in motion the infamous proscriptions. Anyone could kill a proscribed man, and as a reward, they could keep a share of the victim’s property, while the rest went to the triumvirs to pay their army. While the decree was partly motivated by a need to raise funds for the incoming conflict, the legalized murder allowed the triumviri to eliminate all their potential enemies. The extent of Octavian’s role in the purge is unclear. However, it is known that the future emperor approved of the murder of his supporter, and Antony’s harsh critic, Cicero.


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Marble portrait of Emperor Augustus, 27 BCE-14 CE, via the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


With the homefront pacified, in 42 BCE, Octavian and Antony took an army to Greece and defeated the “liberator” ringleaders — Brutus and Cassius — at the Battle of Philippi. Then, in 37 BCE, Octavian’s friend and admiral Agrippa defeated the fleet of Pompey the Great’s last surviving son, Sextus Pompey, restoring control over Sicily and Sardinia to Rome. Yet, trouble for the beleaguered Republic was far from over. The alliance between the three grandees was always based on self-interest. Each triumvir was deeply suspicious and jealous of the others and aware that this uneasy alliance could not last long. The first to go was Lepidus, who tried to take Sicily for himself, only for his legions to defect to Octavian’s side. With Lepidus out of the picture, only two remained: Octavian in the West and Mark Antony in the East. Thus, the stage was set for the conflict that would change the face of ancient Rome irrevocably.


The Master of Propaganda

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Silver coin showing the portraits of Antony and Cleopatra, ca. 36 BCE, via the British Museum


The uneasy alliance between the two remaining triumviri gradually deteriorated. Despite being married to Octavia, Octavian’s sister, Mark Antony lived in Alexandria, not hiding his relationship with Cleopatra, the queen of Ptolemaic Egypt. Naturally, Octavian was not pleased with such a situation. However, he could not do much since his rival had powerful allies in Rome, including many senators. The situation further worsened in 34 BCE, after 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 only biological son was a grave threat. Thus, Octavian launched a propaganda campaign, publicly declaring Mark Antony as an oriental despot — a clear and present danger to Roman republican traditions.


Luckily for Octavian, Antony continued to make the wrong decisions. In 34 BCE, he shocked the Senate by publicly announcing the distribution of all lands under his control to Cleopatra and her children — the so-called Donations of Alexandria. Two years later, Antony further infuriated Octavian by divorcing his sister. Yet, the Romans, exhausted by civil war and desperate for stability, were unwilling to start a new one. Aware of this, Octavian set in train his final bid for power. His men forcibly entered the temple of the Vestal Virgins and seized Antony’s secret will, exposing it to the people of Rome. Octavian was playing with fire, as breaking into the sacred site was expressly forbidden. Yet, his gamble paid off.


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


In the will (which may have been a forgery), Mark Antony promised further Roman possessions to Cleopatra’s children. To make matters worse, the famed general and a model citizen had chosen not Rome, but Alexandria, to be his final resting place. 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. Antony also enjoyed the support of his troops. And unlike Octavian, who had no martial abilities to boast of, his rival was a celebrated military leader.


Always a cunning politician, Octavian now played his trump card. He did not blame Mark Antony, but Cleopatra, the sinister eastern temptress who had seduced a noble Roman, turning him against his own people. The incoming conflict was not to be a war between two former allies but between virtuous Rome and decadent Egypt. It was a clever move. Few senators were fooled. Yet, the public demanded war, calling for Octavian to save the Republic from this “threat.” Predictably, Antony supported his queen, setting in motion the last part of Octavian’s plan. All the young man had to do now was win.


The War to End All Wars

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Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, 25-24 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


Although presented as a war against a foreign queen, the last war of the Republic was a clash between Romans — a civil war. Mark Antony had the backing of almost half of the Senate, including both consuls. Further, Antony commanded some of the best legions of the Republic and was quickly marshaling his forces in Greece. The only non-Roman component was the Egyptian fleet, which made up a large part of Antony’s naval force. To avoid another prolonged struggle, Octavian had to transport his troops across the sea, risking the destruction of his fleet and extended supply lines.


Once again, Octavian had proven his brilliance. Caesar’s heir was not a gifted military man. But he knew how to pick the right people. Octavian gave command of the fleet to his friend, the talented Marcus Agrippa, who years earlier won a stunning naval victory over Sextus Pompey. Aware of the enemy’s superior numbers, Agrippa opted for a less risky approach. He led his fleet along the Greek coast, capturing key bases. Meanwhile, Antony’s camp was ravaged by sickness, decimating his soldiers and sailors. By the end of winter, Antony’s initial position of strength turned to one of weakness. If he wanted to save his forces, he had no choice but to abandon Greece.


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


Unfortunately for Antony, Octavian and Agrippa were aware of his plans. What followed was a battle that decided not only the war but also sealed the fate of the Roman Republic, propelling Octavian to the very top. On 2nd September 31 BCE, Octavian’s fleet annihilated Antony’s navy at the Battle of Actium. While both Antony and Cleopatra managed to flee and reach the safety of Alexandria, the battle was an absolute triumph for Octavian. Soon, Mark Antony’s allies abandoned the defeated general, while his army also defected to his rival’s side. Deserted by all, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra, too, chose to take her own life rather than be paraded as a spoil of war.


The Emperor Augustus

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Golden coin of Augustus, showing the crocodile with the legend Aegypto Capta (“Egypt Captured”), 27 BCE, via the British Museum


With Mark Antony dead, the 33-year-old Octavian faced no rivals and had complete control over the Roman Republic. While he ordered the murder of Caesarion, the potential competition, Octavian decided to spare the rest of Cleopatra’s children. Furthermore, Octavian honored both Antony and Cleopatra with a state funeral in Rome. While his admiration might have been genuine, such an act could have been part of a policy of portraying Octavian as a benevolent leader. The man who emerged as a victor from the chaos of war was safe from the assassin’s daggers. But Octavian had to tread carefully if he wanted to end his “long game”.


Determined not to make the same mistake as his adoptive father, Octavian opted to consolidate his position, gradually accepting honors and powers slowly. His power and influence were further bolstered by the immense wealth of Egypt, now under Octavian’s personal control. Then in 27 BCE, Octavian played the last part of his “long game.” The cunning young man suddenly relinquished his powers, announcing his retirement from public life and Roman politics. It was just for a show, but it worked spectacularly. Terrified of a new civil war, the Senate begged Octavian to stay. In addition, they bestowed upon Octavian the title “Revered One,” or as we know it — Augustus.


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Detail of the breastplate from the full-profile statue known as Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century CE, via Musei Vaticani, Rome


In 23 BCE, with Agrippa’s help, Augustus was given Imperium Maius (supreme power) over every province in the Roman state, and more importantly, the legions in the area. As Imperator (commander-in-chief), Augustus was now in control of 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. Thus, from the chaos that toppled the Roman Republic, the Empire was born.


Octavian’s Legacy: The Roman Empire

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Great Cameo of France, also known as the Gemma Tiberiana (depicting Julio-Claudian dynasty), 23 CE, or 50-54 CE, via the World Digital Library


Octavian’s path to power was filled with bloodshed. It was a mixture of naked ambition, political intrigue, and war. However, Octavian knew how to exploit the chaos and give the Romans, exhausted by decades of conflict, the stability, and peace they desired. Even when he took the throne, Octavian, now Augustus, continued to tread carefully. His control was veiled, keeping the illusion of the Republic. Yet, the veil was thin, as no one could take Augustus’ powers from him. Or break his hold over the loyalty of his legions.


Augustus held all the power in his hands, but he maintained the promise of peace. For four decades, the emperor tirelessly worked to reform each and every aspect of Roman society, from the economy to the military. The Roman legions, transferred to the frontiers, became the guardians of the Empire, doubling its size. Art and literature flourished in what is known as the “Golden Age” of Latin Literature. The majestic Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, erected in the center of the city of Rome, embodied Augustus’ promise.


When Augustus died in 14 CE, he left his fledgling Empire in the safe hands of his chosen successor. The Julio-Claudian dynasty would maintain Augustus’ peace — the Pax Augusta — for almost a century. And while the shadows of the civil war would return with the death of Nero, Augustus’ Empire would survive and continue to thrive, becoming his enduring legacy.

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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.