Mini-bio : Augustus Caesar.
The first Roman Emperor
Ancient - Roman Empire
63 BC - 14 AD
Why it’s important for you to know him
Because he was probably the greatest Roman leader throughout its era as an empire and led it through a period of growth and peace that had lasting effects throughout the world.
Augustus was known as Gaius Octavius for the first part of his life, so we’ll refer to him as such until the name change. Stay alert.
Octavius had a great-uncle by the name of Julius. Last name Caesar. Uncle Julius was fond of Octavius and adopted him as his son and heir.
Sidenote: his grandmother was Julia, Julius’s sister
So Octavius grew up knowing that his family was important and that someday he would be called upon to fulfill his destiny. A little bit of pressure.
II. Rubicon, March Ides, a will, a way.
Octavius was 14 when Uncle Jules crossed the Rubicon, one of history’s most iconic military decisions. By 16, he began to learn the art of politics and war. On March 15, 44 BC, the Ides of March, he was 20 and received the news that his Uncle had been assassinated.
The assassination of Julius threw Rome into turmoil and left a power vacuum available for grab. Octavian showed an early flair for restraint by mourning his uncle’s death, but he did not go after the assassins...yet. He wanted to make sure he had a clear plan, an executable strategy, and the alliances he needed first.
He began gathering information on Cassius, Brutus, and the others. He also took careful note of how Mark Antony had stayed loyal, and had tried to rally mobs against the assassins.
Finally, he was ready to act. Caesar’s will was opened, and in it, he legally and publicly stated that Octavius was his son. He also left him 75% of his wealth, which would have been a staggering sum. Ready for another name change? Now that he is a legal member of the family, he takes the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Shortened, we can call him Octavian.
Octavian is now ready to move. He forms an alliance with Marc Antony, and there are a series of struggles and jockeying for position. The Senate, led by the famous orator Cicero, is strongly against Antony, as he is a general and represents a strong threat to the Senate’s power.
III. The Second Triumvirate.
Augustus and Antony add a third member to their alliance, the historically-forgotten incompetent Lepidus. They form the Second Triumvirate and finally go on the offensive against their enemies. A bloody offensive that purges the country of their most vocal critics, including Cicero.
Brutus and Cassius, conspirators and murderers of Uncle Julius, run off along with an army…but not a big enough army. Octavian and Antony pursue, meet them on the battlefield of Philippi in Macedonia, and utterly crush them. Not just crush, but utterly crush. Brutus and Cassius go down too. Dead.
The next logical step in their beautiful friendship is for one of them to marry the other’s sister. So Octavian marries off his sister - not just his sister, but his favourite sister - Octavia, to Antony. So they’ll be friends forever…right?
They divide up the Roman Empire. This is where things get exciting and steamy. Octavian takes the West and: short version: Antony takes the East, which includes Egypt. Cleopatra seduces him, totally wins him over with her beauty, mystique, and charm, and eventually Antony leaves his wife for a short-lived period of intense romance and intrigue with Cleo. Eventually war breaks out as a (partial) result of his handing out kingdoms to Cleopatra’s children. Octavian crushes the combined fleet of Antony and Cleopatra, they both die, and Octavian is now master of all Rome.
IV. Master of all; reforms.
Octavian was crafty, which means he was super-smart in a crafty and mostly ethical way, for the most part. He helped rebuild the Senate into a more powerful institution by replacing incompetent and corrupt Senators with the most public-minded citizens. He restored the temples and continued building new ones. He enacted laws to make a more moral, less degenerate society, which were not very popular. He spent a great deal of attention on administrative reforms and on making an efficient government. Under his rule, a massive network of highways was built.
V. A citizen or a dictator?
Back to that ‘crafty’ idea. Was he a master; a dictator of sorts? Yes. Did he refer to himself as such? No. He still considered himself first and foremost a citizen. He remembered history well and knew that Uncle Julius was killed because some suspected he planned to make himself King. So even though Octavian was calling pretty much all the shots, he refrained from calling himself master and kept up the pretense that he ruled jointly with the Senate.
This was a brilliant move, because he was much more concerned with actual power than with the appearance or social benefits of power. By disguising the fact that his authority was much greater than it might appear, he managed to keep enemies from conspiring against him in the way they had against Julius.
One of his masterly moves was to consolidate his responsibilities under several titles, including consul, tribune, and imperator.
Note: imperator is where the word emperor comes from.
Following this little designation, he was made princeps senatus, and finally…the title of Augustus. From here on out, we shall refer to him as such. Octavian is now Augustus.
VI. Master statesman.
Technically, legally, when Julius died and order was finally restored, the idea was the the Roman Republic would be restored. The reality was that it marked the beginning of the Roman Empire. The ingenious way Augustus managed to grab all the reins of power without it seeming so is what makes him one of the master statesmen in all of history. Talk about sneaky.
VII. Reversal of expansion / focus on consolidation.
He did some things in similar fashion to Julius, such as strengthening the Empire, but he went about it very differently. He took an opposite stance of expansion. Rather than trying to conquer more lands and territories, he focused on consolidating what Rome already possessed. He went on the defensive and shored up the frontiers of the Rhine and Danube Rivers.
VIII. Germany and the failure of Varus that we still feel.
From a military standpoint, Augustus’ generals were successful…except for one defeat. And it was a big one. A really big one. A huge one. The kind that probably changed the course of history and the lives we all lead today. It was this:
Julius Caesar had already conquered Gaul on one side of the Rhine River. Augustus wanted to make a cute little Roman province on the other side. Germany. He sent the Consul Varius, along with four legions, to make it happen. Varius took his men far into the Teutoburg Forest, and there General Arminius and his army surrounded and annihilated them. Crushing.
It was one of the most decisive victories in history because it made Augustus give up further inclinations of conquering Germany and Roman-civilizing it. It remained independent and barbarian; a land full of wandering tribes who were constantly a threat to the ‘civilized world.’ From the Teutoburg forests came the German tribe that would eventually overthrow Rome.
So Germany stayed German, thus ensuring that much of European history since has evolved as conflicts between Teutons and Latin; the most famous being between Germany and France.
IX. Age of Augustus, a golden one.
Augustus showed a great deal of concern for his people. He was a devoted citizen and a devoted family man. Under his rule, culture and literature flourished.
Augustus was master of the Roman world for over forty years and is considered the greatest of the Roman Emperors. He created a foundation for the Empire that was so strong that even the terrible emperors who followed him - Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero - were unable to undermine it. The Roman Empire lasted for centuries in large part to the reforms and initiatives he put in place. Even though it eventually crumbled, the world still feels the effects of the Roman Empire today.