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Emperor of the Roman Empire
Bust of Caesar Augustus.
Reign January 16, 27 BC– August 19 AD 14
Full name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus
Born September 23, 63 BC
Rome, Roman Republic
Died August 19, AD 14
Nola, Roman Empire
Buried Mausoleum of Augustus
Predecessor None
Successor Tiberius, stepson by third wife and adoptive son
Consort to 1) Clodia Pulchra ?–40 BC
2) Scribonia 40 BC–38 BC
3) Livia Drusilla 38 BC to AD 14
Issue Julia the Elder
Royal House Julio-Claudian
Father Gaius Octavius
Mother Atia Balba Caesonia
Roman imperial dynasties
Julio-Claudian Dynasty
   Natural - Julia the Elder
   Adoptive - Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, Agrippa Postumus, Tiberius
   Natural - Julius Caesar Drusus
   Adoptive - Germanicus
   Natural - Julia Drusilla
   Adoptive - Tiberius Gemellus
   Natural - Claudia Antonia, Claudia Octavia, Britannicus
   Adoptive - Nero
   Natural - Claudia Augusta

Augustus (Latin: IMP•CAESAR•DIVI•F•AVGVSTVS; September 23, 63 BC– August 19, AD 14), known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (English Octavian; Latin: C•IVLIVS•C•F•CAESAR•OCTAVIANVS) for the period of his life prior to 27 BC, was the first and among the most important of the Roman Emperors.

Although he preserved the outward form of the Roman Republic, he ruled as an autocrat for 41 years, and his rule is the dividing line between the Republic and the Roman Empire. He ended a century of civil wars and gave Rome an era of peace, prosperity, and imperial greatness, known as the Pax Romana, or Roman peace.

Early life

He was born in Rome (or Velletri) on September 23, 63 BC with the name Gaius Octavius. His father, also Gaius Octavius, came from a respectable but undistinguished family of the equestrian order and was governor of Macedonia. Shortly after Octavius's birth, his father gave him the cognomen of Thurinus, possibly to commemorate his victory at Thurii over a rebellious band of slaves. His mother, Atia, was the niece of Julius Caesar, soon to be Rome's most successful general and Dictator. He spent his early years in his grandfather's house near Veletrae (modern Velletri). In 58 BC, when he was four years old, his father died. He spent most of his childhood in the house of his stepfather, Lucius Marcius Philippus.

In 51 BC, aged eleven, Octavius delivered the funeral oration for his grandmother Julia, elder sister of Caesar. He donned the toga virilis at fifteen, and was elected to the College of Pontiffs. Caesar requested that Octavius join his staff for his campaign in Africa, but Atia protested that he was too young. The following year, 46 BC, she consented for him to join Caesar in Hispania, where he planned to fight the forces of Pompey, but he fell ill and was unable to travel. When he had recovered, he sailed to the front, but was shipwrecked; after coming ashore with a handful of companions, he made it across hostile territory to Caesar's camp, which impressed his great-uncle considerably. Caesar and Octavius returned home in the same carriage, and Caesar secretly changed his will.

Rise to power

Bronze statue of Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens.
Bronze statue of Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens.

When Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (the 15th) 44 BC, Octavius was studying in Apollonia, Illyria. Caesar's will revealed that, having no legitimate children, Caesar had adopted his great-nephew Octavius as his son and main heir. Owing to his adoption, Octavius assumed the name Gaius Julius Caesar. Roman tradition dictated that he also append the surname Octavianus (Octavian) to indicate his biological family; however, no evidence exists that he ever used that name. Mark Antony later charged that he had earned his adoption by Caesar through sexual favours, though Suetonius describes Antony's accusation as political slander.

Octavian recruited a small force in Apollonia. Crossing over to Italia, he bolstered his personal forces with Caesar's veteran legionaries, gathering support by emphasizing his status as heir to Caesar. He furthered his cause by emphasizing the fact that he was the son of a god, since Caesar had been Deified. Only eighteen years old, he was consistently underestimated by his rivals for power.

In Rome, he found Mark Antony and the Optimates led by Marcus Tullius Cicero in an uneasy truce. After a tense standoff, and a war in Cisalpine Gaul after Antony tried to take control of the province from Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, he formed an alliance with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Caesar's principal colleagues. The three formed a junta called the Second Triumvirate, an explicit grant of special powers lasting five years and supported by law, unlike the unofficial First Triumvirate of Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus.

The triumvirs then set in motion proscriptions in which 300 senators and 2,000 equites were deprived of their property and, for those who failed to escape, their lives, going beyond a simple purge of those allied with the assassins, and probably motivated by a need to raise money to pay their troops.

Antony and Octavian then marched against Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius, who had fled to Greece. After two battles at Philippi in Macedonia, the Caesarian army was victorious and Brutus and Cassius committed suicide (42 BC). After the battle, a new arrangement was made between the members of the Second Triumvirate: while Octavian returned to Rome, Antony went to Egypt where he allied himself with Queen Cleopatra VII, the former lover of Julius Caesar and mother of Caesar's infant son, Caesarion. Lepidus went on to govern Hispania and the province of Africa.

Octavian, governing in Italy, busied himself taking lands from Italians and giving them to triumvirate veteran soldiers. This caused political and social unrest, and when Octavian asked for a divorce from Clodia Pulchra, the daughter of Fulvia and her first husband Publius Clodius Pulcher. Octavian divorced Clodia to marry Scribonia, with whom he would have his only child, Julia. His marriage with Clodia was never consummated, he returned her to her mother with a letter informing her that he was returning her in "mint" condition. Fulvia, Antony's wife, decided to take action. Together with Lucius Antonius, Mark Antony's brother, she raised eight legions in Italy to fight for Antony's rights against Octavian. The army occupied Rome for a short time, but eventually retreated to Perusia (modern Perugia). Octavian besieged Fulvia and Lucius Antonius in the winter of 41– 40 BC, starving them into surrender. Fulvia was exiled to Sicyon, where she died of a sudden illness, while Antony was en route to meet her. To Scribonia and Octavian was born Octavian's only natural child, Julia, who was born the same day that he divorced Scribonia to marry Livia Drusilla.

While in Egypt, Antony had been conducting an affair with Cleopatra that resulted in three children, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus. Aware of his deteriorating relationship with Octavian, Antony left Cleopatra. Fulvia's death allowed for the two triumvirs to effect a reconciliation. Octavian gave his sister, Octavia, in marriage to Antony in 40 BC. During their marriage, Octavia gave birth to two daughters, both named Antonia. In 37 BC, Antony deserted Octavia and went back to Egypt to be with Cleopatra. The Roman dominions were then divided between Octavian in the West and Antony in the East.

Whilst Antony occupied himself with military campaigns against the Parthians and a romantic affair with Cleopatra, Octavian built a network of allies in Rome, consolidated his power, and spread propaganda implying that Antony was becoming less than Roman because of his preoccupation with Egyptian affairs and traditions. The situation grew more and more tense, and finally, in 32 BC, the senate officially declared war on "the Foreign Queen", to avoid the stigma of yet another civil war. It was quickly decided: in the bay of Actium on the western coast of Greece, after Antony's men began deserting, the fleets met in a great battle in which many ships were burned and thousands on both sides were slain. Octavian defeated his rivals who then fled to Egypt. He pursued them, and after another defeat, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra also committed suicide after her upcoming role in Octavian's Triumph was "carefully explained to her", and Caesarion was "butchered without compunction". Octavian supposedly said "two Caesars are one too many" as he ordered Caesarion's death. This demonstrates a key difference between Julius Caesar and Octavian—while Caesar had demonstrated clemency in his victories, Octavian most certainly did not.

Octavian becomes Augustus: the creation of the Principate

Augustus as a magistrate.
Augustus as a magistrate.

The Western half of the Roman Republic territory had sworn allegiance to Octavian prior to Actium in 31 BC, and after Actium and the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, the Eastern half followed suit, placing Octavian in the position of ruler of the Republic. Years of civil war had left Rome in a state of near-lawlessness, but the Republic was not prepared to accept the control of Octavian as a despot. At the same time, Octavian could not simply give up his authority without risking further civil wars amongst the Roman generals, and even if he desired no position of authority whatsoever, his position demanded that he look to the well-being of the City and provinces. Marching in to Rome, he forced the Roman Senate to name him consul; as such, though he had given up his personal armies, he was now legally in command of the legions of Rome.

First settlement

In 27 BC, Octavian officially returned power to the Roman Senate, and offered to relinquish his own military supremacy over Egypt.

Reportedly, the suggestion of Octavian's stepping down as consul led to rioting among the Plebeians in Rome. A compromise was reached between the Senate and Octavian's supporters, known as the First Settlement. Octavian was given proconsular authority over the Western half and Syria—the provinces that, combined, contained almost 70% of the Roman legions.

The Senate also gave him the titles Augustus and Princeps. Augustus, from the Latin word Augere, "to increase," was a title of religious rather than political authority. According to Roman religious beliefs, the title symbolized a stamp of authority over humanity, and in fact nature, that went beyond any constitutional definition of his status. Additionally, after the harsh methods employed in consolidating his control, the change in name would also serve to separate his benign reign as Augustus from his reign of terror as Octavian. Princeps translates to "first-citizen" or "first-leader". It had been a title under the Republic for those who had served the state well; for example, Pompey had held the title.

In addition, Augustus was granted the right to hang the corona civica, the "civic crown" made from oak, above his door, and have laurels drape his doorposts. This crown was usually held above the head of a Roman general during a Triumph, with the individual holding the crown charged to continually repeat, "Remember, thou art mortal," to the triumphant general. Additionally, laurel wreaths were important in several state ceremonies, and crowns of laurel were rewarded to champions of athletic, racing, and dramatic contests. Thus, both the laurel and the oak were integral symbols of Roman religion and statecraft; placing them on Augustus's doorposts was tantamount to declaring his home the capital. However, it must be noted that none of these titles, or the Civic Crown and laurels, granted Octavian any additional powers or authority; for all intents and purposes the new Augustus was simply a highly-honored Roman citizen, holding the consulship within the city and acting as proconsul in territories abroad.

These actions were highly abnormal from the Roman Senate, but this was not the same body of patricians that had assassinated Caesar. Both Antony and Octavian had purged the Senate of suspect elements and planted it with their loyal partisans. How free a hand the Senate had in these transactions, and what backroom deals were made, remain unknown.

Second settlement

In 23 BC, Augustus renounced the consulship, but retained his consular imperium, leading to a second compromise between Augustus and the Senate known as the Second Settlement. Augustus was granted the power of a tribune (tribunicia potestas), though not the title, which allowed him to convene the Senate and people at will and lay business before it, veto the actions of either the Assembly or the Senate, preside over elections, and the right to speak first at any meeting. Also included in Augustus' tribunician authority were powers usually reserved for the Roman censor; these included the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to ensure they were in the public interest, as well as the ability to hold a census and determine the membership of the Senate. No Tribune of Rome ever had these powers, and there was no precedent within the Roman system for combining the powers of the Tribune and the Censor into a single position, nor was Augustus ever elected to the office of Censor. Julius Caesar had been granted similiar powers, wherein he was charged with supervising the morals of the state, however this position did not extend the Censor's ability to hold a census and determine the Senate's roster. Whether censorial powers were granted to Augustus as part of his tribunician authority, or he simply assumed these responsibilities, or, as Augustus indicates in his Res Gestae, he somehow retained consular authority, is still a matter of debate.

In addition to tribunician authority, Augustus was granted sole imperium within the city of Rome itself: all armed forces in the city, formerly under the control of the Prefects and consuls, were now under the sole authority of Augustus. Additionally, Augustus was granted imperium proconsulare maius, or "imperium over all the proconsuls", which translated to the right to interfere in any province and override the decisions of any governor. With maius imperium, Augustus was the only individual able to receive a triumph as he was ostensibly the head of every Roman army.

Many of the political subtleties of the Second Settlement seem to have evaded the comprehension of the Plebeian class. When, in 22 BC, Augustus failed to stand for election as consul, fears arose once again that Augustus, seen as the great "defender of the people", was being forced from power by the aristocratic Senate. In 22, 21, and 20 BC, the people rioted in response, and only allowed a single consul to be elected for each of those years, ostensibly to leave the other position open for Augustus. Finally, in 19 BC, the Senate voted to allow Augustus to wear the consul's insignia in public and before the Senate, with an act sometimes known as the Third Settlement. This seems to have assuaged the populace; regardless of whether or not Augustus was actually a consul, the importance was that he appeared as one before the people.

With these powers in mind, it must be understood that all forms of permanent and legal power within Rome officially lay with the Senate and the people; Augustus was given extraordinary powers, but only as a pronconsul and magistrate under the authority of the Senate. Augustus never presented himself as a king or autocrat, once again only allowing himself to be addressed by the title princeps. After the death of Lepidus in 13 BC, he additionally took up the position of pontifex maximus, the high priest of the collegium of the Pontifices, the most important position in Roman religion.

Later Roman Emperors would generally be limited to the powers and titles originally granted to Augustus, though often, in order to display humility, newly appointed Emperors would often decline one or more of the honorifics given to Augustus. Just as often, as their reign progressed, Emperors would appropriate all of the titles, regardless of whether they had actually been granted by the Senate. The Civic Crown (which later Emperors took to actually wearing), consular insignia, and later the purple robes of a Triumphant general ( toga picta) became the imperial insignia well into the Byzantine era, and were even adopted by many Germanic tribes invading the former Western empire as insignia of their right to rule.


Silver denarius of Augustus.
Silver denarius of Augustus.

Almost immediately after the First Settlement, Augustus fell ill. By 26 BC, Augustus had become bedridden, and the problem of succession came to the forefront. Augustus himself passed his signet ring and government documents to his close friends, Marcus Agrippa and Maecenas respectively. While Augustus recovered enough to make short trips and public appearances by 24, and was certainly fully recovered by 23, his near death seems to have brought the issue to the forefront of Augustus's plans.

Noted Augustan historian Ronald Syme argues that indications pointed toward his sister's son Marcellus, who had been married to Augustus' daughter Julia the Elder. Other historians dispute this, instead indicating a preference for Marcus Agrippa, who was arguably the only one of Augustus's associates who could have controlled the legions. After the death of Marcellus in 23 BC, Augustus married his daughter to Agrippa. This union produced five children, three sons and two daughters: Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, Vipsania Julia, Agrippina the Elder, and Postumus Agrippa, so named because he was born after Marcus Agrippa died. Shortly after the Second Settlement, Agrippa was granted tribunician power and seems to have administered the eastern half of the empire from Samos in the Cyclades.

Augustus' intent to make Gaius and Lucius Caesar his heirs was apparent when he adopted them as his own children, and personally ushered them into their political careers by serving as consul with each. Augustus also showed favour to his stepsons, Livia's children from her first marriage, Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus and Tiberius Claudius, granting them military commands and public office, and seeming to favour Drusus after granting him a triumph after subjugating a large portion of Germany.

After Agrippa died in 12 BC, Livia's son Tiberius was ordered to divorce his own wife and marry Agrippa's widow, Augustus's daughter. Tiberius shared in Augustus' tribune powers, but shortly thereafter went into retirement, reportedly wanting no further role in politics. A somewhat apocryphal tale tells of Augustus's various attempts to convince Tiberius to return, even going so far as to pretend to have fallen ill and be on his deathbed; Tiberius reportedly responded by anchoring his vessel off the coast of Ostia until word had reached him that Augustus would be well, then sailing straightway for Rhodes. After the early deaths of both Lucius and Gaius in 2 and 4 respectively, and the earlier death of his brother Drusus (9 BC), Tiberius was recalled to Rome, where he was adopted by Augustus on the condition that he, in turn, adopt Germanicus, continuing the tradition of presenting at least two generations of heirs to Augustus's powers.

On August 19, 14, Augustus died, and Tiberius was named his heir. The only other possible claimant, Postumus Agrippa, had been banished by Augustus, and was put to death around the same time. Who ordered his death is unknown, but the way was clear for Tiberius to assume the same powers that his stepfather had.

Augustus' legacy

The famous Augustus of Prima Porta
The famous Augustus of Prima Porta

Augustus was deified soon after his death, and both his borrowed surname, Caesar, and his title Augustus became the permanent titles of the rulers of Rome for the next 400 years, and were still in use at Constantinople fourteen centuries after his death. In many languages, caesar became the word for emperor, as in German ( Kaiser) and in Russian ( Tsar). The cult of the Divine Augustus continued until the state religion of the Empire was changed to Christianity in the 4th century. Consequently, there are many excellent statues and busts of the first, and in some ways the greatest, of the emperors. Augustus' mausoleum also originally contained bronze pillars inscribed with a record of his life, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, which had also been disseminated throughout the empire during his lifetime.

Many consider Augustus to be Rome's greatest emperor; his policies certainly extended the empire's life span and initiated the celebrated Pax Romana or Pax Augusta. He was handsome, intelligent, decisive, and a shrewd politician, but he was not perhaps as charismatic as Julius Caesar, and was influenced on occasion by his 3rd wife, Livia (usually for the worst). Nevertheless, his legacy proved more enduring.

In looking back on the reign of Augustus and its legacy to the Roman world, its longevity should not be overlooked as a key factor in its success. As one ancient historian says, people were born and reached middle age without knowing any form of government other than the Principate. Had Augustus died earlier (in 23 BC, for instance), matters may have turned out differently. The attrition of the civil wars on the old Republican oligarchy and the longevity of Augustus, therefore, must be seen as major contributing factors in the transformation of the Roman state into a de facto monarchy in these years. Augustus' own experience, his patience, his tact, and his political acumen also played their parts. He directed the future of the empire down many lasting paths, from the existence of a standing professional army stationed at or near the frontiers, to the dynastic principle so often employed in the imperial succession, to the embellishment of the capital at the emperor's expense. Augustus' ultimate legacy was the peace and prosperity the empire enjoyed for the next two centuries under the system he initiated. His memory was enshrined in the political ethos of the Imperial age as a paradigm of the good emperor, and although every emperor adopted his name, Caesar Augustus, only a handful, such as Trajan, earned genuine comparison with him. His reign laid the foundations of a regime that lasted for 250 years.

Revenue Reforms

Probably Augustus's most important legacy from the standpoint of its impact on the subsequent success of the Empire was his reform of Rome's public revenue system. Three of these reforms, in particular, are considered to have had substantial beneficial effects on both the fairness of the tax system and its effects on the Empire's economic prosperity.

The first reform was to bring a much larger portion of the Empire's expanded land base under consistent, direct taxation from Rome, instead of exacting varying, intermittent, and somewhat arbitrary tributes from each local province, as Augustus's predecessors had done. This reform greatly increased Rome's net revenue from its territorial acquisitions, stabilized its flow, and regularized the financial relationship between Rome and the provinces, rather than provoking fresh resentments with each new arbitrary exaction of tribute.

The second and equally important reform was the abolition of private tax farming and its replacement with salaried civil service tax collectors. The tax farmers had gained great infamy for their depredations, as well as great private wealth, by winning the right to tax local areas. Rome's revenue was the amount of the successful bids, and the tax farmers' profits consisted of any additional amounts they could forcibly wring from the populace with Rome's blessing. The more rapacious the tax farmer, the more he could afford to bid on the next area, and the more onerous the people's tax burdens became. Lack of effective supervision, combined with tax farmers' desire to maximize their profits, had produced a system of arbitrary exactions that was often barbarously cruel to taxpayers, widely (and accurately) perceived as unfair, and very harmful to investment and the economy. Its abolition was an enormous relief to the people, and perhaps more than any other factor explains not only the Empire's great prosperity for the next two centuries, but also Augustus's great personal popularity during his lifetime.

The third reform, the use of Egypt's immense land rents to finance the Empire's operations, resulted from Julius Caesar's conquest of Egypt and the shift under Augustus to an imperial form of government. As it was effectively considered first Julius's and then Augustus's private property, and became part of each succeeding emperor's patrimonium, the highly productive agricultural land of Egypt yielded enormous revenues that were available to Augustus and his successors to pay for public works and military expeditions, as well as bread and circuses for the population of Rome. The diversion of this land rent to Rome's coffers was probably even beneficial to the Egyptian economy and people, as Rome provided better infrastructure and public administration in return for the money than the pharoahs had ever done.


The month of August (Latin Augustus) is named after Augustus; until his time it was called Sextilis (the sixth month of the Roman calendar). Commonly repeated lore has it that August has 31 days because Augustus wanted his month to match the length of Julius Caesar's July, but this is an invention of the 13th-century scholar Johannes de Sacrobosco. Sextilis in fact had 31 days before it was renamed, and it was not chosen for its length (see Julian calendar). A more widely held reason is that it was chosen since it was the month in which Cleopatra ( Marc Antony's lover) committed suicide.

Building projects

Augustus boasted that he 'found Rome brick and left it marble'. Although this did not apply to the Subura slums, which were still as rickety and fire-prone as ever, he did leave a mark on the monumental topography of the centre and of the Campus Martius, with the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) and monumental sundial, whose central gnomon was an obelisk taken from Egypt, the Temple of Caesar, the Forum of Augustus with its Temple of Mars Ultor, and also other projects either encouraged by him (eg Theatre of Balbus, Agrippa's construction of the Pantheon) or funded by him in the name of others, often relations (eg Portico of Octavia, Theatre of Marcellus). Even his own mausoleum was built before his death to house members of his family.

Augustus in popular culture

Modern archaeological research

In July 2006, archaeologists announced that they had discovered what they believed to be the birthplace of Augustus. Head archaeologist Clementina Panella stated that the team uncovered a section of corridor and other fragments under Rome's Palatine Hill, which she described on July 20 as "a very ancient aristocratic house", and stated that "the emperor was particularly fond of the area."

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