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Augustus - Photo Archive

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Portrait of Octavian, later Augustus, in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek


Gaius Octavius, later called Augustus, was the founder of the Roman Empire and its first emperor, without every formally taking the title

Historical Persons / Romans

Gaius Octavius, later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus and Imperator Caesar Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE) was the founder of the Roman Empire and its first emperor. Before being accorded the title Augustus by the Senate in 27 BCE, he was normally referred to as Octavian.

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Gaius Octavius was a great-nephew of Julius Caesar (grandson of Caesar’s sister Julia). His father Octavius was of undistinguished birth, but reached the praetorship and married Atia, a daughter of Caesar’s only daughter Julia before his premature death when Gaius Octavius was four. Octavius grew up outside Rome in a small provincial city. His first public appearance was in 51 BCE when his grandmother Julia died and he delivered the eulogy at her funeral.

Reaching maturity in 48 BCE he embarked on a normal patrician career (as normal as it could be under Caesar’s dictatorship), which included political, military and religious offices. Caesar must have noticed him early and advanced his career, but their relationship is not clear. It is not known why and when Caesar decided on Octavius as his successor.

Octavius was elected to the pontifical college in 48 BCE, and he participated in the four triumphs Caesar celebrated in 46 BCE. In 45 BCE he followed Caesar to Spain and fought honourably in the battle of Munda against the last of the followers of Pompey. In 44 BCE Octavius was in Illyricum in preparation for the Parthian campaign Caesar had planned.

When Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE, Octavius decided to return to Rome, but when he heard of the way Caesar was killed and that Caesar had adopted him as principal heir, he knew that he was in danger. Yet he returned to Rome as a private citizen to obtain the recognition of his adoption and to take possession of his vast inheritance.

The Civil War

The Republic was plunged into yet another civil war after the murder of Caesar. His assassins, which included a part of the senate, led by L. Cassius Longinus and M. Junius Brutus, had fled Rome and Caesar’s right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony), took power. By accepting his adoption, Octavius put himself against both of these factions, who commanded armies and controlled great wealth, while he had no backing at all.

Octavius officially assumed the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in acknowledgement of his adoption. He normally just called himself Caesar, just as his adoptive father, which was a major factor in his attempt to win over to his side the veteran soldiers of Julius Caesar’s armies. Later times have called him Octavian.

Statue of Augustus

Octavian immediately started to travel around in S. Italy where parts of Caesar‘s armies were stationed and where many of his veterans were settled. He then went to Rome where Antonius tried to ignore him while blocking the official recognition of the adoption.

In the following 18 months a very complex three part game took place. Antonius went to Cisalpine Gaul to fight Brutus and Cassius. He defeated them and they fled to the east, where they tried to secure a position while Antonius did the same in Gaul. Meanwhile Octavian managed to secure himself more troops, he obtained the official recognition of the adoption and the revocation of the amnesty for Caesar’s assassins. The situation was ripe for a three-way civil war.

Octavian now made one of his brilliant moves. He moved his forces against Antonius in Cisalpine Gaul, but instead of fighting him, he offered Antonius a deal. Octavian, Antonius and M. Aemilius Lepidus (an ally to Antonius) would split the provinces between them so all three could prosper. Antonius got Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, Lepidus Spain and Gallia Narbonensis (S. France), while Octavian got Sicily, Sardinia and Africa. This accord, made for five years, became known as the Second Triumvirate.

First the three purged all political opponents. The proscriptions eliminated a large part of the senatorial and equestrian order, including most of the supporters of Caesar‘s assassins. Cicero, being an enemy of Antonius, perished in these proscriptions. A factor in the proscriptions was the need to raise money. The wealth of the proscribed persons fell to the state, and could be used to settle veterans from the armies of Octavian and Antonius.

The combined forces of Octavian and Antonius were turned against the assassins of Caesar, who still controlled the east. The decisive battle was at Philippi in Macedonia in 42 BCE where the forces of Brutus and Cassius were soundly defeated. Both committed suicide.

With the east under the control of the triumvirs, they proceeded to repartition it. Antonius got the East and Transalpine Gauls and Octavian most of the West. Lepidus was the junior partner and had to content himself with Africa. Antonius moved east and Octavian return to Italy.

Lucius Antonius, a brother of Marcus Antonius, used the problems around the distribution of land to veterans to oppose Octavian in Italy. It came to a short war, which Octavian won, but it provoked Antonius to return to fight Octavian. A new civil war was on the horizon. The two forces met at Brundisium, but didn’t fight. Instead, they struck a deal. Antonius ceded Gaul to Octavian in return for a free hand in the East. The deal was signed by Antonius’ marriage to Octavian’s sister Octavia.

Antonius returned east, but Octavian still had problems. Sextus Pompeius, a son of Pompey the Great, had seized control of Sicily where he became a rallying point for the opposition to the triumvirs. Octavian called in the forces of Antonius, but several attempts to oust Sextus failed, and at the end a deal was made in 39 BCE.

The Second Triumvirate expired in 38 BCE, but all three agreed to renew it for another five years. Sextus meanwhile continued his opposition to the triumvirs, and Antonius and Octavian had to oppose him again. This time they organised a combined campaign, where Lepidus attacked from Africa, Octavian from Campania and Octavian’s right-hand man Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa at sea. After some setbacks, Agrippa’s fleet carried the day, defeating Sextus’ fleet and allowing Lepidus to take control of Sicily. With Sextus out of the way Lepidus refused to cede Sicily to Octavian, who then moved against him, but Lepidus’s forces defected and he was captured. Lepidus was spared and lived until 12 BCE, but his defeat meant that Octavian alone was now in control of the West.

Octavian’s victory over Sextus was popular in Rome, and he moved on to consolidate his position. Antonius, however, wasn’t doing quite as well in the East. There ware continuing wars with the Parthians and the Armenians, in which Antonius was only partially successful.

Showdown with Marcus Antonius

Antonius was living with Cleopatra, who was the ruler of a still independent Ptolemaic Kingdom, with whom he had two sons. His lifestyle became ever more eastern, or at least the rumours in Rome said so. In any case his close personal association with a foreign ruler was used against him. At one occasion Antonius declared Cleopatra “Queen of Kings” and Caesarion, the illegitimate son of Caesar and Cleopatra, “King of Kings”. This recognition of Caesarion was a direct attack on Octavian as the legitimate heir to the wealth and power of Caesar.

Octavian, on the other hand, use this to portray Antonius as a defector, who had gone native and who was about to betray Rome and create an independent eastern empire with himself and Cleopatra as rulers. In 32 BCE the elected consuls, allies to Antonius, openly attacked Octavian who was absent from Rome at the time. He swiftly returned, convened the senate and responded so strongly that both consuls and a group of senators loyal to Antonius fled to Egypt.

Octavian used this to claim that Antonius was establishing a separate senate in Alexandria and that he had renounced Octavia. He then illegally seized Antonius’ will from the Vestal Virgins and published it. Herein Antonius expressed his wish to be buried in Egypt besides Cleopatra, which was seen as a confirmation of his betrayal of Rome. Octavian then obtained a declaration of war from the senate, not against Antonius but against Cleopatra, a foreign ruler. This was not to be another civil war.

The war was short. Both parties moved their forces to Greece in preparation for a major battle, but the presence of Cleopatra caused defections among Antonius’ troops. Also, his fleet got trapped in a bay near Actium by Octavian’s navy under the command of Agrippa. When they tried to break out, Antonius’ fleet was completely destroyed in the ensuing naval battle. In the midst of the battle, when defeat was evident, favourable winds permitted Cleopatra’s ship to escape, and Antonius’ followed immediately after. From Greece Octavian moved along the coast in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine into Egypt where he arrived in 30 BCE. Here he defeated Antonius’ troops almost without a fight, as most soldiers defected. Antonius and Cleopatra committed suicide to avoid being caught, and Caesarion and Antonius’s son were killed by Octavian.

The Augustan Principate

Octavian now stood unopposed as the single-most powerful man in the Roman world. That position, however, was not without its problems. Octavian had to secure his position against future contenders for power, he had to keep control of the army and the provinces, he had to secure the line of succession and he had to pacify the senatorial class.

Though Octavian was in indisputedly in command, formally the republican order continued. Octavian was regularly elected consul each year until 23 BCE, but he did not seek dictatorial powers as had Caesar. The senate would bestow titles and honours on him, which he sometimes would refuse, but it was always, at least in appearance, by the senate’s own initiative. Octavian did everything possible not to give the impression that he wanted absolute power.

Then, in January 27 BCE, he made another brilliant move. He appeared before the senate and declared that he would resign from public office to a life as a private citizen. The senators were shocked. If Octavian disappeared from the scene there would almost certainly be a new civil war as contenders for power would try their luck, so the senate pleaded Octavian to stay. After a display of reluctance he finally accepted and a deal was made, known as the “First Constitutional Settlement”. Octavian was given control over about half the provinces with the military forces stationed there while the senate kept the rest. He was also given numerous titles and honours for his services to the state. Among the honours was the title Augustus, and his official name would be Imperator Caesar Augustus. Augustus’ social status and his military and political power was well above everybody else, but nobody could claim he wanted to be king or dictator, which were the accusations leading to the murder of Julius Caesar.

Augustus went on a journey of his provinces and left the day to day business to Agrippa and Maecenas, who was another close ally of his. When he returned in 24 BCE, he made his next move to consolidate his position. A new deal was made with the senate, the “Second Constitutional Settlement”. Augustus gave up the permanent consulate in exchange for empire-wide proconsular powers, which allowed him to intervene in any matter in any province, and the power of a tribune of the people, which gave him legislative power and the veto on meetings and proposals and it made his person sacrosanct. These powers were only given for five and ten years, but they would consistently be renewed.

This combination of military command, imperium, in the provinces and legislative and administrative power in Rome gave him the necessary means to maintain his position without distancing himself too much from the rest of the Roman aristocracy. Officially he was simply the optimus inter pares, not an absolute ruler. The word often used was princeps, leading citizen, a word that later become prince.

In the following years Augustus received a steady stream of new rights and honours, such as the right to convene the senate. He was very cautious not to offend any tradition, and refused the title of pontifex maximus, the highest religious position, as long as Lepidus lived. He accepted the title only after the death of Lepidus in 12 BCE.

The Problem of Succession

One problem that Augustus failed to resolve in a lasting manner was that of succession. All the powers, titles and honours bestowed on Augustus was given to him personally and they were not hereditary, so in principle the senate could select a new princeps at his death. The huge personal fortune Augustus had accumulated was a part of his power-base, but not enough in itself to assure that his chosen heir could take over the powers of Augustus.

Augustus only had one natural child, his daughter Julia of his first wife Scribonia. Augustus had divorced Scribonia in 38 BCE to marry Livia, whose former husbond had been force to divorce her to allow the new marriage. It was a political marriage, whose main purpose was to bring together the gens julia, the family of Julius Caesar and Augustus, and the gens claudia, a very wealthy and powerful patrician family. Livia never bore Augustus any children, but she had two sons of her first marriage, Tiberius and Drusus.

Julia could not inherit Augustus’ position, as it included military command, public office and priesthoods that were all reserved for men, but she would play a central part in the dynastic policies of Augustus, whether she liked it or not!

Augustus’ first chosen heir was his nephew Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia from her first marriage. Marcellus was presented to the public in much the same way Julius Caesar had introduced Octavian. Marcellus took part of Octavian’s triumphs in 29 BCE, and in 25 BCE he was married to Julia. By Augustus’ intervention he was allowed an accelerated public career, and he was allowed by the senate to candidate for the consulship ten years early, just as had Octavian twenty years before.

In 23 BCE Augustus fell gravely ill. Apparently he judged Marcellus too young for the position of princeps at the time, and expecting to die, he gave his signet-ring to Agrippa, who had the necessary experience and capacity to be princeps. Augustus recovered from his illness, but Marcellus died later that same year.

Augustus must have understood that his life’s work was in jeopardy if he died while the designated heir was too young and unprepared for the burden and duties of being princeps. His next choice of heir was more conservative. Agrippa was married to Julia, thus be coming Augustus’ son-in-law and closest male relative, and in the following years they had two sons, Gaius (20 BCE) and Lucius (17 BCE). Both were adopted by Augustus and given the additional name of Caesar, hence enforcing the impression that the lineage of Agrippa was the preferred line of succession. The situation was complicated by the presence of the two adult sons of Livia, Tiberius and Drusus, who both held public office and military commands.

Marcus Agrippa died in 12 BCE and Tiberius, being the elder and most experienced of the potential heirs, took his place. Within a year he was married to Julia, but the marriage was not a happy one and brought no children. The relationship between Augustus and Tiberius was also troublesome and apparently Tiberius fell from grace in 6 BCE and was exiled to Rhodes.

In the following years all the alternative heirs to Augustus died. Drusus had died in 9 BCE, Lucius Caesar died in 2 CE and Gaius Caesar in 4 CE. Consequently, Tiberius was rehabilitated, being the sole candidate left. Augustus forced him to adopt the young Germanicus, grandson of Livia through Drusus and of Octavia and Marcus Antonius through Antonia the Younger. Germanicus united the gens julia and the gens claudia once again.

When Augustus died in 14 CE, Tiberius was the first in the line of succession and hence the next emperor. Germanicus died in 19 CE, leaving the question of succession unsolved in the long term. It would be a problem that would haunt the empire for a long time to come.

Augustus was buried in the mausoleum he had build for himself in the Campus Martius.


Pat Southern: Augustus, Routledge, 1998.

G. P. Baker: Augustus Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Arnold Hugh Martin Jones: Augustus W.W. Norton & Company, 1971.

Werner Eck: The Age of Augustus, Blackwell Publishers, 2003 .

David Colin Arthur Shotter: Augustus Caesar, Routledge, 1992.


Photo gallery for "Augustus"

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  • 2002-08-30-133656
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  • Portrait of Octavian, later Augustus, in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
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  • Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek - Statue of Augustus

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Last updated on: 20 November 2005

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