Augustus was a Roman Emperor, and one of the most transformative figures in Roman history. As the first emperor, who took power after the death of Julius Caesar, he oversaw the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. By the time he died, he had left his mark in Roman military affairs, culture, religion, and law.
Early Life & Rise To Power
As is the case with many significant Roman figures, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction when talking about Augustus. After he rose to power, he commissioned writers to build his legend by bending the truth, and his political enemies likewise were willing to publish any believable rumors to bring him down. Nonetheless, it is possible to understand quite a bit of Augustus’s early life and rise to power.
He was born as Octavian in 63 B.C.E., just 15 years before the Roman Civil War and the rise of Julius Caesar. His family were equites, the second-highest class in Roman society. His family did have political connections, most famously his mother was Julius Caesar’s niece. For a brief period, he was in the care of Julia, the sister of Julius Caesar. In his early years he followed the traditional Roman upbringing for a boy of his class, being trained in rhetoric and military arts. As his great uncle Caesar rose in Roman society, he frequently aided young Octavian in his early political career, granting him his first political positions.
As they became closer and as it became clear that the boy would have a political career, Caesar pushed the young Octavian to deepen his military training. In 45 B.C.E., when Caesar held the powerful title of Dictator of Rome, he sent Octavian to Macedonia, the staging grounds for a war Caesar was planning with Parthia. As fate would have it, Augustus would not participate in Caesar’s planned war. One year later, Caesar was assassinated and Rome was in a state of shock.
Octavian immediately returned, along with the troops he was training with. He landed near Rome and began to march towards the capital city. Along the way, he received word of an interesting development: his great-uncle Julius Caesar had named him as his heir in his will. Legally, Octavian had a claim to be the Emperor of Rome. First, however, he had to deal with Marc Antony and the Senate, who had taken control of Rome once Caesar died.
For a brief while, Antony and Octavian negotiated a truce called the triumvirate (which is discussed in more detail in our separate article). Although both sides were evenly balanced, both Antony and Octavian knew war between them was inevitable, and both sides quietly prepared for battle. In 31 B.C.E. at the Battle of Actium, Octavian defeated Antony and claimed the title of sole Emperor.
Augustus in Power
Because the role of Emperor was still new, Octavian had to tread carefully in his new role. He naturally wanted to acquire power, but he couldn’t do it all at once or the Senate would feel threatened and move against him. In 27 B.C.E., he started this process by offering the Senate control of his armies, and the land outside the city of Rome (the Roman provinces). In exchange, the Senate offered him new names: Augustus (meaning the illustrious or the venerated) and Princeps (meaning the first).
In trading power with the Senate, Augustus continued in a long-running theme in Roman history. Many political leaders and emperors understood the distinction between formal, legal power granted by the Senate, and a less formal power that comes from popularity with Roman people and military figures. Both are important, and the best leaders could wield both types of power to their advantage at different points in history. Here, Augustus gave up his troops, which flattered the Senate, and demonstrated to the people that he was honourable and trustworthy. He lost some formal power, but gained significant popularity.
Over the early decades of his reign, Augustus would manipulate this distinction to his advantage several times. Because he was the first true Emperor, the limits of his power were vague and there was little legal precedent to rely on. Augustus used this to increase his standing with the Senate, creating new offices and roles for Senators, and granting them political favors. He was also fiercely popular with the plebians, the common people. Whenever the Senate appeared to take action to limit his powers, the commoners would revolt in his favor. By 23 B.C.E., in what is commonly called the Second Settlement, he had completely solidified his rule as Emperor.
The Golden Age
Augustus is responsible for much of what made Rome great. Militarily, he conquered vast areas of territory in continental Europe, expanding Roman territory in modern Spain and Portugal and defeating Germanic tribes. As Emperor, he also expanded Roman territory in the Middle East, including Judea (modern Israel and Syria) shortly before the birth of Jesus. A skilled diplomat, he also helped protect Rome from its historical enemy Parthia by maintaining small buffer territories between Rome and the Parthians.
As skilled as he was in international affairs, Augustus was also very accomplished domestically. Having inherited a vast empire, he set out to improve life for everyday Romans. He built a network of roads to connect the empire, many of which survive to this day. In cities, he developed the first police forces and fire brigades, curtailing crime and significantly improving life for everyday people. Using the gold won in his military conquests, he gave generous handouts to Roman citizens, making him hugely popular.
Culturally, Augustus tried to craft an image of himself as a traditionalist and a benevolent, caring ruler. As with later Emperors, he personally wrote several poems and books of philosophy emphasising duty and traditional values. He was also a patron of the arts, most famously sponsoring the creation of Virgil’s Aeneid. On top of his domestic infrastructure projects, he also enforced morality laws on the Roman people, outlawing adultery and promoting marriage.
Augustus was more than just the first real Emperor of Rome. In the early days of the Roman Empire, when it could easily have collapsed under a weaker ruler, he instead brought prosperity, military victories, and significant cultural developments. On his deathbed, he famously declared “I inherited Rome made of clay, and I leave you a Rome made of marble”, boasting of the huge improvements he’d made of the city, which are undeniable. Like his great uncle Julius Caesar, Augustus was declared to be a god on his death, and also like his great uncle (namesake of July), Augustus had one of the months the calendar named for him, the month of August.
All this came at a cost, however. His Imperial predecessor Julius Caesar was killed for being a tyrant, and critics of Augustus claim he too became a tyrant. Under his rule, the power of the Senate and the last traces of Roman democracy came to an end. To this day, historians debate whether Augustus was a power-hungry dictator, or a force for good.