Gaius Octavianus Thurinus (63 B.C. - 14 A.D.)

Commonly referred to as Octavian, the man who would become Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, was born on September 23rd of 63 B.C. to the senator and praetor Gaius Octavius and Atia, the niece of Julius Caesar. At the age of 16, his powerful great-uncle honoured him during his African triumph; and in 46 B.C., he joined Julius Caesar in Spain, to learn and assist in his reorganisation of the province. Octavian didn't get much of a chance to learn from Caesar, however; in 44 B.C., Octavian and Caesar's legions were stationed in Illyricum, ready for Caesar's planned campaign in Parthia, when news reached them that Caesar had been assassinated, and that Octavian had been adopted by Caesar, and named as his heir.

Taking the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Octavian returned swiftly to Rome, to receive his share of his adopted father's legacy. Mark Antony, who had been one of Caesar's deputies, was de facto executor of Caesar's will, and begrudged Octavian his share of the spoils, taking as much as he could himself; with Caesar's assassins departed for governerships abroad, the senate decided to side with Octavian, who pursued Antony to Gaul before winning a decisive victory over him at Mutina, in 43 B.C. Returning to Rome, Octavian changed his mind, and formed the Second Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus, another of his great uncle's lieutenants.

The Second Triumvirate, and Caesar's Revenge

One of the triumvirate's first acts was to draw up a list of enemies in Rome, and do away with them. Cicero was one of the first enemies on the list; Antony had a particular grudge against Rome's greatest orator after a stinging series of fourteen orations, commonly known as The Philipphics (after Demosthenes' famous orations against Philip king of Macedon), proclaiming Antony as an enemy of the state, and naming Octavian as the Republic's only possible saviour. Rumour has it that Octavian extended an invitation to Cicero to join the triumvirs, but when it was turned down, Cicero's death swiftly followed.

Having made their agreements, and rid Rome of the majority of their enemies, the triumvirs headed east, in pursuit of Brutus, Cassius and the rest of Caesar's assasins. The joined armies of Cassius and Brutus were routed in a decisive battle at Philippi in 42 B.C.; most of the rest of the assassins were themselves assassinated on Octavian and Antony's orders, or comitted suicide. Sextus Pompeius Magnus, one of the sons of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (one of the original triumvirate, who later became Caesar's arch-rival) was still in control of much of the Mediterrenean around Sardinia and Sicily; but, thanks to the inventions of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Octavian's right-hand man), Sextus's fleet was soon reduced, and he was finally defeated at Mylae in 36 B.C.

In the meantime, after the assassins had been dealt with, the Triumvirate divided the Roman World between them, with the Pact of Brundisium in 40 B.C.; Octavian took the western half, Antony the east, and Lepidus (who was very much the junior partner) was given Africa. Also, Antony married Octavia, Octavian's sister, to cement their alliance. But this agreement wasn't to last too long; in 36 B.C., Octavian set Lepidus aside (I doubt anybody really noticed), and began looking for excuses to rid himself of Antony.

Octavian's First Propaganda Campaign

Helpfully, as far as Octavian was concerned, Antony became obsessed with the culture of the east, and with Caesar's old flame, Cleopatra. Antony set aside his wife, Octavia, and shacked up with Egypt's Queen, wishing to restore and extend her kingdom, as well as to reclaim the battle-standards of Crassus that had been lost at Parthia. After a successful campaign in Armenia, Antony held a triumph for himself in Alexandria, dressing as a Hellenistic king and leading the conquered king of Armenia in chains to the throne of Cleopatra. Octavian cast this as a foreign would-be king conquering territory for another foreign monarch, and began a propaganda campaign to paint Antony as an oriental despot.

While Antony was busy in the East, Octavian wasted no time in ingratiating himself at home. He sated the plebs with "panem et circenses"; his associate Agrippa used his own personal funds to clean out Rome's sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, to rebuild aqueducts, and to restore many crumbling old buildings. Octavian took a calculated risk also in coercing the Vestal Virgins into letting him take Antony's will; his gamble paid off, and, reading the document aloud to the Senate, Octavian reinforced Antony's perceived loyalty to Egypt over Rome. When rumour spread about Antony's desire to move the Capitol to Alexandria, Octavian began building a large mausoleum for himself and his family on the Campus Martius, thereby symbolically dedicating himself and his legacy to Rome.

For every negative, oriental aspect Antony was perceived to have, Octavian made sure to give himself an equal, positive aspect. For example, in the east, Antony liked to compare himself to Dionysus, the God of wine and, by association, the patron of carousing and debauchery. Although this image was not at all meant to be spread to Rome, Octavian took advantage of it, and took the image of Apollo, God of the Sun, for himself; Apollo symbolised a bright future, and traditional Roman characteristics, whereas Dionysus' primary associations were with the Maenads, a Greek cult whose ceremonies involved getting paralytically drunk, and then having an orgy. Obviously, there was no competition there as to who gave the more positive impression...

By 32 B.C., following successful campaigns in Dalmatia and Illyricum, Octavian was ready to take sole control of Rome. Lepidus had already been set aside, and Antony's divorce of Octavia was just the trigger necessary for Octavian to make his move. Octavian appealed to the senate, as fears of Rome's glory being poached by an Egyptian monarch were at their peak; and although both consuls and nearly one third of the Senate sided with Antony, Octavian had the superior force. A decisive battle was fought at sea, near Actium in Seoptember 31 B.C.; Octavian's navy soundly defeated Antony and Cleopatra's. The couple retreated to Alexandria, which was taken by Octavian's troops in August of 30 B.C. In despair, Antony attempted suicide by falling on his sword (he failed, but eventually died of his wounds after three days' agony), while Cleopatra chose the quicker method, dying of poisoning after molesting a highly venomnous asp. After the victory, Octavian drove home his point by celebrating a triple triumph, commemorating his victories in Illyricum, Actium and Alexandria. A triumph only occured to celebrate a Roman victory over foreign power, and, although the campaign against Antony was to all intents and purposes a civil war, Octavian was careful not to mention his name. Octavian's victory was put forward a triumph over the wicked and immoral orient by traditional Roman values.

More Propaganda: Octavian Changes His Name

In January of 27 B.C., the gates of the shrine of Janus were closed; the entire Roman world was at peace. The Senate honored Octavian with titles like imperator (originally a military title meaning general, but the word emperor is derived from its use by the Julio-Claudian dynasty), and princeps (translates to "first citizen"; the word prince is derived from it), and, when he offered to lay down his powers, the senate turned his offer down (as per his instructions), and gave him the maius imperium, and the position of tribune for life. Octavian also decided to change his name; Alexander was considered (after Alexander the Great, the legendary Greek king and general), as well as Romulus; but both those names were thought to be too closely related to kingship, and so he took the name Augustus, derived from the word auctoritas.

Augustus's next steps were to consolidate both his power, and the Empire he had inherited. He reorganised the legions and the Senate, and stationed nine cohort in Rome as his personal guard, under the command of the praetorian prefect. This body of men was known as the Praetorian Guard, and they would later become very influential in state matters. Augustus also put order on Rome's police force, to keep order in the eternal city. Away from Rome, Augustus took personal charge of several provinces, most notably Egypt. Egypt was the main provider of grain, and thus bread, for Rome, and due to his own personal administration of the province, Augustus took control of Rome's primary food supply, making the populace feel beholden to him, more than to the Senate.

In terms of military accomplishment, Augustus had a very tough act to follow in the shape of his adopted father, Julius Caesar. His goals were geared more towards stabilising the Empire, than expansion, except for in Germany, where he wished to push the Roman border from the banks of the Danube to the more northerly Elbe. In 20 B.C., Augustus managed to retrieve the standards of Crassus from the Parthians; but by diplomacy. Augustus had installed a new king in Armenia, who was friendly to Rome, and backed by a large army. Although the Parthians had beaten the legions before, the were sick of war, and so a treaty was put in place, whereby Parthia returned the standards and any prisoners taken during the wars, and both sides agreed to leave the other in peace. This was heralded as a great military triumph at home, leading to the erection of heroic statues of Augustus; but in the East, Augustus was looked upon more as a reasonable, diplomatic ruler.

Augustus' attempt to extend the borders of his empire northwards as far as the Elbe met with little success; the German tribes were fierce warriors, and, despite some losses, they convincingly defeated the Roman legions under the consul Quintilius Varus; over forty thousand Roman soldiers were killed in the forests of Germany, including Varus himself, and this defeat led Augustus to give up any thoughts of expansion. It seems that Augustus took his loss very much to heart; Suetonius describes Augustus as crying out "Vare, Vare, redde legiones" ("Oh, Varus, return the legions!") in anguish.

Moral, and other, Reforms - Uncle Augustus Knows Best

On Lepidus' death in 12 B.C., Augustus took the title of Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the state. Apart from consolidating the empire, Augustus' main aim while in power was to restore the ancient Roman values of piety, dignity, and so forth. And also to promote family values. Family values were important to Augustus for two main reasons - firstly, after centuries of war, the Patrician and Knight classes were quite depleted; Augustus wanted to build them up again. Secondly, marriages were made and then forgotten based on politics; an ambitious nobleman might marry the daughter of that year's most promising politician, and then divorce her again if her father fell out of favour; also, many nobles spent too much time on intrigue, oneupmanship and bribery to marry at all.

With these goals in mind, Augustus passed a series of laws:

  • Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus: This law placed restrictions on who the children of a senator could or couldn't marry.
  • Lex Papia et Poppae encouraged having children, by reducing the amount a married person with no children could inherit.
  • Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis: Made adultery, on the part of a woman, a severe crime, punishable by exile - Augustus even banished his own daughter, Julia, for adultery. It also made it mandatory for a husband to prosecute his wife, if he knew of any adultery.

Augustus also encouraged the populace to return to the traditional Roman religions and forms of worship - he set aside part of his own home with a shrine to Vesta, he reinstated many religious holidays and festivals, and restored over eighty temples throughout the city. He also filled vacant positions in the colleges of priests, providing stipends where necessary.

As well as social and religious reform, Augustus also paid attention to the Senate, reducing its numbers to the traditional three hundred, as well as doing a sweep of the Knights class (the Equites, who were the upper-middle class of Rome). Augustus would not tolerate any behaviour unbecoming to a Roman of good standing, and many Knights were forced to roam the city with a list of their crimes on their backs. But at the same time, Augustus guaranteed the privileges of rank to all those who had, or whose parents had, at one time possessed the requisite wealth and estate to be numbered among the Equites. He also restored some of the prestige of the Senate, which had long been abused by popular politicians, like his adopted father and Caius Marius; while he kept personal control over some provinces to himself (Egypt being a prime example), he did put some of the Empire under Senatorial control (although obviously, Augustus himself would have the final say in any major matters).

As well as trying to improve Roman society's morals and balance, Augustus also undertook to improve the standard of the city itself. As mentioned above, he had many temples rebuilt; he also embarked on ambitious road-building throughout the Empire, provided clean(ish) water to most of Rome through the renovation and construction of aqueducts, and built baths and theatres for the populace to enjoy. He also provided for an improved Roman police force, as well as a much needed fire brigade in the vigiles - the insulae (the Roman equivalent of a modern apartment block) of Rome being very prone to fires.

Ideology - Augustus's desired images for himself and his empire

Augustus had soem very firm ideas about how his subjects should behave, as illustrated above, but in some instances he could be more subtle. To instill pietas into his subjects, that is, love of and loyalty to Rome, he supported his secretary and lieutenant Maecenas' patronage of the likes of Vergil and Horace; he was also supportive of Livy's magnum opus Ab Urbe Condita, a complete history of Rome, and was tolerant of Ovid, at least while he wasn't talking dirty. Vergil's main work was the Aeneid, an epic poem which parallels Homer's Odyssey. The main character is the Trojan prince Aeneas, son of Venus, mythical ancestor of Romulus and Remus and therefore, by extension, of Augustus; the poem follows Aeneas's escape from the ruins of Troy through numerous adventures (including an affair with Dido, queen of Carthage) until he finally settles in Italy.

Taking up where Vergil left off, Livy's Ab Urbe Condita is a history of Rome, "since the city was founded" - exactly what it says on the tin. Livy takes quite a moralistic tone in his writing, something which must have pleased Augustus no end. The end result of Livy and Vergil's efforts was to provide an epic account, in prose and poetry, of the entire history of Rome, from its mythological origins until then recent times, all the while highlighting the most laudable qualities and behaviour of its heroes. This not only provided a suitable example for Rome's citizens, but a sense of pride that comes with a long and glorious history.

Vergil's other major works were the Georgics and the Bucolics, which, along with Horace's Odes, provide a somewhat idealised picture of rural life and farming - which tied in nicely with Augustus's desire to stimulate farming in Italy and the provinces, especially among veterans who had been provided with large estates. Horace also wrote the Carmen Saeculare, a hymn written to order for the great games held by Augustus in 17 B.C. to celebrate the new dawn of peace and prosperity across the Empire (under Augustus's leadership, of course).

Augustus also promoted his own good image through buildings. The first example of this is the mausoleum he had built for himself and his family on the Campus Martius, which was undertaken to emphasize his own dedication to Rome, when Marc Antony was off pretending to be a Greek king. The prime example is the Ara Pacis, whose imagery and symbolism is well described in The Debutante's writeup. Augustus's final piece of self-aggrandisement was the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (literally "The things achieved by Divine Augustus"), an autobiographical account of Augustus's deeds, in which he claims to have found Rome as a city of brick, and left it as a city of marble. Again, The Debutante's excellent writeup discusses the Res Gestae in greater detail.

Heir today, gone tomorrow - Augustus's Successors

Following the early death of his first choice of heir, Marcellus (Augustus' nephew and son-in-law, the son of his sister Octavia and husband of his daughter Julia), Augustus had Julia marry his lieutenant and friend, Agrippa. He adopted their twin children, Gaius and Lucius, and named Gaius as his heir. Gaius was sent to Parthia to work on the treaty, but he was injured when suppressing a minor disturbance in Armenia, and later died of his wounds. Lucius also died young, and so Augustus was in a quandry. The hilariously named Postumus (so-called because he was born after Agrippa's death) was clearly unsuitable for the role of Emperor - although his faults have never been spelled out directly, he was apparently a violent type, and was exiled to the island of Planasia with an armed escort - and Agrippa was dead; so Augustus eventually settled on his step-son Tiberius, who was the son of Augustus' third wife, Livia, by her previous marriage. Both Tiberius and his brother, Drusus, had served as generals and acquited themselves well on campaigns; but Drusus died in battle in Germany, and in 6 B.C., Tiberius refused to serve as a general in the east, instead preferring to retire to Rhodes, to avoid friction with Augustus's principes iuventatis, Gaius and Lucius.

Tiberius had made his bed in Rhodes, and Augustus was now determined that he lie in it, keeping him there until 4 B.C., when he was allowed return to Rome under condition that he retire from public life. That same year, Lucius died, and so Augustus adopted both Tiberius and Postumus, who soon fell from grace. As was his custom, Augustus had Tiberius divorce his beloved wife, Vipsania, to marry the rampantly unfaithful Julia, and also had him adopt his (Tiberius's) nephew Germanicus, who was married to Agrippina, Augustus's granddaughter and the daughter of Julia and Agrippa. Augustus had long acknowledged that Tiberius was a capable man, and he would initially prove to be a good successor; but there was no love lost between the pair. Tiberius became emperor on Augustus's death in 19 A.D., in his 46th year; Postumus was executed soon afterwards, apparently on orders contained in Augustus's will.

Links and References:
I read an awful lot of sites, mostly quite superficially, in researching this writeup. Here are the main sites I read:

    An interesting perspective on Augustus, more from a personal and family point of view.
    A brief article covering Augustus's rise to power
    A good, concise, account of Augustus's reign, also covering his problems with choosing a successor.
    Another good article covering Augustus's reign.
Writeups: Other materials:
  • The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
    Detailed, although sometimes difficult to read, biographies of Roman leaders, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.
  • East versus West: how and why was the idea of the east manipulated for Augustan benefit?
  • Was the Emperor a person or an image?
    Two excellent accounts of Augustan propaganda, by a graduate in Ancient History, Miss Daniela Bowker.
  • Miss Bowker's wonderful dissertation on the Roman Family - "Aims, Methods, Results, Conclusions: Parenthood in Rome, 100BCE-100CE" - was also of great assistance.