Before his death 2,000 years ago in August AD 14, the ageing Roman emperor Augustus composed a political statement that recorded his unprecedented bid for power, half a century earlier. “At the age of 19 on my own responsibility and at my own expense I raised an army, with which I successfully championed the liberty of the republic when it was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.”
The events to which he was referring began on the Ides of March 44 BC when Roman dictator Julius Caesar was murdered by the self-proclaimed ‘liberators’. It was only at Caesar’s funeral that it was discovered that his great-nephew Augustus – then called Caius Octavius and from an obscure family – had been named as the murdered ruler’s principal heir.
The teenager chose to interpret this legacy as full adoption, and announced that he intended to succeed not simply to Caesar’s wealth and name, but also to his high office. That was not the way politics normally worked in Rome, but these were disturbed times, with the old Republican system of elected magistrates crumbling after decades of violent competition and spells of civil war.
The young Augustus used Caesar’s money and name to start raising an army from serving or former soldiers of his charismatic ‘father’. Mark Antony (one of Caesar’s leading subordinates) was already trying to rally the same people to him and did not take his young rival seriously, dubbing him “a boy who owes everything to a name”.
A Senate urged on by the famous orator Cicero saw Antony as the big threat and feared that he was aiming to seize supreme power by force. In a political system where a man had to be in his forties before he could seek the highest offices of the state, a 19-year-old with no political record seemed to present little danger. Cicero saw a teenager at the head of legions of veteran soldiers and decided that he could be useful. They should “praise the young man, reward him, and discard him”.
Augustus's life: a timeline
23 September 63 BC
Augustus is born with the name Caius Octavius. His father is a member of the country gentry and the first in the family to enter the Senate at Rome. His mother is Julius Caesar’s niece. Despite this, there is no reason to expect him to have an exceptional career.
15 March 44 BC
On the day Julius Caesar is murdered, Augustus is in Greece, receiving military training ahead of the dictator’s planned invasion of Parthia. A few days later, it emerges that Caesar has nominated Augustus as his principal heir.
Having raised a private army and helped the Senate defeat his great rival Antony, Augustus leads his army back to Rome and demands to be elected consul. Soon afterwards, he joins Antony and Lepidus in the triumvirate.
Relying heavily on the skill of his friend Agrippa, Augustus defeats the fleet of Sextus Pompey. The war has pushed Augustus to breaking point . After one defeat, he was cast ashore with a few attendants and considered suicide.
2 September 31 BC
Augustus, once again relying on Agrippa to command his forces, defeats Antony at the battle of Actium fought off the coast of Greece. Antony flees, with no hope of recovering from this disaster. Within a year, he and Cleopatra will kill themselves
16 January 27 BC
Caesar’s heir is given the name Augustus to honour him for his service to the state. He is now Imperator (or ‘generalissimo’) Caesar Augustus, a personal name without any precedent.
Augustus falls seriously ill and is not expected to survive. He publicly hands his signet ring to Agrippa, but doesn’t name a successor to his position. He eventually recovers.
Augustus is named Father of his Country by the Senate. Later in the year scandal rocks his family when he exiles Julia (above), his only child, for serial adultery. Augustus has already adopted her two older sons with Agrippa, but both will die young, leaving Tiberius to succeed.
Three Roman legions led by Varus are wiped out by allies turned enemies among the Germanic tribes at Teutoburg Forest. It is the most serious defeat of Augustus’s career. For days he roams the palace calling out: “Quinctilius Varus, return my legions!”
19 August AD 14
Augustus dies in a family villa at Nola. It’s later rumoured that he was poisoned by his wife, Livia (below), who feared that he planned to change the succession. Augustus’s body is carried in state to Rome, and after a public funeral he is declared a god.
At first it went well, and Augustus’s veterans played the key role in defeating Antony and driving his army across the Alps. Discarding the young Augustus, however, proved difficult, for his soldiers served him and not the Senate. In the meantime Antony allied with another of Caesar’s old supporters, Lepidus, and so became stronger than ever. Augustus now decided to join them, so that all of the murdered dictator’s supporters and soldiers were on the same side – at least for the moment. They declared a triumvirate – a board of three supreme magistrates to restore the state, and effectively a joint dictatorship.
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The first thing the triumvirs did was to order the murder of prominent opponents including Cicero. Marching unopposed into Rome, they posted up proscription lists with names of men who were set outside the protection of law. Anyone could kill a proscribed man, and if they brought his severed head to the authorities they would be rewarded with a share of the victim’s property, the rest going to the triumvirs to pay their army. Antony, Augustus and Lepidus traded names in a scene brought chillingly to life by Shakespeare: “These many, then, shall die, their names are pricked.”
Quite a few of the proscribed managed to escape abroad, but hundreds died. In later years there was a whole genre of stories of dramatic escapes and grim deaths, of rescue and betrayal. The senator Velleius Paterculus concluded that “…one thing, however, demands comment, that toward the proscribed their wives showed greatest loyalty, their freedmen not a little, their slaves some, their sons none”.
Opinion was less certain about which of the triumvirs was most brutal in their pursuit of the proscribed, as after the event each tried to shift the blame to his allies. Yet many were shocked that the young Augustus should have had so many enemies he wanted to kill. In the years that followed, a reputation for excessive cruelty clung to him, helped by the frequency with which impassioned pleas for mercy were met with a simple: “You must die.”
Antony and Augustus took an army to Greece and defeated two of Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Antony got most of the credit, both for winning the war and treating captured aristocrats and the remains of the dead with fitting respect.
The alliance between the three triumvirs was always based on self interest and came under increasing pressure in the years that followed. It narrowly survived a rebellion led by Antony’s brother Lucius against Augustus, and, after a long struggle, defeated Sextus Pompeius, the son of Julius Caesar’s former ally, son-in-law, and finally enemy, Pompey the Great. By 36 BC the triumvirate became an alliance between two when Lepidus was marginalised. Augustus kept him in comfortable captivity for the rest of his life, a gesture that mixed mercy with cruelty as it prolonged the humiliation of an ambitious man.
How did Augustus gain power?
Mark Antony was placed in charge of Rome’s provinces and allies in the eastern Mediterranean after the clash at Philippi. Augustus remained in Italy, where he carried out the task of providing the farms promised as rewards to the triumvirs’ loyal soldiers.
The estates of the proscribed were insufficient, and so more and more confiscations were arbitrarily imposed on the towns of Italy. The local gentry suffered the most, leading the poet Virgil to write of the plight of the dispossessed: “Ah, shall I ever, long years hence, look again on my country’s bounds, on my humble cottage with its turf-clad roof?… Is an impious soldier to hold these well-tilled fallows?… See where strife has brought our unhappy citizens!”
Augustus got most of the blame for the confiscations in an Italy exhausted by civil war and desperate for stability. As relations with Antony broke down, it was better to wage war against a foreign threat, and so Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, was demonised as a sinister eastern temptress who had corrupted a noble Roman, and turned him against his own people. (In 41 BC, Antony had taken the queen as a lover, renewing the affair three years later). Privately few were fooled, but publicly the ‘whole of Italy’ took an oath to follow Augustus and save Rome from this ‘threat’.
Relations between the remaining triumvirs deteriorated until, in 31 BC, the two clashed in battle at Actium in Greece. Antony was defeated and took his own life the next year.
With Antony dead, the 33-year-old Augustus faced no serious rivals and, since he took care to monopolise military force, there was no real danger of new challengers appearing. However, that did not mean that the man who had slaughtered his way to power was safe from assassins’ knives, or that it would be easy to create a stable regime.
There was little affection for Augustus, but Romans of all classes were desperate for peace, and hoped simply to be able to live without fear of proscription lists and confiscations. This security is what he gave them. His control was veiled, expressed in a way that appeared constitutional, even though the veil was thin since no one could take his powers from him or break his hold over the loyalty of the legions. What mattered was that years and then decades passed, and stability and the rule of law persisted as it had not done in living memory.
Peace and the simple virtues of an idealised and now restored past dominate the art and literature of these years. It is also no coincidence that one of the most striking monuments of the Augustan age is the Ara Pacis – the altar of peace (shown below).
The peace that Italy enjoyed (after generations of civil strife) did not mean Rome was no longer at war. For at the same time, Augustus boasted of victory after victory won over foreign rulers and peoples, often adding new territory to the empire.
Augustus presented himself as the greatest servant of the state, and defeating external enemies was a glorious means of service. He also laboured untiringly and publicly to restore good government throughout the empire, spending his days receiving petitions and resolving the problems long neglected by the inertia of the Senate under the Republic.
Rome itself – and, to a degree, communities across Italy and the provinces – was physically renewed, so that Augustus could boast that he had found the city “brick and left it marble”. There were monuments to his glory, but many of them were also practical amenities for the wider good, such as aqueducts, fountains and sewers, bath-houses for comfort, temples to restore a proper relationship with the gods who protected the Roman people, and theatres and circuses for entertainment.
7 other great rulers of Rome
The first dictator: Lucius Cornelius Sulla (c138–79 BC)
In 88 BC Sulla was the first Roman commander to turn his legions against the city of Rome and seize power by force. After fighting a war in the east, he returned in 83 BC and stormed the city a second time. He made himself dictator – turning a temporary emergency measure into the basis for long-term power – and created the first proscriptions, posting up death lists in the Forum, that named hundreds of his opponents.
The iconic general: Julius Caesar (100–44 BC)
Caesar was Augustus’s great-uncle and joined in an informal alliance with Pompey and Crassus, the two most important men in the state. In 49 BC Pompey and Caesar became rivals when the latter crossed the Rubicon and began a new civil war. Caesar won, and copied Sulla by using the dictatorship as the basis of his power. When this was made permanent, he was murdered by conspirators including Brutus and Cassius.
The unpopular heir: Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37, emperor from AD 14)
Augustus’s stepson Tiberius was not first choice as successor, but was adopted in AD 4 after the deaths of Augustus’s grandsons. By the time of Tiberius’s succession, few people were able to imagine a world without an emperor. Tiberius was unpopular and far less active than Augustus. Yet the imperial system became even more firmly established during his rule.
The bon vivant: Nero (AD 37–68, emperor from 54)
Nero was the last of the four members of Augustus’s extended family to rule. A teenager when he came to power, he was fonder of luxury and performance than government. Yet his ability to remain in power for 14 years testified to the affection for Augustus’s family and the acceptance of imperial rule as natural. In the end he lost the support of the army, followed by the Senate, and took his own life.
The outsider: Vespasian (AD 9–79, emperor from 69)
Vespasian was the fourth man to win power in a civil war that raged for over a year after Nero’s death. Neither related to Augustus nor from the old Roman aristocracy, he came from the local gentry of Italy. All of the powers accumulated by Augustus were awarded to Vespasian, and he was followed as emperor by his two sons in turn, giving the empire three decades of stability. He wasn’t loved, but he was widely respected.
The last conqueror: Trajan (AD 53–117, emperor from 98)
Trajan’s family were Roman citizens from Spain, making him the first non-Italian emperor. He was the last of the great conquerors, adding Dacia – modern-day Romania – to the empire in campaigns celebrated on Trajan’s Column still visible in Rome. In the last years of his life he invaded Parthia but most of his conquests there were abandoned by his successor, Emperor Hadrian.
The philosopher: Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180, emperor from 161)
The last of Edward Gibbon’s ‘five good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius was an earnest man, who wrote a philosophical work, The Meditations, and tried to rule virtuously and in the style set by Augustus. His reign was beset by a series of catastrophes, with warfare and plague ravaging the empire. After Aurelius’s reign, civil war would bedevil the empire for over a century.
Life was more stable under Augustus, and for most people it was also more comfortable. No one was left in any doubt that this happy condition relied upon his continued activity, for Augustus’s name and image was everywhere. Relief at the end of civil war slowly became more or less grudging gratitude and eventually turned into genuine affection.
Time played an important part. Augustus ruled for 40 years after the death of Antony, and everyone became used to his leadership and the system he had created, while the memories of his bloody rise to power gradually faded. There was no enthusiasm to swap the present peace and prosperity for a return to the violently unpredictable decades preceding it. Honour after honour was voted to him by the Senate and people, including the title of Father of his Country.
Thanks to this reincarnation as a man of peace, Augustus – the first emperor of Rome – would for centuries also be remembered as one of the best.
Dr Adrian Goldsworthy's book, Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2014).