Born Gaius Octavius, Augustus would become the first Roman Emperor. He ended a century of civil wars and initiated two hundred years of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) while overseeing a golden age of Roman literature and culture.
Octavius was born in 63 BC. His father (also named Gaius Octavius) was a respectable but undistinguished member of the equestrian order. His mother, however, was a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius' father died when he was only four years old, and he was brought up in the house of his stepfather Lucius Marcus Phillippus.
At the age of fifteen, Octavius put on the toga virilis ("manly robes"), the symbol that he had reached adulthood, and was elected to the College of Pontiffs. In 46 BC he joined Julius Caesar during Caesar's last campaign in Spain. In Spain he made such a fine impression on the great general that Julius Caesar changed his will to make Octavius his heir.
Death of Julius CaesarEdit
When Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March in 44 BC, all the wealth that Caesar had spent a lifetime accumulating passed into the hands of the 18-year old Octavius. At the time of Caesar's assassination, Octavius was with some of his soldiers in modern-day Albania. Upon hearing the news he went to Italy and recruited an army from among Caesar's veterans, gaining their loyalty by stressing that he was Caesar's heir. Once in Rome, Octavius allied with Marc Antony and Marcus Lepidus to form what is known as the "Second Triumvirate," directed against Caesar's killers Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius. Octavius' and Antony's armies tracked down Brutus and Cassius in Greece, where they defeated the assassins' army at Philippi (42 BC). Brutus and Cassius both committed suicide after their defeat.
Anthony and CleopatraEdit
Antony married Octavius' sister Octavia to cement their alliance, and the two leaders divided Rome's territory between them. Octavius took the west, while Antony went to the east, where he entered into a torrid affair with Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt. Octavius saw Antony's actions as an insult to his sister and to his family, and relations between the co-rulers soon soured. While Antony enjoyed the pleasures of Egypt, back in Rome Octavius strengthened his political position and his armies. The two eventually went to war, and in 31 BC Octavius defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium. The lovers were pursued to Egypt, where they both committed suicide.
Octavius Becomes AugustusEdit
Octavius was now the undisputed master of Rome. He surrendered his extraordinary powers to the Senate, which was filled with his allies; in return the Senate named him "Augustus" (one who is marked by dignity and greatness) and showered him with honors. More importantly, they also gave him the powers of a Roman consul, tribune, and censor, which had never before been combined into one office. All permanent legal power within Rome officially remained within the Senate − but since Octavius controlled the Senate, this was mostly a legal fiction. Although he had all of the power of an Emperor, Augustus preferred to style himself "Princeps," or "first citizen" (probably to avoid further antagonizing the few remaining republicans in Rome).
Augustus at HomeEdit
During his reign Augustus presided over four decades of peace and prosperity, a welcome relief to Rome after almost a century of civil strife. He carried out a great building program in the ancient city, constructing a new Senate house as well as great temples to Apollo and "Divine Julius" (his deceased great-uncle). Later, Augustus would boast − with justification − that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it marble. Under his patronage many of the most famous Roman authors and poets created their great works: Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Livy all flourished during his reign.
Augustus' generals also enjoyed great success and were quite relieved to be once again turning their military strength against external enemies instead of one another. Rome's borders were extended to the Danube, northern Spain was finally conquered, and Armenia was pacified in the east. Augustus did suffer two significant military defeats during his rule. In 15 BC Gaul's Roman governor, Marcus Lollius was defeated by an alliance of the Sicambri, Tencteri and Usipetes tribes who had crossed the Rhine into Gaul; little permanent damage was done to the Roman position in Gaul, and Suetonius calls this defeat "more humiliating than serious."
The second defeat, however, was of an entirely different magnitude. In 9 AD Publius Quintilius Varus, Governor of Germania, led three legions across the Danube and deep into barbarian territory where they were surprised by German Cherusci tribesmen and, after a three-day battle, captured or killed to the last man. Varus himself committed suicide and the victors sent his head as a present to King Marbod of the Marcomanni in Bohemia.
Upon hearing of the catastrophe, Augustus sent troops into the city to watch for uprisings. He also prolonged the terms of the governors of the provinces to ensure that experienced men would be in charge if the subject people revolted. In addition he dedicated great games to Jupiter if he would improve the Empire's lot. It is clear that Augustus was badly shaken by the defeat. Suetonius says that "for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying, "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!"
Fortunately, the natives did not revolt and the Empire survived the catastrophe without long-lasting consequences.
Judgment of HistoryEdit
By Augustus' death in 14 AD, a return to the old system of the Republic was unthinkable, and he was peacefully succeeded by the Emperor Tiberius.
During Augustus' long rule Rome flourished and the Empire came to dominate the Mediterranean basin. The policies he put in place kept the Empire running smoothly, so much so that Rome would continue to rule the entire known world for almost two centuries without any major wars or other significant threats to its survival. Few in any leaders in world history could make the same claim.