Augustus was in theory Rome’s first emperor (although he never had the official title nor did he ever try to call himself an emperor). He steered Rome’s evolution from a republic to an empire during the turbulent years after the assassination of Augustus’s great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar.
It is undisputed that his administrative prowess was astounding, ultimately giving Rome 200 years of relative peace. But a concrete account of the man himself is more difficult to find as historical accounts of Augustus are fairly unreliable. We have excessive accolades of Paterculus, intimate narration and hearsay from Suetonius, ominous innuendos by Tacitus and lastly the unfriendly republican narrative of Augustus’s prior work.
History shows that Augustus could certainly be brutal, a determined, scheming and some moments merciless personality in his earlier years and on the flip side the honourable, enlightened emperor that he became. This may have been perplexing for ancient historians but today we can see that Augustus during his fight for power did what he had to without thought of morality or law. His ambition clearly directed to gain power for the reform of Rome. Once this was established, he commanded skilfully and honourably. His ambition always directed towards his Rome keeping his personal life simple and ordinary.
Birth and Inheritance
In the year 63BC Augustus was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, his father a governor of Macedonia and Atai his mother Caesar’s niece. At the passing of his father at the age of 4 his mother remarried and sent Augustus to be raised by his grandmother Julia, Julius Caesar’s sister.
At the age of 16 he officially became a man which meant taking on more adult obligations within the family one of which was his decision to travel to Hispania to battle by the side of his great uncle. He became shipwrecked during the course of the journey and had to move across enemy terrain to reach Caesar’s side, this accomplishment impressed Caesar to such a degree that he named Augustus his successor in his will.
A 18 year old Augustus was at Apollonia receiving military training when the report of Caesars assassination in 44BC and his subsequent ascension to the uppermost ranks of Roman politics.
Romes Conflict Ridden Politics
Augustus had a 100 years of Rome’s caustic and brutal in-house rivalry to clean up. Two previous generals Sulla in 81BC and Julius Caesar in 49BC, upon seizing power had tried to establish revisions that would hopefully put an end to the ongoing fighting but neither achieved great reform, the Senate fighting them at every turn. The time honoured structure of the Roman Republic was justifiably unreliable. Conflicts were always resolved by brutal means rather than politically.
Augustus learns a great deal from his great uncles mistakes, his primary intention throughout his career would be to avoid the same outcome as Caesar. Which meant minimising his influence and monarchist qualities. Caesar’s ultimate belief that the Republic could not be saved drew him to assert his dictatorship. This, not surprisingly, riled the influential nobles in the Roman Senate. In a short period of time Caesar had slighted the Senate, eliminated Peoples Tribunes and supposedly was planning to become King. This last concern may not have been truthful as Suetonius wrote 150 years later “as the fateful day approached, a crowd shouted to him ‘Rex’ (‘King’), to which Caesar replied, ‘I am Caesar’”.
Road to Power
In 44BC Augustus finds himself at the age of 19 a powerful man and having to deal with Caesar’s rival Mark Antony. After raising a private army and defeating Antony in Italy Caesar’s allies stood behind Augustus and his decision for a precarious affiliation instead of continued fighting.
This leads to the creation of the Second Triumvirate in October 43BC, a leadership distribution agreement that divides up Rome’s provinces among Antony who was given the East, Lepidus got Africa and Augustus the West. The three, each who thought they should rule solely, did in fact have some common ground. They wanted to avenge Caesar’s death and secure a more stable Roman Republic.
The triumvirate was officially accepted by the Senate in November 43BC the trio now having absolute authority for the next five years. The first task at hand was finding and executing 300 senators and over 2000 knights for their involvement in the assassination of Caesar.
Not surprisingly the triumvirate broke in the year 37BC as the strong personalities of the three continuously clashed and all would eventually meet in battle leading to a civil war. Poor political judgment gave Augustus the excuse to finally remove Lepidus. He was deprived of power and title and then exiled in Circeii in 36BC. Antony is finally defeated in 31BC during the Battle of Actium, and dies the following year.
Augustus started his sole rise to power in 31BC which was truly imbedded by 27BC when the Senate granted him the name Augustus. In that four year interval he ensured his control in multiple ways. Cleopatra’s treasure ensured the soldiers were paid attaining their allegiance. To appease the Senate and nobles he developed laws, that at least appeared to reflect the culture of the Republic. And to gain the peoples trust he enhanced and adorned the city.