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Augustus Caesar

Bronze Augustus, Archaeological Museum, Athens

Augustus Caesar (23 September 62 BC - 19 August AD 14), known earlier in his life as Octavian, was the first Roman Emperor. Although he preserved the outward forms of the Roman Republic, he ruled as an autocrat for more than 40 years. He ended a century of civil wars and gave Rome an era of peace, prosperity and imperial greatness. He is generally known to historians by the title "Augustus" (revered one), which he acquired in 27 BC.

Augustus was born at Rome with the name Gaius Octavius Thurinus. His father , also Gaius Octavius, came from a respectable but undistinguished family of the equestrian order and was governor of Macedonia before his death in 58 BC. More importantly, his mother Atia was the niece of Rome's greatest soldier and de facto ruler, Julius Caesar. In 46 BC Caesar, who had no legitimate children, took his grand-nephew soldiering in Spain, and adopted him as his heir (see also adoption in Rome). He then took the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

When Caesar was assassinated in March 44 BC, his young heir was with the army at Apollonia, in what is now Albania. He crossed over to Italy and recruited an army from among Caesar's veterans. At Rome he found Caesar's republican assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius, in control. After a tense standoff, he formed an uneasy alliance with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus, Caesar's principal colleagues. The three formed a junta called the Second Triumvirate, and launched a purge of those allied with the assassins.

Antonius and Octavianus then marched against Brutus and Cassius, who had fled to the east. At Philippi in Macedonia the Caesarian army was victorious and Brutus and Cassius committed suicide (42 BC). Octavianus then returned to Rome, while Antonius went to Egypt. Here he allied himself with Queen Cleopatra, the ex-lover of Julius Caesar and mother of Caesar's infant son Caesarion. The Roman dominions were now divided between Ovtavianus in the west and Antonius in the east. At a naval battle off Actium in Greece in 31 BC Octavianus defeated his rivals, who then fled to Egypt. He pursued them there, and after another defeat they committed suicide.

By 29 BC, at the age of 34, Octavianus was sole ruler of Rome, and the Senate granted him a string of titles, including Tribune, Consul, Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) and Augustus, by which title he became generally known. He was also Princeps (first citizen) and Imperator (commander-in-chief). From this latter title Augustus's regime came to be called an Empire, although the title was not hereditary and Augustus was careful to preserve the ancient facade of Roman republican government.

Augustus, having gained power by means of great audacity, ruled with great prudence. In exchange for near absolute power, he gave Rome 40 years of civic peace and increasing prosperity. He created Rome's first permanent army and stationed the legions along the Empire's borders, where they could not meddle in politics. A special unit, the Praetorian Guard, garrisoned Rome and protected the Emperor's person.

Augustus waged no major wars, instead merely advancing Rome's northern border to the natural frontier of the Danube. Further west, an attempt to advance into Germany ended in defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. Thereafter he accepted the Rhine as the Empire's permanent border. In the east he satisfied himself with establishing Roman control over Armenia and the Transcaucasus. He left the Parthian Empire alone.

In domestic matters, Augustus channelled the enormous wealth brought in from the Empire to keeping the army happy with generous payments, and keeping the Romans happy by beautifying the capital and staging magnificent games. He famously boasted that he "found Rome brick and left it marble." He built the Senate a new home, the Curia, and built temples to Apollo and to the Divine Julius. He also built a shrine near the Circus Maximus. It is recorded that he built both the Capitoline Temple and the Theater of Pompey without putting his name on them.

Roman rulers understood little about economics, and Augustus was no exception. Like all the Emperors, he over-taxed agriculture and spent the revenue on armies, temples and games. Once the Empire stopped expanding, and had no more loot coming in from conquests, its economy began to stagnate and eventually decline. The reign of Augustus is thus seen in some ways as the high point of Rome's power and prosperity. Augustus settled retired soldiers on the land in an effort to revive agriculture, but the capital remained dependent on grain imports from Egypt.

A patron of the arts, Augustus showered favours on poets, artists, sculptors and architects. Horace, Livy, Ovid and Vergil flourished under his protection, but in return they had to pay due tribute to his genius. He eventually won over most of the Roman intellectual class, although many still pined in private for the Republic. But by the time Augustus died, it was impossible to imagine a return to the old system. The only question was who would succeed him as sole ruler.

Like Caesar, Augustus had no legitimate son, although he married three times. By his second wife Scribonia he had a daughter, Julia, who had children by her marriage to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, but Julia's sons Gaius and Lucius died before he did. Finally he married Livia, a member of the powerful Claudian family, and adopted her son Tiberius Claudius. Tiberius succeeded peacefully in AD 14 when Augustus died, aged 76, in his bed: a feat few of his successors were to manage.

Augustus was deified soon after his death, and both his borrowed surname, Caesar, and his title, Augustus, became the permanent titles of the rulers of Rome for the next 400 years, and were still in use at Constantinople fourteen centuries after his death. The cult of the Divine Augustus continued until the Empire was converted to Christianity by Constantine in the 4th century. As a result we have many excellent statues and busts of the first, and in some ways the greatest, of the Emperors.

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Preceded by:
Julius Caesar, Dictator
Roman emperors
Followed by:
Tiberius (14 - 37)