Although he was said to have been physically puny, with unkempt blond hair and several gaps in his teeth, Augustus (or Octavian, as he was initially known) became the first emperor of the Roman Empire. His victory at the battle of Actium in 31 BC against Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, meant Augustus could build a reputation as a victorious warrior. But who was the man behind the myth? This article provides biographical detail on Augustus.
A marble statue of Emperor Augustus found at his villa at Prima Porta in Rome on 20 April 1863, shows the first emperor of the Roman Empire pointing towards the horizon as if the world was his oyster – as it indeed was. Draped in flamboyant military clothes, his breastplate is decorated with scenes of victory in battle, and at his feet is a figurine of Cupid, son of Venus, hinting at the Julio-Claudian dynasty’s claim to have descended from the goddess. Augustus is depicted as being barefoot, which indicates he saw himself as a hero or even a god.
This idealised image of the emperor sums up Augustus’s glorious reputation, but as with most historic portraits, it has been slightly airbrushed. He had his faults, including intolerance of criticism and harshness towards those with physical imperfections such as his stepson Drusus’s son Claudius, who had a stutter and a club foot, and who Augustus banned from appearing in public.
Nonetheless, the unpopularity of many of his successors in the Roman Empire ensured that history remembers Augustus as a true man of the people. He was born Octavian on 23 September in 63 BC, and was the grandson of Julius Caesar’s sister. As Octavian grew into adulthood, Caesar took a keen interest in the young man’s career, even admitting him to the college of pontiffs in 47 BC. The young Octavian’s life-changing moment occurred when Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC.
At the time, Octavian was only 19, slight of build, and recognisable owing to the many gaps in his teeth, but – as the main beneficiary in Caesar’s will – he was now the rightful leader of the Roman Empire.
Yet it wasn’t until a civil war between Octavian and Caesar’s enemies had been thrashed out, followed by a decisive battle at Actium on 2 September 31 BC, in which Octavian defeated his rival Mark Antony, that the heir could make good his claim to the emperorship on 16 January 27 BC. Even then, he was nervous of assuming complete power, remembering his great-uncle’s untimely fate, and he waited for the Senate to proclaim him Augustus (or ‘Your Eminence’) before completely consolidating his position.
He had initially toyed with the idea of renaming himself Romulus after the man who had founded Rome in 753 BC, but he decided against this, wary that Romulus’s ruthlessness (he had, legend tells us, murdered his twin brother Remus) would leave a bad taste with many Romans.
Over the next 40 years Augustus brought peace and stability to Rome, building up a reputation for prudence, investing in public works and initiating popular reforms. Inspired by the poets Horace, Ovid and Virgil, the historian Livy and the patron of the arts, Maecenas, Augustus saw much to admire in Rome’s culture.
Shortly after assuming power, Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard, an elite unit of more than 4,000 men who acted as the emperor’s bodyguard. They wore unique uniforms and were paid higher salaries than regular troops and were to become increasingly powerful after Augustus’s death. In AD 41, for instance, they assassinated Emperor Caligula, one of Augustus’s successors.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Augustus’s reign was his hosting of the Games of the Ages between 31 May and 3 June in 17 BC. The Games included sacrifices at sanctuaries, chariot races, comedies and tragedies in both Latin and Greek, as well as animal hunting and mock battles. It wasn’t all fun and games, however – the extravaganza had several, less obvious purposes, such as the purification of the Roman state and the ushering in of a new golden age.
In order to strengthen the moral fibre of the Roman state, Augustus clamped down on sexual misconduct by introducing legislation that would expel ‘unworthy’ men from political office. But in this new Rome, perception wasn’t always reality; the pious leader who legislated against licentiousness was faced with his own humiliating scandal when it emerged his daughter Julia had prostituted herself on the same spot in the Forum where her father had proposed his new laws. Outraged, Augustus exiled her forever and she eventually died of malnutrition.
Worse, the emperor himself became the subject of gossip when it was whispered that his wife, Livia Drusilla, had supplied her husband with young girls and married women for his pleasure. As with many other tales from Ancient Rome, it is impossible to determine how much of the gossip was true.
In AD 2, Augustus was given the title pater patriae (‘father of the nation’) and was, he humbly said for one with such a powerful position, merely the ‘first citizen’ or the ‘first among equals’. Towards the end of his life he remarked that he’d found Rome in brick and left it in marble, and on his deathbed he called for a mirror before telling his attendants to comb his hair and rearrange his drooping features.
Augustus died on 19 August in AD 14, and the month of his death was named after him. His adopted son Tiberius succeeded him.
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