With the exception of Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, no other Romans of old were as remarkable or succesful as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. Gripped by succesive civil wars in the first century BC, the Roman Republic was only stabilised under Augustus’ rule, ushering a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity known as Pax Romana, and ensuring the survival of the western half of the empire until 476, and its eastern counterpart, Byzantium, until 1453. But if there’s anything more impressive than Caesar Augustus’ legacy as one of humanity’s greatest leaders, is his climb to power. Read below:
1# Early life
Although known to us as Caesar Augustus, he was born Gaius (or Caius) Octavius Thurinus. Gaius being his first name, Octavius his family name, and Thurinius a cognomen given after his father’s victory over a band of runaway slaves at Thurii. The Octavians were of equestrian rank, ensuring wealth and access to senatorial positions, but were of plebeian origin. Nonetheless, they were connected to the prestigious and ancient patrician family of Julia, for Gaius Octavius’ mother was Atia, niece of Julius Caesar, making him Octavius’ great-uncle.
Born September 23rd 63 AD, Gaius lost his father when he was just four and was raised in his maternal grandfather’s household, Marcus Atius Balbus, who had married Julia, sister of Julius Caesar. Both died by 51 BC and Gaius moved to the house of his stepfather, Lucius Marcius Philippus. By then Julius Caesar had become immensely popular thanks to his conquests in Gaul, and his victory over Pompey and the Senate during the Civil War ensured his uncontested supremacy in the Res publica Romana (meaning public thing in Latin, and the origin of the word ‘republic’).
Gaius came of age October 18th 47 BC, past his sixteenth birthday, and joined his uncle’s legions in Hispania to fight Gnaeus Pompeius (son of Pompey the Great) in the last campaign of the Civil War. Although he arrived too late to take part in the decisive Battle of Munda, Julius Caesar allowed him to join him on his own chariot, a great honour and symbol of favour. His next destination was Apollonia, on the Illyrian coast, where he was to train with the legions encamped there in preparation for an invasion of Parthia.
2# The new Caesar
Destiny had other plans. News reached them from Rome, that Julius Caesar, recently appointed perpetual dictator, had been assassinated by fellow Senators during the Ides of March 44 BC. Nobody knew who was in charge now, if anyone was, and after consulting with his closest friends and confidants, Quintus Salvidienus Rufus and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Gaius Octavius decided to travel in person to best ascertain the situation.
On arriving in Brundisium (modern Brindisi), he learned from his mother, Atia, that Caesar’s will had named him as main heir, with the proviso that he take Caesar’s name. Adoptions were common enough in ancient Rome, and the adopted became to all effects and purposes a natural son, but only if he formally accepted the adoption. After carefully weighting the advantages and risks that the new name entitled, Gaius finally endorsed the adoption, henceforth taking the name of Gaius Julius Caesar.
3# Mark Antony
When the new Caesar arrived in Rome, he found a confusing picture. The conspirators, or Liberatores, who had taken the life of his adoptive father, had been pardoned by the Senate, an episode which the common people, staunchly loyal to Caesar, didn’t digest well. The consul, Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s loyal lieutenants, had been skillfully manoeuvring in the increasingly dangerous waters of Roman politics, by supporting the Senate’s decisions one one hand, but inflaming the citizen’s mood with a speech during Caesar’s funeral on the other. This had ultimately triggered riots directed at the ringleaders of the Liberatores, Marcus Junius Brutus, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, and Gaius Cassius Longinus.
Failing to persuade an antagonistic Antony to talk the Senate into recognising his adoption, young Caesar left Rome in a campaign to recruit support. Instead of restoring the republic as the conspirators had intended, Julius Caesar’s assassination had created a power vaccum which several public figures were eager to fill. Uncertainty and instability were ripe, all compounded by thousands of disgruntled veterans who had served Julius Caesar, and who now found plenty of eager buyers for their services.
Young Caesar wasn’t the most prominent by any standards, for Antony had more Auctoritas (prestige) and Dignitas (respect derived from rank). Moreover, Caesar possessed no office and insufficient coin. But promises back then were as free as they’re now and the veterans eagerly followed the highest bidder, a lesson Caesar assimilated before Antony. The latter, confident that soldiers would follow him before some self-conceited ninteen-year-old, famous as his name was, made a fatal step when dealing with the Legions Martia and Fourth, freshly arrived from Macedonia. He offered them a ridiculous pay compared to that offered by Caesar, and when the centurions refused to obey his command, Antony had them executed. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the rest. In a stroke, young Caesar had two battle-tested legions at his disposal.
4# The Second Triumvirate
Antony had other legions backing him, as he marched north to hunt another of the chief Liberatores, Decimus Brutus, new governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and who found himself besieged in Mutina (Modena). Realising it was in their best interest to cooperate against Antony, at least for the time being, Caesar and the famous orator Cicero, on behalf of the Senate, agreed to join forces. At this stage nothing indicated that young Caesar was a real threat, at his age he couldn’t even hold office and his opponents repeatedly underestimated him, with dire consequences for them, as we’ll see.
Granted the rank of senator and the office of quaestor, ten years before he’d have been eligible, Caesar and his legions joined those under the consuls Aulus Hirta and Caius Vibus Pansa. The fight was contested but eventually the Caesar-Senate alliance persevered and drove Antony away. Both consuls died in the fight, leaving Caesar with eight legions under his sole command, and he wasted no time in using them to threaten the Senate when they baulked at their earlier promises to pay Caesar’s soldiers their discharge, and to appoint him consul. But since in politics there’s no such thing as an absolute enemy, before 43 BC was over Caesar reached an understanding with Antony and Lepidus, another of Julius Caesar’s lieutenants.
The Senate had no choice but to formalise the agreement for an alliance between these three powerful men, for all the legions in or near Italy were theirs. Named ‘The Triumvirate for reorganising the Republic’ (tresviri rei publicae constituendae), they are often called the Second Triumvirate, after that of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Marcus Crassus in 60 BC.
Invested with absolute dictatorial powers, the triumvirs unleashed an atrocious string of proscriptions aimed at eliminating political opposition, as well as settling personal scores and securing much-needed cash from their victims to pay the soldiers. The victims of these purges counted over 2.000, some murdered and with many others escaped, or exiled. The most famous of them was Cicero, whose speeches denouncing Antony as a threat to the republic earmarked him for assassination. Later, Caesar allegated he had opposed the proscriptions from the beginning, but he too eagerly participated in one of the darkest episodes of Roman history.
With Italy more or less stable, the triumvirs still faced many problems. To settle the veterans, many landowners in Italy had to be forcefully dislodged, further causing civil unrest. Moreover, Sextus Pompey, who had been pardoned in 44 BC but proscribed again by the triumvirs, raided the ships bringing grain to Rome from his bases in Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia. Grain prices were soaring and the shadow of famine triggered riots, one of which almost mauled Caesar to death in the Forum, in 39 BC . To compound this volatile cocktail, was the threat of Marcus Brutus and Cassius, the last of the Liberatores after Decimus Brutus’ murder by Antony’s henchmen in 43 BC. In the aftermath of Julis Caesar’s assassination, they had fled to the Eastern provinces to raise new legions to overthrow the triumvirs.
Leaving Lepidus to oversee Rome, by the end of 42 BC Caesar and Antony departed for Greece, where Brutus and Cassius’ forces were encamped near the city of Philippi, Macedonia. Always prone to sickness, Caesar fell incapacitated and failed to lead his soldiers, a fact which Antony would use to discredit him in the future. The battle was confused and none of the commanders had previous experience leading such vast armies. Nonetheless, thanks to Antony’s breakthrough, in Cassius’ camp, forcing him to commit suicide, while Brutus was finally defeated in a second engagement on October 23rd, also taking his own life in Roman style (falling on his own sword) to avoid capture.
6# Caesar’s marriages
While the Liberatores had drawn breath, the Triumvirate had had a common enemy, but with Antony away in the Eastern provinces to reorganise them, his wife, Fulvia, and brother, Lucius Antonius, thought it was time to do away without Caesar, and recruited an army of dispossessed landowners to oust him. Caesar’s previous decision to divorce his wife, Claudia, who was Fulvia’s daughter with her first husband, had certainly inflamed the mood. In 40 BC, Caesar defeated Fulvia and Lucius Antonius in Perusia, and even this failed to elicit a response from Antony, who needed Caesar as much as Caesar needed him. With Fulvia dying in exile shortly after, Caesar and Antony’s alliance was reconfirmed in Brundisium that same year. The triumvirate was extended another five years and the provinces allocated to each triumvir redistributed. Both men split the share of the lion between them, relegating Lepidus to the province of Africa, which had fewer troops. The treaty was sealed with the marriage of Caesar’s sister, Octavia, and Antony.
Caesar married Scribonia, sister of Sextus Pompeius’ father-in-law, in an attempt to build bridges with the elusive Sextus. The strategy briefly bore some fruit in 39 BC, with the Treaty of Misenum between the triumvirs and Sextus, but didn’t held long. Caesar had already had his eye on Livia Drusilla, member of the ancient patrician family Claudii, and the fact that she was married, had a child (the future emperor Tiberius), and was pregnant with a second, Nero Claudius Drusus, was no serious impediment for one of the most powerful men in the world. Caesar had Livia’s first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, divorce her, and then married her himself. To make matters more baffling, Scribonia had just given Caesar his first and only child, Julia, for Caesar and Livia would never produce children together. Yet again, if not for her pregnancy, these sorts of matrimonial rearrangements were perfectly normal and acceptable in Ancient Rome.
7# War with Sextus Pompey
While Antony preparing a Parthian invasion with the help of his new lover, the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra; Caesar devised ways to get rid of the pirate Sextus. Although he gained Corsica and Sardinia thanks to the defection of one of Sextus’ lieutenants, Menas, his inexperienced crews were humbled by Sextus’ squadrons. It was time for Caesar to swallow his pride and delegate command to his friend Agrippa, who had been campaigning against Gauls and Germans until then. Skillfull general, engineer, and administrator, and totally devoted to Caesar, Agrippa quickly put the new navy to order and on September 3rd 36 BC, inflicted a decisive defeat on Sextus, in the Battle of Naulochus.
Antony’s support to Caesar’s fleet was critical too, lending him over a hundred war vessels. In stark contrast, Caesar’s contribution to Antony’s Parthian campaign that same year was negligent, and spattered mud to their previous agreement of mutual help. Although Sicily lay open after Sextus’ defeat, Lepidus beat Caesar in reaching it first to force its capitulation, and arranging for the surrendered Pompeian forces to swell his ranks. In a dangerous but profitable stunt, Caesar walked into Lepidus’ camp with a handful of followers, addressing these new legions and urging them to join him.
Either because his courage proved very persuasive or because Lepidus failed to act decisively, or perhaps a combination of both; the legions deserted Lepidus. Without soldiers to make himself heard, Lepidus was expelled from the triumvirate by Caesar, but his life was spared and he was allowed to live in comfortable exile, even retaining the title of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) until his death in 13 BC. Sextus wasn’t that lucky. After escaping to take shelter under Antony, he soon returned to his piratical activities and was eventually executed by one of Antony’s men, although it’s unclear whether Antony himself ordered it.
8# Antony and Cleopatra
While Caesar reaped the spoils for his victory in Sicily, Antony faced a severe setback in Parthia and the invasion foundered. Caesar’s star rose, Antony’s dimmed. The situation followed a similar pattern in the following years, in which Caesar and Agrippa collected more victories in Illyria and Dalmatia, while Antony consorted with Cleopatra, who had already given him three children. Like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, these were considered bastards according to Roman law, but that didn’t stop Antony from granting them Roman possessions in the East like a personal fiefdom.
The event known as the Donations of Alexandria was relentlessly exploited by Caesar’s supporters, who also denounced Antony for his unorthodox holding of traditonal Roman triumphal procession in Alexandria, and for allowing a foreign woman to manipulate him. Caesar made sure to display himself as a paragon of Roman behavoiur, frugal, sober, and working toilsomely for the benefit of Senate and people. He also cultivated an image of loyal husband with a proper Roman wife, but as Antony reminded him in a letter, his womanising activities were of public knowledge in Rome.
Most damaging of all, was Caesar’s retrieval of Antony’s will from the Temple of Vesta (an illegal act in itself) and its public reading. Allegedly, it confirmed the Donations of Alexandria to his non-roman children, and expressed the wish to be interred in Alexandria. It didn’t matter whether the contents were genuine or bogus, it mattered that in the eyes of the Romans, Antony’s prolongued absence from Rome and his public affair with Cleopatra confirmed its contents.
9# The Battle of Actium
Not all Rome opposed Antony, for several hundred senators fled the city after openly speaking against Caesar, an act which Caesar’s supporters blocked by drawing their daggers. Still, Caesar’s narrative remained far more attractive with most romans, forcing Antony to lean on the vast resources and cash of Cleopatra’s Egypt. Thus, instigated by Caesar, in 32 BC the Senate declared war on Cleopatra. Antony had a choice in front of him: to stand with her was to become an enemy of Rome, to desert her was to become Caesar’s subordinate. Antony chose the former, and the Res publica Romana prepared for yet another civil war, despite all of Caesar’s public reminders that this was a conflict against a foreign monarch.
Close to half a million men assembled between both sides, a titanic scale never seen before in the Ancient World, and dwarfing that of Julius Caesar’s Civil War. Caesar’s legions and fleet, under the command of the sure-footed Agrippa, blockaded Antony and Cleopatra’s forces in the Ambracian Gulf, near the town of Actium. Once more the future of Rome was to be decided in Greece. Loosing men to disease and desertion, Antony was pressed to attempt a break through, and the decisive engagement begun on September 2nd 31 BC. The naval Battle of Actium was contested and could have gone to Antony and Cleopatra’s side, had they not scurried in the climax of the confrontation, their treasury in tow. Antony’s ships kept fighting, but their comander’s apparent desertion had seriously harmed their morale. By the end of the day the battle was over, and on the following morning Antony’s legions surrendered without further resistance.
Taking time to recover and discharge some angry veterans, Caesar brought his legions to Egypt in July 30 BC, where Antony and Cleopatra had fled. Hopeless and friendless, the former commited suicide on Roman fashion but botched the job and died on Cleopatra’s arms. Her attempt to take her own life was stopped by Caesar’s men, but she succeeded in poisoning herself several days later, having made her mind not to be taken to Rome alive to be gawked at in Caesar’s victory parade. In many ways her death was convenient to Caesar, who feared that Cleopatra in the flesh might have elicited feelings of sympathy in the romans, just like Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe had when Julius Caesar had brought her in shackles in 46 BC.
10# Emperor Caesar Augustus
Her son Caesarion was another story, and was swiftly murdered, with Caesar allegedly quipping that there was no room for two Caesars. Her three children with Antony, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene, and Ptolemy Philadelphus, were all pardoned and given to the care of Caesar’s sister, Octavia. Egypt became the newest Roman province, one so rich and fertile that its grain had long since become vital to feed the entirety of Rome. For fear of a hostile takeover from another senator, Caesar never allowed them to travel there without his permission, and instead trusted its management to an equestrian of his choosing. The plunder and cash obtained in Egypt were so massive that all promised bonuses to his now sixty legions were readily paid, and he was still left ridiculously rich thanks to the gifts and contributions of client kings in the Eastern provinces, all eager to curry favour with the new master of the Mediterranean world.
Romans and the Senate were even more sycophantic in the rapturuous welcome they gave him, also out of genuine relief for the end of the civil wars and desperate for a modicum of stability. Triumph followed triumph, parading the captured Antonian ships, Egyptian riches, and a plaster effigy representing Cleopatra and the snake that allegedly killed her (she probably used poison but there was no snake). Honour after honour was piled on Caesar, followed by statues and gifts, but he refused those hinting at a monarchical person, like the title of Romulus, founder and first king of Rome, offered by the Senate. Caesar never forgot for a moment the fate of his adoptive father.
Neither he allowed a divine cult to his person to bloom in Rome, despite having allowed it for Julius Caesar. In fact, in many of the monuments he commissioned during his lifetime, he added Divi Filius (Son of the Divine) to his many other titles. The most famous were those of Augustus (venerable) and Princeps (first, foremost), both granted on January 16th 27 BC. Both he used together with his name of Caesar, and all three were passed to his successors. Imperator was another crucial title, traditionally granted when soldiers acclaimed their commander as victorious, but made a permanent and personal title by Augustus, who in the event had complete monopoly of the legions anyway. Let’s make no mistake, the loyalty of his legions was the pillar onto which his uncontested power rested, and his regime is best described as a military dictatorship, rather than a monarchy.
Romans had a deep-seated fear of kings, so even though Augustus was king in everything but name, they were happy to mantain the illusion, and to trade the ideals of freedom and democracy of the Res publica Romana for the peace and stability that Augustus ensured. In any event, the Roman Republic greatly differed from modern democracies, and rather resembled an oligarchy in which Senate and senators were masters. Nonetheless, old ideals die hard, and Augustus was very tactful in maintaining the illusion that the republic and its offices endured, even rejecting the people’s petitions for him to be appointed dictator like Julius Caesar. This early arrangement, the first phase of the Roman Empire known as Principate, might seem strange to us. In fact, back then, to everyone outside the boundaries of Rome it was puzzling too, but like the saying goes: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.