Often invoked as one of the most skilfull politicians of all times, Caesar Augustus was certainly successful by any standarts, modern or old. Left as the uncontested master of the Roman world after his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he gradually transformed the republic into a veiled, hereditary monarchy. Although he took power by force of arms, his rule is considered the golden age of Ancient Rome, the Pax Romana or Pax Augusta, a 200-year period of constant expansion, unprecedented domestic stability, and hegemonic rule that saw Rome’s emergence as the first western superpower. Discover below, how the feared warlord became the respectable and even worshipped statesman.
If you want to learn instead about his climb to power, click here.
1# Victory and renovation
From the day the nineteen-year-old Gaius Octavian’s had taken the name of his murdered stepfather, Julius Caesar, to his victory in Actium over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, it had rained a lot. In that timespan, the nonentity had become a powerful figure in his own, and with Antony gone, nobody was left to eclipse him. And even if the future of the Roman Republic was shady at best, for now all Romans were united in relief and joy over the conclusion of the civil war.
The plunder of Egypt, the newest Roman province, brought unimaginable wealth to the streets of Rome in August 29 BC, when the victorious Caesar paraded it for the delight of the citizens. Not only the massive injection of cash helped to ease the strain of a state treasuy squeezed by years of war and payments due to hundreds of thousands of discharged veterans, it also brought a physical renovation of the city. Under the supervision of Agrippa, Augusutus’ close friend and second-in-command, baths, aqueducts, and temples were erected. Iconic buildings which you can still see or visit nowadays, such as the Pantheon, the Temple of the Divine Julius, and the Curia Julia, where the Senate gathered.
2# The death of the republic?
But in what moment did Caesar formally abolish the republic and declared the birth of the empire in dramatic fashion, like Palpatine in Star Wars? Actually, he never did. Instead, he announced to the Senate the renouncement of his extraordinary powers as triumvir (Mark Antony was dead and Lepidus exiled, so the triumvirate had ceased to exist regardless), and his intention to retire. Amongst historians exists the consensus that he had no intention to do so, and that his ruse was intended for the Senate to beg him to stay. Which they did, either because they feared his displeasure, or because they were genuinely afraid that the power vacuum would draw other warlords to fight for absolute control.
Caesar was “begged” to remain as consul and was given an extended imperium (right to command) over several provinces, to exercise himself or through his legates, like in Egypt. But even when Caesar gave up running for the consular office in 23 BC, he still commanded the loyalty of the legions. Sixty legions, or more than 300.000 soldiers, were cut down to twenty-seven after the civil wars, and almost all of them were stationed in his provinces, while the senatorial provinces governed by proconsuls (governor) had few or none. Moreover, the title Imperator, traditionally given to victorious commanders by their own soldiers, was made his own personal title. This is the source for our words, emperor and empire.
In fact, he was more often referred as Princeps (foremost), and for this reason his reign is sometimes called Principate. His power, besides the legions, was derived of his patronage, influence, and wealth, rather than the office he sometimes chose to hold, or not. The Senate showered him with powers and honours, and he declined them more often than not because he knew he held all the power he needed.
3# The birth of Augustus
On 27 BC the Senate also voted him the title Augustus (venerable, majestic), after he himself rejected to be given Romulus’ name, the founder and first king of Rome. It has been often assumed that he rejected any monarchical overtures for fear of experiencing Julius Caesar’s fate, but the truth is way more complex. Even the aristocratic families that had rejoiced at the assassination of Julius Caesar, were weary after decades of civil war and were desperate for a modicum of stability. Nonetheless, Augustus was always careful enough to cultivate both the respect of fellow senators, and to preserve the facade of a functioning republic.
A ‘republic’ where his family and friends rode high on his wake. His nephew, Marcellus, was married to Julia, the only daughter of the Princeps (by his second wife, Scribonia), and promoted far quicker than any other youths. He untimely perished in 23 BC from a fever that wreaked havoc in the city and almost killed Augustus himself. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Princep’s right hand, was granted powers almost equal to Augustus himself, and was married to the widow Julia, with whom he had three sons, Gaius, Lucius, and Agrippa Postumus; and two daughters, Julia the Younger and Agrippina the Elder. Gaius and Lucius were formally adopted by Augustus, and for this reason it’s assumed he was grooming them to become his successors. He also advanced Tiberius and Drusus, the sons of his wife Livia, and when Agrippa died in 12 BC, Tiberius was increasingly given all his responsibilities.
4# An unofficial emperor
It was around the time of Marcellus’ death that Caesar Augustus ceased to monopolise the consulship, therefore only holding imperium over his provinces. But even without holding no office, his power remained unchecked, his popularity even more so. In subsequent consular elections, Augustus’ name would keep appearing in the ballots even though he was no candidate. Although the senatorial families were glad of finally being able to hold the prized consulship, many Romans, poor and well-off alike, feared a return to civil strife if Augustus was to drop the reins. To allay the fears, the Senate granted extraordinary powers to Augustus, without the office.
Imperium proconsulare maius, which essentially granted him imperium over all the proconsuls, including those in the senatorial provinces. Added to this were the powers of a censor (carried out census and oversaw public morality), and to his and his immediate family’s previous sacrosanctity (physical inviolability), now he was given tribunicia potestas (power of the tribune of the plebs), essentially allowing him to convene the Senate and to veto the decisions of any magistrate. Even this wasn’t enough for some people, and at least twice they asked to become dictator like Julius Caesar. Augustus refused, but didn’t let the opportunity pass to boast of his humility. However, there was no masquerading the fact that his powers were already those of a dictator.
In the provinces, where Caesar Augustus travelled almost as often as Agrippa, they were more comfortable with the idea of a king, adressing and revering Augustus without compunction. Although he had forbidden his own cult in Rome, he was deified in life in some of the provinces. It would still be inaccurate to understand this as universal acceptance of the Princeps. There’s plenty to evidence discontentment amongst some senators, and although we can’t tell for certain about the average citizen―for only those literate and rich could afford to write―it’s hard to imagine that everyone had forgotten about his ruthless climb to power. Nonetheless, it seems those begrudgingly accepted the new status quo, for there was no other Roman, dead or alive, who could match his auctoritas (overall prestige).
5# Propaganda and setbacks
With the domestic situation more or less stable―with the exception of occasional grain shortages―foreign policy became the source for most of Augustus’ headaches. Parthia remained Rome’s greatest threat on the east, but diplomacy secured what force of arms had failed, and ensured a stable truce with Phraates IV of Parthia. The prized eagle-standards of Crassus’ legions (Julius Caesar’s fellow ex-triumvir) captured by Parthia in 53 BC, were handed back as a result, and its displaying in the Temple of Mars Ultor was depicted by Augustus’ propaganda as a victory and submission of Parthia to Roman might. Judaea begun to show its teeth after the death of Rome’s loyal client-king Herod the Great in 4 AD, after which it was annexed as a province. In 6 AD a rebellion flared up as soon as Rome carried a census for taxing purposes. Classic tax rebellion.
A massive Illyrian revolt also erupted in 6 AD, and it took a third of the Roman army (ten legions, seventy auxiliary cohorts, fourteen auxiliary cavalry alae) and three years of grueling campaigning by Tiberius to quell it. As soon as he returned to Rome in 9 AD to celebrate his due triumph, more grim news struck Augustus’ hard. Three entire legions commanded by Publius Quinctillius Varus had been wiped out by an alliance of Germanic tribes led by Arminius. The Germanic tribes east of the Rhine had been regularly ‘pacified’ ever since Drusus, Tiberius’ brother had launched campaigns there in 12 BC. As a result, all territory between the Rhine and the Elbe had been carved into a Roman province. This disaster know as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, not only undid that, but also shattered the aura of invincibility of Rome’s legions, and their resulting withdrawal west of the Rhine would have profound consequences in the empire’s last century of existence.
6# Private life
For all the power he wielded, Augustus was nothing like Caligula, Commodus, or Nero, who abused their power and were said to treat Senators with cruelty and disdain. Augustus wanted the senatorial elite to become a role model for the citizens, to this effect promulgating laws to combat their low fertility rate, and forcefully enrolling them in the Senate when many chose to remain as wealthy private citizens and enjoy the benfits of such life. One one occasion, when the crowds applauded the appearance of his grandson and heir, Gaius, Caesar Augustus was furious, for he considered the boy had done nothing yet to deserve the honour. It might had been the acting, but judging by his overall beahviour it makes more sense to think he saw his role as that of the first and most prominent servant of the state, very unlike an unbridled absolutist monarch for example.
His was a frugal and unostentatious lifestyle, noteworthy to remark, he possessed three villas when the famous orator Cicero, for example, had possessed nine. Not that it could hide the truth that he was the richest man in Rome by far, and one of the richest in history, for that matter. Although owner of a fierce temper, he wasn’t too reactive or easily offended on becoming the target of jokes, and instead of struggling to change the private behaviour of senators and citizens, he settled with correcting or enhancing their public ways.
But for all these pretensions of functional Res Publica (public thing, origin for our word republic) the truth was that his family was expected to inherit once Caesar Augustus was gone. Marcellus and Drusus died young, so did his grandsons and adoptive sons, Gaius and Lucius, in 2 AD and 4 AD respectively. This left Tiberius as the only statesman and general seasoned enough within the family, and he was formally adopted by Caesar Augustus in 4 AD and given equal powers, therefore co-ruling with him. Aggripa Postumus, Julia and Agrippa’s third son, was adopted too, while Tiberius took under his wing his late brother Drusus’ son, Germanicus (father of Caligula), who would successfully campaign east of the Rhine between 14 and 16 AD and recover two of the three eagle-standards lost by Varus’ legions in 9 AD.
The women in Augustus’ life also played a prominent role. Notwhitstanding a wife’s capacity to influence major events through her husband and sons, Augstus’ wife Livia became a patron herself, far more active than a traditional wife, and uncommonly honoured with statues and temples. Theories suggesting she poisoned Marcellus, Gaius, and Lucius to promote her son Tiberius, are groundless and should be paid little regard. Livia’s public behaviour was impeccable, specially if compared with Julia, Augustus’ daughter.
After her estrangement with Tiberius, her third husband, Julia abandoned herself to a dissolute lifestyle, and when asked to be more restrained like her father, she famously quipped: ‘My father might forget he’s the Princeps, but I don’t forget I’m the Princeps’ daughter’. Careless to hide or at least tone down her merry-making, she finally prompted her father to publicly denounce her in front of the Senate for breaking the infamous Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis, which he himself had promulgated and which punished adultery with banishment, and even death at the discretion of the wife’s father, the Pater Familias. It was later suggested that Julia and her current lover Iullus Antonius, son of the late Mark Antony, might have conspired against Augustus, either to depose him or to replace Tiberius with Iullus as the Princeps’ new son-in-law.
Julia was exiled to the miniscule and barren island of Pandataria, deprived of wine and all company except that of her mother, Scribonia. Although Augustus never lifted the banishment, in 4 AD he allowed her to return to the mainland and live in comfort in Rhegium, where she died shortly after her father. Interestingly, her fate was shared by her third son, Agrippa Postumus, and by her eldest daughter, Julia the Younger, who was punished by Augustus under the same law as her mother.
8# Last days and death
With all his daughter and grandchildren exiled or dead (with the exception of Agrippina the Elder, wed to Germanicus) Augustus’ twilight years can’t have been a blast. His deteriorating health―however much improved after his close-shave of the plague of 23 BC―was yielding to age, forcing him in 14 AD, aged 75, to leave most of the ruling to Tiberius, who was already to all effects, his Co-Princeps. During his last trip, Caesar Augustus accompanied Tiberius on part of the latter’s journey to Illyricum, and after parting ways he spent four days in his villa on the island of Capri. Felling well enough, he crossed to Naples to watch the games in his honour. Oh ironic fate, Caesar Augustus’ health worsened as he passed through Nola, where his father had died.
Feeling the end was near, he had Livia and Tiberius called to him, and to whom he spoke his most famous quotes: ‘I found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble’ and ‘If I’ve played my part well, then applaud as I exit’. His last words were for Livia, as he breathed his last on her arms, on August 19th. His body was carried to Rome and incinerated, his ashes interred in the Mausoleum he had erected for himself and his family. Like an obedient dog trained on a leash, the Senate barked for his master one last time by declaring him a god, and dully confirmed Tiberius as his succesor, henceforth becoming Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus divi filius (son of the divine).
9# Fair ruler or tyrant?
By any standards, modern or old, Augustus ruled splendidly well, and Rome grew more stable and prosperous that had ever been. Roads were built, water and food supply improved, public buildings such as temples, or amenities like theatres and baths were commissioned and paid by either Agrippa, himself, or his supporters. Administration was overhauled and the rampant corruption plaguing the late Republic tackled to some degree. Most important, the inertia and in-fighting within Senate and magistrates that had precisely favoured the apparition of men like Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus, dissapearead under a one-man rule system. However, in theory as well as in many practicalities, magistrates could and did still rule and prosper, but only under Augustus’ guidance.
When his successors departed from the frame set by Augustus and behaved like tyrants, such as Caligula or Nero, Rome suffered; while when emperors like Trajan, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius governed in league with the Senate, Rome prospered. If success is the only metric we use to measure a man’s worth, then few characters in history can rival Caesar Augustus in worth. But we should never forget he achieved supreme power through warfare and proscriptions, and even if he became immensely popular in Rome and the provinces, his was a military dictatorship. Although all things said, rather benign compared to certain modern ones.