Augustus was one of the best leaders in history. Not only was he the first official emperor of Rome, but he also rescued Rome from civil war. Augustus' real name was Gaius Octavius. He lived a life which was quite remarkable.
Gaius Octavius was born in Rome on September 23, 63 B.C., taking the same name as his father. The historian Suetonius said, "Cassius of Palma sneers at Octavius as the grandson of a baker and a money-changer, writing in one of his letters, 'Your mother's flour came from a miserable Arician bakery, and the coin stained hands of a money-changer from Nerulum kneaded it,'" speaking of Octavius' modest background.
Octavius' family was of rural Italian descent, and moved to Velitrae when Octavius was very young. His family was one of the wealthiest families in Velitrae, and the main street was named after them.
Octavius was the third child in his family, but the first son, and his parents hoped he could improve the family's standing in Roman society. His mother's uncle was Julius Caesar, the dictator of Rome.
Octavius' father died when he was four and his mother remarried almost immediately. When Octavius was twelve, his grandmother Julia died. Julia was Caesar's sister and Octavius was as close to her as to his mother.
At Julia's funeral, Octavius delivered the funeral oration. Caesar, who was in attendance, was very impressed. At age 17, Caesar offered Octavius a post on his staff in Spain. Suetonius said, "Octavius followed with a very small escort, along roads held by the enemy, after a shipwreck too, and in a state of semi-convalescence from a serious illness. This action delighted Caesar who, moreover, soon formed a high estimate of his character quite apart from the energetic matter in which he had made his journey."
After Spain, Caesar sent Octavius to the Adriatic in preparation for a campaign against the Parthians. Octavius was to command the cavalry.
Before the campaign even started, however, Caesar was murdered-stabbed 23 times by men he considered colleagues, even friends. In his will, Caesar declared Octavius the heir to not only his wealth and empire, but also to the family name of "Caesar."
Octavius was renamed Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus. After this time, Octavius was known to the Romans as "Caesar," but to avoid confusion, historians refer to him as Octavian. Despite his mother and stepfather's pleas, Octavian returned to Rome.
When Octavian returned to Rome, he had to deal with his rival, consul Marc Antony. Antony had been Julius Caesar's best friend, and when Caesar was murdered, Antony decided that he wanted all of the power.
While Antony continued as consul, the Senate began to fear that he would be even more dictatorial than Caesar. Octavian promised to save Rome from anarchy and dictatorship. Although too young, Octavian became a senator and officially gained control of the Senate.
Antony and the Senate had many wars of words about whether Octavian should be the leader of Rome. These wars of words became real battles between Antony and Octavian when Antony's year as consul concluded and Antony became provincial governor of Cisalpine Gaul. In two battles, Antony was defeated by Octavian's army, but he survived.
Octavian then made a decision that changed the course of history. Instead of passing on this victory to the Senate, he turned the legions around and marched on Rome. He sent messengers ahead in the name of his army to demand that the appointment to make him consul should be confirmed. When the Senate hesitated to obey, one of the messengers, Cornelius, displayed his sword and said, "If you do not make him consul, this will." The Senate granted his request.
In less then two years, Octavian had pulled off a coup d'etat; he had overthrown the government. Unlike the previous leaders of Rome, Octavian was not an aristocrat.
At this time, Octavian sought an alliance with Antony, who was still a powerful man. Antony and Octavian, along with Lepidus, an important general and former colleague of Caesar, formed the Second Triumvirate. According to its terms, Octavian took the West, Antony received the East, and Lepidus governed Africa. The Second Triumvirate was an imitation of the first Triumvirate, which was formed by Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Crassus over ten years earlier.
The first unanimous decision of the Second Triumvirate was to proceed against the murderers of Caesar and the body of the Senate under the leadership of Brutus and Cassius. An overwhelming defeat was given on the latter at the battle of Philippi. After the battle of Philippi, Lepidus sought to acquire Sicily for himself, but Octavian soon defeated Lepidus and sent him into exile in Circeii. Now, there were only two men in charge of the Roman Empire: Octavian and Antony.
In 41 B.C., Antony had fallen in love with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra considered Antony the ruler of Rome and seduced him with success. At this point, Antony had to return to Italy to fortify his relations with Octavian, and agree to a treaty that forced him to marry Octavia, Octavian's sister.
Antony then took Octavia to his home in Athens, but in 37 B.C., he made the critical mistake of sending her back to Rome so that Cleopatra could join him. He needed her wealth to help him maintain his position against Octavian and to finance a new campaign against Parthia. In return, he would help Cleopatra create a new empire centered on Egypt.
Antony and Cleopatra were then married, although it was not recognized because Antony was still legally married to Octavia, and a Roman marriage to a non-citizen had no legal status. In Rome, Octavian was enraged at this treatment of his sister. He also realized that he could present himself as the guardian of traditional Roman values while Antony was seen as the immoral man being corrupted by the East. The quarrel between the two men could no longer be stopped. Octavian said that this was now a war for the integrity of Roman life itself.
Octavian illegally removed Antony's will from its seemingly protected storage with the Vestal Virgins and read it out in public. Supposedly, Antony had named his children by Cleopatra his heirs, which horrified Romans. There were even rumors that Antony was thinking of taking over Rome and then moving the capital to Alexandria!
For four years, Octavian worked hard building a strong fleet. In 31 B.C., he brought the fleet east to bring his rivalry with Antony to a climax at the battle of Actium, on the west coast of Greece. Octavian's friend, the great general Marcus Agrippa, won the battle at sea. Antony and Cleopatra escaped in their ships to Egypt.
Once in Egypt, both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide: Antony stabbed himself and Cleopatra let a venomous asp bite her. After these events, Octavian had complete control of the Roman Empire.
After obtaining full authority, Octavian held the consulship from 31 to 27 B.C. In 27 B.C., he gave up his power to the Senate, saying that he would no longer be consul because his perpetual tenure of the office offended the Senate and was keeping all of the other nobles out of the consulship.
Despite the apparent return of the legal government of the Republic, the Senate knew there was no alternative to strong one-man rule except civil war. Octavian's only title, princeps, meaning "first citizen," was like a mask, behind which he exercised unlimited authority. Throughout the rest of his life, Octavian portrayed himself merely as the humble servant of the Senate and People of Rome, from whom he had legally received all his powers. By seeming to continue the Roman Republic, Octavian successfully avoided the fate of Julius Caesar. Rome would not be a monarchy or a dictatorship, but a principate.
As he slowly developed into the first emperor, Octavian was given a new name by the Senate: Augustus. He later recorded that, "I received the title of Augustus by decree of the Senate, and the doorposts of my house were publicly decked with laurels, the civic crown was fixed over my doorway, and a golden shield set up in the Senate House, in recognition of my valor, clemency, justice, and devotion."
For the next four years, Augustus spent most of his time in Spain and Gaul on campaign of inspection. By remaining absent, he hoped to demonstrate that the Republic had been restored and that the Senate was in charge.
Augustus wanted Rome to be well-run, decent, and moral. While he could be brutal to his enemies, in public he lived quietly in a small simple house instead of a grand palace. He was confident that his empire was secure and the issue of succession settled. In 13 B.C., the Ara Pacis, Altar of Peace, was unveiled; perhaps his greatest monument. On it, Augustus and his family are shown on the way to a sacrifice.
While Augustus was in power, he had an extensive building program. He constructed buildings such as the Horologium, the Forum of Augustus, the Theater of Marcelus, the Baths of Agrippa, the Pantheon, and the first three public libraries in the world. Augustus once said, "When I came to Rome, it was made of bricks. When I left, Rome was made of marble."
In 12 B.C., Augustus' great friend, Marcus Agrippa, died. Augustus forced his stepson, Tiberius, to divorce the wife he loved dearly and marry Julia, Agrippa's widow, instead. Tiberius went into self-imposed exile on Rhodes, where he sulked and read horoscopes.
In 2 B.C., at 61 and aging, Augustus was declared pater patriae, father of the fatherland. Though old, Augustus continued to work. The empire was largely at peace. While maintaining a Republican facade, Augustus retained complete authority until he died in A.D. 14 and Tiberius took over as emperor.
Augustus lived to be 76 years old; an accomplishment in itself. He was the first and probably the best emperor in Roman history, uniting and strengthening the Roman Empire. Though the Roman leaders to follow would see the empire fall, it did not change the past: Augustus had brought peace and prosperity to Rome.