In 47 B.C., a promising young Roman statesman set sail for Hispania. He had only recently donned the toga, the Roman sign of manhood, at the age of 16 and taken on ambitious responsibilities.
Despite a shipwreck and getting lost deep in enemy territory, he persevered and reached his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, and fought alongside the self-proclaimed dictator in one of his many conquests as a key ally and courageous warrior.
This young man was Gaius Octavius Thurinus, later known in history as the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.
The bravery and tenacity of Octavius so impressed his great-uncle that Caesar named him his heir and successor in his will. With his father a senator and governor in the Roman Republic, Octavius was now ideally placed to grow into one of the most powerful positions in the ancient world.
Lo and behold, the infamous Ides of March saw the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., leaving Octavius on the brink of inheriting the power of the Roman throne.
However, the story of Octavius, the story of the great Caesar Augustus, is not one of simple succession. It’s a story of a civil war. A civil war that pitted duty against disregard. Devotion against negligence. Loyalty against treachery.
In a time of strife and infighting, Rome needed a hero to restore respect for its culture, its government, and its notion of family. It needed a leader to restore “Pietas”, the virtue of patriotism and devotion for Rome and its countrymen.
Through patience and providence Octavius saw Rome’s glory restored, improving the conditions of commoners, enhancing infrastructure, promoting religion and art, and establishing civil service. In spite of every obstacle, Octavius transformed a rickety republic into one of the most enduring empires in the history of classical civilization.
This episode is brought to you by Famous Men of Rome. A collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth; it’s perfect for parents and teachers looking for a better experience for their younger students of classical history.
Inheritance and Growth
Shortly after Caesar’s assassination, Octavius began to take an active part in the political proceedings of the Roman Republic. He quickly became frustrated by the state of affairs left behind after his stepfather’s death, with squabbling senators all vying for petty political power.
Octavius wished to change this aspect of Rome, to bring an era of peace and stability to a country steeped with infighting, and to return Rome to the original ideals that made it a world power. A major obstacle to achieving all this was the vehement veteran named Marc Antony.
At the time, Antony was wrestling for control of the empire with much of the Roman senate. He had been an intimate friend of Caesar and a respected military commander. And even though he had obtained a
great deal of power, Rome didn’t like him very much.
As Caesar’s right-hand man, Antony’s presence served as a living reminder to those in the senate of the former leader they had assassinated. On top of that, Antony was more interested in his Egyptian engagements, but more on that later. Though the senate had no plans to kill Antony as they had Caesar, they would do whatever it took to get rid of him.
Octavius used this to his advantage and ingratiated himself with much of the senate and city populace. He celebrated public games and gave both money and property to the common man from his own pockets.
Antony was loath to bequeath his friend’s legacy to a 19-year-old. So, he used what power he had to prevent Octavius from being elected to public office, and to block his inheritance from Caesar. This led to a growing resentment in Octavius, and a plan to bring about Antony’s downfall.
Antony was eventually ousted from Rome by the senate and granted parts of Gaul and northern Italy as his province. And despite the obstacles laid down by Antony, Octavius advanced in political offices until he obtained command of an army.
With his newfound power, Octavius immediately traveled to northern Italy to confront his rival. Antony and his army were laying siege in Phillipi against Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, attempting to avenge the former dictator’s death. Octavius soon arrived and broke the siege, setting the stage for the first confrontation between the upstart and the veteran.
The opposing armies began a fierce battle that reddened the northern plains with the blood of soldiers. When the fighting had gone on for some time and neither side emerged the clear victor, Antony retreated to consolidate his forces. Octavius, meanwhile, returned to Rome with the prestige and experience necessary to be seen as Caesar’s successor.
The Second Triumvirate
However, Octavius was not the Augustus we know just yet. Octavius had established himself as a force to be reckoned with, this is true, but Antony remained at-large with powerful resources at his command. Rather than choose to charge out and attack Antony head on, once again, Octavius decided for a different approach that signaled his growth in forethought.
He reached out to Antony, feigning friendship, and proposed to unite their forces along with another general called Lepidus. The three men agreed to a plan by which they would hunt down Caesar’s assassins and rule the Roman territories together. This government was called The Second Triumvirate. Antony was given the East, Lepidus the South, and Octavius the West, placing Octavius closest to the Roman capital.
After defeating Brutus and his rebel army in Greece, the triumvirs each settled into their roles managing the Roman provinces. Antony married the sister of Octavius, endeavoring to formally reconcile their relationship, while Octavius maintained a close eye on his fellow triumvirs, waiting to see if Lepidus or Antony would give him cause to take power for the good of Rome.
Soon enough, Lepidus became unsatisfied with his amount of authority and attempted a revolt in Sicily. Unfortunately for him, Lepidus lacked the loyalty of his soldiers and was soundly defeated.
Octavius showed mercy to Lepidus by allowing him to retain a lower public office, and showed mercy to his soldiers by granting land to many who fought in Sicily. But while Octavius was distracted by dilemmas at home, Antony was creating a far bigger one abroad.
As ruler of the east, Antony had been wooing the famous queen of Egypt Cleopatra for some time. This posed a problem. As you’ll remember, Antony was married to the sister of Octavius. And an affair with a foreign ruler would give Octavius and the Roman senate good reason to expel Antony from the Triumvirate.
Furthermore, Octavius managed to produce documents that found Antony delegating large sections of Roman territory to Cleopatra’s rule, while also using Egypt as a source of supplies and funds for a future war against Octavius.
This was undeniable treason, both against the family of Octavius and Rome itself. And it’s important to remember that family, in addition to piety, was one of the pillars that Rome was built on.
Octavius cherished these foundations and embodied this notion of family and loyalty. Both through military defense of his country and the lavish sums he had committed to the adornment of Rome. Antony embodied the exact opposite, siding with a foreign ruler and committing a public extramarital affair, proving to Rome who the true protector of “Pietas” actually was.
As such, Octavius stirred up public clamor against Egypt easily. With Antony’s affair and territorial gifts to Cleopatra, Rome was quite angry. Octavius then declared war against Cleopatra, and by proxy, Antony, and sailed from Italy with experienced military advisors and a massive fleet for one last decisive battle.
The Battle of Actium
Antony would not go down without a fight, but he faced a huge disadvantage. For one, Antony’s military experience did not translate to naval prowess. For another, Octavius was two steps ahead of Antony.
He had employed an expansive propaganda campaign against Antony ahead of their fight, fatally damaging his reputation and relationships with fellow Romans. And so, with no virtues or history of helping the Roman populace, Antony stood little chance.
The fleets of Octavius and Antony promptly met and clashed in the infamous Battle of Actium. For several hours the fighting raged, screaming men, crashing waves, clashing swords, and flying arrows everywhere.
Ultimately, the naval superiority of Octavius prevailed, and the morale of Antony’s fighting forces deteriorated under the leader who allied himself with a foreign power. With their fleet nearly destroyed, Cleopatra and Antony retreated with their remaining forces. The rest either surrendered or defected to
Seeing no hope of escape, having lost his political career, and believing Cleopatra had already died, Marc Antony died by suicide. Cleopatra followed suit soon after, ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and surrendering Egypt to Roman Imperial rule.
Pax Romana Octavius would continue to fight for several years in different parts of the Roman territories to strike down any remaining opposition, but he had at last arrived at the inheritance he had fought for since he first donned a toga.
He was in command of the most powerful army in the world, he was supported by most of the Roman government, and he was greatly loved by the Roman people for all his military success. The only question was: what next?
Octavius first named himself a mere consul, rather than an emperor, and started reforming his battle-worn country slowly. He secured his military rule by seizing captured Egyptian treasures and using it to pay his soldiers instead of filling his coffers, an act that secured the bonds of loyalty.
He instituted a landmark building program, improving and beautifying the city of Rome with temples and forums devoted to the gods. Cementing the heritage and ideals of Roman values in the hearts and minds of the people. Octavius even passed laws that harkened back to the traditions of the Roman Republic, which pacified the Roman Senate and ruling classes.
The Senate was so receptive to the actions of Octavius that they conferred on him the title “Augustus,” meaning “Sacred,” leaving no question regarding the power of his position. And so, the newly crowned Caesar Augustus soon gained total control of what was unquestionably now the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus accomplished many feats during his 41-year reign that solidified Rome as the dominant power in the classical world. He doubled the size of the empire from Britain to India. He expanded the Roman network of roads, increasing travel and trade. He encouraged literature and art, and was himself an author. He distributed corn and money to the people in hard times and gave the people grand exhibitions to amuse them. He even founded a postal service, and established a permanent police and fire department in the city to maintain order.
Through all of this, Augustus proved his patriotic veneration of Rome, his “Pietas,” by reviving the ancient culture that built Rome in the first place. And though we ourselves cannot imagine fighting ancient battles or ruling archaic kingdoms, we can understand the ideas of devotion, loyalty, and family.
Octavius grappled with many problems in his youth, and though his problems extended to bloody civil wars and ours might not, we all find ourselves in complicated situations that pit our own personal wants against duty, devotion, and goodwill to those around us. In the end, allowing oneself to learn from those who both succeeded and failed to protect the virtue of “Pietas” in the past might just make our future a little more united.
Caesar Augustus died in A.D. 14, his empire secured and his people content. Most historians agree that the strong and stable rule of Augustus is the primary reason for the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, that began with his reign and lasted for 200 years. This time period was a golden age of order, prosperity, and expansion that far outdid the success of the Roman Republic. Among his last thoughts are words that solidify his intention and desire as leader of Rome; “I found Rome a city of clay; I leave it to you of marble.”