The Life Of Augustus: The First Emperor Of Rome

Starting out as a Roman statesman and military leader, Augustus used his cunning and political leverage to become the first Emperor of Rome. Ruling from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD, he established himself to be one of the most effective as well as controversial leaders in human history. So, take a look to see what made Augustus the ruler he is, his rise to power, and what he did when he managed to assume total control of Rome.

Julius Caesar Was His Adoptive Father And Great Uncle

Picture of Julius Caesar
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Augustus was born on September 23, 63 BC just southeast of Rome. His father was a senator who died when he was four, and his mother was the niece of Julius Caesar. It is assumed that Augustus never saw his great uncle when he was a boy, as Caesar was off warring in Gaul.

However, when Augustus reached maturity, he began spending time with Caesar, even accompanying him on a military campaign in Spain. Being close to Caesar, Augustus was eventually welcomed into the Roman aristocracy, and after Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, it was discovered that he had posthumously adopted Augustus and bequeathed him a large inheritance.

His Real Name Wasn’t Augustus

Photo of Augustus as a young man
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Augustus was born as Gaius Octavius, however, he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian) after he learned he was adopted by Julius Caesar. Seventeen years later, after becoming emperor, he would become known by the Senate as Augustus, meaning “Revered One.”

Throughout his life, he had a variety of titles including princeps (first citizen), imperator (commander in chief), pontifex maximus (chief priest), among others. However, he never referred to himself by any of these titles and chose to live like a normal man, no matter the amount of power he gained.

The Month Of August Is Named After Him

Statue of August as Pontifex Maximus
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Before Augustus, the month of August was called Sextillis, because it had been the sixth month of the original Roman calendar, with the Latin word for six being sex. However, the month was renamed August after Augusts’ victory over Antony and Cleopatra. Appropriately, it follows July, the month that had been named after Julius Caesar.

It is also rumored that the month of August has 31 days because he wanted it to have the same number of days as July, but this is believed to have been made up by Johannes de Sacrobosco in the 13th century.

He Was Married Three Different Times

Statue of Livia Drusilla
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Throughout his life, Augustus was married three different times. The first two both ended in divorce, and the third lasted from 37 BC until his death in 14 AD. Regarding his third wife, Livia Drusilla, some Roman historians claimed that she was actually responsible for Augusts’ death. They believe she poisoned him to ensure that her son, and Augustus’ step-son, Tiberius would be the next emperor. Yet, others chalk this up to nothing more than slander, as Tiberius was a disliked emperor and this claim would only further people’s hatred for him.

He Exiled His Daughter And Granddaughter

Marble bust of Julia
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

Augustus was very serious about sticking to traditional values and wasn’t afraid to punish anyone who broke them, even his own kin. Although it’s suggested that Augustus was promiscuous himself, he firmly believed in marriage and that adultery was a crime. So, in 2 BC, when he discovered that his only child, Julia, had been intimate out of wedlock with multiple men, Augustus exiled her to the island of Ventotene.

He later relocated her to somewhere less isolated, but still never saw her again. He also banished his granddaughter for alleged adultery as well, although some sustain that Augustus had underlying reasons for both banishments.

He Established The Praetorian Guard

Relief of Praetorian Guards
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On top of the many contributions that Augustus made to the Roman Empire, one that sticks out what his establishment of the Praetorian Guard. Initially formed as a bodyguard unit for Augustus, over time, they grew to have a larger role in the empire.

Not only were they tasked to protect the emperor, but they also kept the peace in Rome and the Italian Peninsula as a whole. Eventually, they even became involved in politics, assassinating Augustus’ descendant Caligula and putting his uncle, Claudius, on the throne.

The Succeeding Five Emperors After Him Were All His Relatives

Illustration of Nero
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Augustus had gone to such great lengths to ensure that the Roman Empire was as great as could be that the next five emperors after him were all his relatives up until 68 AD. The last emperor for the line of Augustus was Nero who committed suicide after being deposed.

Incredibly, four of these five emperors all served during 69 AD, and although Augustus’ royal line eventually came to an end, the Roman Empire continued to thrive well into the 15th century.

He Was Elected Consul At The Age Of 19

Relief of Roman Senators
CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

On August 19, 43 BC, Augustus was elected consul, the highest-elected political office in the Roman Republic at the age of nineteen. Mark Antony had been Caesar’s co-consul and refused to acknowledge Augustus as Caesar’s heir, believing it should have been him. However, Caesar’s loyal friends took the side of Augustus over Antony.

He was inducted as a senator on January 1, 43 BC and was given the right to veto along with the other consuls. However, things did not sit well with Antony, resulting in the battles of Forum Gallorum and Mutina, in which Augustus defeated Mark Antony who escaped to Gaul.

Assembling The Second Triumvirate

Charlton Heston as Marc Antony
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

On November 27, 43 BC, Augustus, Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus formed a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate, with the goal to seek revenge on Caesar’s assassins. The three leaders succeeded in their plan to avenge Caesar, defeating his assassins at the Battle of Philippi.

Many mark the forming of the alliance as the end of the Roman Republic, although some claim it was the Battle of Actium or Augustus becoming emperor. The men then split Rome into three pieces and established a three-man dictatorship with Augustus controlling the West, Antony the East, and Lepidus Africa.

He Struggled Finding A Successor

Bust of Augustus in front of red wall
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

In hopes of attaining an heir, Augustus married his daughter Julia to his nephew Marcellus in 25 BC. However, Marcellus ended up dying of sickness a few years later, forcing Augustus to marry Julia off to his friend Agrippa, who was a whole 22 years older than the girl. Together, Agrippa and Julia had three sons and two daughters.

Augustus made sure to pay close attention to his grandsons with plans for one of them to eventually take over the empire. However, two of them ended up dying and one was exiled, so his plan didn’t work out.

He Was Named Master Of The Horse

Augustus and an army
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

While Caesar was solidifying himself as the dictator of Rome, he sent Augustus off to the city of Apollonia in Macedonia to continue his education. Yet, Caesar had other reasons for sending Augustus there.

Five legions were stationed in Macedonia, and Caesar had plans for Augustus to take the men east to fight under Caesar’s command in his war against the Parthian Empire. Caesar had so much faith in Augustus that he even named him “Master of the Horse,” essentially the second-in-command.

He Made A Hard Choice Between His Soldiers And His Citizens

Soldiers marching
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After the success of the Second Triumvirate’s mission to avenge Caesar’s murder, Augustus had a bit of an issue on his hands. Now, he had thousands of soldiers under his command as well as all of his enemy soldiers that had surrendered or switched sides. After their military success, all of these soldiers needed somewhere to live and wanted to settle down.

It was important that Augustus pleased his soldiers, otherwise, they might go fight for one of his enemies. So, he ended up evicting Roman citizens from their lands and giving it to the veterans.

He Was Excellent At Eliminating His Political Enemies

Colored statue of Augustus
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

The Second Triumvirate lasted for two five-year terms between the years 43 BC to 33 BC. However, during that time, the three men made a good amount of political enemies, leading them to begin proscriptions.

This resulted in the banishment or execution of over 300 senators and 2,000 of the class below senators. Rewards were given to citizens who captured those who had been proscribed, and the assets taken from the proscribed were split among the Second Triumvirate.

He Became The Sole Ruler Of Rome After Defeating Mark Antony

Battle of Actium
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although Augustus, Mark Antony, and Lepidus were all once part of the same alliance, that all began to change in 36 BC. That year, an issue arose between Augustus and Lepidus over who had dominion over the recently acquired island of Sicily. Luckily for Augustus, Lepidus’ forces betrayed him and joined Augustus’ army, forcing Lepidus out of the alliance and into retirement.

Four years later, Augustus learned that Mark Antony had begun an affair with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and divorced his sister, Octavia, in 32 BC. This led Augustus to declare war on Cleopatra, which came to a head at the Battle of Actium, in which led to Cleopatra and Antony committing suicide. Augustus was now the sole leader of Rome.

He Used Human Sacrifices

Prisoners being led by Roman Guards
Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

There’s no denying that Augustus revered his adoptive father and great-uncle, Julius Caesar, even after his death. He looked up to his adoptive father so much that he even made a human sacrifice on the Ides of March 41 BC, commonly known as March 15, the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination.

On that day, Augustus had 300 prisoners taken from the most recent Perusine War sacrificed on the altar of Caesar in Rome. It was a clear message that Julius Caesar was to be remembered for all he did for Rome.

He Founded The Roman Empire And Became Its First Emperor

Bronze statue of Augustus
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

On January 16, 27 BC, the Roman Senate officially changed Octavian’s name to the title of Augustus. While it looked like Augustus had restored power to the Roman Senate, making Rome a Republic once again, in reality, he was the empire’s autocratic ruler.

The law stated that Augustus had a collection of powers granted to him for life such as military command, with the senate only controlling five or six legions as opposed to Augustus’ twenty. This was the first phase of the Roman Empire which is known as the Principate, lasting from 27 BC until 284 AD.

He Was A Modest Man, At First

Full body statue of Augustus
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Unlike his great-uncle Julius Caesar, early in his rule, Augustus tended to shy away from expensive jewels and clothing. He didn’t even refer to himself by one of the many titles he had acquired over the years.

He also rejected the idea of wearing a diadem or carrying a scepter, knowing that to do so would ruin his plans of still making Rome look like a Republic. However, once he secured total control of Rome, he began to loosen up a little.

He Ushered In An Era Of Peace

Marble statue of Augustus n the Vatican
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images
Prisma/UIG/Getty Images

After Augustus’ victory at Actium against Antony and Cleopatra, it brought an end to the civil war that had plagued Rome in the previous years and established Rome as a stable empire.

It also brought about what is known as the Pax Romana, roughly two centuries of Roman peace and stability, except for the expansion wars and a few revolts. It is considered to have started when at the ascension of Caesar Augustus in 27 BC and ended upon Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD.

He Was As Ruthless As They Come

Painting of Augustus on the throne
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Augustus was known across the Roman Empire for his ruthlessness to his enemies, striking fear into the heart of anyone thinking about going against him. He firmly believed in the law and carried out the necessary punishments as he saw fit.

When he uncovered a conspiracy against him, he had everyone involved sentenced to death for treason the moment they were captured, without letting any of them speak in their own defense. These were just a few of the countless people he had executed during his reign.

He Completely Transformed Rome

Augustus going over plans
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Considered by many to be the greatest emperor of Rome to have ever ruled, he is noted for his intelligence as a clever politician and tactician, and for ruling with a firm hand. Although it’s agreed that he wasn’t as charismatic as Julius Caesar, he achieved many things that Julius Caesar did not.

This includes establishing a fire fighting force, a police group, and the office of the municipal prefect. He is also credited with establishing new roads for his armies, among numerous other infrastructure improvements.