Octavian ‘Augustus’ Caesar (63 BC – 14 AD) was Julius Caesar’s named successor and for all intents and purposes — though notably not in title — Rome’s first true Emperor. The son of Julius’ niece Atia, Augustus is recognised as the founder of the Roman Empire, which he ruled from 27 BC until death.
1. He was Caesar’s great nephew and adopted son
Roman families were complicated affairs. Octavian’s father was a senator and his mother was Caesar’s niece, Atia. He met his great-uncle relatively briefly on a campaign in Hispania, but Caesar was impressed by the young man and they spent more time together.
When Caesar returned to Rome, he deposited a new will with the Vestal Virgins naming Octavian as his sole heir and beneficiary. Rumours swirled at the time that he had only managed this feat through distributing sexual favours, but this seems unlikely and slander like this was common at the time.
2. He defeated Caesar’s assassins
Upon the assassination of Caesar in 43 BC, Octavian fought to avenge his great uncle and adoptive father’s death, establishing his desire to become Caesar’s political heir in the process. He, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat the assassins of Caesar.
At the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, a combination of Mark Anthony’s superb commanding skills and luck helped bring the Republican Army, led by Bruttus and Cassius, to its knees. Both Republican generals committed suicide in a tragic and uncalculated turn of events (Cassius wrongly believed that all hope was lost when Brutus had actually defeated Octavian army).
Following their victory at Phillipi, the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as de facto dictators.
3. An Augustan family feud caused the last war in the Roman Republic
In order to solidify the alliance, Mark Antony married Augustus’ sister, and Augustus married Antony’s stepdaughter Claudia. Neither marriage lasted, however, nor did the triumvirate. The final break came in 32 BC, when Augustus used an illicitly obtained copy of Antony’s will to rail against him and his high-profile mistress, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
In the civil war that followed, Augustus blockaded Antony’s force off the western coast of Greece at the Battle of Actium. Though Antony and Cleopatra escaped to Egypt, the majority of their soldiers surrendered, and they both ended up committing suicide as Augustus closed in on them. To add insult to injury, Augustus ordered that Antony’s heir be killed, along with a son that Cleopatra had with Caesar.
4. He introduced numerous political and social reforms
After the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, Romans were still accustomed to the idea of living in a republic and not an empire. Though Augustus established himself as ruler for life, he used constitutional forms to consolidate power, outwardly rejecting official offers of life consulship or dictatorship. In order to introduce the Imperial system, he established the Principate, with himself as Princeps, meaning ‘first among equals’.
Through his reforms, Augustus established himself as head of state religion, military and tribunal. He greatly reformed politics and the tax system, as well as establishing a large program of public works, including transforming the architecture of central Rome by constructing grand monuments.
5. Under his rule, the Roman Empire doubled in size
Augustus looked to expand the empire’s borders, bringing Egypt, northern Spain, the Alps and much of the Balkans under Roman control. Progress was made in Germany as well, until three legions were wiped out in an ambush in 9 AD, forcing the Romans to withdraw west of the Rhine River. As part of these expansion efforts, Augustus spent years in Spain, Gaul, Greece and Asia.
He was committed to diplomacy and strived to make alliances in order to intangeably spread the influence of his Empire.By the time his tenure was over, Augustus, in the space of 40 years had expanded Rome’s Empire to almost double its size when he gained power.
Militarily, Augustus did not enjoy combat himself – he often was sick on the eve of a battle. Neither was he much of a general, depending heavily on the strategy of hils childhood friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.
6. The month of August was named after him
In Augustus’ final years, the Empire was plagued by economic woes and military defeats. With no blood heir — he had no sons and his grandsons had already perished — Augustus named Tiberius as his successor. He died in the month of Sextili, which was renamed in his honour, in 14 AD.
Not only did the Senate name a month after Augustus, but it decided that since Julius’s month, July, had 31 days, Augustus’s month should equal it: under the Julian calendar, the months alternated evenly between 30 and 31 days (with the exception of February), which made August 30 days long. So, instead of August having a mere 30 days, it was lengthened to 31, preventing anyone from claiming that Emperor Augustus was saddled with an inferior month.
7. Augustus could be ruthless
Augustus sent his only daughter, Julia, into exile, after discovering she had been having sexual relationships with men out of wedlock. Having enacted strict laws which criminalized adultery, he banished Julia to the barren island of Ventotene and never saw her again.
Julia’s daughter, also named Julia, met a similar fate: banished for infidelity, she died in exile and was refused a burial in Rome because of her disgrace.
8. He may or may not have been murdered by his wife
High society in ancient Rome was notorious for back-stabbing and treachery. After his death in August 14, rumours swirled that his wife, Livia, had poisoned the fresh figs Augustus ate to hasten his end.
This may have been true, but if it were, it could well have been assisted suicide rather than murder: Augustus’ health was already in serious decline by this point.
9. The Roman Empire he established lasted in some form for nearly 1500 years
Augustus began a regime which would last in some form until the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, shaping European and Asian history for centuries.
His title, Caesar, lived on until the 20th century, transforming into kaiser in Germany and tsar in Russia respectively. Many still consider him to be one of the most important figures in the ancient world: his policies and ideals lasted long after his death.
10. He left a lasting built legacy in Rome
Julius Caesar began the custom of building a new forum in honour of the ruler’s family. Augustus’ grandiose forum was part of a series of buildings constructed with the intent of promoting military victories and unity after the civil war. Augustus also erected obelisks in the circus maximus and at several more of his monuments.
It seems these monuments to Augustus fulfilled their intention all the way into modern times. Even Mussolini, who greatly admired and celebrated Rome’s first Emperor, wished to return the city of Rome to as it was during Augustus’ reign. You can still visit the Forum of Augustus in Rome today.