5 Key Facts About Emperor Augustus | History Hit

5 Key Facts About Emperor Augustus

Graham Land

21 Jan 2021
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Bronze statue of Emperor Augustus in Rome. Credit: Alexander Z. (Wikimedia Commons)

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 defeated Caesar’s assassins

Upon the assassination of Caesar in 43 BC, Octavian fought to avenge his great uncle and adoptive father’s death. 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 uncalcuated turn of events (Cassius wrongly believed that all hope was lost when Brutus had actually defeated Octavian army).

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Following their victory at Phillipi, the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as de facto dictators.

2. 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. 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.

Battle-of-Actium

The Naval Battle of Actium, 31 BC. Image Credit: Public Domain

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.

3. 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’.

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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.

4. 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.

A map of the Roman Empire under the reign of Emperor Augustus

A map of the Roman Empire under the reign of Emperor Augustus. Image Credit: CC

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.

5. 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.

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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.

Legacy of Emperor Augustus

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.

augustus forum rome

1911 drawing of the Forum of Augustus by S.B. Platner. Image Credit: CC

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.

Tags: Augustus Julius Caesar

Graham Land