Who Was Emperor Augustus?

Graham Land

3 mins

24 Jul 2018

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.

Upon the assassination of Caesar in 43 BC, Octavian fought to avenge his great uncle and adoptive father’s death. He finally defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a civil war for control of all of Roman territory in 31 BC and adopted the name of Augustus.

Rome’s first emperor

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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.

Under Augustus, Rome’s territory grew in Germany, north Africa and Spain. At home he supported culture, poetry and ‘traditional Roman values’, all the while building his image as the saviour of Rome.

The myths of Augustan Rome

‘Augustan’ ideology was represented by the concepts of peace, libertas (‘freedom’ — a Republican ideal), social order, and a return to Roman virtues, religion and grandeur. These terms are of course abstract and open to different interpretations, but significant because it would seem that Augustus used notions such as these to promote the myth of a Rome that had once existed and was worth striving for a return to.

The frequent building of monuments by Augustus is seen as an attempt to foster feelings of unity, peace and prosperity. These monuments could be considered physical representations of Augustan ideology.

Archaeological evidence suggests great suffering from disease, malnutrition and overwork by the average inhabitants of the Empire. In clear incongruity, the art, architecture, plays and literature of the time suggest a comfortable, constant lifestyle for all.

Decline and death

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.

Legacy

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.

It seems these monuments to Augustus fulfilled their intention all the way into modern times. Mussolini, who greatly admired and celebrated Rome’s first Emperor, wished to return the city of Rome to as it was during Augustus’ reign.

His never fully realised plan of destroying what had been constructed since the Empire would reveal the Pantheon, Colosseum, Capitol and the tomb of Augustus.

Italy’s Fascist architectural plans and achievements were intended to awaken what was sometimes referred to as the ‘eternal Rome’. It was the Roman Empire as it was during the rule of Octavian Augustus Caesar that Mussolini principally wished to evoke.