- Explain the key features of Augustus’s reign and the reasons for its successes
- Following the assassination of his maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, Caesar’s will named Octavian as his adopted son and heir when Octavian was only 19 years old.
- By ingratiating himself with his father’s legions, Octavian was able to fulfill the military demands of the Roman Senate. He quickly gained both power and prestige and formed the Second Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus in 43 BCE.
- By 31 BCE, Octavian had emerged as the sole ruler of Rome, upon the political and military defeat of the two other triumvirs.
Julius Caesar’s right hand man, and a member of the Second Triumvirate. He was eventually defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.
The founder of the Roman Empire, known as Octavian during his early years and during his rise to power.
Augustus is regarded by many scholars as the founder and first emperor of the Roman Empire. He ruled from 27 BCE until his death in 14 CE.
Rise to Power
Augustus was born Gaius Octavius, and in his early years was known as Octavian. He was from an old and wealthy equestrian branch of the plebeian Octavii family. Following the assassination of his maternal great-uncle, Julius Caesar, in 44 BCE, Caesar’s will named Octavian as his adopted son and heir when Octavian was only 19 years old. The young Octavian quickly took advantage of the situation and ingratiated himself with both the Roman people and his adoptive father’s legions, thereby elevating his status and importance within Rome. Octavian found Mark Antony, Julius Caesar’s former colleague and the current consul of Rome, in an uneasy truce with Caesar’s assassins, who had been granted general amnesty for their part in the plot. Nonetheless, Antony eventually succeeded in driving most of them out of Rome, using Caesar’s eulogy as an opportunity to mount public opinion against the assassins.
Mark Antony began amassing political support, and Octavian set about rivaling it. Eventually, many Caesarian sympathizers began to view Octavian as the lesser evil of the two. Octavian allied himself with optimate factions, despite their opposition to Caesar when he was alive. The optimate orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, began attacking Antony in a series of speeches, portraying him as a threat to the republican order of Rome. As public opinion against him mounted, Antony fled to Cisalpine Gaul at the end of his consular year.
Octavian further established himself both politically and militarily in the following months. He was declared a senator and granted the power of military command, imperium, in 43 BCE, and was further able to leverage his successes to obtain the vacant consulships left by the two defeated consuls of that year.
Octavian eventually reached an uneasy truce with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus in October 43 BCE, and together, the three formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat the assassins of Caesar. Following their victory against Brutus at Phillipi, the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as military dictators. Relations within the Triumvirate were strained as the various members sought greater political power. Civil war between Antony and Octavian was averted in 40 BCE, when Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia Minor. Despite his marriage, Antony continued a love affair with Cleopatra, the former lover of Caesar and queen of Egypt, further straining political ties to Rome. Octavian used Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to his own advantage, portraying Antony as less committed to Rome. With Lepidus expelled in 36 BCE, the Triumvirate finally disintegrated in the year 33. Finally, disagreements between Octavian and Antony erupted into civil war in the year 31 BCE.
The Roman Senate, at Octavian’s direction, declared war on Cleopatra’s regime in Egypt and proclaimed Antony a traitor. Antony was defeated by Octavian at the naval Battle of Actium the same year. Defeated, Antony fled with Cleopatra to Alexandria where they both committed suicide. With Antony dead, Octavian was left as the undisputed master of the Roman world. Octavian would assume the title Augustus, and reign as the first Roman Emperor.