Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus is granted the title Augustus

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, more commonly known as Augustus, was the first Roman Emperor and one of the most influential figures in Roman history. He is credited with transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire and establishing the foundations of a monarchy that would last for centuries.

The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC after the Romans revolted against their Etruscan conquerors and established a system of government in which the Roman people had a say in the decisions that affected their lives. This system of government, known as a republic, was based on the idea that power should be shared among the people rather than being held by a single ruler.

For more than four centuries, the Roman Republic flourished as a powerful and prosperous state, with a strong economy, a well-organised military, and a sophisticated system of government. However, by the end of the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic was in crisis. Political infighting and corruption were rampant, and the once-great Roman military was struggling to maintain its dominance.

Into this chaotic and troubled time stepped Augustus, a young man with a vision for a better future. Augustus was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman who had been assassinated in 44 BC. After Caesar’s death, a power struggle ensued, and Augustus emerged as the leader of the Roman Empire.

In 27 BC, the Roman Senate granted Augustus the title of “Augustus,” which means “exalted one.” This marked the beginning of a new era in Roman history and the end of the Roman Republic. Augustus took on a number of important responsibilities as the first Roman Emperor, including the administration of justice, the management of the Roman economy, and the organisation of the Roman military.

One of Augustus’s first actions as Emperor was to establish a new system of government that would be more efficient and effective than the Roman Republic. He created a bureaucracy to manage the many tasks that needed to be done in order to keep the Roman Empire running smoothly. He also reformed the Roman military, establishing a professional standing army that was better trained and more disciplined than the volunteer militias of the past.

Augustus was also a patron of the arts and a great builder. He commissioned a number of important public works projects, including the construction of new roads, aqueducts, and public buildings. He also encouraged the development of literature, philosophy, and the arts, which helped to make the Roman Empire one of the most culturally advanced societies of its time.

Despite his many successes, Augustus was not without his flaws. He was a ruthless politician and was known to be willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. He was also a master of propaganda, using his control of the media to present himself as a hero and a saviour of the Roman people.

Despite these flaws, Augustus’s contributions to the Roman Empire were significant and lasting. He brought stability and prosperity to a troubled time and laid the foundations for a monarchy that would endure for centuries. His legacy can still be seen today in the many monuments and public works projects that bear his name and in the enduring influence of Roman culture on the world.

8 Augustus Facts 

1. Julius Caesar was his great-uncle and adopted father.

Born on September 23, 63 B.C., Augustus grew up in a town about 25 miles southeast of Rome. His father was a senator (who died unexpectedly when he was four), and his mother was Caesar’s niece. As a child, Augustus presumably saw little to none of his famous great-uncle, who was out invading Gaul. Eventually, however, he gained Caesar’s trust and began spending more and more time with him, including during a military campaign in Spain. Thanks to his great-uncle, Augustus was able to join the patrician aristocracy, just one of many honours bestowed on him. Then, after a group of senators assassinated Caesar in 44 B.C., Augustus learned of the conqueror’s recently redrawn will, in which he was posthumously adopted and bequeathed a generous inheritance.

2. Augustus was not his birth name.

Originally called Gaius Octavius, he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, aka Octavian, upon being adopted by his great-uncle. Seventeen years later, the Senate awarded him with the name Augustus, meaning “Revered One.” He also collected numerous titles over the course of his life, such as pontifex maximus (chief priest), princeps (first citizen), imperator (commander in chief) and divi filius (son of a god), the last of which he took on following Caesar’s deification by the Senate. Notably, Augustus never referred to himself in monarchical or dictatorial tones, and he lived in relatively modest quarters. Yet because he amassed supreme power, historians refer to him as Rome’s first emperor.

3. His sister married his fiercest rival.

Following Caesar’s death, the teenage Augustus raised an army and went to war with Mark Antony, Caesar’s former deputy who likewise considered himself the conqueror’s political heir. Upon winning his first battle against Antony, Augustus marched on Rome and was elected consul, the highest office of the Roman Republic. He then entered into the so-called Second Triumvirate, in which he, Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus agreed to divide Rome’s territories between them. As one of their first orders of business, they teamed up to defeat Caesar’s assassins. Meanwhile, in order to solidify the alliance, Antony married Augustus’ sister, and Augustus married Antony’s stepdaughter. Neither marriage lasted, however, nor did the triumvirate. The final break came in 32 B.C., 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. 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 nearly doubled the size of the empire.

Having vanquished his rivals, Augustus set about consolidating his power, improving Rome’s infrastructure and beautifying the city. He also 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 A.D. 9, forcing the Romans to withdraw west of the Rhine River. Upon hearing news of the defeat, Augustus repeatedly banged his head against the wall and yelled out for the general in charge to “give me back my legions,” according to a Roman historian. As part of these expansion efforts, Augustus spent years in Spain, Gaul, Greece and Asia. Yet he was not much of a fighter himself, often getting sick on the eve of combat and depending heavily for strategy on his boyhood friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

5. The month of August was named after him.

With Rome in an era of relative peace and prosperity, the Senate voted in 8 B.C. to rename the month of Sextilis after Augustus. During that month, the Senate purportedly explained in its decree, Augustus had first become consul and had won his final victory over Antony and Cleopatra. On the calendar, it followed July (formerly Quintilis), which had recently been renamed in honour of Julius Caesar.

6. He sent his own daughter into exile.

A proponent of traditional values, Augustus built and refurbished myriad temples during his reign, encouraged marriage and childbirth, and criminalised adultery despite allegedly being wildly unfaithful himself. When he discovered in 2 B.C. that his only child, Julia, had been sleeping out of wedlock with numerous influential men, including Mark Antony’s son, he banished her to the rocky island of Ventotene. Although he later allowed her to transfer to a less-isolated locale, he never saw her again. Augustus likewise banished his granddaughter for alleged adultery, though in both cases historians believe additional factors may have been in play.

7. His potential heirs kept mysteriously dying.

With no son of his own, Augustus spent considerable time and energy trying to cultivate a successor. He focused his early attentions on his nephew Marcellus, whom he married off to Julia in 25 B.C. But Marcellus fell ill and died a couple of years later around age 21. Next, Augustus turned to Agrippa, his friend and general, who, though 25 years older than Julia, produced three sons and two daughters with her. Augustus adopted and helped raise the two older boys, Gaius and Lucius, only to see the first die at age 23 after being wounded in Armenia and the second die at age 19 after contracting an unknown disease in Gaul. Julia and Agrippa’s third son, on the other hand, was purportedly full of rage and sent into exile. Following Agrippa’s death, Augustus forced his stepson Tiberius to divorce his beloved wife and marry Julia instead, but they only had one child together who died in infancy. His options having considerably dwindled, Augustus finally turned with reluctance to Tiberius, who would go on to rule Rome from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. Rumours spread that Tiberius’ mother (Augustus’ third and final wife) had killed off the other potential heirs so that her son would get the job, but no concrete evidence has ever emerged to that effect.

8. The next five emperors were all his relatives.

Augustus’ reputation as the bringer of stability to Rome proved so strong that the emperorship remained in his family until A.D. 68, when Nero committed suicide after being deposed in a coup. Though a short civil war broke out—four emperors served in A.D. 69 alone—it was a minor blip in the 200-year Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that Augustus had ushered in. The empire itself, meanwhile, would survive in one form or another until the 15th century.

Rome’s Maddest Emperors

1. Tiberius (reigned 14-37 AD)

Tiberius began his reign as emperor in commendable style. He toned down the traditional pomp, was frugal, and was fair when dispensing justice.

But deep into his reign, he showed his true colours. Those who displeased the emperor, from jesters to the highest-born nobles, were tortured, exiled, executed, or forced to commit suicide. It was considered wrong to execute virgins, so condemned young maidens would be assaulted by the executioner before being put to death.

Tiberius hosted massive orgies at his villa in Capri, where participants included ‘experts’ in threesomes who would perform in front of the emperor. The villa also housed a library full of sex manuals in case anyone needed to go and look up a specific position or technique.

Often Tiberius’ savage behaviour was bizarre and inexplicable. Once, when on a remote shore, a fisherman startled him and offered him a mullet. The emperor punished him by ordering his face to be roughly scrubbed with the fish. The brave fisherman quipped that he was glad that he’d not offered the emperor a large crab. Tiberius took offence and commanded that the man’s face be torn to shreds with the claws of a crab.

Tiberius died at the age of 77, with many suspecting that his great-nephew and successor, Caligula, finished off the ill and frail old emperor.

2. Caligula (reigned 37-41 AD)

Caligula’s reign got off to a promising start. He recalled to Rome many of those who’d been exiled by Tiberius, scrapped an unpopular tax, and built temples, harbours, and aqueducts.

But it was about six months into his time as emperor, at the age of 25, that his imperial reign of terror began. Caligula was ruthless, sadistic, and extravagant. He was said to treat his horse better than any of his subjects. The beast lived in a white marble stable and fed from an ivory manger.

He was rumoured to tour the city at night with his guards, indulging in wild orgies with prostitutes before burning down their brothels as his party left.

On one occasion, a bored crowd at the circus booed Caligula. Big mistake. Those who led the chorus of jeers had their tongues cut out and were thrown into the arena to be torn to shreds by wild animals. Caligula then regularly emptied the city’s overcrowded jails and had the prisoners fed to the show’s animals.

Possibly what reviled the people of Rome most in Caligula’s reign were the mandatory orgies at the imperial palace. The steep entrance fee was then used to finance the emperor’s extravagances and wars. He commanded that the highest citizens of Rome should turn up, pay to get in and bring their wives, daughters, and sisters with them, who would all be forced to join in.

Caligula was assassinated by several of his bodyguards at the age of 28.

3. Nero (reigned 54–68 AD)

Emperor at 17, Nero was described by some as a generous ruler during the first five years of his tenure. He lowered taxes, allowed slaves to file complaints about their masters, and was a patron of the arts.

But Nero’s benign rule didn’t last long. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, in which Nero was famously said to have played his lyre while watching the city burn, he ramped up the murderous persecution of Christians. Members of the young religion were tortured, killed in the arenas, beheaded, boiled in oil or water, crucified, and made into human torches.

Not much of a family man, Nero tried to murder his mother by sending her away in a galley he’d had specially made. The booby-trapped ship would collapse and sink with the removal of a couple of bolts. Most of the passengers drowned, but Nero’s mum secretly made it to shore and escaped. Nero found out and sent a slave to finish her off.

The Roman people eventually tired of Nero’s murderous ways and sentenced him to be whipped to death. However, he managed to avoid this grim sentence by taking the slightly better option of cutting his own throat.

4. Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD)

This emperor might have been the one who put the finishing touches on the Colosseum, but Domitian was a cold and sadistic tyrant who sent masses of Romans to their deaths. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty, either. He liked to see prisoners in private, hold their chains in his hands, and shove a flaming torch under their private parts before personally castrating them.

He was a show-off at public events and liked to force slaves to stand a fair way away from him with their fingers spread on a wooden board. Domitian would then shoot arrows between the terrified slave’s fingers.

He was known for having such a high libido that he was nearly always engaging in what he liked to call ‘bed wrestling’. He executed senators, writers, family members, provincial governors, and actors. He had one man bumped off for a harmless joke at the emperor’s expense.

Domitian was assassinated at the age of 44 by a palace steward who concealed the deadly dagger in a bandaged arm.

5. Commodus (reigned 176-192 AD)

Few Roman emperors were as hard-hearted and bloodthirsty as Commodus, the son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. There seemed to be nothing and no-one he wouldn’t kill, and he is still famous today as the Roman emperor who enjoyed fighting with the gladiators (although the contests were always fixed for him to win). One day in the Colosseum it was said that 100 lions were released, and Commodus promptly dispatched every single one of them with a well-aimed arrow. Believe that if you will.

Commodus’ mean streak showed from a young age. When he was 13, a slave failed to make his bath hot enough. The spoiled teenager flew into a rage and ordered the slave to be thrown alive into a fire. His lackeys instead tossed a sheepskin into the flames when Commodus wasn’t looking, and the foul smell it gave off put a smile on the youngster’s face, convinced that his servant was now engulfed in flames.

When he became emperor, his cruelty and vanity skyrocketed. One of his favourite hobbies was personally giving haircuts and shaves to his slaves. This may sound like a kind offer but Commodus had a habit of ‘accidentally’ cutting off noses, ears, lips, and pieces of cheeks and chins.

Several senators had the emperor killed after finding out that they were on his hit list. When news spread of Commodus’ death everyone in the empire had a massive party.

6. Diocletian (reigned 284-305 AD)

Generally, Diocletian is not thought to have been a particularly callous or violent ruler until the final two years of his reign.

In a series of orders during 303 and 304 AD, Diocletian and his subordinate co-emperors demanded that any Christians meeting to worship in groups should be sentenced to death, all Christian churches should be pulled down, all scriptures should be burned, and all Christians holding official posts should be sacked. Many Christians endured terrible torture and even a whole town was massacred for declaring itself Christian.

One victim of the emperor’s new-found ferocity towards the religion was very close to home. Diocletian’s butler, Peter, refused to honour the Roman gods when he was commanded to. He was brought before the public and whipped so viciously that his skin was shredded to the bone. Next salt and vinegar were poured into his wounds. Then a big barbeque was brought out, and, bit by bit, tiny morsels of flesh were removed from Peter’s mangled body and cooked in front of him until he died.

The ‘Great Persecution’, as it is sometimes known, went on until 313 AD, eight years after Diocletian’s abdication, and in 324 AD Christianity became the preferred religion of the empire.

Sources

8 Things You May Not Know About Augustus

6 CRUELLEST EMPERORS FROM ANCIENT ROME

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