Augustus in The Encarta Encyclopedia

Augustus Caesar | Index

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I. Introduction

Augustus (63 B.C.- A.D. 14), first emperor of Rome (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), who restored unity and orderly government to the realm after nearly a century of civil wars. He presided over an era of peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement known as the Augustan Age.

Originally named Gaius Octavius, Augustus was born in Rome on September 23, 63 B.C.; he was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar, whom he succeeded as ruler of the Roman state. Caesar was fond of the youth and had him raised to the College of Pontifices—a major Roman priesthood—at the age of 16. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Octavius was in Illyria, where he had been sent to serve; returning to Italy, he learned that he was Caesar's adopted heir. He consequently took the name Gaius Julius Caesar, to which historians have added Octavianus; in English, the name is usually shortened to Octavian.

II. The Second Triumvirate

Caesar's assassination plunged Rome into turmoil. Octavian, determined to avenge his adoptive father and secure his own place, vied with Mark Antony, Caesar's ambitious colleague, for power and honor. After some preliminary skirmishes, both political and military, during which Antony was driven across the Alps while Octavian was made senator and then consul, Octavian recognized the necessity of making peace with his rival. In late 43 B.C., therefore, the two—joined by Antony's ally, the general Marcus Aemilius Lepidus—met and formed the Second Triumvirate to rule the Roman domains. The alliance was sealed by a massive proscription, in which 300 senators and 200 knights—the triumvirs' enemies—were slain. Among those killed was the aging orator Cicero.

Octavian and Antony next took the field against the leaders of Caesar's assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, both of whom committed suicide in 42 B.C., after being defeated at Philippi in Macedonia. By 40 B.C. the triumvirs had divided the Roman world among them. Octavian was in control of most of the western provinces and Antony of the eastern ones; Lepidus was given Africa. Although Antony and Octavian clashed over the control of Italy, they patched up their differences, and Octavian gave Antony his sister, Octavia, in marriage. In 36 B.C., Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great and the last major enemy of the triumvirs, was eliminated. Octavian then forced Lepidus from power, while Antony was in the east fighting the Parthians.

The triumvirate was now breaking up. Having sent Octavia back to Rome, Antony soon married Cleopatra, whom Caesar had installed as queen of Egypt, and recognized Caesarion, her son by Caesar, as her coruler. This undercut Octavian's position as the only son of Caesar, and war was inevitable. He defeated Antony and Cleopatra's forces in a naval battle off Actium in 31 B.C.; they both killed themselves the following year. Caesarion was murdered. In 29 B.C. Octavian returned to Rome in triumph, at age 34 the sole master of the Roman world.

III. The First Citizen

In 27 B.C. the Roman Senate gave Octavian the title Augustus ("consecrated," or "holy") by which he is known, and his reign has often been considered a dyarchy because of the Senate's participation in it. The Senate bestowed on him a host of other titles and powers that had been held by many different officials in the Republic. In 36 B.C. he had been given the inviolability of the plebeian tribune, and in 30 B.C. he also received the tribunician power, which gave him the veto and control over the assemblies. In addition, the Senate granted him ultimate authority in the provinces; together with the consulship, which he held 13 times during his reign and which gave him control of Rome and Italy, this vested in him paramount authority throughout the empire. After the death of Lepidus he also became Pontifex Maximus ("chief priest") with the consequent control of religion. The summation of his powers was the title princeps, or first citizen. Despite all this, and the title imperator (from which "emperor" is derived), Augustus was always careful not to take on the trappings of monarchy. In fact, he made much of the claim that he was restoring the Roman Republic.

A patron of the arts, Augustus was a friend of the poets Ovid, Horace, and Virgil, as well as the historian Livy. His love for architectural splendor was summed up in his boast that he "had found Rome brick and left it marble." As a straitlaced adherent of Roman virtues in times of growing permissiveness, he attempted moral legislation that included sumptuary and marriage laws. In the economic field, he tried to restore agriculture in Italy.

Augustus' third wife was Livia Drusilla, who had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus Germanicus, by a previous marriage. Augustus, in turn, had a daughter, Julia, by a previous wife. His heirs, however, died, one after another, leaving his stepson and son-in-law, Tiberius, to succeed him when he died at Nola on August 19, A.D. 14.

IV. Evaluation

Both ancient and modern writers have been ambivalent about Augustus. Some have condemned his ruthless quest for power, especially his part in the proscription at the time of the triumvirate. Others, even such a Republican diehard as Tacitus, have admitted his good points as a ruler. Modern scholars sometimes criticize his unscrupulous methods and compare him to 20th-century authoritarians, but they usually recognize his genuine achievements.

Contributed By:

Michael S. Cheilik, M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of History, Lehman College of the City University of New York. Author of Ancient History: From Its Beginnings to the Fall of Rome.


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"Augustus," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001

 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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Augustus Bibliography Resources

Augustus Caesar's World - By Foster, 347 Pages, Pub. 1947

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor - By Everitt, 432 Pages, Pub. 2007

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