To Home Page
To Course Notes Menu

Octavian and Antony: The Rise of Augustus
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

See, as well, the Select Testimonia on Octavian/Augustus and Selections from the Acts of the Divine Augustus (Res Gestae Divi Augusti) in the collection of translations of Classical authors.

Introduction. In the following weeks we will be running into the Roman emperor Augustus under three different names. It is important, therefore, to get these names straight right from the start. Augustus begins life as C. Octavius, a grand-nephew of Julius Caesar. On the latter's death in 44, Octavius is adopted (posthumously) by Caesar in his will and so assumes the name of C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (or, in English, simply Octavian). In 27, Octavian assumes control of the Roman state and adopts the honorific title Augustus. In what follows, then, his name will change according to the historical period under discussion:

63-44: *C. Octavius
44-27: *C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian)
27-A.D. 14: *Augustus

The Aftermath of Caesar's Death (44 B.C.). Caesar's assassins claimed to be striking a blow for freedom in the name of the Old Republic; instead of dancing in streets, however, the initial reaction to the news of Caesar's murder was intense uncertainty, particularly among the ruling elite, as everyone waited to see who would make the next move. The conspirators themselves went into hiding. *M. Aemilius Lepidus (one Caesar's lieutenants, who had a legion of recruits ready to take to Gaul) imposed order, but Mark Antony (who had long been Caesar's right-hand man and was consul along with Caesar in 44) soon took charge of matters, leaving Lepidus to depart for Gaul. Antony was in nominal control of state affairs, but virtually everyone was on eggshells. Antony wielded a good deal of power as consul and as Caesar's second in command, but enjoyed little personal authority and dared not assert himself too strongly, lest he meet a fate similar to that of Caesar. The Senate, on the other hand, was concerned about popular reaction to Caesar's death, particularly on the part of Caesar's veterans. Most importantly, the official constitutional machinery, although it had continued to operate during the turbulent years 49-44, had been a virtual dead letter under Caesar's rule: his death created a vacuum in which no one quite knew how to behave. An uneasy truce was arrived at. An official amnesty was granted to the conspirators, but Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral — along with the generous gifts to the plebs included in the terms of Caesar's will — so stirred the urban mob that a riot ensued and the conspirators fled Rome in fear for their safety. [Caesar's funeral is the occasion for the famous speech in Shakespeare's play: "I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him...."] Antony then quickly retrieved Caesar's private papers from his widow and employed them to govern in Caesar's name, claiming to find there Caesar's plans for Rome's future. This charade soon wore thin with the Senate, all the more so due to Antony's high-handed manner and his wanton extravagance.


Octavian and Antony. When Caesar's will was read, however, Antony received a nasty shock. In it Caesar named as his chief heir a virtual unknown by the name of *C. Octavius, adopting him (posthumously) as his son. Octavius was Caesar's grand-nephew on his sister's side, a rather sickly 18-year-old with only limited political and military experience. Upon his adoption, Octavius became *C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (or, in English, simply Octavian). Antony might well have expected little trouble in dealing with a youth of so little experience, few political connections, and virtually no personal authority. Unfortunately, Antony failed to recognize that in Octavian he was dealing with a natural born politician. Octavian never was an imposing figure physically, and he owed his military victories largely to the skill of his able lieutenants. In the political realm, however, he was without peer, rising from a virtual unknown in 44 B.C. to become the first of the Julio-Claudian emperors by 27 B.C.

Tensions immediately arose between Octavian and Antony, as each vied for the right to employ Caesar's substantial financial resources, to call upon the loyalty of his troops, and, above all, to invoke the authority of Caesar's name. On the one hand was Antony, Caesar's second in command who had served him so ably since the 50s, who had been named magister equitum under Caesar, and who had been appointed priest (flamen) in Caesar's honor; on the other was Octavian, who could claim to be Caesar's son and heir. Tensions between the two soon reached the boiling point, only to be checked by senior officers in command of Caesar's troops, who were united by their common loyalty to the dead Caesar and were unwilling to fight against one another in the name of Caesar's bickering heirs. By the middle of 44 B.C. an uneasy truce was established between Antony, Octavian, the Senate, and those involved in Caesar's assassination.

Unfortunately Antony, while an able commander, was no Caesar when it came to the delicate art of politics. In 44-43 he soon alienated virtually all of the other factions listed above, uniting them against him. He began by foolishly attacking the orator and statesman Cicero, a leader of the senatorial faction (the optimates). These personal attacks led Cicero to denounce Antony in a series of damning speeches, known as the *Philippics.

[The speeches took their name from a famous set of speeches composed by the Athenian orator Demosthenes in the fourth century B.C. against Philip of Macedon. In those speeches, Demosthenes presented Philip as an untrustworthy and power-mad tyrant whose sole purpose was to conquer Greece and put an end to Greek political freedom. Cicero's speeches presented Antony as another Philip, a threat to the glorious traditions of the Republic. The speeches became so famous that we today use the term "philippic" of any passionately denunciatory speech.]

Not content with alienating Cicero and the Senate, Antony renewed his attacks against Octavian, charging him with plots against his (Antony's) life. Octavian saw that his position in Rome was far from secure and withdrew to central Italy, where he began to raise troops on his authority as Caesar's son and heir.

At the end of 44, Antony stepped over the line altogether. As consul in 44 he had been assigned the province of Macedonia for 43. Antony realized, however, that departing from Rome at this particular juncture would be political suicide and so passed a law that awarded him a five-year command in Cisalpine Gaul and Gallia Comata (Gaul proper) instead (see Map 3 in Dudley). This would allow him to keep tabs on affairs in Rome and had the added advantage of providing him with an army camped just north of Italy. (Clearly Antony had the precedent of Caesar's own career in mind.) The threat now posed by Octavian led Antony to speed up his plans: he decided to proceed to Cisalpine Gaul and assume command of his new provinces early. At this point the Senate was still unwilling to defy Antony too openly, but it did direct the current governor of Cisalpine Gaul, D. Junius Brutus Albinus (who had been involved in the conspiracy against Caesar), to maintain his position. When matters reached a crisis the Senate, at Cicero's urging, turned to Octavian for help. Octavian had his own forces; more importantly, he could invoke the name of Caesar, thus undercutting Antony's claims to represent Caesar's legacy. Cicero hoped that the young Octavian would be malleable — a tool that the Senate could employ and then discard at its will. The plan was to have Octavian support the consuls for 43 (A. Hirtius and C. Vibius Pansa) in driving Antony off, then to have Octavian surrender his troops to Brutus, the lawful governor of the region. The first part of the plan worked: Antony was compelled to retire further into Gaul, where he joined up with Lepidus (see above). Unfortunately for Cicero and the Senate, however, Octavian was neither malleable nor stupid. He realized that, were he to surrender his troops to Brutus, he would not only lose an important bargaining chip but, given Brutus' association with Caesar's murder, would fatally undermine his claims to be Caesar's loyal son. As it happened, through one of those twists of fate that seem to occur so often in Roman history, the two consuls Hirtius and Pansa had been killed in the battle against Antony: Octavian saw a vacuum and marched south with his forces, determined to fill it. Confronted with Octavian's troops, the Senate was compelled to allow him to run for the office of consul, to which he was duly elected for the year 42. His adoption by Caesar was officially ratified and Caesar's assassins outlawed: thus Octavian could assume the role of the loyal son attempting to avenge his father's murder and continue his father's work in "reforming" the state. (The leaders of the opposition to Caesar, M. Junius Brutus and C. Cassius Longinus, had already fled to the East, planning, like Pompey earlier, to raise troops and challenge Antony and Octavian.)


The Second Triumvirate. Suddenly Octavian was no longer a youthful outsider but a major force with which to reckon. He realized, however, that his own position vis a vis the Senate was far from secure and decided to make common cause with his former enemy, Antony. Thus, in 43, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus were officially appointed as a panel of three (a triumvirate) to govern Rome with consular authority for a period of five years for the purpose of restoring constitutional order. This alliance is known as the *Second Triumvirate. Through a curious twist of fate, Caesar — who originally had been viewed as a dangerous, power-seeking popularis and a traitor — now became the beloved leader whose legacy was being threatened and in whose name Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus must seize control of state affairs.

Despite its official standing, the Second Triumvirate was in reality a military junta. Following the precedent of Sulla, its first order of business was to pay back its political enemies and raise some much-needed cash (necessary if the junta's troops were to be kept happy). Proscriptions were held in which some 300 senators and 2000 equites were dispatched, as much for their property as for their political sympathies. The most famous victim was Cicero, whose head and hands were cut off and hung from the speaker's platform (the Rostra) in the forum.

[The Triumvirate also raised taxes, aiming first (as was the Romans' wont) at wealthy and "extravagant" women. This policy led to a woman named Hortensia presenting a public speech in the forum in which, we are told, she sounded the now familiar theme of no taxation without representation (i.e., without granting women the franchise).]

Julius Caesar was officially deified as well (his deified spirit being identified with a comet that appeared in July of 44): this measure reinforced the Triumvirate's claim to represent Caesar's legacy but it strengthened Octavian's hand in particular, since he was now officially the son of a god (divi filius).

The next order of business, once matters had been settled in Rome, was to deal with the forces of Brutus and Cassius in the East. The official line was that these forces were traitors to Rome, led by Caesar's assassins. Viewed objectively, however, they represented one of the last hopes of the Roman Republic, fighting a cause that was utterly unrealistic — the days when the traditional constitutional machinery could cope with the economic, social, and political realities in Rome were long past — but noble nonetheless. The final confrontation occurred in 42 at *Philippi in Macedonia (see Map 3 in Dudley), where Brutus' and Cassius' forces were quickly defeated in a series of battles by the combined forces of Antony and Octavian. The victory led to an immediate rise in Antony's fortunes: never much of a general, Octavian had presented a poor showing at Philippi, losing one important battle and spending a good deal of the time sick in his tent. For the moment, at least, Antony was very much the senior partner among the triumvirs.

With their enemies subdued both at Rome and abroad, the two leading members of the Triumvirate soon returned to their old personal rivalries. Lepidus was quickly gotten out of the way: accused of treason, he was deprived of his provinces and allowed to remain a member of the Triumvirate only on sufferance. The other two triumvirs divided Rome's holdings between them: Octavian got Spain, Antony Gaul. Antony, however, had larger ambitions. Encouraged by his success at Philippi, he revived Caesar's plans for a grand military campaign in the East. His intentions clearly were to follow the precedent set by Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar himself: to win power, fame, and money through a series of military triumphs abroad and then return to Rome and oust his political rivals once and for all. In 41, therefore, he set out for the East, where he soon became entangled with the Egyptian *Cleopatra.

Octavian, by contrast, was given the thankless task of dealing with affairs in Italy, particularly the necessity of finding land for his and Antony's veterans. Antony clearly hoped that Octavian would become embroiled in Italian politics, squandering both his time and, more important, his popularity with the masses. In the end, this was a poor strategy on Antony's part. Not only did his own military ventures not fare well, but, by leaving Octavian in Rome, he allowed his rival to ply his considerable political skills in waging a propaganda war against Antony.

At first, however, Antony's plan appeared to succeed. Octavian's problem was to find land for his and Antony's veterans; his solution was to confiscate land throughout Italy. The Italian cities were outraged, and this sense of outrage was encouraged by Antony's wife Fulvia and his brother L. Antonius, who incited a civil war. The rebels were suppressed through a combination of Antony's delay in supporting them and the brutality of Octavian's reprisals (particularly against the city of Perusia, in the so-called Perusine War). Antony eventually returned to Italy in 40, landing at Brundisium, but by then Octavian had not only secured Italy but had seized Gaul. War nearly broke out between Antony and Octavian, but their troops refused to fight against one another. At last a deal was cut: Antony was to pursue his ambitions in the East, while Octavian was granted the western half of Rome's empire. To cement the deal, Antony married Octavian's sister *Octavia (Fulvia having died of natural causes in the meantime).

Antony accordingly returned east, where from 40-35 he was engaged in a series of largely unsuccessful campaigns against the Parthians. His desperate need for financial and military support drove him into the arms of Cleopatra (literally and figuratively) and he became her official consort. Antony had 3 children by Cleopatra. In 36, despite their age (6, 6, and 2, respectively), he granted each of these children, as well as Cleopatra herself, territories in the East as their official realms; he also lent his support to the claims of Caesarion (then 13 years old) to be Caesar's true son and heir. To Roman eyes these moves were troubling, suggesting that Antony was becoming a champion of Egypt and its oriental queen.

Meanwhile, Octavian was busy in the West fighting *Sextus Pompeius, a son of Pompey the Great. Sextus had gathered the last of the Republican opposition about him in Spain and by 42 controlled Sicily. With his fleet, Sextus was able to harass Roman shipping, nearly cutting off Rome's grain supplies. To the degree that Sextus could claim to be fighting for the cause of his father, Pompey, he represented the last forces of the old Republic; in reality, he was as much a military overlord/adventurer as Antony and Octavian. Octavian once again showed his lack of military experience, suffering a series of humiliating defeats, and, in 38, was forced to meet with Antony in order to ask for reinforcements. (At the same time the term of the Triumvirate, originally slated to expire in 38, was extended for another five years.) In 36 Octavian — or, rather, his general *M. Vipsanius Agrippa, working in tandem with Lepidus — finally defeated Sextus at the battle of Naulochus. Lepidus made an attempt to seize Sicily for himself, but was soon deserted by his supporters and captured. As pontifex maximus Lepidus could not be killed (as we shall see, Octavian was beginning to develop scruples!), so he was merely stripped of his official powers and placed under permanent house arrest in Rome.


Actium. The year 36 marks something of a turning point in Octavian's career. From this point on he began to doff the role of ruthless military warlord and instead present himself as a defender of the Republic (such as it was!). This strategy was to stand him in good stead in the propaganda war against Antony. Antony, Octavian could claim, had become the thrall of a depraved eastern monarch: he had "gone native" and (Octavian claimed) planned to reduce Rome to a mere subject state, transferring the capital of the empire to Egypt. The Romans would be slaves to a mongrel horde of oriental eunuchs and their lascivious queen, compelled to worship Egypt's decadent, bestial gods and to adopt the perverse religious practices of a land whose rulers regularly married their own siblings.

[See P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Chapter 2, and D.E.E. Kleiner, "Politics and Gender in the Pictorial Propaganda of Antony and Octavian" (Echos du monde classique / Classical Views 36 [1992] 357-67) for ways in which the propaganda battle between Octavian and Antony is reflected in the art and, particularly, the coinage of the period, especially the competition to claim Caesar's mantle.]

Tensions between Antony and Octavian began to reach a head in 35, when Antony formally repudiated Octavia, who had remained loyal to him despite the repeated humiliation to which he had subjected her. In 33, when the Triumvirate officially expired, Octavian held the consulship: he was then able to present Antony as a private Roman citizen acting without the authority of the state and to contrast his own position as loyal servant of the Republic. There followed, in 32, the public reading of Antony's will (which, according to custom, had been deposited in Rome for safe keeping): the provisions it contained were not outrageous — for example, Antony asked to be buried with Cleopatra and requested official recognition for his children by Cleopatra and for Caesarion — but they furthered the impression that Antony now regarded himself as an Egyptian.

In the end war was inevitable. The issue was decided in 31 at the naval battle of *Actium (in northwest Greece: see Dudley, map 3). Antony had established camp in the bay of Actium in late 32, hoping to use it as a base of operations against Octavian. He became mired there, however, his lines of supply cut off and his forces steadily shrinking due to disease and desertion. As time wore on, his troops became ever more demoralized, in part due to the presence of Cleopatra in their camp: Roman soldiers did not like the idea of being the servants of a foreign queen (think of Livy's portrayal of Tanaquil). Moreover, Antony's Egyptian fleet was outnumbered and out-generaled by Octavian's fleet, led by Agrippa. By September of 31 Antony had realized that his position was untenable and attempted to slip away with his fleet to Asia Minor. His plans were poorly executed by his demoralized troops, however, and only Cleopatra's ships managed to escape, followed by Antony with a few Roman stragglers. The remainder of Antony's forces surrendered after only token resistance. The battle of Actium was, then, something of a fiasco: a failed tactical retreat. Octavian and his supporters, however, presented it as a glorious triumph, spreading the story that Antony, accompanied by Cleopatra, had intended a full-scale naval battle but had turned tail and deserted his troops when he saw Cleopatra's ship fleeing in fear. In this version, Antony is betrayed by his besotted obsession with the cowardly and depraved Egyptian queen. [FN 1]

Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide. Octavian, however, hailed his triumph as belonging to the Roman Senate and people — a victory for Rome's political and religious traditions over a nefarious threat from the decadent East. (Notice that once again Octavian held the consulship — his third — in this crucial year, allowing him once more to present himself as the servant of the Roman people fighting in defense of the Republic, rather than as a military despot intent on wiping out a hated rival.) He claimed to have been supported in this victory by the god *Apollo, who had a small temple on a nearby promontory. Apollo, the god of Actium, became a prominent figure in Octavian/Augustus' reign. A god of poetry, music, and culture, he provided a fitting contrast to the "degenerate" Egyptian culture championed by Antony. He also embodied two contrary features that Octavian found useful, for Apollo was both a powerful god of retribution, smiting those who strayed beyond the proper bounds set for mortal ambitions, and a gentle god of refinement and culture. (These two contrasting features are symbolized by two of Apollo's attributes: the bow and the lyre.) As we shall see, the poets and artists who celebrated Octavian/Augustus' achievements presented his career as displaying these same two contrasting features, with Actium as the turning point. Before Actium, we find the stern triumvir who employs violence to punish his father's murderers, restore "order" to Italy, and check the wild ambitions of Antony and Cleopatra; after Actium, we find the benign ruler who oversees a political, moral, and cultural renaissance at Rome.


Augustus and the Principate. Octavian was now in complete control of Rome's affairs. He was 32 years old, with little in the way of practical experience in peacetime politics, but a brilliant politician by nature. He was particularly skillful in his use of symbolism and in his ability to manipulate and control the public's mood. As Caesar's rightful heir and the man who had quelled the threat of the monstrous Cleopatra, he was in a powerful position; more to the point, the proscriptions, the wars in Italy, and the defeat of Sextus Pompeius and Antony had effectively obliterated opposition to Octavian's supremacy.

In the years immediately following Actium, Octavian copied Caesar's clemency, sparing most of those who had sided with Antony. At the same time he took advantage of people's weariness to establish the elaborate fiction that the various battles of the years 42-31 had been fought in the name of restoring the Roman Republic to its former grandeur. With Antony defeated and the "threat" to Rome's constitutional and religious traditions now gone, Rome would return to the noble ideals and political traditions that had made it great in the days of the Early Republic. The old forms (consuls, senate, tribunes) were therefore maintained, but it just so happened that Octavian/Augustus was consul every year from 31 to 23. He also held tribunician authority throughout most of these years, thus maintaining the important right to veto acts of the Senate and of other tribunes. Other magistrates were elected on his "recommendation," while all provinces of note (i.e., those which entailed significant military forces and/or financial resources) were under his control. Thus, like Sulla, Octavian/Augustus reduced the threat of other adventurers employing either the military or the tribunate to rise against him, but he did so by effectively reserving the reins of power to himself. Unlike Caesar, however, he managed to do this while (on the surface, at least) strictly observing the traditional practices of the Republic, avoiding any hint of an attempt to set himself up as a hellenistic style monarch.

Octavian returned to Rome in 29, whereupon he celebrated a triple triumph in honor of his victories at Actium and in the East. He then set about the delicate task of establishing an imperial autocracy while maintaining the facade of being merely a servant of the people and the Senate. His first challenge was to restore people's confidence, to assure them that the days of civil war and military rule were past. On a practical level he did this by addressing the economic havoc wrought by years of war, adopting (as Caesar had before him) the techniques of the old populares. In addition to donations of grain and money to the urban mob, he instituted an elaborate building program. This not only provided an important boost to Rome's economy but furnished tangible signs of the return to peace and prosperity: the citizens of Rome could see a new, grander city rising out of the ashes of the old. [It is in this period that Rome first becomes noted for its architecture. Octavian/Augustus himself remarked that he had found a Rome built of brick and left one of marble.] Particular emphasis was placed on the refurbishing of the city's temples, which had fallen into neglect and decay during the years of political turmoil. Here was tangible evidence of a revival of traditional piety, since many of these temples were thought to have been founded in the days of Romulus and Numa or in the period of the Punic Wars. Rome could be seen to be returning to the ancient moral and religious traditions that had made it great in the days before the rise of factionalism under the Gracchi et al.

We shall find that Octavian/Augustus frequently associated himself with individuals and achievements from Rome's glorious past: for example, Aeneas, Romulus, the first two Punic Wars. (Like Aeneas and Romulus, Octavian/Augustus is a "founder" of Rome, rescuing it from the chaos that threatened to overwhelm it and restoring the Republic. In doing so, he returns the Romans to the glorious days when they were world conquerors, subduing foreign enemies, before greed, personal ambition, and corruption embroiled them in constant internal wars.) Here it is worth noting the frequency with which *Numa is recalled in Augustan propaganda. You will remember that Numa was associated with a golden age of peace, piety, and prosperity, and with the establishment of many of Rome's most important religious traditions. Several measures of Octavian/Augustus clearly were designed to suggest that his reign represented a return to the days of Numa. One that stands out is the closing of the *gates of Janus on Octavian's return to Rome in 29. Janus is the double-faced god of gateways, doorways, transitions, and beginnings. According to ancient tradition, the gates dedicated to Janus in the forum were opened whenever Rome declared war, thus ensuring good fortune for the troops as they marched out on campaign. When no wars were being fought, the gates would be closed, symbolizing peace. Rome's history being what it was, the gates of Janus had been closed only two times prior to Octavian's day: first during the reign of Numa, then at the conclusion of the First Punic War. In reality, this arcane rite had no doubt lost its significance over the years and been largely ignored. In 29, however, Octavian closed the gates of Janus with a great flourish, providing a dramatic and emotionally effective symbol of a Rome that had rediscovered its antique virtues of piety and political harmony. The closing of the gates of Janus is recalled in a number of Augustan texts, with the suggestion that the brute forces of violence and chaos that had haunted the Republic for so many years finally have been locked away.


In addition to restoring old temples, Octavian/Augustus built new ones. The most prominent was the temple complex built in honor of *Apollo on the Palatine hill. This provided an elaborate and conspicuous tribute to the god of Actium, but it also further symbolized the reign of Octavian/Augustus as a golden age of peace and culture, since a notable part of the temple complex consisted of a library of works in both Greek and Latin. The symbolism here is multiple. On the one hand, this prominent temple on a hill overlooking Rome would recall the Parthenon in Athens, suggesting that Augustan Rome, like fifth-century Athens, was to be a center of art and learning under the guidance of its divine patron, Apollo, and its human patron, Octavian/Augustus (a second Pericles?). On the other hand, such a library complex could not help but recall the famous library at Alexandria. In the 3rd-1st centuries B.C., Alexandria had been the most glorious city in the Mediterranean, both architecturally and as a center for learning and the arts. The message implicit in the building of such a library on the Palatine, in conjunction with Octavian/Augustus' building program, could not be missed. (The fact that it housed separate collections in Greek and Latin perhaps suggested another message: that Latin letters in this new age were to rival the achievements of the Greeks in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.) Lest anyone miss Octavian/Augustus' connection to this new age, his house was right next door to the temple, a virtual part of the complex.

By 27 Octavian clearly felt that his position as Rome's ruler was secure enough that he could establish his authority on a different basis. An elaborate bit of political theater was staged in which Octavian offered to resign all of his offices and give up control of his provinces, arguing that the Republic had been successfully restored and that his work was done. The Senate, however, "compelled" him to retain the consulship as well as control of the strategic provinces of Spain, Gaul, and Syria. The Senate also awarded him various honors of a less tangible sort. A golden shield was set up in the Senate to honor Octavian's valor, clemency, justice, and piety. (You will want to remember this shield when we read Vergil's Aeneid.) He was granted the privilege of decorating the doorposts and lintel of his house with laurel and oak, an honor granted those responsible for saving citizens' lives (!). Most important, he was given the honorific title *Augustus. The significance of this term is complex. Literally "majestic," "venerable," "worthy of honor," it has vaguely religious overtones, suggesting that its bearer is greater than mortal and the bestower of a divine beneficence. None of these overtones is overt, however: the term need mean no more than "lofty" or "august." (Octavian clearly had learned from Caesar's fate: while quite happy to emphasize Caesar's posthumous apotheosis and his own status as son of a god, he was careful not to appear to covet divine honors for himself.) The term effectively marked its bearer as unique. Above all, it allowed Octavian to set aside his past: the proscriptions and confiscations, the civil wars in Italy, the years of military dictatorship — those all belonged to the young Octavian, not to the wise and beneficent Augustus. (We can get an idea of the effect for which Octavian was striving from the story that he considered adopting the title Romulus and thus directly identifying himself as Rome's second "founder." His rejection of this title, which could be regarded as tasteless and presumptuous, and the selection of "Augustus" is a sign — one of many — of his political astuteness.)

The fiction, from this point on, was that Augustus' position was merely that of "first among equals" (*princeps — the word gives us the English "prince"), a man whose political authority rested solely on his personal merits and his past services to the state. Thus 27 marks the beginning of what is known as the *Principate or what might be called Augustus' constitutional autocracy.

By 23 Augustus clearly was feeling quite sure of his position. In this year he resigned the consulship (which he was to hold again on only two occasions, for symbolic purposes) and became merely a private citizen, or so he claimed. His ability to play a legal role in state affairs was assured, however, by his being granted tribunician powers for life. He also retained proconsular control over his provinces and the right to override the authority of the governor of any other province. He was to enjoy this constitutional position, with minor changes, until his death in A.D. 14.


To celebrate his reign as princeps, in 17 Augustus held the *Secular Games. These were celebrations supposedly held to commemorate the beginning of a new saeculum ("century," "age"). Consultation of the sacred Sibylline oracles conveniently revealed that the new age was to begin in the year 17, the tenth anniversary of the institution of the Principate. The high point of the games was the performance of the *Carmen Saeculare or Secular Hymn, composed by the poet Horace, in which two choruses of 27 boys and 27 girls joined to celebrate the gods Apollo and Diana and the achievements of Augustus. In part, the games also commemorated the moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 18, designed to promote marriage and the family. Again, Augustus consciously set about portraying his reign as one that introduced a moral as well as political and cultural renaissance at Rome.

Against all expectations, Augustus' reign was to last until his death in A.D. 14, approximately 41 years. (Given the volatile nature of politics in the Late Republic and Octavian/Augustus' own fragile health, it is likely that many expected his reign to be as brief as that of Caesar. A number of our pro-Augustan sources portray real anxiety on this point.) The reasons for his political longevity are many: his political skill and, when necessary, ruthlessness; his ability to shape the public's mood through political symbolism; good luck. One of the main factors working for him, however, was simply the general weariness after years of political unrest and civil war. This is certainly the view of the historian *Tacitus, whose terse account of the rise of the Principate appears at the beginning of his work, The Annals. Tacitus was writing in the early years of the second century A.D., in an age that had seen the excesses of later emperors such as Caligula, Nero, and Domitian.

[A member of the senatorial aristocracy, Tacitus had come of age under Domitian during the latter's reign of terror (93-96). He had witnessed at first hand the arbitrary brutality of a demented, autocratic emperor and the demeaning servitude to which he and other members of the Senate had been reduced by such a ruler. Thus Tacitus was no admirer of the imperial system founded by Augustus in the form of the Principate.]

In his brief overview of Roman constitutional history, Tacitus presents the rise of Augustus as being possible due to a combination of, on the one hand, Octavian's calculated use of murder and bribery, and, on the other, the corruption of the Roman aristocracy (particularly the Senate), who chose to go along with the charade of the Principate rather than to fight for political freedom.

The other sources we will be examining are more favorable toward Augustus. First there is Augustus himself, in his account of his own career — the *Res Gestae. Then there is the poet *Horace, a client of *Maecenas (Augustus' informal "minister of culture"). Finally there is the poet *Vergil, who celebrates Octavian/Augustus in a number of his early works but whose most important work is the epic *Aeneid, a complex meditation on the Augustan Age and on Rome's mission and identity.


[FN 1] Cf. B.F. Russell, "The Emasculation of Antony: The Construction of Gender in Plutarch's Life of Antony," Helios 25 (1998) 121-37, and W.M. Murray, "Reconsidering the Battle of Actium — Again," in V.B. Gorman and E.W. Robinson, eds., Oikistes: Studies in Constitutions, Colonies, and Military Power in the Ancient World Offered in Honor of A.J. Graham (Leiden, 2002) 339-50. [Return to text]

Top of Page : Course Notes Page : Home Page

These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2018 13:16:09 CST
Please send queries and comments to