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Augustus Caesar was the first Emperor of ancient Rome and in fact he was the first to use the title of “emperor” to refer to himself as Roman leader. Julius Caesar’s rise to power as dictator marked the end of the Roman republic but his death left a power gap which needed to be filled quickly.
Octavian was extremely young but politically astute and sufficiently ambitious to move in to the inheritance he had been left by Julius Caesar and eventually fill the role as “Emperor Augustus”.
When Julius Caesar died his friend Antonius (Mark Anthony) wished to take over and at first it seemed as if he may do so, particularly when Caesar’s soldiers naturally regarded him as their leader to avenge Caesar’s death. However Caesar had elected his great nephew Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus as heir. Octavianus, or Octavian, was to become so great that he was later known as “Augustus” – the great one.
At the time of Julius Caesar’s murder, Augustus (then still known as Octavian) was just 18 years of age and Mark Anthony obviously attempted to push him aside. However, young as he may have been, Octavian was not to be outdone and many of Caesar’s soldiers soon felt allegiance to him.
Meanwhile Cicero had been called back from exile and on his return he delivered a series of speeches against Mark Anthony. These speeches come to be known as “the Philippics“. The power of these speeches is said to have swayed the senate’s favour towards Octavian. A battle soon followed between the senate and Octavian on the one side and Mark Anthony and his friend Lepidus, governor of Spain, on the other. Mark Anthony was defeated.
The Second Triumvirate
Octavian was made consul and he called Mark Anthony and Lepidus to meet on the river Rhine. The second Triumvirate was thus formed and it was decided that Octavian should rule in the West, Mark Anthony the East and Lepidus in Africa. They also concluded that in order to be safe their only option was to kill all those opposed to them. Mark Anthony demanded the life of Cicero which Octavian was in the end forced to concede.
Death of the great Cicero
The great orator Cicero was killed by assassins as he attempted to flee to Macedonia where Brutus and Cassius were preparing to wage war against the Triumvirate. Two battles were fought and having been defeated both Brutus and Cassius ended their own lives.
By this time Octavian and Mark Anthony felt strong enough to drop Lepidus from the Triumvirate, which they did on the grounds that he had been plotting against them together with Pompey’s son. Mark Anthony went East to put order to his territories and came to meet Cleopatra queen of Egypt. He remained at ancient Alexandria in Egypt for considerable amounts of time in Cleopatra’s company.
Not before long, the Romans heard (surely inspired by Octavian) that Mark Anthony had begun to behave like an Eastern ruler rather than as a Roman. They feared that he intended to make Alexandria his capital from which he would attack Rome itself. Octavian waged war against him and the two met in battle at Actium in Greece in 31BC. Mark Anthony was defeated and committed suicide.
Cleopatra attempted to win over Emperor Augustus the way she had done with Mark Anthony and Caesar, but with little success. On hearing that Augustus intended to carry her to Rome in chains as part of his triumphal march she too committed suicide, apparently through the bite of an asp, more likely a cobra. Emperor Augustus turned Egypt into a Roman province and the world as it was then known was completely in his hands. In total, including the period of the triumvirate, the Augustan age lasted some 41 years, from 27BC to 14 AC.
Augustus had learnt much from past events such as the murder of Caesar or a little further back that of the Gracchi brothers. He had learned how the citizens of Rome distrusted leaders who might call themselves “king” or “dictator”, like Tarquin the Proud had done, and how they disliked abrupt changes. He was conscious that in order to wield power he shouldn’t be ostentatious, rather the opposite: the more he appeared to not want power the more the population felt comfortable with him having it.
Suetonius attributes to Emperor Augustus a saying which in many ways characterises his ascent to power and long period of rule: “festina lente” – make haste slowly.
Emperor Augustus, Propaganda, and the new Imperial structure of the Roman State
Emperor Augustus was a genius of propaganda. He and his collaborators carefully evolved a new symbolism to glorify the new political system which to all appearances had restored and improved the republican system. He gave himself the unimportant title of “imperator” a military rank a little more important than a captain. Within a relatively short period of time he was awarded the titles of “princeps” (first senator) as well as “pontifex maximus” (high priest).
Augustus’ home was by many measures humble yet strategically placed near the temple to the god Apollo, his protector deity, near the Circus Maximus and in proximity of the house of Romulus – founder of Rome.
Bread and Circus for the People of Rome
Also he ensured he satisfied Roman citizens’ expectations in terms of “bread and circus”. The agrarian laws established by the Gracchi at the times of the social wars a century earlier were still in place and still granted the poorer Roman citizens the right to purchase grain at half price. By the time of Augustus approximately half of the population was taking full advantage of this benefit. As Julius Caesar had when he was Aedile, Augustus ensured that great public games and feasts were regularly organised to keep the population happy.
Augustus consolidated the borders of the Empire
Having judged the empire about as large as was logistically manageable Augustus saw to it that it should be bordered by natural barriers where possible and military effort was aimed as securing such borders. He also saw to ensuring peace and justice within the provinces, taking personal interest in those which were most difficult to manage. It is notable that the doors to the temple of Janus on the Capitol were shut three times during the reign of Emperor Augustus (they were open only when Rome was at war). In the previous seven hundred years they had only been shut twice. Under this aspect this period came to be known as the era of the “Pax Romana”.
Jesus Christ was born in far away Judaea under Emperor Augustus and later died during the reign of Augustus’s successor Emperor Tiberius. Though it required some 300 years to play out it is ironic that the early Christian church was to play such a fundamental role in destroying the ancient Roman moral and social structure which emperor Augustus was to place so much energy into reviving.
Emperor Augustus rebuilds ancient Rome and its society
The many years of civil war and political instability leading up to the reigns of Caesar and then of Augustus had left their mark on the city of Rome. No urban planning had been undertaken for almost two centuries, nor had any significant urban infrastructure been introduced or existing infrastructure been restored. There had indeed been construction within the urban perimeter but by-and-large the purpose of these projects was the personal glorification of the different persons who achieved power rather than the common good of the Roman citizens.
Augustus was fortunate to have the support of his close relative Agrippa – a man of great talent both military and political who assisted him by taking over the position of Aedile. Together they saw to modernising Rome both architecturally and in terms of urban planning so that it should match its status as capital of the (known) world: “Roma Caput Mundi”.
The population of Rome had reached some 500,000 citizens. This still made it somewhat smaller than others such as Athens but it was clear that the city’s growing importance as centre of the Roman Empire would require it to grow much larger (more than doubling its size in fact) and as such requiring new foundations to be laid.
Suetonius records in his biography how Augustus had every right to boast he had “received a city made of brick and left a city made of marble“. The city of Rome was divided from 7 into 14 boroughs. The conditions of residential areas were improved, better sanitary measures were introduced together with the construction of marble temples and spacious recreational areas and buildings. The first fire brigade was created to combat the frequent fires in the city. This gave the city a completely new appearance which in line with Augustus’ propagandistic love was literally studded with the symbols of the new political system.
As part of the plan for religious renovation some 80 Roman temples were restructured, their facades covered in splendid Carrara marble and often guilded with gold or copper and overlayed with carefully studied symbolism. The forum was re-paved, the Aemilia and Iulia basilicas were built. The greatest change to the urban landscape was a new forum with a temple to the god Mars and yet more symbolism which made direct reference to the values of the rennovated political system. Augustus’ forum soon became a new centre for the city. Amongst other works the road system was readjusted, new water conduits were introduced, walls for the containment of fires were built, firemen corps were instituted and buildings to house them constructed. All these buildings testified the empire’s new-found security and unity, allowing the citizens to enjoy the opulence which hitherto had been reserved for the upper classes and rich alone.
Agrippa was deeply involved in this plan of “publica magnificentia” transforming the Campus Martius military training grounds into a huge recreational precinct for the enjoyment of all citizens. At the centre of this he placed the Pantheon as is denoted to this very day by the inscription on the façade. This temple was to represent emperor Augustus as a deity and it is said that Augustus, mindful of the potentially negative propaganda that might produce had the building changed to include all the gods (hence its name pan-theon) and not only himself. The area included parks, Roman baths, temples and Roman theatres, all sprinkled with a good dose of Roman paintings and Roman sculptures.
Of particular note in this area are Augustus’ altar to peace, the “Ara Pacis Augustae” and Augustus’ mausoleum (tomb). Both carefully studied in dimension and symbolic meaning to magical effect. Quite literally. Believe it or not the dimensions and orientation of the mausoleum are precisely based on Augustus’ birth sign and stars: magic and mysticism were prominent in ancient Rome.
Emperor Augustus and the Golden Age of Rome
As shown by the wonderful (propaganda) reliefs of the Ara Pacis in Rome this was intended to be a golden age not only of peace and power of Augustus’ empire but also because of the artistic and literary ferment. This was the age now referred to as the Golden age of Roman Literature. Maecenas, a rich descendent of the Etruscans, great patron of the arts and a personal friend of Augustus’, was also alive at that time. It so happened that during the reign of Augustus, great authors such as Virgil, Ovid, Seneca and Horace wrote the works which are still regarded amongst the greatest of ancient Roman civilisation, for example Virgil’s “Aenid”. The arts and sciences were greatly developed in this period and new artistic language and symbolism was purposely developed to heighten the glory of the state. At the same time emperor Augustus ensured that the State should slowly become synonymous with his own Julio-Claudian lineage, descended of gods and kings.
The legacy of Emperor Augustus
By the end of Augustus’ reign the city was a reflection of his achievements as princeps and pontifex maximus: national unity and moral rebirth. The city of Rome had been refounded architecturally, socially and culturally. Augustus like no other ruler before or after him managed to set the foundations which were to serve the Roman Empire for the following three hundred years of rule.
All this earned him the name “Augustus” which may be translated as “great one” or “revered”. The month of August was named in his honour and after his death he was revered as a god. An inscription known as the “Res Gestae” was carved – quite literally a CV of personal achievements.
Suetonius tells us augustus’ dying words were “Acta est fabula” – the show is over. Nowadays emperor augustus is regarded as godfather of Europe.