AUGUSTUS (63 bce–14 ce), Roman emperor. Born Gaius Octavius, he was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. Adopted by Caesar, and made his chief heir at nineteen, Octavius built upon Caesar's name, charisma, military success, political connections, and fortune. Calculating, opportunistic, an unfailingly shrewd judge of men and circumstances, he emerged in 31 bce from thirteen years of political chaos and civil war triumphant over Mark Antony and sole master of the Roman world.
Exhausted by the effects of civil war and seeking only peace and a return of order and prosperity, Roman citizens and provincial subjects alike hailed Octavius as a savior sent by divine Providence. He did not fall short of their expectations. To mark the beginning of a new order, he assumed the name Augustus in 27 bce. In a series of gradual steps, he restructured the Roman political system. While preserving the forms of republican government, he in effect established a monarchy, concentrating in his own hands all real power, political, military, financial, and legal. This power was used with great and enduring success to reform the administration of the provinces, the finances of the Roman state, and every aspect of military and civil life. In so doing he laid the basis for two centuries of unparalleled peace and prosperity in western Europe and throughout the Mediterranean world. The golden age of Rome's empire, "the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous" (Gibbon), was the supreme legacy of Augustus.
Himself deeply pious, Augustus understood fully the important role that religion plays in securing that unity of shared belief that is essential to the integration and successful functioning of a pluralistic society. Through carefully orchestrated and highly effective propaganda techniques, he projected the image of himself as a divinely sent savior; and the very name he assumed, Augustus, evoked in Latin and in its Greek form, Sebastos, an aura of divine consecration and charismatic authority.
Augustus undertook a thorough reform of Roman state religion. He restored some eighty-two temples that had fallen into decay and built numerous new ones. He revitalized old cult forms and priesthoods, such as the lares compitales and the Fratres Arvales, and instituted new ones, such as Pax Augusta and the Seviri Augustales. He carefully steered public approval of his person and policies into religious channels. Particularly in the Greek provinces of the East, he permitted himself to be worshiped as a god. Roman state cult celebrated the divine element and creative force that resided in Augustus through the cult of the Genius Augusti. Religious reform and innovation were linked to programs of social and moral reform, aimed at restoring traditional Roman values of service and piety toward country, family, and the gods.
The Augustan program tapped the wellsprings of popular piety in an age of religious revival. It mobilized in its service literary and artistic talent of enduring genius: Vergil's Aeneid, Horace's Roman Odes and Carmen saeculare, Livy's history of Rome, and the iconography of the Altar of Augustan Peace (the Ara Pacis) at Rome all celebrated, each in its own medium, the message that the gods themselves had willed the peace-bringing and benevolent rule of Rome and Augustus over the entire human race.
The best-balanced introduction to Augustus and his achievement is H. H. Scullard's study From the Gracchi to Nero, 5th ed. (London, 1983), which includes extensive bibliographical notes. Recent but somewhat superficial accounts of Roman religion in the age of Augustus include Continuity and Change in Roman Religion, by J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz (Oxford, 1979), pp. 55–100, and Religion and Statecraft among the Romans, by Alan Wardman (London, 1982), pp. 63–79. For interpretative studies of Augustus's religious policy within the context of traditional Roman religion, see my Princeps a Diis Electus: The Divine Election of the Emperor as a Political Concept at Rome (Rome, 1977), pp. 121–130, 189–219, and my following contributions to Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.17.2, (Berlin and New York, 1981): "The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology," pp. 56–69; "The Theology of Victory at Rome," pp. 804–825; and "The Cult of Virtues and Roman Imperial Ideology," pp. 884–889.
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Binder, Gerhard. Saeculum Augustum, vol. 2, Religion und Literatur. Darmstadt, 1988.
Bleicken, Jochen. Augustus. Berlin, 1998.
Bowersock, Glen W. "The Pontificate of Augustus." In Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher, pp. 380–394. Berkeley, 1990.
Cotton, Hannah M., and Alexander Yakobson. "Arcanum imperii: The Powers of Augustus." In Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World. Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffin, edited by Gillian Clark and Tessa Rajak, pp. 193–209. Oxford, 1992.
Eck, Werner. Augustus und seine Zeit. Munich, 1998.
Fishwick, Duncan. "On the Temple of Divus Augustus." Phoenix 46 (1992): 232–255.
Huttner, Ulrich. "Hercules und Augustus." Chiron 27 (1997): 369–391.
Pollini, John. "Man or God: Divine Assimilation and Imitation in the Late Republic and Early Principate." In Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher, pp. 334–363. Berkeley, 1990.
Radke, Gerhard. "Augustus und das göttliche." In Antike und Universalgeschichte. Festschrift Hans Erich Stier, edited by Reinhardt Stiehl and Gustav Adolf Lehmann, pp. 257–279. Münster, 1972.
Speyer, Wolfgang. Das Verhältnis des Augustus zur Religion. Berlin and New York, 1986.
Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, 1939.
Whitehorne, John E. G. "The Divine Augustus as Theos Kaisar and Theos Sebastos." Analecta papyrologica 3 (1991): 19–26.
Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Translated by Alan Shapiro. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1988.
J. Rufus Fears (1987)
Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14) was the first emperor of Rome. He established the principate, the form of government under which Rome ruled the empire for 300 years. He had an extraordinary talent for constructive statesmanship and sought to preserve the best traditions of republican Rome.
The century in which Augustus was born was a period of rapid change and, finally, civil war for Rome. Of the many factors which led to the civil wars, two are of crucial importance for understanding his career. By the middle of the 1st century B.C. Rome had conquered nearly all the lands bordering the Mediterranean, and Caesar's conquest of Gaul in 49 B.C. brought transalpine Europe into the sphere of Roman influence.
Rome and its provinces were governed throughout the republic by the Senate, composed largely of members of a small hereditary aristocracy. But the Senate was showing itself unequal to the task of governing the Mediterranean, and its authority was increasingly usurped by the generals in command of the victorious Roman legions. Because he had the support of his army and great personal popularity, Julius Caesar had become virtually a dictator in Rome following his conquest of Gaul. He was strongly opposed by the Senate and in 44 was assassinated by conspirators among them. It was at that juncture that Augustus entered the Roman political arena.
Augustus was born Gaius Octavius on Sept. 23, 63 B.C., in a house on the Palatine hill in Rome. His father, Gaius Octavius, held several political offices and had earned a fine reputation, but he died when Octavius was 4. The people who most influenced Octavius in his early years were his mother, Atia, who was Julius Caesar's niece, and Julius Caesar himself.
When Caesar's will was read, it was revealed that Caesar had adopted Octavius as his son and heir. Octavius was then at Apollonia studying oratory. Against the advice of his friends and family, Octavius—who changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (English, Octavian)— immediately set out for Italy to claim his inheritance. He was only 18, rather frail physically, and although he had delivered the funeral oration for his grandmother when he was 12 and had won Caesar's admiration, he had given no previous indications of his ambitions or his genius for political maneuvering. Octavian displayed both these qualities in abundance as soon as he entered Rome in 43.
Rise to Power
Octavian's enemy in his rise to power was Mark Antony, who had assumed the command of Caesar's legions. The two men became enemies immediately when Octavian announced his intentions of taking over his inheritance. Antony had embarked on a war against the Senate to avenge Caesar's murder and to further his own ambitions, and Octavian joined the senatorial side in the battle. Antony was defeated at Mutina in 43, but the Senate refused Octavian the triumph he felt was his due. Octavian abandoned the senators and joined forces with Antony and Lepidus, another of Caesar's officers; they called themselves the Second Triumvirate. In 42 the triumvirate defeated the last republican armies, led by Brutus and Cassius, at Philippi.
The victors then divided the Mediterranean into spheres of influence; Octavian took the West; Antony, the East; and Lepidus, Africa. Lepidus became less consequential as time went on, and a clash between Antony and Octavian for sole control of the empire became increasingly inevitable. Octavian played upon Roman and Western antipathy to the Orient, and after a formidable propaganda campaign against Antony and his consort, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Octavian declared war against Cleopatra in 32. Octavian won a decisive naval victory, which left him master of the entire Roman world. The following year Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Octavian annexed Egypt to Rome. In 29 Octavian returned to Rome in triumph.
Octavian's power was based on his control of the army, his financial resources, and his enormous popularity. The system of government he established, however, was designed to veil these facts by making important concessions to republican sentiment. Octavian was extremely farsighted in his political arrangements, but he continually emphasized that his rule was a return to the mos maiorum, the customs of the ancestors. Early in January of 27 B.C., therefore, Octavian went before the Senate and announced that he was restoring the rule of the Roman world to the Senate and the Roman people. The Senate, in gratitude, voted him special powers and on January 16 gave him the title Augustus, signifying his superior position in the state, with the added connotation of "revered." A joint government gradually evolved which in theory was a partnership; in fact, Augustus was the senior partner. Suetonius, his biographer, said that Augustus believed that "he himself would not be free from danger if he should retire" and that "it would be hazardous to trust the state to the control of the populace" so "he continued to keep it in his hands; and it is not easy to say whether his intentions or their results were the better."
The government was formalized in 23, when Augustus received two important republican titles from the Senate— Tribune of the People and Proconsul—which together gave him enormous control over the army, foreign policy, and legislation. His full nomenclature also included his adopted name, Caesar, and the title Imperator, or commander in chief of a victorious army.
Character and Achievements
Suetonius has given a description of Augustus which is confirmed by the many statues of him. "In person he was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life, though he cared nothing for personal adornment… He had clear, bright eyes, in which he liked to have it thought that there was a kind of divine power, and it greatly pleased him, whenever he looked keenly at anyone, if he let his face fall as if before the radiance of the sun. … He was short of stature … but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure."
Augustus concerned himself with every detail and aspect of the empire. He attended to everything with dignity, firmness, and generosity, hoping, as he said himself, that he would be "called the author of the best possible government." He stabilized the boundaries of the empire, provided for the defense of the frontiers, reorganized and reduced the size of the army, and created two fleets to form a Roman navy. His many permanent innovations included also the creation of a large civil service which attended to the general business of administering so vast an empire.
The Emperor was interested in public buildings and especially temple buildings. In 28 B.C. he undertook the repair of all the temples in Rome, 82 by his own count. He also built many new ones. In addition, he constructed a new forum, the Forum of Augustus, begun in 42 B.C. and completed 40 years later. It was with good reason that Augustus could boast that he had "found Rome built of brick and left it in marble."
Repairing the temples was only one aspect of the religious and moral revival which Augustus fostered. There seems to have been a falling away from the old gods of the state, and Augustus encouraged a return to the religious dedication and morality of the early republic. In 17 B.C. he held the Secular Games, an ancient festival which symbolized the restoration of the older religion. The poet Horace commemorated the occasion with his moving Secular Hymn.
Augustus tried to improve morals by passing laws to regulate marriage and family life and to control promiscuity. In A.D. 9, for example, he made adultery a criminal offense, and he encouraged the birthrate by granting privileges to couples with three or more children. His laws did not discourage his daughter Julia and his grand-daughter (also Julia), both of whom he banished for immoral conduct. Suetonius reports that "he bore the death of his kin with far more resignation than their misconduct."
Throughout his long reign Augustus encouraged literature, and the Augustan Age is called the Golden Age because Roman writing attained a rare perfection. It was above all an age of poets—Horace, Ovid, and most especially, Virgil. And in Virgil's great epic, the Aeneid, there is expressed for all time the sense of the grandeur of Rome's imperial destiny which culminated in the age of Augustus.
Augustus suffered many illnesses, and these caused him to designate an heir early in his reign. But he had many deaths to bear and outlived his preferred choices, including his two young grandsons, and was finally forced to designate as his heir Tiberius, his third wife's son by her first marriage.
The first emperor died at Nola on Aug. 19, A.D. 14. On his deathbed, according to Suetonius, he quoted a line used by actors at the end of their performance: "Since I've played well, with joy your voices raise/ And from your stage dismiss me with your praise."
The main ancient source for Augustus's life is Suetonius's chapter "The Deified Augustus" in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The career of Augustus is also discussed in Tacitus's History. Augustus left an account of his own deeds called the Res gestae, or more popularly, the Monumentum ancyranum. John Buchan, Augustus (1937), is still the standard biography in English. Much that is valuable relating to Augustus's career may be found in T. Rice Holmes, The Architect of the Roman Empire (2 vols., 1928-1931), and in Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939). See also Henry Thompson Rowell, Rome: In the Augustan Age (1962). □
Born: September 23, 63 b.c.e.
Rome (now in Italy)
Died: August 19, c.e. 14
Nola (now in Italy)
Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. He established the principate, the form of government under which Rome ruled its empire for three hundred years. He had an extraordinary talent for statesmanship (the ability to take an active role in the shaping of a government) and sought to preserve the best traditions of republican Rome, the period in ancient Rome's history when governing power was in the hands of the Senate rather than the emperor.
Augustus was born Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 b.c.e., in Rome. His father had held several political offices and had earned a fine reputation, but he died when Octavius was four. The people who most influenced young Octavius were his mother, Atia, who was the niece of the Roman leader Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 b.c.e.), and Julius Caesar himself. Unlike Caesar, one of Rome's military heroes, Augustus was sickly as a young boy. Poor health troubled him throughout his life. Nevertheless his mother, who made sure the finest teachers tutored him at home, groomed him for the world of politics. By the age of sixteen he was planning to join his great-uncle and serve in Caesar's army.
At this time Rome and the areas it controlled were governed by the Senate, composed largely of members of a small group of upper class citizens who had inherited their positions. The generals who commanded the armies that conquered new territory for Rome's rule increasingly challenged the Senate's authority, however. One such general, Caesar, had basically become a dictator (someone who assumes absolute power) of Rome. The Senate strongly opposed Caesar, and in 44 b.c.e. conspirators (a group of people who plot in secret) assassinated (killed) him.
When Caesar's will was read, it revealed that Caesar had adopted Octavius as his son and heir. Octavius then set out to claim his inheritance in 43 b.c.e., changing his name to Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in Latin).
Rise to power
Octavian's rival at this time was Mark Antony (c. 83–30 b.c.e.), who had taken command of Caesar's legions, the largest Roman military units. The two men became enemies immediately when Octavian announced his intention to take over his inheritance. Antony was engaged in war against the Senate to avenge Caesar's murder and to further his own ambitions. Octavian sided with the Senate and joined in the fight. Antony was defeated in 43 b.c.e., but the Senate refused Octavian the triumph he felt he was owed. As a result Octavian abandoned the senators and joined forces with Antony and Lepidus, another of Caesar's officers. The three men, who called themselves the Second Triumvirate (a group of three officials or government leaders in ancient Rome), defeated their opponents in 42 b.c.e. and assumed full governing power.
They then divided the empire into areas of influence. Octavian took the West; Antony, the East; and Lepidus, Africa. Over time Lepidus lost power, and it seemed impossible that Antony and Octavian could avoid clashing. In 32 b.c.e. Octavian declared war against Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, to whom Antony was romantically and politically tied. After a decisive naval victory in this conflict, Octavian was left as master of the entire Roman world. The following year Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide (killed themselves), and in 29 b.c.e. Octavian returned to Rome in triumph.
Political authority and achievements
Octavian's power was based on his control of the army, his financial resources, and his enormous popularity. The system of government he established, however, also recognized and made important compromises toward renewing republican feeling. In 27 b.c.e. he went before the Senate and announced that he was restoring the rule of the Roman world to the Senate and the people. To show their appreciation, the members of the Senate voted him special powers and gave him the title Augustus, indicating his superior position in the state. A joint government developed that in theory was a partnership. Augustus, however, was in fact the senior partner. The government was formalized in 23 b.c.e., when the Senate gave Augustus enormous control over the army, foreign policy, and legislation.
As emperor Augustus concerned himself with every detail of the empire. He secured its boundaries, provided for the defense of remote areas, reorganized the army, and created a navy. He also formed a large civil service department, which attended to the general business of managing Rome's vast empire. Augustus was also interested in encouraging a return to the religious dedication and morality of early Rome. His efforts included passing laws to regulate marriage and family life and to control promiscuity (loose sexual behavior). He made adultery (when a married person has a sexual relationship with someone other than his or her spouse) a criminal offense, and he encouraged the birthrate by granting privileges to couples with three or more children.
Augustus suffered many illnesses, but he outlived his preferred choices for legal heir. He was finally forced to appoint as his heir Tiberius, his third wife's son by her first marriage. Tiberius took power upon Augustus's death on August 19, c.e. 14.
For More Information
Jones, A. H. M. Augustus. New York: Norton, 1971.
Nardo, Don. The Age of Augustus. San Diego: Lucent, 1997.
Southern, Pat. Augustus. New York: Routledge, 1998.