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Octavian is probably the single most important figure in Roman history. During his long and dramatic career, he brought an end to the chaotic decline of the Republic and established a new political basis for Roman government that was to last for three centuries. This new system, called the 'Principate', was far from ideal but it provided the Roman Empire with a centralised political system which maintained the longest period of unity, peace and prosperity that Western Europe, the Middle East and parts of North Africa have ever known.
Caius Octavius (later Augustus) was born on 23 September 63BC, the son of Octavius Senior and Atia, daughter of Julius Caesar's sister, Julia. This remote link with Caesar was to play a dramatic role in shaping the rest of young Octavius' life. When Caesar celebrated his multiple triumphs in September 46BC, Octavius took part in the festivities and he was awarded with military honours. However, Octavius was in the political wilderness until March 44 BC, when his great-uncle was assassinated in Rome.
When he heard of Caesar's murder, Octavius was in Illyricum, preparing to join Caesar on his invasion of Parthia. His mother urged him to stay away from Rome but he ignored the advice and sailed to southern Italy, south of Brundisium. Here, he heard more details about Caesar's death and of his own adoption by the dictator. Octavius, with a great show of bravery and determination, decided to travel to Rome and accept his inheritance.
Entrance into the Political Arena
Octavius now assumed the name C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (hereafter "Octavian"). It was very important for Octavian to identify himself with his adoptive father in order to give his subsequent actions a shade of legitimacy so he simply called himself "Caesar". The name had a magnetic attraction and Octavian's use of it represents his first major political move, from unknown Octavius to Caesar, son of Caesar. Many of the troops at Brundisium joined his cause and as he moved towards Rome his retinue grew in size, especially from among the ranks of veterans settled by Caesar in Italian colonies. By mid-April, he was nearing Rome and it is at this point that Octavian shows himself to be a shrewd, brilliant and astute politician. He came into contact for the first time with Mark Antony, the brash and confident lieutenant of Julius Caesar. Antony showed his contempt for the youth by ignoring him and showing him none of the expected courtesies. Octavian bided his time and slowly built on his popularity with the Roman people and legionaries. When the two consuls were killed in fighting against Caesar's assassins, Octavian forced the Senate to name him as consul. The senators, led by Cicero, chose to back Octavian as they viewed Antony and his intentions with alarm. The Senate could always withdraw its support for Octavian once Antony was out of the way, or so it thought...
The Second Triumvirate and War
Once Octavian had secured the consulship he needed to strengthen his position. In 43BC, Octavian, Mark Antony and another general, Marcus Lepidus, came to a concensus and they formed the Second Triumvirate, a body of three men to 'oversee the affairs of Rome'. After taking power and effectively bypassing the authority of the Senate, the Triumvirate condemned and slaughtered thousands of political enemies, firmly establishing their control of the Roman government. Cicero, the one-time ally of Octavian, was one of the first to die. Cicero remarked, too late, that Octavian was a far greater danger to the Republic than Caesar had ever been!
In 40BC, Antony married Octavia, Octavian's sister, in an attempt to stabilise the situation between the two Roman warlords. However, the union was not happy and Antony deserted her for Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. The two men grew further apart, Octavian consolidating his support in Italy and the western provinces, while Antony established himself in the eastern territories, living with Cleopatra as an oriental monarch. When Antony gave several Roman provinces to his children by Cleopatra, Octavian grabbed his chance to destroy his rival. Octavian seized Antony's will and read it aloud in the Senate. Antony had written that he should be buried in Alexandria, next to Cleopatra. The Senate was appalled and Octavian encouraged it to declare war on Cleopatra and her subservient consort, Antony. In 31BC the Roman Navy under admiral Agrippa defeated the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra, and within a year both had committed suicide. Octavian was now the undisputed master of the Roman World.
The Age of Augustus
In 27BC, the Roman Senate granted Octavian the name Augustus, which means "the exalted" or "the blessed one". This was in response to his attempt at retiring from the 'burdens of office'. This carefully stage-managed event enabled Augustus to claim in later years that he was no Caesar, lusting after power at the expense of Republican ideals. Augustus carefully managed public opinion and he was careful to accept his powers in a piecemeal and gradual way, constantly aware of having to tread carefully. The Senate and the noble families of Rome willingly gave Augustus the legal power to rule Rome's religious, civil and military affairs, with the Senate as an advisory body, effectively making him Emperor. Rome achieved great glory under Octavian/Augustus. He restored peace after a century of civil war; he maintained an honest government and a sound currency system; he extended the highway system connecting Rome with its far-flung empire and he developed an efficient postal service. Furthermore, Augustus encouraged trade among the provinces, he built many bridges, aqueducts and buildings adorned with beautiful works of art created in the classical style. Literature flourished with writers including Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy all living under the emperor's patronage.
The Roman Empire expanded under Augustus with his generals (acting as his agents) conquering Egypt, Spain, Pannonia and Dalmatia (now parts of Hungary and Croatia) and most of southwestern Europe up to the Danube.
The Augustan Legacy
To try and evaluate the lifetime achievements of Rome's first emperor is a daunting task. Augustus ruled Rome and its Empire for over forty years and he died peacefully at Nola in Campania on August 19th AD14. His successor was his step-son Tiberius who acknowledged the enormous gratitude of the Roman People at the splendid funeral celebrations given for Augustus in Rome. An enormous eagle was released above Augustus' pyre, symbolizing the return of his soul to heaven. Augustus was declared a god by the Senate and he was given his own brotherhood of priests, the augustales. In conclusion, every successive emperor adopted his name, Caesar Augustus, which is a measure of the divine status of the man. However, as events would show, only a few of them could earn genuine comparison with him.
Roman Emperors Portrait Gallery
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