First Emperor of Rome27BC-14AD
Born 63 BC – Died 14 AD, age 78
With the defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, in 30 BC, Octavian emerged as the undisputed master of the Roman World. Such a position was briefly attained by his great-uncle Julius Caesar, but for now, Octavian had to be sure that his victory would remain a solid one.
Between 30BC and 27 BC, Octavian consolidated his political position in Rome and completely reorganized the Constitution. The Roman system of government had virtually collapsed from its own internal corruption. The Republic of Rome had long since fallen from its republican ideas into a state of near complete disarray. Octavian found himself holding immense political power in the middle of a vast political vacuum. Romes very survival now depended upon not merely political and economic reform, but the creativity, determination, and action of one man who could make the decisions for a nation in turmoil.
In 30 BC, Octavian was granted tribunician power and in addition to serving as consul, which he held from 31 to 23 BC. Octavian embarked upon his military reforms in 29 BC and the vast wealth acquired through the plunder of Egypt was used to pay off his troops. In addition, many veterans were given lands to farm and colonize as a means of retirement. Through these measures, the legions were thus reduced from 60 down to 28, while at the same time ensuring that Roman influence in the provinces was maintained. This was accomplished by the creation of a vast supplemental formation of auxiliaries troops, none of which were allowed in Italy.
For his own protection, Octavian created something entirely new in Roman military history – the Praetorian Guard. This elite force was maintained as a special unit whose sole purpose was the protection of his new office of head of state. As the centuries would unfold, this elite corp of troops would play a major role in future political events until it was finally reformed by the future Emperor Diocletian in 286 AD.
Octavian also established a treasury department and the aerarium militare, which was created in order to provide for a better organization of military finances. We also find a complete reform of the monetary system with a standardization of denominations for the first time since early Republican days. Bronze coinage had suffered greatly during the mid to late Republic and in fact, no Republican bronze had been issued after about 84 BC, with the brief exception of a small emission during the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey. Octavian’s monetary reform resumed the regular issue of the Roman bronze coinage over which the monetary authority resided locally in Eastern Cities and eventually with the Senate (about 18 BC) in the West. The minting of gold and silver were maintained under Octavian’s own personal control. Gold now became a regular part of the Roman monetary system for the first time, whereas the issue of gold was quite infrequent during the Republic.
In 28 BC, Octavian turned to the Senate with an eye toward reforming this institution as well. Armed with the title of Princeps Senatus and with the help of Marcus Agrippa, Octavian conducted a census of the population. This maneuver allowed him to reduce the number of senators to 800. Still, an unwieldy number to say the least but by far a major improvement over the disorganization that had come to prevail. This major political reform was in preparation for the return of certain powers Octavian envisioned for the Senate and the people of Rome.
On January 13th, 27 BC, the Senate of Rome received back its powers to control the state In return, Octavian was granted for 10 years control of Spain, Gaul, and Syria, centers of frontier defense, and the appointment of governors. These were thus imperial provinces, and the Senate controlled the remaining portion of the Empire including Italy. This system was seemingly Republican, with the added safeguard that no governor of any province would dare to go against Octavian’ wishes.
Octavian’s reforms, therefore, recognized that by maintaining the Republican institutions in combination with a strong head of state entrusted with the defense of the Empire, he could ultimately ensure the prosperity of all Roman traditions while allowing Rome to achieve its destined greatness. Indeed, the basic design of such a system still serves as the foundation of many democratic forms of government today.
As Octavian consolidated his power, he shed his role as a de facto dictator and eventually transferred to the State, “the free disposal of the Senate and the people.”Four days after this rehabilitation of the Senate, Octavian received a new title, Augustus (loosely meaning revered or worthy of veneration) on January 16th, 27 BC. Octavian, therefore, became known as Augustus Caesar Octavian. From this period onward, his coinage simply bears the name Augustus. For generations to come, history would always remember Octavian by his new name Augustus. And as for Rome itself, it would be the assumption of this title by all of his successors that provided the means through which Imperial status was transferred from one Emperor to the next. For this reason, the granting of the title Augustus to Octavian in 27 BC marked the birth of the new Imperial age of Rome.
In 25 BC, Augustus married his only child, Julia to his nephew Marcellus. Augustus was clearly grooming Marcellus to be his heir and hoped that this union would produce many grandchildren. Unfortunately, Marcellus died in 23 BC quite suddenly and Augustus’ dreams seemed to vanish. Matters were made worse by Augustus himself becoming severely ill. Many, including himself, believed that he was near death.
In 23 BC, when Augustus was in ill health, he sensed that conspiracies were in the making. Augustus terminated his Consulship in favor of the title “Imperium Maius” and “Tribunicia Potestas”, commonly known as the Tribunican Power, which gave him control over the provinces, the Senate and the state. Augustus later regained his health (although he continued to suffer from epilepsy) with the aid of his private physician, Antonius Musa.
Augustus emerged from this near-death experience with a new quest – to revive Roman religion. He created great temples to Mars and Apollo and ordered the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. In 12 BC, he succeeded Marcus Lepidus as Pontifex Maximus, the highest priesthood in Roman religion. The ARVAL BRETHREN were also revived, and the ranks of the Vestal Virgins were filled.
The Rebuilding of Rome
Augustus is certainly known for taking Rome built of brick and transforming it into a city of marble. He built the Forum and the several temples, including the temple of Divus Julius, which was constructed upon the spot of Caesar’s cremation. He also constructed the first permanent theatre in Rome, which he named after his deceased son-in-law – the Theatre of Marcellus. Augustus also supported any wealthy citizen who followed in his path of public works. Most notable were the ever-faithful Marcus Agrippa, who constructed the Pantheon and Marcius Philippus. Even the city was reorganizatized, divided into 14 wards. Police duties were performed by the Urban Cohorts, and order was maintained over the often unruly mobs. Above the Urban Cohorts, however, and above the population, the Senate and, eventually, the Emperors themselves, stood the Praetorian Guards.
Administrative, Legal & Tax Reforms
Augustus embarked on a path of major administrative changes in the spirit of his great uncle Julius Caesar. Reforms were made in finances as well as in the bureaucracy. A host of legal reforms were also introduced covering everything from Treason and bribery to social reforms. The Equestrian Order and Freedmen were brought into the process of government giving birth to the civil system, which endured for the next 500 years. The provincial reforms instituted by Augustus included a new tax system.
Social & Moral Reforms
Silver Denarius of Augustus Emphasizing Family
Julia and her two sons Gaius and Lucius
Augustus was also given the title of Pater Patriae, which he used to institute moral and social reforms. Augustus began to stress the importance of the Roman family and above all the institution of marriage. In 18 BC, he introduced the lex Julia de adultenis, which punished adultery, and the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus, which required bachelors to marry. He also required the remarriage of the widows, with the only exception being granted to Antonia, his niece. Thus, the social and moral reforms (family laws) introduced by Augustus not merely honored family life but attempted to reverse the liberalism that had surfaced during the corrupt age of the Republic. Indeed, the political corruption had led to a state of corruption of morals in general.
Expanding the Empire
Augustus was also very concerned with the preservation of the Empire and its frontiers. He strengthened the Roman government in both Spain and Gaul and embarked on a project of urbanization, much of which is still evident today in the ruins throughout Europe. All of Augustus’ ambitions for expanding the frontier was not achieved. While Germany was occupied by the Romans, Augustus had hoped that the region could be pacified and ultimately colonized under the Empire. However, in 9 AD, the general Quintillius Varus was completely annihilated with his legions by Arminius and the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest. Any hopes Augustus may have had for the conquest of Germany were lost. The Roman frontier was then a policy of maintaining the natural border of the Danube.
In his new conquest of Egypt, Augustus had reorganized its borders. In 20 BC, Augustus entered into a formal peace with Parthia in the East. The Parthian treaty gave Rome dominion over Armenia. In this way, Augustus sought to create a buffer zone against Parthia by utilizing existing client states in the East-Armenia, Commagene, Cappadocia, Galatia, and Syria.
The Search for an Heir
The process of an imperial dynasty was not necessarily planned nor entirely expected given the lack of such a Roman precedent. Suetonius claimed that Augustus considered stepping down twice. Once following the death of Antony and once again following his near-death experience in 23 BC. Nonetheless, Augustus appeared to some extent almost obsessed with finding an heir given the fact that his only child was his daughter Julia. At first, Augustus looked to his nephew/son-in-law, Marcellus, but unfortunately, he died in 23 BC. Following the death of Marcellus, Augustus gave his daughter Julia in marriage to his friend Marcus Agrippa. While Agrippa was not eligible for the throne due to his common origin, Augustus did look to his grandchildren from this marriage. Julia bore Agrippa three sons: Gaius, Lucius, and Agrippa Posthumus. Following Agrippa’s death in 12 BC, Augustus virtually raised Gaius and Lucius grooming them as his heirs officially adopting them in 17 BC.
With the loss of Agrippa, Augustus has little choice but to turn for administrative help to his wife Livia’s son by her former husband, Tiberius who he also ordered to divorce his wife Vipsania, a daughter of Agrippa, and marry his daughter Julia. However, this union proved to be a disaster and Tiberius chose to retire from public service to Rhodes rather than remain married to Julia. This disappointment was followed by a scandalous affair with Julia becoming involved with numerous men of Rome. Upon discovering this behavior, possibly with the help of Livia, Augustus banished his daughter in 2 BC where she eventually died in 14 AD.
Lucius died suddenly in 2 AD and the following year Gauis was wounded in battle in the East and died in 3 AD. Agrippa Postumous was banished on sexual charges of rape, which were most likely false. One by one, potential heirs died or were banished leaving Augustus disappointed and heart broke. Faced with no heirs from his Julian bloodline, Augustus had little choice. At the suggestion of Livia, he reluctantly adopted her son, Tiberius by her first husband Tiberius Claudius Nero, who had opposed Augustus during the Civil War. Despite the fact that Augustus and his stepson Tiberius never got along, Tiberius was recalled from his voluntary retirement. In 4 AD, Augustus finally adopted Tiberius as his heir but in turn had Tiberius adopt Germanicus, the son of his brother Drusus by his wife Antonia, who was the daughter of Marc Antony and Octavia – Augustus’ sister.
In 3 AD, Augustus accepted 10 more years of rule. The fact that Tiberius was destined to succeed him became evident in 13 AD when he was granted full tribunician potestas and imperium proconsulare. Towards the end of Augustus’ reign, he began to suspect that Livia may have had a hand in the tragic events that had devastated his family. Augustus may have altered his will inserting Agrippa Postumous as a joint heir with Tiberius placing his will with the Vestal Virgins.
The Last Year
Augustus may have begun to suspect that the bad fortunes of his family were not by chance. Augustus became ill in 14 AD and refused to eat any food unless it was picked by his own hand fearing perhaps that Livia might be poisoning him as well. It is entirely possible that Livia feared that Augustus might remove Tiberius from his will and may have placed poison on the figs in Augustus’ garden. On August 19, 14 AD, the great benevolent Augustus died at Nola. Tiberius, who was on his way to Illyricum, was summoned back to assume the position of Princeps. On the 17th of September, Augustus was deified by the Senate of Rome. His body was cremated and placed in an elaborate tomb, which can still be visited in Rome today. Worshipers would visit his altar for centuries to come until the dawn of Christianity and his portrait would be honored by numerous emperors that followed. In the meantime, Agrippa Postumous was murdered most likely on the orders of Livia. Germanicus would also eventually die 5 years later in 19 AD by means of poison.
Augustus the Man
“I left Rome a city of marble, though I found it a city of bricks.”
Augustus was indeed a practical man. He did not surround himself with great luxuries and instead preferred quite modest furnishings, diet and dress. He lived in a modest palace on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum. Although he had a great passion for the people and honesty in politics, the interesting paradox was that he mistrusted the mob and disliked large crowds. These curiously seem to be thr traits of many great men whom history has put forward in times of crisis.
Augustus did have literary aspirations. While most of his writings have not survived, we do have a few things that provide insight into the man called Augustus. One such piece is a letter he wrote to his grandson Gaius demonstrating his deep family devotion. We also have the famous Res Gestae, which lists his great achievements. Augustus also authored an attack on Brutus’ Eulogy of Cato, which was a philosophical treatise and an autobiography totalling 13 books. Augustus also made an effort at writing poetry and tragedy – Sicily, Epiphanus and Ajax. Augustus apparently destroyed Ajax himself.
The monetary reform of Augustus was a major change that would forever alter the course of Rome’s monetary history. Bronze coinage, which had virtually ceased to be minted after 84 BC, was restituted. The minting of gold and silver were maintained under Octavian’s own personal control and gold now became a regular part of the Roman monetary system for the first time.
Mints: Rome, Emerita, Caesaraugusta (?), Colonia Patricia (?), Lugdunum, Ephesus, Pergamum
AVGVSTVS DIVI F
AVGVSTVS TRIBVNIC POTEST
CAESAR PONT MAX
CAESAR AVGV TRIBVN POTES
CAESAR AVGVST PONT MAX TRIBVNIC POT
C CAES AVGVS F
CAESAR AVGVST PONT MAX TRIBVNIC
CAESAR AVGAVTVS S P Q R
CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE
IMP CAESAR AVGVST
IMP CAESAR DIVI F AVGVSTVS IMP XX
SPQR PARENT CONS SVO
SPQR IMP CAESARI AVG COS XI TR POT VI
S C OB R P CVM SALVT IMP CAESAR AVG CONS
AU Aureus (6.54 grms)
AR Denarius (3.54 grms)
Posthumous Coinage of
Gold Aureus of Tiberius with the Divine Augustus
posthumous coinage of Augustus is by far one of the most extensive within the entire Roman series. He was honored by his successors as late as 268 AD by the Emperor Trajan Decius. We also find the image of Augustus used during the Civil War that followed the fall of Nero. Furthermore, Augustus was honored on the tokens struck during the Julio-Claudian period used for numerous events or games.
Mints: Alexandria, Antioch, Arelate, Constantinople, Cyzicus, Heraclea, London, Lugdunum, Nicomedia, Rome, Siscia, Sirmium, Thessalonica, Ticinum, Treveri
DIVO AVGVSTO S P Q R OB CIVES SER
DIVO AVGVSTO S P Q R
DIVO AVGVSTVS PATER
DIVVS AVGVSTVS S C
DIVVS AVGVSTVS PATER
AU Aureus (6.54 grms)
Æ Dupondius (Tarraco, Spain)
AR Tetradrachm with Tiberius (Egypt)
AU Aureus (with Caligula)
AU Aureus (6.54 grms)
AR Denarius (3.54 grms)
AR Denarius (3.54 grms)
AR Denarius (3.54 grms)
AU Aureus (6.54 grms)
by Trajan Decius