Octavian – 42 BC

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born 63 BC – died 14 AD

great-nephew of Julius Caesar

Gaius Octavius Thurinus was born on September 23rd, 63 BC, to Gaius Octavius and Atia, a niece of Julius Caesar by his sister Juia. The family of Octavian had been associated with the bloody affair of proscriptions of Africa. Octavian preferred to distance himself from that reputation and instead looked to his family’s alliance with the Julians. Octavian came under Caesar’s direct influence when he was about 4 years old following his father’s death in 59 BC. While his mother, Atia, raised him with a formal Roman education including philosophy, Caesar influenced him the most during these critical early years. Octavian was educated in rhetoric and studied with Apollodorus of Pergarnum, from whom he learned Greek. Areus, a philosopher, and his sons Dionysius and Nicanor also provided elements of Octavian’ education. Curiously enough, Octavian never quite mastered the Greek language despite enjoying Greek poetry and philosophy. At the age of only 12, Octavian delivered the funeral oration (the laudatio) for his grandmother Julia, Caesar’s sister, in 53 BC.

Suetonius tells us that Octavian matured into a remarkably handsome young man with yellow hair who possessed an elegant graceful gait, but often kept his appearance somewhat less than immaculate noting that his hair could be quite messy at times. He stood only five feet, seven inches tall, or perhaps less, and was quite well proportioned. As Octavian grew older, his teeth became quite decayed.

Physically, Octavian was not particularly strong and he suffered from a variety of complaints throughout his life. He is said to have had a weakness in his left hip and right forefinger. He may have also had a case of ringworm. Throughout his life, Octavian suffered terrible episodes of illness including an abscessed liver, influenza and seasonal complaints due to changes in weather. His worst illness came in 23 BC, when he suffered a near-death experience which ultimately changed his life and the course of Rome itself.

Octavian began his public career entering into the priesthood, which was largely a political position. As Caesar’s military conquests began to rival those of Pompey, Octavian journeyed to Spain to be with his uncle on campaign in 45 BC. The trip to Spain was not particularly easy. Octavian became ill on the trip and managed to survive a shipwreck along the way. To say the least, he was not a glorious sight upon his arrival at Caesar’s camp.

While Octavian may not have instilled unbridled pride on the part of his uncle, Caesar still did not give up on his nephew. Caesar sent Octavian to Apollonia, in Epirus, to study philosophy and the art of war. Octavian took with him his two dearest friends,Marcus Agrippa and Marcus Rufus. While undergoing his studies and military education, he received word of his uncle’s assassination in 44 BC and rushed back to Rome.

Octavian was still quite young, being only 18 years old, when he was declared Caesar’s heir. This event placed Octavian in a mature world where he was now bound by the obligation to avenge the death of his uncle. Upon arriving in Rome, Octavian approached the situation cautiously and wisely – a characteristic that would mark his style of making decisions throughout his life.

Following Caesar’s murder, Marc Antony was in Rome. Antony seized Caesar’s assets and viewed himself as perhaps his heir in spirit, although not by his will. Octavian found Antony unwilling to cooperate and initially refused to relinquish control of Julius Caesar’s property or assets to the young unproven Octavian. This caused Octavian to take a defensive posture against Antony. This led to the unholy alliance at first between Octavian and Cicero, who was Antony’s bitter enemy. The Senate, anxious to alienate what they viewed was the threat from the ambitious Antony, decided to make Octavian a senator and asked his aid in the wars that had begun as a result of the assassination of his great-uncle.

Therefore, at the very beginning of unrest following the death of Caesar, Octavian and Antony were pitted against each other. Octavian, backed by the Senate, defeated Antony’s legions at Mutina during April of 43 BC. This led to Octavian’s troops demands for him to be given the rank and the powers of a consul. The Senate was not pleased with this request in the least. They had hope to use the young Octavian against Antony, whom they viewed as the real threat to their power. Raising Octavian to the rank of consul, introduced another set of problems where Caesar’s true heir might become as powerful as Caesar himself. However, the Senate had little choice. The troops were still very loyal to the memory of Caesar. Finally, a reluctant Senate agreed.

Octavian chose the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus at the time he rose to the rank of consul based upon the fact that he was the true heir of Caesar. Octavian quickly realized that it was still the Senate who represented his true enemy and his confrontation with Antony was a matter of personal ambition and differences. He reached a conclusion that the Senate was indeed attempting to divide the supporters of Caesar by backing Octavian against Antony. Therefore, the logical strategy for Octavian became clear.

Somehow, Octavian had to come to an agreement with Antony if his duty to avenge Caesar’s death would ever be carried out. Octavian then approached Antony in hopes of reaching a truce and perhaps even to join forces. What emerged on November 27th, 43 BC became known as the “Second Triumvirate.” This new alliance became a unified effort between Octavian, Antony and one other supporter of Caesar – Marcus Lepidus. The terms of this new alliance were to divide the Roman Empire into regions of rule. As part of this new triumvirate, Octavian took control of Africa, Sicily and Sardinia.

Octavian’s political status was also greatly enhanced by the fact that Caesar had been elevated to the status of a god. This allowed Octavian to issue coinage advertising his heritage link to the now divine Caesar. Antony held up his part of the bargain and marched against Brutus, Cassius, the leaders of the assassins and corrupt senators of Rome who preferred to be called “Liberators.” At Philippi in 42 BC in the East, Antony defeated the forces of the assassins while Octavian was not present due to poor health.

The victorious Antony was given control of the East as his reward. Octavian worked to strengthen his hold back in Italy realizing that Rome was indeed the true seat of power. It was during this period where Octavian was forced to confront perhaps the most ambitious rival who had stood behind Antony – his wife Fulvia. In 41 BC, the ambitions of Marc Antony’s wife became clear. In her attempt to prevent Octavian from overshadowing her husband, Fulvia convinced her brother-in-law Lucius Antonius to march against Octavian in Italy in what became known as the “Perusine War.” The effort was easily defeated by Octavian and upon Marc Antony learning about what his wife had done without his knowledge, he was furious to say the least. Fulvia became alienated by Antony and died shortly thereafter. With tensions still high, another meeting was called from which the Treaty of Brundisium in 40 BC emerged.

Octavian became involved in a political marriage with Scribonia, a relative by marriage of Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great. However, Octavian divorced Scribonia and married the beautiful Livia Drusilla, who had been the wife of an enemy,Tiberius Claudius Nero, whom he pardoned in 39 BC and allowed him to return to Rome according to the Treaty of Misenum. Livia was pregnant with Tiberius’ second son when they were married in 39 BC and Livia gave birth 3 months later.

Another meeting of the triumvirate was called in 37 BC and their arrangement was renewed once again according to the Treaty of Tarentum under which Octavian gained the West, Antony the East and Lepidus received Africa. It was at this time that Marc Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia, from which several children were born, including the respected daughter Antonia.

Octavian still found himself plagued by the notorious Sextus Pompey, who had turned pirate and became known as the “Master of the Mediterranean.” While Sextus had initially came to an agreement with Antony, that truce was no longer necessary after the Treaty of Brundisium in 40 BC. While several attempts at various compromises with Sextus had taken place in 39 BC, the power struggle between Octavian and Sextus began in 38 BC. Marcus Agrippa was sent against Sextus Pompey in 36 BC and Octavian called upon Lepidus to bring his legions from Africa. Sextus was defeated at the battle of Naulochus and Lepidus took part in negotiating the surrender of the pirate forces.

Lepidus was never quite satisfied by his junior status in the triumvirate. He had his forces now on the doorstep of Octavian at his request and the opportunity to perhaps defeat Octavian was too much to ignore. However, despite the size of his forces, Lepidus’ ill-planned revolt collapsed. He was stripped of all titles and powers and of course his legions. Octavian, allowed him to retain the title of Pontifex Maximus and sent him into exile at Circeii. This left the Roman Empire divided between only Octavian and Antony.

Octavian emerged from these conquests stronger than ever taking the title of Imperator. He then began a campaign in Illyricum and Dalmatia from 35 to 33 BC. Octavian’s success allowed him to declare to the people of Rome that their frontiers were at last safe and secure. Octavian’s strategy was to enhance his own popularity in order to gain enough support to move against Antony.

While Antony had been married to Octavia since 37 BC, his heart was truly captured by the intriguing and scheming Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Cleopatra’s great love affair with Marc Antony has been the romantic story of all time. But behind the flesh and romance, Cleopatra was a cunning woman who was not beyond marrying anyone if it brought her closer to her goal of restoring Egypt to the grandeur of ancient times. Marc Antony was manipulated by Cleopatra and began to give her provinces of Rome as gifts. Octavian finally read Antony’s will in which he expressed his love for Egypt, not Rome. That was the final straw that Octavian needed.

In October of 32 BC, the Western provinces declared their allegiance to Octavian and Antony held the East, a classic division in culture that would always be ever present throughout the history of the Roman Empire. Both sides began to prepare for the inevitable war, which finally came on September 2nd, 31 BC. The Battle of Actium was fought off the west coast of Greece, with Octavian facing Antony and Cleopatra. Once again, it was the brilliant command of Marcus Agrippa, which won the day propelling Octavian as the new master over the Roman world. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt and Octavian took his time in pursuing them to Egypt for the final confrontation.

Gold Aureus announcing Conquest of Egypt

Cleopatra attempted to negotiate a deal with Octavian, but he would not fall for her charms. Antony and Cleopatra then committed suicide thus bringing to an end perhaps the most celebrated love affair of all time. Octavian then conquered Egypt in 30 BC and generally pacified the East along the lines begun by Antony. His victory was recorded for posterity on a rare issue of gold and silver coinage showing a crocodile with the inscription “AEGVPT CAPTA” on the reverse with his portrait displayed on the obverse.

Octavian also executed Marc Antony’s son, Marc Antony Junior at Alexandria. He allowed a daughter of Antony and Cleopatra to live and she eventually married King Juba II. As for Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar born in 47 BC, he too was executed at Alexandria in 30 BC. Thus, Octavian emerged as the undisputed master of the Roman Empire at the age of thirty-three.

Monetary System

Silver Denarius of Octavian

The monetary system as it was known had been completely changed. Bronze coinage, which had all but vanished from the monetary system since 84 BC, was reintroduced. Additional reforms to the monetary system were made including the introduction of gold coinage as a regular issue instead of its informal appearance only during war.

Mints: Rome, military moving mints.

Obverse Legends:



AU Aureus (6.54 grams)
AR Cistophorus (3.54 grams)
AR Denarius (3.54 grams)
AR Quinarius (3.54 grams)

with Julius Caesar
AU Aureus (6.54 grams)
AR Denarius (3.54 grams)
Æ Sesterius

with Marc Antony
AU Aureus (6.54 grams)
AR Denarius (3.54 grams)

with Lepidus
AU Aureus (6.54 grams)
AR Denarius (3.54 grams)

Monetary History of the World
© Martin A. Armstrong