“Make haste slowly.”—Augustus
Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, often remembered simply as Augustus, was the very first Emperor of Rome, and in that he accomplished what his great-uncle, and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, had failed to do. He not only took power and managed to keep it, he also turned the longstanding Roman Republic into an Empire, which it would remain for centuries after his death. Some have hailed Augustus as a great visionary with a gift for leadership, while others denounce him as a dictator on the level of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. So who was this complex figure? How did he get where he ended up? Read the facts below to find out more about one of the most powerful men in history.
44. Long May He Reign
Not only was Augustus the first Emperor of Rome, he also ruled Rome longer than anyone after him. His reign of 41 years was almost twice as long as the first runner-up—in case you’re curious, that person is Antoninus Pius, who ruled for fewer than 23 years.
43. Born and Raised
Augustus was born in Rome on the 23rd of September in the year 63 BC. However, he didn’t stay in Rome for long, as it was deemed too crowded to raise him. He was then taken to his family’s estate in the village of Velletri for the first years of his life.
42. Was Octavius That Hard to Pronounce?!
Augustus’ birth name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus, although historians usually call him “Octavian” for short. This is due in part to William Shakespeare giving him a more English-sounding name in the play Julius Caesar, much like how Marcus Antonius (Augustus’ rival) became known as Mark Antony instead.
41. Great Job, Dad!
Augustus’ cognomen, Thurinus, is said to have been a tribute to his father’s triumph over a slave rebellion in the city of Thurii.
40. So My Grandma…
In just one case of Emperor Caligula being absolutely crazy, he apparently disliked that his mother Agrippa, Augustus’ granddaughter, had less-than-royal ancestry through her father’s side. Caligula decided to rewrite history by claiming that Agrippa was actually born from an incestuous relationship between Augustus and his daughter, Julia. Because even incest is better than marrying beneath your station, according to Caligula.
39. The Roman Purge
In an act of ruthless vengeance and ambition, Augustus and the other members of the Second Triumvirate took power in 43 BC and issued mass proscriptions (see: state-approved murder/banishment). More than 2,000 people (including up to 300 Roman senators) were forced to flee or else be killed for the reward money issued by Augustus, Antony, and Lepidus. Augustus’ role in this action is not agreed upon by historians, or even among contemporary Roman historians. Many say that Augustus took a minimal role in this, as he was younger than Antony or Lepidus and didn’t have as many enemies as they did, but this could also be flattery to avoid making Augustus look as bloodthirsty as Antony, whose memory was vilified by Augustus.
38. You Know What I had to Do to Get Here?
Augustus always wanted to join his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, and be part of his military campaigns. However, things kept getting in the way, delaying Augustus from fulfilling this dream. He initially wanted to join Caesar for his African campaigns, but his mother protested until he relented and stayed home. She later allowed him to go join Caesar when he was fighting Pompey in Hispania, but Augustus couldn’t initially go because of illness. Even after he recovered and sailed west, he had to endure a shipwreck and a harrowing journey through enemy territory before he finally met with his great-uncle.
37. Kingslayer Brigade
One of Augustus’ longest-lasting contributions to the history of the Roman Empire was the formation of the Praetorian Guard. Initially formed by Augustus as a bodyguard detail, they grew in size and importance. They not only guarded the emperor, but also maintained the peace in Rome and even the rest of the Italian Peninsula. Not only that, the Praetorian Guard became influential to politics when they assassinated Augustus’ descendant Emperor Caligula and installed Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, on the throne instead.
36. 31 Days in My Honor
Just as the month of July was named after Julius Caesar, the month of August was named after Emperor Augustus. It had previously been named Sextilis, since it was the sixth month in the Roman year (it was a different time).
35. Family Network
Even before Augustus joined Julius Caesar as a grown man, Caesar had always had an interest in his grand-nephew. At age 15, Augustus was elected to a position with the College of Pontiffs (an order of priests in pre-Christian Roman society), and it was Caesar himself who nominated him.
34. Good Grandson
Augustus spent part of his childhood being raised by his grandmother, Julia, who was also Caesar’s sister. An 11-year-old Augustus personally delivered the funeral oration for his grandmother after she died in 52 BC.
33. Rising Star
While Caesar was busy establishing himself as dictator for life, he sent Augustus to the city of Apollonia in Macedonia to complete his education. However, there was another reason for this move; five Roman legions were stationed in Macedonia, and Caesar wanted Augustus to take them east and fight under Caesar’s command in an upcoming war against the Parthian Empire. Caesar even named Augustus “Master of the Horse,” which was a fancy way of saying his second-in-command. Augustus was 19 years old at the time.
32. Love and Marriage
During his life, Augustus was married three times. His first two marriages each ended in divorce after two years, while the third lasted from 37 BC until his death in 14 AD.
31. Marriage was the Death of Me
Speaking of that third wife, one theory presented by Roman historians was that Augustus’ death came about because his wife, Livia Drusilla, poisoned him in order to ensure that her son, and Augustus’ stepson Tiberius, would become the next emperor. However, this is often seen as slander by those who loathed Tiberius and wished to make him more of a villain than he probably was.
30. Shedding the Old Identity
Augustus was still in Apollonia when news of Caesar’s assassination reached him in 44 BC. Word got out that Caesar had named Augustus as his heir in his will, and Augustus changed his name from Gaius Octavius Thurinus to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honor of his relative and benefactor. It wasn’t just mere flattery, though; the name helped emphasize Augustus’ position as Caesar’s successor.
29. A Napoleon Complex Pre-Napoleon?
According to Suetonius, Augustus stood 5’7″, leading to him wear shoes that added a few inches to his height.
28. Three Amigos
Augustus was the most famous member of the Second Triumvirate, which was a trio of powerful men who ultimately brought about the end of the Roman Republic. The other two members of the Second Triumvirate were Marcus Antonius (better known as Mark Antony) and Marcus Lepidus. Both Antony and Lepidus had been close allies of Julius Caesar.
27. Stop Spending My Inheritance
When a young Augustus arrived in Rome after the death of Julius Caesar, he found that Mark Antony was acting as Caesar’s heir after having driven Caesar’s assassins from the city. Augustus called him out on it after drawing Caesar’s former soldiers to his side, even making an alliance with Caesar’s former enemies. Antony was declared a threat to the Republic, leading to his flight from Rome.
26. Augustus the Architect’s Friend?
Among the many building projects in Rome which began with him were the Temple of Caesar, the Baths of Agrippa, the Forum of Augustus, and the Mausoleum of Augustus, which was built to carry the final remains of his family, including himself. Because really, if you had the chance to design your final resting place, of course you’d take it!
25. Ultimate Opportunist
In a strange bit of musical chairs, Augustus led the Roman Senate’s armies against Mark Antony in 43 BC, even when it meant being on the same side as Decimus Brutus, one of the men who’d stabbed Julius Caesar to death. Augustus only turned on the Senate when they rewarded Brutus more than him in the aftermath of Antony’s defeat. This led Augustus to seek out Antony (who’d allied with Marcus Lepidus) and form the Second Triumvirate in opposition to the Senate and Brutus.
24. They Grow Up Too Fast
Augustus only had one child in his life; his daughter Julia. Julia was described as being good and kind-hearted by those who knew her, and she spent her early years as the apple of her father’s eye. However, this changed as she got older (more on that later).
23. One For Me, One For You, None For You
After the defeat of Julius Caesar’s assassins in 42 BC, Augustus and Mark Antony divided up the Roman territory between them, with Lepidus being left out of the main spoils. Antony took control of Gaul (modern-day France) while Augustus claimed Spain.
22. I Need a Successor!
While seeking an heir, Augustus married his daughter, Julia, to his nephew, Marcellus, in 25 BC. However, Marcellus died of sickness a few years later, leading Augustus to quickly marry Julia off to his friend, Agrippa (who was more than 22 years her senior). Agrippa and Julia had three sons and two daughters. Although Augustus paid close attention to his grandsons, two of them died young while the third was sent into exile. Not exactly the best track record.
21. Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t
Despite the triumph of Augustus and Antony, Augustus had a problem on his hands regarding the thousands of veteran soldiers who had either served the Second Triumvirate or who had surrendered after being defeated. All these soldiers wanted to settle down on land of their own, or else they could become angry with Augustus and join his enemies. Augustus chose what he thought was the lesser of two evils by evicting Roman citizens off their land and gifting it to the veterans.
20. In All but Name
In order to convince the Roman Republic to approve his dictatorial power without having them revolt against him, like they had done against Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Augustus made a show of giving up any formal authority he had back to the Senate, while still having the loyalty of the troops. Meanwhile, after the civil wars, Roman society had become fractured to the point of lawlessness. The Roman Senate ended up ceding territory to him, which gave him charge of 20 Roman legions while they only kept six for themselves.
19. Victory by Propaganda
One of Augustus’ greatest accomplishments as Emperor was a treaty with the Parthian Empire which saw the return of Roman standards lost when a Roman army was slaughtered at the Battle of Carrhae. While many resented that the Parthians weren’t invaded in revenge, Augustus achieved a diplomatic and moral victory by playing up the return of the standards as a great triumph.
18. Roll Call!
Augustus has been represented on film and television several times. The actors who have played Augustus include Roddy McDowall (Cleopatra), Max Pirkis and Simon Woods (Rome) and Brian Blessed (I, Claudius).
17. Law and Order
As emperor, Augustus oversaw Rome’s first police and firefighting forces. He also established a permanent standing army to maintain the empire, numbering 170,000 men in total.
16. Call Me Unkempt, I Dare You!
Augustus apparently didn’t care much about his personal appearance. His teeth were poorly kept, and he would often just have several barbers work on his hair without real care to how it ended up looking. To be fair, who’s going to tell Augustus that he’s having a bad hair day?
15. I’m No King! Honest!
One element that made Augustus’ seizing of power successful was his refusal, unlike Julius Caesar, to dress finely and cover himself in glorious titles and finery. Augustus turned down the privileges of wearing a diadem or carrying a scepter, knowing that such kingly features would fly in the face of the image of a Republic that he was trying to claim still existed. Of course, the façade eventually faded when he’d secured his power.
14. One Down, One to Go
With the Second Triumvirate in power of Rome, Augustus moved against them as soon as he had the chance. First, he turned the public against Lepidus, who had been left out of the main territory grabs and raised an army to get a piece for himself. After making Lepidus’ grievances look like treason and greed, Augustus arranged for the legions under Lepidus’ control to defect to him. The powerless Lepidus was exiled after having all his remaining offices robbed from him.
13. Nobody Left to Stop Me
As for Antony, his end came while he basked in the wealth of the east, with Cleopatra at his side. Augustus wasted no time vilifying Antony’s name and reputation in Rome, until the Senate approved for an expedition east, led by Augustus, to destroy Antony and Cleopatra. Augustus defeated them both at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, leading to Antony and Cleopatra choosing suicide over capture. With their deaths, Augustus was the sole man in charge of Rome, and he took the necessary steps to consolidate his power and make himself the emperor.
12. What’s in a Name?
Augustus didn’t acquire the name “Augustus” until it was granted to him by the Roman Senate after his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. The name, literally translated, means “the increaser,” and was apparently such an honor that Augustus used it as his name for the rest of his life.
11. The Father-In-Law from Hell
After Agrippa died, Augustus arranged for Julia to marry his stepson, Tiberius. Neither Julia nor Tiberius liked each other, and Augustus even forced Tiberius to divorce his previous wife, whom he’d adored, just so he could marry Julia. Not the best start to a relationship.
10. In-Law Troubles
In a showy attempt at letting bygones be bygones, Augustus and Antony secured their alliances with each other through marriage. Augustus married Antony’s stepdaughter, Claudia Pulchra, and Antony married Augustus’ sister, Octavia. However, both these marriages ended badly. Augustus divorced Claudia after two years, declaring that he had never consummated the marriage. Meanwhile, Antony cheated on Octavia with Cleopatra, with whom he lived in Egypt.
9. Epic Showdown
One of the largest battles in the history of Rome’s civil wars was fought at Philippi in two parts. The first battle was fought on the 3rd of October and the second was fought on the 23rd of October in the year 42 BC. The double battle was fought between the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the two main men behind Caesar’s assassination, against the combined forces of Mark Antony and Augustus (Octavian at the time). Up to 200,000 men participated in both battles, leading to nearly 25,000 men killed. Although Augustus and Antony’s forces suffered worse losses, the two senators Brutus and Cassius killed themselves as their armies surrendered.
8. A Victor or a Liability?
Although he participated in the campaign as an equal to Mark Antony, Augustus was plagued with sickness, even during the Philippi battles. In fact, Brutus’ army overran Augustus’ position on the day of the first battle. It was only turned into a draw when Antony defeated Cassius’ forces and Cassius took his own life rather than be captured.
7. Dad! You’re Such a Buzzkill!
Caught in a loveless marriage, Augustus’ daughter Julia decided she preferred the company of men who weren’t her husband, Tiberius. In 2 BC, she was arrested for adultery. As Tiberius was away on Rhodes, Augustus took charge and arranged for Tiberius and Julia to divorce. He declared that his daughter had been guilty of treason and punished her lovers with exile or else forced them to kill themselves.
6. Disowned Daughter
As for Julia, she was banished to the tiny island of Pandateria, forbidden to have male visitors unless Augustus approved of them, and was even forbidden to drink wine. She remained there for the rest of her life, while Augustus left specific orders that Julia’s remains wouldn’t be allowed in the family mausoleum when she died. Never forgiving his daughter, Augustus was said to have lamented “If only I had never married, or had died childless.” Harsh…
5. We Need A Strong Leader and You’re It!
A final reason why Augustus was able to seize power was just how fragile Rome had become after all the civil wars, and how much its stability depended on him. This was made even more tenuous by the fact that Augustus was frequently ill in his life. However, he managed to live, and was able to seize more and more power for himself, becoming recognized as an Emperor of Rome.
4. No Need to Thank Me!
Although the Romans did use marble in their buildings, it wasn’t their main construction material until the reign of Emperor Augustus. As a result, Augustus’ final words to the people of Rome were: “I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.”
3. A Showman to the Last
Allegedly, Augustus’ last words were “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” Frankly, given how his ability to play sides off one another and putting on facades led to him seizing power under everyone’s noses, we can’t help but admit that those are the most fitting last words he could have said.
2. No Mercy
Augustus was famous for being absolutely ruthless when it came to his enemies. Once, a man sentenced to death begged the emperor for his body to be buried. Without batting an eye, Augustus gave a this chilling reply: “The birds will soon settle that question.” In another instance, when a father and son begged for their lives, he told them to gamble to decide which would be spared. The father volunteered to be killed in order to save his son, and Augustus then coldly watched as the man was executed, and as the son took his own life right after.
1. Brutal Memorial
Augustus revered his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, even long after the legendary general’s death. He was so committed to Caesar’s memory, in fact, that he once ordered an absolutely horrific sacrifice to be held on the Ides of March, the anniversary of Caesar’s assassination (today we’d call it March 15th, but the Romans had a flair for the dramatic). 300 prisoners taken from the recent Perusine War were killed on the altar of Caesar in Rome, all to show how much the emperor respected the man who set the foundation for his rule.