Today, the 16th of August is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Augustus Caesar, the first and greatest ruler of Rome. His legacy lasted for 1500 years and is still seen today. Here are 10 facts about the emperor Augustus Caesar.
Born to a wealthy equestrian family in Rome in 63 BC, he was given the name Gaius Octavius Thurinus. His father died when he was four and he was raised by his grandmother Julia Caesaris, the sister of Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar’s heir
In 46 AD Octavius went to join his uncle Caesar in Hispania where he was planning to fight the forces of Pompey, his late enemy. En route he was shipwrecked and he and a small band of men crossed hostile territory in order to meet his uncle. This impressed his uncle greatly and he allowed the 19 year old to share his carriage. He must have made an impression, for when Caesar arrived back in Rome he deposited a new will with the Vestal Virgins, naming Octavius as the prime beneficiary and heir.
Gaius Julius Caesar
Upon Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC Octavian took the name Gaius Julius Caesar and set about firming his grip on his late uncle’s money, might and power. He faced competition fro Marc Antony the military heir to Caesar’s faction. He later joined in the Second Triumverate, a Junta including Antony and Lepidus opposing Caesar’s assassins.
Turning on Antony
Once the treacherous Brutus and Cassius were dispatched (Brutus committed suicide after defeat at the battle of Philippi), Rome’s military rule was divided, with Octavian in the West and Antony in the East. Octavian then set about consolidating his power and eliminating his one time ally. Antony for his part, allied himself with Cleopatra in Egypt and became her lover, fathering three children with her and using her money to fund his military campaigns. Under the military genius of Agrippa, Octavian’s army defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, leading Antony to fall on his own sword and Cleopatra to poison herself with an asp’s bite while in custody. With his enemies defeated and himself installed as the one great ruler of Rome, Giaus Octavian Caesar set about cementing his position, through incremental power gains.
Although never actually declared emperor of Rome he just assumed the position after the defeat of his enemies. He eschewed the title Emperor instead preferring to be known as Princeps Civitas (First Citizen). He controlled his image rigorously allowing only favourable depictions of his image.
His biographer Suetonius, writing about a century after Augustus’ death, described his appearance as: “… unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life, though he cared nothing for personal adornment. He was so far from being particular about the dressing of his hair, that he would have several barbers working in a hurry at the same time, and as for his beard he now had it clipped and now shaved, while at the very same time he would either be reading or writing something … He had clear, bright eyes … His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept; his hair was slightly curly and inclining to golden; his eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent ever so slightly inward. His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature (although Julius Marathus, his freedman and keeper of his records, says that he was five feet and nine inches in height), but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure, and was noticeable only by comparison with some taller person standing beside him. …”
While Augustus was known to be utterly ruthless with his enemies there are many recorded tales of when he showed mercy. One day when the Emperor was dining at the house off his friend Vedius Pollio a servant accidentally smashed a crystal cup. Pollio had a mean temper and had the habit of throwing servants who displeased him into a tank of flesh eating Lamprey eels and he ordered the servant executed in this manner. The servant threw himself at the feet of Augustus and begged him to allow him to be executed in another manner. Augustus ordered all Pollio’s valuable cup to be brought before him whereupon he proceeded to smash them all. He set the slave free.
In 8 B.C. Augustus had the Roman month of Sextilius renamed after himself—as his great-uncle and predecessor Julius Caesar had done with July. August was the month of several of the emperor’s greatest victories, including the defeat and suicide of Antony and Cleopatra. He did not increase the month’s length, which had been 31 days since the establishment of the Julian calendar in 45 B.C.
Augustus married three times. The first union, a political ploy, to Mark Antony’s stepdaughter Clodia Pulchra was unconsummated. His second wife Scribonia bore him his only child Julia the Elder but he divorced 39 B.C. to marry Livia Drusilla, who had two sons—Tiberius and Drusus—by her first husband. Augustus had his stepson Tiberius briefly marry his daughter, and then adopted Tiberius outright as son and successor in A.D. 4
Augustus Caesar died in A.D. 14. To his subjects his last words were, “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble,” but to his friends who had stayed with him through his rise to power he said, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud me as I exit.” After his death the Roman Senate officially declared their departed emperor, like Julius Caesar before him, a god.