The Life and Times of Augustus Caesar
Gauis Julius Caesar Octavianus, more prominent by the name of Octavian, was just devoting his time in a leisurely study somewhere in Apollonia when he learned of the assassination of his uncle. Julius Caesar had been the most powerful man in Rome, having been given the title Imperator and Dictator for Life, and when Octavian learned that he was named as Caesar’s heir, he immediately went back to Rome and sought to claim his legacy. Amidst the chaos that the Republic is undergoing, Octavian eventually emerged as its undisputed ruler, became the First Emperor of the Roman Empire and changed his name to Augustus Caesar.
Roman Civil Wars
Throughout the course of the Republic, Rome had been plagued by civil wars. The death of Julius Caesar had caused Rome to suffer what could be said the longest period of civil strife. After the murder of Julius Caesar, both his right hand man, Mark Antony, and his adopted son and heir, Octavian, quickly moved to establish their rightful place to succeed Caesar. Mark Antony had already taken advantage of the events that happened after Caesar was murdered. He had given a dramatic eulogy during Caesar’s interment which appealed to the common people. Thus, Mark Antony became one of the most powerful and influential Roman, at least after Caesar’s assassination.
On the other hand, Octavian arrived to Rome finding Mark Antony as Consul. Although there have been differences between both men, the purpose of avenging the death of Caesar bound them together. Together with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, they formed the Second Triumvirate and had eliminated all of Caesar’s assassins. This left Rome to be divided among the three, which they governed by courting alliances from the Senate for personal gains.
While it could be said that the triumvirs worked together for the welfare of the Republic, it could not be disregarded that each played his part in order to gain advantage for himself, with the goal of having complete authority over the affairs of Rome. This has resulted in rivalries, especially between Mark Antony and Octavian.
The Battle of Actium
The battle which marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire was the battle which also decided who among Mark Antony and Octavian was the better leader. Both generals have constantly tried to win the support of allies in the hope of establishing their legacies as the rightful heir of Caesar. Antony, however, in his ambition had made terrible mistakes which had cost him to loose some of his allies. Antony has also supposedly surrendered Rome under the authority of Egypt which caused Octavian to urge the Senate to move against him. Finally on September 31 BC, Octavian had met Antony and Cleopatra’s forces in the monumental Battle of Actium.
The battle was fought primarily on sea. Octavian had more ships than Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet, but the Roman-Egyptian fleet has the advantage in terms of the ships’ size. Antony uses a much bigger quinqueremes that are difficult to ram. Having bigger ships also meant that it could hold more soldiers on board which would allow Antony’s fleet’s crew to overwhelm Octavian’s. Octavian therefore had to maneuver his fleet to find a position advantageous to him. Both sides battled for position for most of the day until a gap in Antony’s fleet allowed one of Octavian’s general to drive through the gap and put Antony’s fleet into disarray. Finding that they lost the advantage of position, Cleopatra immediately withheld her fleet’s position and left the battle. Antony then followed in pursuit of Cleopatra which left his remaining fleet to be without a suitable commander. With the fatigue of the crew and with the disarray, aside from being left badly outnumbered, the crew had no choice but to surrender.
The result of the battle quickly spread, which greatly reinforced Octavian’s reputation as a military leader. Octavian quickly took advantage of his victory and marched his army through Syria into Egypt, from which most of the garrisons quickly surrendered or fled. Octavian’s general Lucius Scarpus at the same time marched to Alexandria through Cyrene. With nowhere to run, Mark Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra, on the other hand, was apprehended but later, as it is generally believed, also committed suicide.
Octavian’s victory put an end to the conflict between him and Mark Antony and gave him sole and complete power over the Roman government. After the death of Lepidus, both Mark Antony and Octavian did what they can to be claimed the one that is rightful to succeed Caesar. With Actium, Octavian had effectively removed the only serious competition, leaving him to be the “unchallenged ruler of Rome” (Davis 67).
Although he did not immediately become emperor after Actium, Octavian nevertheless acquired much of the powers of the state. Like previous personalities before him that has acquired a similar status as a dictator, Octavian became the First Man in Rome. He had effectively courted the support of the Senate, promising them to that he would respect the law and tradition, and performed the best he can to regain the glory that was Rome. Being the undisputed leader, the territories that belong to Rome went directly under his control. Soon he began to call himself Augustus. The Roman Populace who had previously opposed anyone who presents himself as king readily accepted Augustus as their emperor. Augustus allowed the Senate to rule their Italian territories. The provinces which Rome controlled, however, directly reported to him through the governors.
Augustus Caesar is best remembered as the first Roman Emperor. Shotter regarded him as the emperor who “brought the city and the empire from the chaos of civil war to a system of ordered and stable government” (1). Jantzen held that “many Roman were relieved at the peace which his authority brought to Rome and the Italian heartlands” (285).
The civil wars which Rome had seen before Augustus has finally ended civil conflict were a series of tradition-breaking of some of the notable politicians. Augustus had assumed the role of the restorer of these traditions. He ensured that his popularity with the populace by providing food and water supplies, putting up entertainments and setting up new offices for an effective administration.
The defeat of Mark Antony and his lover, Cleopatra, had turned Egypt, which for years had constantly switched being Rome’s rival and ally, to be completely under Rome. This acquisition had proven to be valuable in terms of its lands. Much of the grain being supplied to Rome and its territories came from Africa. Egypt also possessed great wealth which in turn became Roman wealth. Furthermore, taking over Egypt allowed Rome to be the sole power at sea, enabling them to control the free trade which further increased its wealth.
Taking over the armies, Augustus had also transformed them from being enlisted on an as-needed basis to a regular standing force, thereby allowing for increased professionalism. Having a regular force of soldiers, Augustus was able to solidify his authority. The new Roman Military had become a virtually unbeatable fighting machine which had enable Rome to acquire more territories and for centuries was to become the greatest empire. Permanent military bases in every province were established in order to sustain the soldiers, and much of these had become the foundation of many modern European cities.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present. New York, NY: Oxford University Press US, 2001.
Jantzen, Grace M. Foundations of Violence. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004.
Severy, Beth. Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.
Shotter, David Colin Arthur. Augustus Caesar. New York, NY: Routledge, 2005.
Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Augustus. http://www.historyinfilm.com/claudius/classics/12caesar/augustus.htm