63 B.C.-A.D. 14

First Roman emperor

Caesar Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. A great statesman and administrator, Augustus brought order to the Roman world after a difficult period of civil war. He established an era of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, which lasted for over 200 years. During his reign, he helped to create the greatest and most powerful empire in the ancient world.

Early Years. Born on September 23, 63 B.C., Augustus was the son of Gaius Octavius (a Roman senator) and Atia (a niece of Julius Caesar). Originally named Gaius Octavius after his father, he later took the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honor of his great-uncle. The name Augustus came later, during his meteoric rise to power.

After his father’s death in 59 B.C., his mother supervised his education and upbringing. His great-uncle, Julius Caesar, also took particular interest in the boy and, in his will, made him his heir since he had no legitimate male heir of his own. In 45 B.C., Octavius accompanied Caesar on a military campaign in Spain. When he returned, he was sent to Epirus in Greece to study philosophy* and other subjects. His studies were cut short, however, by the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. After learning that he had been named his great-uncle’s heir, he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus and returned to Rome to claim his inheritance. Octavian, as he became known at that time, also hoped to avenge Caesar’s brutal death.

Struggle for Power. Meanwhile, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) had seized Caesar’s property and aimed to be his political successor. Antony refused to yield to the 18-year-old Octavian and was determined to assume Caesar’s power. Octavian sought help from the Roman Senate and the powerful statesman and orator Cicero. The Senate, anxious to limit Antony’s power, recognized Octavian’s claim and sought to use him as a weapon against Antony. Octavian and his supporters defeated Antony at the Battle of Mutina in northern Italy in 43 B.C.

Octavian became consul after Antony’s defeat, but the Senate, thinking the young man was now under its control, began to ignore him. Realizing that he needed strong allies to achieve his goals, he turned to the defeated Antony and to Marcus Lepidus, another friend of Julius Caesar. The three men assembled their armies and marched on Rome in late 43 B.C. They established the Second Triumvirate, a government of three leaders who shared power equally. Soon after establishing the triumvirate, they killed many of their political enemies, including Cicero. With their power in Rome secure, Octavian and Antony took their armies to Greece, where their armies defeated the troops of Cassius Longinus and Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s assassins, at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.

His great-uncle’s death avenged, Octavian returned to Rome to rule Italy, while Antony went to Egypt to rule the eastern Roman provinces. In 41 B.C., Antony’s brother Lucius and his wife Fulvia led a revolt in Italy against Octavian. The uprising, because it was centered around the town of Perusia (modern Perugia), became known as the Perusine War. The struggle strained relations between Octavian and Antony. The two men met in southern Italy in 40 B.C. to settle their differences and, soon after, Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia to strengthen the relationship.

In 37 B.C., Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus renewed the triumvirate and divided the empire among themselves. Octavian ruled Italy and the western provinces*; Antony ruled the eastern ones; and Lepidus ruled Africa. Octavian now focused his efforts on consolidating his power in Italy. In 36 B.C., Octavian’s boyhood friend and staunchest supporter, Marcus Agrippa, defeated Sextus Pompeius, son of Gneaus Pompeius (Pompey the Great). Sextus Pompeius, a powerful naval commander, had controlled the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. His defeat eliminated a major rival for power in Italy. Because Lepidus had supported Pompeius, Octavian stripped him of his powers in the triumvirate. As a result, the Roman empire now had only two rulers—Octavian in the west and Antony in the east.

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

Remember: Words in small capital letters have separate entries, and the Index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more information on many topics.

Octavian began preparing to confront Antony. Antony had angered many Romans because of his relationship with the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Octavian took advantage of this anger to gain further support against Antony. In 31 B.C., the Roman Senate declared war against Cleopatra, and in September of that year, Octavian’s forces met those of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, in Greece. Octavian succeeded in defeating his enemy in the great sea battle that followed. Antony committed suicide the following year, and Octavian became the sole ruler, thus technically ending the period known as the Roman Republic and beginning the period known as the Roman Empire.

The Principate. Octavian hoped to avoid the fate of Julius Caesar, who had made enemies when he established a military dictatorship. Octavian had no intention of truly relinquishing power, but he made it seem that he would. Following the defeat of Antony, Octavian declared that the Roman Republic and its democratic government should be restored, and he offered to turn over control of his provinces to the Senate. His supporters in the Senate protested and urged to him to remain in control. Octavian agreed, and over the next few years, the Senate gave him various titles in honor of his loyalty and personal sacrifice to Rome. These titles included imperator (commander), from which the word emperor is derived; princeps (first citizen), from which the word prince is derived; and augustus (revered). Thereafter, Octavian became known as Caesar Augustus. The government he created was called the Principate.

Despite the restoration of the republic, Augustus was firmly in control of the empire. His control of the Roman armies, in particular, gave him much power. In 23 B.C., Augustus gave up the position of consul in order to allow more senators to hold the office and thus assure Romans that he was sharing power. In its place, he accepted the powers of a tribune, which gave him the power to convene meetings of the senate and initiate legislation. He also received the power to intervene in all provinces of the empire, even those controlled by the senate and provincial governors. In 12 B.C.,Augustus became pontifex maximus, or high priest, of the Roman state religion. In 2 B.C., he was given the title pater patriae (father of his country). These positions, and the influence that accompanied them, gave Augustus enormous prestige and even greater control of the empire. In effect, the Roman Republic had ended and the imperial* period had begun. Yet, Augustus continued to maintain the illusion that he was only one of many elected officials. He did this by insisting that his various offices be renewed periodically rather than granted for life. Augustus maintained this type of leadership throughout his reign. Only in his later years did he become more tyrannical and attempt to govern as an absolute ruler.

Rome under Augustus. Augustus spent the early years of his rule attempting to stabilize the empire and extend its boundaries. In 29 B.C., he reorganized and reformed the Roman armies. He reduced the number of legions from 60 to 28 and posted them far from Rome in the provinces. He supplemented these troops with forces drawn from the native inhabitants of the provinces. This policy not only helped to keep peace in the provinces and to defend Roman frontiers, it also removed a potential threat from his rivals in Rome. Augustus provided army officers with land in the provinces and encouraged them to settle there. This helped colonize the empire and ensure loyalty to Rome. Augustus also created a new army unit, the Praetorian Guard, to act as his personal bodyguards. In addition, he established a police force for the city of Rome, known as the Urban Cohorts.

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire


Augustus was a man of simple tastes. He shunned luxury and grandeur, and he preferred the joys of family above his role as emperor. A believer in strict morality and virtue, he practiced what he preached. When his daughter, Julia, committed adultery, he had her banished from Rome. He did the same with his granddaughter, also named Julia. Such personality traits earned him enormous respect among the Roman people and contributed greatly to their support for him and his policies.

Augustus and his armies had numerous successes. He brought Spain under full Roman control, strengthened Roman rule in Gaul, and advanced into the territories of the Germans beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers. German military victories, particularly one at the Battle of the Teutoburger Forest in A.D. 9, eventually halted this drive and persuaded Augustus to abandon attempts to conquer Germany. Little new territory was gained in that region, where Augustus ruled through local kings who pledged loyalty to Rome. He used these kingdoms as buffers between himself and rival powers, such as the Parthians of Persia. Augustus’s policy became one of securing the empire’s borders. He placed the greatest concentrations of legions away from Rome—eight on the Rhine frontier, seven on the Danube, three in Syria, three in Spain, and two in Egypt—to fix stable frontiers on the perimeter of the empire.

Augustus initiated many social and religious reforms. A strong believer in ancient Roman traditions and virtues, Augustus sponsored several laws designed to encourage people to marry, have more children, and restore and strengthen family life. He curbed abuses of power among public officials and attempted to root out corruption in government. Augustus also revived old religious traditions, filled vacancies in priesthoods, repaired old temples, and built new ones. In the Roman provinces, he encouraged the development of religious cults* that worshiped him as a god.

Culture flourished under Augustus, and his reign became a golden age of art, architecture, and literature. Augustus sponsored some of the leading artists and writers of the time, including the historian Livy, and the poets Ovid, Vergil, and Horace. Magnificent new buildings and monuments were constructed in Rome and throughout the empire. According to the Roman writer Suetonius, Augustus proclaimed that he had “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” A vast system of roads was also built to connect the provinces and to stimulate commercial activity. After years of conflict and wars, Rome, under Augustus, was able to enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity, and the Pax Romana continued long past Augustus’s death.

Search fora Successor. Throughout his reign, Augustus was concerned with finding a suitable successor so that power struggles and civil war would not erupt after his death. He had only one child, a daughter Julia, but needed a male heir. The people he had hoped would succeed him—his nephew Marcellus, son-in-law Agrippa, and grandsons Gaius and Lucius—all died before him. Finally, but somewhat reluctantly, he chose his stepson Tiberius, the son of his second wife Livia. Although he disliked Tiberius, no one else seemed suitable. Thus he adopted Tiberius and named him successor in his will. Upon the death of Augustus in A.D. 14, Tiberius became the second emperor of Rome. Soon afterward, the Senate raised Augustus to the status of a god. (See also Armies, Roman; Caesar, Gaius Julius; Civil Wars, Roman; Dictatorship, Roman; Government, Roman; Law, Roman; Rome, History of; Senate, Roman; Triumvirates, Roman.)

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

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