The bloody rise of Augustus | Unfolding Roman Emperor

Caesar Augustus in Rome/iStock

Before his death 2,000 years ago in August AD 14, the ageing Roman emperor Augustus composed a political statement that recorded his unprecedented bid for power, half a century earlier. “At the age of 19 on my own responsibility and at my own expense I raised an army, with which I successfully championed the liberty of the republic when it was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.”

The events to which he was referring began on the Ides of March 44 BC when Roman dictator Julius Caesar was murdered by the self-proclaimed ‘liberators’. It was only at Caesar’s funeral that it was discovered that his great-nephew Augustus – then called Caius Octavius and from an obscure family – had been named as the murdered ruler’s principal heir.

The teenager chose to interpret this legacy as full adoption and announced that he intended to succeed not simply to Caesar’s wealth and name, but also to his high office. That was not the way politics normally worked in Rome, but these were disturbed times, with the old Republican system of elected magistrates crumbling after decades of violent competition and spells of civil war.

The young Augustus used Caesar’s money and name to start raising an army from serving or former soldiers of his charismatic ‘father’. Mark Antony (one of Caesar’s leading subordinates) was already trying to rally the same people to him and did not take his young rival seriously, dubbing him “a boy who owes everything to a name”.

A Senate urged on by the famous orator Cicero saw Antony as the big threat and feared that he was aiming to seize supreme power by force. In a political system where a man had to be in his forties before he could seek the highest offices of the state, a 19-year-old with no political record seemed to present little danger. Cicero saw a teenager at the head of legions of veteran soldiers and decided that he could be useful. They should “praise the young man, reward him, and discard him”.

At first, it went well, and Augustus’s veterans played the key role in defeating Antony and driving his army across the Alps. Discarding the young Augustus, however, proved difficult, for his soldiers served him and not the Senate. In the meantime, Antony allied with another of Caesar’s old supporters, Lepidus, and so became stronger than ever. Augustus now decided to join them, so that all of the murdered dictator’s supporters and soldiers were on the same side – at least for the moment. They declared a triumvirate – a board of three supreme magistrates to restore the state, and effectively a joint dictatorship.

The first thing the triumvirs did was to order the murder of prominent opponents including Cicero. Marching unopposed into Rome, they posted up proscription lists with names of men who were set outside the protection of the law. Anyone could kill a proscribed man, and if they brought his severed head to the authorities they would be rewarded with a share of the victim’s property, the rest going to the triumvirs to pay their army. Antony, Augustus and Lepidus traded names in a scene brought chillingly to life by Shakespeare: “These many, then, shall die, their names are pricked.”

Quite a few of the proscribed managed to escape abroad, but hundreds died. In later years there was a whole genre of stories of dramatic escapes and grim deaths, of rescue and betrayal. The senator Velleius Paterculus concluded that “…one thing, however, demands comment, that toward the proscribed their wives showed the greatest loyalty, their freedmen not a little, their slaves some, their sons none”.

The opinion was less certain about which of the triumvirs was most brutal in their pursuit of the proscribed, as after the event each tried to shift the blame to his allies. Yet many were shocked that the young Augustus should have had so many enemies he wanted to kill. In the years that followed, a reputation for excessive cruelty clung to him, helped by the frequency with which impassioned pleas for mercy were met with a simple: “You must die.”

Antony and Augustus took an army to Greece and defeated two of Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Antony got most of the credit, both for winning the war and treating captured aristocrats and the remains of the dead with fitting respect.

The alliance between the three triumvirs was always based on self-interest and came under increasing pressure in the years that followed. It narrowly survived a rebellion led by Antony’s brother Lucius against Augustus, and, after a long struggle, defeated Sextus Pompeius, the son of Julius Caesar’s former ally, son-in-law, and finally enemy, Pompey the Great. By 36 BC the triumvirate became an alliance between two when Lepidus was marginalised. Augustus kept him in comfortable captivity for the rest of his life, a gesture that mixed mercy with cruelty as it prolonged the humiliation of an ambitious man.

The dispossessed

Mark Antony was placed in charge of Rome’s provinces and allies in the eastern Mediterranean after the clash at Philippi. Augustus remained in Italy, where he carried out the task of providing the farms promised as rewards to the triumvirs’ loyal soldiers.

The estates of the proscribed were insufficient, and so more and more confiscations were arbitrarily imposed on the towns of Italy. The local gentry suffered the most, leading the poet Virgil to write of the plight of the dispossessed: “Ah, shall I ever, long years hence, look again on my country’s bounds, on my humble cottage with its turf-clad roof?… Is an impious soldier to hold these well-tilled fallows?… See where strife has brought our unhappy citizens!”

Augustus got most of the blame for the confiscations in an Italy exhausted by civil war and desperate for stability. As relations with Antony broke down, it was better to wage war against a foreign threat, and so Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, was demonised as a sinister eastern temptress who had corrupted a noble Roman and turned him against his own people. (In 41 BC, Antony had taken the queen as a lover, renewing the affair three years later). Privately few were fooled, but publicly the ‘whole of Italy’ took an oath to follow Augustus and save Rome from this ‘threat’.

Relations between the remaining triumvirs deteriorated until, in 31 BC, the two clashed in battle at Actium in Greece. Antony was defeated and took his own life the next year.

With Antony dead, the 33-year-old Augustus faced no serious rivals and, since he took care to monopolise military force, there was no real danger of new challengers appearing. However, that did not mean that the man who had slaughtered his way to power was safe from assassins’ knives, or that it would be easy to create a stable regime.

There was little affection for Augustus, but Romans of all classes were desperate for peace and hoped simply to be able to live without fear of proscription lists and confiscations. This security is what he gave them. His control was veiled, expressed in a way that appeared constitutional, even though the veil was thin since no one could take his powers from him or break his hold over the loyalty of the legions. What mattered was that years and then decades passed, and stability and the rule of law persisted as it had not done in living memory.

Peace and the simple virtues of an idealised and now restored past dominate the art and literature of these years. It is also no coincidence that one of the most striking monuments of the Augustan age is the Ara Pacis – the altar of peace (shown below).

The peace that Italy enjoyed (after generations of civil strife) did not mean Rome was no longer at war. For at the same time, Augustus boasted of victory after victory won over foreign rulers and peoples, often adding new territory to the empire.

Augustus presented himself as the greatest servant of the state, and defeating external enemies was a glorious means of service. He also laboured untiringly and publicly to restore good government throughout the empire, spending his days receiving petitions and resolving the problems long neglected by the inertia of the Senate under the Republic.

Rome itself – and, to a degree, communities across Italy and the provinces – was physically renewed, so that Augustus could boast that he had found the city “brick and left it marble”. There were monuments to his glory, but many of them were also practical amenities for the wider good, such as aqueducts, fountains and sewers, bath-houses for comfort, temples to restore a proper relationship with the gods who protected the Roman people, and theatres and circuses for entertainment.

Life was more stable under Augustus, and for most people, it was also more comfortable. No one was left in any doubt that this happy condition relied upon his continued activity, for Augustus’s name and image was everywhere. Relief at the end of civil war slowly became more or less grudging gratitude and eventually turned into genuine affection.

Time played an important part. Augustus ruled for 40 years after the death of Antony, and everyone became used to his leadership and the system he had created, while the memories of his bloody rise to power gradually faded. There was no enthusiasm to swap the present peace and prosperity for a return to the violently unpredictable decades preceding it. Honour after honour was voted to him by the Senate and people, including the title of Father of his Country.

Thanks to this reincarnation as a man of peace, Augustus – the first emperor of Rome – would for centuries also be remembered as one of the best.



Dr Adrian Goldsworthy’s book, Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2014). This article first published by History Extra 

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