Augustus Caesar


Augustus (ôgŭs´təs, əgŭs´–), 63 BC–AD 14, first Roman emperor, a grandson of the sister of Julius Caesar. Named at first Caius Octavius, he became on adoption by the Julian gens (44 BC) Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian); Augustus was a title of honor granted (27 BC) by the senate.

The Second Triumvirate

When Octavius was a youth, Caesar took a great interest in his education and made him his heir without the boy's knowledge. Octavius was in Illyricum when Caesar was killed, and he promptly set out for Rome to avenge the dictator's death. Before he reached the city, he heard that he was Caesar's heir. At Rome, Antony was in control, and Octavian was recognized by Cicero and the senate as a leader against him. Antony went north to take Gaul and was defeated (43 BC) at Mutina (modern Modena).

Octavian secured the consulship and made an alliance with Antony and Lepidus (d. 13 BC) as the Second Triumvirate. Having proscribed the enemies of the triumvirate and the assasins of Caesar, Octavian and Antony went east and defeated (42 BC) the army of Marcus Junius Brutus and Caius Cassius Longinus at Philippi. Octavian's forces then attacked Sextus Pompeius, who controlled Sicily and Sardinia; Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa defeated (36 BC) Pompeius at Mylae.


Consolidation of Power

While his enemies were being defeated abroad, Octavian also had been consolidating his power in Rome. He was helped by the growing impatience of Rome with Antony's alliance with Cleopatra, and he had himself appointed (31 BC) general against Antony. After the naval battle off Actium, which Agrippa won over Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian controlled all Roman territories. Although he began to reform the city and the provinces, he never returned control of the state back to the people.

He did, however, give the impression that Rome had gone from a military dictatorship to constitutional rule. He established no court, and he considered himself, at least publicly, not the ruler, but rather the first citizen of the republic. The senate delighted to honor him: in 29 BC he was made imperator [Lat.,=commander; from it is derived emperor], in 28 BC princeps [leader; from it is derived prince], in 27 BC augustus [august, reverend], in 12 BC pontifex maximus [high priest], and a month (Sextilis) was renamed Augustus (August) in his honor.

In his effort to hold the borders set by Caesar, he attempted to create a buffer state of the German territory between the Rhine and the Weser (or the Elbe). This led to a rebellion in AD 9 by Arminius in which Varus was defeated. This was the only real reverse Augustus suffered.

Reforms and Policies

Augustus's reforms, which were far-reaching, fostered a revival of Roman tradition. He divided the provinces into two classes—senatorial, ruled by a proconsul chosen by the senate with a term of one year, and imperial, in charge of a governor solely responsible to Augustus with an indefinite term. To control the provinces Augustus encouraged local autonomy in administrative matters and allowed ethnic customs and cultural patterns to to flourish. He also spread the army throughout the empire; before this Italy had been burdened with a huge standing army.

Augustus studied the plans of Caesar for colonization throughout the empire. In economic policy, he supported business and industry. He made taxation more equitable and had general censuses taken. Knowing that the roads were the arteries of the empire, he lavished expenditures on them. He built a new forum, beautified the streets, improved housing conditions, and set up adequate police and fire protection. He was munificent to arts and letters, and he was a close friend of Maecenas and a patron of Vergil, Ovid, Livy, and Horace. He was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius.


See biographies by A. Everitt (2006) and A. Goldsworthy (2014); V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius (2d ed. 1955); R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939); G. W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World (1965); F. Millar and E. Segal, ed., Caesar Augustus: Seven Aspects (1984).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Augustus Caesar: Selected full-text books and articles

Augustus Caesar By David Shotter Routledge, 2005 (2nd edition)
Augustus By Jonathan Edmondson Edinburgh University Press, 2009
Augustus By Pat Southern Routledge, 1998
Tiberius: The Resentful Caesar By Gregorio Marañón Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1956
The Succession Planning of Augustus By Stevenson, Tom Antichthon, Vol. 47, January 1, 2013
'A Fanatical Yet Rational Devotion' Augustus and the Legions By Ridley, Ronald T Antichthon, Vol. 39, January 1, 2005
Augustus & the Birth of the West By Auslin, Michael New Criterion, Vol. 33, No. 4, December 2014
Emperors Don't Die in Bed By Fik Meijer Routledge, 2004
Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus & Tiberius By Victor Ehrenberg; A. H. M. Jones Clarendon Press, 1955 (2nd edition)
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