AUGUSTUS (27 BC - 14 AD)



Caesar's heir soon establishes himself, despite his extreme youth. After the defeat of Julius Caesar's murderers, and then Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian has unchallenged power. He takes the name of Augustus, and plays down the military nature of his rule, preferring to be thought of as tribune, the people's representative. His long reign is marked by ambitious building programmes, and the creation of a civil service. After problems with his successor, only Tiberius, his stepson, is left to take over when he dies in AD 14.


Gaius (Julius Caesar) Octavi(an)us: born 23 September 63 BC in Rome, son of Gaius Octavius and Atia, niece of Julius Caesar, who adopted him as his heir. Consul 43, 33, 31 - 23 BC. Effectively became emperor in 27 BC, with extended powers in 23 BC. Married [1] Claudia; [2] Scribonia (one daughter, Julia); [3] Livia Drusilla, mother of Tiberius. Died at Nola, 19 August AD 14. Deified 17 September AD 14. Click here for a family tree:


Octavian was in Epirus, pursuing his military studies, when he heard of his great-uncle’s murder, and that Caesar had named him not only his son by adoption, but also his principal heir. It was late April when he got back to Rome, by which time Marcus Antonius (c. 83 - 30 BC) - Mark Antony - and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (c. 90 - 13 BC), who had been Caesar’s chief assistants, had assumed control of the state, and Brutus and the other conspirators had, at the prompting of Cicero, been granted an amnesty by the senate.

Mark Antony?

Bust believed to be that of Mark Antony. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini: Ann Raia)

A confused series of battles and comings and goings resulted in Octavian being elected consul, at the age of 19, and forcing through a motion to the effect that he, Antony, and Lepidus should formally be recognized as the ruling triumvirate for five years. Their first act was to revive the fearful Sullan policy of proscription.


Cicero was one of the first to die. Too ill to escape his murderers, he was bundled into a litter by his slaves. He was tracked down and killed by a swordcut to the neck. His head and hands were cut off and sent to Rome where, on the orders of Antony, they were nailed up in the forum. (Vatican Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

While the triumvirate formally remained in power beyond its statutory term, the twelve years until 31 BC were almost entirely taken up with wars between its members, and against other fellow Romans. Brutus and Cassius were defeated in two battles at Philippi in Macedonia in 42 BC, and committed suicide. Sextus Pompey (son of Pompey the Great and his third wife), having obtained a large fleet and taken possession of Sicily, was finally murdered by his own troops in 35 BC. Antony’s long-standing affair with Cleopatra, and his preference for her company and Alexandria over that of his wife Octavia (Octavian’s sister) and Rome, culminated in Octavian’s victory over the Egyptian fleet at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, and the subsequent suicides of the lovers.

Anrtony and Octavia

Gold aureus of Mark Antony (c. 36 - 35 BC) with Antony on the obverse (top) and his wife Octavia on the reverse. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin: Barbara McManus)


Silver tetradrachm with striking image of Cleopatra, minted at Askalon in 50/49 BC, shortly before she met Julius Caesar. (VRoma: British Musem: Barbara McManus)


With Lepidus now a back number and Caesarion murdered, Octavian was in charge of the Roman world. He needed to assemble his powers into an acceptable constitutional form, avoiding any suggestion of a return to the monarchy or even to a dictatorship, which had caused so much trouble in the past. He achieved this gradually over a number of years, and in a manner which did not appear to undermine the authority of the senate, at least as a consultative body. While continuing to hold successive consulships, in 27 BC he formally resigned all the special powers he had been granted, but accepted in return for ten years the strategic provinces of Cilicia, Cyprus, Gaul, Spain, and Syria, for which troops were required, together with his confirmation as divine successor to the pharaohs in Egypt.

In addition he renounced the name of Octavian in favour of the more dignified Augustus. In 23 BC, because of illness, he gave up his apparent claim to hold the office of consul for life. This was diplomatically a sound move which opened up to others an additional chance of honour if not much responsibility; especially as in its place he was granted the privileges of a tribune of the people, with powers to apply a veto at will and to take matters direct to the popular assemblies.

Augustus on curuke seat

Gold aureus of Augustus sitting on a curule chair, denoting high office. The inscription is, LEGES ET IURA P. R. RESTITUIT, “He restored the laws and rights of the Roman people”. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

That particular illness proved to be only a minor set-back in a rule that lasted over forty years and gave to the western world the term “Augustan” to denote an age of glittering literary achievement. Though the boundaries of the Roman empire had not yet reached their widest extent, Augustus consolidated them by strengthening the army and removing it from Italy to patrol the provinces. He remodelled the civil service and largely rebuilt parts of Rome itself, appointing 3500 firemen under a chief fire officer to guard against conflagrations.

Imperial Rome. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970). Click on the drawing for a version with a key to identify the buildings.

Augustus died in the family house at Nola, in Campania, at the age of 76. He was married three times, but his only child was a daughter by his second wife. He had, however, after several attempts to do so had been aborted by deaths, nominated a successor, his stepson Tiberius.

Augustus as Divi Fil

Denarius of Augustus 13 BC, referred to (top) as Divi F[ilius] (son of a god). Bottom: His daughter Julia is flanked by her sons Gaius and Lucius, both of whom died before AD 4. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Roman empire

The Roman empire in AD 14 at the death of Augustus: imperial provinces are in roman capital letters, senatorial provinces in italic capital lettters. Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group.


Detailed timelines for Augustus, Antony and Lepidus can be found if you select "Timelines" in the menu.

coins with Caesar and Augustus

Caesar, in his will, named his great-nephew Gaius Octavius (later Augustus) his son by adoption and his principal heir. Gold aureus of Octavian, 43 - 31 BC, with his head on the obverse (top) and on the reverse a deified Julius Caesar. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin: Barbara McManus)

On Octavian’s name

Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) was born Gaius Octavius. An adopted son took his new father’s full name, to which he might add a further name derived from his original second name, with -ianus at the end. He would thus have become Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, and it is as Octavian that we usually refer to him, until, as emperor, he took the title of Augustus. In the event, he never himself used the name Octavianus, and preferred to be called Gaius Caesar, son of Caesar; or even better, as Divi filius - son of the god, after the deification of his adoptive father. He was given the name Augustus by the senate in 27 BC "as being something slightly greater than a normal man". (Cassius Dio 53.16).

Pen Portait of Augustus

“He was of distinguished and extremely handsome appearance for the whole of his life, though for himself he did not care what he looked like. He would have several barbers working feverishly on him simultaneously, and while he was being shaved or having his hair clipped (it was all the same to him) he read or even carried on with his writing. . . . He had bad teeth, small and widely set apart; his hair was fair and wavy; his eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead; his ears were of average size; his nose jutted out at the top and then bent downwards.” (Suetonius, Augustus 79)

Family connections

OctavianThe first wife of Octavian, whom he married to celebrate the establishment of the ruling triumvirate, was Mark Antony’s 13-year-old stepdaughter Claudia; she was the daughter of Antony’s present wife, Fulvia, and her first husband, Publius Clodius the agitator. The marriage was probably never consummated, and soon ended in divorce.

OctaviaThere was a further dynastic marriage in 40 BC, when the widowed Octavia, Octavian’s elder sister, was, after the death of Fulvia, married to Mark Antony. After the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, she brought up her own three children by her first husband, her two daughters with Antony, and his surviving children with Cleopatra and Fulvia.

Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony)Three of the children of Mark Antony had imperial connections. His elder son with Fulvia, Antyllus, was betrothed to Julia, daughter of Octavian, who had him killed in 30 BC, after Antony’s death. Of Antony’s two daughters with Octavia, Antonia (major) was the grandmother of Nero, and Antonia (minor) the mother of Claudius.

CleopatraAfter Antony committed suicide, Cleopatra, having tried, and failed, to vamp Octavian, also killed herself. Her son Caesarion was murdered by Octavian. She had three children with Antony: the twins, Cleopatra, who became queen of Numidia, and Alexander, and a further son, Ptolemy.

(Drawings by Jennifer Campbell. From Julius Caesar: a Life by Antony Kamm Routledge 2006)

Quiz on Augustus

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