Adopted by Caesar, Augustus (c.62 BC – 14 AD / Reigned 31 BC – 14 AD) had to fight for his throne. His long rule saw a huge expansion in the Roman Empire and the beginnings of a dynasty that, over the next century, would transform Rome, for better and worse.
|Bust of Augustus as a young man
The man who would become one of Rome’s greatest leaders had an unpromising start in life. Despite prophesies of future greatness , Augustus was a sickly child in a family with few connections.
His father died when Augustus was four. His prospects were bleak: Rome was dangerous, engulfed by civil war between power-hungry factions. One of these was led by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar.
A bit of luck
Then Augustus got a lucky break. In 46 BC, Caesar won the civil war and was named dictator of Rome. To secure his position, he needed an heir. With no son of his own, he adopted Augustus.
This was a fantastic opportunity for a young man from nowhere. Almost at once, however, Caesar was dead – murdered by his own advisors. Augustus was just 19, but immediately threw himself into the backstabbing world of Roman politics .
Claiming the throne
He formed a strategic alliance with Marc Antony, a successful and ambitious general. Over the next few years, they defeated their enemies in Rome and chased the survivors to Greece, where they finished them off in two of the bloodiest battles in Roman history.
The killing over, the empire was theirs and they divided the spoils. Augustus kept Rome, while Antony took Egypt. There he fell under the spell of Cleopatra, Egypt’s beautiful queen.
Trouble in Egypt
Romans feared that Cleopatra wanted the throne for herself and his relationship with her made Mark Antony a hated man in Rome. His alliance with Augustus disintegrated but, before Antony and Cleopatra could strike Rome, Augustus attacked.
The Battle of Actium in 31 BC destroyed three-quarters of the Egyptian fleet. Cleopatra and Marc Antony killed themselves and, finally, the Roman Empire now included the land of the pharaohs.
Back home, Augustus was a hero. At the age of 32, he had become Rome’s first Emperor, promising to restore peace and security.
Winning the war had been difficult, but was nothing compared to the challenge of winning the peace. He had divorced his wife and married his pregnant mistress, Livia. Many immediately suspected him of wanting to create a dynasty to rule Rome for generations to come.
A charm offensive
To avoid Caesar’s fate, Augustus charmed the Senate and the people by pretending to give up power. But a series of disasters panicked Romans. They became convinced that only he could save them and begged the Senate to vote him absolute ruler.
Augustus agreed, but did so cleverly. He convinced Romans that he was ruling in the best traditions of the republic, but actually was an absolute ruler creating a dynasty. The Romans bought it.
During his reign, Augustus achieved a lot. He expanded the empire, adding Egypt, northern Spain and large parts of central Europe before invading Germany. At home, he spearheaded a conservative approach that used the glory of Rome’s past as a blueprint for its future.
But problems remained. His moral conservatism had clashed with the public promiscuity of his daughter, Julia. He was forced to banish her.
What’s more, Augustus was growing older and weaker. Despite his successes, the plotting continued. Everything that Augustus had worked so hard to achieve was in danger of collapsing as he faced crisis after crisis, both at home and abroad.
Nevertheless, Augustus clung onto power for another 10 years. When he died, in 14 AD, the Senate declared him a god. With his two grandsons already dead, power passed to his stepson, Tiberius.
So what did he do?
Augustus had ended 100 years of civil war and achieved over 40 years of internal peace and prosperity. His vision and power had expanded the Roman Empire to become far more than a collection of countries. Instead, it was a diverse society and enormous marketplace in which people across Europe, north Africa and the Middle East could trade and travel under Rome’s protection.
He had won over the Senate and founded a dynasty. But this would feature as many villains as heroes, and would take Rome on a roller-coaster ride into assassination, insanity and terror.
Where to next:
Enemies and Rebels – Cleopatra and Egypt
Religion in Ancient Rome – Augustus