The shifting identities of Rome’s first emperor

On the Ides of March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavius, the future Augustus and first emperor of Rome, was eighteen years of age and a newly arrived student in the Roman province of Illyricum, modern Albania. He had been sent there by his great-uncle, then dictator of Rome, to educate himself in the liberal arts and to train with the mass of troops assembling for Caesar’s imminent invasion of Parthia. Octavius appears to have been in line to become the dictator’s Master of Horse or second-in-command, but Caesar was assassinated and his great Parthian campaign never took place. Instead, without any official mandate, Octavius demanded a portion of the funds set aside for it to assemble an army of his own. Although still young and “very much a boy” (plane puer), as Cicero calls him at the time, he foresaw better than anyone else that he needed resources for what would be a violent and protracted struggle for control of Rome and, by extension, of the known world.

That struggle lasted some thirteen years until Octavian—as he is called by scholars during this period of his life—finally defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC. In the calculation of some, Actium provides the date of departure for Augustus’ forty-five year reign as Rome’s first citizen or princeps, the official title for emperor assumed by all who followed. By another calculation that starts with his appropriation of money and, later, troops after Caesar’s assassination, Augustus held sway over Rome, at first with others and then alone, for some fifty-eight years until his death in 14 AD. In fact, Augustus himself begins his Res Gestae, the official account of his accomplishments as Rome’s leader, by referring to the army he raised in 44 BC “to liberate the republic from the oppression of a faction.” Whether the republic needed “liberating” is open to debate, but history has shown that the political tact, raw ambition, and sheer luck on view in the future emperor’s early acts ultimately made him sole master of Rome and forever altered the course of Western civilization.

When the news of Caesar’s assassination reached Octavius in Illyricum, his companions urged him to assume absolute command of the troops. He rejected their overtures and returned directly to Italy, where he learned for the first time the contents of his great-uncle’s will. To the surprise of many, including Octavius, he was officially adopted as a son by Caesar and made heir to three quarters of his vast fortune. The gift had an obvious purpose: Octavius was to use it to pay for soldiers, both the ones he would inherit and those he would need to raise.

Notably, he never took to the name Octavianus, as would have been customary among the Romans after such an adoption, but immediately began calling himself “Julius Caesar, the son of Julius Caesar.” Roman nomenclature is notoriously vexing, and the confusion we may have today about the many names of Rome’s first emperor—ultimately called Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the deified (Caesar)”—may also have been at play in antiquity. At the very least, the newly adopted “Caesar” knew the power of that name to compel and to revile. Thus, in a letter composed less than a month after the assassination, Cicero writes: “his followers call him Caesar, but Philippus does not, so neither do I.” In the same letter, Cicero expresses doubts about the youth—“I’m sure he’s not a good citizen”—and refers to him dismissively as “boy” (puer), a term famously deployed by Antony to insult Octavian: “And you, boy, who owe everything to a name.” Of course, Antony was only partly right: a keen intellect and ruthlessness of purpose played a part in everything, too, and rivals underestimated him at their peril.

A calculated decisiveness brought the boy Caesar to Rome within two months of the Ides of March to accept the legacy of his adoptive father. Virtually overnight he had been given a vast army and untold wealth and the chance to become the most powerful man in the world: he knew it; others did not. Although Octavian tried to cultivate the support of Cicero and other patrician leaders in his early struggles with Antony, the ruling class of republican Rome was ultimately sacrificed on the altar of the young man’s ambition. For the sake of power and self-preservation, he reconciled with Antony and used a favorite of Caesar, Lepidus—a capable man in spite of his reputation and only overmatched by his two partners in ruthlessness—to form a triumvirate.

The first triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey offered a precedent, but the real model was Sulla (138—78 BC), whose infamous proscriptions of 82 BC provided a blueprint for taking and keeping power. Like Sulla and his henchmen, the new triumviri drew up a list of names, so-called enemies of the state, whose life could be taken and property seized for a reward. Their intent was to eliminate political and personal enemies and to fill the treasury: three hundred senators and two thousand knights were proscribed and a harrowing reign of terror ensued. The historical record on Octavian’s role in the proscriptions is mixed, but the depleted ranks of the upper classes gave him ample room to pack the senate house and reconstitute the order of knights with his own men when the time came.

His biographer Suetonius reports that, hesitant at first, he eventually prosecuted the proscribed with greater severity than Antony and Lepidus. He did not save Cicero, who was hunted down and beheaded, his head then nailed to the speaker’s platform in the Roman forum next to his severed hands. Two years later at Perugia, Octavian had three hundred senators and knights executed for participating in a rebellion with Antony’s brother, who was spared for expediency. His reputation for cruelty and bloodshed was secure well before he ever became princeps and can appear at odds with the reputation for fairness and clemency that he gained later.

From here arises a fundamental question in any appraisal of Augustus: how do we square the savagery of his early years in power before Actium with what followed? Was he cruel by nature? Were the atrocities of his youth later masked by a savvy opportunism that exploited a reputation of clemency for political gain? Or was he what the republic desperately needed at the time? An uncommonly clever strongman who, in claiming to save the republic ensured its demise, replacing the bloody chaos of competitive oligarchy with the comparative serenity of sole rule? Amid these questions, it is clear that all matter of procedure adopted during his rule—political, legal, military, religious—became virtually normative for the duration of the empire. Augustus furnished the model for the position he invented and held far longer than any emperor after him; he was the princeps par excellence.

Part of his success may well be attributed to the very name Augustus, apparently not the first choice for the relatively young princeps. Octavian originally favored taking the name Romulus to add a mythical aura to his office and to suggest, as the self-styled re-founder of the republic, an affinity with the first founder of Rome. Unfortunately, the name Romulus had uncomfortable associations with kingship—a dangerous idea at Rome—and with fratricide: Romulus killed his brother, Remus, to become king just as Octavian dispatched his own brother(-in-law), Mark Antony, to become princeps. Moreover, there was a legend in circulation that Romulus had been murdered—literally torn to pieces—by senators enraged at his tyranny.

The title Augustus, by contrast, which the senate bestowed on him in 27 BC to coincide with the official “restoration of the republic,” marks a masterstroke of political invention. The Latin adjective augustum had never before been used to refer to persons, but only to things, often objects of veneration in religious contexts. By making the name Augustus personal and part of his identity as emperor, the princeps chose something recognizable, but hardly familiar. At the same time, the name subtly suggested that he, too, was now worthy of worship like his deified father, Julius Caesar, whose cult Augustus had been instrumental in forming via legal decree and the dedication of a temple in the Roman forum.

As the son of a man-made-god, moreover, he was guaranteed his own deification, which the senate legally decreed on September 17, 14 AD, less than a month after he had died. It was proclaimed that Augustus had joined the company of gods and was now worthy of worship in his own temple with its own rites and priests. Thus another precedent was established: the legal deification of emperors became a central feature of the ruler cult at Rome and throughout the empire. After Christianity, the cult of the emperors marks the most significant development in Roman imperial religion. In fact, scholars today see the two as interrelated: the spread of Christianity is intimately tied to the rise of the Roman ruler cult. To be blunt, at Rome men could be made into gods by law and their worship disseminated to the provinces; naturally, people in the provinces took note. This context highlights the audacity of Paul and other early Christian writers in their calculated attribution to Jesus of the equivalent titles in Greek reserved for the imperial cult.  

Matthew M. McGowan is associate professor of Classics at Fordham University and director of the Fordham College Honors Program.