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Emperor Octavian ‘Augustus’ Part I

Gaius Caesar Octavianus ‘Augustus’ [63 BC-14 AD]

Early life

Octavian was born to an equestrian family based in Velletri, south-east of Rome, his father, Gaius Octavius (with whom he shared his birth name), was a senator. Despite him dying when Octavian was still young, his mother had very powerful connections, making Octavian the great nephew to Julius Caesar, who would be responsible for giving Octavian a chance for power. He is also said to have been cruel when young and had moral attitudes that were, at least publicly, strict in their nature.

In 51 BC, at the age of 12, Octavian would enter the public view when he would give a speech at his grandmother’s funeral.  At the age of 15-16, he would be inducted as a pontifex (An important religious position within Roman society), alongside Julius Caesar who would be the Pontifex Maximus (the head of the council of pontifices).

In 46 BC, Octavian would join Caesar in the Hispanian Campaign, serving under him. It would be here, it seems, that Caesar confirmed his liking for the boy, for a mere 2 years later Caesar would plan to have him in senior military command for the planned campaign against the Parthians. At this time, Octavian was in Apollonia (modern day Albania) finishing his military and academic studies. It would be from this academy that Octavian would hear the fateful news.

The news of Caesar’s assassination.

Rise to power

Octavian would rush back to Italy, against the advice of close people, and would find out about him being designated the successor of Julius Caesar in his will, (He would rename himself Gaius Caesar Octavianus, although would always refer to himself as Caesar in public due to the legacy of his great-uncle). This was a surprise to many, people thought that Mark Antony, a loyal support of Caesar, would be his successor. But instead, it was the young Octavian, who arrived in Rome. At this time Mark Antony was in control at Rome, and was also in possession of all of Caesar’s inheritance (having expected to be the heir himself), although the Senate was opposed to him due to his relation to Caesar whom they saw as a man attempting to become a king. When Octavian came asking for his inheritance, Antony refused keeping it for himself. However, Antony had not followed out one of the demands of the will, that being the giving of money to the Roman citizenry. Octavian would do this himself, raising the money and giving it to the population. This greatly increased his popularity with the people of Rome and began to diminish that of Antony’s.

Accompanying this was the growing opposition. Cicero, one of Rome’s most important senators, would side with Octavian in order to handle Mark Antony. Octavian would be made a senator, despite not even being 20, in order to maintain his support for the Senate. Cicero would also give a set of inflammatory speeches against Mark Antony (known as the Philippics) which would further lower the public’s opinion of him, and eventually force him to leave Rome itself and go to northern Italy in November 44 BC.

Octavian would move north, with the Senate’s approval behind him, to fight Antony, and in 43 BC at Mutina (modern-day Modena), Octavian would defeat Antony forcing the latter to flee into Gaul. However, this would show the Senate how little control they held over Octavian, as when both reigning consuls died in battle against Antony, Octavian would march on Rome itself and force the Senate to make him consul in August of 43 BC.

This would lead to the turning of the Senate against Octavian, and thus they called back Brutus and Cassius (who were both parts of the plot against Caesar, and had left Rome because of it) to put down the upstart. Yet Octavian was no fool and sought to make peace with Antony and Lepidus to fight against the pro-senatorial forces. Thus creating the Second Triumvirate.

 

The Second Triumvirate

Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar

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With the triumvirate’s creation in November of 43 BC, the Senate was rapidly separated from power in all but name, the appearance of the Republic was essential in maintaining the people’s support. However, the triumvirate’s creation was, unlike the one that preceded it, put into the Roman constitution and wholly official. Following this, the three men began a purge of political opponents, around 300 senators, and 2,000 equities were killed including the orator Cicero.

Julius Caesar’s deification would come soon after in 42 BC, giving him a lot of prestige due to him being Caesar’s legal heir, he would begin to call himself Caesar more often whilst also styling himself as divi filius (son of the divine).

The triumvirate would then turns its attention to the murders of Caesar, who were marching west to challenge their control of Rome. 

The triumvirate would then fight them at Philippi in 42 BC(northern Greece) dealing a decisive defeat to Brutus and Cassius, both of whom would commit suicide with their defeat against Octavian’s and Antony’s forces.

Following this, the three men would come together at the Treaty of Brundisium (modern-day Brindisi in southern Italy) to carve the Rome into three spheres of influence.

Lepidus, the weakest of the three after having given some of his legions to Octavian before the treaty, was only given Africa and began to severely lag behind his compatriots from this point on. Mark Antony would be given control of the east, and all the puppet states that it came along with, whilst Octavian was given control of the rest of the west. Despite the presence of Sextus Pompeius in Sicily, son of Pompey the Great who had fought Caesar in his civil war, and his raids and attacks on Octavian. Along with this Octavian would marry his sister off to Antony, but at this time Antony was beginning to get far closer to Cleopatra.

Octavian would then move to strengthen his control over his territories fighting an uprising, made by the wife and brother of Mark Antony, over the redistribution of land from the locals to the veteran soldiers (it should be noted however that Antony’s relatives were attempting to use this to get Mark Antony in sole power). This Perusine War, 41-40 BC, would end in Octavian’s favour after they were starved out in a siege.

In order to attempt to come to terms with Pompey Octavian would marry a relative of Pompey, although this would mean little to the former who subsequently tried to get Antony to betray his fellow triumvir but failed, with hopes of maintaining a sort of peace. Octavian would promptly divorce Pompey’s relative and later married Livia, in order to maintain a link to the Roman aristocracy.

Sextus Pompey

Octavian would, however, get attacked by Pompey once more, and he would once again enter a state of war, this time Octavian would request aid of Antony, in the form of a deal in Tarentum, in 37 BC, (modern-day Taranto, Italy) through which Antony would give Octavian ships in return for Octavian sending land forces to aid with Mark Antony’s ambitions for an eastern campaign. Despite Antony sending the ships to Octavian however, the latter did not send his troops to his fellow triumvir.  Accompanying this was a renewal of the triumvirate for another five years(until 32 BC).

 

The death of the Second Triumvirate

Despite Octavian being on the back foot at first against Pompey, losing a few encounters against him, Octavian’s old comrade Agrippa from Apollonia and an excellent admiral would decisively defeat Pompey at the Battle of Naulochus, in 36 BC, (in northern Sicily) causing Pompey to flee to the east, where he would be executed.

With the surprisingly large threat of Sextus finally eradicated, the first obvious strike against the triumvirate occurred with the cutting off of Lepidus. Lepidus, realising the weakness of his position, attempted to contest Octavian’s control of Sicily and possibly the entirety of the west. However, Octavian would disarm Lepidus by making his legions swap sides, possibly via bribes, with him then forcing Lepidus to resign from many of his official positions- except for his position as Pontifex Maximus– including his post as triumvir, and then taking his land in Africa as his own.

Octavian would begin further enforcing the loyalty of his armies with the creation of several settlements for them and would begin directly antagonising Antony by neither allowing the recruitment of fresh Roman troops from Italy, nor the settlement of his existing troops in Italy for retirement. Accompanying this, Octavian began using propaganda to lower the public’s opinion of Antony. With him pointing out the fact that he was essentially beginning to abandon Roman culture, having the Greek god Dionysus as his patron, as well as Octavian slowly beginning to bring more importance to him being the heir to Julius Caesar-who was still beloved by the people- as well as giving himself the title Imperator (a title conferred under the Republic on victorious generals).

Following this, in order to protect the Italian heartland, Octavian would begin a set of campaigns in the western Balkans against Illyrian and Delmatae tribes from 35 to 33 BC, taking back loot, promises of tribute, and stolen Roman standards that had been taken from earlier campaigns.

Meanwhile, Antony would officially cede Roman territory to Cleopatra’s Egypt. Octavian pounced upon this as a tool to further turn the Roman public against Antony.

Mark Antony

Finally, in 32 BC the Second Triumvirate came to an official end, and Antony would finally divorce Octavian’s sister, this sparked outrage throughout Rome. Following this, Octavian seized (presumably illegally) Antony’s will. The will stated that his children would get Roman land as inheritance, that he would have a mausoleum built in Egypt for him and Cleopatra, but not only that. Mark Antony requested that he be buried in Egypt, with Cleopatra, should he die in Roman lands. Octavian used the will to finally fully convert the Roman public against Antony, who had abandoned his own people and ‘gone native’ with Cleopatra.

An important side note is that whilst Mark Antony never stopped using his position as triumvir, Octavian did thus present himself as a guardian of the republic. Making sure he did not anger too many republicans like Julius Caesar had.

Pouncing on the opportunity to remove his rival, Octavian got the Roman senate to declare war on Cleopatra (not Antony himself) and moved forward to war.

 

The Final War of the Republic

In the year 31 BC Antony and Cleopatra were guarding the western Greek coast, after Agrippa had taken Methone (in modern day Greece) upon that same coast. Straight after that, Agrippa moved south along with Augustus to cut them off in the Gulf of Ambricia (on modern day Greece’s western coast) forcing Antony and Cleopatra to attempt to break out. Although they both managed to succeed in fleeing, with them taking absurd losses.

Both Antony and Cleopatra would flee to Egypt, Augustus would pursue them and in 30 BC would occupy Egypt. This would lead to the suicide of both Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. He also would have the son of Cleopatra by Caesar, named Caesarion, killed. Augustus saw him as a threat to his power, and said on the matter, “two Caesars are one too many.” With the former consul and ally, finally, dead Octavian would look to the future of the Republic,

His Republic.

 

Sources:

Just an old man from Halicarnassus, who loves history.

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