(63 BCE-14 CE) FIRST ROMAN EMPEROR
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Grandnephew of Julius Caesar (100-44BCE), (Gaius Octavius) Augustus eventually replaced his murdered uncle and reigned some forty-four years as one of historys most successful rulers.
Julius Caesar had been training Octavius to be one of his major commanders, and when Caesar was murdered in Rome, the eighteen-year-old Octavius, who was commanding troops in Dalmatia, immediately returned to Rome. There he reluctantly joined forces with Mark Antony, Caesars trusted friend, who was considered by many to be Caesars obvious heir. Octavius gained influence through his posthumous adoption as Caesars son, and in 43 BCE he joined with Antony and (Marcus) Aemilius Lepidus (d. 12 or 13 BCE) in the Second Triumvirate. They declared Julius Caesar a god, eliminated several thousand enemies, and in 42 BCE defeated the primary murderers of Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus (85-42BCE) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (d. 42 BCE), at Philippi in Macedonia.
By 36 BCE the Triumvirate was falling apart. Lepidus withdrew, and Octavius used Antonys relationship with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt as an excuse to turn on him, defeating him at the naval battle of Actium off the west coast of Greece in 31 BCE. Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra soon followed suit.
Now in complete charge of Rome, Octavius began to consolidate his power, carefully remaining within the structural limitations of the Republic. He assumed power over Roman provinces, took the position of consul, and was given the title Augustus, a religious term that implied powers beyond that of mere mortals. Later he was declared pater patriae, or father of his country. Although he accepted the title Imperator, this signified only control over the army and was not the title of emperor often mistakenly associated with him.
Augustus, as he is generally known, moved to consolidate many of Julius Caesars reforms. He settled thousands of veterans in the provinces, paying the owners of the land with treasure looted from Egypt. To forestall any moves by ambitious generals, he assumed and maintained a position as commander of all military forces. Although the Senate and other republican components of Roman government remained intact, Augustus was emperor in all but name.
After the upheavals of several civil wars, the Romans wanted peace and Augustus gave it to them. He granted significant autonomy to provincial governors, reformed the Roman economy and tax structure, and began a period of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana. He became extremely popular throughout the empire and many statues were erected in his honor. Though Augustus was skeptical of too much expansion of the empire, he did expand Roman influence into Central Europe and ended up adding more territory than any other Roman leader.
One of the most significant battles in history occurred during his reign. In 9 CE, the Roman governor Quinctilius Varus was ambushed in the Teutoburg forest in Germany and lost three legions. Unable to respond adequately, Rome lost any chance of expanding into that region. The failure to expand Roman civilization into Germany, as it had been expanded into Gaul, has had profound implications to this day. Roman culture, law, government, and language dominated the development of the western part of Europe, while the Germanic portion of Europe developed along quite different lines, more heavily influenced by the “barbarians” of the east.
The Pax Romana ushered in a golden age for Rome that would last for two hundred years. This was the age of Romes greatest poet,Virgil (70-19BCE),whose most famous work, the Aeneid, is both the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War and a treatise on the Roman Republic. Other important writers included Horace, Ovid, Pollio, and Livy. The period also saw many architectural triumphs, some of which survive to this day. The accomplishments of Augustus and of Rome during this period are almost without parallel.
Rule by one man has its drawbacks; the poet Ovid was exiled because his writing fell out of “imperial” favor, and the upper classes often felt that they were ignored. Nevertheless, Augustus ruled for forty-four years and died peacefully in 14 CE. In his will he counseled Rome against further expansion for fear that the empire would become unmanageable, a prophetic concern that would soon be borne out. Augustus was unable to name a direct descendant as his successor and finally settled on his stepson,Tiberius.
Although in his later years he became more dictatorial, Augustus was arguably the greatest of the Roman leaders. He presided over the expansion and consolidation of Roman civilization. He preserved and extended the reforms begun by Julius Caesar, expanded Romes borders to defensible positions in Central Europe, placed the army under his direct control, eliminating the possibility of popular generals seizing power, and began a period of peace and prosperity never again repeated in Roman history.