Gaius Octavius Thurinus (Augustus) was born in the city of Rome on 23 September 63 BC. His father, also named Gaius Octavius, had been governor of Macedonia, whereas his mother Atia Balba Caesonia was the niece of Julius Caesar.

In 59 BC, when he was four years old, his father died. His mother married Lucius Marcius Philippus and Octavius was raised by his grandmother (and Julius Caesar's sister), Julia Caesaris. When his grandmother died Octavius delivered the funeral oration. Although only a teenager, his oratorical skills impressed Julius Caesar, who was now commander of the Roman Army in Narbonese Gaul.

The Gauls were excellent cavalrymen and on occasions capable of defeating the Romans. However, the Gauls were made up of a collection of smaller tribes who found it difficult to work together. Caesar was confident that in the long term, his well-organised forces would be able to defeat the Gauls that controlled central and northern Europe. First he defeated the Helvetii that inhabit present day Switzerland. He followed this with victories over the Gauls that lived in northern Europe. After reaching the English Channel in 55 BC Caesar decided to invade Britain.

To make sure everybody knew about his military victories, Julius Caesar wrote a book about his campaigns and had it published in Rome. The Senate became concerned about his growing popularity. To prevent Caesar from gaining power they appointed another famous Roman soldier, Pompey, to take control of the country. The Senate then passed a motion insisting that Caesar should retire from office.

Caesar reacted by ordering his men to march on Rome. At Corfinium, in 48 BC Caesar defeated troops loyal to the Senate. When news reached Rome of Caesar's victory, his enemies fled. Velleius reported: "Caesar, victorious over all his enemies, returned to Rome, and pardoned all who had borne arms against him, an act of generosity almost beyond belief. He entertained the city with the magnificent spectacle of a gladiatorial show, a sham battle of cavalry, infantry, and even mounted elephants."

Pompey decided to retreat to Macedonia, where he knew he could rely on the loyalty of his troops. However, Caesar's troops, highly experienced after their campaigns against the Gauls, were vastly superior to Pompey's soldiers who had not fought for twelve years. After a series of defeats, Pompey escaped to Egypt.

Octavius was elected to the College of Pontiffs in 47 BC. He also attempted to join Caesar's staff for his campaign in Africa but his mother, Atia Balba Caesonia, refused to grant him permission to join the Roman Army. She relented the following year but Octavius fell ill and was unable to travel to Hispania where he was fighting the forces of Pompey.

Octavius eventually reached Caesar's army. Over the next few months Octavius impressed Julius Caesar so much that when he returned to Rome he deposited a new will with the Vestal Virgins, naming his nephew as the prime beneficiary.

Julius Caesar now appointed 300 of his supporters as members of the Senate. Although the Senate and Public Assembly still met, it was Caesar who now made all the important decisions. By 44 BC Caesar was powerful enough to declare himself dictator for life. Although in the past Roman leaders had become dictators in times of crisis, no one had taken this much power.

Caesar began wearing long red boots. As the ancient kings used to wear similar boots, rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar was dominating political life.

Julius Caesar attempted to gain the full support of the people by declaring his intention to lead a military campaign against the Parthians. However, many had doubts about the wisdom of trying to increase the size of the Roman Empire. They believed it would be better to concentrate on organising what they already had.

Rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Plutarch wrote: "What made Caesar hated was his passion to be king." Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar made all the decisions. Even his friends complained that he was no longer willing to listen to advice. Finally, a group of senators decided to kill Caesar.

Even some of Caesar's closest friends were concerned about his unwillingness to listen to advice. Eventually, a group of 60 men, including Marcus Brutus, rumoured to be one of Caesar's illegitimate sons, decided to assassinate Caesar.

Plans were made to carry out the assassination in the Senate just three days before he was due to leave for Parthia. When Julius Caesar arrived at the Senate a group of senators gathered round him. Publius Servilius Casca stabbed him from behind. Caesar looked round for help but now the rest of the group pulled out their daggers. One of the first men Caesar saw was Brutus and was reported to have declared, "You too, my son." Caesar knew it was useless to resist and pulled his toga over his head and waited for the final blows to arrive.

At Caesar's funeral, Mark Antony was chosen to give the eulogy. During his speech, he removed the toga from Caesar's body to show the crowd the stab wounds, pointing at each one naming with men who had struck the blows. However, Cicero later commented: "Caesar subjected the Roman people to oppression... Is there anyone, except Mark Antony who did not wish for his death or who disapproved of what was done?... Some didn't know of the plot, some lacked courage, others the opportunity. None lacked the will."

Mark Antony also published Caesar's will which revealed that he had left 300 sesterces to every man in Rome. Caesar also stated in his will that his impressive gardens were to become parks for the people who lived in the city. This action helped Mark Antony to gain political influence over the people of Rome.

A onyx carving of Augustus being crowned.
A onyx carving of Augustus being crowned.

At various periods between 49 and 47 Mark Antony administered Italy when Julius Caesar was absent. He was therefore well-placed to assume leadership of the Caesar faction in Rome. Mark Antony allied himself with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in a joint bid for power. However, they were challenged by Octavian. The three men met on an island in a river near Mutina and formed the Second Triumvirate. In doing so, they brought an end to Republican Rome. When the Senate attempted to regain control, Antony and Octavian had 130 of them murdered. Their property was seized and given to those willing to support the new rulers.

Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius were defeated by Octavian and Mark Antony at the Battle of Philippi in October 42 BC. After the battle Octavian returned to Rome and Mark Antony went on to govern the east, whereas Marcus Aemilius Lepidus went on to govern Hispania and the province of Africa.

Fulvia, Mark Antony's wife, was also active in Roman politics. To solidify the political alliance, Fulvia offered her daughter, Clodia, to Octavian. Clodia became his wife but she was later returned when Octavian married Scribonia. According to Suetonius, Octavian's marriage with Clodia was never consummated and that she was returned in "mint" condition.

Fulvia saw this as an insult to her family and she decided to take action. Together with Mark Antony's brother, Lucius Antonius, she raised eight legions in Italy to fight against Octavian. The army occupied Rome for a short time, but eventually retreated to Perusia. Octavian besieged Fulvia and Lucius Antonius in the winter of 41 - 40 B.C., starving them into surrender. Fulvia was exiled to Sicyon. Lucius Antonius, was sent by Octavian to Hispania as governor. To show his commitment to his partner, Mark Antony divorced Fulvia and married Octavian's sister Octavia.

It was while he was in Egypt that Mark Antony met Cleopatra. Like Julius Caesar before him, Mark Antony soon fell in love with the Queen of Egypt. They formed a close alliance as Mark Antony set about reorganizing the eastern provinces.

In 40 B.C. the Parthians invaded Roman territory, occupying Syria, advancing into Asia Minor and installing Antigonus as puppet king in Judaea. Mark Antony sent his general Publius Ventidius to oppose this invasion.

Octavian now agreed for Mark Antony to retaliate by invading Parthia. However, the rebellion in Sicily of Sextus Pompeius kept the army promised to Mark Antony in Italy. This caused a dispute with Octavian but a new treaty was signed in Tarentum in 38 BC.

Mark Antony returned to Egypt and persuaded Cleopatra to lend him the money he needed to form an alliance with Herod the Great. In 37 BC, Herod and the Roman Army took back Judaea. Herod turned Antigonus over to Mark Antony, who had him beheaded.

Mark Antony now felt strong enough to invade Parthia. However, with an army of about 100,000 Roman and allied troops but the campaign proved a disaster and after several military defeats Mark Antony was forced to carry out an humiliating retreat.

Octavian now decided to destroy the triumvirate by forming a new alliance with the traditional Republican aristocracy. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was forced to resign and Octavian began attacking Mark Antony for abandoning his faithful wife, Octavia, to be with the promiscuous Cleopatra. Octavian claimed that Cleopatra was attempting to gain control of the Roman Empire by marrying Mark Antony. Cleopatra replied that her son Caesarion, and not Octavian, was Caesar's true heir.

Octavian responded by declaring war on Cleopatra. Although some Roman legions supported Mark Antony, the vast majority took the side of Octavian.

In 31 BC Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium on the west coast of Greece. Mark Antony and Cleopatra were forced to flee to Alexandria in Egypt. When Octavian's troops surrounded Alexandria, Mark Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Cleopatra was captured by Octavian who planned to take her back to Rome as his prisoner. However, she was determined not to be humiliated in this way and arranged for a poisonous snake to be smuggled into her room in a large box of figs. Cleopatra then committed suicide by allowing the snake to bite her.

Cleopatra had earlier sent her son Caesarion into hiding but he was betrayed by his tutor. When Octavian found out where Caesarion was he had him murdered but spared Cleopatra's three children by Mark Antony.

Octavian was now able to take complete control of the Roman Empire. The Senate was reduced in size and lost a considerable amount of its power. At first Octavian took the title of president but later this was changed to emperor. He also changed his name from Octavian to Augustus. This new name had religious significance and emphasised his superiority over the rest of humankind.

Suetonius later described Rome's new dictator: "Augustus' eyes were clear and bright... his teeth were widely separated, small and dirty. His hair was slightly curly and yellowish. His ears were small. His nose protruded somewhat at the top and bent rather inwards at the bottom. He was short (although his freedman Julius Marathus, who kept his records, informs us that he was over five feet six inches in height), but this was disguised by the good proportions of his figure and only apparent if someone taller stood beside him."

Although Augustus was always willing to listen to the advice of the Senate, he made all the important decisions. As censor, Augustus had the power to remove those people in the Senate that he disagreed with. He also took over the role of the tribunes who had in the past protected the people against those in power.

As well as controlling all political decisions, Augustus was also in charge of the armed forces, the church and the civil service. Not even Julius Caesar had held so much power. Even though the Roman people had traditionally opposed being ruled by one person, after nearly twenty years of civil war they were willing to accept Augustus' dictatorship. Rome now ceased to be a republic. It was the beginning of the period that is known as Imperial Rome.

Augustus was an expert at using propaganda to maintain power. The image he liked to portray was of a father protecting his children from harm. Augustus also appealed to people's patriotism encouraging writers to produce poems, plays and history books that glorified the achievements of the Roman people. Romans therefore grew up with a strong love of their country and a willingness to make any sacrifice

to keep it strong.

One way that Rome remained strong was by having a very large army. Wages were increased to 900 sesterces a year. The period of service was increased to twenty years but at the end of this each soldier received a discharge bounty of 12,000 sesterces.

These changes were expensive and had to be paid for out of taxation. Augustus ordered his officials to count the number of people in the Roman Empire. This census allowed a poll tax to be introduced. However, to keep the people of Italy happy, the poll tax only had to be paid by foreigners in the provinces.

Roman citizens were also exempt from direct taxes but they did have to pay a tax on some of the goods that they bought. These taxes were usually only around 2% and did not cause too much resentment.

Augustus also started a large rebuilding programme. Many of these buildings can still be seen in Rome today. Some were paid for by Augustus out of the wealth he obtained from plundering Egypt after the defeat of Cleopatra. He also built large theatres and sports arenas and provided free entertainment for the people of Rome.

Under Augustus city services were set up. This involved the supply of water, drainage and sewerage, the conservation of river banks and the creation of organisations such as a fire-brigade and police-force. Special officers were also appointed to maintain streets and public buildings.

Augustus also organised a network of roads to be built throughout the Roman Empire. These roads crossed rivers and cut through mountains, and enabled goods produced in the provinces to reach Italy faster than they had in the past. This both increased the range of goods available and helped to keep prices down. These new roads also helped Augustus to quickly move extra troops to areas suffering from local rebellions.

Augustus was married three times. His first wife was childless and the second had a daughter called Julia. His third wife, Livia, although only nineteen when he met her, was already married and was just about to have her second child. Such was Augustus' power that he was able to marry her straightaway. Her second child was born three days later.

Stone relief on Augustus' mausoleum (c. AD 14)
Stone relief on Augustus' mausoleum (c. AD 14)

Livia was an extremely intelligent woman who had a great influence on how Augustus ran the Roman Empire. From their surviving letters, it is clear that Augustus listened very carefully to what she had to say. Many Roman politicians resented Livia's political power and this is probably why Roman historians tend to say unpleasant things about her.

After her marriage to Augustus, Livia did not have any more children. Augustus chose Tiberius, Livia's son by her first marriage, to become the next emperor. As part of the deal, Tiberius had to marry Augustus' daughter Julia. Tiberius, who was already happily married, objected but eventually agreed to accept the orders of Augustus.

Augustus died in AD 14, (the month that he died, Sextilis, was then changed to August). Augustus was one of the most outstanding leaders the world has ever known. In the fifty years of his rule, he completely reformed the Roman Empire, and in doing so, made it so strong that the system he installed lasted for hundreds of years. Although he had taken much of their power away, the Senate recognised his greatness and within a month of his death declared him to be a god.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book, Roman History, Velleius described what happened when Augustus took power (c. AD 20)

The civil wars were ended after twenty years... and peace restored... power was restored to the laws, authority to the courts, and dignity to the senate... Agriculture returned to the fields, respect for religion... and new laws were passed for the general good.

(2) Suetonius, Augustus (c. AD 110)

Augustus' eyes were clear and bright... his teeth were widely separated, small and dirty. His hair was slightly curly and yellowish. His ears were small. His nose protruded somewhat at the top and bent rather inwards at the bottom. He was short (although his freedman Julius Marathus, who kept his records, informs us that he was over five feet six inches in height), but this was disguised by the good proportions of his figure and only apparent if someone taller stood beside him.

(3) Augustus, extract from a letter to Tiberius (c. 10 BC)

We spent the five-day festival of Minerva very pleasantly keeping the gaming table warm by playing all day long... I lost two hundred gold pieces; however, that was because, as usual, I behaved with excessive sportsmanship... I should have been at least five hundred to the good. Well, that is how I like it: my generosity will gain me immortal glory, you may be sure.

(4) Augustus, inscription on his mausoleum (AD 14)

I built the Senate house... the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine... I restored the Capitol and the Theatre of Pompey, both at great expense, without having my nape inscribed on either. I restored the channels of

the aqueducts, which in several places were falling into disrepair through age, and I brought water from a new spring into the aqueduct called Marcia, doubling the supply.

(5) The will of Augustus (14 AD)

My estate is not large; indeed, my heirs will not receive more than 1,500,000 gold pieces; for although my friends have left me some 14,000,000 in the last twenty years, nearly the whole of this sum... has been used to help the national economy.

(6) Tacitus, Annals (c. AD 118)

He (Augustus) seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was a successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody's goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace... Opposition did not exist. War or executions had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that obedience

was the way to succeed.

(7) Horace, Odes (c. 25 BC)

While the world's bound by Augustus' laws, I need not expect war or a violent end... While Augustus stands guard, peace is assured.

(8) Philo, Embassy to Gaius Caligula (c. A.D. 35)

This is he (Augustus) who cleared the sea of pirate-ships and filled it with merchant-ships. This is he who civilised all the unfriendly savage tribes and brought them into harmony with each other.


1. After reading the text and the sources on this page and draw up a two-column chart. In one column make a list of the changes that Augustus introduced. In the second column explain why Augustus introduced these changes.

2. It has been estimated that thousands of sculptured portraits of Augustus were produced during his reign. Historians have claimed that this was part of a propaganda campaign organised by Augustus. Study these sources and then explain how these sources may have influenced the way people in Roman times developed opinions about Augustus.

3. Emperor Augustus was responsible for introducing several changes into the Roman Empire. Many historians believe that most of these changes represented progress (a higher, more advanced stage). However, some historians believe that certain aspects of his policies are examples of regression (a lower, less perfect stage). Give examples of Augustus' progressive and regressive policies.