Augustus Caesar – the greatest leader of all time?

2 mins read

As part of our series to celebrate the launch of Civilization V, Matt Symonds explains why he believes Augustus Caesar was the greatest leader of all time

Why? This man forged an Empire.

Despite springing from relatively modest origins, Augustus Caesar’s legacy was the foundation of an imperial system that dominated Europe for over four centuries. Born as Gaius Octavius in 63 BC, his was not so much a life lived in extraordinary times as one that made them extraordinary. The year he was born saw the Roman Republic in rude health, with its staunch supporter Cicero elected Consul, yet by Augustus’death in AD 14 a return to this form of government was almost inconceivable.

This astonishing political revolution was achieved through strength of personality and a faultless use of the single trump card fortune had dealt him: being Julius Caesar’s great nephew.

When Caesar was assassinated, the 19-year-old future Augustus was in Macedonia, near a legionary force that Caesar had earmarked for a campaign against the Parthians. Urged to take command of these troops, Augustus’ first major decision displayed a trademark caution. Rather than marching on Rome before he knew the contents of Caesar’s will, Augustus landed on the Italian coast at a discrete distance from a major port, with only a group of friends for protection. It was only when he learned Caesar had adopted him as heir that Augustus raised the stakes. Opportunistically seizing the entire annual tribute from Asia, he set about raising troops, and bribing the plebs in Rome. The 19 year old had suddenly come of age.

Augustus Caesar – the greatest of all time?


In the chaotic years that followed Augustus had no scruples about making and breaking alliances. Here was a man who could be pragmatic to the point of betrayal, but while undesirable in a friend or ally, Augustus’ ruthless duplicity allowed Rome to emerge from a bitter and incredibly destructive period of civil war stronger than ever. Following Mark Antony’s suicide in 30 BC, Augustus ruled alone, bending the Roman Senate to his will. Its members must have regarded the shield installed in their chambers bearing his virtues – valour, clemency, justice and piety –with raised eyebrows. Suetonius records that one senate magistrate wrongly suspected of concealing a sword beneath his robes had his eyes gouged out by Augustus personally.

The first Roman emperor understood the power of an image. Despite living into his 70s there are no portraits of Augustus as an old man; instead his statues display an eternal youthful vigour. He cursed when Cleopatra’s death by asp robbed him of the star exhibit in a planned triumph. But while Augustus’ boast to have found Rome a city of bricks and left it marble may have owed more to self-promotion than reality, many of his other achievements were very tangible. He reformed the public finances, founded the praetorian guard, and incorporated lucrative new provinces within the Empire. Following his death Augustus capped this illustrious career by being declared a god. Such was the power of his example that every following Emperor claimed the title Augustus, and we still honour him with the month of August.

Matt Symonds, Editor, Current World Archaeology
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  1. I disagree with this. Augustus was likely one of the most talented leaders, but he was also Rome’s most devestating traitor. The republic had its flaws and challenges but before Augustus, Rome was a rising power that everyone wanted to be a part of. After Augustus the empire would increase its territory for a time through the force of its momentum, but was ultimately doomed by monarchy, something that any Roman of republican times would find extremely distastful. His friend Agrippa tried to warn him of the consequences(Cassius Dio book 52), and indeed it only took two transfers of imperial office for his warning to be realized in Caligula. Rome would be ruled thereafter by many more like Caligula than like Augustus. Once the Roman people began to follow their example of self indulgence and cruelty, the society became unsustainable.

  2. I agree with this assessment. The Republic, which had been floundering since the age of the Grachii, necessitated a change that only a man of Augustus’ talents and mental acumen could have provided. It is true that Augustus created a system, primarily rooted on personal ambition. But having done so, this same system enabled the Roman government to function better than it ever had under the Republic. We cannot blame Augustus for having done this out of ambition, since ambition is the driving force behind the Roman psyche anyway.

    It is true that Augustus founded the empire through subterfuge, murder and ruthless violence. It is difficult to justify crimes even as we posses the advantage of hindsight, but Augustus’ pragmatism was essential in stablizing the Roman world. Augustus fused personal ambition with a genuinely overriding concern for the good of his country, and by reforming the structure of Roman policy making, the Romans managed to govern their empire in a more clear-cut manner, with a more fiscally stable provincial government, systematized tax collection (as opposed to corrupt private tax farmers), a fairer system of tribute from satelite nations, a veterans’ retirement fund, and a system of law that influenced the modern world; not to mention the reconstruction of the physical fabric of Rome and its subject nations, which carried on for 400 years.

    Under Augustus, Rome experienced not only peace, but a cultural renaissance which would produce the likes of Virgil, Ovid, Horace and many others, all of whom would in turn influence modern European culture. The Rome of Augustus is the foundation of Modern Europe comprised of a multi-cultural society flourishing under the ironic juxtaposition of Empire and Freedom.

    Augustus could not have foreseen the likes of Caligula, Nero, Domitian or even Commodus, even though he himself worked increasingly in his later life in forging his own dynasty. His ever present concern was the dominance of Roman culture over the Mediterranean, and a lasting peace which would enrich the center which is Rome itself.

  3. You are right about him being a great emperor and him forging a fantastic empire. Don’t listen to these other people they just cant read.

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