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.
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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