Many rulers of Rome have names so obscure the average student is ignorant of them. On the other hand names like Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Tiberius, Caligula and especially that of the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar, have rung down the centuries like so many turbulent bells.
Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus was born sixty-three years before the birth of Christ, and died fourteen years after the Crucifixion. Before this extraordinary man there had been no emperors. He is a particularly distinguished member of the Caesar family, and was Julius Caesar’s nephew. He first came to prominence at the age of nineteen following the assassination in the senate of his uncle Julius. In order to understand this murder, the student must learn that its plotters were entirely upper members of the ruling class and caste in Rome; chief republican conspirators Brutus and Cassius were conspicuously important members of Julius’ inner cabinet of administrators. They killed ‘The Divine Julius’ because they were against the idea of a Roman Empire, or an Emperor, and Julius had promised them both.
After Caesar died of his wounds a power struggle began between followers of Marc Antony and those of Brutus and Cassius. Antony was a first-class soldier and diplomat who might well have become a great ruler if he had not succumbed to the twin attractions of drink and women. He was not serious enough, whereas Octavius was only too serious. He joined the Second Triuvirate with Lepidus and Antony, making a threesome of dictators.
The republicans, who wanted nothing to do with kings or emperors of Rome, were led into defeat at the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide, according to Roman (and Japanese) tradition, having failed. It is worth mentioning that historians have suggested it likely that Brutus was a son of Julius Caesar, which makes him both a regicide and a patricide.
After the debris of the great battle had been cleared away, including noble but useless Lepidus, Antony and Octavian (still only nineteen) divided up the Empire between them. Antony had the East, Octavian the West. Ruling the East meant Antony was fated to meet Cleopatra, a fascinating Queen of Egypt, who proceeded to fascinate Antony so much he forgot his imperial ambitions and settled down (mostly in bed) with his Egyptian lady. He also married Octavian’s sister, and mistreated her, a bad mistake to add to all the others. Octavian took umbrage, and the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.) was the result.
Octavian defeated a rather drunk and exhausted Antony, and instantly achieved total supremacy. He took over responsibility for Rome’s military provinces, and the garrisons. He married Livia, a member of one of Rome’s most illustrious patrician families. Still young, his leadership of the Roman legions won important battles in Asia, Spain, Pannonia, Dalmatia and Gaul. The Senate named his Emperor, which in fact is the translation of Augustus.
But Germania (now Germany) was his only pitfall; his generals were defeated in thick forest by Arminius, who took the Roman standards as a prize. It is said that Augustus never recovered from the loss of his legions in Germania, nor the standards.
Now growing older, Augustus needed every drop of his formidable intelligence to control his own ambitious family and that of his supremely ambitious wife Livia. Though he was an absolute monarch, he managed to rule preserving the institutions of republican government, which is an extraordinary achievement. He must have been an awe-inspiring man, for he loved his friends and company, eating and drinking, games of chance, though he never had the reputation of being a womaniser. It is said however that one never knew where one was with him, for he could order your death after dining happily with you. Livia, herself a terrifyingly intelligent and calculating woman, seems to have kept a tight rein on her husband, meanwhile doing away (usually by poisoning) with any serious rivals to her son Tiberius’ eventual accession. Tiberius was fruit of a previous marriage.
Between the occasional battle, the occasional family shock or feud and between gargantuan meals taken most uncomfortably lying down, Augustus created the Principate, a system of stable and effective monarchic government, during fifty uncertain years. The ‘Augustan Age’ brought a certain degree of security (except for discovered enemies of Livia), prosperity and general content to the Roman Empire.
His patronage enabled poets of the calibre of Virgil, Horace and Livy to compose literature which has (mostly) survived. He re-designed and re-built most of Rome. In 14 A.D. at the age of sixty-seven he died, his death possibly, though not certainly, assisted by his wife Livia, who went on to survive her own son Tiberius’ dangerous monarchy, though Caligula’s proved too much, even for her.
Students of Augustus could do worse than to watch all episodes of the TV version of Robert Graves’ books I, Claudius and Claudius the King superbly made by the BBC in the Seventies, if only for the remarkable interpretation of Augustus Caesar given by the British actor Brian Blessed, the Livia of Peter O’Toole’s gaunt and hypnotic wife Sian Phillips, and of course the most famous filmed version of a stammerer ever given: Derek Jacobi as Clo-Clo-Claudius.