- James Houser
January 16, 27 BCE - Augustus Caesar becomes Emperor of Rome
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
January 16, 27 BC. A warlord is made dictator of a once-free republic to thunderous applause.
Well, for a given definition of "warlord," "dictator," and "free." There is no denying, though, that when Octavian changed his name to Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome, it heralded a great change in world history.
Augustus Caesar was born Octavian to a minor Roman house distantly related to Julius Caesar. No one is sure what he did to impress his mother's uncle so much, but whatever it was, it worked. After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, it was discovered that his will designated the young man as his adoptive son and primary heir, since Caesar had no children. Confusingly, bearing the name "Julius Caesar" due to Roman adoption laws, Octavian was 19 years old and ready to rumble. Playing on his name and status as Caesar's heir, and with pockets full of gold, Octavian had soon put together a veteran army.
Caesar, of course, had spent the last six years winning a civil war by crushing every possible enemy that refused his offer of clemency. Those that had accepted his forgiveness were the ones that had killed him, and Caesar's partisans were outraged. After a brief conflict with Mark Antony, one of Caesar's top generals, the "boy Caesar" Octavian proposed that they combine forces. With these troops, they moved out together to confront and defeat the assassins at Philippi.
When factions come together to destroy an enemy, the enemy is all that holds them together. With the assassins gone, Octavian and Antony now vied for power. (There was a third guy, Lepidus, but no one cares about him. It's even a joke in Shakespeare how little Lepidus mattered.) Octavian, the cold and quiet young man, heir to Caesar and aligned with the middle class; Antony, red-blooded and intemperate, the combat veteran and professional rabble-rouser.
Most bets would have gone to Antony. But Antony underestimated his young foe at every turn, and Octavian proved a genius politician. He wasn't a great general, but he found great generals. He carefully built support, crushed his opponents, won over the Roman people of all classes, and finally forced Antony into a battle he could not win. In 31 BC, the fleet of Antony and his lover Cleopatra of Egypt went to the bottom of the sea at Actium, and the two lovers committed suicide a year later as Octavian's armies invaded Egypt. Antony's memory was scrubbed from the walls of Rome.
With all his foes defeated, Octavian made a great show. The Senate "begged" him to take perpetual control of all military forces in the vast lands controlled by the Republic, and he made a farce of "refusing" it multiple times before ultimately conceding. "You twisted my arm," he might have said, grinning.
Thus it was that the power of the Republic, always a tool for the nobility and the elite anyway, fell to a single man who had built his power on an appeal across all classes. A military dictator, he technically served at the Senate's request; as High Priest, all sacrifices were made in his name; as the richest man in Rome by several orders of magnitude, he was not a king, but just the First Citizen - the Princeps.
Of course, he was more than the sum of these parts. The title "imperator," which was in theory just a military rank, became the common term for this new position. His chief office was the first imperator of Rome - the Emperor.
Finally, the man that had been Octavian assumed a new name. He was Augustus Caesar. A month is named after him. He was said to make the gods quake. Brilliant, ruthless, devious and ice cold, he stood atop the world.
He reigned 44 years. No man has held as much power over such a great share of the world's population, before or since.
For Augustus himself, there are always the ancient histories that are still in print - including Suetonius' Twelve Caesars. For a more modern history there is Anthony Everitt's Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor (New York: Random House, 2006) or Adrian Goldsworthy's Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).