August 19: The End of the First (and Greatest) Roman Emperor

Today, in the year 14 C.E., Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, died.  His rise to the imperial throne was an unlikely one.  Julius Caesar, Roman politician, general, and ultimately, dictator, was his great-uncle — not exactly the closest of relatives. Despite three marriages, Caesar left no legitimate male heir (Caesarion, his son with Cleopatra, was not considered legitimate), and ultimately adopted Augustus, then known as Octavian, as his son and heir in his will.  Upon Caesar’s death in 44 B.C.E., Octavian took on Caesar’s name and inherited his great fortune.


Initially, Octavian, only 18 years old at the time of Caesar’s death, ruled Rome as part of a triumvirate, along with Mark Antony and a cavalry general, Lepidus.  By 36 B.C.E., Octavian had outmaneuvered Lepidus, and stripped him of power.  Mark Antony, however, had become more formidable due to his political (and intimate) alliance with Cleopatra.

And here’s where it turns into a soap opera. Cleopatra was mother to Caesarian, her illegitimate son with Caesar and therefore a significant threat to Octavian as Caesar’s natural son.  Mark Antony was married to Octavian’s sister, the much respected and beloved Octavia, with whom he had several children.  But then he “married” Cleopatra, who also bore him several children. It’s hard keeping it all straight …. but what is clear is Mark Antony broke with Rome in 34 B.C.E. when he “gave” various lands (which Rome claimed) and titles to Cleopatra’s children, particularly Caesarian.

On September 2 in 31 B.C.E., Octavian, with his trusty general and loyal friend Agrippa, defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.  Mark Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and Octavian quickly had his “brother” Caesarion put to death. Now the undisputed ruler of Rome, Octavian’s victory enabled him to consolidate his power over Rome and its dominions.  After the Battle of Actium, as part of his ever-careful plan to disguise his rising dictatorship, he adopted the title of Princeps (“first citizen”). In 27 B.C.E., the Roman senate declared him “revered,” and he achieved the name we now know him as: Augustus.

Augustus with his head covered, as the religious leader of Rome, the Pontifex Maximus

Augustus went on to rule Rome for more than 40 years, and generations came and went in that time, all under the Pax Romana, or Roman peace.  Vast road networks were built, the empire expanded, and trade flourished.  Augustus used his massive wealth to build much of the ancient Rome we see today.  Indeed, he is said to have declared, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”  Here are some of the places you can see today — more than 2,000 years old! — that are affiliated with Augustus:

Altar where Julius Caesar was cremated, in the Temple of the Divine Julius, built by Augustus


Portico of Octavia, built by Augustus in honor of his sister


Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the avenger), in the Forum of Augustus 


Altar of Augustan Peace, the Ara Pacis, built by the Roman Senate in honor of Augustus, now housed in a museum


Detail of the Ara Pacis, the Imperial Family in a procession


The remains of the Mausoleum of Augustus

On the Palatine Hill, you’ll find the remains of the house he lived in as an adult, the Domus Augusti.  While its modest size and decor was part of Augustus’ charade of simply being Rome’s “first citizen,” the location — near the Hut of Romulus and other sacred sites that relate to the foundation of Rome — was certainly intentional and designed to give him an additional air of legitimacy. (Note: access to the Domus Augusti is limited to special tours).

Numerous books have been written on the wily political and propaganda manipulations that Augustus used over bis long lifetime to become the most powerful man in the world, accomplishing all — probably more — than ever dreamt by Julius Caesar, while continually representing himself as a mere citizen of the republic. Whereas Julius Caesar was assassinated for taking steps toward becoming an emperor, Augustus was able to accomplish this feat quietly and methodically. Tellingly, Augustus was never called “emperor” in his lifetime, although there is no doubt he had achieved this level of power.

So, on this day in 14 C.E., in a month now named for him, Rome’s first emperor died… with no son.  The family members he considered heirs had all predeceased him. Instead, the throne went to Tiberius, his adopted step-son from his marriage to his beloved Livia.  The imperial throne would remain in Augustus’ Julio-Claudian family until the death of Nero in 68 C.E.