top of page

Augustus' Rise to Power - by Peter Xiao

The last of the republic and the first of empire, Augustus truly stands the test of time as a Roman political and military icon. From an eighteen-year-old with no power to an imperator ('emperor/leader') ruling over the Roman world, Augustus’ rise to power and his later constitutional changes were driven by his cunning and practicality. He was a smart man who could observe political situation astutely and manipulate public opinion through propaganda. Augustus was not born to be a princeps ('leader/chieftain'), but he gradually built up his strength and experiences as the political situation in Rome developed.

The Prima Porta statue of Augustus, c. 20 BC
The Prima Porta statue of Augustus, c. 20 BC

Beware the Ides of March

Julius Caesar – the most powerful Roman of his time ­– was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius on the 15th March 44 BCE His sudden death left a political vacuum in Rome. Octavian (as he was then called) was studying oratory in Apollonia, Greece at the time. Once he heard about the death of Julius Caesar, who was the uncle of his mother, he returned to Rome and demanded vengeance on the conspirators. In Julius Caesar’s will, he adopted Octavian as his legitimate heir. With his political cunning, Octavian quickly utilised the significance of this adoption by changing his name to Gaius Julius Caesar; this appealed to the veterans of the Caesarian Party given Caesar’s former popularity among the soldiers.

After securing the support of the veterans and the financial inheritance from Caesar, Octavian organised a private army and joined the consuls Hirtius and Pansa in a military engagement against Mark Antony in Mutina in 43 BC. Both consuls died in this battle, leaving the seat empty. Octavian capitalised on this opportunity to blackmail the Senate and demanded the role for himself.

This was clearly against the ancient Roman political hierarchy of Cursus Honorum (literally course of honours), which determined the age at which different political candidates were qualified for certain offices. Octavian was only nineteen years old in 43 BCE and the minimum age for consul was forty-two. He eventually secured the position by threatening to march on Rome.

The first alliance

After building up his political muscle, Octavian formed an alliance known as the Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius – Julius Caesar’s murderers – at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, Antony took provinces in the eastern Mediterranean, while Lepidus took the western provinces. Octavian was given the challenging task of the distribution of land to the troops of the triumvirs. His policy severely harmed the interest of Italian farmers, which led to conflict with Antony’s wife, Fulvia, and his brother, Lucius. Fulvia and Lucius revolted against Octavian in 40 BCE. But their military strength was no match for his and they were eventually besieged and defeated in Perusia.

After the news of Perusia reached Mark Antony, he quickly dispatched his army back to Italy; Rome was once more on the brink of Civil War. But the armies of Octavian and Antony were unwilling to fight each other. The pair decided to sign a treaty in Brundisium and Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, to cement their new agreement. Antony now returned to the east while Octavian turned to Sextus Pompeius who had been mobilising pirates in the Mediterranean.

The beginning of the end

The was one of the most difficult wars that Octavian fought in his life. After having no major success against Sextus in the year 38 BCE, he appealed to Antony for military assistance. The two reached an agreement in Tarentum and Octavian received ships from Antony. The Triumvirate was retrospectively renewed for another five years, until 33 BCE. With renewed military support from Antony, Octavian launched another attack on Sicily, Sextus’ base. And with the military brilliance of his right-hand man Marcus Agrippa, he was victorious at the naval Battle of Naulochus in 36 BCE.

But what had happened to Lepidus? After Sextus’ defeat, Lepidus revolted against Octavian, underestimating his popularity among the soldiers. His coup was soon put to an end by Octavian. The dominions of Sicily and Africa were transferred to his power. The Roman world was now divided between two powerful warlords: Octavian and Mark Antony.

During the Sicilian War, Antony had been campaigning against Parthian forces. In 37 BCE, Antony embarked on a large and ambitious expedition against the Parthians in Armenia. This ended in great disaster for Anthony and his retreat through Armenia in the snows of early winter is comparable to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812. Antony’s military strength was now severely diminished, as was his political reputation. By 36 BCE, Antony had not been seen in Rome for more than three years.

East vs West

Meanwhile, Octavian married Livia in 38 BCE and further enhanced his cooperation with the republican aristocracy. Antony did gain a military triumph in Illyria in 33 BCE, for which he organised a lavish ceremony in Alexandria which later became known as the ‘Donations of Alexandria’. It was this that made the final battle between Octavian and Antony inevitable. Antony publicly declared that Caesarion – the illegitimate son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra – should be the heir of Caesar’s legacy. Since Octavian’s extraordinary rise to power had been founded on his designation as Julius Caesar’s son and the name of Caesar, this claim deteriorated the already unstable relationship between the two triumvirs. War was once again imminent.

From 34 BCE, Octavian unleashed propaganda warfare on Antony. He and his trusted men – Agrippa and Maecenas – presented Antony as a degraded Roman who was under the control of the eastern witch, Cleopatra. The conflict between eastern and western civilisations was an inherent part of the Roman mos maiorum (‘the custom of the ancestors’), and so their declarations were extremely powerful. Octavian also produced a will that he claimed had been issued by Antony; it asked that he be buried alongside Cleopatra in Alexandria rather than in Rome. Since Antony was still married to Octavia at that time, this apparent wish was clearly against Roman custom.

Octavian’s propaganda campaign achieved its goal in damaging the already negative image of Antony among the Romans. Ultimately, Rome was the centre of the empire and whoever controlled public opinion could gain legitimacy. Before the outbreak of the final battle, Octavian ordered the fetialis (‘war priest’) to perform the ceremony of declaration of war; by using the fetialis, Octavian was publicly suggesting that the war against Antony was not a civil war but a foreign war against eastern forces. Antony was no longer considered to be a Roman.

From Octavian to Augustus

Octavian eventually secured the victory over Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and gained absolute control of the Roman world. His next political objective was to consolidate power by securing himself within the current political mechanisms of Rome. The lessons of previous leaders were not far away and therefore he was unwilling to make himself an outright dictator. In 27 BCE Octavian made a show by returning all of his power back to the Senate and People of Rome, for which the Senate rewarded him the titles Augustus and Princeps.

The senators were subservient to Augustus because of his immense financial power and –more importantly – his auctoritas (‘authority’) among the Romans, which was built on his ability to provide security and stability. By this point, Rome and its people had been in civil wars for years. Historian Werner Eck argues:

‘The sum of [Augustus’] power derived first of all from various powers of office delegated to him by the Senate and people, secondly from his immense private fortune, and thirdly from numerous patron-client relationships he established with individuals and groups throughout the Empire. All of them taken together formed the basis of his auctoritas, which he himself emphasized as the foundation of his political actions.’ (Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus, 2007)

The second Constitutional Settlement for Augustus came in 23 BC after Augustus resigned his consulship. The Senate and People of Rome gave him imperium maius (‘enhanced proconsular authority’, which enabled him to give orders to other governors) and tribunician potestas (‘tribunician power’, which gave him back most of the powers he had lost through surrendering the consulship). He could now veto decisions, summon business before the Senate, and take legislation to the people.

His tribunician power was particularly symbolic because the office had originated in the class struggles of the fifth century when the ordinary people were resisting against an oppressive aristocracy. To understand Augustus’ success in the second Constitutional Settlement, we have to acknowledge three factors: his popularity with the ordinary people of Rome; his support among the non-political upper classes of the Italian towns; and, most importantly, the loyalty of the army to the name of Caesar. Augustus’ position was won by the brutality of war but justified by the splendour of his success.

Augustus is truly a notorious leader, inspiring many monarchs and leaders during and after antiquity. But in order to fully understand the magnanimity of his success and achievements throughout his rise to power, it is important to look back to where he actually started in the chaotic year of 44 BCE.

Academus Education is an online learning platform providing free Classics Education to students through summer schools, articles and digital think tanks. If you wish to support us, please buy us a coffee on our ko-fi page.

3,121 views0 comments


bottom of page