Augustus Rebuilds Rome: Octavius was still six months shy of his 19th birthday and living an isolated student life in Apollonia, on the coast of Greece, when, in 44 BC, the will of his assassinated great-uncle, Julius Caesar, catapulted him into the cauldron of Roman politics. Historians have often wondered about the validity of that will, which announced Caesar's posthumous adoption of Octavius and left almost all of Caesar's accumulated loot to the youth (meanwhile short-changing Marc Antony, Caesar's presumptive political heir). But, with the will blessed by the Vestals and all that money and real estate in hand, Octavius, renamed Octavian by virtue of his adoption, had the leverage to make sure that the will could not be challenged.

The new wealth ensured that Octavian also inherited the loyalty of Cesar's legions. Octavian used this army to occupy Rome and force the Senate to make him consul. Marc Antony, who had been consul with Caesar, was now forced to create a three-way alliance with High Priest Lepidus,  and Octavian. This "Second Triumvirate" split Rome's vast territories into three spheres: Antony controlled the East (Greece and beyond); Octavian got Italy and the West; and Lepidus controlled Africa. On behalf of the Triumvirate, Antony led a ruthless campaign to punish Caesar's assassins and eliminated the last of them in 43 BC, but soon the three regional leaders turned on each other. Octavian first took over North Africa and Lepidus, whose troops deserted en masse was exiled to a small Italian village from, from which, for the 23 remaining years of his life, he exercised, at a safe distance from Rome, his sole remaining office, that of Pontifex Maximus or High Priest.

Relations between Antony and Octavian, naturally, soured, and Antony finally put the cap on the process by divorcing Octavian's sister to marry Cleopatra. After a few more years of mutual vituperation and political maneuvering, war broke out, in 31 BC, between Octavian and the combined forces of Cleopatra and Antony. Octavian's resident military genius, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, defeated the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium on September 31 of that year, and, after their famous suicides after escaping to Egypt, Octavian became sole ruler of all Roman domains. He returned to Rome in 29 BC and celebrated his victory over Egypt: he couldn't very well have a Triumph in a civil war, so his publicists characterized the whole episode as a foreign war with Marc Antony being a defector to the other side.

Octavian found Rome -- the city and the empire -- in great disarray. Although he was in firm control, it took several more years and a number of clever political ploys to root out pockets of "disloyalty". But no one could hold out for too long: Octavian now had personal control of all the Roman Legions, which he could use if real fighting for control was ever necessary. As it turned out, it wasn't necessary, and Octavian pensioned off large numbers of troops, taking care to muster them out and settle them in places where their presence would ensure continued loyalty among the locals.

In 27 BC, in his boldest political ploy, Octavian declared that the Republic was restored and offered to resign the Consulship. Instead of accepting the resignation, the Senate named him "princeps" -- first among equals -- and added a new name, Augustus, to his growing string. Clearly, as we used to say in Chicago, "the fix was in before the votes were counted. Over the next few years he acquired other titles that let him sort out the political chaos of the preceding 70 or so years of internal disputes and civil wars: he finally shed the Conulship in 23 BC (and with it some odious administrative duties) but was immediately named Proconsul, which amounted to "supervisor of the Consuls." Then the Senate appointed him Tribune and with that title got the right to veto, supposedly on behalf of the people, any laws passed by the Senate.

The Senate had given up its last vestiges of real power, but Augustus always treated the Senators with utmost respect, greeting them with all their titles and names and ostentatiously consulting them before making important political decisions. When Lepidus finally died Augustus was named Pontifex Maximus, and finally had everything in his own hands.

During the 43 years of his administration (29 BC until his peaceful death in 14 AD) he instituted reforms in all spheres and presided over what was fondly remembered as the "Pax Romana" ("Roman Peace"), a new Golden Age of peace and prosperity: In his own time this period was actually called the "Roman Peace of Augustus". By the end, everyone had fallen into line and had become part of the vast Augustan political machine. Every citizen knew his place and all prospered together. (I used the word "his" purposely: women prospered only to the extent that their men did, never on their own. They were still considered property, and Augustus' "traditional", "republican", and "family values" programs restricted them to an ever shrinking sphere.)

Augustus patronized education and "culture" and, most importantly for later history, historians and mythologists. During Augustan times Livy rewrote all of Rome's history, giving past events a decidedly "Julian" spin (the Gens, or family, of Julius Caesar, of Augustus, and of the next four emperors was the Julii, and collectively they were known as the Julio-Claudians.) Vergil did the same for mythology by selecting and enshrining, in his Aeneid, those myths that glorified the Julian family. That mythology, starting with the founding myths of Aeneas the Trojan and through Romulus and Remus, became the definitive mythological text for the rest of the Roman period, and some of those myths are still commonly taught as "history" today. It's hard to say how much of the contemporary praise for Augustus was self-authored, but, self-serving or not, it's fairly certain that almost everyone enjoyed the peace and prosperity he brought after so many chaotic years.

And those who lived in or visited the capital during the Augustan Age (an official ancient Roman name for the period, proclaimed after his death) could daily see concrete -- or rather, marble -- results. Augustus' reported boast that he had found Rome as a city of bricks and left it as a city of marble was accurate. He opened the great quarries at Luna (now Carrara) and imported fine stone from wherever else in the empire it was found. His Res Gestae, an account of his own accomplishments that he last edited the year before he died, listed vast numbers of Government, civic, and religious building and reconstruction projects he undertook "at his own expense" -- in quotes because there was never anyone who wanted to challenge the princeps' book-keeping.

And, in fact, the people of all classes really did appreciate the fact that Augustus was rebuilding and aggrandizing municipal Rome. The account of his building schemes was immense and included new temples, an entire new Forum adjacent to the Republican forum and the Forum of Julius Caesar, a new Curia (senate chamber), the Palatine palace and temple complex, libraries, theaters, porticoes, the "Altar of Augustan Peace" and the giant sun-dial (horologium), his gigantic monumental tomb, 82 restored temples, and much more (too much to list here, see an Internet link below). What he didn't build himself his associates built, especially Agrippa (the temples, porticoes, baths, etc. around his original Pantheon) and to a lesser extent Caius Maecenas, another of Augustus' generals, who retired and became a still proverbial patron of architecture, and, even more so, of the arts and letters. The Res Gestae is a singularly boastful document, but the archeological evidence backs up what Augustus claimed to have built. After he died, Tiberius added a few appendices to the Res Gestae, reiterating and expanding on the high points of Augustus' architectural accomplishments, and a grateful "Senate and People of Rome" (SPQR) had the whole document inscribed on six tablets mounted on two bronze pillars emplaced before the entrance of his mausoleum. Copies were distributed around the Empire after his death and it's through some of these that we know the contents of the Res Gestae: the pillars have never been found.

Very few people who were alive at the end of his long term had even been born before the assassination of Uncle Julius 58 years earlier that brought him into the limelight. So even the oldest Romans remembered only Augustus' peaceful and more prosperous times.

Of course, the ineptitude, perversion, bloody-mindedness, and occasional outright insanity of those four Julio-Claudian successors -- Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero -- set in stone the fond memories of Augustus after he was gone. After Augustus died there had been an initial orderly succession by Tiberius, even though Augustus, not wanting to look "royal", had never formally proclaimed a successor. Unfortunately neither Tiberius nor any of the three remaining Julio-Claudians had what it took to be even a fairly good Emperor (despite Agrippina Minor's attempts to straighten out husband Claudius and son Nero). By 68 AD that imperial line ended in ignominy. After a rapid succession of three more duds, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, all within one year, Vespasian, the first of the Flavian dynasty of Emperors, finally took power in 69 AD.

Internet Links:

Best short modern Bio of Augustus on the net:

Suetonius' Bio of Augustus, written within 100 years of Agustus' death:

End of the Republic and Augustus' Rise to power (in great detail) -- Starting in 133 BC, all of the preceding disputes, civil wars, etc. up to the Battle of Actium and Augustus in sole control of the Roman state:

Augustan Urban Renewal in Rome:

Roman Architecture Gallery, including some major Augustan Buildings:

The Julio-Claudian family tree:

The following dynasty takes over -- Vespasian:

Go to for other articles.

Reminder:  the Colosseum, in the background of this page, was not an Augustan project.  It was a Vespasian creation, built in the courtyard of Nero's Domus Aurea, which Vespasian had demolished.