Gaius Octavius Thurinus was no one special. At least, that was how he would’ve seemed to anyone who knew him as a boy. As the clever but perpetually ill son of a minor Roman nobleman, no one could have known that little Gaius would grow up to change the course of Roman history. No one could have known that sickly Gaius would live to be 75, dying peacefully in his bed after spending forty years as unquestioned master of the Roman world. No one could have known that humble Gaius would someday be known by a much grander title: Augustus. As Rome’s first emperor, Augustus played a role more crucial than even Caesar’s own in the most important political transition ancient Rome would ever face: its transformation from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.
Octavius was born in 63 BC. Despite a distant family connection to Julius Caesar, the rising star of Roman politics (his mother was Caesar’s niece) Octavius spent his early years in obscurity. He was just 13 years old when the civil war between Caesar and the Senate broke out, too young to participate on either side.
Towards the end of the war, in 46 BC, Octavius left Rome to join Caesar’s staff for his granduncle’s military campaign in Spain. The war ended not long after Octavius’ arrival, but even in the limited time he spent with his teenage grandnephew Caesar clearly saw something in the young man that impressed him. Upon winning the war and returning to Rome, Caesar decided to alter his will to designate Octavius as his adopted son and legal heir. This was done in such secrecy that no one, not even Octavius himself, would learn about it until after Caesar’s death.
A Dictator’s Will
In 44 BC, the 18-year-old Octavius was studying at a military academy in Macedonia when he received the news of Julius Caesar’s murder. Upon returning home he was stunned to discover that Caesar had named him as his adopted son and heir.
Given the turmoil of Roman politics at the time several of Octavius’ friends and family members, including his own mother included, probably urged him to renounce the adoption. After all, a close connection to someone as controversial as Caesar could easily put his life in danger. However, Octavius rightly calculated that being the adopted son of a man who had been so beloved by ordinary Roman citizens (and soldiers) would entail lasting benefits that would make it worth the risk. He accepted the adoption, legally changing his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. From this point until 27 BC, historians typically refer to him as Octavian.
The Young Caesar’s Troubles
From the moment the son of Caesar began his political career, Octavian found himself facing rivals and challenges on all sides.
To begin with, there was Mark Antony. With Caesar dead and his assassins driven out of Rome Antony was, for the moment, the most powerful man in Italy. Mark Antony had been a loyal supporter of Caesar, serving first under Caesar during his war of conquest in Gaul and then as the dictator’s right-hand man during the civil war that followed. Antony had expected that he would be named as Caesar’s heir in his will, only to find himself passed over for Octavian. From his first face-to-face meeting with his ‘replacement’, Antony made it clear that he did not like or trust the young Octavian. This was guaranteed to sabotage any potential working relationship between them.
Antony was not the only adversary Octavian had to reckon with; Caesar’s assassins were still at large in the eastern provinces. Brutus and Cassius were busily raising armies, determined to retake Rome by force and destroy any of the fallen dictator’s remaining loyalists. The Roman Senate could not be trusted to help Octavian either, not with the senators’ loyalties variously divided between Antony, Caesar’s killers, and themselves.
With the Roman world in political chaos, Octavian did not have the luxury of years to gradually rise through the ranks of the Republic’s hierarchy of offices as so many Roman politicians had done before him. If Octavian wanted a chance at power, or even survival, then he would have to find a way to deal with all of these challenges and soon.
The young Caesar’s first priority was to secure military support. With enemies all around him, Octavian knew that if he spent too long in Rome without soldiers to protect him he could easily suffer the same fate as Caesar. Octavian soon left the city and traveled to southern Italy, where he raised a small private army of veterans from Julius Caesar’s previous campaigns. These were experienced soldiers; more importantly, they were soldiers Octavian knew he could trust to be loyal to him as they had been to his adoptive father before him.
By this point in time, Mark Antony and the Senate had proven themselves incapable of sharing power with each other. Antony had left the capital and gone to northern Italy in order to recruit an army of his own, which he intended to use to march on Rome. Using his private army as a bargaining chip, Octavian cleverly offered his services to defend Rome and the Senate against Antony in return for an appointment as a Roman magistrate. This appointment would grant himself and his soldiers the state-sponsored legitimacy that they’d lacked up until now. With few other options, the Senate agreed.
In 43 BC, Octavian defeated Antony’s army and forced his rival out of Italy. He then returned to Rome at the head of his troops, forced the Senate to appoint him as consul, and passed a decree officially condemning Caesar’s assassins as enemies of the state. Despite these successes, Octavian soon recognized that his new situation was hardly any better than his previous one had been. Antony had been beaten, but not broken. He was now on the far side of the Alps, busy gathering more support, and more soldiers, from all over Gaul and Spain. Soon, Antony would return to Italy even stronger than before.
As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, Brutus and Cassius still held power over Rome’s eastern provinces, growing stronger for as long as they went unchallenged by either Octavian or Antony. The young Caesar was beginning to realize that his enemies were too strong and numerous for him to face them all on his own. Force alone would not be enough to win; Octavian would need to use diplomacy, too.
The New Triumvirate
Since there was no chance of reconciliation with Brutus and Cassius, the men who’d murdered his adoptive father, Octavian instead left Rome to travel north, seeking common ground with another rival: Mark Antony. In November, 43 BC Octavian, Antony and Marcus Lepidus, another former supporter of Caesar, created a formal pact between them called the Second Triumvirate. Effectively, it was an agreement to first aid each other against Brutus and Cassius, then to divide up rule of the Roman world among themselves after their common foes had been defeated.
With their forces now united Antony and Octavian returned to Rome, purged the Senate of anti-Caesarean voices (and particularly rich men, whose money could be ‘borrowed’ to help pay the costs of the upcoming campaign) and took their armies east to Greece to confront Brutus and Cassius. The inevitable clash was now at hand.
In October, 42 BC Antony and Octavian’s armies met the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, where the Caesareans won their long-awaited victory. Brutus and Cassius’ armies were routed, and both men committed suicide in the face of defeat.
Now that Caesar had been avenged and Brutus and Cassius done away with, all that remained for the moment was for the triumvirs to divide the spoils of victory among themselves. To that end, there were some minor squabbles between Antony and Octavian in the aftermath of the Philippi campaign. At one point there was a brief escalation into armed conflict between Octavian and members of Antony’s family, but by the end of 40 BC the working relationship between the triumvirs had been firmly restored.
Rome’s territory was divided up into geographical regions, each to be governed by one of the triumvirs. Antony was given command of Rome’s eastern provinces, including Greece, Syria and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Octavian would rule the Roman west: Italy, Gaul and Spain. Lepidus, being very much the third wheel of the partnership was given control of North Africa, a much smaller sphere of influence than his colleagues.
The details of this new arrangement left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real power of the Second Triumvirate rested in the hands of two men: Gaius Octavian and Mark Antony. Finally, in order to establish family as well as political ties between them, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia.
For several years to come Antony and Octavian would remain at peace, at least with each other. Hoping to expand Rome’s eastern borders Antony fought a long but inconclusive war against the Parthian Empire, a powerful eastern kingdom centered in what is now Iran and Iraq. Rome and Parthia had been at odds with each other for decades, and Antony had hoped that a conquest of Parthia would win new lands and riches for Rome and, of course, more glory for himself. Meanwhile, Octavian spent his time winning more supporters in the Senate, subduing pirates in the western Mediterranean and, in 36 BC, removing Lepidus from office after his fellow triumvir made a clumsy attempt to stab him in the back.
Sex, Violence and Roman Values
The years between 40 and 31 BC saw important changes, personal as well as political, for both Octavian and Antony. In Rome Octavian came to realize that the unconventional start to his political career, including raising a private army, bullying the Senate, and killing senators for their wealth or opposition to him had done severe damage to his future career prospects. In the long run, continuing to behave this way could jeopardize his entire political future. With this revelation, Octavian began to change his public image; from now on he would make sure everyone saw him as a conservative Roman traditionalist, faithfully observant of Roman values and respectful of Roman law. It was a change of image that would be a vital aspect to both the rest of his career and subsequent Roman history.
Meanwhile in the east, Antony was going through a very different change: he had begun his famous love affair with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra was a woman famous (or infamous) for her enchanting powers of seduction; even Julius Caesar himself had proven unable to resist her allure. The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra had begun merely as a business arrangement. Antony wanted access to Egypt’s substantial wealth to help fund his armies and military campaigns and Cleopatra, ever fearful of losing her grip on the Egyptian throne, wanted Antony and his soldiers on her side to make sure this wouldn’t happen. Before long, however, Cleopatra’s illustrious charm had done its work, and Antony soon found himself enraptured by the Egyptian queen.
As time went on, Roman society watched with growing horror as one of the two most powerful men in the Roman world fell increasingly under the spell of a foreign ruler. No matter how petty or outrageous her wishes, Antony seemed willing to do whatever Cleopatra asked of him. Antony abandoned his wife to live with Cleopatra in Alexandria, a personal insult both to her and to his brother-in-law Octavian. Antony brutally murdered Cleopatra’s younger sister simply for being a possible candidate for the Egyptian throne. Worst of all, Antony began to display his willingness to give away much of Rome’s eastern territory as gifts to Cleopatra and her children, as if these lands were his personal property to donate.
Back in Rome, popular support for Antony began to erode. Antony’s seemingly unconditional deference towards Cleopatra and Egypt was causing public opinion of the once-popular triumvir to plummet.
And all the while Octavian watched, and waited.
The Final Clash
By 32 BC, Octavian felt Antony’s actions had cost him enough support in Rome to convince the Senate that another war was needed to remove him. This was Octavian’s chance to eliminate his last rival for control of the Roman world. However, there was a complication: acting as the aggressor against Antony would threaten Octavian’s benevolent public image. Even if Antony was not nearly as popular as before, advocating for a war against a fellow Roman would not be well received by Roman society. So Octavian found a cunning way around the problem: he asked the Senate to declare war not on Antony but on Cleopatra, knowing that his rival would fight to defend her and brand himself an enemy of Rome in the process. With Romans once again at war with Romans, Antony and Octavian prepared themselves for one last confrontation to decide once and for all which of them would emerge as master of Rome.
The final battle between them would be fought at a place called Actium, off the western coast of Greece. On 2 September, 31 BC Antony and Cleopatra prepared their combined fleet of hundreds of warships to face Octavian’s equally massive fleet at sea. After a long and bloody battle, the Egyptian queen and her lover were bested by Octavian and his loyal subordinate, Marcus Agrippa. Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt, leaving two hundred of their warships at the bottom of the sea. Antony also left tens of thousands of his soldiers behind as prisoners in Octavian’s hands. Most of these prisoners were understandably happy to renounce their allegiance to Antony, the commander who’d abandoned them to his rival’s mercy, and join Octavian in exchange for clemency, and with their support the victorious young Caesar grew stronger still.
The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra was decisive and total. With what little support they had left, neither the queen nor her lover were strong enough to pose a threat to Octavian anymore. All the young Caesar had to do now was pursue his beaten foes back to Egypt and hunt them down to complete his victory. In the end, Octavian wasn’t able to take either Antony or Cleopatra alive (both committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner) but his war had ended in success just the same. Octavian quickly dealt with any remaining supporters of the fallen lovers, annexed Egypt as a Roman province and returned to Rome. He, like Caesar before him, now held unchallenged power over the whole Roman world.
Upon returning home Octavian would enjoy the spoils of his victory, but he would also have to face the greatest challenge of his political career. It was a puzzle that could not be solved with swords or ships or armour but only with shrewd political acumen. Gaius Octavian would have to answer the riddle that Julius Caesar never had: how can a man rule as a king without being a king?