Augustus Caesar: The First Roman Emperor (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.9)

After the death of Julius Caesar, Caesar’s nephew Octavian rushed back to Rome. Octavian, who was 19 years old, had been away at school when his great-uncle was assassinated. Caesar had adopted Octavian as his son and left most of his wealth to Octavian in his will. Octavian knew that he had to make some fast and wise decisions in order to inherit his great-uncle’s power as well. There were two groups he knew he especially needed on his side in order to become powerful in Rome, the plebeians and the soldiers.

Immediately upon returning to Rome and receiving his inheritance, Octavian threw a large party for all of the plebeians of Rome. Using the money he had inherited from Caesar, Octavian bought enough food and drinks to last for ten days. He gave them out to the people of Rome. He also paid to have gladiator contests and other entertainment provided for the people during that time. The plebeians began to love him for his generosity in throwing a 10 day long party for them.

Octavian also vowed to punish those who had killed Caesar. Caesar’s soldiers, who were very angry that their leader had been murdered, were very happy about this. When the army found out that Caesar had appointed Octavian as his heir, the soldiers pledged their loyalty to Octavian.

The following year, 43 BC, with the army and the plebeians both on his side, Octavian demanded to be made a consul. The Senate agreed and allowed him to rule alongside two other men. The three consuls, however, quickly began to fight against each other. Octavian was able to defeat both of his rivals and become sole ruler of Rome. As he acquired more power for himself, however, he was careful not to make the same mistake his great-uncle had. He knew that if he demanded to be made king the Senate would try to kill him too.

Instead, Octavian made the people of Rome love him more and more by passing laws that made their lives more comfortable. He developed a network of roads made of concrete that allowed people to move easily from one place to another in the lands owned by Rome. He reformed the tax system so that it was more lenient on the poor. He started a police and firefighter system in the city of Rome. By far his most important achievement is the long peace that he brought to Rome. Rome had not gone a single century without a large war since its beginning. Through building a large and well-trained army, Octavian was able to start a 200 year period of peace for the Romans, called the Pax Romana, which means “Roman Peace.” During this time, the Romans fought no major wars and the people of Rome lived without fear of invasion by other nations.

As Octavian did more and more for the people of Rome, his popularity continued to grow. The people wanted to give him more power. Each time it was offered, however, Octavian would reject it at first, saying that he did not want all of that power for himself. When the Senate offered to make him dictator, as they had made his great-uncle before, Octavian instead chose to be called Princeps, which means “First Citizen.” Even without the title, however, Octavian still had all the power of a dictator. He also had one power even his uncle did not have: he had the power to select who would rule Rome after his death. Octavian was also given a new name at this time. He was called Augustus, which means “blessed” and “majestic.” It is for this reason that Augustus is considered by historians to have been the first Roman emperor. He reigned as emperor from 27 BC – 14 AD. His legacy, the Roman Empire, continued for more than a thousand years after his death.

 

Review Questions

 1. What did Octavian do to make the plebeians of Rome love him?

2. Why did the army love Octavian?

3. What was Octavian’s named changed to in 27 BC?

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