Augustus, the first ruler of the Roman Empire, lived between 63 BC and 14 AD. He founded the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, the first line of emperors to rule over Rome’s sprawling realm. Some historians regard Augustus as one of the greatest rulers of Rome because he established a strong, well-managed government. His reign ended a period of violent struggle for power during the chaotic final days of the Roman Republic.
A grand-nephew of the famous general Julius Caesar, Augustus spent much of his early childhood residing in his father’s home village of Velletri (about 25 miles outside Rome). His mother, Atia, Caesar’s niece, had married Gaius Octavius, a Roman military officer, and landowner. She remarried after her husband’s death. Atia allowed her mother, Julia (Caesar’s sister), to raise her then four-year-old son.
During this period, Julius Caesar enjoyed prominence as one of Rome’s leading generals and political leaders. Augustus trained for a military career, and he reportedly won his famous uncle’s approval. Although originally known as Gaius Octavius Thurinus, he changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC after his uncle formally adopted him as his heir through his will. Writers often refer to him as “Octavian” during this period.
The murder of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC became a pivotal moment in Octavian’s career. Suddenly entitled to inherit his late uncle’s wealth, he vowed to avenge Caesar’s death. Many veterans who had served Julius Caesar now began following his orders.
The Second Triumvirate
Octavian joined two of his uncle’s closest allies, Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. They formed the Second Triumvirate to control Rome. The three created a long list of political enemies. Their soldiers methodically murdered their opponents and seized their properties. Their army defeated forces led by two of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BC.
Disagreements between its three leaders eventually disrupted the Second Triumvirate. Lepidus agreed to surrender command of his legions and assume a political post in Rome. Octavian and Mark Antony eventually became bitter rivals. Both men retained control over armies. After defeating Mark Antony and his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian became the unchallenged strongman of Rome.
Octavian had previously persuaded Romans to elevate Julius Caesar to the stature of a Roman god. Now, with the Roman Senate full of his supporters, in 27 BC, he formally resigned his official duties. The Senate promptly conferred the title “Augustus” (“Revered One”) upon him. He effectively became Emperor and the Republic ended.
The reign of Augustus ushered in a period of affluence in Rome. He implemented legal reforms, while ruthlessly silencing critics. Emperor Augustus annexed many Roman conquests. He died at age 75, passing the throne to his stepson. He had divorced his first two wives, but the third, Livia Drusilla, survived him.