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The Early Roman Empire and the Reign of Augustus Caesar

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  • 0:05 Augustus: A Man of Many Names
  • 0:39 Julius Caesar and Mark Antony
  • 3:14 The Second Triumvirate
  • 5:07 Imperator
  • 6:42 Augustus
  • 7:42 Pater Patriae: Father…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson is about Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. In this lesson we follow Augustus's meteoric rise to power, the collapse of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire.

Augustus: A Man of Many Names

Meet Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, Pater Patriae. You can call him Augustus. Without question, Augustus is one of the most important people in history. So, who is this Roman fellow with the unwieldy name?

Well, we can learn a lot about him and about the history of Rome just by looking at that name. Augustus's name tells the story of his rise to power, the collapse of the Roman Republic, and the birth of the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar

Augustus did not always have such a fancy name. When he was born in 63 BCE, his name was Gaius Octavius. Octavius was just another young man of one of the many noble families in Rome, and an impoverished one at that. Then, Gaius Octavius's grand-uncle, Gaius Julius Caesar, who we know as Caesar, began his meteoric rise to power.

Caesar took over the Roman Republic and set himself up at its head, making himself incredibly wealthy and powerful. Caesar adopted his grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius, as his sole heir, then got assassinated. Hoping to inherit the fame, property, and popularity of Caesar, Gaius Octavius took his uncle's name and became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Since that is a mouthful, let us refer to him as Octavian for the time being.

Mark Antony

Octavian was not the only fellow hoping to succeed Caesar. When Octavian arrived in Rome after his uncle's assassination, he found Caesar's right hand man, Mark Antony, making his own bid for power.

Mark Antony held the city in tyranny and had incited the masses against Caesar's assassins in the Senate, driving them from Rome. Much of Mark Antony's power and authority derived from his association with Caesar. Yet with Caesar's heir Octavian at hand, the public favor began to slip from Antony. The common people saw the son of Caesar; the Senate saw a young man they could manipulate to get rid of Mark Antony. Realizing his dire situation, Antony fled to Gaul.

Yet the Senate had gotten more than they had bargained for in Octavian. Using the menace of Mark Antony as a goad, Octavian bullied the frightened Senate into granting him extraordinary powers for a man of his age. He was made a senator and granted the same powers as the consuls. More importantly, he was given legal control over the armies of Rome.

This was a wise choice by the Senate, since much of the Roman army revered Caesar and might have defected to Antony without Caesar's heir there, Octavian, to hold them to the Senate. With the full backing of the Roman Senate, Octavian and the two consuls set out for Gaul. They beat the heck out of Antony at Mutina, forcing the bedraggled general to retreat. In the fighting, both consuls died, leaving all the glory and military command to Octavian.

The Second Triumvirate

If Octavian had hoped for a hero's welcome upon returning to Rome, he was sorely disappointed. The Senate had grown wary of the young Octavian and were reluctant to grant him any more glory or power than they could avoid. The Senate had never been a fan of Caesar in the first place, nor of his heir. They had used Octavian to keep Antony occupied while they waited for Caesar's assassins, the fugitive senators, to return to Rome with an army.

Realizing the situation, Octavian allied himself with Antony and another of Caesar's supporters named Lepidus. The three formed the Second Triumvirate, an alliance between Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus. Working together, these three men killed off their political rivals and seized their property in a series of political murders, known as proscriptions. This removed the last obstacles to absolute power and made the three very wealthy.

In 42 BCE, the Triumvirate strong armed the Senate into naming Julius Caesar a god, Divus Julius, after which point, Octavian was able to add the title Divi Filius, the son of a god, to his already long name.

While Octavian and Antony had been fighting among themselves in the West, Caesar's assassins had been amassing power in the East. A conflict was inevitable, and in 42 BCE, the two sides clashed at the Battle of Phillipi. Caesar's assassins, the last champions of the Republic, were completely defeated, and Brutus, who had betrayed Caesar, took his own life.

A few years later in 36 BCE, the Triumvirate destroyed the fleet of Pompey Magnus's son, Sextus Pompeius, wiping out the last of those who had opposed Caesar.

Imperator

With their common enemy destroyed, the members of the Triumvirate turned against one another. Lepidus attempted to claim Sicily, but his troops abandoned him, and he was exiled. But the biggest rivals in this conflict were Octavian and Antony, who soon turned against one another.

Antony was far more ambitious than Lepidus; he wanted the entire eastern Empire. He was setting himself up as an eastern despot and sought to rule all of the Empire from Egypt, with his queen Cleopatra, or at least that's what Octavian tried to convince the Romans. It might have even been true. Eventually this conflict came to a head, and in 31 BCE, the two sides met in a naval battle at Actium, in which Antony and Cleopatra's fleet was utterly destroyed.

After suffering another defeat the next year at Alexandria, the two committed suicide together, inspiring poets and playwrights through the ages.

Octavian had now defeated all his enemies. The Romans had a name for a victorious general: Imperator. Octavian took this title and made it something more. He made it his name, and by doing so, he changed its meaning. Though imperator continued to hold implications of military victory, by the time Octavian was finished, all military victories belonged to him. Imperator became the title of the loftiest position that man has ever achieved: the absolute ruler, the king of kings, the emperor.

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