Augustus: Climbing the ladder
Augustus was born in 63 BC to a family of ‘new men’ — provincial nobles who were making their way in Rome. His main claim to distinction was that his grandmother on his mother’s side was the sister of Julius Caesar. As a teenager therefore he set out to Caesar’s camp in Spain and there he clearly impressed Caesar so much that he made him his heir —though without telling him. On Caesar’s assassination, Augustus made his way to Brindisi in the heel of Italy, where some of Caesar’s troops were stationed and there he learned that he had been made Caesar’s heir which meant that not only did he have a body of troops at his disposal but also a great deal of money. (His original name was Octavius, and then following Caesar’s death, he became Octavian, and he only became Augustus when he was given the title by the Senate in 27 BC ).
The 19-year-old Octavian clearly impressed the troops, who decided to follow him. It was important for troops to have a leader who would not only win battles, but more importantly look after them when they came to retire, and settle them as colonists on a suitable plot of land. Augustus had charisma, and the troops followed him.
Augustus was faced with two major problems: what to do with Caesar’s assassins and how to deal with Mark Antony. The assassins were the easier, for their vision that it would somehow be possible to restore the ancient republic clearly would not work. Mark Antony was a bigger problem. He was 20 years older than Augustus and like him a relative of Caesar and had been Caesar’s friend and ally and his best general in his conquest of Gaul, and the subsequent civil war and he quite reasonably expected that he would be named as Caesar’s heir. He was no doubt put out that the unknown youth Octavius was named Caesar’s heir and the recipient of his enormous wealth. The subsequent decade consists of the rivalry between Augustus and Anthony.
Mark Antony was a complex character: he was a good general – much better than Augustus, who tended to allow his friend Agrippa to fight his battles for him. His private life was dissolute — which probably did not count all that much against him in Rome; but his political skills left much to be desired. Whereas Octavian was always seen as a safe pair of hands and the person to follow, Antony was somehow never quite safe. But in 44 BC the two of them got together with another of Caesar’s colleagues, Lepidus, and formed a triumvirate whereby the three between them had supreme power for five years: the original five years was later extended for a further five years.
Early in the course of the triumvirate they carried out a mass proscription of 300 senators and over 1000 knights who were declared enemies of the state. Some were assassinated, others forced into exile. Many of them were personal enemies but in many cases too, the triumvirate wanted to seize their property to build up their own wealth which they needed to pay the troops who supported them. Syme described it as being ‘a levy on capital’. The most significant victim was the great orator Cicero who had rashly attacked Mark Antony; at the time he was trying to act as a reconciliator and his death was widely condemned. Some authorities suggest that Octavian did his best to restrain his fellow triumvirs, though others suggest that he was as keen as they were to lay his hands on the money and wealth of those proscribed. But in such situations, leaders cannot survive without occasional acts of cruelty — sometimes disgraceful cruelty.
As the triumvirate came to an end, relations between Octavian and Mark Antony worsened. It was arranged that they should split spheres of responsibility: Octavian would take the west, while Antony went out to supervise the East. Here he met up with his fate, in the form of Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra had already had an affair with Caesar by whom she had had a son, and soon Antony succumbed to her charms and her intellect, and fell madly in love with her. The full truth of it will never be known, but Augustus seized on this as an excuse to blacken his name and to make out that this would lead to Rome being subjected to Egypt. Augustus’ propaganda worked, while inevitably for us, Shakespeare and Hollywood have glamourized the affair.
Eventually both gathered fleets and a great naval battle took place at Actium, off the north-west coast of Greece. Octavian delegated most of the fighting to his trusted lieutenant Agrippa, and after considerable manoeuvring, during which some of Antony’s troops deserted, Antony and Cleopatra were defeated, and fled to Egypt, where one after the other they committed suicide. Augustus was left as the undisputed master of the Roman world.