(The ROMAN REPUBLIC – continued)

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Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar

Antony, with Cleopatra at his side, moved with his army and navy to a strong point in western Greece. There, on September 2nd, 31, outside the Gulf of Actium, his fleet met Octavian's. Antony's fleet included 230 large war galleys of eight or ten banks of oars, furnished with towers full of armed men. Octavian had about 250 warships. Octavian's talented commander, Agrippa, defeated Antony in a great sea battle, and Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt. Octavian's forces moved across the southern coast of Asia Minor, and down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to Egypt. Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra became Octavian's prisoner, and fearing that Octavian would take her back as display for his triumphant entry to Rome, she sent herself as a goddess into the world of the dead – using the bite of what was probably a cobra – death from cobra venom said to be painless.

Octavian saw both Caesarion and Cleopatra's eldest son by Antony as dangerous rivals and had them executed, but he adopted into his own family the other children of Cleopatra and Antony, including the daughters of Antony and his sister, Octavia.


Octavian. The Senate gave him the title Augustus Caesar. He also held the title Princeps, in German, Führer

In the summer of 29, Octavian returned to Rome. He was thirty-four and in command of all of Rome's sixty legions, and respected by the legions' rank and file. He brought with him from Egypt a wealth of treasure and two annexations: Egypt and Illyricum (opposite Italy across the Adriatic Sea). His fellow Romans believed they had seen the end of war and strife, and they hailed him as the Prince of Peace and benefactor of mankind. Celebrations lasted for days. Animals were sacrificed to Rome's gods. The Senate gave Octavian the permanent title "Commander Imperitor" – from which the English word emperor is derived.

After returning to Rome, Octavian fortified support from those who had fought for him by giving them some of the wealth from Egypt. He gave them land in Italy and abroad. And some of Egypt's treasure he gave as prizes to the people of Rome.

Thirty years had passed since Rome's republican government had functioned normally, and Octavian considered what the nature of his rule was to be. He theorized that a republic was better than a monarchy, that the sons of kings often became incompetent rulers. He believed that Rome's republican government had helped make Rome great, but he falsely attributed chaos during the republic to the republican system of government, and he decided that although the republic was suited to Rome when Rome was small, it was inadequate in meeting Rome's task as the leader of the world's greatest empire. He believed that democracy could not achieve the political stability that the Senate had failed to achieve, and therefore he remained opposed to giving more power to the people's assembly. He decided also that clinging to absolute power would appear evil. He did not want to appear to be the autocrat that his uncle Julius Caesar had appeared to be, and he recalled that after having won against Sextus Pompeius in 36 he had promised that he would restore the republic.

Octavian was not using his intellect, power and prestige to take Rome into an era of new politics, at least politics that would be respected in the 21st century. Instead, he was moving from where he was as one of the two consuls, with his trusted aide Agrippa as the other consul. He used his power as consul to make the Senate more to his liking. Building on the purge of 43, in which about three hundred senators had been eliminated, Octavian purged two hundred more, and in their place he added some whom he had elevated to the rank of nobility, and the Senate became a body of eight hundred.

In 27 BCE, Octavian began his seventh term as consul. He renounced his consulship and declared that he was surrendering all powers to the Senate and other bodies, including control of the army. It was a bogus withdrawal from power. As Octavian expected, the Senate, packed with his supporters, responded by returning much of his power, claiming that it was doing so for the sake of unity and relief from factionalism and civil strife. The Senate granted Octavian a ten-year governorship over those areas where the bulk of Rome's armies were stationed: Spain, Gaul and Syria. This gave Octavian control over foreign policy, and it left him with authority over Rome's military.

The Senate voted that Octavian be given the crown of oak leaves that signified service to Rome, and it made him consul again. From the triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus, Octavian still held the title of Princeps, which could be translated as Leader (or, in German, Führer). In keeping with his great prestige, the Senate gave him a title that had the ring of his being divinely chosen: Augustus Caesar. And the Senate made it law that he be included in the prayers of Rome's priests. With the Senate there was an appearance of Rome as still a republic, but in reality the republic had ended, not with a bang but with a centuries-long fading away. What was ahead was more of the worse kind of authoritarianism.


The Immense Majesty, by Thomas W Africa, 1974

Roman Realities by Finley Hooper, 1979

The Grandeur that was Rome, by J C Stobard, 1920

Rome, by M Rostovzeff, 1927

The Roman Experience, by LP Wilkinson, 1974

Roman Society: A Social, Economic and Cultural History, by HC Boren, 1992

A History of the Romans, by Frank C Bourne, 1966

Life in Ancient Rome, by F R Cowell, 1976

Imperial Rome, by Martin Nilsson, 1962

From Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68, by H H Scullard, 1990

Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra, by Michel Chauveau, Cornell University Press, 2000

Augustus, by Pat Southern, 1998

Histories of Polybius, translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, 2002

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.