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Sunday, 16 October 2011


Augustus was born at Ox Head, a small property on the Palatine Hill, very close to the Roman Forum in Rome on September 23, 63 BC.

His father,  Gaius Octavius, was descended from an old, wealthy equestrian branch of the gens Octavia. Despite being from a wealthy family, his family was plebeian, rather than patrician. As a novus homo ("new man"), he would not be of a senatorial family.

Young Augustus lost his father when he was four. His mother, Atia Balba Caesonia, was the niece of Julius Caesar. In 45BC Augustus' Great Uncle Julius officially adopted him.

His full name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus, possibly commemorating his father's victory at Thurii over a rebellious band of slaves. until he was adopted by Julius Caesar. For the next seventeen years he was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

His Uncle Caesar had Gaius raised to the college of Pontifices, a major Roman priesthood, at the age of 16. Four years later, following the death of Julius Caesar, Gaius compelled the Roman Senate to elect him Consul on August 19, 43 BC.

In a meeting near Bologna in October 43 BC, Gaius, his brother-in-law Mark Antony and Lepidus (who had been Caesar's master of horse) formed a junta called the Second Triumvirate. It was agreed that Augustus controlled the West, Antony the East and Lepidus Africa.

By 31 BC Gaius had defeated both Lepidus and Antony thus becomes sole leader and master of the Roman world.

On January 16, 27 BC Gaius was given the title of Augustus by the Roman Senate meaning "venerable, grand, majestic," so until his death he was known as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. This marked the end of the Roman republic and the beginning of the Roman empire.

Augustus was named Pontifex Maximus, incorporating the position into that of the Emperor on March 6, 12 BC. The Pontifex Maximus ("greatest pontiff" or "greatest bridge-builder") was the high priest of the College of Pontiffs in ancient Rome. A distinctly religious office under the early Roman Republic, it gradually became politicized until, with Augustus, it was subsumed into the Imperial office.

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus had a full flock of yellowish curly hair with two pincer shaped locks over his right eye. He was five and a half foot tall, handsome with a serene expression. A Roman nose and complexion half way between dark and fair. Suetonius recorded that Augustus was “unusually handsome and graceful.”

Augustus was self conscious about his five foot six size - he used to wear platform shoes to make himself appear taller.

Colossal statue of the seated Augustus with a laurel crown. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)

Once he became, emperor, Augustus was eager to re-establish traditional Roman values. He wore woolen clothes made by his wife to encourage women to return to their looms. In winter he wore no less than four tunics with a heavy woolen gown and beneath them a woolen chest-protector and woolen garters.

Famously sober, Augustus only drunk three cups of wine with his meal. (They would have been diluted with water).

Augustus didn't have a large appetite but was very fond of asparagus and originated a saying, "Quicker than you can cook asparagus.” In the Roman Empire asparagus was not only eaten in season but was dried for later use.

Augustus himself was a writer known for his simple and direct style. He published an account of his reign My Achievements, a much fatter tome than some of his successors.

His reign was known as the "Augustian Age", and a golden age for literature- Horace, Livy, Ovid, Virgil etc.

Augustus renamed the 30 day month of Sextiles c31 giving it the name of August to honor himself. He chose August as it had been his most successful month, in that month he had began his consulship, tamed Egypt and ended civil wars. Augustus took a day from February (which originally had 29 days every year) and added extra day to August so that his month would be on a par with July which had been named after Julius Caesar.

He was a strict adherent of Roman virtues in times of growing permissiveness, when divorce was prevalent and the institution of the family was threatened. Augustine attempted to buck the trend by morality crusade, promoting marriage, family, and childbirth while discouraging luxury, "interbreeding," unrestrained sex (including prostitution and homosexuality), and adultery. It was largely unsuccessful (indeed, his own daughter was banished and subsequently perished due to it).

By Till Niermann - Wikipedia Commons

Augustus is mentioned in the Bible in a clear example of a non-believer fulfilling God's will by issuing a decree that a census be taken of (Luke 2 v1) the entire Roman world. As a result Joseph and his family had to register at his home town of Bethlehem. Thus the prophecy about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem in the Old Testament book of Micah (Chapter 5 v 2) was fulfilled.

He was very superstitious about putting left shoe on before right.

Augustus died on August 19, 14 AD after becoming ill en route to his summer villa. Unable to complete the trip, he stopped at Nola, his parental home, where his father had died 60 years before. His friends gathered round him, charioteering across from Rome.

Augustus introduced to Rome water system, fire brigade, a police force, professional army an efficient administrative system including gathering of taxes and reorganized the welfare system including the distribution of corn.

Augustus was an early adopter of the concept of legacy. Understanding that he could influence how he would be regarded after his death, he commissioned his "Res Gestae" - a list of his achievements - to be distributed around the Empire once he'd gone. For posterity, it ignored all his failures and overstated the good.

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