Gaius Octavius was born in 63 BC, the year of Cicero’s consulship, into a wealthy and respected family (Octavii) from the countryside south of Rome. With his birth, the future of the Roman Empire was radically changed. He was to become one of the most powerful men the world has ever seen, using his wit and ruthlessness to achieve the ultimate positions in the Roman Empire…becoming ‘tribunicia potestas’ and ‘imperium maius’. Having these powers Augustus had virtual control over the entire Roman Empire, and after changing his name to Augustus legitimately achieved these positions.
So how did he do it? Octavian’s entrance into politics, his campaigns against the republicans and Mark Antony will all be discussed in this essay. On the 15th March 44BC Brutus, Cassius and approximately 50 other senators murdered Julius Caesar by stabbing him to death. The motive of the murdering was to restore the Republic from the autocratic rule of Julius Caesar. Octavian did not learn that he was Caesar’s adopted heir until he returned to Italy.
Despite the council of his parents not to challenge Antony and the senate, he pursued his intentions of avenging his father’s death, and to prove himself worthy of such a father as Julius Caesar and to possibly surpass his achievements to become the ‘Leader of Rome’ legitimately. Octavian knew the importance of having the support of the people of Rome so he was obliged to honour his father’s legacy and pay each man 75 denarii. This won him great popularity, and when he followed it up with games (honouring Venus Genetrix) at his own expense, his standing with the people was increased even further.
During the games a comet appeared as recorded in Augustus’s Res Gestae, “On those very days of my games, the comet was seen for seven days in the region of heaven which is under the Great Bear. It would rise at the eleventh hour of the day and was evident to all the Earth. The common people believed that the comet signified the soul of Caesar being received into the divinities of the immortal gods, to name his was added, with a distinguished likeness of his head consecrated by us soon afterwards in the Forum”. Octavian suggested that Julius Caesar was a god and that the comet was Caesars soul going to the heavens.
Not only did this honour the memory of Caesar but it was a very clever political move. Through this suggestion Octavian says (without saying it) he is the son of a god, a demi-god. This boosts his popularity with the people once more. Antony’s behaviour towards Octavian probably was not due to his belief that the young man was a serious political rival for leadership of the Caesarians; it was more likely ‘that Antony had been irritated at Caesars favouritism towards his young relative and acted out of bad temper’. If this was indeed the case, Antony had severely underestimated Octavian.
Octavian temporarily collaborated with the republicans because Antony was threatening the safety by attacking Decimus Brutus in the north of Italy. Octavian, at his own expense and with his own army along with two of Antony’s Macedonian legions, marched north to attack Antony and to destroy him. The two consuls Hirtius and Pansa ‘assisted’ and accompanied Octavian and acted as supervision of Octavian. After the defeat of Antony at Cisalpine Gaul; both consuls died/were killed which conveniently left Octavian in sole command of the legions.
The senate and Cicero had now made a serious mistake. Assuming they were now free from the threat of Mark Antony, they attempted to discard Octavian by electing others into the leading positions such as M. Brutus being the eastern provinces along with Cassius. Antony’s military force had been greatly strengthened by Lepidus and other leaders from Spain and Gaul. Octavian now realising that if Antony were defeated the Republicans would gain complete control over the State. This would make it difficult to avenge his father in killing the assassins within the Senate who killed Caesar.
Octavian then resolved that his best interests lay with the Caesarian party. He refused to cooperate with Decimus Brutus in Transalpine Gaul and also refused to surrender his legions. Octavian realised he need the consulship so he marched 400 centurions to Rome and demanded it. When the senate declined he marched his entire army on Rome, seized the treasury to pay his troops and made the arrangements for the consular elections. Octavian thus achieved his immediate objective, but now had to make preparations to meet Marcus Brutus and Cassius in battle.
The so called First Triumvirate between Triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus was originally a secret arrangement between the three men who were never officially recognised as triumvirs. In 43BC Octavian had been in communication with Antony and Lepidus and a meeting was arranged between them during which there was reconciliation and some hard bargaining about their futures and the future of Rome. It was then agreed that a Second Triumvirate should be formed. The purpose of the Triumvirate being formed as to set the in order and to attack the republican armies of Brutus and Cassius in the East with combined and allied forces. The alliance would give them absolute power-the powers of a dictator without the title. It also gave them the power to nominate all magistracies in advance. The first task that would be undertaken by the Triumvirs, particularly Octavian, was to kill all enemies of the Caesarians still in Rome. This involved killing approximately killing 2500 men of the equate class and 350 men from the senate.
While a cumbersome and time consuming task it supplied the Triumvirate with huge amounts of money left by the dead men. This gave Octavian the ability to pay all his soldiers and to secure his reign. This also almost satisfied one of Octavian’s motives for coming to power and pursuing his father’s position; revenge on the murderers of his father. Followed by the proscription of these some thousands of men the proscription of Cicero was also announced. In the light of the speeches made by Cicero against Antony, it is not surprising that the Triumvirs ordered him to be killed.
His attempts to restore the republic cost him his life. When he was caught by the Triumvirs agents trying to escape from his country estate, his throat was cut and his head removed where it was mounted in the Forum. After all the proscriptions had been completed there was only one thing left for Octavia to do; defeat and kill Marcus Brutus and Crassus, the main conspirators against Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius, who had gained control over the eastern provinces, marched west with their nineteen legions and took up a position at Philippi in Macedonia to face Antony and Octavian who had 28 legions.
After two engagements which were spread over a number of weeks the Republicans were defeated, and because of this Crassus and Brutus took their own lives. Antony was given the credit for the victory as Octavian was ill but it was still a major victory for Octavian since it satisfied many of his ambitions to defeat the Republicans. The defeat of the Republicans and the victory of the Caesarians marked the end of the Republican Party and presence in the Roman Empire. Those who survived the battle and were still loyal to the idea of the Republic fled to Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey.
After the Battle of Philippi in 42BC Octavian stays in the west, Lepidus goes to Africa and Antony goes to the East. In the West Octavian returns to Italy to settle veterans where he hopes to increase his popularity and prestige and build a huge body of political supporters and clients. Octavian is also forced to deal with the ever increasingly more pressing matter regarding Sextus Pompeius. Pompeius has landed in Sicily and being a strategically vital area he threatens to cut all grain supplies from Egypt. This would lead to the Italy starving.
Meanwhile Antony has met with Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, at Tarsus and accepted an invitation to winter in Alexandria. His main motive for staying in Egypt was so he could have part of the Ptolemaic treasure. Antony was unaware at the time that there was a war in Italy between Antony’s brother and his wife Fulvia. They were able to raise six legions but were quickly sieged by Octavian who stared them into submission. When Antony returned to Italy in 40BC he was prevented from landing at Brundisium by Octavian’s troops.
Through this act by Octavian it seemed civil war was imminent but in the Treaty of Brundisium in 40BC the triumvirs were reconciled and arrangements were made for Antony to marry Octavia, Octavian’s sister. This new treaty assigned Octavian all the provinces west of Illyricum and Italy was shared. Antony was assigned the provinces eastwards from Macedonia and Cyrencia. In 33BC the Second Triumvirate officially ended after the removal of Lepidus. It is possible that Octavian continued to hold the powers of a triumvir after the end of the Second Triumvirate in 33BC; he also had tribunician sacrosanctity and was to be consul again 31BC.
During the winter of 33-32BC Antony and Octavian prepared for war after Octavian had declared war on Antony and accused him for being un-roman and becoming Greek because his relationship to Cleopatra. Antony’s treatment of Octavia finalised the breaking of the alliance between Antony and Octavian after he rejected her for Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium in 31BC Antony had gathered his forces at Ephesus; they included one of the greatest fleets ever assembled at around 500 ships not included Cleopatra’s contribution of 60 ships.
Octavian crossed the Adriatic with a smaller force and occupied the area just north of Actium from where his troops prevent access by Antony to the best routes to the east. Agrippa not only blockaded Antony’s fleet in the Bay of Actium, but in a number of raids on Greek islands he cut off all supply routes to the army cutting supplies and communication. Antony’s lack of supplies forced his army to eat green grain which resulted in the dramatic decrease in the condition of the army. The diahorrea and dysentery which the soldiers suffered from resulted in the decrease of their morale nd spirits. Antony knew he could not win and made a desperate attempt to escape with Cleopatra. He succeeded by breaking one point of Octavian’s line and having his ship sail out through it. This did not go down well with his army and when they saw that Antony had left them instructions to escape along the coast down to Egypt they abandoned him. They made a deal with Octavian that if he pay their wages they would fight for him but if not they would fight him. Octavian briefly considered the proposal and promptly agreed to pay them.
This was one deciding moment in Octavian’s life and political career because gaining the support of Antony’s legions meant that he controlled all the legions in the Roman empire save one which was still in Egypt. But when Cleopatra learnt of the defeat she feinted her own death and, according to plan, in Antony’s grief he committed suicide (somewhat unsuccessfully). After the elimination of Antony Octavian marched to Egypt, captured Cleopatra, seized all the Ptolemaic treasure and became one of richest men to ever walk the planet.
He was able to retire over 30 legions and pay the rest their full amount while still having plenty left over. Octavian now had no political opposition. A century of civil wars, political upheaval, proscriptions, economic devastation and oppressive taxation was now at an end. When Octavian returned to Rome the senate voted him extravagant honours as the saviour of the state and ordered that in future prayers and libations should be made to him by the people and priests. On his return on the 29th of August he celebrated a splendid, three-day triumph for his victories in Illyricum, at Actium and over Egypt.
Octavian’s immediate tasks involved restoring order and confidence throughout the Roman world and to normalise his own position within the state, since at that time it was a temporary and exceptional one; this process of legitimising his rule is called the First and Second Settlement. Gaius Octavian later re-named Augustus brought the greatest times to the Roman after he came to power and was responsible for a dynasty of Roman wealth and power led by the him and his successors. Octavian came to power not just by good fortune or luck but using his genius he was able to challenge and defeat any opposition he confronted.