The Early Life of Octavius

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The Childhood of Augustus

Born Gaius Octavius Thurinus, Augustus was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled from 31 BC until his death in 14 AD.

Octavius was born near the Palatine Hill in Rome, within sight of the Roman Forum on September 23, 63 BC. After he was born, Octavius was taken to his father’s home town, the village of Velitrae to be raised.

Octavius’ father died in 59 BC, when Octavius was just four years old. His mother eventually remarried, this time to Lucius Marcius Phillpus, the governor of Syria. Initially Phillipus had little time for Octavius, who was raised by his grandmother, Julia Caesaris, Julius Caesar’s sister.

The Early Career of Octavius

In 47 BC, Octavius was elected to the College of Pontiffs, one of Rome’s four major priestly orders. The following year, Octavius was placed in charge of organizing the Greek games in front of the Temple of Venus Genetrix. In 46 BC, Octavius left Rome to join Caesar in Spain, where he was on campaign. While still off the Spanish coast, Octavius was shipwrecked. With the assistance of a few companions, Octavius made his way overland through enemy territory to Caesar’s camp. The Roman writer Velleius Paterculus later wrote that Caesar was deeply impressed with Octavius’ bravery and determination and allowed him to ride in his carriage. Upon his return to Rome, Julius Caesar deposited a new will with the Vestal Virgins, adopting Octavius and naming him as his heir.

At the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination, on the Ides of March, 44 BC, Octavius was undergoing military training in Illyria. Ignoring the advice of his instructors, Octavius returned to Italy to ascertain his political fortunes. Following his landing near Brundisium, Octavius learned the contents of Caesar’s will. It was at this point that Octavius set out to become Caesar’s political heir, as well as the inheritor of his estate. Octavius also adopted Caesar’s name. It was common for adopted Romans to take the name of their new family but, they usually kept their old name as well. Octavius chose not to do this, possibly because he may not have wanted to draw attention to his humble origins. However, in order to avoid confusion with Julius Caesar, historians commonly refer to Octavius as Octavian during this period of his life.

The Rise of Octavian

In order to successfully enter the ruthless world of Roman politics, Octavian’s small personal fortune was not sufficient. To that end, Octavian demanded a portion of the funds that Caesar had set aside for the invasion of Parthia, nearly 700 million sesterces. A Senatorial investigation later discovered that the money had gone missing, but chose to take no action, as Octavian had used the money to raise an army against Marc Antony. Octavian took another bold step in 44 BC when he appropriated the yearly tribute from the Roman provinces in the Near East. Octavian used these funds to reinforce his own forces with veteran Legions who had been loyal to Caesar. As Octavian marched on Rome, his presence and his newly acquired funds swelled the ranks of his army. By June, he had a force of 3,000 seasoned veterans.

Upon arriving in Rome, Octavian discovered that Marc Antony had reached a precarious truce with Caesar’s assassins. Antony had also driven them from the city through his inflammatory funeral oration. However, Octavian’s Legions gave him enough clout to build a pro-Caesar faction. In the meantime, Antony began to lose public support after he opposed making Julius Caesar a god. In September, Cicero attacked Antony in a series of speeches denouncing him as a threat to the Senate. With public opinion turning against him, Antony retreated to the Italian Alps, which were to become his on January 1.

However, Decimus Junius Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins had seized this territory and refused to give it up. Antony trapped Decimus in Mutina and laid siege to the city. The Senate passed a resolution condemning this violence, but could not stop it. These actions provided an opportunity for Octavian, who was given imperium, or command authority, and inducted into the Senate on January 1, 43 BC. He was now legally able to command Legions in the field. Along with the two Consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, Octavian was sent to Mutina to relieve the siege, defeating Antony in April, 43 BC. However, both Consuls were killed, leaving Octavian in sole command of two consular armies, in addition to his own Legions.

In spite of his contributions to the campaign against Mark Antony, Octavian was passed over for command of the consular armies. In response, he sent a contingent of centurions to Rome, who demanded that Octavian be elected Consul and that Marc Antony be allowed to return to the city. When the Senate refused, Octavian marched on Rome with eight Legions. He was declared Consul on August 19, 43 BC. Octavian’s support of Marc Antony following the siege of Mutina would eventually lead to the formation of the Second Triumvirate.

Sources

Chisholm, Kitty and John Ferguson. (1981). Rome: The Augustan Age; A Source Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, in association with the Open University Press.

Dio, Cassius (1987) The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. London: Penguin Books.

Everitt, Anthony (2006) Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor. Random House Books.

Mackay, Christopher S. (2004). Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. Cambridge University Press.

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