AUGUSTUS CAESAR, Roman emperor, born (d: 14 CE) Born Octavius, of the Julii, Augustus is arguably the single most important figure in Roman history and the two most famous of the Caesars (the other being his uncle Julie). In the course of his long and spectacular career, he put an end to the advancing decay of the Republic and established a new basis for Roman government that was to stand for three centuries. This system, termed the “Principate,” was far from flawless, but it provided the Roman Empire with a series of rulers who presided over the longest period of unity, peace, and prosperity that Western Europe, the Middle East and the North African seaboard have known in their entire recorded history.
Even if the rulers themselves occasionally left much to be desired, the scale of Augustus’s achievement in establishing the system cannot be overstated. Aside from the immense importance of Augustus’s reign from the broad historical perspective, he himself is an intriguing figure: at once tolerant and implacable, ruthless and forgiving, brazen and tactful. Clearly a man of many facets, he underwent three major political reinventions in his lifetime and negotiated the stormy and dangerous seas of the last phase of the Roman Revolution with skill and foresight. With Augustus established in power and with the Principate firmly rooted, the internal machinations of the imperial household provide a fascinating glimpse into the one issue that painted this otherwise gifted organizer and politician into a corner from which he could find no easy exit: the problem of the succession.
It’s a wise child who knows his uncle, and young Octavius regularly put out for his Uncle Julius Caesar, an investment that paid handsomely in the end. He also lured the powerful Roman statesman Hirtius to his bed and received 3000 pieces of gold for his trouble, a favor he returned when he became emperor, by having Hirtius murdered to prevent him from ever telling the tale. His efforts were, of course, futile. In Noel Garde’s book, Jonathan to Gide, he tells how secret the Emperor’s secret really was. Reportedly, when Augustus was attending a play, “an actor spoke a line about an effeminate eunuch priest with a tambourine, ‘Videsne ut Cinaedus orbem digito temperet?’ translatable as ‘Do you see that queer’s finger beating the orb?’ and ‘do you see how this queer’s finger governs the world?” The audience, reportedly, immediately took this as a reference to Augustus and broke into wild applause while staring at the imperial box.