By Pat Southern
Last updated 2011-02-17
There was very little in the family origins of Augustus to indicate his future rise to prominence. He was the son of a senator, Gaius Octavius, whose name he shared, and Atia, the niece of Julius Caesar. In a codicil to his will Caesar adopted the young Gaius Octavius and made him his heir. History knows the young man as Octavian, but he never used this name, preferring to portray himself as the new Caesar.
The civil wars that followed Caesar’s assassination were part of Octavian’s inheritance. By 30 BC he had eliminated his last rivals, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and set about consolidating his power, greatly assisted by the fact that he controlled all the armies and had direct access to the wealth of Egypt, which remained his own personal possession. His other assets were his shrewdness and patience.
Many reforms were necessary, but he rarely imposed his will, and worked by legal means. In order to oversee his initial reforms, he entered on his fourth consulship in 30 BC and held it every year until 23 BC. But the most important source of his power was that of the tribunes, which gave him the right of veto over any proposals.
In 27 BC, he restored control of the republic to the Senate, ostensibly reverting to the old order, with annually elected magistrates, the senators sharing responsibility for government, and no single individual with supreme power. But it was a republic in name only. The reality was that Octavian emerged with the honorary title 'Augustus' and the control, via his legates, of all the provinces with armies. Augustus converted the republican citizen levy into a standing army, established regular pay and terms of service for soldiers, and a pension scheme for veterans.
Gradually by his authority and influence he became the principal fount of law, he controlled state finance, foreign policy and religion, and he shaped Roman society as the republic was transformed into the empire. In brief, he became the first emperor.
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