This Day in History: The Roman Empire begins as Octavian becomes Augustus

On January 16, 27 BC, a young but powerful Roman named Gaius Octavius was given a new title: Augustus. Historians largely agree that this moment marked the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire.
Statue of Caesar Octavian Augustus exhibited at The Pushkin...
Statue of Caesar Octavian Augustus exhibited at The Pushkin... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

In 2023, we learned that men think about the Roman Empire a lot, but how many people can actually explain where it began? While scholars bicker about the technical start and end dates, today is one of the most commonly accepted anniversaries of the Roman Empire, and it all has to do with Caesar's nephew and adopted son.

In January of 27 BC, Gaius Octavius ostensibly gave the Roman Senate all extraordinary powers that he had acquired during times of turmoil. In exchange, however, he received titles and abilities which effectively made him Rome's first emperor.

Caesar Augustus, Roman emperor, (19th century). Artist: E Harding
Caesar Augustus, Roman emperor, (19th century). Artist: E Harding / Print Collector/GettyImages

Who was Gaius Octavius?

Although many people consider Julius Caesar to be the first Roman Emperor, he never actually held the title. In fact, he rejected it in a public ceremony, instead taking the title dictator perpetuo: dictator for life. However, that life didn't last long as he was killed in the Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BC.

While Caesar was assassinated by a large group, his legacy was ensured by his two possible successors: Marc Antony and Gaius Octavius. Since he had no legitimate sons, Caesar had adopted his great-nephew Octavian in his will, which gave the young man a lot of potential power in Rome.

In the aftermath of Caesar's death came two Civil Wars. The first saw Octavian ally himself with Marc Antony and Lepidus, another of Caesar's former allies, to defeat his assassins. After they won, Octavian turned on Antony, who had abandoned his Roman wife (Octavian's sister) and claimed a place of power in Egypt.

In a little more than a decade, Octavian had gone from a boy with a powerful name to the single most important individual in Rome.

Statue of Caesar Octavian Augustus exhibited at The Pushkin...
Statue of Caesar Octavian Augustus exhibited at The Pushkin... / SOPA Images/GettyImages

January 16, 27 BC: Gaius Octavius becomes Augustus

Octavian was a master at propaganda and image construction, which allowed him to use the years before and after Antony's death to assure Rome that he did not intend to be a tyrant. He held several positions of power in Rome, but initially only those that were available under the republican system.

Once Rome had calmed down in the aftermath of years of Civil War, the time had come for Octavian to claim a more permanent position of power. However, he wanted to maintain the idea that he was simply at the top of the republic, rather than fully dismantling the current government system.

"For, if you prefer the monarchy in fact but fear the title of 'king' as being accursed, you have but to decline this title and still be sole ruler under the appellation of 'Caesar'; And if you require still other epithets, your people will give you that of 'imperator' as they gave it to your father; and they will pay reverence to your august position by still another term of address, so that you will enjoy fully the reality of the kingship without the odium which attaches to the name of 'king.'"

Maecenas, per Roman History, Cassius Dio

Octavian officially announced that he was relinquishing all the power he had acquired during the Civil Wars, in a similar move to Caesar's refusal to call himself king. However, according to classical sources, the people of Rome were desperate for the stability he offered. It helped that he had killed many of his opponents (and was willing to eliminate others if needed).

In order to do maintain the balance between monarchical power and a republican image, Octavian took on a variety of titles, each of which held different significance and power in Rome. The most important of these titles include:

1. Caesar (44 BC)

When Octavian first took the name "Caesar," it did not hold any actual power. It was simply a name he was entitled to claim as Julius Caesar's heir. However, it was a powerful linguistic tool to connect him with his adopted father in the minds of the people.

2. Consul (43 BC)

Within the Roman Republic, two consuls would be elected each year. This was the highest elected office in the republic, where they served as the executive counterpart to the Senate. Octavian was elected consul 13 times, approximately a third of which happened before he took the title Augustus. After the start of the empire, this became a more symbolic role.

3. Imperator (38 BC)

Imperator was a term that had been previously given to military leaders to suggest that they were the head of the Roman military. Octavian gained this title while fighting in the Civil Wars, and while he theoretically gave it up in 27 BC, he acquired "imperium majus" in 19 BC, which was seen as total power over all the armies and territories of Rome.

4. Princeps Senatus (28 BC)

"Princeps" was a clever title of Octavian's own invention, which designated him as the "first citizen" of Rome. This showed that he was the head of state without defining him as distinct from other citizens. As "Princeps Senatus," he was considered to also be the "first of the Senate." This language made it clear that he was still a part of the republic, while also highlighting his status as the best of them.

5. Augustus (27 BC)

When Octavian refused to take a title associated with monarchy, he was given the title "Augustus" as a religious station. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this title was meant to contrast with humanus to indicate that Octavian was no longer fully human. He was eventually deified, which began the tradition of emperors being seen as gods.

6. Pontifex Maximus (12 BC)

Like Julius Caesar before him, Octavian became the Pontifex Maximus, or leader of the Roman religion. While this was a religious position, it became increasingly politicized in the late republic and early empire. For Octavian, it symbolized the backing of the Gods and his respect for Roman traditions.

7. Pater Patriae (2 BC)

After 25 years as Augustus, Octavian was given the title "Pater Patriae," or "father of the country." While it is comparable to the modern concept of a "founding father," it held more authority in Rome because the paterfamilias (father of the family) had ultimate control over every aspect of their family's lives. As father of the country, Octavian both symbolically and literally controlled the lives of all Roman citizens.

With these and other titles, Octavian was now in a position to effectively be the sole leader of Rome, despite keeping up the appearance that the Roman Republic remained intact. His successors continued many of these trends,

Did you know...

The month "August" is named in honor of Octavian, just as "July" was named after Julius Caesar.

Augustus establishes the centre of government of Gaul in Lyon, 28 BC (1882-1884).Artist: Bertrand
Augustus establishes the centre of government of Gaul in Lyon, 28 BC (1882-1884).Artist: Bertrand / Print Collector/GettyImages

Why was that considered the start of the Roman Empire?

While people often think about Rome as an Empire, it was actually a monarchy for 244 years and then a Republic for another 482. However, the last hundred years of the Republic showed increasingly powerful individuals taking control of Rome.

While the fall of the Roman Republic seemed inevitable in hindsight, it was a matter that was deeply fought over. Indeed, Octavian explicitly did not call himself the emperor because it was so important to the Roman people that they see themselves as a republic. However, the words used and the actual state of things were clearly different.

The Senate survived his ascension, but Octavian—now Augustus—had virtually unchecked power. This led to the start of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), and his next 40 years of ruling granted stability to a state that had been in near-constant war for a century.

When Augustus died, his position and titles passed on to his stepson (and son-in-law) Tiberius, who he had put forward as his heir presumptive. While this was arguably intended to be a succession guided by merit, it is worth noting that the next three emperors would also be relatives of Augustus, firmly establishing the first imperial Roman dynasty.

Primary sources about Augustus and the early Roman Empire:

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