Gaius Octavius, also known as Octavian, was an unassuming, mild-mannered man from a modest Plebeian family, who became the first Roman Emperor and one of the most significant men in Roman history. Most would recognise him by his more common name, Augustus.
These are some of the strangest and most interesting facts about the life of Julius Caesar’s adopted son and heir, the first Roman Emperor, and the man who caused the downfall of Antony and Cleopatra.
1. Augustus was Mark Antony’s brother-in-law
Most people know a bit about the story of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra. Two doomed lovers seeking to wrest control of the Roman Republic from the hands of Octavian. But what you might not know is that before the civil war broke out between Octavian and Antony, Octavian gave Antony his sisters’ hand in marriage.
Antony and Octavia were married in 40 BC. It was Octavia’s second marriage and Antony’s fourth, cementing an alliance that lasted just eight years due to Antony’s less-than-secret love affair with Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. Octavia was ordered to go back to Rome by her husband. Humiliated, Octavian broke into the Temple of Vestal Virgins and stole Antony’s will which showed Antony’s intentions to give away Roman-conquered areas to his and Cleopatra’s sons after his death.
Octavian’s ploy worked and the Roman Senate revoked Antony’s consulship and declared war on Cleopatra’s Egypt. With this, the Roman Republic found itself embroiled in civil war yet again.
The war between Antony and Octavian lasted only two years, with the decisive naval battle of Actium marking the last hope for Antony and Cleopatra. Most of Antony’s ships were sunk and 5,000 of his men were killed. With no hope of waging war against Rome, lacking the ships, manpower and money to do so, the lovers fled for the Egyptian capital of Alexandria.
While Antony was able to score a minor victory in Egypt, many of his men deserted him, leading to another defeat by Octavian. Having heard a rumour that Cleopatra had committed suicide, Antony decided to join his lover by stabbing himself in the stomach. While he was dying in agony, he was brought to Cleopatra and died in her arms.
There were many other factors as to why the war between Antony and Octavian occurred, but it was the breakdown of the marriage binding the two men that ultimately turned them on each other. While not related by blood, Antony was related to Julius Caesar, Octavian’s adopted father, meaning their familial bond was even tighter than just brothers-in-law.
2. Augustus was the first to unite Italy politically
While Italy is now a united country with a single government and national identity, this was not the case in the Ancient period. When Rome was first founded in 753 BC, what we now know as Italy was a hodge-podge of different states, some with vastly different cultures from the Romans. The Etruscans and Gauls stand out as examples, both of whom were fierce rivals of Rome.
Once Rome became the dominant power in the region after centuries of war, all Italian people were given Roman citizenship. However, while the Italian people may have shared equal status with the Romans, Italian cities, founded either by Romans or other Italians, were given a different administrative status. That was until the reign of Augustus.
In 7 BC, Augustus passed the edict to establish ‘Roman Italy’. This brought all Italian cities under the same administration, effectively uniting the country under the rule of the Roman Empire. New roads were built to connect cities to the capital and the Italian economy began to flourish as a result.
This union lasted until 284 AD, when Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into four, creating the Tetrarchy. Subsequently, Italy was ravaged by barbarian invasions and fell into the hands of the Visigothic King Odoacer, until being brought back under Roman (or ‘Byzantine’) rule by Emperor Justinian.
The creation of Roman Italy by Augustus is not a well-known event, but it was a significant step towards the unification of Italy that laid the groundwork for the modern Italian state.
3. Augustus’ wife was rumoured to have killed him
For our final point, we appropriately come to the end of Augustus’ life. Emperor Augustus passed away on 19th August 14 AD at the ripe old age of 76. However, rumours in the Senate were that Augustus had not merely died of old age, but that his death had been hastened by his wife, Livia. Some suspected she had fed her husband poisoned figs.
Since ousting their last King in 509 BC, the idea of falling back into a monarchy was one that the Romans detested. These fears had reached a fever pitch with the ascension of Julius Caesar to dictator in 49 BC and were once again inflamed by the death of Augustus.
Therefore, the idea of Livia poisoning her husband to allow for her son Tiberius to succeed his step-father was a popular one among Tiberius’ political enemies. Tiberius’ early reign was a tentative one, forcing him to portray himself as an unwilling recipient of the title of ‘Princeps’, but a devoted servant of the Roman people.
But there may be some truth in the rumours, just not in the way you might think. It’s theorised that Livia did poison Augustus with figs as a form of assisted suicide, with Augustus seeing his succession settled with Tiberius and wishing for a peaceful transition of power after so many civil wars. Yet, we still cannot say for certain.
Augustus was a fascinating historical figure whose life and achievements should be remembered. After all, you’d have to be a pretty special person to have a month named after you.