Augustus (Ruled 27 B.C.-A.D. 14): His Life, Character and Habits

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AUGUSTUS (RULED 27 B.C. - A.D. 14)

Augustus was the first and arguable the greatest Roman Emperor. After Caesar's death there was five years of civil war and a bitter power struggle that resulted, 14 years later, in the accession of Augustus to the throne. Augustus was Caesar's nephew, known before he became emperor as Octavian. It has been said that the Caesar's campaign ended Republican Rome and created an empire with Augustus at the throne. The four emperors that followed Augustus were also descendants of Caesar.

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “Unlike his great-uncle and adoptive father who was murdered by a senatorial conspiracy in 44 B.C., Augustus lived a long life, having replaced the oligarchic rule of the Roman Republic with a constitutional monarchy, controlled first by the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (31 B.C. — 68 A.D.), in which Augustus was followed by Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero, all of whom were descended from Augustus or his wife, Livia. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors]

Augustus transformed the Roman territory into the Roman Empire, ruling a vast area that stretched from Spain to Syria from 31 B.C. (officially from 27 B.C.) to A.D. 14. Augustus ruled longer than any other emperor, ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity, and established an imperial court that would endure for 400 years in Rome and another 1,000 years in Constantinople. Many historians have argued that Western civilization itself is based on the “Apollanian” civic model of Augustus's Rome.

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “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 Octavian, whose name he shared, and Atia, the niece of Julius Caesar. In a codicil to his will Caesar adopted the young Gaius Octavian 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. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The civil wars that followed Caesar’s assassination were part of Octavian’s inheritance. By 30 B.C. 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.” |::|

Augustus was the Emperor of Rome during the early Christian era. Jesus was born in the 27th year of Augustus's rule. This event however was of little consequence to the Romans. Palestine was a backwater province. To achieve his ends Augustus could be quite cruel to people who got in his way. These included the banished love poet Ovid; Augustus's loyal and humane sister, Octavia, his underappreciated stepson Tiberus and Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

Books: “Augustus: First Emperor of Rome” by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale University Press, 2014); “Augustus, The Life of Rome's First Emperor” by Anthony Everitt (Random House, 2006)

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Augustus’s Achievements

Aqua Julia built under Augustus

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “Through his gradual efforts, and through the circumstances of his era, Augustus ruled Rome alone for nearly a half-century (31 B.C. -14 A.D.), and he set for all his successors the institutional and ideological foundations of the Roman Empire. The broad bases of his power were the army, whose loyalty was maintained by money and land-grants at retirement, and Tiberius’s apparently genuine support of many people, who wanted at any constitutional cost an end to the factional bloodshed of the late Republican civil wars; the nobles retained niches in the regular operation of the still prestigious political administration or in military roles, property was ultimately secured, administrative roles were more easily filled by some increased social mobility among the ranks and classes, and the populace (once fed) was ostensibly defended by the tribunicia potestas with which Augustus legitimized his rule, and which finally became the official rubric under which the state was run for centuries. The innovative outcome of Augustus' rule was the acquisition of sole power at Rome and abroad by the assumption of traditionally distributed powers found in long-standing Roman magistracies, military commands, state religious honors, patronage, family connections, and personal influence. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors]

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “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 B.C. and held it every year until 23 B.C. But the most important source of his power was that of the tribunes, which gave him the right of veto over any proposals. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“In 27 B.C., 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.” |::|

Augustus's Life

Augustus was born Gaius Octavianus on September 23, 63 B.C. He was Caesar's grand nephew and adopted son, and was named by Julius Caesar as his heir. In 51 B.C., at the age of 12, Octavian first appeared publicly to give the funeral oration for his grandmother, Julia. He was 18 and in Illyria across the Adriatic when Caesar was murdered. His mother told him he should escape to but instead he came to Rome.

Atia, mother of Augustus

Augustus was only five-foot-five and rather frail. He was regarded as a hypochondriac and suffered throughout his life from a variety of infirmities, including gallstones and dirty teeth. He almost died of "an abscessed liver" and was a frequent visitor to health spas. He lived relatively modestly. According to Suetonius in Lives of Twelve Caesars Augustus boasted he could fast better than any Jews. He lived to be 75 and outlived his daughter's two sons and was succeeded by his stepson Tiberus.

Steven Coats wrote in the New York Times, “Augustus overcame a sickly constitution, and what charitably might be called psychosomatic aversion to the battlefield, to make an early end to his civil wars, winning in the process a personal reputation for cruelty, duplicity and vindictiveness,"

Family Background of Augustus

Augustus’s mother, Atia, was the niece of Julius Caesar; Atia's mother was Caesar's sister. Augustus, therefore, as the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, had patrician blood and family connections to political power at Rome. Augustus’s father Gaius Octavian was an equestrian banker, though his grandfather was a senator. His father's family, the Octavii, were wealthy townsmen from Velitrae, southeast of Rome.

Suetonius wrote: “There are many indications that the Octavian family was in days of old a distinguished one at Velitrae; for not only was a street in the most frequented part of the town long ago called Octavian, but an altar was shown there besides, consecrated by an Octavian. This man was leader in a war with a neighbouring town, and when news of a sudden onset of the enemy was brought to him just as he chanced to be sacrificing to Mars, he snatched the inwards of the victim from the fire and offered them up half raw; and thus he went forth to battle, and returned victorious. There was, besides, a decree of the people on record, providing that for the future too the inwards should be offered to Mars in the same way, and the rest of the victims be handed over to the Octavii. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“The family was admitted to the senate by king Tarquinius Priscus among the lesser clans [Plebeian families in the Senate enrolled in addition to the patricians. See: Geer, American Journal of Philology, 55, 337ff.]; was later enrolled by Servius Tullius among the patricians; in course of time returned to the ranks of the plebeians; and after a long interval was restored to patrician rank by the Deified Julius. The first of the house to be elected by the people to a magistracy was Gaius Rufus, who became quaestor. He begot Gnaeus and Gaius, from whom two branches of the Octavian fimaily were derived, of very different standing; for Gnaeus and all his scions in turn held the highest offices, but Gaius and his progeny, whether from chance or choice, remained in the equestrian order down to the father of Augustus. Augustus' great-grandfather served in Sicily in the Second Punic War as tribune of the soldiers under the command of Aemilius Papus [205 B.C.]. His grandfather, content with the offices of a municipal town and possessing an abundant income, lived to a peaceful old age. This is the account given by others; Augustus himself merely writes [in his Memoirs] that he came of an old and wealthy equestrian family, in which his own father was the first to become a senator. Marcus Antonius taunts him with his great-grandfather, saying that he was a freedman and a rope-maker from the country about Thurii, while his grandfather was a money-changer. This is all that I have been able to learn about the paternal ancestors of Augustus.

“His father Gaius Octavian was from the beginning of his life a man of wealth and repute, and I cannot but wonder that some have said that he too was a money-changer, and was even employed to distribute bribes at the elections and perform other services in the Campus; for as a matter of fact, being brought up in affluence, he readily attained to high positions and filled them with distinction. Macedonia fell to his lot at the end of his praetorship; on his way to the province, executing a special commission from the senate, he wiped out a band of runaway slaves, refugees from the armies of Spartacus and Catiline, who held possession of the country about Thurii. In governing his province he showed equal justice and courage; for besides routing the Bessi and the other Thracians in a great battle, his treatment of our allies was such, that Marcus Cicero, in letters which are still in existence [Ad Quint. Frat. 1.1.21], urges and admonishes his brother Quintus, who at the time was serving as proconsular governor [Quintus Cicero was really propraetor] of Asia [61/58 B.C.] with no great credit to himself, to imitate his neighbour Octavian in winning the favour of our allies.

Caesar's and Augustus's family tree

“While returning from Macedonia, before he could declare himself a candidate for the consulship, he died suddenly, survived by three children, an elder Octavia by Ancharia, and by Atia a younger Octavia and Augustus. Atia was the daughter of Marcus Atius Balbus and Julia, sister of Gaius Caesar. Balbus, a native of Aricia on his father's side, and of a family displaying many senatorial portraits [imagines were waxen masks of ancestors of senatorial rank, kept in the atrium of their descendants], was closely connected on his mother's side with Pompeius the Great. After holding the office of praetor, he was one of the commission of twenty appointed by the Julian law to distribute lands in Campania to the commons. But Antonius again, trying to disparage the maternal ancestors of Augustus as well, twits him with having a great-grandfather of African birth, who kept first a perfumery shop and then a bakery at Aricia. Cassius of Parma also taunts Augustus with being the grandson both of a baker and of a money-changer, saying in one of his letters: "Your mother's meal came from a vulgar bakeshop of Aricia; this a money-changer from Nerulum kneaded into shape with hands stained with filthy lucre."

“He lost his mother during his first consulship [43 B.C.]and his sister Octavia in his fifty-fourth year [9 B.C.]. To both he showed marked devotion during their lifetime, and also paid them the highest honours after their death.

Jamie Frater wrote for Listverse: “HBO/BBC created an excellent series called “Rome” which covers a number of years of the Roman Empire. In the series they have, unfortunately, slandered the good name of one of the main Characters, Atia (Mother of Octavian – Augustus – and niece of Julius Caesar). In the show she is seen as a licentious, self-absorbed and manipulative schemer who is Mark Antony’s lover. In reality, Atia was a highly moral woman, well regarded by Roman Society at the time. Tacitus had this to say of her: “In her presence no base word could be uttered without grave offence, and no wrong deed done. Religiously and with the utmost delicacy she regulated not only the serious tasks of her youthful charges, but also their recreations and their games.” [Source: Jamie Frater, Listverse, May 5, 2008]

Early Life of Augustus

Suetonius wrote: “Augustus was born just before sunrise on the ninth day before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius [Sept. 23, 63 B.C.], at the Ox-Heads in the Palatine quarter, where he now has a shrine, built shortly after his death. For it is recorded in the proceedings of the Senate, that when Gaius Laetorius, a young man of patrician family, was pleading for a milder punishment for adultery because of his youth and position, he further urged upon the Senators that he was the possessor and as it were the warden of the spot which the deified Augustus first touched at his birth, and begged that he be pardoned for the sake of what might be called his own special god. Whereupon it was decreed that that part of his house should be consecrated. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“A small room like a pantry is shown to this day as the emperor's nursery in his grandfather's country-house near Velitrae, and the opinion prevails in the neighbourhood that he was actually born there. No one ventures to enter this room except of necessity and after purification, since there is a conviction of long-standing that those who approach it without ceremony are seized with shuddering and terror; and what is more, this has recently been shown to be true. For when a new owner, either by chance or to test the matter, went to bed in that room, it came to pass that, after a very few hours of the night, he was thrown out by a sudden mysterious force, and was found bedclothes and all half-dead before the door.

“In his infancy he was given the surname Thurinus in memory of the home of his ancestors, or else because it was near Thurii that his father Octavian, shortly after the birth of his son, had gained his victory over the runaway slaves. That he was surnamed Thurinus I may assert on very trustworthy evidence, since I once obtained a bronze statuette, representing him as a boy and inscribed with that name in letters of iron almost illegible from age. This I presented to the emperor [i.e., Hadrian], who cherishes it among the Lares of his bed-chamber. Furthermore, he is often called Thurinus in Marcus Antonius' letters by way of insult; to which Augustus merely replied that he was surprised that his former name was thrown in his face as a reproach. Later he took the name of Gaius Caesar [44 B.C.], and then the surname Augustus [27 B.C.], the former by the will of his great-uncle [i.e., Julius Caesar], the latter on the motion of Munatius Plancus. For when some expressed the opinion that he ought to be called Romulus as a second founder of the city, Plancus carried the proposal that he should rather be named Augustus, on the ground that this was not merely a new title but a more honourable one, inasmuch as sacred places too, and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called "august" [augusta], from the "increase" [auctus] in dignity, or from the movements or feeding of the birds [avium gestus gustusve], as Ennius [Annales, 502, Vahlen] also shows when he writes: "After by augury august illustrious Rome had been founded."

“At the age of four he lost his father [59 B.C.]. In his twelfth year he delivered a funeral oration to the assembled people in honour of his grandmother Julia. Four years later, after assuming the gown of manhood, he received military prizes at Caesar's African triumph, although he had taken no part in the war on account of his youth.”

Augustus and Caesar

Caesar favored Octavian from an early age. In 48 B.C., Caesar had his fifteen-year-old great nephew elected to the priestly college of the pontifices, and he also enrolled him in the hereditary patrician aristocracy of Rome. After recovering from illness Octavian joined Caesar in 46 B.C. on a campaign against the two sons of Pompey the Great in Spain. In 45 B.C. Octavian was sent to Apollonia in Epirus to study with the Greek rhetorician Apollodorus of Pergamum, and to train with legions stationed nearby. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato,, Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors]

Only months after arriving in Apollonia, in 44 B.C., Octavian learned that Caesar was murdered. When he arrived back in southern Italy he learned that he was named as the beneficiary in Caesar's will and had been formally adopted as his son and heir. The will gave Octavian enormous powers. He was now the leader of a great army ready to follow the commands of Caesar’s heir. From this time Octavian called himself C. Julius Caesar Octavianus, though to avoid confusion, modern scholars customarily refer to him as Octavian before 27 B.C. In many historical accounts, including the one by Plutarch, he is referred to as Caesar.

Julius Caesar

Suetonius wrote: “When his uncle presently went to Spain to engage the sons of Pompeius [46 B.C.], although Augustus had hardly yet recovered his strength after a severe illness, he followed over roads beset by the enemy with only a very few companions, and that too after suffering shipwreck, and thereby greatly endeared himself to Caesar, who soon formed a high opinion of his character over and above the energy with which he had made the journey. When Caesar, after recovering the Spanish provinces, planned an expedition against the Dacians and then against the Parthians, Augustus, who had been sent on in advance to Apollonia, devoted his leisure to study. As soon as he learned that his uncle had been slain and that he was his heir [44 B.C.], he was in doubt for some time whether to appeal to the nearest legions, but gave up the idea as hasty and premature. He did, however, return to the city and enter upon his inheritance, in spite of the doubts of his mother and the strong opposition of his stepfather, the ex-consul Marcius Philippus. Then he levied armies and henceforth ruled the State, at first with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus, then with Antonius alone for nearly twelve years, and finally by himself for forty-four. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

Augustus’s Wives and Children

Augustus had three wives. He divorced his first wife Scribonia because of a”moral perversity of hers," Livia Drusilla, his cruel second wife, was featured in Robert Graves novel "I Claudius." She was pregnant with another man's child when they met and married Augustus three days after the baby was born. She found slave girls to send to her husband's chamber and looked the other way when he had affairs with the wives of other politicians. Livia proved to be an indispensable member of Augustus's regime but was suspected of scheming — and much worse — on behalf of her sons from her previous marriage.

Augustus had a hard time with his children and potential heirs, He lost his nephew Marcellus (memorably and piteously mourned by Virgil in the “Aeneid”) and then his grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar. He only had one child, his daughter Julia, who reportedly made love to several of his enemies. On the spot where Augustus reportedly gave a speech about family values his rebellious daughter reportedly had an illicit affair. She and Augustus's granddaughter were both exiled on charges of gross immorality.

Livia Drusila

Suetonius wrote:““ln his youth he was betrothed to the daughter of Publius Servilius Isauricus, but when he became reconciled with Antonius after their first quarrel, and their troops begged that the rivals be further united by some tie of kinship, he took to wife Antonius' stepdaughter Claudia, daughter of Fulvia by Publius Clodius [43 B.C.], although she was barely of marriageable age; but because of a falling out with his mother-in-law Fulvia, he divorced her before they had begun to live together. Shortly after that he married Scribonia [40 B.C.], who had been wedded before to two ex-consuls, and was a mother by one of them. He divorced her also, "unable to put up with her shrewish disposition," as he himself writes, and at once [38 B.C.] took Livia Drusilla from her husband Tiberius Nero, although she was with child at the time; and he loved and esteemed her to the end without a rival. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“By Scribonia he had a daughter Julia, by Livia no children at all, although he earnestly desired issue. One baby was conceived, but was prematurely born. He gave Julia in marriage first to Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia and hardly more than a boy, and then after his death to Marcus Agrippa, prevailing upon his sister to yield her son-in-law to him; for at that time Agrippa had to wife one of the Marcellas and had children from her. When Agrippa also died, Augustus, after considering various alliances for a long time, even in the equestrian order, finally chose his stepson Tiberius, obliging him to divorce his wife, who was with child and by whom he was already a father. Marcus Antonius writes that Augustus first betrothed his daughter to his son Antonius and then to Cotiso, king of the Getae, at the same time asking for the hand of the king's daughter for himself in turn.

“From Agrippa and Julia he had three grandsons, Gaius, Lucius, and Agrippa, and two granddaughters, Julia and Agrippina. He married Julia to Lucius Paulus, the censor's son, and Agrippina to Germanicus, his sister's grandson. Gaius and Lucius he adopted at home, privately buying them from their father by a symbolic sale [the form of purchase consisted in thrice touching a balance with a penny in the presence of the praetor], and initiated them into administrative life when they were still young, sending them to the provinces and the armies as consuls elect. In bringing up his daughter and his granddaughters he even had them taught spinning and weaving, and he forbade them to say or do anything except openly and such as might be recorded in the household diary [a record of the imperial household, which apparently dated from the time of Augustus]. He was most strict in keeping them from meeting strangers, once writing to Lucius Vinicius, a young man of good position and character: "You have acted presumptuously in coming to Baiae to call on my daughter." He taught his grandsons reading, swimming, and the other elements of education, for the most part himself, taking special pains to train them to imitate his own handwriting; and he never dined in their company unless they sat beside him on the lowest couch, or made a journey unless they preceded his carriage or rode close by it on either side.


“But at the height of his happiness and his confidence in his family and its training, Fortune proved fickle. He found the two Julias, his daughter and granddaughter, guilty of every form of vice, and banished them [in 9 and 2 B.C., respectively]. He lost Gaius and Lucius within the span of eighteen months, for the former died in Lycia [2 A.D.] and the latter at Massilia [4 A.D.]. He then publicly adopted [4 A.D.] his third grandson Agrippa and at the same time his stepson Tiberius by a bill passed in the assembly of the curiae; but he soon disowned Agrippa because of his low tastes and violent temper, and sent him off to Surrentum. He bore the death of his kin with far more resignation than their misconduct. For he was not greatly broken by the fate of Gaius and Lucius, but he informed the Senate of his daughter's fall through a letter read in his absence by a quaestor, and for very shame would meet no one for a long time, and even thought of putting her to death. At all events, when one of her confidantes, a freedwoman called Phoebe, hanged herself at about that same time, he said: "I would rather have been Phoebe's father." After Julia was banished, he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury, and would not allow any man, bond or free, to come near her without his permission, and then not without being informed of his stature, complexion, and even of any marks or scars upon his body. It was not until five years later that he moved her from the island [of Pandataria] to the mainland and treated her with somewhat less rigour. But he could not by any means be prevailed on to recall her altogether, and when the Roman people several times interceded for her and urgently pressed their suit, he in open assembly called upon the gods to curse them with like daughters and like wives. He would not allow the child born to his granddaughter Julia after her sentence to be recognized or reared. As Agrippa grew no more manageable, but on the contrary became madder from day to day, he transferred him to an island [Planasia] and set a guard of soldiers over him besides. He also provided by a decree of the Senate that he should be confined there for all time, and at every mention of him and of the Julias he would sigh deeply and even cry out: "Would that I ne'er had wedded and would I had died without offspring" [Iliad III.40, where the line is addressed by Hector to Paris]; and he never alluded to them except as his three boils and his three ulcers.

Character of Augustus

The statesman and philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.- A.D. 65) wrote in “On Clemency,” 1.9.1 and 1.11.1: “The Divine Augustus was a mild ruler [princeps], if someone should judge him beginning from the inception of the Principate... in his youth, however, he had a hot temper, his rage burnt bright, and he did many things which he used to look back upon in later age with pain.” [Source: John Porter, translator, University of Saskatchewan]

Suetonius wrote: “He did not readily make friends, but he clung to them with the utmost constancy, not only suitably rewarding their virtues and deserts but even condoning their faults, provided they were not too great. In fact one cannot readily name any of his numerous friends who fell into disgrace, except Salvidienus Rufus, whom he had advanced to a consul's rank, and Cornelius Gallus, whom he had raised to the prefecture of Egypt, both from the lowest estate. The former he handed over to the Senate that it might condemn him to death, because he was plotting revolution; the latter he forbade his house and the privilege of residence in the imperial provinces because of his ungrateful and envious spirit. But when Gallus too was forced to undergo death through the declarations of his accusers and the decrees of the Senate, though commending their loyalty and their indignation on his account, Augustus yet shed tears and bewailed his lot, because he alone could not set what limits he chose to his anger with his friends [i.e., while a private citizen could quarrel and make up with his friends, the emperor's position made his anger fatal]. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

Julia with an athlete by Carracci

“All the rest continued to enjoy power and wealth to the end of their lives, each holding a leading place in his own class, although sometimes differences arose. Not to mention the others, he occasionally found Agrippa lacking in patience and Maecenas in the gift of silence; for the former because of a slight suspicion of coolness and of a preference shewn for Marcellus, threw up everything and went off to Mytilene, while the latter betrayed to his wife Terentia the secret of the discovery of the conspiracy of Murena. In return he demanded of his friends affection on their part, both in life and after death. For though he was in no sense a legacy-hunter, and in fact could never bring himself to accept anything from the will of a stranger, yet he was highly sensitive in weighing the death-bed utterances of his friends, concealing neither his chagrin if he was left a niggardly bequest or one unaccompanied with compliments, nor his satisfaction, if he was praised in terms of gratitude and affection. Whenever legacies or shares in inheritances were left him by men of any station who had offspring, he either turned them over to the children at once, or if the latter were in their minority, paid the money back with interest on the day when they assumed the gown of manhood or married.

“As patron and master he was no less strict than gracious and merciful, while he held many of his freedmen in high honour and close intimacy, such as Licinus, Celadus, and others. His slave Cosmus, who spoke of him most insultingly, he merely put in irons. When he was walking with his steward Diomedes, and the latter in a panic got behind him when they were suddenly charged by a wild boar, he preferred to tax the man with timorousness rather than with anything more serious, and turned a matter of grave danger into a jest, because after all there was no evil intent. But he forced Polus, a favourite freedman of his, to take his own life, because he was convicted of adultery with Roman matrons, and broke the legs of his secretary Thallus for taking five hundred denarii to betray the contents of a letter. Because the tutor and attendants of his son Gaius took advantage of their master's illness and death to commit acts of arrogance and greed in his province, he had them thrown into a river with heavy weights about their necks.

Augustus’s Lifestyle

Suetonius wrote: “In the other details of his life it is generally agreed that he was most temperate and without even the suspicion of any fault. He lived at first near the Forum Romanum, above the Stairs of the Ringmakers, in a house which had belonged to the orator Calvus; afterwards, on the Palatine, but in the no less modest dwelling of Hortensius, which was remarkable neither for size nor elegance, having but short colonnades with columns of Alban stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements. For more than forty years too he used the same bedroom in winter and summer; although he found the city unfavourable to his health in the winter, yet continued to winter there. If ever he planned to do anything in private or without interruption, he had a retired place at the top of the house, which he called "Syracusa" [with reference to the study of Archimedes] and "technyphion" [ "little workshop"]. In this he used to take refuge, or else in the villa of one of his freedmen in the suburbs; but whenever he was not well, he slept at Maecenas' house.

"For retirement he went most frequently to places by the sea and the islands of Campania, or to the towns near Rome, such as Lanuvium, Praeneste or Tibur, where he very often held court in the colonnades of the Temple of Hercules. He disliked large and sumptuous country palaces, actually razing to the ground one which his granddaughter Julia built on a lavish scale. His own villas, which were modest enough, he decorated not so much with handsome statues and pictures as with terraces, groves, and objects noteworthy for their antiquity and rarity; for example, at Capreae the monstrous bones of huge sea monsters and wild beasts, called the "bones of the giants," and the weapons of the heroes. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

fresco in the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill in Rome

“The simplicity of his furniture and household goods may be seen from couches and tables still in existence, many of which are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen. They say that he always slept on a low and plainly furnished bed. Except on special occasions he wore common clothes for the house, made by his sister, wife, daughter or granddaughters; his togas were neither close nor full, his purple stripe neither narrow nor broad, and his shoes somewhat high-soled, to make him look taller than he really was. But he always kept shoes and clothing to wear in public ready in his room for sudden and unexpected occasions.

“He gave dinner parties constantly and always formally, with great regard to the rank and personality of his guests. Valerius Messala writes that he never invited a freedman to dinner with the exception of Menas, and then only when he had been enrolled among the freeborn after betraying the fleet of Sextus Pompeius. Augustus himself writes that he once entertained a man at whose villa he used to stop, who had been one of his body-guard. He would sometimes come to table late on these occasions and leave early, allowing his guests to begin to dine before he took his place and keep their places after he went out. He served a dinner of three courses or of six when he was most lavish, without needless extravagance but with the greatest goodfellowship. For he drew into the general conversation those who were silent or chatted under their breath, and introduced music and actors, or even strolling players from the circus, and especially story-tellers.

“Festivals and holidays he celebrated lavishly as a rule, but sometimes only in a spirit of fun. On the Saturnalia, and at any other time when he took it into his head, he would now give gifts of clothing or gold and silver; again coins of every device, including old pieces of the kings and foreign money; another time nothing but hair cloth, sponges, pokers and tongs, and other such things under misleading names of double meaning. He used also at a dinner party to put up for auction lottery-tickets for articles of most unequal value, and paintings of which only the back was shown, thus by the caprice of fortune disappointing or filling to the full the expectations of the purchasers, requiring however that all the guests should take part in the bidding and share the loss or gain.

Augustus’s Eating Habits

Suetonius wrote: “He was a light eater (for I would not omit even this detail) and as a rule ate of plain food. He particularly liked coarse bread, small fishes, handmade moist cheese, and green figs of the second crop; and he would eat even before dinner, wherever and whenever he felt hungry. I quote word for word from some of his letters: "I ate a little bread and some dates in my carriage." And again: "As I was on my homeward way from the Regia in my litter, I devoured an ounce of bread and a few berries from a cluster of hard-fleshed grapes." Once more: "Not even a Jew, my dear Tiberius, fasts so scrupulously on his sabbaths as I have today; for it was not until after the first hour of the night that I ate two mouthfuls of bread in the bath before I began to be anointed." Because of this irregularity he sometimes ate alone either before a dinner party began or after it was over, touching nothing while it was in progress. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

Roman bread

“He was by nature most sparing also in his use of wine. Cornelius Nepos writes that in camp before Mutina it was his habit to drink not more than three times at dinner. Afterwards, when he indulged most freely he never exceeded a pint; or if he did, he used to throw it up. He liked Raetian wine best, but rarely drank before dinner. Instead he would take a bit of bread soaked in cold water, a slice of cucumber, a sprig of young lettuce, or an apple with a tart flavour, either fresh or dried.

“After his midday meal he used to rest for a while just as he was, without taking off his clothes or his shoes, with his feet uncovered and his hand to his eyes. After dinner he went to a couch in his study, where he remained till late at night, until he had attended to what was left of the day's business, either wholly or in great part. Then he went to bed and slept not more than seven hours at most, and not even that length of time without a break, but waking three or four times. If he could not resume his sleep when it was interrupted, as would happen, he sent for readers or story-tellers, and when sleep came to him he often prolonged it until after daylight. He would never lie awake in the dark without having someone sit by his side. He detested early rising and when he had to get up earlier than usual because of some official or religious duty, to avoid inconveniencing himself he spent the night in the room of one of his friends near the appointed place. Even so, he often suffered from want of sleep, and he would drop off while he was being carried through the streets and when his litter was set down because of some delay.”

Appearance of Augustus

Suetonius wrote: “He was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life, though he cared nothing for personal adornment. He was so far from being particular about the dressing of his hair, that he would have several barbers working in a hurry at the same time, and as for his beard he now had it clipped and now shaved, while at the very same time he would either be reading or writing something. His expression, whether in conversation or when he was silent, was so calm and mild, that one of the leading men of the Gallic provinces admitted to his countrymen that it had softened his heart, and kept him from carrying out his design of pushing the emperor over a cliff, when he had been allowed to approach him under the pretence of a conference, as he was crossing the Alps. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“He had clear, bright eyes, in which he liked to have it thought that there was a kind of divine power, and it greatly pleased him, whenever he looked keenly at anyone, if he let his face fall as if before the radiance of the sun; but in his old age he could not see very well with his left eye. His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept; his hair was slightly curly and inclining to golden; his eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent slightly inward. His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature (although Julius Marathus, his freedman and keeper of his records, says that he was five feet and nine inches in height [Roman measure, a little less than five feet seven inches American measure]), but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure, and was noticeable only by comparison with some taller person standing beside him.

Augustus’s Health

Suetonius wrote: “It is said that his body was covered with spots and that he had birthmarks scattered over his breast and belly, corresponding in form, order and number with the stars of the Bear in the heavens [Ursa Major, aka "the Big Dipper"]; also numerous callous places resembling ringworm, caused by a constant itching of his body and a vigorous use of the strigil. He was not very strong in his left hip, thigh, and leg, and even limped slightly at times; but he strengthened them by treatment with sand and reeds. He sometimes found the forefinger of his right hand so weak, when it was numb and shrunken with the cold, that he could hardly use it for writing even with the aid of a finger-stall of horn. He complained of his bladder too, and was relieved of the pain only after passing stones in his urine. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“In the course of his life he suffered from several severe and dangerous illnesses, especially after the subjugation of Cantabria [23 B.C.], when he was in such a desperate plight from abscesses of the liver, that he was forced to submit to an unprecedented and hazardous course of treatment. Since hot fomentations gave him no relief, he was led by the advice of his physician Antonius Musa to try cold ones. He experienced also some disorders which recurred every year at definite times; for he was commonly ailing just before his birthday; and at the beginning of spring he was troubled with an enlargement of the diaphragm, and when the wind was in the south, with catarrh. Hence his constitution was so weakened that he could not readily endure either cold or heat.

“In winter he protected himself with four tunics and a heavy toga, besides an undershirt, a woollen chest-protector, and wraps for his thighs and shins, while in summer he slept with the doors of his bed-room open, oftentimes in the open court near a fountain, besides having someone to fan him. Yet he could not endure the sun even in winter, and never walked in the open air without wearing a broad-brimmed hat, even at home. He travelled in a litter, usually at night, and by such slow and easy stages that he took two days to go to Praeneste or Tibur; and if he could reach his destination by sea, he preferred to sail. Yet in spite of all he made good his weakness by great care, especially by moderation in bathing; for as a rule he was anointed or took a sweat by a fire, after which he was doused with water either lukewarm or tepid from long exposure to the sun. When however he had to use hot salt water and sulphur baths for rheumatism, he contented himself with sitting on a wooden bath-seat, which he called by the Spanish name dureta, and plunging his hands and feet in the water one after the other.

“Immediately after the civil war he gave up exercise with horses and arms in the Campus Martius, at first turning to pass-ball [the pila was a small hard ball; three players stood at the three points of a triangle (whence the game was called trigon) and passed the ball one from the other] and balloonball [the folliculus was a large light ball; the players wore a guard on the right arm, with which they struck the ball, as in the Italian gioco del pallone], but soon confining himself to riding or taking a walk, ending the latter by running and leaping, trapped in a mantle or a blanket. To divert his mind he sometimes angled and sometimes played at dice, marbles and nuts [many games were played with nuts] with little boys, searching everywhere for such as were attractive for their pretty faces or their prattle, especially Syrians and Moors; for he abhorred dwarfs, cripples, and everything of that sort, as freaks of nature and of ill omen.

Augustus’s Sex Life

Suetonius wrote: “In early youth he incurred the reproach of sundry shameless acts. Sextus Pompeius taunted him with effeminacy; Marcus Antonius with having earned adoption by his uncle through unnatural relations; and Lucius, brother of Marcus Antonius, that after sacrificing his honour to Caesar he had given himself to Aulus Hirtius in Spain for three hundred thousand sesterces, and that he used to singe his legs with red-hot nutshells, to make the hair grow softer. What is more, one day when there were plays in the theatre, all the people took as directed against him and loudly applauded the following line, spoken on the stage and referring to a priest of the Mother of the Gods, as he beat his timbrel: "See'st how a wanton's finger sways the world?" [a double word-play on orbem "round drum" and "world," and temperat, "beats" and "sways"]. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“That he was given to adultery not even his friends deny, although it is true that they excuse it as committed not from passion but from policy, the more readily to get track of his adversaries' designs through the women of their households. Marcus Antonius charged him, besides his hasty marriage with Livia, with taking the wife of an ex-consul from her husband's dining room before his very eyes into a bed-chamber, and bringing her back to the table with her hair in disorder and her ears glowing; that Scribonia was divorced because she expressed her resentment too freely at the excessive influence of a rival; that his friends acted as his panders, and stripped and inspected matrons and well-grown girls, as if Toranius the slave-dealer were putting them up for sale.

Antonius also writes to Augustus himself in the following familiar terms, when he had not yet wholly broken with him privately or publicly: "What has made such a change in you? Because I lie with the queen? She is my wif e. Am I just beginning this, or was it nine years ago? What then of you — do you lie only with Drusilla? Good luck to you if when you read this letter you have not been with Tertulla or Terentilla or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia, or all of them. Does it matter where or with whom you take your pleasure?"..He could not dispose of the charge of lustfulness and they say that even in his later years he was fond of deflowering maidens, who were brought together for him from all quarters, even by his own wife.

Augustus’s Strange Parties and Gambling

Suetonius wrote: “There was besides a private dinner of his, commonly called that of the "twelve gods," which was the subject of gossip. At this the guests appeared in the guise of gods and goddesses, while he himself was made up to represent Apollo, as was charged not merely in letters of Antonius, who spitefully gives the names of all the guests, but also in these anonymous lines, which everyone knows: "As soon as that table of rascals had secured a choragus [the choragus at Athens had charge of the costuming and stage setting of plays], and Mallia [according to some, the choragus; others regard it as the name of a place] saw six gods and six goddesses, while Caesar impiously plays the false role of Apollo and feasts amid novel debaucheries of the gods; then all the deities turned their faces from the earth and Jupiter himself fled from his golden throne." [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“The scandal of this banquet was the greater because of dearth and famine in the land at the time, and on the following day there was an outcry that the gods had eaten all the grain and that Caesar was in truth Apollo, but Apollo the Tormentor, a surname under which the god was worshipped in one part of the city. He was criticized too as over fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes and as given to gaming. Indeed, as early as the time of the proscriptions there was written on his statue--- "In silver once my father dealt, now in Corinthians I" [Corinthiarius: coined in jest on the analogy of argentarius: used in inscriptions of slaves in charge of the vasa Corinthia], since it was believed that he caused some men to be entered in the list of the proscribed because of their Corinthian vases. Later, during the Sicilian war, this epigram was current: "After he has twice been beaten at sea and lost his ships, he plays at dice all the time, in the hope of winning one victory."

“Of these charges or slanders (whichever we may call them) he easily refuted that for unnatural vice by the purity of his life at the time and afterwards; so too the odium of extravagance by the fact that when he took Alexandria, he kept none of the furniture of the palace for himself except a single agate cup, and presently melted down all the golden vessels intended for everyday use.... He did not in the least shrink from a reputation for gaming, and played frankly and openly for recreation, even when he was well on in years, not only in the month of December [when the freedom of the Saturnalia allowed it], but on other holidays as well, and on working days too. There is no question about this, for in a letter in his own handwriting he says: "I dined, dear Tiberius, with the same company; we had besides as guests Vinicius and the elder Silius. We gambled like old men during the meal both yesterday and today; for when the dice were thrown, whoever turned up the 'dog' or the six, put a denarius in the pool for each one of the dice, and the whole was taken by anyone who threw the 'Venus' [when only aces appeared, the throw was called 'canis', when all the dice turned up different numbers, 'Venus']." Again in another letter: "We spent the Quinquatria [the five day festival of Minerva, March 20-25] very merrily, my dear Tiberius, for we played all day long and kept the gaming-board warm. Your brother made a great outcry about his luck, but after all did not come out far behind in the long run; for after losing heavily, he unexpectedly and little by little got back a good deal. For my part, I lost twenty thousand sesterces, but because I was extravagantly generous in my play, as usual. If I had demanded of everyone the stakes which I let go, or had kept all that I gave away, I should have won fully fifty thousand. But I like that better, for my generosity will exalt me to immortal glory." To his daughter he writes: "I send you two hundred and fifty denarii, the sum which I gave each of my guests, in case they wished to play at dice or at odd and even during the dinner."

Oratory and Writing Skills and Intellectual Interests of Augustus

Suetonius wrote: “From early youth he devoted himself eagerly and with the utmost diligence to oratory and liberal studies. During the war at Mutina, amid such a press of affairs, he is said to have read, written and declaimed every day. In fact he never afterwards spoke in the Senate, or to the people or the soldiers, except in a studied and written address, although he did not lack the gift of speaking offhand without preparation. Moreover, to avoid the danger of forgetting what he was to say, or wasting time in committing it to memory, he adopted the practice of reading everything from a manuscript. Even his conversations with individuals and the more important of those with his own wife Livia, he always wrote out and read from a note-book, for fear of saying too much or too little if he spoke offhand. He had an agreeable and rather characteristic enunciation, and he practised constantly with a teacher of elocution; but sometimes because of weakness of the throat he addressed the people through a herald. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“He wrote numerous works of various kinds in prose, some of which he read to a group of his intimate friends, as others did in a lecture room; for example, his "Reply to Brutus on Cato." At the reading of these volumes he had all but come to the end, when he grew tired and handed them to Tiberius to finish, for he was well on in years. He also wrote "Exhortations to Philosophy" and some volumes of an Autobiography, giving an account of his life in thirteen books up to the time of the Cantabrian war, but no farther. His essays in poetry were but slight. One book has come down to us written in hexameter verse, of which the subject and the title is "Sicily." There is another, equally brief, of "Epigrams," which he composed for the most part at the time of the bath. Though he began a tragedy with much enthusiasm, he destroyed it because his style did not satisfy him, and when some of his friends asked him what in the world had become of Ajax, he answered that "his Ajax had fallen on his sponge."

“He cultivated a style of speaking that was chaste and elegant, avoiding the vanity of attempts at epigram and an artificial order, and as he himself expresses it, "the noisomeness of far-fetched words," making it his chief aim to express his thought as clearly as possible. With this end in view, to avoid confusing and checking his reader or hearer at any point, he did not hesitate to use prepositions with names of cities, nor to repeat conjunctions several times, the omission of which causes some obscurity, though it adds grace. He looked on innovators and archaizers with equal contempt, as faulty in opposite directions, and he sometimes had a fling at them, in particular his friend Maecenas, whose "unguent-dripping curls," as he calls them, he loses no opportunity of belabouring and pokes fun at them by parody. He did not spare even Tiberius, who sometimes hunted up obsolete and pedantic expressions; and as for Marcus Antonius, he calls him a madman, for writing rather to be admired than to be understood. Then going on to ridicule his perverse and inconsistent taste in choosing an oratorical style, he adds the following: "Can you doubt whether you ought to imitate Annius Cimber or Veranius Flaccus, that you use the words which Sallustius Crispus gleaned from Cato's Origines ? Or would you rather introduce into our tongue the verbose and unmeaning fluency of the Asiatic orators?" And in a letter praising the talent of his granddaughter Agrippina he writes: "But you must take great care not to write and talk affectedly."

“That in his everyday conversation he used certain favourite and peculiar expressions appears from letters in his own hand, in which he says every now and then, when he wishes to indicate that certain men will never pay, that "they will pay on the Greek Kalends." Urging his correspondent to put up with present circumstances, such as they are, he says: "Let's be satisfied with the Cato we have; and to express the speed of a hasty action, "Quicker than you can cook asparagus." He continually used baceolus (dolt) for stultus (fool), for pullus (dark) pulleiaceus (darkish), and for cerritus (mad) vacerrosus (blockhead); also vapide se habere (feel flat) for male se habere (feel badly), and betizaree (be like a beet) for languere (be weak), for which the vulgar term is lachanizare. Besides he used simus for sumus and domos in the genitive singular instead of domuos. The last two forms he wrote invariably, for fear they should be thought errors rather than a habit. I have also observed this special peculiarity in his manner of writing: he does not divide words or carry superfluous letters from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, but writes them just below the rest of the word and draws a loop around them.

at the tomb of Alexander the Great

“He does not strictly comply with orthography, that is to say the theoretical rules of spelling laid down by the grammarians, seeming to be rather of the mind of those who believe that we should spell exactly as we pronounce. Of course his frequent transposition or omission of syllables as well as of letters are slips common to all mankind. I should not have noted this, did it not seem to me surprising that some have written that he cashiered a consular governor, as an uncultivated and ignorant fellow, because he observed that he had written izi for ipsi. Whenever he wrote in cipher, he wrote B for A, C for B, and the rest of the letters on the same principle, using AA for X.

“He was equally interested in Greek studies, and in these too he excelled greatly. His teacher of declamation was Apollodorus of Pergamon, whom he even took with him in his youthful days from Rome to Apollonia, though Apollodorus was an old man at the time. Later he became versed in various forms of learning through association with the philosopher Areus and his sons Dionysius and Nicanor. Yet he never acquired the ability to speak Greek fluently or to compose anything in it; for if he had occasion to use the language, he wrote what he had to say in Latin and gave it to someone else to translate. Still he was far from being ignorant of Greek poetry, even taking great pleasure in the Old Comedy and frequently staging it at his public entertainments. In reading the writers of both tongues there was nothing for which he looked so carefully as precepts and examples instructive to the public or to individuals; these he would often copy word for word, and send to the members of his household, or to his generals and provincial governors, whenever any of them required admonition. He even read entire volumes to the Senate and called the attention of the people to them by proclamations; for example, the speeches of Quintus Metellus "On Increasing the Family," and of Rutilius "On the Height of Buildings"; to convince them that he was not the first to give attention to such matters, but ihat they had aroused the interest even of their forefathers. He gave every encouragement to the men of talent of his own age, listening with courtesy and patience to their readings, not only of poetry and history, but of speeches and dialogues as well. But he took offence at being made the subject of any composition except in serious earnest and by the most eminent writers, often charging the praetors not to let his name be cheapened in prize declamations.”

Augustus’s Attitude Towards Religion, Omens and Cults

Suetonius wrote: “This is what we are told of his attitude towards matters of religion. He was somewhat weak in his fear of thunder and lightning, for he always carried a seal-skin about with him everywhere as a protection, and at any sign of a violent storm took refuge in an underground vaulted room; for as I have said, he was once badly frightened by a narrow escape from lightning during a journey by night. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

Augustus and Sybele

“He was not indifferent to his own dreams or to those which others dreamed about him. At the Battle of Philippi, though he had made up his mind not to leave his tent because of illness, he did so after all when warned by a friend's dream; fortunately, as it turned out, for his camp was taken and when the enemy rushed in, his litter was stabbed through and through and torn to pieces, in the belief that he was still lying there ill. All through the spring his own dreams were very numerous and fearful, but idle and unfulfilled; during the rest of the year they were less frequent and more reliable. Being in the habit of making constant visits to the temple of Jupiter the Thunderer, which he had founded on the Capitol, he dreamed that Jupiter Capitolinus complained that his worshippers were being taken from him, and that he answered that he had placed the Thunderer hard by to be his doorkeeper; and accordingly he presently festooned the gable of the temple with bells, because these commonly hung at house-doors. It was likewise because of a dream that every year on an appointed day he begged alms of the people, holding out his open hand to have pennies dropped in it.

“Certain auspices and omens he regarded as infallible. If his shoes were put on in the wrong way in the morning, the left instead of the right, he considered it a bad sign. If there chanced to be a drizzle of rain when he was starting on a long journey by land or sea, he thought it a good omen, betokening a speedy and prosperous return. But he was especially affected by prodigies. When a palm tree sprang up between the crevices of the pavement before his house, he transplanted it to the inner court beside his household gods and took great pains to make it grow. He was so pleased that the branches of an old oak, which had already drooped to the ground and were withering, became vigorous again on his arrival in the island of Capreae, that he arranged with the city of Naples to give him the island in exchange for Aenaria. He also had regard to certain days, refusing ever to begin a journey on the day after a market day,a or to take up any important business on the Nones; though in the latter case, as he writes Tiberius, he merely dreaded the unlucky sound of the name.

“He treated with great respect such foreign rites as were ancient and well established, but held the rest in contempt. For example, having been initiated at Athens and afterwards sitting in judgment of a case at Rome involving the privileges of the priests of Attic Ceres, in which certain matters of secrecy were brought up, he dismissed his councillors and the throng of bystanders and heard the disputants in private. But on the other hand he not only omitted to make a slight detour to visit Apis, when he was travelling through Egypt, but highly commended his grandson Gaius for not offering prayers at Jerusalem as he passed by Judaea.

Omens Associated with Augustus’s Birth and Early Life

Suetonius wrote: “Having reached this point, it will not be out of place to add an account of the omens which occurred before he was born, on the very day of his birth, and afterwards, from which it was possible to anticipate and perceive his future greatness and uninterrupted good fortune. In ancient days, when a part of the wall of Velitrae had been struck by lightning, the prediction was made that a citizen of that town would one day rule the world. Through their confidence in this the people of Velitrae had at once made war on the Roman people and fought with them many times after that almost to their utter destruction; but at last long afterward the event proved that the omen had foretold the rule of Augustus. According to Julius Marathus, a few months before Augustus was born a portent was generally observed at Rome, which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the Senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family. I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologamena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

Augustus birth star chart

“In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavian dreamed that the sun rose from Atia's womb. The day he was born the conspiracy of Catiline was before the House, and Octavian came late because of his wife's confinement; then Publius Nigidius, as everyone knows, learning the reason for his tardiness and being informed also of the hour of the birth, declared that the ruler of the world had been born. Later, when Octavian was leading an army through remote parts of Thrace, and in the grove of Father Liber consulted the priests about his son with barbarian rites, they made the same prediction; since such a pillar of flame sprang forth from the wine that was poured over the altar, that it rose above the temple roof and mounted to the very sky, and such an omen had befallen no one save Alexander the Great when he offered sacrifice at the same altar. Moreover, the very next night he dreamt that his son appeared to him in a guise more majestic than that of mortal man, with the thunderbolt, sceptre, and insignia of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, wearing a crown begirt with rays and mounted upon a laurel-wreathed chariot drawn by twelve horses of surpassing whiteness. When Augustus was still an infant, as is recorded by the hand of Gaius Drusus, he was placed by his nurse at evening in his cradle on the ground floor and the next morning had disappeared; but after long search he was at last found lying on a lofty tower with his face towards the rising sun. As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather's country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there. As he was lunching in a grove at the fourth milestone on the Campanian road, an eagle surprised him by snatching his bread from his hand, and after flying to a great height, equally to his surprise dropped gently down again and gave it back to him.

After Quintus Catulus had dedicated the Capitol, he had dreams on two nights in succession: first, that Jupiter Optimus Maximus called aside one of a number of boys of good family, who were playing around his altar, and put in the fold of his toga an image of Roma, which he was carrying in his hand; the next night he dreamt that he saw this same boy in the lap of Jupiter of the Capitol, and that when he had ordered that he be removed, the god warned him to desist, declaring that the boy was being reared to be the saviour of his country. When Catulus next day met Augustus, whom he had never seen before, he looked at him in great surprise and said that he was very like the boy of whom he had dreamed. Some give a different account of Catulus' first dream: when a large group of well-born children asked Jupiter for a guardian, he pointed out one of their number, to whom they were to refer all their wishes, and then, after lightly touching the boy's mouth with his fingers, laid them on his own lips. As Marcus Cicero was attending Gaius Caesar to the Capitol, he happened to tell his friends a dream of the night before — that a boy of noble countenance was let down from heaven on a golden chain and, standing at the door of the temple, was given a whip by Jupiter. Just then suddenly catching sight of Augustus, who was still unknown to the greater number of those present and had been brought to the ceremony by his uncle Caesar, he declared that he was the very one whose form had appeared to him in his dream.

Omens Associated with Augustus’s Political Career

Suetonius wrote: “When Augustus was assuming the gown of manhood, his senatorial tunic was ripped apart on both sides and fell at his feet, which some interpreted as a sure sign that the order of which the tunic was the badge would one day be brought to his feet. As the Deified Julius was cutting down a wood at Munda and preparing a place for his camp, coming across a palm tree, he caused it to be spared as an omen of victory. From this a shoot at once sprang forth and in a few days grew so great that it not only equalled the parent tree, but even overshadowed it; moreover many doves built their nests there, although that kind of bird especially avoids hard and rough foliage. Indeed, it was that omen in particular, they say, that led Caesar to wish that none other than his sister's grandson should be his successor. While in retirement at Apollonia, Augustus mounted with Agrippa to the studio of the astrologer Theogenes. Agrippa was the first to try his fortune, and when a great and almnst incredible career was predicted for him, Augustus persisted in concealing the time of his birth and in refusing to disclose it, through diffidence and fear that he might be found to be less eminent. When he at last gave it unwillingly and hesitatingly, and only after many urgent requests, Theogenes sprang up and threw himself at his feet. From that time on Augustus had such faith in his destiny, that he made his horoscope public and issued a silver coin stamped with the sign of the constellation Capricornus, under which he was born. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

at the tomb of Achilles

“As he was entering the city on his return from Apollonia after Caesar's death, though the heaven was clear and cloudless, a circle like a rainbow suddenly formed around the sun's disc, and straightway the tomb of Caesar's daughter Julia was struck by lightning. Again, as he was taking the auspices in his first consulship, twelve vultures appeared to him, as to Romulus, and when he slew the victims; the livers within all of them were found to be doubled inward at the lower end, which all those who were skilled in such matters unanimously declared to be an omen of a great and happy future.

“He even divined beforehand the outcome of all his wars. When the forces of the triumvirs were assembled at Bononia, an eagle that had perched upon his tent made a dash at two ravens, which attacked it on either side, and struck them to the ground. From this the whole army inferred that there would one day be discord among the colleagues, as actually came to pass, and divined its result. As he was on his way to Philippi, a Thessalian gave him notice of his coming victory on the authority of the deified Caesar, whose shade had met him on a lonely road. When he was sacrificing at Perusia without getting a favourable omen, and so had ordered more victims to be brought, the enemy made a sudden sally and carried off all the equipment of the sacrifice; whereupon the soothsayers agreed that all the dangers and disasters with which the sacrificer had been threatened would recoil on the heads of those who were in possession of the entrails; and so it turned out. As he was walking on the shore the day before the sea-fight off Sicily, a fish sprang from the sea and fell at his feet. At Actium, as he was going down to begin the battle, he met an ass with his driver, the man having the name Eutychus and the beast that of Nicon; and after the victory he set up bronze images of the two in the sacred enclosure into which he converted the site of his camp.”

Ancient Sources on Augustus

On Augustus as Octavian,” Cicero's letters and “Philippics” describe the year after Julius Caesar's murder (March 44 - summer 43 B.C.); Plutarch's Lives of Brutus and Antony are sources for the triumviral period. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors]

“The “Monumentum Ancyranum” is an inscription known since the sixteenth century from the temple of 'Rome and Augustus' at Ancyra in Galatia. The inscription is Augustus's own account of his achievements and honors at Rome. This account is commonly known by its prefatory title Res Gestae Divi Augusti, or "achievements of the divine Augustus." The purpose of the inscription was to show and justify Augustus's influence and power at Rome and in the Roman world. The text, which is addressed to the Roman people, describes the beginning of his public life, his military successes, honors given to him, official expenditures for the public good, foreign policy, and ultimately the highest honor any Roman could receive, the title of pater patriae, 'father of the country.' Since Augustus received this title in 2 B.C. the text of the Ancyra inscription appears to date from that time, though earlier drafts are likely, as his honors and achievements grew. According to Suetonius (Aug. 101, 4), the inscription was originally designed for bronze tablets set up in front of Augustus's mausoleum built substantially, if not completely, in 28 B.C. at Rome.

“The “Fasti Consulares” and “Fasti Juliani” provide further epigraphic evidence about Augustus and his time in the form of official lists of the holders of the annual consulship at Rome, and of holidays and religious festivals, respectively.

Nicolaus of Damascus wrote a “Life of Augustus” c. 25-20 B.C.; only a fragment of this eulogistic work survives concerning Augustus's youth and ending with the death of Julius. The work was probably a free paraphrase of an autobiography by Augustus.

Velleius Paterculus, who wrote the Histories during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 A,D.), provides a virtually contemporary, often eye-witness, and flattering account of wars of the Augustan period.

Appian describes events at Rome until 35 B.C. Though he wrote the Civil Wars in the second century A.D., Appian's account, sometimes favorable and sometimes not, is based on the contemporary history of C. Asinius Pollio, who was consul in 40 B.C.

Dio Cassius is the main source for events at Rome from 36 B.C., though the author himself lived c. 150-235 A.D., and his sources for the Augustan period are unknown. His account describes a ruthless Octavian, but an ideal Augustus as princeps, and a model for the Severan Era.

Tacitus gives an account of Augustus's merits and mostly demerits in the Annals, which the historian may have started composing as early as 115.

Suetonius wrote a “Life of Augustus” in the second century A.D. Suetonius was the court archivist of Hadrian ( 117-38 A.D.), and he had access to imperial documents of the Augustan age. Detached anecdotes replace a fully connected chronology.

Philo of Alexandria extolls the benevolence of Augustus in contrast to Caligula, in Embassy to Gaius, c. 40 A.D.

Flavius Josephus both favored and disfavored Rome in Bellum Judaicum c. 75 and Jewish Antiquites c 93-94A.D..

Pliny the Elder wrote negative reports about Augustus in Natural History, completed in 77 A.D.

Florus wrote a second century A.D. Epitome of all Wars during 700 Years, an abridgement of the history of Roman wars waged through the Age of Augustus. Eutropius and Aurelius Victor were fourth century A.D. epitomists; Eutropius based his early Roman history on an epitome of Livy, and Victor wrote the Caesares based on Suetonius. John Zonaras wrote a twelfth century epitome of Dio Cassius.

Lastly, for the era and the man, the literature of the Augustan Age is a major source which includes the works of Livy, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus

Veracity of the Sources of Augustus

David Silverman of Reed College wrote:“Emilio Gabba begins his survey of the reception of Augustus among ancient historians ["The Historians and Augustus" = pages 61-88 in F. Millar & E. Segal, eds., Caesar Augustus : seven aspects (Clarendon Press, 1984)] with several contemporary and near-contemporary figures from the fringes of the empire: Nicolaus of Damascus (the court historian of King Herod the Great and author of a Universal History up to 4 BC), Philo of Alexandria (a philosopher and leading Jewish politician) and Aelius Aristides (2nd AD; a sophist, rhetorician, and devotee of Asclepius). All of these reproduce a vision of Roman empire centered on its inclusivity and universalizing power, and they celebrate the stability and peace brought by Augustus to the provinces. None is the least bit vexed over the idea that some degree of political freedom may have been lost with the introduction of the Principate. Why should they be? As subjects in relatively remote corners of the empire, they cared not at all whether the powers of the tribunate had withered and died; security was all. Liberty meant the chance of becoming a Roman citizen. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“With Appian, things become only slightly more complex. A confirmed monarchist writing in the mid 2nd century AD, he too disseminates the universalizing interpretation of the Roman empire. Roughly he adheres to a division in the life of Octavian / Augustus between the years before 36 BC and those subsequent; before 36 Octavian is the last warlord of the crumbling and corrupt Republic, after 36 he is the benevolent autocrat. For Appian, the civil wars are an evil, but the solution is a strong monarch, not a return to the Republic. In Gabba's reading, Appian had bias neither for or against Augustus, but used some pro- and some anti-Augustan sources; for Appian being pro- or anti- Augustan was without political significance. ^*^

“Cassius Dio, a senator who held the consulship in 205 and 229 AD, on whom we must rely for the only connected narrative account of the Augustan principate, likewise reproduces some material hostile to Augustus (as for example when he maintains that the occasions on which Augustus publicly renounced his powers were staged charades), but basically he approves, as Gabba rightly infers from Dio's version (his own composition) of Tiberius' funeral oration over Augustus (56. 35-41). Here we find strains of the Augustan defense against the critics of his early years, e.g. at 56. 37: ^*^

“He first attached himself to the powerful leaders who were menacing the very existence of the city, and with them he fought the others until he had made an end of them; and when these were out of the way, he in turn freed us from the former. He chose, though against his will, to surrender a few to their wrath so that he might save the majority ... ^*^

“This is problematic, in so far as Dio was composing a speech which would have been appropriate to the occasion, and the occasion called for praise of Augustus. But Dio like Appian was a committed monarchist, and the echoes of senatorial nostalgia for the Republic in his work (such as Agrippa's attempt to dissuade Augustus from establishing the principate in Book 52) are purely formulaic. For Dio, himself a Roman senator from Bithynia, the proper role of the upper classes was to mediate between the princeps and the people, not to challenge the latter for power; in Gabba's view, Dio conflates the senatorial class of the early Principate with the same men of his own age (late second and early third century AD).

“Meyer Reinhold and P. Michael Swan ["Cassius Dio's Assessment of Augustus" = pages 155-173 in K. Raaflaub & M. Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire (California 1990)] agree with Gabba that Dio saw a crisis in the principate of his own time, especially with Commodus and Septimius Severus. Tyrannical emperors, foolish military adventurism, and the shrinking role of the senatorial aristocracy in imperial administration all worried him. Also like Gabba, Reinhold and Swan find in Dio the standard separation between Octavian the warlord and Augustus the princeps; the former is treated from the perspective of Thucydidean realpolitik, but for the latter they also see Dio's true feelings expressed in Tiberius' eulogy. For them, if Dio plays up the military achievements of Augustus' general Agrippa, who was married to Augustus' daughter Julia and became his adopted son in 19 BC and who until his death in 12 BC appeared headed for the succession) that has less to do with denigrating Augustus as a military leader than with finding a morally uplifting example of the proper application of military discipline. This commitment to the search for exempla, the bane of ancient biographers and historians, leads Dio to distortion; desiring to make the point that a good emperor resists expansionism, Dio suppresses the very real longings for an expanded empire manifested by Augustus. Along the same lines, Dio's antipathy for frivolous public expenditures blinded him to the essential role of the congiaria (distributions of money or free grain) and other forms of largess (such as gladiatorial contests) in confirming Augustus' standing with the plebs, and Dio's ideal of an exclusive cooperation between princeps and senate led him to overlook the extent of Augustus' courting of the ordo equester (the equestrian order).

“A much greater historian than either Appian or Dio, the senator and consular P. Cornelius Tacitus, chose in his Annals not to give a full treatment of the Augustan principate. But Tacitus does include a few paragraphs about Augustus: ^*^

“He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody's good will by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law. Opposition did not exist. War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially. They had profited from the revolution, and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous uncertainties of the old ré gime. Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1. 2) ^*^

“A little later Tacitus, now narrating the beginning of Tiberius' reign, recounts how Augustus was remembered on the occasion of his funeral. ^*^

“Intelligent people praised or criticized him in varying terms. One opinion was as follows. Filial duty and a national emergency, in which there was no place for law-abiding conduct, had driven him to civil war - and this can be neither initiated nor maintained by decent methods ... When Lepidus grew old and lazy, and Antony's self-indulgence got the better of him, the only possible cure for the distracted country had been government by one man. However, Augustus had put the State in order by not making himself king or dictator, but by creating the Principate. ^*^

“The opposite view went like this. Filial duty and national crisis had been merely pretexts. In actual fact, the motive of Octavian, the future Augustus, was lust for power. (1. 9-10). ^*^

“In comparison to Tacitus, whose true view of Augustus is the second of the two alternatives he presents at Annals 1. 9-10, Dio's much fuller narrative, in which Augustus has a tendency to become an idealization of the good princeps, must appear to suffer from a lack of critical perspective. ^*^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except star cart,

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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