27 BCE - 14 CE
Back Next
"By the way, don't eat the figs ..." (spoken by Livia to Tiberius in "I Claudius", by Robert Graves)

After defeating Antony at Actium, Octavian was undisputed master of the Roman world. The Senate voted him the title of Augustus (revered one). He thought it had a nice ring to it, so he took it as his name. He stitched together the office that would come to be known as Roman Emperor, and held it for 41 years, setting a record that none of his successors would match.

About this coin: This bronze "as", featuring Augustus's portrait on the obverse and "SC" (for Senatus Consultum, or "Consent of the Senate"). "SC" appears only on bronze coinage, because the Senate was officially responsible for bronze coinage, but not for silver or gold.

The reverse legend contains the text "TRIBVN POT XXXIIII", indicating that this was minted in the year that Augustus was awarded the office of Tribunicia Potesta for the thirty-fourth time. This identifies this coin as having been minted in either the year 10 or 11 CE.

Augustus solidified his hold on supreme authority initially by giving it away. He resigned his titles, then had most of them restored to him by the authority of the Senate. It was all carefully stage managed, of course, and he was never in any real danger of losing power, but he wanted to present himself as "First Citizen" (Princeps) and restorer of the Republic rather than as just the next in a line of military dictators. The offices he accumulated had existed in the Republic; they just hadn't all been held by one man.

Like Caesar, he held the title of Imperator, which gave him control of the military. But to this he added the office of Tribunicia Potesta, essentially the protector of the commoners. This office had been designed to balance the power of the Senate, which represented the aristocracy, and included such authority as a veto power over Senatorial acts. The genius of this move was that, whereas his predecessors could override the Senate only through an illegal threat or use of force, Augustus could do it legally, without any unpleasant sabre rattling. This may seem a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse, but under Augustus, the Roman lower classes seemed relatively happy, so perhaps not.

Augustus was a gifted politician, but he wasn't much of a military leader. Most of his early victories (including the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium) were engineered by his friend, Marcus Agrippa. He did have the good sense and modesty to recognize his shortcomings, though, and to surround himself with able people such as Agrippa.

Finding an heir to his liking proved Augustus's single biggest failure. He had no sons, and just one daughter (Julia). He married her off to a series of husbands in an attempt to produce suitable male heirs. First, it was his sister's son, Marcellus, who died abruptly without siring any children. Then it was his aging but still quite fertile friend Agrippa, by whom she had three sons and two daughters. When Agrippa died, Augustus looked for a suitable protector for his grandsons. His eye fell upon his stepson Tiberius, the son by a previous marriage of Augustus' wife, Livia.

Now, Tiberius was quite happily married at the time. Some might have considered this an impediment, but not Augustus. He simply ordered Tiberius to get a divorce, marry Julia, and adopt her children. Tiberius reluctantly did as ordered, but then left Rome for several years. In that period, two of the three boys died of illness in their early adulthood. The third was a highly unlikeable little tyke, whom Augustus finally sent into exile. This left Augustus with only one viable heir. Despite his dislike for Tiberius, Augustus formally adopted him in 4 CE.

Much speculation existed (and still does) that Livia had a hand in the string of misfortunes that plagued Augustus's heirs. According to this theory, Augustus grew suspicious after the deaths of two of his three grandsons. He met in secret with his one surviving (exiled) grandson, but Livia figured it out. She decided she needed to expedite the succession, as it were, before he could change his will, so she began feeding him poison. When he got sick, he refused to eat anything but figs he'd picked himself, so Livia started smearing poison on the figs as they hung there. It's a wonderful theory, and Robert Graves (author of "I Claudius" and "Claudius the God") got a great deal of mileage out of it, but no hard evidence exists to support it.

Augustus's greatest contribution toward the Emperorship may have simply been his living so long after rising to power. By the time he died, on 19 August, 14 CE, there had been an Emperor for so long that it seemed natural to most Romans to pass his office to his heir.

<-Previous Page Next Page ->
Back To "Those Wacky Emperors"