January 16, 27 BC: Who Was the First Roman Emperor?

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A Brief History

On January 16, 27 BC, the Roman Senate conferred upon Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus the title “Augustus,” effectively making Augustus Caesar the first Roman Emperor, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.  While previously the Romans had indeed conquered many lands, their government had been a Republic and run by the Senate until Gaius Julius Caesar (the man usually referred to as simply Julius Caesar) became Dictator of Rome, sort of a de facto king or emperor.  If you notice the similarity in names between Julius and Augustus, you can be assured this is not coincidental.

Digging Deeper

Augustus was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus on September 23, 63 BC.  The son of wealthy and important parents, Gaius became even more important when he became the adoptive son of Julius Caesar.  Julius Caesar was the great-uncle of Augustus.  Augustus’s own father, Gaius Octavius, was also involved in politics himself and held the rank of Governor of Macedonia when he died while traveling to Rome to run for office as Consul in 59 BC.  The name change was in accordance to the normal practice in Rome of adoptive sons, although some people used the Octavius form of his original name both to differentiate him from Julius Caesar and also to slight him with a reference to his more plebeian roots.  Julius had not only adopted Augustus, but also named him heir to the throne (such as it was) of Rome.  When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC civil war reigned in Rome, with a monumental power struggle for the right to rule the premier civilization in the Western European World.  During this period Augustus is generally referred to as Octavian until 27 BC when he was given the official title “Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus.”  (Basically meaning Emperor Caesar Augustus.)

The Death of Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1867). On 15 March 44 BC, Octavius’ adoptive father Julius Caesar was assassinated by a conspiracy led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony (along with Julius Caesar’s former mistress, Cleopatra) sided with Augustus (Octavian) as heir, and after their victory at Battle of Philippi (42 BC) over the faction that precipitated the assassination of Caesar, they divvied up Rome between Octavian, Antony and Lepidus, and ruled as dictators in a regime called the Second Triumvirate (43 BC to 33 BC).  Squabbles among the 3 dictators resulted in further civil war and a break up of their peaceful coexistence, culminating in the Battle of Actium, won by Octavian in 31 BC, resulting in the suicide of Marc Antony.  (Lepidus had previously been disposed and exiled.)

Left as the proverbial Last Man Standing, Octavian reinstated the Republic, but only in a superficial way as he clung to absolute power.  He rejected (at first) any royal title, calling himself instead, Princeps Civitatis (First citizen).  By 27 BC he had consolidated his power to the point of being named Augustus Caesar and Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Though his rule was not without controversy and some strife, he instituted a period of relative peace within the Empire and established a border of buffer states/provinces to keep Rome safe.  This period of peace, referred to as Pax Romana, was characterized by no major wars within the Roman Empire for the next 2 centuries.  Roads were built, public works created, and tax reform instituted.  A standing army was developed as were fire-fighting departments and police departments.  Rome became what we would recognize as a modern state in many ways.

Augustus in an Egyptian-style depiction, a stone carving of the Kalabsha Temple in Nubia.  Photograph by hu:User:Lassi.

Augustus had the opportunity to make quite an impression on Roman history, as he lived to the ripe old age of 75 (died 14 AD), dying of natural causes, unless rumors are true that his wife, Livia, had poisoned him!  His own adoptive son, Tiberius, succeeded him as Emperor.  (In the convoluted ways of monarchies, Tiberius was also the step-son of Augustus as well as the former son-in-law of Augustus.)  One of the challenges Augustus faced was finding land for veteran soldiers to make homes and farms.  His seizing of land owned by rich Romans alienated many of those that had to be forced to provide land to the veterans.  Augustus managed to expand the Roman Empire through military action and diplomacy, including adding Iberia and Anatolia to the fold.  One exception to the success of Rome under the rule of Augustus was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD when a Roman army was annihilated by Germanic tribes, causing Augustus to utter the famous phrase, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

Caesar Augustus, or Augustus Caesar, whatever he is called, was the first of the Roman Emperors and perhaps the greatest of the lot.  Rome became a great civilization and empire until it inevitably crumbled and fell as all empires do in 476 AD.

Europe and the Near East in 476 AD.  Map by Guriezous.

Questions for Students (and others): Did you think Julius Caesar was a Roman Emperor?  Did you know Augustus was “Caesar” during the time of Jesus Christ?  What other Roman Emperors can you think of?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Everitt, Anthony. Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor. Random House, 2006.

Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor (Paperback)

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Firth, John. Augustus Cæsar. Endeavour Compass, 2017.

Augustus Cæsar (Kindle Edition)

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Foster, Genevieve. Augustus Caesar’s World. Beautiful Feet Books, 1996.

Augustus Caesar’s World (Paperback)

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The featured image in this article, a denarius minted c. 18 BC (Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS; reverse: DIVVS IVLIV[S] (DIVINE JULIUS)), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.