The Rise of Augustus Caesar: Establishing the Principate

Most of us remember Rome for its days as an empire, a vast, unified nation sprawling from modern-day Spain in the west all the way to Syria in the east. 

It’s true that this was Rome for several hundreds of years, and that, as an empire, it single- handedly reshaped the history of the world, but this didn’t happen overnight. 

Instead, it took nearly 500 years. But at the end of this initial period, known as the Roman Republic, a new type of Rome emerged: an empire. 

Led by Augustus Caesar, the first emperor, Rome opened a new chapter in its history in 27 BC, the year it officially became an empire.

The Neverending Chaos of Ancient Rome

For most of Rome’s history, it existed in political turmoil. From 507 to 47 BC, it operated as a republic, meaning elected officials made decisions on behalf of the people. 

However, this form of government, while more inclusive, exposed Rome to corruption and the political ambitions of individual men. 

This made Rome quite an unstable place. Power was constantly changing hands, and civil wars started by Romans with competing interests were common. 

As this problem persisted, many began to believe Rome could no longer operate as a republic, and that it would need to be run by a dictator, as an empire, to be able to save itself from destroying itself. 

Emerging from the Second Triumvirate

Throughout the final century BC, a movement had been brewing about turning Rome into a dictatorship, and it finally happened in 47 BC when Julius Caesar defied the Senate and returned to Rome with his army to seize what he felt was rightfully his: full control over Rome. 

Not everyone agreed it was rightfully his, though, and so someone, a man named Brutus who Caesar thought was his friend, went on to assassinate him in 44 BC. 

From there, a group of three men , known collectively as the Second Triumvirate, rose to power in Rome. 

Eventually, they also couldn’t get over their differences, and a civil war broke out in 35 BC that ended with a man named Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son, also known as Octavian, as the sole dictator in Rome. 

Becoming Augustus and Princeps

The people and the senators of Rome were thrilled that the war was over, and they welcomed Octavian as their primary leader, eager for the civil strife to finally cease. 

To make it clear the trust they placed in him, the Senate bestowed a number of honors on him, the first being giving him the title “Augustus,” meaning venerable one, and also “Princeps Civitatis,” which means First Citizen. 

His choice of Princeps Civitatis reflected his ruling style while in power, which was to let the Senate rule “officially” while he ran the show from the background. 

To further solidify his power through his name, Octavian would also go by Caesar Augustus, thus turning the name of his adopted father, the one that got the whole empire ball rolling, into an official title for the ruler of Rome, one used by the many emperors who followed him. In doing this, Caesar’s legacy was  guaranteed forever. 

Courting the Senate

Although Augustus was the supreme leader in Rome, there were still a lot of people who weren’t comfortable with the idea of one person having all this power.

To prevent following the path of his father, who was assassinated, Augustus officially relinquished his powers back to the Senate in 27 BC, claiming that his job of “stabilizing Rome,” was done. 

In exchange, the Senate named him supreme military commander, tribune, and censor for life, which were the three most powerful positions in the ancient Roman government. 

In this way, Augustus was able to slowly consolidate his power while maintaining the image that he was still deferring to the Senate. But all this did was allow him to strengthen his position as emperor and make it possible for him to determine the course of Rome’s future, even after he died.

Consolidating Power Across the Empire

Upon taking power, Augustus was recognized as the sole leader in Rome. But at this point in time, Rome was far more than just a city in Italy. It controlled a vast swath of territory across Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. For Augustus to keep his grip on power, he would need to find a way to increase his powers in Rome’s many territories. 

To do this, Augustus did what has always worked: he invested in his country. 

He reformed the tax system to make it more efficient, and he began building a network of roads to connect the many cities of the Roman empire. He also created a standing army and several forces designed to protect (and secure his control over) the city of Rome itself, such as the Praetorian Guard, which was a group of elite soldiers whose primary job was to protect the emperor. 

Expanding Rome and the Power of the Emperor

While it was important for Augustus to take measures to strengthen his power in the territories Rome already held, nothing says “I’m in charge” like going out and conquering even more land in the name of Rome. 

Like the many leaders of Rome before him, Augustus led his armies out from Rome in search of glory. He found it in Hispania, the region that now consists of Spain and Portugal, as well as in the French and Swiss Alps. 

These victories, along with some campaigns in northern Africa, dramatically expanded the borders of Rome and contributed significantly to Augustus’ already massive store of wealth and power. 

Establishing a Smooth Transition of Power

By stabilizing Rome after so much conflict and turmoil, establishing peace, providing for the people, and conquering new lands, Augustus had proven his effectiveness as a leader, and had shown what Rome could be under the firm control of a dictator. 

So, in 23 BC, when Augustus fell ill and almost died, Rome was suddenly faced with the question of what happens next.

As is often the case with empires,  Augustus used this as an opportunity to name his heir. His first choice was his two grandsons, Gauis Caesar and Lucius Caesar, but they both died young, in 4 and 2 AD, respectively, forcing Augustus to make another choice. 

He scanned around his family and eventually settled on Tiberius Claudius to be his successor. But the two were not related by blood. 

Instead, Tiberius became his stepson when Augustus married Tiberius’ mother. As they became closer, Augustus adopted Tiberius as his own and named him his heir. 

Augustus held on until 14 AD, but when he died, Tiberius took over as the head of the Roman state. 

The Birth of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty

Together, these two families — Julius and Cludius — would produce the first five emperors of Rome, a group collectively known as the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, or the Principate, named for the Princeps Civaatius title. 

This officially launched the first phase of Rome’s multi-century reign as the most powerful empire in the world, which would dramatically alter the course of world history and go on to shape the world we live in today.

Written by Matthew Jones