19 August 14 AD: RIP Emperor Augustus

As anyone could probably guess, the month of August is named after Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (44BC-AD14).

The son of a senator, he was born Gaius Octavius – but he was also the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who named him as his adopted son and successor. Augustus became the first emperor of what is known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The others emperors belonging to this dynasty or family are Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero – all heavyweights in the pantheon of Roman emperors – and all notorious.

There is speculation that Augustus was poisoned by his third wife, Livia Drusilla – while others say he simply died of old age: he was 75 when he died, so a good age for a man with a dangerous job.

Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome by Ethan Doyle White, Wikipedia
Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome (Image Ethan Doyle White, Wikipedia)

Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome (Image Ethan Doyle White, Wikipedia)

Augustus is buried in Rome and his tomb is inside the Mausoleum of Augustus, which he constructed himself in 28BC. The monument has undergone restoration in recent years but its opening to the public has been hampered by COVID. You can view it from the windows of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Peace of Augustus, or Altar of Augustan Peace), which is just across the street.

Augustus assured the family dynasty – but like his great-uncle Julius, he had no male heir and so his stepson and ex-son-in-law Tiberius succeeded him. The dynasty lasted until AD68, with Nero being the final emperor of the dynasty.

Emperor Tiberius

Tiberius (Image Wikipedia)

Learning from history – the legacy of Emperor Augustus

Today we all have enough to challenge us without taking a moment to mourn the passing of Rome’s first emperor on 19 August – but when we look back through history at the trials and tribulations people faced and how they dealt with them, it is easy to see that, although we may feel we are being uniquely challenged, our predecessors were no different.

Augustus was a military leader and his reign marked a succession of wars, which he conducted ruthlessly. His one-time ally and colleague Mark Antony committed suicide after being defeated by Augustus in 31BC at the Battle of Actium.  Mark Antony’s lover, the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, followed suit shortly afterwards rather than submit to Augustus’ victory.

Augustus expanded the Roman Empire as far as Africa, annexed Egypt and conquered parts of Eastern Europe before coming up against the Germanic tribes. Much of what he did we would not condone today – it would be against our modern-day beliefs and sensibilities; but he laid the foundations of the Roman Empire that bequeathed to us so much of our world today, including introducing public services like firefighters and the police, which he established.

If we complain that police today are too rigorous in carrying out their duties, you can imagine what they must have been like in Ancient Rome.

Augustus created the civil police – called the cohortes urbanae – as a counterbalance to the Praetorian Guard, which wielded immense power and was also an intelligence gathering agency. The cohortes urbanae were controlled by the urban prefect and would be charged with investigating crimes such as robbery and theft. Public drunkenness in Ancient Rome was also frowned on, so DUI in charge of a chariot might also fall under their remit!

Therefore, some of the systems we now take for granted in our daily lives actually date from Ancient Rome. In the UK, it was Sir Robert Peel who established the police force, but not until 1829.

Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome (Image A. Meredith 2019)

The reign of Emperor Augustus eventually initiated two centuries of peace – and he built the Ara Pacis Augustae to mark this.

If we have a moment to spare to give a nod to Augustus on the anniversary his death, it may also serve to remind us that, however challenging life is, all things must pass – 2,006 years following the death of the Roman Empire’s first emperor, we are still here, battling through and still challenging the law and the aspects of society we feel are unjust, just as the Ancient Romans did.

RIP Augustus – with the hour came the man.

Augustus Bevilacqua Glyptothek, Munich

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