Octavian’s Reign: How Rome’s First Emperor Thwarted Assassination

From the lecture series: The Roman Empire — From Augustus to the Fall of Rome,

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Octavian’s reign was focused on consolidating power while at the same time maintaining the illusion that he did not have the absolute control that characterized a monarchy.

Marble statue of Octavian displayed at the Chiaramonti Museum, Braccio Nuovo (New Wing).
(Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Getting to Know Octavian the Man

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the man who defeated all rivals to become the sole ruler of the Roman world, and went on to become the first Roman emperor under the name Augustus, is certainly one of the most important and influential people in all of Roman history.

When studying renowned figures, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that they were also human beings by focusing on impressive achievements. Let’s consider what is known about Octavian the man.

Some specific details survive regarding his appearance. Although his body was well-proportioned, at less than 5 foot 7 inches tall, he was self-conscious about his height.

Because of this, Octavian habitually wore sandals that were constructed with extra-thick soles to make himself appear taller. The hair on his head was yellowish and curly, and his eyebrows met above his nose, giving him a unibrow.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus

He was plagued throughout his life by a sickly constitution, and he suffered from recurrent kidney stones. In old age, his teeth became badly decayed and he lost many of them.

What of his habits? We know that Octavian took great pleasure in gambling and dice games, but was an abstemious drinker, rarely having more than three cups of water mixed with wine at dinner. He preferred to eat modest, simple foods, and dressed in unostentatious clothes sewn by the female members of his family.

He enjoyed collecting rarities and possessed an assemblage of dinosaur bones. At the time, these were thought to be the remains of giants and mythological monsters. He was a superstitious man, always carrying around on his body a piece of seal skin as a magic amulet that would protect him from thunderstorms.

He believed that if he started a long journey in light rain, this would guarantee a speedy return. Conversely, if he accidentally put his right foot into his left shoe when getting out of bed in the morning, he viewed it as a bad omen.

In his speech, Octavian was known to employ several unusual expressions, such as “quicker than asparagus can be cooked,” to mean doing something quickly, or “Let us be content with this Cato,” to mean to be satisfied with what one currently has.

Even the all-powerful ruler of the Roman world fretted about his appearance, had ordinary hobbies, and possessed idiosyncratic mannerisms.

Earning the Romans’ Respect

The greatest challenge now facing Octavian was how to permanently consolidate power in a way that would be palatable to the Romans. To learn some behaviors to avoid, he looked to the negative model of his immediate predecessor, Julius Caesar, who had been in a similar position of one-man rule.

A statue of the first Roman Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC - 14 AD) as a younger Octavian, this sculpted artwork dated to around 30 BC.
Octavian biggest challenge was to consolidate power in a way that would avoid his assassination. (Image: Unknown – Santo Attilio, Augusto, Milano 1902/Public domain)

From Caesar’s example, Octavian knew he could not act arrogantly, openly disrespect the Senate nor show contempt for the traditional institutions of the republic. He could not monopolize offices like the consulship, and above all, he had to avoid appearing too much like a king.

Caesar had done all of these things and the result had been his assassination.

On January 13, 27 B.C., at a meeting of the Senate, Octavian began revealing his response to this challenge. He theatrically announced that he was returning all of his accumulated power to the Senate and people of Rome.

In what was likely a prearranged performance, he was then reluctantly persuaded to retain control over a few of the provinces—Syria, Gaul, Cilicia in Asia Minor, Egypt, and the two provinces of Hispania. But even these he did not rule directly; instead, he delegated his power to legates who acted as the governors of these regions.

He had already held a number of consecutive consulships and continued to do so for a few more years, but most of the government offices, including the majority of the provincial governorships, were filled in the traditional way: through an election or with candidates chosen by the Senate.

Learn more about how Octavian achieved what Julius Caesar could not

Octavian’s Clever Strategy for Wielding Power

While on the surface appeared he was surrendering power, the reality was quite different. It was no coincidence that the handful of provinces that remained under Octavian’s direct control were precisely those which contained the overwhelming majority of the Roman army.

Under this arrangement, fully 23 of Rome’s 28 legions were commanded by men who had been handpicked by Octavian, and whose allegiance lay first and foremost with him.

Often, ultimate power in a state resides with the person or institution that commands the loyalty of the troops. The creation of these so-called imperial provinces ensured that, if it came to the use of open force, Octavian would be the victor.

Portrait of Augustus created ca. 20–30 BC; the head does not belong to the statue, dated middle 2nd century AD.
Octavian as a magistrate. (Image: Photograph by ChrisO7/Public domain)

Thus, military power formed one leg of the structure that supported Octavian’s new system of government. A second had already been implemented in 30 B.C. when he arranged for the Senate to bestow upon him the powers of a tribune, but not the office of tribune itself.

The tribuneship was one of the traditional offices in the Roman government, and 10 of these magistrates were elected by the citizen body every year. Among their important powers was the ability to convene the citizen voting assembly, propose new legislation to it, and the power to effectively veto almost any government act or law.

Tribunes also enjoyed a special sanctity in Roman culture intended to protect them from harm when in the performance of their duties.

In 29 B.C., in addition to the tribunician power, Octavian was granted the power of censor. Censors in the Roman republican government not only had the responsibility to conduct the census but also to revise the list of citizens and to add or remove individuals from the rolls based on various criteria, including a subjective assessment of their supposed moral character.

Octavian would eventually amass the powers of additional magistracies until it would not be an exaggeration to say the powers he collectively wielded equaled those of the entire state.

This strategy of being granted the powers of certain offices, but, crucially, not the offices themselves, was a brilliant innovation. It meant that, on a day-to-day basis, it appeared as if everything was business as usual in the Roman Republic.

Learn more about the five good emperors

Octavian’s Reign: Maintaining an Illusion

The people continued to elect officials, as they had done for centuries, and those officials exercised power and seemed to run the government. Yet, lurking behind this superficially republican system was Octavian.

If anything happened that he did not like, he could pop up and exercise one of his many powers to arrange matters to his satisfaction.

However, the very fact he was not one of the official magistrates at any given time and was not constantly seen wielding power, had the practical effect of lulling people into believing that he was not really in control.

To modern observers, this may seem a tenuous fiction for the Romans to have bought into; but for a people weary of decades of brutal civil strife, it was a falsehood that they were willing to accept.

Learn more about how Rome fell apart under Tiberius and then Caligula

The policy had the additional benefit that Octavian was not monopolizing the higher offices of government; therefore, Roman aristocrats could go on competing with one another for them as they always had, and perhaps convince themselves that the structure of the Roman Republic still existed.

Common Questions About Octavian’s Reign

Q: Was Octavian’s father in politics?

Octavian‘s father was Julius Caesar, who was a dictator of Rome and dismantled the Republic to create the Roman Empire.

Q: What was Octavian’s title?

Octavian was awarded by the Senate the title of Augustus, an honorific he ruled under.

Q: Is Octavian considered to have been a tyrant?

Octavian is thought to have been a tyrant by some, even after all of the good he did. This matter is not unanimously agreed upon by all scholars.

Q: What good did Octavian do?

Octavian was the first Roman emperor and contributed considerable infrastructure and public works to Rome. He created a solid postal system as well as extensive roads and schools. Additionally, he was successful financially, militarily, and generally well-liked among Romans.

This article was updated on December 9, 2019

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About Kate Findley 167 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.