Unpacking the Titles of Augustus: Wordplay and Double Meanings

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

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

What’s in a name? A lot, as we discover when exploring the many titles of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.

The Roman emperor Augustus as pontifex maximus, with his head veiled for a sacrifice, National Museum of Rome.
(Image: Unknown – Santo Attilio, Augusto, Milano 1902/Public domain)

Octavian’s Title: The Importance of a Label

When Octavian assumed leadership of Rome, his primary goal was not to be assassinated like his predecessor Julius Caesar had been. Thus, he focused on consolidating power while at the same time maintaining the illusion that he did not have the absolute control of a king.

One strategy was to give up control of government offices through an election, or else with candidates chosen by the Senate. However, the handful of provinces that remained under Octavian’s direct control were precisely those which contained the overwhelming majority of the Roman army.

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

An additional leg supporting Octavian’s settlement concerned the difficult question of finding a name or title to call himself. While his position was monarchical in reality, he obviously could not openly label himself as a king.

Octavian briefly considered taking the name Romulus after the legendary founder of Rome, but rejected this idea because Romulus himself had been a king. That association would have been too close for comfort.

Julius Caesar’s response to this issue had been to adopt the title of “Dictator for Life.” While the office of dictator had indeed existed during the republic, it had been strictly limited to a six-month term. Thus, to create a Dictator for Life was to directly contradict the most fundamental characteristic of the original office and was too equivalent to being a king.

To solve this vexatious dilemma, Octavian turned to his facility at propaganda and devised a remarkably clever solution. Being innovative, it gave the appearance of simply following established traditions.

What he did was to take on not just one name or title, but a plethora of them, each of which individually didn’t seem that intimidating or autocratic, but which collectively bestowed unprecedented status and prestige upon him.

Additionally, all of these names or titles either had republican precedents or were based on long-standing cultural concepts, so that it appeared Octavian was respectful of tradition, even if, in his version, these same terms took on additional or novel meanings.

Learn more about Octavian and the dawn of the Roman Empire

What Does “Augustus” Mean?

One of the most interesting of these was the title of Augustus, bestowed upon Octavian by a vote of the Senate after his supposed abdication of power in 27 B.C. Again, he had probably arranged behind the scenes for this to happen, but he could publicly claim the Senate had spontaneously granted him this title in gratitude for his actions.

Ancient Roman statue of Emperor Augustus as Jove (i.e. Jupiter), first half of the 1st century AD
Ancient Roman statue of Emperor Augustus as Jove. (Image: Photography by I, Sailko/Public domain)

The term Augustus was a traditional one that had an interesting, ambiguous set of meanings related to religion. On the one hand, to describe someone as “augustus” simply indicated that he was a deeply pious individual who was filled with respect for the gods.

On the other, to label someone as “augustus” implied that he was holy or deserving of religious veneration.

The duality of this term—somehow projecting modesty while also singling out its object as nearly a divine being—is typical of the extraordinary facility that Octavian possessed for manipulating words and images to promote himself and his reign.

It has become a convention for historians, when describing the career of this man, to refer to him as Octavian during the first stage of his life up to 27 B.C., but then to switch to calling him Augustus once he had effectively become the sole ruler of the Roman world. Following this practice as well, he will now be referred to as Augustus.

Learn more about Augustus’ incredible success as Rome’s first emperor

Layered Meanings in the Titles of Augustus

Augustus also began to use the honorific princeps civitatis, which roughly translates as “the first citizen.” Like the word augustus, this term embodies contradictory meanings that can be viewed alternately as expressions of modesty or self-aggrandizement.

On the surface, by labeling himself as the “princeps,” Augustus seemed to be stressing his identity as an ordinary Roman citizen. However, the term suggested that he was not merely a citizen, but the first citizen, hinting at a special or elevated status.

Bust of Augustus, wearing Civic Crown
Augustus chose many names, each highlighting a different component of his power. (Image: Photograph by user Bibi Saint-Pol/Public domain)

Occasionally, princeps is translated into English as the phrase “the first among equals,” an inherently oxymoronic construction that nicely captures its dual nature. Princeps is the root of the English word “prince,” and the form of government that Augustus established is sometimes referred to as “the Principate.”

One title Augustus adopted had old republican precedents: This was the term “imperator.” It had long been the custom for a general to be hailed with shouts of “Imperator!” after a notable battlefield victory, but Augustus took on this originally spontaneous acclamation as a permanent part of his formal name. It is from the Latin term imperator that the modern English words “emperor” and “empire” are derived.

While the word “augustus” associated him with religion, the title imperator emphasized his role as a successful military leader. When we speak of Roman emperors, we are picking one of their many titles and using it as a shorthand for all of them.

Finally, Augustus also had bestowed upon himself the title Pater Patriae, meaning “Father of the Country.” While the translation of this title is straightforward, once again, its connotations are more complex.

One stereotype associated with fathers is that they love and protect their children. Giving Augustus the title of “Father of the Country” seems like a warm and fuzzy acknowledgment that he cared deeply about his metaphorical children, the Roman people.

However, in Roman culture, the father was a figure of enormous authority and dignity who wielded absolute power over the members of his family—up to and including the ability to sell his children into slavery, or even to kill them.

Thus, Octavian’s inspired solution to the dilemma of what to call himself was to take no single name or title, but instead to conceal his power behind a host of them, none of which individually seemed excessive, but each of which highlighted a different component of his power.

All of these terms became not only parts of his title but components of his actual name. Subsequent emperors would follow his lead and call themselves by the same constellation of terms.

Learn more about Augustus’s use of propaganda

Augustus’s Behavior: A Display of Modesty

The fourth and final component of his successful solution to the challenge of how to rule Rome as one man, centered around his behavior. In this realm, he was thinking of the animosity Julius Caesar had provoked by his arrogant and autocratic manner; thus, Augustus made a great show of trying to demonstrate his modesty.

Rather than living in a lavish palace, he inhabited a house of modest size; rather than wearing jewels or ornate robes, he dressed in a simple toga, like every other citizen; rather than indulging in extravagant feasts, he dined on ostentatiously simple foods, like a Roman farmer; rather than lording it over the members of the aristocracy, he treated senators with respect and courtesy.

Content with possessing real power, he did not see the need for luxuriating in its superficial trappings. Augustus’ calculatedly unpretentious behavior helped to sustain the fiction that he was not, in fact, an absolute monarch—and it worked.

Learn more about the hazards of life in ancient Rome

Whereas Julius Caesar had been assassinated after only a few years, Augustus enjoyed a long reign of almost half a century, and ultimately died of natural causes.

Common Questions About the Titles Augustus Held

Q: What was the meaning of the title Augustus?

The title Augustus was an honorific which meant “exalted” or “venerable;” however, it was clever in that it also held both modest and saintly religious meanings, which endowed Augustus with a near saintly image while still being modest and humble.

Q: What all titles did Augustus hold?

The titles Augustus held were many, including Divi Filius, Princeps Senatus,  and Pontifex Maximus, with his official title becoming Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus.

Q: What was the meaning of Augustus’ title Pontifex Maximus?

Augustus absorbed the title of Pontifex Maximus as it was the ultimate ruling title, indicating both religious and political power over ancient Rome. Julius Caesar had originally held the title, but as Augustus claimed the title for the newly formed Empire, or Imperium, the full extent of powers it conveyed became mostly political.

Q: Did the title of Augustus make Octavian a god?

Octavian’s title Augustus had a distinctly religious connotation as it was applied to deities. Augustus wanted to be seen as a god and after his death was included in the Roman pantheon.

This article was updated on December 10, 2019

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About Kate Findley 73 Articles
Kate is a freelance writer, novelist, and blogger living in L.A. She has been writing for the Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.