The 'Boy' makes waves

Octavian, the future Augustus, was born on 23 September 63 BC during the consulships of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius, father of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). Depending on the politcal stance, some accounts place this event on the prestigious Palatine Hill, others less favourably at the family’s rural estate, emphasising Octavian’s humble background. Suetonius tells us the Octaviani were famous only in ancient Velitrae. At some previous point in time, a certain Gaius Rufus had become the first Octavian to gain office by a popular vote, winning a quaestorship. His sons Gaius and Gnaeus fathered two very different branches of the family. Gnaeus’s descendants all held high office, including in 87 BC the consulship for Gnaeus Octavius (together with Lucius Cornelius Cinna, an opponent of Gaius Marius) and again in 76, and also for Lucius Octavius in the following year. Gaius’s branch, however, remained lowly equites until the entry into the Senate of Gaius Octavius, who became famous as the father of Augustus. However, death cut short his influence when his son was aged four. It was Julius Caesar who was to become the greater force in young Octavius’s life.

He evidently made a good impression on Caesar, whom he would have met at family gatherings, since he was the grandson of Caesar’s younger sister. Aged twelve, he received his first taste of public speaking at the funeral of Caesar’s daughter Julia, who had been married to Pompey. Four years later he was awarded military decorations when Caesar celebrated his African triumph over the Pompeians, although he was still too young to have seen actual service. But when Caesar went to Spain to fight Pompey’s two sons, Gnaeus and Sextus, Octavius followed with a small escort. Despite an illness, he fought his way with his men along enemy-held roads and survived a shipwreck – a spirited action that delighted Caesar. It was in Gallia Narbonensis that Octavius first met Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a junior military tribune on Caesar’s staff, who was to remain Octavius’s lifelong companion and supporter.

Caesar made his great-nephew a military tribune and, after recovering Spain from the Pompeians, sent Octavius to Apollonia in Epirus, to begin planning a war against the Parthian empire. In his spare time, Octavius studied Greek literature and continued a lengthy correspondence with his patron as Caesar pursued his reforms of the government in Rome. Octavius was nineteen when Caesar was assassinated. Since – to almost everyone’s surprise, probably including his own – he was named as Caesar’s heir in the will, he ignored his mother’s pleas to stay away from politically dangerous Rome. The will, read at Caesar’s funeral, gave the bulk of his fortune to Octavius, whom he posthumously adopted as his son. If Octavius were to refuse the adoption Decimus Junius Brutus was named in his place, which was ironical since Brutus had agreed to join the plot to kill Caesar, albeit in an insignificant way.

For Mark Antony, who had commanded Italy as Master of the Horse (magister equitum) for three years until 47 and was Caesar’s colleague in the consulship at the time of the dictator’s murder, there was nothing of consequence. This was something of a blow, since Antony had assumed to be named Caesar’s heir; and his dissolute, profligate lifestyle and political ambitions certainly required the support of Caesar’s fortune.

The problem for both the Senate and Octavius was that much of Caesar’s wealth and the loyalty of his legions were in Antony’s hands, and the surviving consul had ensured the support of the current magister equitum, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, by securing him the office of pontifex maximus left vacant by Caesar’s death. In addition he was effectively signalling his intention to assume the role of dictator. This the Senate was robustly resisting as Octavius arrived in Rome. Antony was unsurprisingly cool in his reception of ‘the boy’, as he sneeringly called him. Meanwhile, thanks to Antony playing both ends against the middle, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the most distinguished of Caesar’s assassins, had been allowed to leave Rome free men and had fled to Macedonia and Syria to begin raising a Republican army.

The underlying motive in all of Octavius’s actions was to avenge Caesar’s murder and to keep his laws and decrees in force. Unable at once to punish the leading assassins, he sought election as a tribunus plebis to give him the authority required in order to carry out his plans. Antony used his consular powers to oppose Octavius’s candidacy on the grounds that although plebeian by birth he was now an adoptive Julian, therefore a patrician and ineligible to be a tribune. Antony’s opposition drove Octavius into the hands of the Optimates who – seeking any advantage – wanted to use his name against Antony’s naked ambition.

Cicero – so opposed to the Caesarian faction – now sought to gather Caesar’s young heir into his Republican camp, and Octavius compliantly agreed to be guided in all things by the great orator. For his own part, Octavius needed Cicero’s powerful voice in his battle against Antony, but was never tricked into believing that Cicero held him in high esteem. The great man was not fooled either, and summed up senatorial feelings when he said ‘praise [Octavius], honour him, then get rid of him’.

Octavius, the boy: having lost his father when he was just four, his great-uncle Julius Caesar became a much-admired influence on him.

Augustus's autobiography is lost, but he recorded his achievements on a bronze plaque set before his mausoleum in Rome. This, too, is lost but copies exist at other sites. Regarding Caesar's assassins, Augustus is brief and to the point: 'The men who killed my father I drove into exile by strictly judicial process, and then, when they took up arms against the Republic, twice I overcame them in battle.'

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