The Age of Augustus and Foundation of the Principate

Augustus’s takeover of the Roman state and the beginning of the era of emperors.

Princeps and Imperator
Peace established by Augustus
28 BCE
The Julio-Claudian dynasty

Octavian Becomes Augustus

In the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination, his great-nephew and adopted heir Octavian emerged as a key player in the ensuing power struggle.

A shrewd and calculating young man, Octavian ultimately outmaneuvered his rivals and became the first emperor of Rome. This transformation from a relatively unknown figure to the ruler of the Roman world was nothing short of remarkable.


The Battle of Actium in 31 BCE was a pivotal moment in Octavian’s rise to power, effectively ending the last vestiges of the Roman Republic. With his enemies vanquished, Octavian returned to Rome and began consolidating his power. In 27 BCE, the Senate bestowed upon him the title Augustus, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.

As Augustus, he would usher in a new era of stability and prosperity for Rome. His reign would be marked by a series of reforms and initiatives aimed at strengthening the empire and ensuring its longevity. In doing so, Augustus laid the groundwork for the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability that would last for over two centuries.

The Principate

The Principate was a new system of monarchic government created by Augustus, designed to maintain the illusion of the Roman Republic while concentrating power in the hands of the emperor. This delicate balancing act allowed Augustus to rule effectively without appearing to be a tyrant, a crucial factor in the success of his reign.


Under the Principate, the emperor held the titles of *princeps* (first citizen) and *imperator* (commander-in-chief), as well as numerous other positions and honors. This combination of roles allowed Augustus to wield considerable power, while still maintaining the facade of a republican system. The Senate, though diminished in influence, continued to function as an advisory body, providing a veneer of legitimacy to the emperor’s rule.

The Principate would endure for nearly three centuries, providing a stable framework for the governance of the Roman Empire. Its success can be attributed in large part to Augustus’ skillful manipulation of the political landscape, as well as his ability to adapt and evolve the system as needed.

Ultimately, the Principate would give way to the Dominate, a more overtly autocratic form of government, in the late 3rd century CE.

Augustus ' Reforms

Augustus’ reign was marked by a series of significant reforms that shaped the future of the Roman Empire. These changes touched upon various aspects of Roman life, including the military, taxation, and administration. By implementing these reforms, Augustus sought to strengthen the empire and ensure its long-term stability.


In the military, Augustus restructured the Roman legions, creating a standing army that was both professional and loyal to the Emperor. This new military force allowed Rome to maintain its vast territories and protect its borders more effectively. Additionally, Augustus established the Praetorian Guard, an elite unit tasked with protecting the Emperor and maintaining order in the capital.

Augustus also introduced important changes to the Roman taxation system, implementing a more efficient and equitable method of collecting revenue. This allowed the empire to fund its military and public works projects more effectively, contributing to the overall prosperity of Rome.

In terms of administration, Augustus divided the empire into provinces, appointing governors to oversee each region and ensure the smooth functioning of the imperial bureaucracy.

The Augustan Age

The Augustan Age was a golden age of Roman literature and art, marked by a flourishing of creative expression and intellectual activity. This period saw the emergence of some of Rome’s most celebrated writers, including Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, whose works continue to be read and admired to this day.

Under Augustus’ patronage, these poets and other artists were encouraged to celebrate the ideals of the Roman Empire, extolling the virtues of peace, order, and stability. This emphasis on cultural achievement served to bolster Augustus’ image as a wise and benevolent ruler, further legitimizing his reign.

While poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid largely endorsed the Principate through their odes, satires, and epic poetry, they also delivered some veiled and limited criticisms to Augustus, regarding the danger of dictatorial power.


In addition to literature, the Augustan Age witnessed a boom in architectural and artistic endeavors. The city of Rome was transformed, with the construction of grand monuments, temples, and public buildings.

The Ara Pacis

The Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, was a monument dedicated to the peace established by Augustus. Commissioned in 13 BCE and completed in 9 BCE, the Ara Pacis was a testament to the Pax Augusta and the emperor’s commitment to maintaining harmony within the empire.


The monument itself is a stunning example of Augustan art and architecture, featuring intricate reliefs and sculptures that depict scenes of Roman history, mythology, and daily life. Among these images are depictions of Augustus and his family, emphasizing the role of the imperial household in promoting peace and stability.

The Ara Pacis remains an enduring symbol of the Augustan Age, a testament to the emperor’s vision of a peaceful and prosperous Rome. Today, the gleaming white monument can be viewed in a specially designed museum in Rome, allowing visitors to appreciate its artistic and historical significance.

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti

The *Res Gestae Divi Augusti*, or “The Achievements of the Divine Augustus”, was an account of Augustus’ accomplishments written by the emperor himself. This autobiographical work was intended to serve as a record of his deeds and a testament to his legacy.

The *Res Gestae* provides a fascinating insight into Augustus’ perspective on his own reign, highlighting his military victories, political achievements, and contributions to Roman society. The document also emphasizes the emperor’s piety and his role as a protector of the Roman people.


The *Res Gestae* was inscribed on bronze tablets and displayed in various locations throughout the empire, ensuring that Augustus’ achievements would be remembered for generations to come. Today, the text remains a valuable primary source for historians studying the life and reign of Rome’s first emperor, although it was a piece of imperial propaganda.

The Death and Mausoleum of Augustus

The Mausoleum of Augustus was the tomb of the first Roman Emperor, a grand and imposing structure located in the heart of Rome. It is the largest circular tomb in the world.

Constructed in 28 BCE as one of Augustus’s first projects after his victory at Actium, the mausoleum was intended to serve as a lasting monument to Augustus and his family, reflecting the grandeur and prestige of the imperial dynasty.


The circular structure, with its concentric rings of earth and masonry, was an architectural marvel of its time. At its center, a burial chamber was designed to house the ashes of Augustus and his relatives, including his wife Livia and, ultimately, his successors.

Augustus died of natural causes in 14 CE, at age 75, after a prosperous and transformative reign of about 45 years, and was buried in the Mausoleum.

Over the centuries, the Mausoleum of Augustus fell into disrepair, with much of its original splendor lost to time. However, recent restoration efforts have sought to preserve and protect this important piece of Roman history.

The Augustan Succession

The Augustan succession established a hereditary system for the Roman Empire, ensuring a smooth transfer of power from one emperor to the next. Augustus, aware of the potential for instability following his death, reluctantly chose his stepson Tiberius to be his heir, setting the stage for the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


This decision was not without controversy, as Augustus had initially favored his grandsons Gaius and Lucius to succeed him. However, their untimely deaths forced the emperor to reconsider his plans, ultimately settling on the experienced and capable Tiberius.

The Augustan succession would have far-reaching implications for the Roman Empire, as it established a precedent for dynastic rule that would persist for centuries. While this system provided a measure of stability, it also led to the rise of some of Rome’s most notorious emperors, including Caligula and Nero.

Augustus' Legacy

Augustus’ legacy shaped the future of the Roman Empire in countless ways, from his political and military reforms to his patronage of the arts, which established Rome as a cultural force to rival ancient Greece. His reign marked a turning point in Roman history, as the Republic gave way to the Empire, and the Pax Romana began.

Augustus’ vision of a strong, stable, and prosperous Rome served as a guiding principle for future emperors, shaping the course of the empire for centuries to come. His political skill, patience and efficiency enabled him to settle Rome after a tumultuous period of civil unrest, conflict and deep political divisions.

Overall, Augustus’ reign was characterized by transformation and renewal. Like Caesar, Augustus was deified and worshipped by later generations of Romans.

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