Today marks the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus on August 19, 14 AD. Augustus was Rome's first emperor and one of the most accomplished leaders in world history. He made possible the Pax Romana, a 200-year period of relative peace and prosperity that allowed the Roman empire to have a profound and lasting influence on the culture of the Europe.
Augustus was the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated in 44 BC. When Julius Caesar's will was unsealed, it named Augustus (who until 27 BC went by the name Octavian) as his heir, instantly catapulting the 18-year-old to the highest ranks of Roman politics.
It took 13 years of political maneuvering and civil war for Augustus to emerge as the undisputed ruler of Rome in 31 BC. Yet even after defeating his rivals on the battlefield, the biggest challenge was still ahead of him.
Rome's dysfunctional politics
For close to a century leading up to Caesar's death, the Roman Republic had been wracked by bitter and increasingly violent internal conflicts. Two previous generals — Sulla in 81 BC and Julius Caesar in 49 BC — had seized power and attempted to institute reforms that would end the cycle of bloodshed. But Rome returned to civil war after Sulla passed from the scene — and Caesar barely lasted 4 years before he was murdered by his political enemies.
The basic dilemma was this: the traditional structure of the Roman Republic had proven unstable, with differences increasingly settled by violent conflict rather than political means. But when Julius Caesar tried to address this, he faced a deadly backlash.
Believing that the Republic couldn't be saved, Julius Caesar had himself declared dictator for life and began flirting with kingship. This angered the powerful aristocrats in the Roman Senate. It also ran afoul of a deep taboo in Roman culture; much like the United States, Rome's founding narrative focused on the people revolting against a despotic king. So Julius Caesar's political enemies conspired to murder him.
The first citizen
Augustus was the man who finally figured out how to finesse this problem. The solution revolved around a new title he adopted: "princeps," often translated as "first citizen." Where Julius Caesar increasingly behaved like a Roman King, Augustus carefully avoided the trappings of monarchy. While consolidating power behind the scenes, he preserved much of the traditional structure of the Roman Republic.
Augustus let the Senate retain some power and made a point of consulting it on major decisions. He continued annual election of consuls, the top executives of the Roman state — though in practice they tended to be hand-picked by Augustus.
At the same time, Augustus ensured that he would maintain ultimate control. The Roman legions swore an oath of allegiance to him personally rather than individual commanders who might be leading them in the field. Augustus's vast landholdings allowed him to finance much of the Roman state with personal funds. And of course being the richest man in the empire enhanced his influence with other Roman aristocrats.
An enduring legacy
The new Roman constitution fashioned by Augustus not only allowed Augustus to rule without serious challenge for 40 years. It laid the foundation for the Pax Romana, two centuries of relative peace and stability. Augustus's constitutional reforms proved so durable that they survived several of Rome's most infamous emperors, including Caligula (37 to 41 AD) and Nero (54 to 68 AD). Indeed, so great was his influence that "Augustus" became one of the most important titles of Roman emperors.
Augustus deserves more credit than any other ruler for Rome's lasting influence on the modern world. During the Pax Romana he inaugurated, Roman culture spread throughout and beyond the Mediterranean world. Elites from Britain to the Middle East began to think of themselves as being part of a great Roman society.
Latin became common across Western Europe, and would evolve into modern Romance languages like French and Spanish. Rome's prosperity and its efficient transportation networks aided the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world.
In 800 AD, the Frankish king Charlemagne convinced the Pope to declare him Holy Roman Emperor. This Germanic empire didn't have all that much in common with its Italian namesake. But the fact that kings were still trying to recapture Rome's lost glory centuries after its demise is a sign of the profound impact Rome — and Rome's first emperor — had on European culture.