After Defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus Repeated Pompey’s Wholesale Kingmaking
Following his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, Gaius Octavius, better known to history as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), acted as kingmaker in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rulers from the Nile in Egypt to the shores of the Black Sea were confirmed, deposed, or installed, as reward or punishment for their stances during the recently concluded conflict. Herod the Great, mentioned in the New Testament as having ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, was among the kings whose fates were decided by Augustus.
Octavius had been born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand uncle launched him into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. He was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
Returning to Italy, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. However, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will, while Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager. Cicero, an elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him, quipping that he would “raise, praise, then erase” Octavius.
All underestimated Octavius. He paid for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity, and wooed Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. Cicero’s faction sought Octavius’ aid, bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius compelled the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.
He then double crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power sharing dictatorship. The duo then launched a massive purge that executed thousands of suspected opponents, including Cicero. They then went after Caesar’s assassins, defeating them, and exacting revenge. The duo swore friendship, sealing the bargain with Antony wedding Octavius’ sister. They then divided the Roman empire, with Antony ruling the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.
Things soured when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, and married her, abandoning Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated in 31 BC,. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, finally bringing the entire Roman empire under his control. Following his victory, Octavius engaged in a round of kingmaking in the Eastern Mediterranean, nearly as extensive as that of Pompey the Great a generation earlier.
Octavius then ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire, and led to a century of chaos and bloodshed. For restoring peace, the Senate granted Octavius the honorific “Augustus”, by which he would be known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy. It kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity
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