Gaius Octavius (63 BC – 14 AD), known to history as Augustus Caesar or just plain Augustus, was Rome’s first emperor. He was 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 his grand-nephew into public life and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies when his grand-uncle was assassinated in 44 BC.
When he returned to Italy, he learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager, and Cicero, one of Rome’s chief elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him. As he quipped, he would “raise, praise, then erase” the young man.
While everybody 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. When Octavius secured a military force under his command, Cicero’s faction sought the young man’s aid. They 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 got 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. They then exacted a terrible revenge upon their foes with the launch of a massive purge that executed thousands of opponents, actual and suspected, including Cicero. Next, they went after Julius Caesar’s assassins and defeated them in a final battle. Octavius and Antony then swore friendship, sealed the bargain with the marriage of Antony and Octavius’ sister, and divided the Roman Empire. Antony was given the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.
In Egypt, Mark Antony fell in love with Cleopatra, married her, and abandoned Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated decisively in 31 BC. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces and brought the entire Roman Empire under his control. Octavius then reorganized the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. The result was a century of chaos and bloodshed until the reins were taken by Octavius, whom the Senate granted the honorific “Augustus”.
In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy. He inaugurated a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity. He held supreme power in the Roman world from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. Comparing the role he had to play as emperor to the theater, Augustus’ final words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.
To come up with defiant final words against tyranny and oppression while at death’s door is badass. Then there is shouting defiance against tyranny and oppression while the oppressive tyrant’s noose is around one’s neck type of daring, which takes things to another level. Stjepan Filopivic managed to pull off the latter in World War II, when he shouted to a gathered crowd “Death to fascism! Freedom to the people!” with a Nazi noose around his neck. They were his final words on earth, just a split second before his execution.
Stjepan Filipovic was a Croatian who was born in 1916 in what became Yugoslavia after World War I. He left home when he was sixteen-years-old, and got a job as a metalworker. In 1937, he joined the local workers’ movement and became an activist member. He was arrested for political activity and was sentenced to a year in jail. His time behind bars only served to further radicalize him, and upon his release in 1940, he joined the Communist Party. He was radicalized even further when Germany invaded and conquered Yugoslavia in 1941.
Stjepan Filipovic volunteered to join the partisan resistance against the Nazi occupiers, and he was posted to a guerrilla unit near Valjevo, in today’s Serbia. He was given responsibility for recruitment and for weapons supplies, excelled in his duties, and showed significant promise. Between that and conspicuous daring, he rose to command an entire partisan battalion by the end of 1941. However, he was captured by the Nazis in February 1942, and was sentenced to be publicly hanged in Valjevo’s town square. At death’s door, Stjepan Filipovic had the courage and presence of mind to seize the moment and defy his captors during his final seconds on earth.
Atop the gallows, and with the hangman’s noose around his neck, Filipovic daringly thrust his hands in the air and struck a dramatic pose that was captured on camera. He urged the gathered crowd to continue the struggle against the Nazi oppressors and their Yugoslav collaborators, and cried out just before he was hanged: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” It was a preexisting partisan slogan, and Filipovic’s martyrdom helped popularize it. After the war, Filipovic was designated a national hero of Yugoslavia. A monumental statue was erected in Valjevo in his honor, replicating his Y-shaped pose in an artistic rendition reminiscent of a Goya painting.
4. The Well-Named Spiller of Blood Was the First to Feast Atop the Bodies of Defeated Enemies
As seen above, the Mongols had feasted over the still-living bodies of defeated Rus and Cuman commanders after the Battle of Kalka River in 1223. However, that was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate. Such a ghoulish mode of celebration seems to have been pioneered by the first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754). Nicknamed Al Saffah (“Spiller of Blood” – a well-earned nickname), he feasted atop the bodies of his foes after he defeated and displaced the Ummayad Dynasty as Caliphs.
Al Saffah had initiated a revolt against the Ummayads and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could get his hands on. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and 80 surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. It turned out to be their final meal. Al Saffah had them seized, stabbed, covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs, then sat down and bade other guests join him in a feast as the dying Ummayads writhed beneath them.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian (9 – 79 AD), was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus in an unremarkable village named Falacrinae, northeast of Rome. He hailed from a relatively comfortable but otherwise undistinguished family without pedigree, of the equestrian class – the second of the property-based classes of ancient Rome, that ranked below the senatorial class. His ancestors included a common legionary who went on to become a centurion, a debt collector, and a small-scale money lender with a clientele of barbarians.
Vespasian rose from his humble origins to become emperor of Rome and found the Flavian Dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire for three decades. A self-made man, he entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune, and steadily rose through its military and civilian positions. His first big break came during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when he displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and won the esteem of Emperor Claudius. That led to a consulship, but he displeased Claudius’ wife, and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
2. Vespasian Transformed the Year of the Three Emperors Into the Year of the Four Emperors
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Emperor Claudius’ death, and won favor with his successor, Nero. His restored career was derailed, however, when he fell asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Things got so bad for Vespasian that he was forced to become a muleteer to make ends meet. His fortunes revived when he was appointed to suppress the Jewish Rebellion in 67 AD, and he was busily engaged in that when Nero was forced from power and driven to suicide in 68.
In the subsequent scramble for power, rival governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession. By April of 69, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian reasoned why not four? He secured support in the Roman east, then declared himself emperor and sent his forces to Rome. By year’s end, his armies had triumphed, and won a final victory that secured the Empire for Vespasian. His rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program.
1. This Emperor’s Final Words Were Wholly in Character
Vespasian had a reputation for wit and amiability. As emperor, he seldom stood on ceremony, but cultivated a blunt and even coarse mannerism, and was given to forthright speech. He never forgot his origins and resisted the temptation to put on airs to which most Roman emperors succumbed. One of his revenue-raising schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. His son and designated heir took him to task for that and argued that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta.
In response, Vespasian held a coin beneath his son’s nose and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson with the statement: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb. Vespasian’s final words were in line with his character. Starting with Julius Caesar, who was declared a god after his assassination, Roman emperors who died in good repute were deified after death. When he felt the end nearing 79 AD, Vespasian, in a final illustration of a lifelong penchant for not taking himself too seriously, joked just before he drew his last breath: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading