As Rome’s first emperor, Octavian (Augustus Caesar) (63 B.C.–A.D. 14) is best known for initiating the Pax Romana, a largely peaceful period of two centuries in which Rome imposed order on a world long convulsed by conflict. His rise to power, however, was anything but peaceful.
Octavian was only 18 years old when his great-uncle Julius Caesar named him heir. After Caesar was assassinated, Octavian forged an alliance with Mark Antony, famed general under Caesar, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Together they eliminated political opponents. Antony pursued Caesar’s assassins to Greece, defeating them at Philippi in 42 B.C.
From Greece, Antony ruled Rome’s wealthy eastern provinces. But Octavian and Antony turned from allies to adversaries. Antony entered a scandalous affair with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. He had children by Cleopatra and acknowledged Julius Caesar’s son, Caesarion, as Caesar’s true heir in defiance of Octavian’s claim. Octavian denounced Antony as a man in the thrall of a foreign queen and waged war on the couple. When their fleet was defeated by the Romans at Actium in 31 B.C., Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. (Follow Mark Antony and Cleopatra's decadent love affair.)
Returning to Rome in triumph, Octavian added the title Augustus (meaning “sacred” or “exalted”) to his adopted surname, Caesar, and remained imperator for life. The vast Roman Empire, long contested by consuls and generals, was now firmly in the grasp of an emperor: Augustus Caesar.
Like Darius I of Persia, Augustus was an organizational genius; his administrative accomplishments surpassed his military feats. He calmed citizens fearful of tyranny by preserving the republic’s institutions, including the Senate. He added senators from throughout Italy and empowered them to appoint independent proconsuls to govern Roman provinces. Augustus did maintain authority over the Senate, though, and exercised his veto power. The ultimate source of Augustus Caesar’s power was the army. He confidently halved the number of legions and settled veterans in colonies, which helped Romanize distant provinces and consolidate the empire.
Notwithstanding battles in Germany and other contentious regions, Augustus initiated a tranquil era known as the Pax Romana that held sway for generations. Instead of conflict, Rome now imposed order. Lands once plundered by Roman troops became docile provinces, subject to taxation but spared devastation unless they rebelled. Trade flourished. Cities prospered as Augustus and his successors built roads, aqueducts, baths, and amphitheaters to entertain the masses. Roman engineering urbanized provincial cities, helping transform conquered subjects into complacent Roman citizens. (Read why Rome's border walls were the beginning of its downfall.)
When Augustus died in A.D. 14, he followed in his great-uncle’s footsteps one last time. For his huge contributions to Rome, he earned the posthumous title Divine Augustus.
Cleopatra, love and death
She may have beguiled two of Rome’s most powerful men, but Cleopatra, herself a feared monarch, was far more than a pretty face. Through her Ptolemaic forebears, Cleopatra was Greek, and her capital, Alexandria, was the epitome of Hellenism. She spoke Greek but showed her Egyptian roots by learning the local language and worshipping Egyptian gods. (Here's how archaeologists are searching for the true face—and the burial place—of Cleopatra.)
Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar to gain his help in reclaiming the throne from her brother Ptolemy XIII. After Caesar’s assassination, she next wooed Roman power in the form of Mark Antony. But Roman emperor Octavian brought that romance to a fatal end. Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 B.C.—purportedly via snakebite—marked the end of the Ptolemaic era in Egypt but the start of an enduring obsession with the fabled queen.
This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.