The first of the long line of Roman emperors was Octavius, called in history Augustus. He was the grandnephew of Julius Cæsar. Although he was scarcely twenty years old when Cæsar died, he was very ambitious. He often said that he should one day be at the head of the Roman Empire.
"I shall rule Rome like Cæsar," he would say to his companions. "You may laugh at me now, but the time will come when I shall be master of the Romans."
Shortly after Cæsar's death Octavius began to take an active part in political affairs. At this time Mark Antony was in control of Rome and was managing everything to suit himself. He had been an intimate friend of Cæsar and commanded one of his armies. He obtained a great deal of power, but he was not liked very much either by the nobles or the plebeians. He was a bad ruler, and nobody trusted him.
IN THE TIME OF AUGUSTUS
Once Antony tried to prevent Octavius from being elected a tribune of the people. "I will be a tribune in spite of you," Octavius said, and he set to work with all his energy to get the office. There was a severe struggle on election day, but the boy was successful.
After this Octavius hated Antony and planned in secret to bring about his downfall. And he succeeded in all he attempted to do. From a tribune he advanced steadily, step by step, to more important offices. At last he obtained command of an army and marched his soldiers to northern Italy, where a war was going on. While in this region he met Antony with his army. The two began to quarrel and at last came to blows. Then the army of Octavius fought the army of Antony, and the northern plains were reddened with the blood of the soldiers.
When the fighting had gone on for some time, Octavius sent to Antony and asked him to stop it. He pretended that he was very sorry he had begun to fight with Antony and asked for his friendship.
"Let us be friends and work together," he said to Antony. "By joining our armies we shall be able to do some good."
The fighting was then stopped, and the two generals had a meeting. They agreed to unite their armies, and to invite another Roman general, named Lepidus, who had a large army, to join them. Lepidus accepted the invitation and came to have a talk with Antony and Octavius. They agreed to a plan by which they themselves were to rule Rome together. This rule, or government, was called a triumvirate, and Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus were called triumvirs, a word which means three men.
After making all their arrangements, Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus started for Rome with their armies and took possession of the city. Then they began to kill those that they thought were their enemies. More than two thousand Romans were slain. They would have killed Brutus only that he was then in Greece, where he had gone after Cæsar's death to raise an army to fight Antony and his friends. Antony and Octavius now went with an army to Greece to fight Brutus. Both armies met at Philippi, in Macedonia, and then there was a battle in which the army of Brutus was defeated. After the battle Brutus requested one of his slaves to kill him. The slave refused, but when Brutus still pressed him to do it, he held out his sword and Brutus killed himself by falling upon it.
It is told that some time before the battle of Philippi, as Brutus was sitting one night in his tent, a vision or spectre appeared to him and said, "I am thy evil genius, Brutus; we shall meet again at Philippi." It is also said that the spectre again appeared to Brutus on the night before the battle of Philippi and told him that his death was at hand.
There was no one now to interfere with Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, and they managed everything in Rome as they liked. They pretended all the time to have great respect for the Senate and the officers of government who had been elected by the people.
After a short time Antony went to some of the Eastern countries that were a part of the Roman Empire, and Lepidus went to Africa. Octavius was left in Rome to attend to its affairs. He then began to plan to get rid of Antony and Lepidus, so that he might rule Rome himself. With this object he raised a great army and determined to make war on his rivals.
Sextus Pompey, a son of Pompey the Great, was at this time in control of the island of Sicily. He was always making trouble for Octavius, and he was aided by Lepidus, who had come from Africa to Sicily with his army. One day Octavius sailed over the Mediterranean Sea to Sicily, with thousands of soldiers, destroyed the army of Sextus, and induced the army of Lepidus to leave him. Lepidus was then taken prisoner.
"Now to put an end to the power of Antony!" said Octavius to himself, when he returned to Rome from Sicily. So he went to the Senate and accused Antony of treason in Asia and Africa and asked that war be declared against him. The Senate declared war, and Octavius began to make great preparations for it.
Antony was in Egypt when he heard of the declaration of war. He laughed scornfully at the idea of Octavius being able to beat him. Then he gathered an army of more than a hundred thousand men and a fleet of several hundred warships, and set out to meet Octavius. He had with him Cleopatra, the beautiful queen of Egypt, whom he had married, and she had a fleet of her own, numbering sixty ships.
Octavius had about as many soldiers and ships as Antony. The two fleets met near a place called Actium, on the coast of Greece, and fought a battle. For several hours the fight went on bravely, but neither side gained any great advantage. Suddenly Cleopatra sailed away with her fleet, and Antony quickly followed her with a few ships. Thus he deserted his men while they were fighting.
The sailors and soldiers of the deserted fleet kept on fighting for a short time and then surrendered to Octavius. A few days later a part of Antony's army, which was encamped on the shore near Actium, also surrendered.
Antony went back to Egypt with Cleopatra. His friends and supporters then left him, and his power was gone. Soon after, he stabbed himself, and so died. It is said that Cleopatra died from the bite of a poisonous serpent called an asp, which she placed on her arm on purpose to kill herself.
Octavius continued to fight in different parts of the Empire until he defeated every one who dared to oppose him. Then he went back to Rome with a great deal of glory and riches and let it be known at once that he intended to be the master of the government. Although he pretended to protect the rights of the people, he made himself consul and also assumed other high offices which greatly added to his power. Thousands of soldiers were at his call, and finally he became very much like a king.
The Senate asked him if he would wish to be appointed dictator for life, but he thought it wise to refuse this office. The Senate then gave him the name of Augustus, which meant that he was worthy of respect. The word augustus in the Latin language means sacred. He called himself emperor, and, as Emperor Cæsar Augustus, he ruled the Romans all the rest of his life, a period of about twenty-seven years. And when Augustus became emperor the Republic of Rome was no longer in existence.
What were known as the Prætorian Guards were organized by Augustus to protect himself and uphold his authority as emperor. These guards were about ten thousand in number, and they were composed of the most trusty soldiers of the Empire. Each soldier had high rank and large pay, and had to serve for many years. Whenever Augustus appeared in public he was attended by some of the Prætorian guards, and they looked very imposing with their handsome uniforms and glittering swords and spears.
Augustus made many good changes in the government. He very much improved the condition of the plebeians. His principal ministers were two able men named Agrippa and Mæcenas, who gave him very valuable assistance.
Whenever these wise men saw that the Romans were getting uneasy and beginning to grumble, they would advise the emperor to distribute corn or money to the poor, or to give the people grand exhibitions to amuse them. Augustus would follow the advice, and by so doing made himself very popular.
During his long reign Augustus had many splendid palaces, temples, and other buildings erected in Rome, and they made the city very beautiful. Augustus also founded cities in various parts of the empire. He encouraged literature and art and was himself an author. In his time the famous Roman poets, Horace, Vergil, Varius, and Ovid lived, and also the great historian Livy, who wrote the history of Rome from the earliest period down to his own time. Vergil was the author of a celebrated poem called the Æneid, which tells of the wanderings and adventures of the Trojan hero Æneas mentioned on page 9 of this book.
Vergil Horace Varius Mæcenas
VERGIL READING AT THE HOUSE OF MÆCENAS
It was in the reign of Augustus that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, a town of Palestine, or Judea, in Southwest Asia. Judea was then part of the Roman Empire.