Who was the First Roman Emperor?

Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, was one of history’s great leaders. He led the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire, he was a shrewd political leader and lawmaker and brought peace and stability to a city beset by war and strife. Discover the astonishing story of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor as well as the story of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

Born  in Rome on 23 September 63 BC, he was known throughout his life by various names including Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Octavian and Imperator (commander) Caesar. However he is best known as Augustus Gaius Octavius Caesar, the 1st Roman emperor.

Augustus Caesar - The Early Years

Augustus Caesar (Photo: UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images)

Augustus was born to an important and established Roman family. His father, Gaius Octavius, was a politician and his mother, Aita, was the niece of Julius Caesar. A life in politics was his destiny.

At the age of sixteen he joined the Roman army and went to Hispania – modern-day Spain – to fight alongside his great-uncle, Julius Caesar. The young man greatly impressed Caesar, so much so that he adopted the young Octavian and named him the sole heir to his personal and political fortune.

At the age of just nineteen, Octavian was thrust headfirst into the complex world of Roman politics when Caesar was assassinated. A world in which he came to rule with absolute power.

Ancient Rome’s First Emperor

Bust of Marc Anthony (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

The path to power is never easy and the route to becoming the first Roman emperor was particularly tumultuous. Politics was in his blood and like all good – and bad – emperors, Augustus astutely formed important strategic alliances and crushed his political rivals. He also defeated one-time ally Marc Antony, along with Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, at the Battle of Actium, essentially ending a brutal Roman civil war in 31 BC.

He returned to Rome a hero. He announced his victory as one for the glory of the Roman Republic and the Senate conferred upon him the name Augustus, meaning ‘lofty’ or ‘serene’. At the age of just 32 he was about to become Rome’s first emperor.

From a Republic to an Empire

Roman legionaries (Photo: Luisa Vallon Fumi via Getty Images)

A transition of this magnitude can never happen overnight, but Augustus laid the foundations. The spoils of war allowed him to pay his soldiers, thereby securing their loyalty, while he continued to promote laws which followed the traditions of the Roman Republic. However, in reality there was no ambiguity at all. With the armed forces under his direct command, Augustus wielded absolute power over all aspects of the Roman state. Not only was he the 1st Roman emperor, he was one of the greatest.

What did Augustus Caesar do for Rome?

Augustus Caesar (Photo: Pictures from History via Getty Images)

The abiding legacy of ancient Rome’s first emperor was the initiation of an era of peace and tranquility known as Pax Romana, or ‘Roman peace’. It was an age of imperialism, prosperity, expansion and single-state power known as a hegemony.

The era, also known as Pax Augusta, is said to have lasted two hundred years, with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. According to a Roman historian named Cassius Dio, the end of Pax Romana turned Rome from a ‘kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.’ But peace was not his only contribution.

Instead of conflict and civil war, there was now order. He established a police force, a fire brigade and a postal service. Alongside the establishment of a standing army, he created the Praetorian Guard, an elite unit of soldiers, bodyguards and intelligence officers specifically for the emperors of Rome.

As the first Roman emperor, Augustus passed laws to encourage marital stability and religious practices. As an officer of the state, he developed a system of taxation and built roads, baths, aqueducts and huge amphitheatres to entertain his people. His vast projects helped to urbanise provincial cities, which in turn increased trade both within Italy and throughout the ever-growing Roman empire.

He formally annexed Egypt, much of Spain and Portugal, northern Africa and vast swathes of central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By the end of his reign he governed much of the land between Britain and the far edge of Syria.

Augustus Caesar - The Family Man

Portrait of Caesar Augustus (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, married three times and his family tree is rather complicated. His first marriage to Claudia, the step-daughter of Marc Antony, ended in divorce. His second to Scribonia bore him Julia the Elder, his only natural child, and it’s believed that on the day Julia was born, he divorced Scribonia to marry Livia Drusilla.

Now, Livia Drusilla already had two sons fathered by Tiberius Claudius Nero, named Tiberius and Drusus. The family tree gets a little more complex since Augustus adopted his step-son Tiberius and named him as his successor.

The Death of Augustus Caesar

Augustus Caesar (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

Ancient Rome’s first emperor died on 19 August 14 AD and history has recorded what are said to be his famous last words.

To his close political confidantes, he said ‘Acta est fabula, plaudite’. ‘Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.’ To the people of Rome, he said ‘Marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset’. “Behold, I found Rome of clay and I leave her to you of marble.”

As a mark of respect, it was proclaimed by the Senate that Augustus, the first Roman emperor, join the pantheon of gods.

The First Christian Roman Emperor

Constantine The Great (Photo: GraphicaArtis via Getty Images)

While Augustus was the 1st Roman emperor, the first Christian Roman emperor came 333 years later. Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.

There are two accounts of why Constantine converted. The first is from Lactantius, one of his son’s teachers, who said that he saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the Greek phrase ‘en toutoi nika’, ‘In this sign, conquer.’

The second is from Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea who said he had the vision just before the famous Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, where he made his men create a new battle standard and inscribe a Christian monogram on their shields.

In the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, Constantine permanently established a religious tolerance for Christians in the Roman Empire. He also gave legal status to Christianity as well as many other religions and belief systems in the Roman Empire.

Christianity as the state church of the Roman Empire wasn’t declared until 380 in the Edict of Thessalonica.

Constantine went on to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, purporting to be the site where Jesus was crucified as well as the location of his empty tomb. It is one of the holiest sites in Christendom.

He founded Constantinople, one of the world’s great cities, known today as Istanbul in Turkey. The emperor’s new city was held in such high regard it was known as Nova Roma Constantinopolitana, the New Rome of Constantinople.

The first Christian Roman emperor, whose reign is often seen as a turning point between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, was baptised on his deathbed in 337 AD, either by Pope Sylvester I or Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian priest.


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