The rise of Octavian owed more to luck, and the mistakes of his enemies, rather than his own political abilities
Octavian’s famous claim that he ‘found Rome a brick and left it as marble1’ is by no means unfounded. It is true that under his reign, Rome grew steadily towards peace and prosperity unlike ever before. But was his eventual ascension to leadership brought about by his own political abilities, or was it more to do with the mistakes of his enemies?
Octavian has always maintained the mantle of being ‘delicate in health2’ to some affect and in his youth he was said to have ‘scarcely recovered from a dangerous sickness3’, and it has been rightfully said that he was not known for ‘grand feats of arms4,’ but it seems very hard to deny that he was, in his own right, a masterful statesman. Of course, when he inherited three-quarters his great uncle’s estate, as well as his name, it is easy to forget that Octavian was not yet even 20 years of age.
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The explanation for this is because before Octavian reached that age, in very little time he seemed to achieve more than any other man did so in the Roman era. But to what can this be attributed to? It is true that Marc Antony certainly seemed to expect that Julius would nominate him as heir to his name and estate, for he was even spending Caesar’s fortune before the will had been published. Antony himself was already a popular and proven soldier by this time – ‘his reputation… as the greatest in the army5’, and he was favoured by Caesar, so it may have seemed strange to some, certainly at the time, that Caesar should nominate his relatively unknown great nephew. Perhaps it was Antony’s penchant for gambling, or maybe Caesar thought Antony was too similar to himself, but whatever the reason, Caesar must have spotted something in his young great nephew that prompted him to make him his son and heir upon death. So was Antony’s reputation as a gambler his first mistake? For if that put Caesar off in some way, then it only left an opening for Octavian to claim his place as a Caesar.
Alternatively, on the few occasions that Caesar and Octavian met, Octavian had obviously won the favour of his uncle, whom had him ‘honoured with several military awards… in his African triumph, although he [Octavian] took no part. 6’ Of course, an easier explanation may have been the Roman’s obsession with family, and Caesar chose the boy over Antony because he simply wanted to keep most of the inheritance in the family. Despite Octavian’s well-documented shortcomings as a soldier, his boldness upon hearing of his great uncle’s death cannot be denied.
He crossed Italy, determined to bring justice to those who had assassinated his relative, and all this before he even knew of his inheritance. Despite his intentions however, ‘his honour and interest were concerned in revenging the murder of his uncle, 7’ upon arrival Cassius and Brutus had wisely left Italy, but Antony was still in Rome, displaying his uncanny knack for offending the senate to such an extent that Cicero was said to have commented ‘at times one could wish Caesar back, 8’ such was his disfavour with Antony.
Antony only worsened his situation by refusing to grant Octavian what was rightfully his, so disgruntled at Caesar’s snub of himself. ‘Antony… treated him injuriously both in word and deed. 9’ This proved to be Antony’s second mistake, as it forced ‘the young Caesar into applying himself to Cicero. ‘ Antony left Rome for Cisalpine Gaul, intending to claim it from Brutus, but the senate instructed Brutus to hold out against Antony, but time was running short, as Antony had a substantial army behind him. It was at this point Octavian was given consulship, along with 2 others, and instructed to dispose of Antony by Cicero.
It was done in due course, and Antony fled after two battles, but in a strange twist of luck for Octavian, both of the consuls he had been joined with died from resultant battle wounds, effectively handing him the entire consular armies. Of course, Seutonius is quick to mention that shortly afterwards, ‘a report was circulated that they (Hirtius and Pansa) both were killed through his means [Octavian’s] 10’ Although it was only a rumour it is interesting in that it could be another example of Octavian’s cold hearted ruthlessness.
So Octavian returned victorious, not only with two of Antony’s legions but with the entire consular armies. Yet the senate decided that if Antony had been rid of so easily, they no longer required Octavian’s services. They offered him post of praetor, but Octavian would not accept it. To take such a step down at this stage with little argument from Octavian was unlikely to happen. To greaten the insult, Brutus was handed a triumph and the consular armies, something Octavian was highly agitated about, considering Brutus was one of those responsible for Caesar’s assassination.
He marched on Rome with his own legions, for now he had Caesar’s financial resources as his adoption was officially recognised, and was thus able to fund such conquests. The senate had no choice, and he was promptly elected consul suffectus. So far it seemed that Octavian, for all his alleged inexperience, was making good on his ‘father’s’ instinct to appoint him as heir. As it has been mentioned, there is no doubt that Octavian was on the receiving end of some tremendous good fortune. Antony had already earned disfavour with the senate, and seemed to no longer be a reckoning force.
Octavian was certainly fortunate that the senate turned to him for aid, and even more fortunate that they appointed him consul as a bargaining chip. However, despite the luck and misfortune of his enemies, Octavian showed he had clear intentions and aspirations of greatness, yet he would not wait for them to happen his way, rather he would make sure he seized them as soon as he saw the opportunity. Despite their earlier quarrels however, both Antony and Octavian seemed to have the same intentions when it concerned Caesar.
Both wanted to avenge his death, and Antony already shown this previously, but on that occasion Brutus had had the defence of both the senate and the consular armies. Nevertheless, he had joined forces with Caesar veteran Lepidus, and two other generals loyal to the dead dictator. Cicero’s reaction was to promptly label both Lepidus and Antony outlaws. But Octavian dispelled this label, and decided to join forces with the two to form the Second Triumvirate. With 43 legions between them, their power was unquestionable, and the senate had little choice but to take the back seat.
But the three took it further, and drew up a list of 300 senators and 2000 equites to be disposed of. While it seems unlikely that the three would have been worried about the senate sufficiently to wipe them out completely, it is important to remember that the estates that could be seized from them would have amounted to considerable wealth – and thus Octavian would be ‘enabled to fulfil his promises to the veteran soldiers. 11’ Of course, this also left Octavian ‘wholly unopposed, 12’ as those who remained ‘preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past. 3’ With the aid of Lepidus and Antony, Octavian finally got his chance to avenge those whom had murdered Caesar. In 42BC, both Octavian and Antony confronted Cassius and Brutus, whom had been building up their own armies, in Macedonia. The two claimed they were the last hope of the Republic, but even if they had emerged victorious, the damage had already been dealt to such an extent, the Republic was but a lost dream. Antony was clearly the superior general, and he ensured both were defeated, with little help from Octavian.
It has in fact been written that ‘Caesar did nothing worth relating, and all the success and victory were Antony’s. 14’ Perhaps it was Antony’s mistake to aid Octavian so, but he could have never foreseen that it would be this youth who would bring about his eventual death and disgrace. However, the money that they raised was still insufficient for future plans, and Antony, on ‘Octavian’s instruction15’ headed to the east to raise more funds through conquest. This was because 100,000 veterans needed to be rewarded for their services, yet Octavian was handed the task of ensuring they all got their promised land.
He was also granted the task of dealing with Sextus, which I find a little strange, given Octavian’s poor performance against Cassius and Brutus due to ‘poor health’. Yet he ejected farmers from their land, to make it clear for veterans, and this made him an unpopular man. Nevertheless he weathered the disgruntled farmers and protestors, and in the end they had no choice but to give in. Again, it shows although Octavian had initially made the trouble himself, he had been capable of dealing with it, through not luck, but cold hearted ruthlessness.
When Antony returned to the west, after a misunderstanding, civil war ensued between him and Octavian. It was resolved however, and Antony returned to the east, but shortly after Octavian once again called on him for help with Sextus, whom had become disgruntled after Octavian had failed to honour a promise to him. But this help did not emerge, and resulted in Octavian losing half of his fleet, and being defeated by Sextus. This time, he called on his friend Aggripa, who dealt with Sextus a lot more ably than Octavian ever could have but it took another two years for this to come about.
Lepidus, who betrayed Octavian by trying to seize Scilly was spared as he was a Pontifex Maximus, but his career as a triumvir was over, thus handing even more power over to Octavian. Meanwhile Antony had suffered the loss of 22,000 of his legionaries during a disastrous attack on Parthia. Although he later redeemed himself, this was not the only slip up Antony made. His allegiance with Cleopatra was scandalous to say the least, as it ‘exposed his own wanton arrogance, 16’ in his carelessness, and in snubbing his wife Octavia, he offended Octavian deeply.
Antony began to make wild claims of making Egypt the centre of the Empire, rather than Rome, which Octavian claimed Antony had planned would become a mere sub-state. When the Triumvirate expired in 33BC, Antony had detached himself so much from Rome that Octavian was easily able to assume sole Consulship. During this time, the two were eager to slander one another and one of Octavian’s main arguments became that Antony now regarded himself as an Egyptian, rather than a Roman.
By 32, Antony was camped out at Actium hoping to use it as a base against Octavian, but he became stranded there, and with his supplies dwindling, men began to desert. Although planned, Antony and Cleopatra both made a break for it, but Agrippa and Octavian were waiting, and some serious disorganisation caused the two to have considerable losses, although they themselves escaped. Both he and Cleopatra escaped back to Egypt, and they committed suicide, consequently ruling out Octavian’s primary opponent. Actium was undoubtedly an important turning point for both Antony and Octavian.
Octavian’s fleet had initially been smaller by 100 hundred ships, but when Antony became mired there, the presence of Cleopatra did not help his Roman troops, who were not favourable to serving under a foreign queen, especially as she was the main financier. With their supplies short, the men became diseased and demoralised – it was no surprise they began to desert, and after Octavian presented Actium as a battle rather than a retreat, there seemed little possibility of Antony recovering from the fiasco.
So once more Octavian had to give credit to luck for his success. Had conditions not turned so bad at Actium for Antony, he would have held more than a winning chance. Yet Antony was foolish to let himself become cornered, and Octavian once again took advantage to the fullest of extremes. I feel it is safe to say that it was not only luck and the mistakes of others that led to Octavian’s success, for he had pushed for it continuously and been as politically able as any other man in Rome.
While Antony was rash in his decisions, Octavian was often more calculated, he made sure he was the one in Rome as the Triumvirate came to its legal end and although he didn’t assume any title straight away, his authority was what carried him over. Another considerable advantage of Octavian’s had to be his youth. It proved so because everyone around him saw it as a disadvantage, a weakness that many, including Cicero and Antony assumed he could be easily dealt with if necessary.
But Octavian asserted himself wonderfully, in almost every political situation, which ensured his power. His wise decisions in choosing able generals to fight his battles for him was also a swift move, lesser men would have found it hard to turn to others for help when they obviously needed it. Although both luck and the mistakes of others proved instrumental in Octavian’s rise, it seems difficult to deny that he would have continued his rise with the abilities he undoubtedly did possess.