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(1) The first Roman emperor, and noteworthy in Bible history as the emperor in whose reign the Incarnation took place (Lu 2:1). His original name was Caius Octavius Caepias and he was born in 63 BC, the year of Cicero’s consulship. He was the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar, his mother Atia having been the daughter of Julia, Caesar’s younger sister. He was only 19 years of age when Caesar was murdered in the Senate house (44 BC), but with a true instinct of statesmanship he steered his course through the intrigues and dangers of the closing years of the republic, and after the battle of Actium was left without a rival. Some difficulty was experienced in finding a name that would exactly define the position of the new ruler of the state. He himself declined the names of rex and dictator, and in 27 BC he was by the decree of the Senate styled Augustus. The epithet implied respect and veneration beyond what is bestowed on human things: "Sancta vocant augusta patres: augusta vocantur Templa sacerdotum rite dicata manu." --Ovid Fasti. 609; compare Dion Cass., 5316

The Greeks rendered the word by Sebastos, literally, "reverend’" (Ac 25:21,25). The name was connected by the Romans with augur--"one consecrated by religion"--and also with the verb augere. In this way it came to form one of the German imperial titles "Mehrer des Reichs" (extender of the empire). The length of the reign of Augustus, extending as it did over 44 years from the battle of Actium (31 BC) to his death (14 AD), doubtless contributed much to the settlement and consolidation of the new regime after the troubled times of the civil wars.

It is chiefly through the connection of Judea and Palestine with the Roman Empire that Augustus comes in contact with early Christianity, or rather with the political and religious life of the Jewish people at the time of the birth of Christ: "Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled" (Lu 2:1). During the reign of Herod the Great the government of Palestine was conducted practically without interference from Rome except, of course, as regarded the exaction of the tribute; but on the death of that astute and capable ruler (4 BC) none of his three sons among whom his kingdom was divided showed the capacity of their father.

In the year 6 AD the intervention of Augustus was invited by the Jews themselves to provide a remedy for the incapacity of their ruler, Archelaus, who was deposed by the emperor from the rule of Judea; at the same time, while Caesarea was still the center of the Roman administration, a small Roman garrison was stationed permanently in Jerusalem. The city, however, was left to the control of the Jewish Sanhedrin with complete judicial and executive authority except that the death sentence required confirmation by the Roman procurator. There is no reason to believe that Augustus entertained any specially favorable appreciation of Judaism, but from policy he showed himself favorable to the Jews in Palestine and did everything to keep them from feeling the pressure of the Roman yoke. To the Jews of the eastern Diaspora he allowed great privileges. It has even been held that his aim was to render them pro-Rom, as a counterpoise in some degree to the pronounced Hellenism of the East; but in the West autonomous bodies of Jews were never allowed (see Mommsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire, chapter 11).

(2) For Augustus in Ac 25:21,25 the King James Version, see Emperor.

Augustus (Caesar)

AUGUSTUS (CAESAR). Augustus was the honorific title conferred in 27 b.c. on Octavian, the adoptive heir of Julius Caesar, who, by the hindsight of history, is called the first of the Rom. “emperors.” Constitutional crisis and recurrent civil war, the beginning of which may be arbitrarily dated at 133 b.c., had over a full cent. destroyed the Rom. republic. Chronic strife and political breakdown had demonstrated to Rome, to Italy still to be integrated with Rome, and to a Mediterranean world which had fallen under Rom. control, the bankruptcy of the once powerful Senate and the group of noble families which constituted it, and which by the right of ancient tradition and possession governed Rome. A political system which had been adequate to govern a city proved, as Rome expanded in her quest for a stable frontier, ill-equipped to govern an empire. An empire, in the geographic sense of that word, Rome had acquired in the long irregular rectangle of lands which lay round the Mediterranean Sea.

The Senate and Rome’s central government had proved repeatedly unable to control the power of the commanders of the frontier armies, and frontier armies, with able generals to control and deploy them, were an unavoidable necessity of expanding military responsibility. The imposition of military solutions for constitutional problems, with the rivalries and conflict arising from the confrontation of armed groups, had long menaced law and order, and had accustomed Rome and the harrassed Rom. world to look for the intervention of the dynast and the “strong man.” The Senate itself, within the framework of constitutional law, had long accustomed the world to the legal subterfuge and expediency of emergency autocracy. Precedents of absolute power, designed to meet recurrent situations of tension and peril, strew the history of Rome in the last pre-Christian cent.

Last of the line of commanders, who used military strength to promote their own interests or impose their own constitutional solutions on a politically moribund system, was Julius Caesar. Emerging as victor from the Civil War against Pompey, the champion of the Senate which had sought to depose him, Caesar turned his great abilities of administration to restoring order and justice in a tormented land. Had subtlety and patience been a part of his genius, had he known how to appease and manage the senatorial oligarchy and maintain a fiction of republican rule, history might have recorded Julius, and not Gaius Octavius who became Octavianus Caesar, and by senatorial decree, Augustus, as the first of the emperors of Rome.

As it was, Caesar’s roughshod drive for efficient government, strong leadership, and political stability cost him his life. On March 15, 44 b.c., he fell to the daggers of senatorial opponents who resented his contempt for outmoded forms. It was one of the most senseless political murders in history. The murderers had no program save a vague archaism to which the eloquence of Cicero, Rome’s great orator and patriot, gave brief dignity.

Nor had the reactionaries reckoned on the forces which they had loosed, and no one had thought of Octavian, recently adopted by Caesar, his legal son and heir, who at the moment was studying in Greece. With cool audacity, the nineteen-year-old boy came to Italy, claimed his inheritance, and found the land behind him. He had a flair for diplomacy and a genius for picking and using sound men, but he could not have won his astounding success had not immense moral and material forces, which he quickly learned to channel and manipulate, flowed in his direction.

Civil war broke out again, and it was at Philippi in 42 b.c. that Octavian and Antony, Caesar’s one-time lieutenant, broke the remaining strength of the senatorial oligarchy. Cannily, Octavian remained in Italy. Antony moved E to secure the Parthian frontier which had broken amid Rome’s preoccupations. It was a task for which he proved unequal, and the eastern Mediterranean survived the next few years only by the ineptitude and division of Rome’s enemies.

It was here that Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemies, intervened to illustrate again the role of personality in history. The famous liaison of the Egyp. queen with Antony almost anticipated history and divided the empire. It was Octavian’s opportunity. He held the true strength of Rome, for he held Italy and the W. War for the unity of Rome was inevitable, and at Actium, in 31 b.c., Octavian broke the naval might of Egypt and the E. He and his generals brought final order to the sadly tormented world and in 27 b.c., after a semblance of “restoring the republic,” Octavian received the title of Augustus. The world longed for peace, and Augustus had given it the gift it needed so sorely. He succeeded where Julius failed, because he knew how to clothe autocracy in the semblance of republican forms. He called himself “princeps” or “first citizen.” “Emperor” was a title held because he commanded all the military forces of the state. Augustus ruled by virtue of a concentration of old republican magistracies in his hands. He held little more than that which others, by the Senate’s vote and the people’s gift, had held before, but he held all together. He gave a form of power to the Senate and entrusted it with the provinces. In short, those who lived to bless the peace that Augustus gave were not aware of the sharp change which history chooses, looking back, to mark. Only the farseeing knew that the republic was gone, and they, if they held this view, knew also that it had been long in virtual abeyance.


J. Buchan, Augustus Caesar; Cambridge Ancient History X (1930); R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939).

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