Caesar Confusion

The men, not the salad

The early Caesars can be hard to keep straight. How can Augustus, Octavius and Octavian all be the very same man? Let’s back up. Here, for students and lovers of Rome, is a quick attempt to cure Caesar Confusion.

JULIUS CAESAR was a mighty general and the very first in the long line of Roman dictators which began just a few decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

When Caesar got started, Rome was still a republic — that is, it was ruled by a group of powerful citizens. But Caesar amassed so much power — and his control of the army was so menacing — that in 45 BCE the Roman Senate gave in and named him dictator for life.

“Life” didn’t last long. The very next year Caesar was stabbed to death on 15 March (the so-called Ides of March) by a cadre of angry republicans, including Caesar’s former comrade-in-arms, Brutus. (Nearly 17 centuries later, William Shakespeare put this memorable scene in his play Julius Caesar, with Caesar uttering the dying words Et tu, Brute? — “You also, Brutus?”)

The republicans hoped that Caesar’s death would return power to the Senate. They were wrong: it simply left Rome in chaos, with no dictator, a dysfunctional Senate, and a powerful army breathing down everyone’s necks.

In his will Caesar had named an heir: GAIUS OCTAVIUS, his sister’s grandson. Octavius gladly took his benefactor’s name, becoming Julius Caesar Octavianus — which in modern times is usually shortened to Octavian. (The confusion begins.)

Before Octavian could claim Caesar’s power, he had to deal with several rivals. Chief among them was MARC ANTONY, a trusted lieutenant of Caesar. If Octavian carried the late Caesar’s blessing, Marc Antony had his own advantage: the respect of Caesar’s troops.

Despite being rivals, Octavian and Antony decided to join forces to wipe out their common enemies, especially those who wanted to bring back the republic. Among those killed or exiled were Brutus and his cabal of knife-wielders. (Another killed in this purge was the statesman Cicero, who had spoken publicly against Antony after the death of Caesar.)

Once this nasty job was complete, Octavian and Antony formed a power-sharing triumvirate with a third man, the general Marcus Lepidus. (It was called the Second Triumvirate because Julius Caesar had earlier been in a triumvirate of his own, with army commander Pompey and the wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus. That ended with Crassus’ death in battle and Pompey’s death at the hands of Caesar’s chums — shades of the future.)

The Second Triumvirate carved up the empire as if it were a turkey with three drumsticks. Octavian, wielding the most power, claimed Rome for himself. Marcus Lepidus was given Africa, and Mark Antony took control of the Asian provinces, in particular Egypt. Egypt was not officially a Roman province, but had been dominated by Rome for years.

Antony went to Egypt, where he promptly fell in love with the Egyptian queen CLEOPATRA. And here we go again: Julius Caesar also had carried on a lengthy love affair with Cleopatra. Cleopatra was a famous beauty (her visage included a prominent and handsome nose) and she wasn’t shy about using her charms to spare Egypt from Roman domination.

Now with Caesar dead, Cleopatra worked her romantic magic on Marc Antony; they became lovers and then political partners. After various shenanigans (see profiles of Antony orCleopatra for more details) their combined fleet met the fleet of Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, with control of Rome at stake.

Octavian won a smashing victory, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide not long after, and Octavian was finally top dog. He shouldered Marcus Lepidus out of power (without killing him, remarkably) and claimed full control of the entire Roman Empire.

Now, here’s the surprising part: ruthless as he was in grabbing power, Octavian turned out to be a forward-looking and enlightened ruler who built roads and aquaducts, supported the arts and took all kinds of sensible steps to consolidate the empire. He allowed the Roman Senate to remain in place (though keeping ultimate power for himself), and the grateful Senate rewarded him with the title of Caesar Augustus — meaning “divine” or “majestic.”

Augustus ruled from 27 BCE to 15 CE (or 27 BC to AD 15, if you prefer), and his reign was so successful and prosperous that it is fondly called the Augustan Age or Pax Romana — the peace of Rome.

One of the Emperor’s pet projects was a census of each local province, which is how he made his way into the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus. As it is recorded in the King James version of Luke 2 chapter 1: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

Thus the name Caesar became synonymous with “ruler,” and those Roman emperors who followed in the next 50 years — including Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero — kept the name. Nero was the last to claim a family connection to the original Caesar, but even after his death the name continued on as a term for Roman emperors or their regional chiefs.

The name of Caesar even inspired two modern words for ruler: the German term Kaiser and the Russian Czar.

In case you were curious: none of the Caesars had anything to do with Caesar salad. That tasty dish is credited to chef Caesar Cardini, who invented it during the 1920s at his cafe in Tijuana, Mexico.

And he didn’t even form a triumvirate to do it.

For some less successful world rulers, see our loop on One Reign Wonders.

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