He was the world's most powerful man, and even has a month named after him. But was Augustus murdered by his wife?
By: Matthew Dennison
Today the Tremiti Islands, off Italy's east coast, are a tourist destination. A handful of rocky outcrops they are surrounded by clear water. On sunny days the sea glows dazzlingly blue. It's a pretty sight. But this tiny tourist haven conceals dark secrets. Centuries ago, the most powerful man on earth committed a terrible crime on these islands. He ordered the killing of a newborn baby.
The man's name was Augustus and the baby in question was his great-grandchild. Innocent, harmless, intensely vulnerable, the baby had done no wrong beyond a suspicion that its mother, Augustus's granddaughter Julia, was guilty of adultery. As Emperor of Rome Augustus had made adultery a crime that carried harsh penalties.
He banished Julia to eke out her days in lonely disgrace. To reinforce his point he also ordered that her baby be exposed - abandoned on a rock to starve, freeze to death or be eaten by the wild animals that roamed the barren hilltops.
This summer sees the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus's death. Exhibitions across Italy commemorate the milestone. One of only two men ever to have a month named after him, Augustus remains a giant figure in world history.
He was the first and probably greatest ruler of Imperial Rome, to which he brought lasting peace after decades of civil war. His good works benefited all Romans. He fixed soldiers' pay, tackled corruption in elections, reformed Rome's administrative system, restored temples and public buildings and oversaw improvements in sanitation. He even did his best to regulate the sex lives of Rome's notoriously promiscuous upper classes.
Abroad he created a standing army to protect the empire's 6,000-mile-long frontier. In his lifetime he was worshipped as a living god. He was a political genius and part of the empire he united survived his death by 1,400 years.
But like many great men Augustus was also ruthless and brutal. On one occasion he mistakenly suspected a government official of planning to kill him. (What Augustus thought was a dagger hidden under the man's toga turned out to be documents.)
Augustus ordered the innocent man to be arrested, tortured and finally executed. Before that, for good measure, he tore out the man's eyes with his own hands.
Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini made no secret of his admiration for Augustus
He was also a hypocrite. This emperor who criminalised adultery was himself a well-known philanderer.
He once claimed he had given up sex in his late teens for the good of his health. Another time he stated all his adulterous affairs were with the wives of his enemies and that his motive was to discover his enemies' secrets. Either way no one believed him. He was routinely unfaithful to his wife Livia, whom he expected to behave as a model of womanly virtue.
Augustus's meteoric rise to power came at a cost. Throughout his life, victims strewed his path. Among them were members of his own family. Augustus began life as a puny lad of middling prospects.
He was short, his eyes were too far apart and on his skin was a rash that looked like ringworm. He walked with a limp and every spring he suffered from catarrh. He was called Gaius Octavius then and his only claim to fame was that his mother's uncle was Julius Caesar.
As it happened that was the only help he needed. Despite chronic financial problems and suffering from epilepsy Julius Caesar had made himself Rome's most powerful man by a combination of military brilliance and determination.
He turned the Roman Republic on its head, unimpressed by its age-old political system which prevented any individual from exercising excessive power. Famously, Caesar paid for his ambition with his life. He was murdered on the Ides of March 44BC by a conspiracy of 60 of his colleagues. In his will he adopted his 18-year-old great nephew as his son. For Octavian, as historians call him at this period in his life, it was the call of destiny.
Octavian spent the next 13 years avenging Caesar's death and winning for himself the position once denied his great-uncle. He did so by eliminating anyone who stood in his way. His main enemy was Caesar's former colleague Mark Antony, a Roman aristocrat of conspicuous bravery, with a weakness by eliminating anyone who stood in his way. His main enemy was Caesar's former colleague Mark Antony, a Roman aristocrat of conspicuous bravery, with a weakness for wine and women. Octavian first blackened Antony's name by faking his will and publicising the bogus document.
In it he pretended Antony planned to move the capital from Rome to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Afterwards, in September 31BC, he defeated Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt at for wine and women. Octavian first blackened Antony's name by faking his will and publicising the bogus document.
In it he pretended Antony planned to move the capital from Rome to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Afterwards, in September 31BC, he defeated Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt at the Battle of Actium. The following year Antony committed suicide in Cleopatra's arms, leaving Octavian ruler of the Roman world. Octavian shed no tears at the death of this man who was in fact his brother-in-law, married to his sister Octavia.
Octavian had outwitted his enemy to win the greatest prize the world could offer. He probably believed he had no choice but to play dirty. For while Mark Antony possessed every characteristic of a classic Roman hero, Octavian possessed few.
Romans admired bravery and strength; they respected noble birth and a distinguished family. Augustus was a physical weakling with a recurring stomach complaint.
As a soldier he avoided dangerous fighting on the grounds he was feeling unwell. There was even a rumour he softened the hairs of his thighs by singeing them with hot walnut shells.
HIS family was unremarkable too, with a poor record of public service, but he had no intention of letting that stand in his way. Instead on the day his wife Scribonia gave birth to the couple's only child, a daughter also called Julia, Octavian divorced her.
In Scribonia's place he married Livia, whose family was the grandest in Rome. It was a canny piece of social climbing.
In 27BC, the Roman Senate acknowledged Octavian's power. He became in effect ruler for life. He took the name Augustus, meaning "revered one" or "lofty". Certainly he had scaled great heights but his behaviour would continue at times to be anything but lofty.
Augustus reserved fiercest punishment for those whose faults came closest to his own. It was his pride that was hurt most when he learned his daughter Julia took part in public orgies in the middle of Rome. Unable to bring himself to execute his only child - his fi rst instinct - Augustus banished Julia to a distant island, the same punishment he later imposed on his granddaughter of the same name.
Yet despite such tyrannous impulses Augustus was a successful, highly popular ruler. Politicians and military leaders, including Napoleon, have aped his example.
Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini made no secret of his admiration for Augustus. He even copied Augustus in using the Tremiti Islands as a prison - in Mussolini's case an incarceration centre for homosexuals. Only one person may have got the better of Rome's greatest emperor: his wife Livia.
She, the gossips whispered, hastened Augustus' death in the summer of AD14 in order to be able to make her son Tiberius the emperor. Her weapon was poison, smeared on figs hanging in Augustus's garden. There is no proof for the story. Nor any evidence to the contrary either.
Matthew Dennison is author of The Twelve Caesars (Atlantic)