It’s the birthday of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, born Gaius Octavius Thurinus in Rome in the year 63 B.C. The great-nephew of Julius Caesar, Augustus was named as the childless statesman’s heir upon his assassination. Despite Roman custom, Augustus dropped his middle and last name altogether to emphasize his new name, Caesar, probably hoping it would help legitimize his power grab. It did. The money he inherited helped, too. With the Senate in disarray, Augustus joined forces with two other leaders to form a three-headed military dictatorship. When that inevitably fell apart, Augustus remained in power. The Senate eventually decided to formalize his rule, changing the government’s entire structure from a republican state to that of an empire. It was the beginning of an era that would last nearly 1,500 years, until the fall of Constantinople.
Augustus was widely respected during his reign, in part because of good works campaigns such as starting the first police and firefighting services and distributing funds to soldiers and veterans, in part because of his cultivated modesty, melting down statues of himself and restoring temples of Roman deities, and in part because of his creation of an imperial guard that acted as his personal intimidation team.
Augustus was not actually called Augustus until years into his reign; the term means “the revered one” and was given to him by the Senate. Roman emperors that followed him were also granted the term, and adopted the name “Caesar” too. Today, Caesar has come to be synonymous with emperor or ruler, but it began as simply a surname, probably from the Latin expression meaning “hairy.” The word Augustus has found its way into modern-day language too; the sixth month of the Roman calendar was named in honor of the emperor — in English, we call it August.