Worshipped as a God-Emperor and deified in his own life, he came to be considered one of the greatest leaders of all time, one of the greatest and most ruthless and cunning politicians, and easily the most successful despotic ruler in history since having finished The Roman Republic, he single-handedly built an autocratic system of government that ran like a well-oiled regime of efficiency and continued in the form he patented for centuries. He was able to transition from his brutal origin as Octavian, Caesar's ruthless nephew who in his youth had purged and murdered not only the assassins of his adopted father, but also several others in a round of proscriptions, into a calm, gentle and serene Augustus, who was known for living modestly despite his vast power and whose reign after that, while filled with some high profile exiles, was free of the violence and bloodshed that came before. He ruled so long and so well that when he died, almost nobody was alive who remembered the Republic, and none of them knew how to go back even if they might have wanted to.
He is often prone to either Historical Villain Upgrade or Historical Hero Upgrade depending on which part of his career you narrate. Since his life was so long, it is difficult to tell a complete picture that balances his ruthless ambition and the brutal extermination of his enemies with his massive public works programs and 45 years of competent administration. He took the Roman Republic and converted it into The Roman Empire and presided over Pax Romanica, an extended reign of peace in one of the greatest powers in world history. He even managed to get people to keep calling the eighth month "August" after he died.
In his youth, he was known as Gaius Octavius, of a respectable but not noble family (though his mother was the niece of Julius Caesar). On Caesar's death, it was found that he had adopted young Octavius in his will; at that point, Octavius would have technically been named Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, so historians generally refer to him from that point as "Octavian"note . Once he consolidated his rule, the Senate granted him the quasi-religious title Augustus (meaning roughly "illustrious one")note . Following this example, all other Roman Emperors would be given the name "Augustus" as one of their titles.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Cult of Personality: Pompey the Great and uncle Julius Caesar had started it, but Augustus took it to a higher level. He more or less hired Horace, Ovid and Virgil and made them part of his permanent staff. When Ovid started to get uppity, Augustus had him exiled to the island Tomis on the Black Sea. Virgil, who in his earlier works had written about the victims of Octavian's purges, ended up writing The Aeneid which is state propaganda (albeit very well written and complex).
Mary Beard: One of his most significant and lasting innovations was to flood the Roman world with his portrait: heads stamped on the small change in people's pockets, life-size or larger statues in marble and bronze standing in public squares and temples...This was on avastly bigger scale than anything of the sort before...about 250 statues, not to mention images on jewels and gems, found right across Roman territories and beyond, from Spain to Turkey and Sudan, show Augustus in many different guises, from heroic conqueror to pious priest.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Being a somewhat obscure relation of Julius Caesar, most stories show most people fail to either anticipate Caesar leaving everything to Octavian in his will, the loyalty of Caesar's legions to the name or indeed Octavian's political savvy.
- HeelFace Turn: From blood-spattered triumvir to wise and benevolent father of the nation. Bridging the diametrically opposed retrospective portrayals of the first emperor is a weighty topic in the historiography of the early Empire. Even with his extensive Cult of Personality considered, melding the brutality of Octavian with the benevolence of Augustus is a challenging one for historians, both then and now. On the matter, historian Anthony Everitt states:
Anthony Everitt: Opposites do not have to be mutually exclusive, and we are not obliged to choose one or the other. The story of his career shows that Augustus was indeed ruthless, cruel, and ambitious for himself. This was only in part a personal trait, for upper-class Romans were educated to compete with one another and to excel. However, he combined an overriding concern for his personal interests with a deep-seated patriotism, based on a nostalgia of Rome's antique virtues. In his capacity as princeps, selfishness and selflessness coexisted in his mind. While fighting for dominance, he paid little attention to legality or to the normal civilities of political life. He was devious, untrustworthy, and bloodthirsty. But once he had established his authority, he governed efficiently and justly, generally allowed freedom of speech, and promoted the rule of law. He was immensely hardworking and tried as hard as any democratic parliamentarian to treat his senatorial colleagues with respect and sensitivity. He suffered from no delusions of grandeur.
- Historical Downgrade: One of his most popular depictions is in the BBC miniseries I, Claudius (based on the book), in which he's played by Brian Blessed as a simple, kindly, emotional and rather oblivious man who never realizes that he's been dancing on the strings of his devious and manipulative wife Livia for practically his whole wife. She even states confidently that she had to trick him into making every good decision he ever made during his rule.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: While his adoptive father is about equally likely to be depicted as hero or villain, Augustus is usually portrayed unsympathetically as a cruel and cold-blooded schemer.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Octavian had to commit to a lot of unsavory actions as Augustus to give rise to the Roman Empire. But he did it all to ensure Rome would survive the civil wars that tore apart the Republic.
I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.
- I Have No Son!: His reaction when he learned about his daughter's antics. He banished her to a tiny island and is supposed to have remarked: "if only I had never married, or had died childless."
- Just the First Citizen: Word-for-word; he preferred being called "first citizen of the state" instead of anything approaching "king". He did at least try to put up a facade of sharing power with the other members of his junta, possibly because of what happened when the previous guy got accused of being too ambitious.
- Madness Mantra: As shown in I, Claudius he never got over the loss of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest. Suetonius mentions that even years later, Augustus was known to mutter "Quintili Varus, legiones redde!" ("Quinctilus Varus, give me back my legions!")
- Meaningful Rename: He had several of these as his position and circumstances changed. He started out as Gaius Octavius, then after Caesar posthumously adopted him he became Gaius Julius Caesar. In 27BC he added the honorific title Augustus (meaning "August One") to his name and is typically just referred to as Augustus after this point. As he went along he also added other titles like Divi Filius (son of a god) and imperator (a title given to victorious generals). By the end of his life he was known as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus.
- Non-Action Guy: To a point. Many of his military victories, including the big one, Actium, were won by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, while Augustus was a master politician (and was no coward for it—Roman political life was no picnic). In modern media, this is skewed and he becomes a borderline Sissy Villain.
- Old Shame: For one of the grubbier acts of his early career: signing off on the murder of Cicero. He would later protest that this was Mark Antony's decision, and that he argued against it for two days. Whether this was genuine Cassandra Truth from someone who had no qualms about adding dozens of other men to the proscription lists or just a retrospective attempt to shift the blame away from himself for a squalid episode will never be known for sure.
- One Steve Limit: After Julius Caesar posthumously adopted him, Octavian also officially became Gaius Julius Caesar. To avoid confusion, works in which he features will normally refer to him as either Octavian or Augustus.
- The Purge: Initiated one after he took power with Antony and Lepidus, targeting not only their enemies but men who just happened to be very rich.
- Sickly Prodigy: While undoubtedly a talented politician and competent general. Augustus always was of poor health and fell ill often. It surprised him as much as anyone that he lived to a ripe old age.
- The Social Expert: One of his successors, four centuries later would comment on this quality; Emperor Julian the Apostate, in one of his comic satires noted that he was famous for having this:
Emperor Julian: Octavianus entered, changing colour continually, like a chameleon, turning now pale now red; one moment his expression was gloomy, sombre, and overcast, the next he unbent and showed all the charms of Aphrodite and the Graces. Moreover in the glances of his eyes he was fain to resemble mighty Helios, for he preferred that none who approached should be able to meet his gaze...what a changeable monster is this! What mischief will he do us?
- Stop Being Stereotypical: Was pretty straight edge and reportedly got exasperated with the hedonism and decadence he saw from Romans. Particularly, he was troubled by his daughter Julia's alleged promiscuity. Say it with us, now:
- Succession Crisis: His efforts to avert one of these dominated the last few decades of his life. The big problem was that his preferred heirs kept dying before him. This was a major storyline in I, Claudius, which showed Livia killing them all to ensure that her son Tiberius, the heir Augustus least wanted, succeeded him.
- True Companions: Marcus Agrippa and Gaius Maecenas, friends with the first emperor from a young age. They served as his chief general and chief administrator respectively.
Depictions, Allusions, And Others:
- In The Sandman, an elderly Augustus spends a day with a dwarf actor disguised as a beggar in the street. This depiction works hard to incorporate the "cold, ruthless politician" aspect of his personality, but also strives to humanize him. He deliberately triggers the eventual fall of the Roman Empire, to take revenge on Julius Caesar for raping and traumatizing him as a young man by breaking free of the course that Julius set before him.
- Alix Senator: Being set long after the death of Caesar, Augustus replaces him as the guy who sends Alix on missions all over the Empire. He's generally a good ruler, though Alix does not condone some of his actions.
- He's portrayed by Roddy McDowall in the 1963 film Cleopatra.
- A justified case of Dawson Casting in the 1934 version of Cleopatra in which he's played by 35-year-old Ian Keith playing the future founding emperor from Caesar's murder, when he was 19, to the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, when he was 33.
- Portrayed by Peter O'Toole as an old man in Imperium: Augustus. Portrayed mostly sympathetically and manipulated by his wife to make Tiberius his heir, although the flashback scenes are all explicitly from his own (possibly overly favorable) POV.
- He is portrayed by Steve Coogan in the Night at the Museum Trilogy, in a more comedic light and as rather arrogant.
- The subject of the first part of I, Claudius. Was played in an inaccurate but entertaining way by BRIAN BLESSED in the live-action version.
- Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil has him appear in an extended cameo where he convinces the bitter dying poet to not burn the Aeneid, arguing that the book is "public property" and that art belongs to the state and not the artist.
- Tavi in Codex Alera is short for "Gaius Octavian", making Tavi an expy.
- He is a major figure in the last two books of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series. McCullough portrays him as a Well-Intentioned Extremist, outwardly charming but very cold-blooded. A disillusioned Cicero describes him an "unfeeling pillar of ice".
- His life story is retold through the eyes of his relatives and colleagues in a clever mix of fact and fiction in John Williams' epistolary 1972 novel Augustus.
- Octavian appears in the final novel of Robert Harris' Cicero trilogy. He is portrayed as duplicitous but Affably Evil and is fatally underestimated by Cicero. He serves as an interesting contrast to the previous Caesar: while Julius is transparently obvious with his ruthlessness and lust for power, Octavian is far subtler and more unassuming, and so despite being even more ambitious his opponents are inclined to dismiss him as a harmless boy destined to be a "short-lived irrelevance".
- He's played by Max Pirkis (as a boy) then Simon Woods (as an adult) in the miniseries Rome. The series chronicles his progression from skinny bookworm to ruler of Rome and ends soon after his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. He is depicted as socially awkward and emotionally cold, though he does befriend one of the main (fictional) characters, Titus Pullo.
- The title character of the first episode of The Caesars, played by Roland Culver. The episode mainly revolves around the question of whether he will name Tiberius as his successor on his deathbed.
- Portrayed by Rupert Graves in the 1999 Cleopatra miniseries, opposite Leonor Varela's Cleopatra and Billy Zane's Marc Antony.
- First seen in Xena: Warrior Princess as a boy who wants to bring peace to Rome, so she manipulates Brutus and Marc Antony into destroying each other so Octavius can take over.
- His war campaign against Marc Antony is depicted as an election campaign in History Bites.
- He gets mentioned around Christmas every year due to the relevant passages of The Gospels beginning by dating the census where Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to the years of his reign.
- He was probably the Caesar on the coin referred to in Mark 12:17 when Jesus was asked whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans (Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's).
- A recurring leader character for Rome in the Civilization series. In the fourth game, where the player is compared to historical leaders based on their score after finishing a game, Augustus is ranked as the best leader in history.