Gunnar Heinsohn: First Augustus – Antony or Octavian?

Gunnar Heinsohn
10 September 2018
First Augustus: Antony or Octavian?

A comment on Tim Cullen’s “A for Augustus”;

One could call this statement from the German Wikipedia a straight-out lie.

“The honorary name Augustus (Latin ‘the Majestic‘) was first given to Octavian, the founder of the Principate, in 27 BC

(der Ehrenname Augustus ( lateinisch “der Erhabene” ) wurde 27 v. Chr. erstmals Octavian, dem Begründer des Prinzipats, verliehen
( ; retrieved 01-09-2018).

But the authors have no intention of lying.

They simply do not understand the emergence of the authoritarian-imperial form of government in Rome.

They see in Octavian a noble character who simply deserved this title.

Yet, the first known AUG coin was issued, in 43 BC in Gaul, by order of Octavian after the death of Caivs Ivlivs Caesar.

This made sense for an undisputed AUGmentor of the empire with conquests of Gaul and Britain.

Although Octavian’s head is shown on the coin‘s reverse, the texts on obverse and reverse refer to Caivs [“C”] Caesar.

There are, of course, “Caesar” coins by Octavian because he claimed that he had been adopted by his great-uncle.

Yet, there are no Octavian coins lettering him as “C•Caesar”.

Mark Antony, by the way, saw the adoption either as a reward for the boy’s sexual favors (Suetonius, Augustus, 68) or even as the result of an outright forgery of the adoption papers.

Nevertheless, the AUG title for the dead Caesar showed the ambition of his grandnephew, now twenty years old, to become AUGustus himself.

This intention of Octavian will have been reported to Mark Antony (83-30 BC).

As ruler in the capital since the assassination of Caesar, he will not have taken it lightly.

Already in 49 BC, when Caesar headed to Spain, Italy was left under the control of Mark Antony.

When the Senate appointed Caesar as Dictator in 48 BC, Mark Antony became his Master of the Horse (second in command).

In 47 BC, when Julius Caesar put Cleopatra on Egypt’s throne and fathered Caesarion (47-30 BC) with her, Mark Antony represented the dictator in Rome.

In 44 BC, he was elected Consul alongside Caesar.

When the latter had, as “dictator in perpetuity”, risen to the peak of his might in 44 BC, he made Mark Antony Pontifex Maximus.

After Caesar‘s death, he remained as the sole Consul.

In this function he seized the state treasury.

He received custody of Caesar’s wealth from his widow, Calpurnia.

Mark Antony had become the most powerful man in the Empire.

Nevertheless, in his will of September 45 BC, Caesar had named his grand-nephew Octavian as principal heir.

However, a hereditary political office did not belong to Caesar‘s assets.

Mark Antony also had coins struck in 43 BC, on whose reverse Julius Caesar is shown.

However, he did not give the deceased the uncalled-for title AUG, but the indisputable title DIC.

That stands, like DICT on other coins, for the function of DICtator, into which Caesar was appointed by the Senate.

His 44 BC title “dictator in perpetuity” was never used before by the Senate.

Mark Antony simply described himself as IMP (for IMPerator).

When Mark Antony’s power looked unchallenged, Octavian was only 19 years old.

How fiery his ambition must have been, however, can be seen in the later treatment of Caesar’s only known biological son.

Caesarion served, between 12 August 30 BC (day of Cleopatra’s suicide) and 23 August 30 BC, as the last Ptolemaic Pharaoh of Egypt.

His last government day was the day Octavian had ordered his assassination.

Now no close relative of Caesar’s stood in the way of his grandnephew.

To return to the earliest AUG coin of 43 BC (only one copy is known) one could say that Octavian did not want to remember his great-uncle as AUGustus, but as AUGUR, the priestly office as interpreter of the gods‘ intentions by making sense of the flight of birds.

But the “C•Caesar” coins issued during Julius Caesar‘s lifetime, on which his AUGur title is written as AUGUR and not abbreviated to AUG, speak against it.

AUG was meant to honor a dead AUGustus, not a dead AUGUR.

After the posthumous tribute to Julius Caesar by an AUG coin ordered by Octavian, Mark Antony (83-30 BC) was the first Roman ruler who used the title AUG for a full decade (41 to 31 BC).

However, we are taught that AUG found on coins of Mark Antony must always be read as AUGUR.

Thus, AUG on coins of Mark Antony must never be read as AUGustus.

Priority for the title AUG in the sense of AUGustus should belong exclusively to Octavian (63 BC-14 AD), twenty years Mark Antony’s junior and his brother-in-law.

Thus, only starting with Octavian (made Augustus by the Senate in 27 BC), AUG shall always mean AUGustus.

Mark Antony drew on the iconography of Alexander the Great, whose deification was also adopted by his Ptolemaic and Seleucid successors.

Just as Julius Caesar marked his AUGUR coins with AUGUR and not with AUG, Mark Antony also has strong evidence against the reading of AUG as Augur.

Besides his AUG coins Mark Antony has also AUGUR coins.

Why should AUG on coins by Mark Antony always mean AUGUR if he used the separate – perfectly appropriate – term AUGUR for coins dedicated to his indisputable function as Augur?

Why should he leave the public in the dark as to whether he wanted to sign as AUGur or as AUGustus?

And yet Augustus also has to do with Augur, for according to a legendary tradition, monarchical Rome was founded after an “august augury” of Romulus.

There is even stronger proof that it was not Octavian, but Mark Antony who was the first AUG ruler to be read as AUGustus.

There are coins (three examples known) that show Octavian (using his adopted surname Caesar) as IMP (Imperator) on the reverse.

The obverse of the same coin belongs to Mark Antony.

It also bears his proper name (Antonivs) and the title IMP (Imperator).

In addition it bears the title AUG (not AUGUR).

On the Octavian reverse the AUG title is absent.

The idea is seductive, but not provable, that Mark Antony and Octavian (with his 43 BC coin from Gaul) had agreed to give the dead Caesar the AUG title in order to legitimize his path to Augustus (AUGmentor of the Empire) retrospectively and thus make it acceptable for the future.

Perhaps such an agreement even included Mark Antony, twenty years older, having the first pick for that title.

This must remain speculation, but is supported by a decade (41-31 BC) of AUG coins by Mark Antony.

Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus, as Octavian was called by the Senate since 27 BC, is also considered the first Roman emperor to wear the semi-divine diadem that supposedly, after the crisis of the third century, was reintroduced by Diocletian for Late Antiquity (cf. 2018/08/31/gunnar-heinsohn-diocletian-ingenious-or-insane/ ).

But what if there was another ruler who wore a semi-divine diadem and, on top of that, was indisputably IMP, i.e. Imperator?

This ruler existed. It was Mark Antony.

In 41 BC, soon after beginning his relationship, with Cleopatra (69-30 BC), the female Pharaoh and semi-divine ruler of Egypt, he showed himself with the semi-divine diadem on coins.

He was honest enough to team up with his Roman wife, a grandniece of Julius Caesar (1000-44 BC) and Octavian’s sister, whom he had married in 40 BC to calm the war-ridden rivalry with Octavian from 43 to 40 BC.

In doing so, he made it unequivocally clear that he not only wanted to govern the empire, but also to hold it together.

The eastern part was under his control anyway.

In addition, he had his family and a high office as Triumvir in Rome (43-33 BC).

Octavian, on the other hand, had little influence in the eastern empire and was also only a Triumvir in Rome.

His pedigree indicates he ranked below Mark Antony (Suetonius, Augustus, 2/4).

He had no brilliant military victories to show for himself.

However, he was geographically much closer to the Senate, which definitely feared him.

After 43 BC, in the wake of Caesar’s assassination, at least 130 senators had been rounded up and many of them killed.

Octavian had another advantage.

In January 42 BC, the Senate recognized the deification of Julius Caesar.

This made the twenty-three-year-old Divi Filius, Son of God.

This could not help but inspire Mark Antony, who was on the way to his own divinity.

Although it cannot be proved, the semi-divine diadem could have been Mark Antony’s answer to Octavian’s status as the divine son:

‘You may claim to be the son of a deceased god. I, on the other hand, can prove that, in addition to being married to your sister, I am associated with the living goddess Cleopatra.’

Since Mark Antony carried the AUG title on coins just one year after the deification of Julius Caesar, i.e. from 41 BC, the semi-divine diadem and AUG could have meant a combined answer to the ambitious Divi filius.

Octavian tried to neutralize this response by spreading propaganda that Antony was becoming un-Roman because he rejected his legal wife for an “Oriental paramour.” (Eck, W. [2003], The Age of Augustus, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 30.)

Since becoming Triumvir (43-33 BC) and the victory over Caesar’s assassins at Philippi (42 BC), Mark Antony became the ruler of Egypt and the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

But he got to know the diadem as an Egyptian princely symbol much earlier.

In 55 BC he inspired the conquest of Egypt by Aulus Gabinius (+48/47 BC) – whose cavalry he had commanded since 57 BC – and helped him restore the Greek pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes (117-51 BC) to the Egyptian throne.

In 55 BC, Mark Antony first met Cleopatra (14 years old).

Thus, at least since 57 BC, Mark Antony must have known the semi-divine diadem was the power emblem of the Greek Pharaohs.

In Julius Caesar’s path to monarchic power, Mark Antony is said to have already used the symbol.

“Mark Antony offered him publicly a diadem […], which Caesar demonstratively rejected after displeasure was expressed by those present”

(ein Diadem […], das Antonius ihm öffentlich anbot, und das Caesar nach Unmutsäußerungen der Anwesenden demonstrativ ablehnte;; retrieved 01-09-2018).

It has not been documented, but maybe Mark Antony had suggested that, together with the diadem, Julius Caesar also receive the Augustus title, which he got on Octavian’s coin of 43 BC, at least posthumously.

After all, Mark Antony could only offer the diadem to Caesar because he had already accepted it for himself.

With the power that came to him after the victory at Philippi (42 BC), and after Octavian’s use of Divi filius, he must have waited for an opportunity to seize the diadem and the title of Augustus for himself.

A few years after exhibiting the diadem on his coins with Octavia, there followed diadem coins with Cleopatra.

But this time the woman, the pharaoh, wore the diadem, not Mark Antony.

This probably happened immediately after he had designated, in 34 BC, much of the Eastern Empire as gifts to Cleopatra and the children together.

Egypt was the most important hereditary monarchy in the eastern part of the empire.

The gifts to the hereditary semi-divine Pharao made him a partner in her semi-divine kingdom.

That counterbalanced the Divi filius in Rome.

In Egypt his rank was lower than Cleopatra’s.

Towards Rome, however, his appearance as IMPerator AUGustus was kept in undiminished ambition for the Imperium Romanum in its entirety.

Although Octavian will have rejected Mark Antony’s move, he could not simply set an IMP AUG title of his own against it.

He could not mobilize the Senate against Mark Antony’s autocratic intentions and at the same time reveal the same monarchical motives.

But Mark Antony went even further when, in 34 BC, he awarded his son Alexander Helios [Sun; 40-29/25 BC], Cleoptra’s second boy after Caesarion by Julius Caesar, the title King of Kings.

Now he was not only the husband of a semi-divine pharaoh, but also the father of a future almighty ruler.

In 33 BC, Mark Antony annexed the hereditary kingdom of Media.

With this operation he underlined his ability to be an AUGustus, i.e. an AUGmentor of the empire.

His eldest son from Cleopatra, Alexander Helios [Sun] (40-29/25 BC), was engaged to princess Iotapa, daughter of Media’s King Artavasdes I (ruled 56-20 BC).

When in the year 30 BC Alexandria and Egypt were conquered and Mark Antony and Cleopatra ended in suicide, Octavian immediately usurped the semi-divine diadem of the god-like Ptolemaic pharaohs.

The common belief of historians that he made every effort to uphold republican traditions cannot be confirmed by doing so.

At least he still omitted the Augustus title.

The earliest coins (vaguely dated 27-18 BC) on which Octavian also snatched the Augustus title from the dead Mark Antony is interesting because it is not merely abbreviated as AUG, but appears fully written out as AUGUSTUS.

The young autocrat wanted to make it unmistakably clear to everyone that now he, i.e. nobody from the family of Mark Antony, was Augustus.

Later, when the power was secured, Octavian==CAESAR also used abbreviations like AUGUST, AUGU or simply Mark Antony’s AUG
(see examples in ).

The defeated Greeks of Egypt, too, were left in no doubt that Ocatavian==Caesar would become an absolute ruler and by no means a continuator or recreator of republican modesty.

Immediately after the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Octavian’s coins declared him


Mark Antony made himself the first Augustus.

Between 41 and 31 BC he issued matching coins with the titles IMPerator and AUGustus.

For a full decade, this first Augustus wanted to be master of the unified empire.

Because Octavian wanted the same, Mark Antony, through the Donations of Alexandria (34 BC), tried to protect at least the eastern half of his realm from the grip of Divi filius.

Because of this very manoeuvre he could be legally accused by Octavian with secession and treason.

In the second half of 32 B.C., by Senate decision, Mark Antony lost all his offices.

His designation as consul for 31 BC, his last year with IMPerator AUGustus coins, was also revoked.

Rome declared war on Cleopatra’s Egypt and, thus, on the strongest bastion of the Greeks.

Cleopatra was the semi-divine queen and the wife of Mark Antony, with whom she had three children.

He simply had to stand by her. As a Roman, he thereby became the ally of an enemy power, thus committing high treason.

Octavian wasted no time.

He personally executed the declaration of war according to the custom of the Fetiale.

He hurled a spear immersed in fresh blood into – symbolically designated – enemy territory at the temple of the war goddess Bellona.

It was the ensuing bloodshed that created alienation between East and West.

After the victories of 30 BC, Octavian’s empire was still torn by hatred.

Only three years later, the Senate itself was disempowered by Octavian, and Mark Anthony’s “Augustus” title was transferred to Caesar==Octavian. A united republic never returned.

Octavian understood that, above all, it was the Tetrarchy – which did not start ca. 300 years later, nor even 30 years later – which could transform the hostile division of the empire into a mere administrative partition.

This is the theme of Diocletian: Ingenious or Insane.

The following overview briefly summarizes the last 17 years of the Roman Republic.

It was a period in which the unity of the Imperium was broken because Octavian wanted to become master of the Empire.

He therefore declared war on the Greek East and Mark Antony, who wanted the same.

It was not a question of finally overcoming the autocratic intentions of Julius Ceasar, but of whether Octavian or Mark Antony would become AUTOKRATOROS.

Octavian won.

Stratigraphically, i.e. in real time, the ten years with IMP AUG coins of Mark Antony (41-31 BC ) belong to the second half of the 7th century AD, not to the second half of the 1st century BC.

Editorial Assistance

Thanks go to Clark Whelton (New York), Jan Beaufort (Bielefeld) and Tim Cullen (Malaga).

Gallery | This entry was posted in Epigraphy - Inscriptions, Guest Authors, History, Roman Chronology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gunnar Heinsohn: First Augustus – Antony or Octavian?

  1. John Miller says:

    So, the Sun/Son of a God was killed, by the order of the Divifilius.

    Do terms like ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ mean anything in this context?

    From the Book of Revelation:

    11:8: And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.

    14:8: And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.

    17:9: And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.

    17:18: And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.

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