There are some badasses whose exploits are obvious. And then there are those few evil genius types who wield absolute power from the shadows, molding society into a willfully submissive machine while maintaining a completely graceful facade. And Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, is one of those truly legendary evil geniuses. It was one thing for his predecessor to conquer a bunch of drooling Neanderthal Gallic barbarians (who would later become the French: hint hint) and march onto Rome. Whoopty-fucking shit. Augustus was a man who single-handedly masterminded the transformation of the Roman Republic into a military autocracy with all power concentrated in his hands Ð all under the brilliantly-woven guise of restoring the Republic. Despite being a chronically sick and physically infirm man all his life, he ruled as an autocrat in all but name for over 45 years, and engineered a remarkably stable government that lasted over two centuries after his death.
He was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus (then known as Octavian) in 63 BC to a moderately affluent noble family. His father had been the governor of Macedonia, and his mother was the niece of Julius Caesar. Despite this enormous connection, Octavian largely remained a political nobody. This changed when Caesar waged war against his arch-enemy Pompey. Caesar requested that Octavian join him for his Spanish campaign, to which Octavian accepted. However, Octavian's ship fell into a terrible storm, and was dashed about on the coast. In a truly heroic feat of courage that only a badass could muster, Octavian said "fuck this shit" and led his friends from the ship, across miles of fortified enemy territory, into Caesar's camp with not one single casualty. Caesar was so impressed that he secretly changed his will and adopted Octavian as his legal son.
Éand then Caesar acted like a dumbass and got knifed by a bunch of old men in purple robes. How's that for anticlimactic? Well, it really fucked up Roman politics, as if that needed further fucking up. Riots ensued and blood flowed through the streets when the news of Julius Caesar's assassination became public. The Roman Senate tried to appease everyone by both giving amnesty to the assassins, and deifying Caesar as a Roman god, though this didn't do much to stop the chaos. Meanwhile, Octavian was studying in an Italian province when news reached him. His closest friends and family members urged him to renounce his adoption and lie low, since his connection to Caesar could very well get him killed. But Octavian wasn't one to lie down and take any ill treatment like a bitch, and he left immediately for Rome to claim his adoption. Once there he claimed the title Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, much to the displeasure of the late Caesar's second-in-command, Marc Antony, who everyone (himself included) expected would become Caesar's heir.
Octavian knew that if he hung around Rome too long without an army he would end up just like Caesar. So he quickly left the city and rallied some of his late uncle's legions to his cause. At that point, all Octavian had to his name was just that Ð his name. It wasn't much, but the fact that he was legally the son of a god helped a great deal. He reentered Rome and negotiated a strained alliance with Marc Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus known as the Second Triumvirate. Their first act as allies was to purge the Senate and the Tribunate of their political rivals. Through mob violence and sheer terror, their combined forces murdered and executed thousands of senators and noblemen, and confiscated their wealth. I guess you gotta go balls out and kill something every time you enter that city, or something. Shit.
Octavian gets ready to pwn some n00bs.
With Roman politics temporarily taken care of, the Triumvirate hunted down, besieged, and finally annihilated the last of Caesar's assassins. They then divided up sections of the Roman Republic to rule as warlords in all but name: Marc Antony got control of the eastern portion of the Republic and fortified Egypt, Octavian returned to Rome and started cultivating alliances, and LepidusÉwas just a fucking weak moron who breathed air and somehow managed to hold on to Spain.
The alliance was not soon to last. Lepidus, true to character, blundered by trying to usurp control of the island of Sicily from Octavian. Octavian used this as a pretext to seize control of Lepidus' territories, and within two years all of the Western Mediterranean was under his dominion. However, something changed in him at this point. Octavian, anticipating the absolute power he would wield after eventually destroying Antony, realized that in order to be the legitimate ruler of a society that had been wracked by a century of civil war, he would have to be known as something other than a bloodthirsty butcher. He ordered his public record burned and started anew by sparing Lepidus (Lepidus was the chief priest of the Roman state religion, so killing him would be sacrilegious). From this point on, he would portray himself as a Roman traditionalist bound by the law, an integral part of his propaganda ever afterward.
This was perfect timing, as Marc Antony was starting to fall under the spell of Cleopatra in Egypt, just as Caesar had before. He started abandoning his Roman duties to wallow in lustful abandon with a hot Egyptian mega-bitch (can't blame him for that), had three children with her, and even went so far as to divorce his wife (who was also, conveniently enough, Octavian's sister). Octavian saw this as a pretext to legitimate war against his rival. He started spreading propaganda throughout all of Rome, depicting Antony as someone who had abandoned his Roman roots, and who was aiding a foreign despot in her ambition to enslave Rome. To avoid the stigma of another civil war, the Senate declared war against "the foreign queen," and tasked Octavian with spilling her guts out onto the sand. As before, Octavian was marching around to fuck up his enemies Ð but this time, he was following the letter of the law in doing so.
After the decisive battle of Actium, in which most of Antony's legions simply defected to Octavian, Cleopatra's and Antony's forces were defeated. Octavian, never one to take chances, ordered the immediate beheading of the ten year old biological son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, Ceasarion. "Two Caesars is one too many," he reasoned. Fucking harsh! I mean, any half-wit can muster the aggression to take on an enemy army. But it takes the cold detachment of an ambitious pragmatist to unflinchingly order the summary execution of your own flesh and blood.
Finally, after all his troubles, he was the undisputed master of all Rome. His take completed, he marched back to the city itself, where he did the unthinkable. Now, some absolute despots, after obtaining unlimited power, are merely content to overthrow the existing government and replace it with their totalitarian system of choosing. But any would-be hack can do that. Augustus had tact. Upon reaching Rome, he disbanded his entire army and played his traditionalist game again. "Once more, the power lies with the Senate and people of Rome," he said. But this was unthinkable to the Roman people, and massive riots erupted again. So he approached the Senate and publicly offered his services. The Senate, which was packed full of his loyal supporters (due to him having killed off the rest), basically gave him absolute power in all but name, and granted him the name Imperator Caesar Diui Filius Augustus, which in English roughly means "the honorable and magnificent commander in chief, son of the divine Julius Caesar." Christ. Imagine how badass you are when your very name is practically an affirmation of how godlike and omnipotent people think you are. That's almost as cool as having your own theme song.
I am the Senate!
The cool thing about Roman emperors like Augustus is that there never actually was a de jure position of emperor. Augustus was careful to not look like an outright monarch, which had killed Caesar before him. Instead, what Augustus did was simply concentrate powers and positions that already existed, or assign them to men he could control. Augustus himself was given tribuneccia potestas, which is basically the power to write and veto all legislation. In addition, he was made Chief Priest of the Roman state religion once Lepidus died, was legitimately given full control of all Roman legions and provincial governors, and the ability to nominate and "retire" Senate members. In this way he called all the shots, while maintaining the illusion that he was the savior of a restored republic; instead of dictator, he called himself primus inter pares, or "the first among equals." One example of how much unspoken authority he wielded is when his governor of Egypt, Cornelius Gallus, started acting like a prick. Gallus had just won some petty war against a rebellious Egyptian tribe, and felt like congratulating himself by erecting statues of himself and making inscriptions in public buildings of his "heroic" deeds. This threatened Augustus' unquestioned authority, and so he actedÉbut not directly. He didn't choose to send armies to kill Gallus; he didn't even order his resignation, which would have been in his power. Instead, he calmly mentioned to his associates, "Cornelius Gallus is no longer a friend of mine." Within days the Roman Senate passed law after law calling for his prosecution, his friends in the nobility started to abandon him, and before any charges could be brought against him, Gallus fell on his own sword. If that isn't unlimited badass power, then I don't know what is.
In short, Augustus was an all-powerful mastermind who used the illusion of democracy to make himself an extra-constitutional god-emperor. He was a brutal, cold-hearted fuck when he needed to be, but he also came across as a generous, charming man to most people. He unflinchingly did whatever he had to do to attain and master absolute political power, and he succeeded. The Senate later deified him after his death, and the cult of Augustus lasted as long as his government did (over 200 years). What an honest-to-Jupiter badass.