Augustus (honorific)

Augustus (honorific)

"Augustus" (plural "augusti"), Latin for "majestic," "the increaser," or "venerable", was an Ancient Roman title, which was first held by Caesar Augustus and subsequently came to be considered one of the titles of what we now call the Roman Emperors. The feminine form is "Augusta".

Although the use of the "cognomen" "Augustus" as part of one's name is generally understood to identify emperor Augustus, this is somewhat misleading; "Augustus" was the most significant name associated with the Emperor, but it did not actually represent any sort of constitutional office until the 3rd century under Diocletian. The Imperial dignity was not an ordinary office, but rather an extraordinary concentration of ordinary powers in the hands of one man; "Augustus" was the name that unambiguously identified that man.

The Greek equivalent is "sebastos", or the hellenization "augoustos". After the fall of the empire the word was not uncommon as a name for men of aristocratic birth in Europe, especially in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire.

Caesar Augustus

The first "Augustus" (and first man counted as a Roman Emperor) was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, who was given that name by the Roman Senate on January 16, 27 BC; over the next forty years, Augustus (as he became known) literally set the standard by which subsequent Emperors could be recognised, by accumulating various offices and powers and making his own name ("Augustus") identifiable with the consolidation of powers. Although the name signified nothing in constitutional theory, it was recognized as representing all the powers that Caesar Augustus had accumulated.

As "princeps senatus" (lit., "prince of the senate", "first man of the senate") he was the leader of the Senate, presiding over the meetings and bringing forth motions before the body, equivalent to a modern day Prime Minister or American Speaker of the House; as "pontifex maximus" (lit. "high priest") he was the chief priest of the Roman state religion; as bearing consular "imperium" he had authority equal to the official chief executive (and eponymous) magistrates within Rome and as bearing "imperium maius" he had authority greater than theirs outside Rome (because of this, he outranked all provincial governors and was also supreme commander of all Roman legions); as bearing "tribunicia potestas" ("tribunician power") he had personal inviolability ("sacrosanctitas") and the right to veto any act or proposal by any magistrate within Rome, acting as the chief officer for the general legislative body of the people. This concentration of powers became the ideal model, as presented by the surviving histories, by which all subsequent Emperors were to have ruled Rome in theory (in practice this systematic and sophisticated theory gradually lost any resemblance to reality and completely collapsed in the III and IV centuries, when the Emperors became rather more reminiscent of oriental despots than "first among equals").

Octavian "Caesar Augustus" also set the standard by which Roman Emperors were named. The three titles used by the majority of Roman Emperors -- "imperator", "caesar" and "augustus" -- were all used personally by Caesar Augustus (he officially renamed himself "Imperator Caesar Augustus"); of these names, only "Augustus" was unique to the Emperor himself, as others could and did bear the titles "Imperator", and "Caesar" was the name of a clan within the Julian line (however, the Emperor's mother or wife could bear the name "Augusta"). It became customary for an Emperor-designate to adopt the name "NN. Caesar" (where NN. is the individual's personal name) or later "NN. Nobilissimus Caesar" ("NN. Most Noble Caesar"), and occasionally to be awarded the title "Princeps Iuventutis" ("First among the Youth"). Upon accession to the purple, the new Emperor usually adopted at least one of these titles and integrated it into their official name. Later Emperors took to inserting "Pius Felix", "Pious and Blessed", and "Invictus", "Unconquered", into their personal names.

In this usage, by signifying the complete assumption of all Imperial powers, "Augustus" is roughly analogous to "Emperor", though a modern reader should be careful not to project onto the ancients a modern, monarchical understanding of what an emperor is. As noted, there was no constitutional office associated with the imperial dignity; the Emperor's personal authority ("dignitas") and influence ("auctoritas") derived from his position as "princeps senatus", and his legal authority derived from his "consulari imperium" and "tribunicia potestas"; in Roman constitutional theory, one might consider "augustus" as being shorthand for "princeps senatus et pontifex maximus consulari imperio et tribuniciae potestate" (loosely, "Leader of the House and Chief Priest with Consular "Imperium" and Tribunician Power"). "Augustus" in and of itself signified that the individual in question had both the "dignitas" and "auctoritas" to hold these informal positions.

In many ways, "augustus" is comparable to the British dignity of prince; it is a personal title, dignity, or attribute rather than a title of nobility such as duke or king. The Emperor was most commonly referred to as "princeps", though as time passed "imperator" or "Caesar" became more common terms.

Women of the Imperial dynasty

Originally, the title Augusta was only exceptionally bestowed on women of the Imperial dynasties: for these women it meant a fortification of their worldly power, and a status near to divinity. There was no qualification with higher prestige.

The first woman to receive it was Livia Drusilla, by the last will of her husband Augustus (14 AD). Hence she was known as Julia Augusta. As much as Augustus was the model for all further Augusti, Julia Augusta was the model for all further "Augustae" (plural of Augusta) -- a model that included scheming for a son to become successor to the throne, and falling in disgrace under the new Emperor if the scheming had been successful.

Agrippina minor, becoming "Augusta" under her last husband Claudius, would adhere to this model, being sent to death by her son Nero a few years after he had become Emperor.

If the honorific "Augustus" could be compared to the title of "Prince" in more modern societies, then "Augusta" would be analogous to the British title of the "Princess Royal", a title bestowed by the reigning monarch in rare cases to a relative that received by this title prominence among other members of the royal household. Of course, this is only a partial comparison: "Princess Royal" was a title most often received by younger women, while "Augusta" was rather reserved for the aged. In this sense, "Augusta" also has something of the connotation of "Queen Mother". Further, the "akin to divinity" does not really translate in any of these more modern titles or understood honorifics.

In the divided Roman Empire

Later, under the Tetrarchy, the rank of "augustus" referred to the two senior Emperors (in East and West), while "caesar" referred to the junior sub-Emperors.

The aforementioned three principal titles of the emperors -- "imperator", "caesar", and "augustus" -- were rendered as "autokratôr", "kaisar", and "augoustos" (or "sebastos") in Greek. The Greek title continued to be used in the Byzantine Empire until its extinction in 1453, although "sebastos" lost its Imperial exclusivity: persons who were not the Emperor could receive titles formed from "sebastos", and "autokratôr" became the exclusive title of the Byzantine Emperor.

The last Roman emperor to rule in the West, Romulus Augustus became known as August"ulus", or 'little Augustus,' due to the unimportance of his reign.


The Latin title of the Holy Roman Emperors was usually "Imperator Augustus", which conveys the modern understanding of "emperor" rather than the original Roman sense (i.e., the "first citizen" of the Republic). Ironically, although the German word for "emperor" is "Kaiser", a clear derivative of "caesar", that was the only one of the three principal titles of the Latin- and Greek-speaking Roman Emperors that was not regularly used in Latin by the German-speaking Holy Roman Emperors.

See also

* "Archons"
* "Auctoritas"
* "Basileus"
* "Caesar (title)"
* "Imperium"


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