The First Emperor and the First Tsar

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in 27 BC, the first Roman emperor, Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavian, officially received the title “Augustus” from the Roman Senate, during his seventh consulship. This date is attested in a calendar originally set up in the very early first century in the public square of Praeneste, now known as Palestrina, a town about 22 miles east of Rome. On the Ides of January, it notes that the Senate had voted that a crown of oak be placed over the door of his home, because he had restored the Republic; this is most likely why Ovid in his Fasti says, mistakenly, that he was granted the title on this day.

The Greek historian Cassius Dio (53.16.8) comments on the choice of title as follows: “… when Caesar (i.e. Octavian) had actually carried out his promises (the fictitious restoration of the Republic), the name “Augustus” was at length bestowed upon him by the senate and by the people. For when they wished to call him by some distinctive title … Caesar was exceedingly desirous of being called ‘Romulus’, but when he perceived that this caused him to be suspected of desiring the kingship, he desisted from his efforts to obtain it, and took the title of ‘Augustus’, signifying that he was more than human; for all the most precious and sacred objects are termed augusta.”

In the famous inscription known as the “Res Gestae Divi Augusti – the Deeds of the Divine Augustus”, the man himself writes this about the event. (cap. 34)

“In consulatu sexto et septimo, bella ubi civilia exstinxeram per consensum universorum potitus rerum omnium, rem publicam ex mea potestate in senatus populique Romani arbitrium transtuli. Quo pro merito meo senatus consulto Augustus appellatus sum et laureis postes aedium mearum vestiti publice coronaque civica super ianuam meam  fixa est clupeusque aureus in curia Iulia positus, quem mihi senatum populumque Romanum dare virtutis clementiae iustitiae pietatis caussa testatum est per eius clupei inscriptionem. Post id tempus praestiti omnibus dignitate, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam qui fuerunt mihi quoque in magistratu conlegae.

In my sixth and seventh consul­ships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and the Roman people. For this service on my part I was given the title of Augustus by decree of the senate, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, and a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the senate and the Roman people gave me this in recognition of my valour, my clemency, my justice, and my piety. After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.”

(A famous statue of the Emperor Augustus, known as the Augustus of Primaporta, the location of its discovery. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Till Niermann.) 

It is said that history never repeats, but it often rhymes, and as an example of this, on this same day in 1547, the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan IV was crowned as the first “Tsar of All Russia.” His title is qualified as “of All Russia” because the Russians had long been divided into many principalities, which were now united under a single ruler. But even with the establishment of this monarchy, Latin documents still often referred to the new state as “Moscovia”, after the capital of the principality whose ruler became the tsar.

The title “tsar” was not invented for this occasion; it occurs in Church Slavonic translations of the Bible well before then. I make note of it in reference to Augustus not only because of the coincidence of date, but also because the word is derived from the Latin “Caesar”, the name of his uncle which Augustus had previously used as a title; the same is true of the German word “Kaiser.” For a sense of historical perspective, the last known military veterans to serve under the men who held these titles both died in 2008.

Ivan IV is also known by the epithet “Grozny – the Terrible”, which was given to him in the sense of “one who strikes awe into others”, but is also appropriate in the common sense of “very bad.” He was a brutal man who committed more than one purge of the nobility of the old principalities, allowed fierce oppression of the peasantry, and laid the foundations for totalitarian rule. In 1581, he murdered the oldest of his sons who had survived to adulthood, also called Ivan. Thus, when he died three years later, he was succeeded by his son Fyodor, who proved a weak and ineffectual ruler. In 1598, the latter’s death without issue not only brought the extinction of his dynasty, the Ruriks, who had ruled several states since 862 AD, but also plunged Russia into a fifteen-year-long catastrophe known as the Time of Troubles. Violent political disorders, coupled with three years of severe famine, reduced the country’s total population by almost one-third, according to modern estimates, and in some areas by half. This ended with the election of a new tsar in 1613, Michael Romanov, a relative of Ivan the Terrible’s first wife; the new dynasty would last until the revolution of 1917.

(Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 1883-5, by the Russian painter Ilya Repin, 1844-1930. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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