Final Research Project: Every Empire Needs an Emperor

Shelby Watford

ARH 351

Final Research Paper

21 April 2015

Every Empire Needs an Emperor

Throughout the class we have learned about many different cultures and early civilizations. In essentially every one there was a period when a strong ruler came into power and created an empire, or at least stabilized the culture for an extended period under their rule. Specifically I will analyze the similarities and differences between the Greek empire that rose and fell under the rule of Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire that emerged under the rule of Augustus Caesar. The Romans most definitely learned and adopted many traditions, styles and culture from the Greeks, but always changing them to give it a Roman twist. The building of an empire is no different. Augustus had to have been thinking of Alexander and how his empire fell after his death, so his Roman twist was building an empire that would last past his death. A few of the works that will be examined are: the Portrait of Alexander the Great, Portrait Bust of Cato the Elder and the Augustus Primaporta.


One major thing that Alexander and Augustus had in common was their influential fathers and the foundation each of them laid for their sons to take charge. Augustus’s father Julius was actually his great uncle who adopted him when his name was Octavius, it became Octavian after adoption and in 26 BCE the senate granted him the name Augustus meaning “the exalted.” Alexander, however, was raised by his birth father King Philip II to be a great leader. Aristotle tutored Alexander from an extremely early age, and at eighteen he took over as leader of the Companion Cavalry to assist his father in defeating the Athenians and the Thebans at the battle of Chaeronea. Leading up to this point King Philip had came to power in 360 BCE and in less than a decade defeated most of Macedonia’s neighboring enemies. Philip put lots of interest on innovations in military technology such as catapults and siege machines, innovations such as these laid the ground work for what Alexander would go on to do. The battle of Chaeronea was the last phase of Philip’s plan to become the sole ruler of Greece, and with the help of Alexander he accomplished it. Shortly thereafter in 336 BCE Philip was assassinated. It was now time for Alexander to take charge, and he had his father to thank for the prime foundation to expand and conquer. (Hemingway)


Augustus was not brought up the same way as Alexander. His great uncle Julius Caesar, the last ruler of the Roman Republic, adopted Augustus. Julius had laid the groundwork in similar fashion the way Philip did for Alexander, and was also assassinated before his own rule could actually begin. It wasn’t until the death of Julius that Augustus learned he was being adopted and named chief personal heir, Augustus was eighteen at the time. Augustus was involved in celebrating public games, which had been instituted by Julius, to incorporate himself into the city populous. He succeeded in winning over a substantial number of Julius’s troops to join his alliance. Essentially the main thing Julius did for Augustus was adopt him; from there Augustus made the calls. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Soon after Augustus had won over the troops the Senate called on him for help against Antony, who was then forced to head Gaul. Augustus then made an agreement with Antony and Marcus Ledipus in which each of them got a five-year doctoral appointment to see over the reconstruction of the state. They came up with a list of political enemies and proceeded to take them out. They executed 300 senators and 2,000 knights who ranked just below the senators. Augustus continued his progression towards becoming emperor by becoming such a successful military leader, though he had some low points along the way such as his first operations against Sextus Sicilian. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Augustus finally assumed full control of Rome after he defeated Antony’s ships at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. As a result of the battle Antony fled with his lover Queen Cleopatra of Egypt who had come to his aid but failed miserably. The couple escaped to Egypt where they then committed suicide. With his opponents now dead, Augustus was the undisputed ruler of Rome. (Fagan)


Now that the foundation has been laid, it’s time to examine the reign of each ruler once they took power. As mentioned earlier Alexander had already become a commander at eighteen; by the age twenty he was king, and by twenty-six he had conquered the Persian Empire. Alexander died at the age of thirty-two, so the fact that he was able to expand the empire so vastly in such a short amount of time speaks volumes to his brilliance as a military leader. However, Alexander was lacking in some other areas like politics and regulation as his main interest, really his only interest was conquest. Alexander’s ambition was unmatched, but his popularity was not so great during his rule. Alexander was actually quite hated among many of the Greeks, one Athenian orator had this to see when he learned of Alexander’s death, “What? Alexander dead? Impossible! The world would reek of his corpse!” Essentially Alexander was simply interested in expanding the empire just because he could, and he has his father to thank for that because without the foundation he laid for Alexander, none of it would have been possible. (Foner)


Augustus was much more politically driven than Alexander. After he defeated Antony in 31 BCE he spent the next four years securing his rule on almost every front, he seized Cleopatra’s treasure, which allowed him to pay his soldiers handsomely to insure their loyalty. To ease the minds of the senate and other powerful classes Augustus passed laws that seemed to stretch back to the Roman Republic. He also put a significant amount of effort into the improvement and beautification of the city of Rome in order to win over the general public. Augustus reigned for forty years, basically doubled the size of the empire by adding new territories in both Europe and Asia and locking down alliances to secure his territory from Britain to India. Much of his time was spent on the move as he was strengthening his power in the provinces by establishing a census and tax system that would span the whole empire. This system led to the expansion of road networks throughout the empire, the foundation of the Praetorian Guard and the Roman Postal Service. He also built a new forum and added more practical services such as a police force and fire departments. Augustus knew he had to have the military might to first become emperor, but it was his political genius that made him such an effective ruler. ( Staff)


When looking at the Portrait of Alexander the Great by Lysippos the first thing that one should notice is Alexander is depicted clean-shaven. This was a huge statement because all portraits done before depicting Greek statesmen or rulers had beards. This marked a shift in royal fashion in art that stood for nearly five hundred years. That being true it highly impacted depictions of Augustus because it spanned well into the Roman Empire. The portrait discussed is one of just a few, mainly due to Alexander only choosing a small number of artist to depict his image, the biggest name being Lysippos. No paintings of Alexander survive, only sculptures and coins. The early depictions of Alexander make him appear more god-like due to his young appearance, long hair, but it does resemble his description in literary sources. Also, Alexander was young throughout his rule dying at thirty-two as mentioned earlier, so the depictions of a young Alexander would make sense because much of conquering was done early on when he was in his twenties. Later on, after his death, depictions began to show him as older and more mature; the sculptures of his younger self were done while he was alive. (British Museum Staff)


Another work that was influenced by the style change under Alexander is the Portrait Bust of Cato the Elder from the Roman Republic; the influence spans into the Roman Empire extensively, but the work analyzed in class is the Augustus Primaporta. The sculpture of Augustus reflects the more individualized and detailed depiction of the face shown in the bust of Cato. The Augustus Primaporta was most likely commissioned by Augustus’s adopted son Tiberius. It is definitely more individualized than the Portrait of Alexander the Great, but the influence is still extremely obvious. One difference besides the facial features being more detailed is Augustus is shown with shorter hair when compared to depictions of Alexander. (Museos Vaticanos)


Everything considered Alexander the Great’s success can credited in part to his father for laying the foundation needed with numerous innovations and advances in military, then the young ambitious ruler set out to conquer with all his resources and never looked back. Similarly Augustus owes partial credit to Julius Caesar for doing him the tremendous favor of adopting him and naming him heir; Augustus took advantage of the opportunity, but was genius in the way he maneuvered to gain complete control of Roman and began a lasting empire. The influence of art from Alexander the Great can be seen in the art of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Overall the Roman Empire under Augustus has many similarities with Greece under Alexander the Great ranging from origins of the respective empires to the art depicting the rulers.


Works Cited

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Augustus”, accessed April 20, 2015,

Hemingway, Colette and Seán Hemingway. “The Rise of Macedonia and the

Conquests of Alexander the Great”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Fagan, Garrett G. “Augustus (31 B.C. – 14 A.D.)”

Foner, Eric and Garraty, John A. “Alexander the Great.” Houghton Mifflin

Harcourt Publishing Company, 1991. Staff, “Augustus” 2009. A&E Networks, 2009.

British Museum Staff, “Portrait of Alexander the Great.”

Museos Vaticanos, “Augustus of Prima Porta.”