Historians have given Julius Caesar’s great-nephew (and later adopted son) the name, Octavian. In reality, the name of this important figure is much more complicated. The man known today as Octavian actually was called, Gaius Octavius, a name he would use until he was eighteen years old.
The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, was the trigger that led to Gaius Octavius’ first change of name. In his last will and testament, Julius Caesar posthumously adopted Gaius Octavius as his son and named the youth as his heir. To strengthen his ties to the fallen dictator’s legacy, Gaius Octavius then took upon himself the name of his adoptive father—Gaius Julius Caesar.
The man we know of as Octavian actually used the name “Caesar” for around seventeen years, persisting even a few years after Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. In 27 BCE, on the suggestion of Lucius Munatius Plancus, the second Caesar accepted his third name, Augustus.
Ancient Roman historians, including Cassius Dio (c. 163-235 CE; writer of the most complete ancient account of Augustus’ reign), also never used the name, Octavian. When addressing Gaius Octavius after 44 BCE, the ancient historians simply called him, Caesar, until he officially adopted the name of Augustus in 27 BCE. Understandably, having two successive dictatorial military leaders known by the name of Caesar can ultimately become confusing to readers, so later historians thankfully began referring to Julius Caesar’s heir as Octavian, for the sake of simplicity.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Augustus of Prima Porta, c. 1st century CE, located in the Vatican Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus (Books 50-56) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and introduced by John Carter. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.