In 63 BCE, Julius Caesar’s niece, Atia, gave birth to Octavius—the one who would succeed Julius Caesar in 44 BCE and be given the title of Augustus in 27 BCE. According to stories and tales recorded by Suetonius (c. 70-130+), young Augustus had an aura of greatness even in his youngest years. The following stories are all likely folklore or embellished rumor, yet they also show the exceptional reputation that Augustus had, or at least the reputation that his propagandists wanted to portray. Regardless of value and historical accuracy, old tales and folklore are worth recording, if not for the sake of preservation, then for the mere pleasure of entertainment.
At the end of his section on Augustus in The Twelve Caesars (sections 94-97), Suetonius listed around twenty-one omens or supernatural incidents that were said to have occurred during the ruler’s life. Some of the most bizarre entries in the list reportedly occurred during Augustus’ childhood and adolescence.
One of the odd events supposedly occurred when Augustus was still a baby. As the story goes, baby Augustus was placed in a cradle for a night on the ground floor of his family’s mansion in Velitrae, located southeast of Rome. When dawn came, a nurse checked on Augustus, only to find that the baby was nowhere to be seen. The family and staff frantically formed into a search party and scoured the property and surrounding community for the missing infant. After some time, one of the searchers investigated a nearby tall tower. Low and behold, the baby Augustus was apparently found lying on his back atop the tower, staring up at the sky as if he was communing with the gods.
A few years later, when Augustus was learning to talk, another bizarre incident was reported to have occurred. As the story goes, little Augustus was lounging or studying somewhere on his family’s Velitrae estate when an army of frogs interrupted the young boy’s peace of mind with their incessant croaking and ribitting. Annoyed, the future autocrat called upon his newfound knowledge of language to loudly order the frogs to be quiet. According to the tale, the frogs immediately obeyed Augustus’ command, and, supposedly, no croaks or ribbits could be heard at that spot even in Suetonius’ time.
During Augustus’ adolescence, when he was able to wander freely, the future ruler of Rome supposedly had another strange encounter with an animal. One day, Augustus was eating lunch beside the Campanian Road when a mischievous eagle swooped down and snatched a piece of bread from the young man’s hand. The eagle, a bird beloved by the Romans, took to the skies, clutching the stolen bread in its talons. Augustus watched the eagle triumphantly fly in circles with its prize, but after a few minutes, the eagle landed once more beside the future ruler and returned the piece of bread to his hand—a powerful omen, indeed.
One more tale, from when Augustus first began wearing senatorial garb, serves as a fitting end to the odd stories from the ruler’s childhood. Augustus apparently did not seek Julius Caesar’s advice on how to wear his tunic and toga—Caesar reportedly always wore his clothing loosely fit. Nevertheless, when Augustus was first allowed to wear a senatorial tunic, he evidently ignored Caesar’s example and wore his clothing with tight tailoring. This decision, however, had embarrassing consequences. According to Suetonius, Augustus accidentally ripped his tunic on the very day he was celebrating his coming of age. The rip was allegedly so extensive that the senatorial garment fell to the floor. Witnesses of this scene supposedly did not laugh or find the spectacle amusing. Instead, they were reportedly afraid, for some interpreted it to mean that the Roman Senate, like the ripped senatorial tunic, would soon be groveling at Augustus’ feet.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Roman statue of a child, c. 200-300 A.D., held in the L.A. County Museum of Art, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.