It can easily be said that August, without any equivocation or debate, is the suckiest month of the year. It’s way too hot. Students are dreading the start of the school year, just around the corner. There are no holidays, unless you count Ecuadorean independence day. Pre-season football is a joke, TV reruns abound and our only other source of entertainment — a dysfunctional Congress and its pathetic antics — is on recess.
Why do we even bother with such a poor excuse for a month? As with most of our modern-day blights, we can blame the Romans.
August, the month, was named for Augustus, the Roman emperor. Actually, Augustus is only one of several names used by the man who succeeded Julius Caesar and governed the world’s greatest empire around the time of Christ. He was born “Gaius Octavius Thurinus” in 63 B.C., then became “Gaius Julius Caesar” when his great-uncle was assassinated, and later “Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.” It’s probably only due to the Roman Senate’s decision to add the “Augustus” (or “revered one”) that this isn’t known as the “Gaiest” month.
Though it sounds like California is going ahead with that designation anyway.
Augustus appeared to take full advantage of the confusion around what to call him. (Imagine how far you could go in your career if you decided to change your name every now and then — “You say Bob failed to turn in his report yesterday? Good thing my name is Al.”)
His beginnings were fairly humble for someone who was the nephew of a man they’d ultimately name a surgical birthing procedure after. His father died when he was 4, and his mother remarried a man named Philippus. This guy claimed to be descended from Alexander the Great, so you know he was a bit on the self-absorbed side and had little time for young Octavius. Because of this, he was raised by his grandmother, Julia Caesar.
When she died, he gave such a terrific eulogy that his mother and step-father decided he was a good kid after all, and took a more active role in raising him. He held several part-time jobs typical for Roman teenagers — a member of the College of Pontiffs, staging the Greek games that honored the Temple of Venus Genetrix — but what he really wanted was to join his great-uncle’s military campaign in Africa. At first his mom said no, then she said okay, then he got sick and couldn’t make the trip.
Finally, he was well enough to sail to the front, if you can call becoming shipwrecked “sailing.” He made it to shore and crossed hostile territory to reach Caesar’s camp, greatly impressing the mighty general. Since Caesar didn’t have any children of his own, he decided to dash off a new will naming Octavius his heir, and deposited the document with the Vestal Virgins, who were kind of like the probate court of the time, except even more virginal.
After the Africa gig, he spent several years in military training until that fateful Ides of March in 44 B.C. It was only after the assassination that he found he had been adopted by Julius, so of course he felt obliged to mass some troops and arrive in Rome to claim his newly acquired birthright.
There, he encountered Marc Antony — the consul, not the Jennifer Lopez husband — who was to be a rival for succession. They actually got along pretty good at first, though Antony started losing a lot of political support when he opposed the Senate initiative to declare Julius Caesar a god (seems like they should’ve thought of that before he was knifed; he might’ve survived). Octavius, by now called “Octavian,” convinced Antony to take a prolonged vacation in France, which is probably where the modern-day French got the idea to take the entire month of August off.
After everybody chilled out for a while, Antony was allowed to come back to Rome where he, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus (kind of a Sarah Palin who came out of nowhere) formed the Second Triumvirate. They would rule equally for a period of five years, after which they would be term-limited out of office.
The trio set in motion a series of “proscriptions” for some of the senators and other elites who had opposed them. A proscription was not something you got filled at CVS and took twice a day; instead, it meant your property would be appropriated and if you complained at all, you’d be killed. This is even worse than waiting 45 minutes for your meds and then finding out they’re not covered by your insurance.
Octavian’s family life became as complicated as his public career. He wanted a divorce from Clodia Pulchra, who happened to be the daughter of Marc Antony’s first wife. Naturally, Antony’s wife was unhappy with this turn of events so she did what everybody did when they got pissed off in those days — she raised an army. Octavian didn’t much care, and proceeded to marry Scribonia, who gave him his only natural-born child on the same day he dumped her and married Livia Drusilla. (Attention, Newt Gingrich). Meanwhile, Antony married Octavian’s sister, but he soon started diddling Cleopatra on the side. This was the final straw, leading to a great naval battle between Octavian and Antony. Antony lost, and fell on his sword, probably not by accident. Cleopatra did her famous snake-handling shtick and soon both were dead.
Now Octavian could return to Rome and rule unchallenged. This is when the Senate granted him the name Augustus, and gave him power over Rome’s religious, civil and military affairs. They still claimed they’d act as an “advisory body” to Octavian/Augustus, but mostly this ended up consisting of telling him what a great job he was doing.
And in fact, modern-day historians now agree with that assessment. He restored peace after 100 years of civil war, maintained an honest government, improved the infrastructure and fostered free trade. Art and literature flourished under his patronage. The empire expanded to Spain, France and Dalmatia, a small but important region of only 101 inhabitants.
Despite this success, he remained modest when he wasn’t murdering people, and refused to hold a scepter, wear a diadem or don the purple toga of his predecessor, though the latter was due more to the inability of ancient dry-cleaners to get out blood stains.
Augustus died in 14 A.D. while visiting his father’s grave. Always a great fan of the theater and a bit of a drama queen himself, his final words were “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” His body was returned to Rome for a huge funeral at which he was eulogized by Tiberius, the stepson/former son-in-law/adopted son who became the next emperor by virtue of being one of the few family members Augustus decided to leave alone. Augustus was declared a god (again, a little late, if you ask me) and cremated on a pyre close to his mausoleum. There, his ashes rested in peace until Goths sacked Rome in 410 and used them for kitty litter.
Despite a job-hopping resume that included positions as triumvir, general, senator, consul, proconsul, princeps, imperator, tribune, censor, pontifex maximum and pater patriae, Augustus is generally regarded as perhaps the most successful of ancient Roman autocrats. His nature so matched the restlessness that we all feel during this hottest month of the year that naming August after him seems like a fitting tribute.
Let us gaily hail Augustus even as we count the days till a cooler September.