After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, several factions tried to seize power. The assassins themselves were quickly outmanoeuvred by Caesar’s right-hand man and fellow-consul, Marc Antony, who tried to balance the interests of the Caesarian faction with those of the Senate. Readjustment of powers might have been swift, but Antony had one problem: Caesar had adopted his second cousin, a young man named Gaius Octavius.
Back then, it was not uncommon that an adopted son choose a name that commemorated both his adoptive father and his original father. Caesar’s assassin Marcus Junius Brutus, for instance, added Caepio to his name after his adoptive father Quintus Servilius Caepio; and a well-known general named himself Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, the Scipio born in the Aemilian family. Caesar’s adopted second cousin might might have called himself Gaius Octavius Caesar or Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.
Historians always call him just Octavian, as if he choose the latter. Two Caesars is indeed a bit complex, if only because they both launched civil wars and both staged a coup d’état. After Senior had destroyed the Republic, Junior founded the monarchy, accepting the surname Augustus in 27 BCE.
It’s not just laymen who think that the young son, between the moment of his adoption and the moment he was proclaimed Augustus, called himself Octavian. But he was no fool: “The name of Caesar was the young man’s fortune”, as the well-known ancient historian Ronald Syme summarized Junior’s position in his famous The Roman Revolution (1939).