Common Errors (13): Octavian

A very young Octavian (Mainz, Landesmuseum)

A very young Octavian (Mainz, Landesmuseum)

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).

<Overview of Common Errors>

8 Responses to Common Errors (13): Octavian

  1. Kaipias says:

    Repost without links. (The original seems to have been lost in digital oblivion.)

    It’s true that the young Caesar never called himself Octavianus. But what you write here—

    The nifty name Octavian is not recorded before the fourth century: the first reference is Sextus Aurelius Victor, Caesares 1.2.

    —is wrong, I’m afraid.

    * Tacitus (1st cent. AD, Ann. 13.6) calls him Caesar Octavianus.
    * Cassius Dio (2nd cent. AD, Hist. 46.47.4–7) calls him Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus, Γάιος Ἰούλιος Καῖσαρ Ὀκταουιανὸς.

    It would be easy to say that using Octavianus was their choice to ensure technical accuracy as historians, because they were looking for a way to distinguish the two Caesars. But in Dio’s case we see that he actually thought that Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus had been his official name at first. Still, Dio chose himself to use the name Caesar in his writing until the young Caesar was called Augustus.

    Furthermore, most people close to the political turbulences in Rome never called the young Caesar Octavianus, this is correct. But some former enemies of his father, like Cicero, at first called him Caesar Octavianus, e.g. in ad. Fam. 12.23.2 and 12.25.4.

    Later Cicero stopped using the name. Those in the provinces, who at first didn’t know that the young Caesar wasn’t following Roman name customs, didn’t comply at first either, e.g. Asinius Pollio in Hispania, who used the name Octavianus for the young Caesar, quoted by Cicero in ad Fam. 10.33.3 sqq.

  2. THANKS! I will change the text a bit. I am really glad with this useful comment.

  3. Kaipias says:

    And another one: Ὀκταουϊανóν in Plutarchus, ”Antonius” 11.2.4.

    By the way: At this passage incorrectly translates the name as “Octavius”. Mr. Thayer should correct that and not support Loeb’s rewriting of historical sources. 😉

    (Technically he was at that time still called “Octavius”, but that’s not what Plutarchus wrote.)

  4. Alexander says:

    That is an extremely interesting point. My most sincere congratulations on this blog, you’ve gained a loyal follower.

  5. Bill Thayer says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on Ὀκταουϊανóν; since I didn’t key the Greek at all, I have my out — but even when I do key the original language, I rarely compare the translation to it: else I’d never get anything done.

    I hardly support the Loeb edition translations; many of them are only middling, and some (Pliny the Elder, for example) are, at least in spots, downright poor. That said, it’s a slippery and (an ahistorical) slope to going thru and correcting and emending everything to my own liking, or someone else’s. You wouldn’t believe the amount of e-mail I get chastising me for some translation or other by a third-party translator. Portuguese people calling down the wrath of heaven on me for following the translated texts and the habitual custom of calling Hispania “Spain” — I spent nearly a full day on that one, tracking down every instance of it onsite, and making if I remember well, a grand total of two corrections — people with pet theories about what Pliny or Plutarch (the worst ones) really meant — people not finding a received English translation onsite, instead a better one (here Wotton’s 16c translation of Vitruvius “firmness, commodity, and delight” the main ‘omission’ to give offense) — people whose English does not extend to the 1930s and that some perfectly good idiom or other leaves gasping for sense — I’d be overburdened with this stuff, and the webpages would be gangrenous with notes if I went along with even a tenth of it.

    That said, a footnote at the passage you cite does no harm; so: done, q.v. Don’t do it too often, you’ll be in bad company….

  6. Kaipias says:

    Don’t do it too often, you’ll be in bad company…

    Don’t worry. 🙂 It was just convenient to mention the error here, since “Octavian” was the topic of this thread anyway, and since it’s also your blog.

    By the way: Now that I have the chance, I would like to deeply and sincerely thank you for the astonishing and wonderful work on your penelope site. There are times when I use it quite often, and it has saved my day much more than once. Keep up the great work.

  7. Bill Thayer says:

    Yawelcome — you may be amused to hear my view of what I do online: it is by and large donkey work; but I’m fond of saying that even Jesus needed a donkey once. This view, taken in conjunction with Hexagram 48 of the I Ching, also accounts in part for the name “LacusCurtius”.

  8. Eric Kondratieff says:

    Not sure why you have “Caesar Octavianus” listed here as Caesar’s second cousin, when in fact he was Caesar’s great-nephew: Octavian’s mother was Atia, Caesar’s niece through his sister, Julia (the younger). Otherwise, a very enjoyable read (including the comments)
    An example stemma of the Julio-Claudians:

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