What do I think I know about … August?

1.  August was named in honour of the Emperor Augustus.

2.  August used to be the sixth month of the year.

3. August is the second of only two months named after a human being. 

Consecrated? Able to see the future? Grand and noble? Who me?
Consecrated? Able to see the future? Grand and noble? Who me? Drawing by MD.

The month of Sextilis was renamed in honour of the Emperor Augustus in 8 BCE. 

We remember Augustus as the first Roman Emperor but for most of his long political career he was careful to be seen as an elected official of the state. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

In republican Rome (c. 509–27 BC), imperator denoted a victorious general, so named by his troops or by the Senate. Under the empire (after 27 BC), it was regularly adopted by the ruler as a forename and gradually came to apply to his office. 

In July we saw how Caesar changed from being a family name to a title synonymous with Emperor. Something similar happens with ‘Augustus’. 

Fig and figleaf 28 August 2018
Fig and figleaf 28 August 2018

The man who acquired the name or title of Augustus as well as the name or title of Caesar was born Gaius Octavius in 63 BCE. His great-uncle, his mother’s mother’s brother, was Gaius Julius Caesar. 

In 44 BCE, when his great-uncle was assassinated and Gaius Octavius was only eighteen, he secured official recognition of his status as the murdered man’s adopted son and heir under the name ‘Gaius Julius Caesar’. It seems that he preferred to drop the family name Octavianus, though he is usually known to us from this time until he becomes ‘Augustus’ as ‘Octavian’.  

When, in 42 BCE Julius Caesar was recognised as a god of the Roman state, Octavian’s status as his adopted son was further enhanced. 

He was elected to rule as part of the Second Triumvirate for five years alongside Marc Antony and Lepidus. A second period of five years of the same rule followed. 

Apples harvested 25 August 2018
Apples harvested 25 August 2018

In the course of a decade, by a mixture of diplomacy, waging war, gathering loyalty within the army, pleasing the populace and encouraging ill-feeling towards his rivals, Octavian patiently and systematically out-manoeuvred all of them. In another ten years he was in effect the undisputed leader of the Roman world. 

Taking a lesson from the fate of his great-uncle Julius, Octavian was careful to avoid being viewed as a dictator or someone with pretensions to be crowned a king. He observed the old forms of the republic and once the rule of the Triumvirate was at an end, had himself re-elected every year as Consul.

Though he took several titles and honours and refused others, he is said to have been greatly pleased when, in 30 BCE, following the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, and his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Senate ordered the closing of the doors of the temple of Janus. It was  a great honour to be accepted as the bringer of peace: the doors were always left open in time of war and their closure indicated that, for the time being, ‘all their wars had entirely ceased’.    

Fallen apples August 2018
Fallen leaves and apples August 2018

They were to be opened and closed again several times during his lifetime, but this was a period of relative stability, partly accounted for by the removal of his political rivals and paying off the army with plunder from Egypt.

Even while still a member of the Triumvirate, he removed all reference to his position within that power structure from his coinage, which identified it as having been struck in the name of ‘Caesar, Son of a god’

From 31 to 23 BCE he continued to govern by virtue of successive consulships. Rather oddly, he is credited with bringing back the Republic (the defence of which had been the given reason for his great-uncle’s assassination in the Senate), ‘when in January 27 BCE he ostensibly “transferred the State to the free disposal of the Senate and people,”

Four days later, whether he took the name or it was awarded to him by the Senate, he augmented his name of Caesar with the title. ‘Augustus’. The name had 

an antique religious ring, believed to be linked etymologically with auctoritas and with the ancient practice of augury. The word augustus was often contrasted with humanus; its adoption as the title representing the new order cleverly indicated, in an extraconstitutional fashion, his superiority over the rest of mankind. Encyclopedia Britannica

In 8 BCE it is said that the Senate voted to have the name of the eighth month of the year changed in his honour. Mensis Sextilis (so named because it was the sixth month in the early Roman calendar when counting began with March) was renamed mensis Augustus.

Last of the Red Roses 28 August 2018
Last of the Red Roses 28 August 2018

Could the choice of the eighth month have something to do with his original family name, Octavius? Or could it be that it did him honour to follow the month of Julius, named for his great-uncle? It is also possible that some of greatest achievements in the month renamed in his honour.  

One thing seemed odd: why didn’t Ovid, who was desperately trying to butter up Augustus in order to be released from exile, refer to either of these months by their new names? He published the first part of the Fasti in 8AD, long after these changes were supposed to have taken place. If he wanted to flatter Augustus why would he refer in his introduction to the whole work to ‘Quintilis…the fifth (quintus) month from March’ which ‘begins those that take their names from numerals’?

Perhaps the answer, when I looked more closely (double-check and triple check those ‘facts’!) is only that he begins by referring to the original Roman calendar created (as it is said) by Romulus.

When I looked at the very end of the entry for June, I saw that Ovid does refer to July by that name as the month that will follow at the start of his second book. 

The second part of the Fasti, from July to December, was either never written or never published and Ovid remained in exile. 

There’s another mystery and and once again further sifting through the sands of time required.

Do you have any clues? Please pass them on in the comments!

Meanwhile it’s a timely reminder that ‘facts’ can be rearranged or presented out of context by whoever is keen to pass on their version of history. And sometimes there’s an innocent mistake. 

Legonium August

PS: Have a look at the website Legonium ‘where Latin meets Lego’. It appears to be as reliable a source of succinct written information as any other on the internet. It’s also fun and colourful!  

The summer giant sleeps on
The summer giant sleeps on

5 thoughts on “What do I think I know about … August?

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