Episode 31 – Augustus versus Catherine the Great

Today, we head back to the Leaders bracket for a real heavyweight bout. First, we have the founder of the Roman Empire, Gaius Octavius Thurinus, better known as Augustus. In the other corner, we will meet Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, she is better known as the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great.

Emperor Augustus
Emperor Augustus

Gaius Octavius Thurinus was born on September 23, 63 BC, into an old equites’ family, a rank right below the senatorial class. The Equites class is similar to the medieval knights. Octavianus, which is the Latin pronunciation of his name, was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, through his mother’s side of the family. When Caesar adopted him, his name changed, as per Roman custom to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. This was one of five names he would be known as throughout his life. Other’s included Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius, with the Divi Filius meaning Son of the Divine. Then Imperator Caesar Divi Filius, with the term Imperator being the title given to him by his troops. The last was Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus which roughly translates to Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine, the Increaser, Majestic or Venerable. 

Octavius, in his childhood, was raised by his grandmother Julia after his father died when he was four. When she died seven years later, his stepfather and mother took over raising the young boy. Around 46 BCE, he headed off to Hispania to join his great-uncle Julius Caesar on campaign. While headed there, his boat shipwrecked. Octavius and some of the survivors had to traverse hostile territory to make it to Caesar’s camp. 

His great-uncle took him under his wing and was so impressed by the young teenager that when they returned to Rome, he named Octavius, his heir. When Caesar was murdered on March 15, 44 BCE, the young man decided to head back to Rome to claim his inheritance despite the warnings of his friends.

Now called Octavian, he began to appeal to Caesar’s loyal soldiers who started to come to his side. This helped him with his uneasy alliance with Marc Antony who felt that he was the rightful heir. In October 43 BCE, Antony, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Octavian formed what was known as the Second Triumvirate.  This trio, also known as the Triumvirs, went after the assassins of Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius in 42 in northern Greece.

In October of 40 BCE, Antony and Octavian decided to split the majority of the Roman world between themselves with Lepidus getting the minor province of Africa. Antony would get the east and Octavian the west. To solidify the deal, Antony married Octavian’s older sister, Octavia to be his fourth wife. As you may know by now, this was not to be his last. 

Octavian was now known as Caesar with the Divi Filius added as Julius Caesar had already been deified. The soon to be Augustus, we will begin to use that name from here on in, was a master politician with designs on ruling all of the Roman Empire. Antony, on the other hand, was not very good at building a strong political base in Rome. A matter of fact, he made a major historical blunder, he began to live openly with his old boss’s girl, Cleopatra. To make things worse, Augustus had found a copy of Antony’s will in 32 BCE which he read out loud to the public which said, in part, that if he should die in Italy, he requested that his body be buried in Alexandria to be with his love Cleopatra. This was scandalous. 

This led to the famous Battle of Actium which we will learn more about in episode 76 when it faces off against the Battle of Tenochtitlan. Here, in a naval battle, Antony’s forces were defeated with both Mark Antony, and Cleopatra forced to flee where they both committed suicide. The numerous Civil Wars that plagued the Roman empire for decades was now over. Augustus reigned supreme.

Augustus was a shrewd man and knew that he had to make it look like he wasn’t the dictator that he was to become. In 27 BCE, he feigned giving up his power to the Senate, knowing full well that they would not accept it as he had loaded the body with his men after spending years ridding himself of any potential enemies. He would become what the ancient Romans called, Pater Patriae or Father of his country. Another name for a benevolent despot.

The Augustan Age as it is called was an era of rebuilding, especially in Rome. The empire had been wracked by war which drained the treasury. With peace, came prosperity. Many of the neglected buildings in Rome were renovated, many new ones were built like the Theater of Marcellus, the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, as well as the massive Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Mars. 

As peaceful as the Age of Augustus seems to be, it was not without conflict. There was the complete annexation of Egypt by 30 BCE, guaranteeing a supply of wheat to Rome as well as Cantabrian War of 26-25 in Spain and the fights against the Germanic tribes near the Rhine where we shall learn about the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in episode 34, wherein 9 AD, three Roman legions were destroyed, leading Augustus to cry out, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

When Augustus died on August 19, 14 AD, he left a legacy in Rome that was to last for almost 1500 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. He transformed Rome, ended the civil war, created a standing army, and established the Praetorian Guard. 

Time for our putting it into perspective segment.

During Augustus’s lifetime, Yuan becomes emperor of the Han dynasty in China, the city of Lyon was founded, then known as Lugdunum, the fortress of Masada is completed, and the wheelbarrow is invented.

Now is the time to head over to our second contestant, a Germanic woman who was, strangely enough, was to become one of the most outstanding leaders in Russian history, Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great

Born on April 21, 1729, Sophie Augusta Fredericka was born the daughter of Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp and Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst. Sophie was the child her mother wanted as she much preferred a boy who would come about a year later. Johanna shunned her daughter in the early years, thinking that little would come of her. She was sure that Sophie would be married off to some lowly prince within Prussia, or better yet, in Sweden where her family was related to King Charles XIII.

Her family, while of noble blood was relatively poor; her father was a major general in the Prussian army. They lived in a castle in Stetten where they made do with what relatively little they had. This so-called poverty was vastly better though than the typical peasant of the time, but it made Johanna bristle. She wanted to be part of court intrigues, to play political games and to rise above the rank she had at the time. 

We know much about her childhood as the future Tsarina of Russia was to write an autobiography of her formative years. We also have a great deal of correspondence between Catherine and others like the French philosopher Voltaire. This gives us an incredible insight into her tumultuous times. 

Her early education was guided by her governess Babet Cardel whom she loved along with some other tutors one of whom was the Lutheran Pastor Dowe. He was frequently enraged with young Sophie as she always wanted to get rational explanations for church doctrines instead of accepting them as is. But he had to grudgingly admit that the girl had a remarkable memory and voracious appetite for knowledge. This was to serve Sophie well throughout her life.

In 1739, she accompanied her parents to a party thrown by Johanna’s cousin Augustus Fredrick of Holstein-Gottorp, the future King of Sweden.  At the party, her mother was finally proud of her daughter as she made conversation with a sickly-looking boy, one Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, grandson of Peter the Great.

Almost immediately, rumors passed around about who would become engaged to be married to the potential heir of both Russia and Sweden. Johanna and Sophie were intrigued by the possibilities about the Russian throne although the current ruler, Ivan VI through the regent Anna Leopoldovska was a barrier. Then on December 6, 1741, that barrier dropped as Elizabeth I took over the throne of Russia in a coup.

In the years that followed, Elizabeth, who was the epitome of an autocrat, began to seriously look at her options for an heir as she was not married and would have no children. She settled on her nephew, the future Peter III. The Tsarina went about looking for a wife for the teenager and eventually settled on Sophia. Summoning her to St. Petersburg in 1744, Johanna tagging along, of course, the future bride made an excellent impression of Elizabeth right away. Peter was initially smitten with his future wife, something that would not last very long. Sophia was shocked with her soon to be husband’s appearance as he was skinny and pretty ugly, but she knew her duty 

As was the custom in those times, especially in Russia, Sophia had to adopt the official religion of her new country, Russian Orthodoxy. Christened Catherine, she took on the task of immersing her self in Orthodoxy with great enthusiasm. This was a very astute move as it would endear her in the future with the Russian people.

Their marriage was not a pleasant one, with Catherine taking lovers, discreetly of course. Peter had a mistress spent no time with his wife. When Empress Elizabeth died, in 1761, Peter III ascended to the throne, leaving Catherine in a very, very vulnerable position.

The new Tsar was threatening to put Catherine in a monastery and marry his mistress. Peter for his part was extremely unpopular with many of the elite in Russia as he had just pulled their army out of the Thirty Years War when the defeat of Fredrick the Great was almost a certainty, things you will hear more about in future episodes. The time to rid themselves of Peter was now. With Catherine’s approval, a coup was undertaken with the intent to force his abdication, but instead, he was killed in the struggle, something that Catherine had a hard time with, but even worse, would cause their son, the future Paul I to despise his mother, leading to laws when he took over that would help lead to the end of the Romanov’s.

Coronated on September 22, 1762, Catherine firmly in control of Russia, she would continue with the Westernization policies of Peter the Great, something that the nobility of the time would embrace as opposed to her predecessor, which we heard about back in episode 1. 

Catherine was very reform-minded during the early years of her reign which is something that Russia desperately needed. But, there is one thing that she did that epitomizes why she was given the name the Great, she volunteered to have herself vaccinated against smallpox, the scourge of humankind when doing so frightening to many. The successful vaccination showed her people that the procedure was safe and many of her countrymen were spared this life-threatening disease because of her bravery.

The one thing we can give her a negative mark on is her increasing the burden on the serfs of Russia. These were slaves for all intents and purposes. They lived a miserable life, and Catherine knew it. Still, she could not bring herself to free them or to give them a better life. Partly because of that, the largest revolt in Russian history until the Russian Revolution in 1917 broke out. It is known as the Pugachev Rebellion, something we heard about in episode three. Hundreds of thousands took up arms, so many that it brought fear to Catherine’s heart. She had it crushed without mercy which led her to put a halt to her reform platform.

During her years as Tsarina, she had numerous lovers, many of whom she conferred with on affairs of state. None though were as influential as Grigori Potemkin. He would be her right-hand man for years until his death in 1791. Catherine’s son Paul despised Potemkin, and when he became Tsar, he ordered Grigori’s body disentombed and thrown into the river, but no one ever followed through.

I have researched Catherine for quite some time, and I find it interesting that she was included in a book called Tyrants: History’s 100 Most Evil Despots and Dictators, but I find her inclusion odd as the chapter about her talks more about her sexual escapades, many of which are way overblown. And no, there was never a horse involved.

If you are Polish, it is conceivable that she is looked down upon as during her reign, Poland was divided up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, but this is no different than many before and after her. She did add 200,000 square miles to the Russian Empire, was a major patron of the arts, improved relations with Great Britain, and encouraged farmers from Germany to settle in the area of the Volga River Valley.

When Catherine the Great died of a stroke on November 17, 1796, at the age of 67, her son Paul became the heir apparent. This was not what she had planned. Catherine was about to announce that her grandson, the future Alexander I was to become the new Tsar. She had no trust that her son Paul had any ability to run a country as large and complex as Russia and she was absolutely right. He was to be Tsar for a little over 4 years before he too, like his father before him, was murdered in a coup attempt, allowing Alexander to replace him.

Her life was impressive considering her somewhat humble early life. Catherine was a giant of a leader much less being one of the most powerful women in world history. Her influence over the affairs of Russia earned her the sobriquet of the Great, something only three others in the history of her country ever earned, Peter I, Ivan III and Vladimir.

Now for our putting it into perspective segment. During her reign, Marie Antoinette married the future King Louis XVI, The United States of America declared its independence, Russia establishes an outpost in Kodiak, Alaska, Sydney Australia is founded, and the British Royal Navy makes the consumption of lemon juice mandatory on its ships to prevent scurvy.

Let’s begin the scoring for these two titans of history. 

The first fifteen points for the length of their reigns is first. Augustus took control of the Roman Empire in 27 BCE and ruled until 14 AD for a total of 41 years. Catherine the Great began her reign in July of 1762 until her death in November of 1796 or 34 years. The Roman Emperor gets 15 points, the Russia Tsarina get 13. 

Next up is the 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This is a tough one as both had enormous impacts on the world. Augustus was the ruler of a massive empire, it expanded and fortified itself against potential invaders. Catherine also greatly expanded Russia’s borders, partitioned Poland, and fought numerous foreign wars as well. For these reasons, I’m giving both heads of state the full 20 points.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history. To be honest, both have had influences on world history, although faded. Augustus did set up a system that lasted until the fall of Constantinople, but that ended in 1453. He expanded the Roman Empire, but others like Trajan went even further. Catherine is in a similar boat. Her reign, while considered to be the Golden Age of Russia, left a lot of unsolved problems like serfdom in place. Her allowance of her incapable son Paul to ascend to the throne and his subsequent laws of succession are part of the reason why the Romanov’s 300 plus year reign would end in 1917. Both left us with amazing monuments of architecture which still leave us in awe. This is one of the toughest scoring determinations I’ve had to make so far, but I’ve decided to give Augustus the ever so slight edge, 25 to 24 for Catherine. 

Next up is the big point award of 40 points for how the affected their country for the better. Augustus ended the civil wars, left his country safer, larger, economically more stable and in far better shape than he left it. Catherine for her part built a better educational system, was a patron of the arts and did much to improve the lives of many Russians, except that of the serfs. While slavery was part of both empires, Catherine knew that serfdom was wrong and evil, but she did nothing to change the lives of such a significant number of Russians. In Augustus’s time, slavery was seen differently, and the Emperor did put into place many laws that improved the lives of slaves, something Catherine did not do. For these reasons, Augustus gets the full 40 points with Catherine getting 30.

The final total is Augustus getting the maximum number of 100 points with Catherine getting 87. The first Roman Emperor is heading off to the second round where he will face off against the winner of the battle between the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, and American President during its Civil War, Abraham Lincoln.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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