Augustus' life offers lessons on succession

By Christopher P. Casey

Empires, like many family businesses, may fail, flounder or prosper, yet most seek to pass ownership to succeeding generations. From the standpoint of continuity and longevity, the Roman Empire was perhaps history’s most successful. And yet its first emperor, Augustus, was an unlikely successor to that of his great uncle, Julius Caesar.

Born Gaius Octavius and commonly known as Octavian, the 18-year-old inherited Caesar’s wealth and name but possessed little else in competing with the Roman Senate and Mark Antony for control of the Republic. However, Octavian not only succeeded and surpassed them and the legacy of Julius Caesar in power but also established an empire that lasted for hundreds of years. He was later known as Augustus, often translated as “that which the gods brought,” or “sacred/revered.” (For simplicity, he will be called “Augustus” henceforth in this article.) The lessons illustrated by his ascension to power, longevity of rule and ability to convey imperial control provide valuable guidance for the family business owners of today and tomorrow.

1. Stick to your strengths, not those of your predecessor. Few children of entrepreneurs possess the same characteristics that enabled their predecessor to succeed. Similarly, Augustus lacked the military genius of Julius Caesar, arguably the greatest military leader in history. Although Caesar, just prior to his death, appointed Augustus to senior military command for the planned but never executed expedition against the empire Parthia, Augustus never led troops in campaign or commanded a battle.

Although he never tested his abilities on the battlefield, Augustus knew his predecessor’s strength did not transfer to him. He relied on the best military minds he could find, primarily that of Marcus Agrippa (most famously in the battle of Actium against Mark Antony in 31 b.c.).

Augustus relied upon his strength of conciliation rather than Caesar’s strength of confrontation. For example, the standards of Roman legions, considered sacred, were lost many years earlier when the army under Marcus Crassus was defeated by Parthia in the Battle of Carrhae. The return of the standards was paramount and worthy of battle. Yet Augustus accomplished their return through diplomacy, an essential skill he possessed. Leadership, a key to succession, requires the optimal use of an individual’s unique skill set, regardless of the predecessor’s talents.

2. Learn from your predecessor’s mistakes. Julius Caesar’s fatal flaw was his desire to be recognized as a monarch. Rome had experimented with monarchy years before, ending with the murder of its last king, Tarquin. The Roman people in Caesar’s era, despite his immense popularity, still possessed a strong republican spirit.

Caesar ac-cumulated unprecedented powers and privileges while testing the tempers of society. He had his likeness minted on a coin (reserved for divine beings). He sequentially held the office of consul and the titles of tribune (which offered him immunity despite being traditionally forbidden to patrician family members) and high priest (pontificus maximus).

The final straw for many conspirators, including their leader, Brutus, was the incident at the feast of the Lupercalia. In a carefully arranged episode, Mark Antony offered the monarchy to Caesar before the assembled crowd through the presentation of a diadem (a purple ribbon reserved for kings). Three times Caesar refused the offer, but the event was perceived as staged with an unexpected outcome (since the crowd favored his refusal rather than the offer).

Soon thereafter, Caesar secured the position of dictator perpetuo, abandoning all temporal limitations typically associated with the position. Neither Caesar’s unmistakable intent nor the momentum toward his accumulation of total power could be further borne or tolerated. Within months, the assassins struck.

Perhaps, had Caesar proceeded more slowly, he might have achieved his royal objective. Augustus, seeking the same goal, moved with greater subtlety and patience in securing total power without royal symbolism, titles or trappings. Likewise, successors should critically reexamine the strategic, operational and financial policies of their predecessors no matter how powerful or beloved the previous generation(s) may have been.

3. Act carefully in implementing change. Always adhering to his motto, “make haste, slowly,” Augustus sought power while meticulously observing legal technicalities. For example, at one point Augustus surrendered all powers he had accumulated to the Senate, which technically restored the Republic (although all such powers were immediately restored to Augustus by vote). The Senate, no longer dismissed or neglected but rather consulted as a partner by Augustus, rewarded him accordingly. Titles (short of the royal or the divine) and power were bestowed without demands until Augustus became the de facto emperor.

Augustus carefully manipulated public perception as much as he did Roman law. Although the Senate granted numerous titles, he preferred princeps (“first citizen”). While he allowed himself to be recognized as divi filius (“son of a god,” from his adoption by the deified Caesar), he avoided any direct worship. Likewise, he abstained from a lavish lifestyle and never built a palace.

To avoid tragic missteps and to minimize the likelihood of resignations by key employees, succeeding business owners should “make haste, slowly” until they possess a clear command of the business’s strategic, operational and financial goals and constraints.

4. Avoid leadership by committee. Many business owners, fearing the perception of favoring one child over another, will implement egalitarian or vague management or ownership structures. Such measures often hamper the operational or strategic goals of the company. Augustus, before securing imperial power, encountered a similar situation with Mark Antony after they jointly crushed the forces of the senators who wished to restore the Republic after Caesar’s assassination.

In the Treaty of Brundisium, Antony and Augustus divided the empire along geographic lines, with Antony taking the east (Greece, Egypt, etc.) and Augustus the west (Gaul, Italy, etc.). To cement the relationship and in order to bind the two most powerful men in the empire together, Antony married Augustus’ sole sister, Octavia. Despite the separate geographic realms, each possessed the same authority and responsibilities, which inevitably led to tensions building between them until Antony’s eventual defeat at Actium. This battle’s modern-day business ownership equivalent, a shareholders’ dispute between relatives, can also be devastating but potentially avoided by establishing clear divisions of responsibilities and overall leadership.

5. Choose your successor wisely. Augustus here serves as an example of what not to do. Originally, Augustus had many heirs from whom to choose. However, either through bad luck or foul play, each potential successor met an untimely death or was exiled: Marcellus in 23 b.c., Aggripa in 12 b.c., Lucius in 2 a.d., Gaius in 4 a.d., and Postumus in 7 a.d. (exiled).

Augustus’ wife, Livia, convinced Augustus to name as heir her son Tiberius (from her former husband). Although he never personally liked Tiberius, Augustus had no choice but to agree with Livia’s suggestion. While an effective general, the morose Tiberius is infamous today because of his sexual perversions and cruelty.

Business owners should always consider developing succession plans prior to or soon after founding or buying a company. In addition to drafting a plan, they should take steps to select and develop candidates.

From togas to ties

Upon crossing the legal boundary marked by the river Rubicon and illegally marching on Rome, Caesar is quoted as saying alea iacta est (“let the dice fly high”)—a reference to the huge risk he had undertaken. But if business owners look to the example of Augustus instead of Caesar, they can greatly minimize risks in pursuing a successful succession. The substitution of togas for ties does not change the nature of man—the understanding of which, at its most fundamental level, is the key to succession planning. The seeds of successful or failed business succession remain constant throughout time.

Christopher P. Casey, CFA ( is a managing director at WindRock Wealth Management LLC.









Copyright 2013 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact


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July/August 2013

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