These emperors are famous for a couple of reasons.
First, we know a lot about them. Two authors of the second century, Tacitus and Suetonius, have left us detailed accounts.
The first, Tacitus, was a senator active on either side of the
year A.D. 100. As a young
middle-aged man, he survived the reign of terror of the emperor Domitian. Domitian's reign made an indelible impact on him. Although he was happy under Domitian's successors, or claimed to be, Tacitus always saw the imperial past in dark colors. He was also a literary genius in depicting
that past. He is famous for writing in a very concise but evocative style. It is Tacitus, for instance, who put these famous words into a barbarian chief's mouth: "the Romans make a desert and call it peace." His style has a lot of malice hidden behind a facade of judicious impartiality. His
work is available in English, and well worth a look.
The other source, a man named Suetonius, was not a statesman-author:
he was a minor
politician who became a popular author. He wrote books on antiquities, famous authors, science, grammar, anything that people might be curious about. To give you the idea, one of his lost works was Lives of the Famous Whores. Suetonius's most famous book is the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which includes brief biographies of rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian. His biographies are full of scandal and trivia.
The second reason the period is famous follows quite naturally from Suetonius. Hijinks in high places have a perennial appeal, and these emperors, and the people who wrote about them, give us an ample supply.
Two of the emperors are of particular interest for those who love scandal.
One is Nero, the last
Julio-Claudian emperor, and the most famous. We've all heard that he fiddled while Rome burned; he is well-known as the first imperial persecutors of Christians; and he is commemorated in the Biblical Book of Revelations as Antichrist. The number of the Beast, 666, is generally thought to be numerologically derived from his name.
His uncle Caligula is almost as famous. If you want to make a sex movie with cultural pretensions, Caligula is the ideal subject -- all the necessary material is in Suetonius. Caligula is the one emperor that contemporaries thought was mad: he presented himself at Rome -- not just in the provinces but in Rome and to his closest associates -- as a living god, and seemed at times to believe it himself.
Most popular ideas of the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" are derived from movies or stories about this period. It is so easy, for one thing, to play off the corrupt and lascivious emperors and empresses of this time against stock figures of early Christian virtue. But it is hard to say whether the ruling class of this time was more corrupt than at other times. The sexual tastes of Trajan, a second-century conqueror often considered in ancient times to be the best of emperors, would make him liable to criminal prosecution in Canada today. But this was never used against him by ancient writers..
In fact, the empire came nowhere near falling in this period.
It usually takes more than
sexual debauchery and a single mad emperor to destroy an empire.
Besides the 2000-year-old gossip, what is the interest of the time? The first half of the first century was a time when the Roman empire was fairly quiet, certainly compared to the previous century. Rome, no longer racked by civil wars, was slowly absorbing the vast amount of territory that it had gulped down since 200 B.C. The development of the emperorship is one of the most dramatic aspects of imperial history. This gives us our excuse for the gossip.
The essential political problem of the Roman establishment now
was this: The rule established by Augustus was both a monarchy and
not a monarchy. Augustus, you will recall, had restored the republic
-- all the old offices continued to exist, and so did elections for them.
vast and unique power was explained away as a combination of powers that had belonged to various officials in the old republic. This charade existed to keep Augustus from seeming to be what he was -- a king.
It was clear for a long time before Augustus died that he would be succeeded by a relative designated by him. Few objected to this in principle, and those who did kept quiet. Probably most political people could not visualize stability without a princeps. But the republican charade made the problem of succession less certain than it might have been.
The succession was made dicier by the lack of suitable heirs. The fact that Augustus had no sons was the least of it. Adoption was a practical and socially accepted option for any man looking for an heir to carry on his name. After all, Augustus was an adopted heir, and a Julian only by adoption. But Augustus's choices kept on dying.
Eventually, his stepson Tiberius, the son of his wife Livia, became
his heir for lack of a real alternative. Tiberius, though capable,
was not someone who Augustus liked. Before he bit the
bullet, the empire had been through a long nervous period where the political future was uncertain.
The problems of Augustus in finding an acceptable heir were reflected
all down the line. Not a single Julio-Claudian emperor was followed
by his own son; most were followed by adopted heirs or relatives who were
not their first choice. Every change of emperors was a period of
Indeed, the city and the imperial court were preoccupied by the question
of succession almost throughout this period. The politics of Rome
became a matter of who was allowed access to the autocrat; who was maneuvering
for control of his policy; and who was next in line, and who
would have access to him. The whole atmosphere was one of plots and intrigue: intrigue directed at emperors by their subjects; intrigue directed by one heir against another; intrigue among wives, courtiers and mistresses. There were many trials for treason and imperially approved assassinations of those who seemed to be a threat.
It appears in the pages of Tacitus as a bloody period, by and large,
but we must qualify that. It
was generally aristocratic blood that was shed, and retail rather than wholesale. There were no civil wars. Political power was decided not by marching armies, electoral riots, or mass proscriptions. Instead, all the fighting was within a small circle of rich and well-connected senators and
equestrians, and power was decided by poison, daggers, mysterious deaths in exile, and by the suicides of those who knew they had irredemiably lost the imperial favor.
Thus the difference between the Late Republic and the Early Empire. It is easy to see this as the tale of crazy men, but the craziness was just as much in the system as the individuals.
Augustus died in A.D. 14. His adopted son Tiberius was known to be his choice as an immediate successor.
What was Tiberius like? He was a tried and competent man in his 50s. In earlier days he had been a capable general. He was a cold man, but this may be because he was unhappy. Years ago, Augustus had forced him to divorce a wife he loved and marry Augustus' daughter Julia, to provide Augustus's grandsons with an influential guardian. The marriage had been a complete failure, and Tiberius was embittered.
In recent years, Tiberius had shared with Augustus the tribunician power and the proconsular power that were the emperor's official claims on authority. So from one point of view, there was no need to do anything to recognize this succession. But psychologically, the loss of Augustus was disorienting. For nearly half a century, every important issue had hung on the decision of one man, and now he was gone.
There was a solemn meeting of the senate, and Tiberius was asked what
he wanted. Tiberius stated that he did not see how any one man could
replace the fallen father of the country. The whole senate, working
together, would run the state better than he would. When this was
greeted with astonishment, Tiberius said at the most, he could only take
on part of the responsibilities formerly
held by Augustus. One senator took him seriously, and asked what part of the job he would like. Tiberius hesitated a long time, then refused to choose part of a burden that he did not want at all. By the end of the session, of course, he had been convinced to take it all on.
Tacitus, who thought the worst of Tiberius, thought the whole affair was a charade, and he may have been right. But perhaps there was some real hesitation on Tiberius's part to take on a position that he would not enjoy. It seems quite clear that he did not enjoy it.
Tiberius's reign was not very dramatic. Augustus had said in his
will that it would be a good idea to maintain Roman boundaries where he
had left them. Tiberius stuck to that, though it took some effort.
His nephew Germanicus, a favorite of Augustus, was in charge of
the armies on the
Rhine, and he had to be restrained from launching glorious enterprises in that theater. Germanicus was something of a golden boy, and the heir apparent. Though Tiberius had a son, Augustus had liked Germanicus, and forced Tiberius to adopt him. Until he died, Germanicus was a thorn in
Tiberius's side, and made the old emperor look stodgy and unworthy by comparison. Tiberius's own successful military career was forgotten.
Tiberius was also unpopular because he balanced the budget. He did not court popularity with shows and spectacles, at least not as much as he might have. Competent but unlovable, that was Tiberius.
As the years went on, Tiberius withdrew from public view as much as
practical, or even more. He had a palace on the pleasant isle of
Capri and spent long periods of time there, instead of in Rome. Our
historians tell us he occupied himself entirely in sexual depravity; but
on the other hand
they show him cloistered with a small circle of scholars and jurists. These things are not incompatible, but one suspects that the unpopular Tiberius may have attracted invective he did not deserve, once he was dead.
Tiberius's later years, the years of psychological and even physical removal from politics, saw the rise of the first overmighty minister in imperial history, a man named Sejanus. Though not quite a nobody, he was a man whose main source of power was his position as praetorian prefect, which gave him control of the praetorian guard -- a special body of 9000 troops stationed in and around Rome to protect the capital and the emperor. Praetorian prefect was a new office, unknown under the republic, but in the new era it potentially was more important than the consulate.
Sejanus used this position to make himself indispensable to Tiberius and a terror to everyone else. Sejanus overshadowed everyone else at court, including Tiberius's own son -- who died, who knows of what. There is a story of Sejanus's behavior that indicates his power. To show an enemy how unwise it would be to oppose him, Sejanus had the enemy's house destroyed -- and then rebuilt the house at his own expense.
At some point Sejanus decided he would be Tiberius's successor, and
worked on eliminating rivals. With both Tiberius's son and
Germanicus dead, Sejanus worked on eliminating Germanicus's children and
widow. The widow and one of the sons died before their grandmother
got to the emperor
and turned him against the prefect. Sejanus was executed, as were many of his allies in politics.
Tiberius's last years went by in a cloud of suspicion. A good number of senators and others were condemned for treason. It was these years above all that finished off the second emperor's reputation. Unlike Julius Caesar and Augustus, he was not accorded divine honors after his death.
When Tiberius died in A.D. 37, he was succeeded by the eldest surviving
son of Germanicus, Gaius. Gaius, 25 years old, was Tiberius's
great-nephew. He is better known his nickname Caligula, which
means "Little Boots," or more accurately "Little Soldier Boots."
He had got the name as a young child when he had been living with his father
in a legionary camp
on the Rhine.
In 37, Caligula, son of a popular, flamboyant and manly general, looked like a new dawn of hope. He was a clever and witty man. But the new dawn turned false quickly. Some say he went mad after a severe illness. He became convinced that he was a living god and could do whatever he liked. On rejecting some advice from his grandmother, he told her to remember that he had the right to do anything to anybody. This included killing them or raping them, both of which pastimes he indulged in to a considerable degree. One of his most notable lines came when he heard that his brother, who feared for his safety, was taking antidotes against poisoning: "What," he said, "can there be an antidote against Caesar?"
His most famous deed, perhaps, was committing incest with one of his
sisters. At least it was incest in Roman terms. Caligula probably
thought it was divine behavior, and with some reason.
After all, Jupiter had married his sister, as had Mars the war god; and brother-sister marriage was reasonably common in divine-right monarchies of the recent past.
Caligula was an erratic man, and no one knew what he might do next. Eventually this became intolerable, and he was killed by a member of his praetorian guard in A.D. 41.
Here we come to a turning point in the history of the Principate, the early empire. The senate had seen how dangerous the absolute power of the princeps could be, and there was serious debate about eliminating the office and going back to Republican rule.
But the senators found themselves quickly pre-empted. While they
debated, the praetorian guards
were running wild through Caligula's palace. In the course of looting one room, a soldier found an old man hiding behind a curtain. It was Claudius, Caligula's uncle, younger brother of the famous Germanicus. For the past half-century, Claudius had been an embarrassing secret of the imperial
family. Because he shambled and drooled, he was considered an idiot. But in the current situation, Claudius soon found himself being saluted as Caesar by the praetorians.
This has been viewed as a bid by the praetorians to save their cushy and profitable jobs. Once they had found their princeps, in the shape of the forgotten fool of the family, they were able to save those good jobs. They marched Claudius to the senate house, and forced the senators to accept their nomination. This military coup was a foretaste of the future.
Once on the throne, Claudius proved to be neither a fool nor a tool of the military. In fact, he was quite a learned man, and wrote among other things a history of the Etruscans -- unfortunately lost. His literary efforts are actually not that rare among the earlier Roman empire. Until about A.D. 200, almost every emperor, following aristocratic fashion, either wrote poetry, drama, or autobiography, or pretended that he did. But Claudius may have been the most serious of them. This is why Robert Graves chose him as the narrator of I, Claudius, his quite accurate novel treatment of the Julio-Claudians.
Claudius also proved himself, militarily, if that's the term, by conquering
Britain. Britain presented
dangers -- since it was refuge for anti-Roman Gauls -- and opportunities -- since southern Britain was a rich agricultural country and had some metal deposits, too.
Early in Claudius' reign, a British king made the mistake of raiding Gaul, and gave Claudius the excuse to launch an expedition and make a glorious conquest. Claudius's part in the expedition was not great -- he was only in Britain for six weeks, parading around areas that were already safe -- but I think the success of the war shows that Claudius was able to make the government work. And despite the growing number of slave and free secretaries that the household of Caesar contained, Roman government was still a very personal affair.
Claudius's weaknesses were in fact domestic. He seems to have been reasonably decent in his personal life, at least by imperial standards, but was quite incapable of controlling the snakepit of intrigue that surrounded any emperor, whether that emperor was a snake or not.
In Claudius's household, his wives and freedmen were the snakes.
His third wife, to whom
he was married in his early years as emperor, was the infamous Messalina. Supposedly she was a monster of lust. Eventually she got tired of her old husband, and one day when Claudius was out of town, she married in a public ceremony a young consul-elect, apparently with the intention of displacing Claudius, while remaining empress and securing the succession for her son by Claudius, named Britannicus. Some of Claudius's retinue sought him out, told him what had happened, and leaned on him to have Messalina, the consul-elect, and a bunch of her supporters at court, executed.
After this he made the mistake of marrying his niece Agrippina, a sister of Caligula's. She had a son, Nero, and spent her time scheming to make him emperor. She eventually succeeded, and has been accused of poisoning Claudius, to get rid of him. With Messalina, Agrippina, and various despicable freedmen of the imperial court, we have another reign where intrigue and murder were quite common.
When Nero came to the throne, he was only 17 years old, and those who
had tired of Claudius were again hopeful for a new day. As with Caligula,
they got more than they bargained for. In some books, he gets high
points for his early reign, when he was under the influence of Seneca,
man of talent and a philosopher. The philosophical orientation of Seneca supposedly balanced off the bad influence of Agrippina. But I am doubtful of this. Seneca abused his position at court to become a notorious usurer. His huge loans at huge interest to British chiefs were one factor that drove the province to revolt. It is not likely that he was really a very good influence on Nero.
In any case, the emperor himself soon showed himself willful and cruel.
was still his minister, he had Britannicus killed, his mother beaten to death by sailors, and his wife, Claudius's daughter, sent into exile and murdered there. Seneca wrote the official explanation of the first crime. Seneca himself was eventually driven to suicide.
When Nero finally had sole power, he ran an erratic government. Unlike Caligula, people did not think he was mad, simply bad. But he did do whatever he liked. What he mainly liked was posing as an artist, a poet, a singer, and an athlete. In other words, he was greatly influenced by Greek aristocratic style. Despite long and deep Greek influence, such things were still greeted with some suspicion at Rome. For an emperor to be a public performer was considered too much.
One of the things Nero is best known for is his tour of Greece in the
early 60s A.D., in which he
went from festival to festival, competing in the games and the singing competitions, and, wonder of wonder, winning them all. He even won a chariot race after falling out of the chariot and being put back in. When he came back to Rome, he had 1808 gold crowns, a number so great that it is
The most famous incident of his reign is, of course, the fire at Rome that leveled much of the city. Such disasters were not actually rare, but Nero got the blame this time. This may be because he used the fire as an opportunity to lay out a huge palace for himself, and did little to help the citizens rebuild. So the story went around that he had played his lyre and sung of the fall of Troy while the fire blazed.
Nero found it necessary to find scapegoats for the fire. The blame fell on the new Jewish sect, the Christians, who were condemned as a secret society. Among the first martyrs of official persecution were, by tradition, Peter and Paul. The Neronian persecution set a precedent for Roman officials to attack Christians in later years. It also won Nero his place in the biblical Book of Revelations.
By the year 68, Nero, who had already faced many plots or at least imagined
them, finally used up the patience of the Roman ruling class. A general
of Gallic descent named Vindex raised a revolt against the emperor and
sent letters to all other army commanders appealing for help. Vindex
was killed by a loyalist, but the movement spread fast. The commander in Spain, one Galba, was declared emperor. Nero, hearing this, panicked and committed suicide. Suetonius says that Nero couldn't even do this without turning it into a melodramatic production, which he ultimately botched.
The year 68-69 is known as the year of the four emperors. Galba was soon murdered, to be followed by Otho, who was followed by Vitellius. The latter two men were well-known and well-despised courtiers of Nero, and had no claim on anyone's loyalty. They bribed the praetorian guard as well as they could, but when they lost control of it they were killed.
Rome looked to be descending into chaos. But it was saved by the
arrival of a real general with a great deal of respect in the army.
This was Vespasian, who was then suppressing the Jewish revolt in
Palestine. Vespasian, hearing of the mess in Rome, allowed himself
to be declared emperor and
took part of his army to Rome. He did not even have to do any fighting, because troops on the Danube rose in his favor and finished off Vitellius before Vespasian arrived.
Vespasian was emperor for ten years, and left two sons, each of whom was emperor after him.
The Julio-Claudian line, Rome's first dynasty, has never inspired much
respect, even from those who like emperors and empires. The mess
they left behind does not say much for the imperial system as practiced
at the time. But the experience of the years 68 and 69, with soldiers
fighting in the
street, emperors being murdered and tortured by mobs and mutineers, and other scenes of this sort, did not turn Rome against emperors. Instead they looked for a good emperor who could restore order. In Vespasian they found him.
Indeed, Rome got a line of good emperors. Except for the reign
of Domitian, Vespasian's second son, Rome had 110 years of officially good
emperors. This is the period of peace that Rome is always praised
for. In future lectures we will look at these emperors and this period
peace. But before that, we will look at the rise of Christianity.
Barry Baldwin, The Roman Emperors.
The NU library also has biographies of a number of individual emperors.
Both Suetonius and Tacitus are translated into English.