[Partly revised 11/20/14 and 11/15/2016]



The final years of Nero Caesar were a disaster for the Roman people.  Revolts in Britain and Palestine and the increasing threat from Parthia made it seem as if they empire was about to fall apart.  Nero’s inattention to the proper running of government and his ongoing reign of terror made bad situations worse.  The fire of AD 64, a fire that might have been stopped, ended up destroying a good part of the city of Rome.  The most capable of Rome’s military and civilian officials were viewed by Nero with particular suspicion, and Nero was left without anyone but sycophants to help run the government.

Now one might think that, at this point, any change would have been an improvement.  However, the actual result of Nero’s suicide was anything but a blessing for the Roman people.  The year following Nero’s death (AD 68-69), what is called the “Year of the Four Emperors,” was even worse than any period I’ve yet described to you in Roman history.

It began to look like the governmental arrangement made by Augustus was going to be no more effective than republican government had been.  However, the events of the next 111 years (69 A.D.-180 A.D.) showed that the principate could be an effective form of government--if only a way could be found to insure that the right type of man became emperor.  

At Nero’s death, there was no clear way to determine who would become emperor.  There were no Julio-Claudians left to claim the throne: a problem.  The system Augustus created, the principate, used the loyalty inspired by the imperial cult in order to make the system work. Without that tie to the divine Julius Caesar, any potential emperor would have to find other ways to secure that loyalty.  Helpful would be the following:

1.    Support from the army.
2.    Support from the senate.
3.    The right background for the job (e.g., connection to an old, distinguished family)
4.    The ability to plausibly wear each of the many hats that went along with being emperor.

Year of the Four Emperors

In the struggle immediately following Nero’s death, a man named Galba briefly took the throne, and, one would have thought, might have made things work.  Tacitus tells us that all would have regarded him as “fit to rule, had he not ruled.”  He had the support of the senate: the senate had named him emperor after Nero’s death. He had military support, troops loyal to him, troops loyal to some of his political allies, and (for a time) the Praetorian guard. He was from an old, distinguished Roman family, and he’d had plenty of military and administrative experience.

But Galba ran into trouble right away.  He didn’t pay the Praetorians the bonus they had been promised, “I select my troops: I don’t buy them.”  A noble sentiment, I suppose, but he seemed to have no hesitation in allowing his favorites (including a homosexual lover) to embezzle whatever they wanted.

Troops along the Rhine were especially unhappy with Galba, and they declared their general Vitellius) emperor. Vitellius begins an advance on Rome, and Galba panics. Trying to get military support, he chooses a man named Piso as his designated heir and associate.  A man named Otho, who thought *he* should have been the emperors heir was angry—and ended up conspiring with the Praetorians to murder Galba.

Galba’s cruelties had made him a hated man.  His body was hacked up, and his bald head cut off and carried away like a bowling ball for a prize before being lodged on a pole.

Otho, a debauched companion of Nero, now took the throne: but he wasn’t going to be able to hold it for long.  Vitellius’ men are approaching Rome.  Otho raises and army, but they suffer a setback and Otho, though he could have fought on, commits suicide—probably hoping that this would help avoid a prolonged civil war.  But the civil war comes anyway.

Vitellius proves a horrible emperor: Nero’s dissipation without the artistry. He certainly had Nero’s cruelty.  He once ordered a man to be executed, but, as he was being led off, Vitellius called him back.  For mercy?  No. Vitellius wanted to watch.  On another occasion two sons came to plead for mercy for their condemned father.  Vitellius ordered them executed as well.

Meanwhile, in Judaea, troops loyal to Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian) decide to proclaim their man emperor.  The Danube troops also support Vespasian and head toward Rome.

Civil wars tend to be particularly nasty affairs, and this civil war was particularly bad. The sack of Cremona was horrific, and Rome itself suffered almost as if it were a captured enemy city.

[You may find it helpful to read about the Fate of Cremona as described in  Tacitus' Histories.  Also helpful, Tacitus' account of the Sack of Rome.]

The Flavians

But, when the dust had cleared, the new emperor, Vespasian (AD 69-79), turned out to be the sort of man who could make the Augustan system work. He, of course, had loyal troops at his disposal, and he was a decent general.  He had experience in Britain, Africa, and Judaea: he know the empire well. He was a decent administrator too, spending money wisely.  He was merciful to his former enemies (e.g., providing a dowry for Vitellius’ daughter), and he had a sense of humor.  When his young son complained that money collected at the public urinals stunk, Vespasian’s reply was, “Money never stinks.”  And, at the end of his life, he had a wonderful exit line, “Vae, puto deus fio.”  Woe!  I think I am becoming a god!”

For an heir, Vespasian adopted the hereditary principle, choosing as his successor his son Titus.

Titus is hard to evaluate since he reigned so briefly (AD 79-81).  He was remembered fondly by later Romans, but his reign wasn’t a particularly happy time.  The irruption of Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum and a fire destroyed a good part of Rome.  Titus could be cruel too. While his father was emperor, it was Titus who presided over the siege and sacking of Jerusalem—and there was more than a little cruelty in his treatment of the Jews.  He threw some of his captives to wild animals, and forced others to fight each other to the death.  He saw his premature death as unjust, “Its unfair life should be taken away from me when I have only one sin on my conscience.”

Well, who said life is fair?  Where is that written?  Life was certainly unfair under Titus’ successor, his brother Domitian.  

Domitian (81-96) was initially popular with the soldiers (whom he treated well) and the general public who found themselves entertained with novelties: women and dwarves as gladiators, flooded stadiums as sites for mock sea battles.

But, running into financial difficulties, Domitian allowed the revival of the same kind of informer system that had led to unjust deaths (and estate confiscation) under rulers like Tiberius. Such things made Domitian a hated man—and he ended up launching a paranoid round of executions, getting rid of anyone who he thought might be plotting against him.  “No one believes plots unless they are carried out,” complained Domitian—and certainly there eventually were plenty of people who really wanted him dead.

Publically, he reform of sexual morality.  Pimps had been castrating boys, apparently because such boys were in demand as prostitutes. Domitian forbid this, and he had vestal virgins buried alive if they violated their vows.  But, Suetonius tells us, he was hardly an example of sexual restraint.  His favorite sport was what he called “bed wrestling.”  He apparently was casting lustful glances at his niece.  His brother suggested marriage, but Domitian declined.  He later seduced the girl, got her pregnant, and forced her to have an abortion which killed her.

[Suetonius gives as a lot more on Domitian's cruelty.  See espectially Sections X and XI of his Life of Domitian.]

Domitian finally alienated the wrong people—including (the ancient sources tell us) his wife, and he was assassinated.

Modern historians have tried to argue that the stories told about Domitian are exaggerated: senatorial bias made writers like Suetonius too accepting of unsubstantiated rumor. My guess is that the ancient sources got it right: they are pretty consistent in their picture of the last Flavian. His insistence on using the title “Deus et Dominus,” God and Lord, made him a particular problem for Christians and Jews, but would have made him a difficult ruler for any but the most abject sycophant to deal with. The evidence used to redeem Domitian (e.g., that his wife continued to call herself Domitian’s wife long after his death) seems to me pretty insubstantial.

In any case, Domitian’s death meant at least somewhat better times for Rome, the rule of leaders Machiavelli (!) called the Five Good Emperors.

Five Good Emperors (AD 96-180)

On the death of Domitian, Nerva (AD 96-98), a prominent senator with decent administrative experience, took over.  He didn't have the absolutely necessary support from the army, so he right away chose a designated successor, Trajan. While designed purely as a temporary expedient, Nerva had, by accident, come up with a great alternative to the Augustan succession scheme.  Instead of family connection, the next emperor would be a man chosen for his qualifications/appropriateness to the position.

Nerva' reign is too short to really evaluate, but, in the mind of Machiavlli, Gibbon, and others, he had made a substantial positive contribution.  Most history texts (and most professors) follow Gibbon's lead in treating the 96-180 period as something of a golden age.  Gibbon described the reign of Hadrian, for instance, as the happiest age in human history up to his own 18th century.  But, as others have noted, if those be the happiest years of human history, may God help us all.

Nerva's immediate successor, Trajan (AD 98-117) did seem to make the Principate work well.  He kept the army firmly under control, had the cooperation of the senate, and made himself popular with the people.  He annexed Dacia (present day Romania) and, with it, added a substantial amount of gold and silver to the treasury. 

Trajan took a real interest in the day-to-day affairs of government as his correspondence with Pliny (governor of Bithynia) shows.  He dealt with everything from aquaducts, canals, theaters, to fire department, and seems to have worked to make sure competent and honest people were carrying out governmental tasks.

If one is going to have a Princeps, Trajan's maybe as good as it gets.  But, even here, there's a dark side. His conquest of Dacia was like Caesar's conquest of Gaul--a genocide by today's standards.  And there's something disturbing about the sycophantic tone men like Pliny end up adopting.  Trajan himself seems exasperated: can't you figure out things for yourself?  But that's then nature of an autocratic system: it's the obsequious civil servant that's on the rise and the creative, independent adminstrator who doesn't do so well. 

In AD 115, Trajan personally led his forces against the Parthians, and he even captured Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital.  This meant that the rich territories of Armenia and Mesopotamia were added to the empire.  But a revolt in Judea forced Trajan to return early, and, on the way back, he gets sick and dies--but not before performing one last service to Rome.  He designates Hadrian as his heir.

Hadrian (AD 117-138) typically gets trreated as another example of the Augustan system at its best, and one can certainly build a case that he was, as Ronald Syme notes, the most capable and versatile Roman leader since Caesar.  Hadrian stands out as:
But, like Caesar, Hadrian is a controversial character and it's not hard to make the case that his reign wasn't nearly as good as Gibbon thought.  A great military commander?  Where are the victories to show it?  A successful dipolmat?  Well, if giving away what Trajan's armies had fought for is successful diplomacy, sure.  A gifted architect and poet?  Well maybe, but perhaps people praised his artistic endeavors for the same reasons people praised Nero's. The story is that, while Trajan was talking about a building project with one of his architects, Hadrian chimed in with some ideas of his own only to be told, " Go away and draw your pumpkins.  You don't know anything about this."  Suetonius tells us that, after he became emperor, Hadrian had the architect executed.  And, as far as poetry is concerned, well, we've got his "death" poem.  Impressive?  Well, I don't know.  Latin experts don't usually think so, but decide for yourself:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos…
—Emperor Hadrian (138)
[Lots and lots of translations of  Hadrian's poem.]

Hadrian's religious innovations seem to me a mistake.  He had fallen in love with a 14-15 year old boy named Antinous, and, when Antinous died, he had the boy proclaimed a god.

[Hadrian's most famous architectural work, his Mausoleum, is a tomb for Antinous.  The "original" Mausoleum was a tomb built for King Mausolos by his wife. I suppose one might make the joke, "Who is buried in Mausolos' tomb?" and the answer would be, "Antinous.]

Eventually, there were more than 20 temples dedicated to Antionous in various portions of the empire, and, while it's hard to know for sure what Antionous worship entailed, it most probably involved some of the extravagant sexual practices common in the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman world but not yet wide-spread in the Latin-speaking west. 

Hadrian was a great champion of a sort of ecumenical approach to religion.  He created the Pantheon in Rome (pan=every, theos=god), a place where images of all the gods worshipped anywhere in the empire were included.

But Hadrian's ecumenical leanings didn't mean tolerance or sensitivity to Jews or Christians.  He had a temple of Venus set up in Jerusalem itself, quite possibly on the site of Christ's tomb.  He had a temple to Zeus put up on the temple mount.  And he forbid circumcision.  Enough is enough: the Jews, under their leader Bar Kochbar, staged a revolt.  Hadrian put down the revolt ruthlessly, killing more than 500,000 Jews in a campaign of genocide.  Rabbinic sources are more hostile to Hadrian than any other Roman leader, and, whenever Hadrian's name is mentioned, the Rabbis added another phrase, "May his bones be crushed."

Hadrian chose, not only his own successor, but his succesor's successors.  Antoninus Pius was named emperor with the priviso that Marcus Aurelius (and his brother) would be designated as next in line.

Gibbon said that there was little to say about the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161).  History is little more than the record of the crimes and follies of misfortunes of mankind, and so, when a ruler does well and things go smoothly, the historian has little to say.  Well, one could say more, I suppose, but let's get back to the crimes and follies and misfortunes.

In terms of misfortune, Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) has more than his fair share.  Plato once said that there would only be good government when philosophers became kings or kings became philosophers.  Well, Aurelius was a philosopher emperor, and, as far as philosophy goes, he was more than decent.  His Meditations is a delightful book, showing a sense of humor but also the thoughtful perspective of a true philosopher.  Aurelius learned much from the Stoics--and, in view of the problems confronting him, he needed the Stoic lessons on dealing with adversity.  Among the obstacles facing him:
But worse was to come.  After Aurelius' reign, history was going to begin again with a new round of crimes, follies, and misfortunes.