revised 11/20/14 and 11/15/2016]
YEAR OF FOUR EMPERORS/FLAVIANS/GOOD EMPERORS
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
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
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.
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
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
Also helpful, Tacitus' account of the Sack
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
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
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.
gives as a lot more on Domitian's cruelty. See espectially
Sections X and XI of his Life
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
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:
- An experienced military commander
- A successful diplomat, negotiating well the Parthian
- A capable administrator who tours the provinces and knows
the situation all over the empire
- A gifted architect and a talented poet
[Lots and lots of translations
of Hadrian's poem.]
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos…
—Emperor Hadrian (138)
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,
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
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
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
But worse was to come. After Aurelius' reign, history was
going to begin again with a new round of crimes, follies, and
- a revolt in Britain
- renewal of the Parthian war
- German invasions
- a devastating plague
- would-be usurpers in Syria and Egypt
- an empty treasury and a collapsing economy