March 19, 2009. There are much better and more thorough accounts
of this period online and in your text. This will give you a good
general picture, but it is only a place to start.]
Augustus and the
Julio-Claudian Emperors of Rome
The men who assassinated Gaius Julius Caesar thought they had done
Rome a great service. They ran from Pompey’s theater shouting,
“Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” But they were wrong: it was
the Republic that was dead. Political assassination is not the
way to save self-government, and the assassination of Caesar led only
to 13 more years of civil war, wars even worse than any I have
described so far. And when the dust had cleared, Rome was no
longer a republic. One strong man ruled the empire: Gaius Julius
Caesar Octavianus, better known to us by his title, Augustus.
It was Augustus’ task to try to rebuild a people torn apart by 100
years of sporadic civil war, and, in view of the magnitude of the task,
it is somewhat surprising how successful he was. It’s even more
surprising that Rome continued to be successful under his successors,
the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome.
Augustus (31 BC-AD 14) certainly faced a difficult task. What Rome
needed at the time was a great hero, a Superman—and Augustus was
anything but that. He did have the great speaking skills one
would hope for in a great unifying leader. He didn’t have the
commanding physical presence one might expect: in fact, he was weak and
rather sickly. His conduct during the period of the 2nd
triumvirate was anything but admirable, and, in terms of military and
administrative experience, he was hardly the equal of the great Roman
leaders before him. On top of that, he had a miserable family
But Augustus was one of those people who make up for an unhappy
personal life by absolutely throwing himself into his work. He
clearly wanted to do a good job, saying that he wanted when he died to
be known for having established the best possible government for his
people, a system that would stand the test of time. And he
succeeded: the empire period of Roman history lasts in the West until
AD 476 and in the East until 1453. Not too shabby.
What was it that Augustus did? Well, he made contributions to all
Parkes’ three keys to civilization success: physical security, ethical
guidance, and emotional fulfillment.
Augustus first task was to unify his people. He did this by more
or less stealing a page from the pharaohs. He supported the idea
that Gaius Julius Caesar was now a god. This made him, if not quite a
god, half-way there: he was the heir of a god, and deserving of the
same kind of reverence. His nickname, Augustus, means “the
revered one.” Loyalty to the emperor (and soon worship of the
emperor) become the key to Roman unity.
Also helpful was Augustus’ creation of the praetorian guard, 3000 elite
soldiers given the task of protecting the emperor and keeping order in
the city of Rome itself. Augustus restored order elsewhere too,
sending out his forces to end robbery/brigandage in Italy and sending
out his navy to end piracy in the Mediterranean.
Augustus tried (not terribly successfully) to address Roman ethical
breakdown as well. He tried to encourage marriage, to discourage
divorce, and to increase the number of children people were willing to
raise. While his “family law” measures didn’t succeed, he was
somewhat more successful in his attempts to clean up ethical lapses in
Augustus was considerably more successful in restoring a sense of
emotional fulfillment. He sponsored poets and historians who
would remind people of Rome’s great heritage, and point optimistically
to better days to come. He made a big deal of the idea that, with
his reign, a new age had begun in Roman history, a new age of peace and
prosperity. He sponsored artists who would create things like the ara
pacis, the altar of peace, decorated with great scenes from Roman
history, reminding Romans of their great heritage, but also of the new
age of peace that had arrived. Augustus also sponsored many new
public buildings, boasting that he found Rome “a city of bricks”
and left it “a city of marble.” These kind of things often do
work in restoring a sense that your country is on the right track.
Well begun: half done, but only half done. In order for Augustus’
work to be truly successful, he had to find someone to carry on when he
was gone. He had no surviving sons or grandsons, so the task of
finding as successor was a bit tricky—especially so since the system he
had created worked best of the emperor was closely tied to Julius
Caesar and to Augustus himself: being related to a god was a big help
in getting people to accept you in a job that meant you were on the way
to godhead yourself.
Augustus’ first choice was his nephew Marcellus. Marcellus was
already related to Augustus, but Augustus wanted the tie to himself to
be even closer, so he arranged a marriage between Marcellus and Julia,
Augustus’s daughter. All good—except Marcellus dies before
Augustus, and Augustus was back at square one.
Next, Augustus chooses Agrippa—another fine choice. Agrippa was a
great general and administrator, but he had the disadvantage of not
being directly related to Augustus. Not to worry. Augustus
had a daughter—Julia—who was available, having been recently
widowed. All good—except Agrippa dies before Augustus, and
Augustus is back at square one.
Now Augustus chooses his stepson Tiberius: not a bad choice, but,
again, a man not as clearly connected to the “divine” family as he
might be, and Augustus wants the tied to be closer. Not to
worry. Augustus has a daughter—Julia—who was available, having
been recently widowed. Tiberius is forced to divorce his own wife
so he can marry Julia. And, this time, the designated successor
does eventually take over.
Tiberius (AD 14-37) was a skillful administrator, and, in some ways, a
more talented man than Augustus. Nevertheless, he had a real
weakness: a tendency to be suspicious to the point of paranoia.
In most situations, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but putting
someone like this in a position of supreme power is a potential
Tiberius trusted only one man, his praetorian prefect, a man named
Sejanus, and this was the one man he should not have trusted.
Sejanus had plans of his own, plans to acquire money and power.
The first was easy enough. Pretending to be concerned about the
emperor’s safety, Sejanus convinced Tiberius to investigate and
prosecute crimes of “maiestas,” impugning the majesty of the Roman
people. Maiestas was a vague charge (saying anything critical of
the emperor could be regarded as maiestas) but it was a very serious
charge. Undermining the emperor meant undermining the fragile unity of
Rome, possibly renewed civil war. Essentially, then, maiestas was
treason, an offense that merited the most severe punishment: not just
death, but the confiscation of one’s entire estate as well.
And those who ferreted out such crimes deserved a reward, yes?
Well, what about 10% of the confiscated estate?
Note that such terms would lead to a rash of maiestas cases, and many
innocent people are going to end up dead. Further, Sejanus’ can
use the maiestas charge to help him eliminate potential rivals in
Rome. And those he can’t get rid of in this way, he gets rid of
in other ways. He seduces the emperor’s daughter-in-law, and,
with her help, poisons Tiberius’ son Drusus, making it look like a
natural death. One step closer to the throne for Sejanus.
Further, each maiestas case fed Tiberius paranoia, giving Sejanus even
more leverage over the panic-stricken emperor. Ultimately,
Sejanus persuades Tiberius to leave Rome for Capri, while he himself
takes over the day to day operation of the city. Ultimately, he
expected to be named Tiberius’ heir.
And at last the day arrived: a letter from Tiberius to be read to the
senate. But instead of making Sejanus his heir, Tiberius called
for the immediate arrest and execution of Sejanus. Somehow,
Tiberius had finally seen through Sejanus’ machinations, finding out
all sorts of unsavory things about his praetorian prefect.
And so Sejanus is gone—his daughter and son executed too, poor kids—but
Rome is no better off. Now Tiberius is more paranoid than ever,
determined to get them before they get him. He launches a reign
of terror, killing anyone he believes is plotting against him—and then
killing off their friends and family members because he thinks they are
plotting revenge—and then killing off their friends and family members
because he thinks they may be plotting revenge—and then…well, so it
Tiberius dies in AD 37, and the Roman people breathe a sigh of relief:
but not for long. The new emperor, Gaius (Caligula) proves even
scarier than Tiberius.
Caligula (AD 37-41) began his reign with the enthusiastic support of
the people of Rome. They turned Tiberius’ funeral into a
celebration of the new emperor, calling him star, chicken, baby, and
pet (yes, I know that’s strange). Why so enthusiastic? Well,
Caligula’s father, Germanicus, had been much loved by the Roman people,
a great general. They thought Caligula would take after his
dad—and that’s clearly what dad had wanted. When Caligula was a
little boy, he had dressed his son in military uniform and taken him
into camp again and again. The soldiers loved the little boy in
his uniform, a uniform complete with military style boots. They
called the boy “little boots,” and that’s where we get the “Caligula”
Unfortunately, after his father’s death, Caligula’s childhood had been
a nightmare. His relatives were killed right and left, victims of
Sejanus’ plots or Tiberius’ paranoia. No one survives a childhood
like this unscathed, and Caligula began his reign with a lot of
psychological baggage. Now adding to that: the strain of being a god.
It’s just not easy to be a god. For one thing, it’s hard to find an
appropriate wife. You need a goddess, right? Well, Caligula
seeks a goddess wife. He prays that the goddess of the moon will
join him as his wife: but she must have had a prior commitment or
something, and Caligula has to look elsewhere. There is a family
in Rome producing gods and goddesses, isn’t there? Why,
yes. His own! And where can he find a goddess? Well,
what about his sister Drusilla? So to the destructive
psychological mix we now add incest—and disaster is on its way.
And when his beloved Drusilla dies: well, the last thread connecting
Caligula to reality is gone.
He can’t deal with problems rationally. He finds he’s getting a
high butcher bill: maintaining the lions, tigers, and bears for his
lavish circus shows is expensive. So he looks for a supply of cheap
meet. He goes to the prison, picks out a bunch of prisoners, has
the slaughtered up and turned into Purina lion chow. Well, it did
lower the butcher bill….
He took advantage of his power to exploit both men and women sexually,
forcing them to engage in all sorts of perversions. And if one didn’t
go along, a horrible death awaited. He kept his prisoners is
cages too small to allow them to stand or lie down. He had people
sawn in half, or subjected to the death of a thousand cuts. He
forced parents to laugh and joke with him while their sons were
executed—a cruel man.
He finally made the mistake of insulting the wrong people, members of
his praetorian guard. The guardsmen themselves killed him (and
his wife and baby daughter too .)
And now a new emperor: Caligula’s uncle Claudius (AD 41-54).
Claudius was a well-meaning, scholarly man. He had studied a lot
of history, writing many volumes on Augustus. He was perhaps the
last man to know well the ancient Etruscan language. Unfortunately, he
was not the kind of man who can be easily accepted as an emperor and
soon-to-be god. He spoke with a stutter, and walked with a limp:
something of a buffoon. Caligula may have let him live only
because he enjoyed making fun of his clownish uncle.
Make matters worse: Claudius’ wives. Claudius third wife,
Messalina, was a beautiful young woman, and Claudius was very much in
love with her. But a beautiful young woman is not likely to find an
awkward man in his fifties much to her taste. She cheated on
Claudius right and left and very openly. Claudius, already having
a hard time with the “emperor” image, has an even tougher time when not
even his wife shows him any respect.
Messalina finally goes too far, celebrating a mock marriage ceremony
with one of her many lovers. But Roman marriage customs were less
formal than ours, and this “mock” marriage could easily have been
regarded as real. And, since Messalina was as closely tied to the
divine Julius Caesar as Claudius himself, any man who took Claudius’
place in bed was a potential threat for taking over his throne as well.
Claudius couldn’t bring himself to deal with the beautiful Messalina
directly, but he finally did give his friends the authorization to do
what had to be done. When adultery involves a queen or an empress
it is (quite rightly) regarded as an act of treason, and Messalina and
her lover were excecuted.
And now, a new wife for Claudius, Agrippina. Agrippina was also
an attractive young woman, but she had a lot more political in the way
of political smarts than did Messalina. She wrapped Claudius
around her little finger, and tried to run the empire through
him. But it was a frustrating task. Claudius was
wishy-washy, and, while Agrippina could persuade him to say he was
going to take a certain course of action, someone else might talk him
out of it. Frustrating for Agrippina. She wanted on the
throne someone she could depend on to more consistently carry out her
wishes—her son by a previous marriage, Nero. Claudius adopts Nero as
his heir, and then Agrippina poisons Claudius.
At first, Nero’s reign (AD 54-68) goes well. He is only 16, and
his mother and his advisors are running things. Eventually,
however, Nero tires of his mother’s interference. One area of
conflict: Nero’s marriage. Agrippina had insisted that Nero marry
a woman named Octavia, one of the last surviving relatives of
Augustus. Nero wanted to divorce Octavia and marry his mistress,
Poppaea Sabina. Agrippina said no: have as many mistresses as you
want, but, for political reasons, you have to stay married to Octavia.
Nero was afraid to disobey his mother, and he really wanted her out of
the picture. And—being emperor—he could get her out of the
picture. To be free to do what he wanted, Nero ordered his own
mother’s execution (AD 59).
Free from his mother’s interference, Nero can now do what he
wants. He could simply have divorced Octavia, but, instead, he
charges her with adultery (hypocrite and liar), has her executed…and
gives her severed had to Poppaea Sabina as a present.
Nero is now free to indulge his other tastes as well. He fancied
himself a great artist, and launched an artistic career. But what
he didn’t do was effectively govern Rome. His misgovernment
provoked serious revolts in Britain and Judaea. And in Rome, Nero
failed to handle the great fire of AD 64. Instead of doing his
best to put the fire out, Nero supposedly took the streets with his
lyre: singing about the fall of Troy.
Naturally, a man like this provokes enemies, and (like Tiberius), Nero
was determined to get them before they got him. He executed many
senators—including his former tutor the philosopher and playwright
Seneca—because he thought they were plotting against him. He
executed his greatest general, Corbulo—and this proved a mistake.
Nero’s other generals (stationed in various parts of the empire) were
fearful they might be the next targets, and began leading their troops
toward Rome in an effort to overthrow Nero. Nero panics and
decides to kill himself. His famous last words: what an artist
the world is losing!
Nero’s death plunged Rome into a new period of civil war: four emperors
in the space of a year, each one using his troops ruthlessly in the
quest for power. Roman troops sack and destroy Roman cities, and
even attack the city of Rome itself.
And you know what’s surprising in all this? Once again, the
empire grows. During this period, Egypt, Palestine, and Britain
are added to the empire. Rome grows! And the systems set up
by August will endure for four centuries more in the west, and for over
1000 years in the east. Is that amazing, or is that