The Roman Principate: The Julio-Claudian Dynasty
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X
Augustus: By some historians and Empire "critics", Augustus is regarded as one of the best, if not the best of all emperors. Having come into contact with power early in his life, it could be called quite an achievement that he never succumbed to the corrupting influence it would usually have on later emperors who started their careers at a young age - or at least, he never came to be corrupted beyond repair. Perhaps this was due to his own strictness. While he actively supported a cultural and social policy that would promote the "traditional family values" the Romans had lost in the decadent decades of civil wars, he also maintained a severe moral course in his own family; on proven charges of a rather loose sexual morality, he banished his own granddaughter, which, according to Suetonius, he would feel both regret and anger over for the rest of his life.
In his personal life, he had to endure the tragedy of losing both of his sons when they were still young, and he also played some marriage games in order to tie Marcus Antonius closer to him, like Caesar had done before him with Pompeius. Having lost his sons, only his adopted son Tiberius Claudius Nero remained a possible candidate for emperor, which was especially supported by Augustus' wife Livia. He was described as a rather handsome man, with a serene expression, which is also reflected in the sculptures made of him, although his timeless serenity was also part of his cultural policy, to portray him as a saviour of the Roman people. Even though Augustus is not remembered for his conquests and military achievements and his adoptive father Caesar is more regarded as a conqueror, Augustus did add some territories to the Empire. Under his rule, Gallia was further colonised, and the regions of Rhaetia and Panonnia were "pacified" after repeated incursions with tribes and pirates on the warpath, to ensure a better protection of the hinterland. He also strengthened Rome's position in the East, gaining more influence and "allies" in regions which had previously been respectively under Persian and Hellenic control.
His campaign into Germania, which sought to expand the Empire to the Elbe rather than the Rhine, almost became a success, when it was still led by Germanicus and Tiberius, but turned into a disaster when the greedy governor Publius Quintilius Varus was appointed governor (about his former achievements, Paterculus writes: "How far he was from despising money, Syria, of which he had been governor, afforded proof; for, going a poor man into that rich province, he became a rich man, and left it a poor province"), and treated the Germans so badly that they rose against him. Arminius, a German who had been granted Roman citizenship along with his brother - which was an enormous exception in these days - because of his military service in Panonnia, took command of the German tribes and completely destroyed three legions, and all Roman settlements in the area. Varus killed himself during the battle.
The defeat had such an impact on Roman morale, that the numbers of the three legions were never used again, and the Rhine was considered to be the definitive northeastern border of the Empire. After Augustus, the only emperor to cross the Rhine again would be Aurelianus, about three and a half centuries later. According to Suetonius, Augustus frequently suffered from nightmares about this horrible defeat. Unproven as the nightmares may be, however, this disaster may have helped to establish Augustus' non-military reputation.
Under his reign, culture was actively stimulated, although, in contrast to the century before him, it usually served a purpose: Titus Livius, Quintus Horatius Flaccus and Publius Vergilius Maro, usually regarded as the "Great Three" from the early Empire, in their respective genres, prose, short poetry and epic poetry, were close to the emperor himself, and especially to the art-loving Maecenas, who gave birth to the principle of a "maecenate". Although there were other noteworthy artists active in that period too, such as Ovidius Naso (famous for his Metamorphoses and his mysterious exile) or Tibullus, the aforementioned three have more historical weight.
Vergilius wrote the Aeneis, which was released after his untimely death in Brundisium, and therefore has some structural errors in the end, but was nevertheless received with great enthusiasm. He borrowed heavily from the ancient master Homèros, both in style and structure, and linked the Roman people's own history to that of the glorious Trojans, an element which wasn't new in Italia, but which Vergilius was able to transform into an epic story that attempted to rival that of Homèros. Livius wrote on a similar topic, but he described the early phases of Rome itself rather than the dramatic legends that preceded its foundation. In contrast to these two somewhat serious men was Horatius, who was known for his cheerfulness and good humour, and wrote small, often playful poems. Usually, his examples were Greek (anacreontic, for example, as in his very famous winter poem), but his themes were diverse, philosophical and less true to the Augustan ideal. Nevertheless, he had the honour to write poems for the ludi saeculares, the century festivals.
On most accounts, Augustus' policies had a success ranging from mild to great. The title he had adopted from his example, Caesar, had now become inheritable, and later his own name would also become a part of the emperor's impressive list of titles. Although Augustus tripped here and there, as in his judgement over the Egyptian governor Gallus, whom he gave the capital punishment on charges of deification, and in the end allowed himself to be deified, his ambiguous politics of restoration and renewal worked out, and set an example for the next emperors to follow and to be compared to.
Augustus died in 14 CE, having had the reins of power in Rome for 43 years, 39 of which were as emperor. When he died, his alleged last words were "Applaud, the comedy is over."
Tiberius: Tiberius Claudius Nero is usually characterised as an unhappy man. And indeed, he had reasons to feel this way. Even before he was emperor, he was generally unappreciated, possibly because of his somewhat dour character, but later also because of his greed and his alleged perversions. Tiberius was actually never destined to become emperor, as mentioned earlier; but, partially due to machinations of his mother Livia and the untimely deaths of Augustus' own sons, circumstances had made Tiberius, who had hithereto been living in a partially self-chosen isolation at a rural villa, Augustus' successor.
During his reign over the Empire, no significant expansions or changes took place; the Augustan policies of further Romanisation and pacification were continued. Drusus Claudius Germanicus, called so because of his campaigns in Germania, was able to retrieve some of the lost standards, which at least somewhat compensated for Varus' defeat years back; and the other provinces were more often calm than they were not, with the notable exception of Iudea, where - around the year 30 CE - a Iudean religious leader named Iesus Christos would be crucified, which would later gave rise to the religion we call Christianity. Tiberius made himself truly unpopular, however, by his heavier taxation, and the fact that he was not as generous as his predecessors when it came down to culture and games.
In order to demonstrate his miserliness, a much used quote of his is, when his guests asked why he had served them the other half of the swine they had eaten the day before, he replied that it was still just as tasty. Whether this is true or not, as in most historical quotes' case, it expresses or summarises the behaviour of said historical person. However, while a part of his bad image was due to his unpopular measures, and the fact that he could not weigh up to the image of Caesar and Augustus, not all of it can be untrue.
Especially in the later period of his government, he grew increasingly paranoid, and was allegedly responsible for the death of the immensely popular Germanicus, according to Tacitus out of envy and hatred. Nonwithstanding these accusations, Tiberius did create an atmosphere of social control, where anyone who could deliver him and his faithfuls tips about possible conspirations was rewarded. In this spirit, it is almost certain that a large number of innocent people were executed. It's no wonder that the people chanted "Tiberius ad Tiberem! (Tiberius into the Tiber!)" when he had finally passed away in 37 CE, after having been Caesar for 23 years. Some say that he died because of a severe illness and old age, others say that he was weakened by poison and suffocated with a pillow.
Caligula, also known as Gaius, named so after the caliga or soldier's boot, would become Tiberius' successor. He was Germanicus' son, and had grown up among his father's soldiers. It was those legionaries who had given him his nickname. As a child and a young adult, he shared his father's glory and popularity among the soldiers, and this only increased when Germanicus died. After Tiberius' death, he was hailed as a new hero, and the Senate as well as the people hoped that Caligula would bring about a new wind of change.
In the first months of his rule, this seemed to become a reality. Caligula acted with prudence, made some of Tiberius' measures undone and was greeted as merciful and wise, probably more out of an exaggerated reaction against his predecessor's rule, but nevertheless with a genuine sympathy. According to Suetonius, this behaviour was merely a guise for Caligula to hide his true nature, but others claim that he went insane because of an illness that struck him, leaving him with severe psychological damage after he had physically recovered.
Whatever the case may be, it's without doubt true that at a given point early in his promising rule, he made a 180° turn. He had people randomly executed, constantly changed sexual partners (which included his own family members and a horse he was considering naming Consul) and sadistically tormented other people, among whom was his uncle Claudius. As can be expected, his rule excelled in wasting tremendous amounts of money on ludicrous and cruel ludi, and he put the pride of the Roman legions to shame when he ordered them to attack the sea, and to go into the woods and return in Germania as part of his self-perceived glorious conquests. He also ordered to bring down old statues, regardless of whom, and their heads to be sawn off, only to be replaced by his own image. He claimed to have conversations with Iuppiter in his temple on the Capitoline Hill.
Famous quotes of his include: "Let them hate me - as long as they are afraid of me!" and "I wish the People had one neck". It was clear that everyone was living in a deadly state of fear for him and his own unpredictableness may help to explain why he wasn't killed earlier. At any rate, in the fourth year of his reign, a conspiration of the Praetorian Guards killed him, his current wife and his little daughter. While the Senate was busy making preparations to restore the Republic - even though half-heartedly - the Praetorians found Claudius in the imperial palace, and to his surprise, hailed him as their new emperor. Under some pressure, this spontaneous decision was later - nominally, of course - ratified by the Senate.
Claudius: Having been elevated to the rank of emperor, much to his own surprise, Claudius proved to be a tougher man than even his own friends would have expected. He had known the old Augustus personally, and had lived through Tiberius' reign and Caligula's terror--only, according to Suetonius, because Caligula needed a victim for his rude jokes. Nonwithstanding the fact that Suetonius liked to mock Claudius under the veil of compassion, much of what he says is probably true. Claudius was shy, and had a physical handicap, which made him an easy target to be pushed into a corner by his more ambitious family members.
However, as he'd never held powers of any significance, this had two positive effects. The first was that he had a considerably low degree of corruption, and never had the chance to become obsessed with power. The second effect was that he had time to study, especially under and with Etruscan teachers. He even wrote a history of the Etruscans, which went up in flames in the 4th century at the hands of the Christians. As most nobles of that time, Claudius was also fluent in Greek and Latin, and tried an oratory experiment every now and then.
As an emperor, he tried to refill the imperial treasuries which had been almost emptied to the last sestertius by Caligula, and was also very interested in legal systems. Despite his somewhat unpredictable reputation as a judge (and later, Censor), it stands without doubt that he did make a serious attempt to cut out the corruption and arbitrariness; and in order to do that, he brought back some Republican institutions, among which was the aforementioned position of Censor. He got into conflict with the Senate, however, because he reduced its already mainly fictitious power to the advantage of three of his own (Greek) administrators, Callistus, Pallas and Narcissus. It is also said that he "humanised" the Romanisation process in the provinces, by giving some provincials citizenship, and even elevating some into the Senate.
Following what Caesar had begun almost a century earlier, Claudius continued his conquest of Britannia, and quelled an uprising in the kingdom of Mauretania, which had been annexed earlier by Caligula. He also had to deal with - as most emperors had to do, so it seems - another uprising in Iudea. Thracia and Lycia, Hellenic provinces, were also added to the imperium.
What truly damaged his reputation, and certainly so in a patriarchal society such as Rome, were his troublesome affairs with women, the most notorious of them probably being Messalina. It would be Agrippina, however, his fourth (!) wife, who would ensure his downfall. She had her husband poisoned to be able to see Nero, her son from an earlier marriage, ascend to the position of Caesar. Claudius thus died in the year 54 CE at the age of 63, having been Caesar for 13 years.
Nero: Circumstances and inherited characteristics made Nero a very complex personality. His mother, Agrippina, had most likely killed her first husband (Nero's father), Domitius Ahenobarbus - who was known for his brutality - in order to marry Claudius. When he was out of the way as well, she put her son onto the throne, while she tried to rule herself in reality. So, genetically speaking, he was destined to become a tyrannical ruler.
The first few years of Nero's rulership were prosperous, however, mainly because of the guidance and advice he was given by his Prefect of the Praetorians, Burrus, and the Stoic philosopher Seneca. As he grew older, his expanding thirst for power could not be contained anymore. After the conspiracy of Piso in 65 CE, Burrus was killed, and Seneca was ordered to commit suicide. Tacitus compares this event to patricide, and drew a lot of literary parallels between Seneca's death and that of Sokrates. While Seneca may not have been all that much of a father figure, it is true that it illustrates Nero's ruthlessness. The relationship with his mother deteriorated, and, pressed by her threats, he ordered the poisoning of his stepbrother Britannicus, who was Claudius' actual son, and at that time 14 years old. After he had failed to attempt to kill his mother in a naufragium with a ship that had been purposely damaged before, he ordered three assassins to murder her at her domain, where she'd been able to escape into freedom.
Next to his familial problems, which he was partially responsible for himself, there were many external problems as well. Half of Rome burnt down in 64 CE, which was blamed on the Christians, who would later in turn claim that Nero himself had started the fire to be able to build his domus aurea, a pompous, large palace. Recent archeological researches seem to point more into the direction of an accident, however. Other problems in the imperium included a revolt in Britannia in 60, led by Queen Boudicca; another uprising in Iudea in 66; and the uprising in Gallia of the legions under command of Iulius Vindex in 68, which would effectively end his rule. In spite of his recklessness, his greed and cruelty, he was rather popular with the people. He was a philhellene, and actively sponsored games and arts. He also regularly gave concerts of his own for an audience, and his parties at the domus aurea were well-known in Rome. This contradictory mixture, of his interests in fine arts, and his brutal cruelty, would later inspire a lot of imposters to claim that they were Nero, and even today his legacy has divided a lot of historians in different judgements over his rule.
As mentioned earlier, his rule ended in 68. Panicked by the rumours of a general uprising, he escaped from his own palace, and committed suicide. Ironically, Vindex never reached Rome (the old joke went that "Vindex" which means "avenger" or "hangman" had been "vindicated" himself) and was slain in battle by troops loyal to Nero, but it did give rise to the problem of succession. The year 69 would have four emperors.