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Early Roman Empire

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Family Rule from Tiberius to Nero, 14 to 65 CE

The Emperor Tiberius


No Roman law gave Augustus the right to pass his powers to anyone, and Augustus apparently failed to see that by passing his offices to his adopted son, Tiberius, he was creating the kind of monarchical rule that he had thought often created incompetent rulers. The public was also without qualms about Augustus' transfer of power. There were examples enough about the weakness of rule by family, and these were times when history was read more than were novels. But the Romans ignored the lesson that could have been drawn from rule by dynasty. Instead they believed that for a continued peace and prosperity someone should rule as Augustus had ruled.


When Augustus died in 14 CE - just before he was seventy-seven - Tiberius, at the age of 56, took the title of emperor, and he also became a consul. Like many dynastic successions to supreme power, Tiberius' succession was accompanied by murder. The victim was Agrippa Postumus, Julia's son by her previous marriage to Augustus' commander and companion, Agrippa. Augustus had adopted him as his son and had made him co-heir with Tiberius, but the boy seemed unruly and slow in thought, and Augustus disinherited him. After the death of Augustus, the boy, as a person of royal blood, was thought a possible rallying point for disaffected persons, and he was eliminated quickly and quietly.


Tiberius was bright, and he had a long history of service to Rome, including ably leading troops in Rome's frontier skirmishes. As emperor he was a capable administrator and had genuine concern for the empire's well-being. He let the Senate know that it was he who ruled, but he left some duties to the Senate, saving himself from being overburdened with work. He told the Senate to stop bothering him about every question that came up and to take initiative, but, to his disgust, senators cringed before him.


The Senate began responding to crises that routinely appeared - one of which was the collapse of the poorly constructed amphitheater at Fidenae, which killed thousands. Regulating private businesses was recognized as in society's interest, and the Senate took action against frauds of various contractors, including the slackness of authorities that resulted in some roads becoming impassible.


The Senate was concerned about what it saw as a new freedom among women, about extravagant living and the rise in prices of food on the black market. But Tiberius saw all this as a part of the times, and he believed it was difficult to move people into the past, at least without making them unhappy and creating new opponents to his rule. But he did suggest to the Senate that it expel from Rome dancers who had come to Rome to put on obscene shows.


Tiberius did well in appointing competent people to administrative positions, although preferences were given to candidates from "better" families. He kept Rome along a path of economic stability, and the military remained disciplined. But the glory that had belonged to Augustus - now considered a god - was not his. Tiberius disliked crowds and did not appear at the gladiator contests as had Augustus. Rather than a loving father figure, Tiberius was seen as unfriendly. For the masses, which enjoyed attaching themselves to greatness, Tiberius was a disappointment.

Intrigues and Terror


Tiberius' adopted son, Germanicus, was the husband of Augustus' granddaughter, Agrippina - and unlike Tiberius he was popular. Germanicus was handsome, charming and a man of dash and informality. Tiberius sent him as military leader against a rebellion by German tribes, and he sent him about the empire as a troubleshooter. On a visit to Syria in CE 17, Germanicus fell ill and died, which shocked the Romans. The Roman governor of Syria, a man named Piso, was tried by the Senate for having poisoned Germanicus. The charge was not proven, but Piso died anyway. He was found with his throat cut - possibly a suicide.


Then in the year 23 came the death of Tiberius' son and designated heir, Drusus, after a long illness. Later Drusus' death would be attributed to the emperor's ambitious aide, Sejanus, who headed the Praetorian Guard - the army that was the emperor's body guard. Sejanus was ambitious. He wished to marry Drusus' widow - which would have made him a member of the royal family. But Sejanus was a commoner, and Germanicus' widow, Agrippina, was instrumental in Tiberius' decision against the marriage. As Rome's top policeman, Sejanus created a reign of terror in Rome. Opportunists went about looking for crimes such as adultery and words of treason against the emperor, knowing they would be rewarded with the property of those they helped convict. And among those charged with treason and adultery were friends of Agrippina.


It had been Sejanus' job to control visitations to Tiberius, and Tiberius called Sejanus his "partner in labors." In the year 26, Tiberius, at the age of sixty-eight, left Rome for the island of Capri, where he would spend the rest of his life, ruling, relaxing and bathing with boys he called his minnows. Sejanus began plotting against Agrippina's sons, whom he apparently saw as rivals. In the year 31, Tiberius came to believe that Sejanus had arranged the death of his son Drusus by having a servant administer occasional doses of poison to him. Against Sejanus, Tiberius launched a purge, led by a high ranking Praetorian guard named Macro, whom Tiberius elevated to leader of the guard. Sejanus and his allies were overpowered and executed. One of Agrippina's sons was condemned as an ally of Sejanus, and he was starved to death in a cell. And soon after, in the year 33, Agrippina also died, supposedly by suicide.

Emperor Caligula


The heir-designate was now the twenty-one year-old son of Germanicus and Agrippina: Gaius, whose nickname was Caligula. Caligula was the choice of the head of the Praetorian Guard, Macro, who now had much influence in Rome. When Caligula was twenty-six, Tiberius was around seventy-nine and slowly dying, and it was to be rumored that Tiberius was finally smothered when being looked after by Caligula or one of his aides.


As expected, the Senate rubber-stamped its recognition of Caligula as Tiberius' successor. And being the son of the well remembered and popular Germanicus, the Romans welcomed Caligula as their new emperor. Caligula wanted to be popular, and he attempted to demonstrate his affection for his subjects by providing them with elaborate shows at the Circus Maximus. Unlike Tiberius, he attended the circus, gladiator shows and chariot races. And, to the amusement and delight of his subjects, he participated in the races himself.


Caligula wanted to rule well. He returned to the courts the power to make independent decisions in sentencing people, and he increased the number of jurors in order to speed proceedings. He began publishing a budget, and he began more building. But along with good intentions, Caligula suffered from vanity. The godliness that was attributed to his great-grandfather Augustus and Julius Caesar may have led him to believe not that he was a god but that he should be worshiped as a god. He planned for the distribution of statues of himself for worship, including an image of himself placed at the temple in Jerusalem. This was before almost thirty years before Masada and the end of Judea. And Jews came from Jerusalem and asked that they, the Jews be excused from having to worship him. But the request was refused.


Caligula believed that Jews disrespected the office of emperor. He ordered the new governor of Syria and Palestine, Publius Petronius, to put in Jerusalem's temple statues of himself as God incarnate, and he sent two legions, with Petronius, into Judea to meet Jewish resistance. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, "many tens of thousands of Jews" including women and children, went to Petronius and told him they were ready to die rather than submit to Caligula's statues profaning Jerusalem's temple. They were unarmed and announced that they would not fight, and they lay on the ground baring their throats for cutting. Jews left their fields, ready for harvest, unattended. The crops of the Jews were important to Rome, as Rome drew a portion of the crops in taxes. Petronius returned to Antioch and wrote to Caligula, explaining his delay in carrying out Caligula's orders. Caligula ordered Petronius to commit suicide for disobeying an imperial command, but events were in motion that would save Petronius.


Caligula was one of those sons of privilege who lacked the moral strengths that benefited rule. He was self-indulgent, and indulging his appetite for food, he grew fat. He was ugly, which might have contributed to his becoming mean. Being a man of little emotional discipline or control he allowed himself to hate and to express his hate with sadistic revenge. He followed his sexual impulses with little restraint. Homosexuality was still frowned upon and ridiculed by most Romans, but Caligula had become familiar with it, including the bi-sexuality of Tiberius. Caligula had many homosexual and heterosexual affairs, including using his authority to obtain sexual pleasures from other men's wives. And, it is rumored, he had sexual intercourse with his three sisters.


It was not Caligula's sexual activities that brought about his demise, it was the fear that he put into people around him. Caligula made enemies, and he used his power to have those he saw as enemies executed. A conspiracy against him arose among those who felt their lives endangered, including officers in the Praetorian Guard. And in the year 41, at the age of 29, after having been in power only three years and ten months, he was assassinated.

Emperor Claudius


With the death of Caligula and the bad experience of his rule behind them, many senators considered exchanging rule by dynasty for the return to a republic. While the Senate discussed this possibility, the Praetorian Guard - an institution of violence - searched for a credible successor to Caligula. The guardsmen found him in Caligula's uncle, Claudius, the brother of Germanicus and a familiar figure within Augustus' family. Claudius rewarded the Guard with money for their support. Discussions in the Senate about the problems of succession and a republic came to an end, affecting Europe into modern times.


In appearance Claudius was very unlike his heroic brother, Germanicus. He stammered and suffered a disability that made him clumsy. He had been an embarrassment to the imperial family and had spent much of his life secluded, writing books on Roman, Etruscan and Carthaginian history. Not taken seriously as a possible heir, he had survived while others around him had died in the intrigues that plagued the royal family.


If Caligula's behavior could be considered the product of his experiences as a member of the royal family, or as a man having absolute power, so too could the behavior of Claudius. But the two men were very different. It was another instance of the more capable leader being the person who read good books. Claudius was a decent, intelligent man, genuinely affable, and like Germanicus he was informal. He too cared about the empire. During his thirteen years of reign, he continued public works, he gave Rome a new aqueduct. He built a new harbor at Ostia (near Rome), and he improved the judiciary. Also he extended citizenship in the provinces and created numerous new colonies - one of which, Colonia Agrippina, was to become the city of Cologne in Germany. An edict by Claudius held that a master who murdered his slave because the slave was no longer of use to him could be tried for murder, and Claudius extended freedom to any slave who had been abandoned by his or her master.


As described in Chapter 20, Claudius tried to expel the Jews from Rome, but like other polytheists, Claudius was generally tolerant of the worship of gods other than those he worshiped - but not toward Druidism. Druids were known to perform human sacrifices, which the Romans viewed with abhorrence, and Claudius saw Druidism as a threat to the empire's well being, for around Druidism rallied Gauls who wished to be free of Roman rule. Although Druidism had been declared a crime against the state, it had spread to some non-Gauls, and Claudius had a Roman executed after noticing a Druidic talisman on his breast.


Claudius was no angel. He believed in the Roman Empire, and he desired glory and popularity enough to lead an invasion into Britain. During his reign, what the Romans called Britannia became a part of the Roman Empire. And Claudius expanded the empire's frontiers in Gaul. He annexed Mauritania in North Africa. He absorbed Lycia in Asia Minor and Thrace in eastern Europe. He made Judea a Roman province. But he avoided major wars with the Germans, and he accepted the collapse of the pro-Roman government in Armenia rather than go to war with Parthia.


Claudius was attracted only to women, and he married four times. His third wife was flagrantly unfaithful. And his last marriage was to his niece, Caligula's sister, Agrippina's daughter, whose name was also Agrippina. Before she married Claudius, Agrippina poisoned her second husband - or so it is rumored. Claudius adopted Agrippina's son by a former marriage, a boy to become known as Nero, and Agrippina succeeded in getting Claudius to favor Nero as his heir-designate over his own son Britannicus, who was three years younger than Nero and in poor health.


In an attempt to make Nero eloquent, Agrippina had him schooled in mythology, the classical writers, and rhetoric. Nero was schooled also in philosophy, which was still considered by many Romans to be a Greek pastime inappropriate for well-bred Romans. While a boy, Nero developed a liking for art, drama and music, especially singing, and he liked horses. And when Nero was sixteen, Agrippina had him marry Claudius' daughter by a previous marriage: Octavia.


Agrippina used her power to destroy people she saw as a threat or who had crossed her, and the Roman historian Tacitus was to write that in the year 53 she goaded Claudius "into acts of savagery" against her imagined enemies. The following year Claudius died, some believe by Agrippina having poisoned him after he had expressed second thoughts about Nero as his successor. Nero, almost seventeen, became emperor. Agrippina arranged a funeral for Claudius that equaled in grandeur that of Augustus Caesar, and, perhaps at Agrippina's urging, Nero had Claudius deified, the only member of Augustus' family besides Augustus to be so honored.

Nero, the Last of the Julio-Claudians


If you lose touch with the majority of your people you're finished. I don't care who you are and don't care what system. In a democracy, in a Western democracy, you lose elections. In a monarchy you lose your head probably.


Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia

Seneca was opposed to the Roman legal custom, from republic times, of using torture as evidence. In imperial Rome, a slave or a citizen could be questioned under torture. Seneca opposed also the slow death and physical torments involved with crucifixion.


The Senate, having returned to being cowed, responded routinely and gave its assent to Nero's succession. And, taking his great, great-grandfather Augustus as his model, Nero began his rule adhering to what he perceived to be ideals. His old tutor, the Stoic philosopher and orator Seneca, was his advisor, and Seneca became a power behind the throne. NOTE Like Caligula, Nero wanted public adoration, and the obvious way to acquire it was as a benevolent ruler. He delivered a speech to the Senate that inspired widespread praise, and claims were made that a new Golden Age had begun.


Nero disliked having to sign death sentences against criminals. Often, instead, he gave them clemency. Then he banned capital punishment. While attending gladiator contests he turned his head rather than watch the blow to the head that assured that a fallen man was dead, and for a while he banned contests that involved bloodshed, and in their place he organized poetry competitions.


In his first five years of rule, while under the influence of Seneca, he gave slaves the right to file complaints against their masters. He pardoned people who had written unflattering descriptions of him. He left the charge of treason unused. He gave assistance to cities that had suffered from disasters. And, he won the hearts of many of his subjects by lowering taxes.


Meanwhile, Nero had come into conflict with his mother, Agrippina, who resented Nero's attachment to a Greek former slave girl that Nero wanted to marry. Annoyed with Agrippina for trying to run his life, Nero saw less of her, and she resented losing influence over him. This drove Nero further away, and he took away the honor guard that had accompanied her wherever she went.

Encylopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Volume 8, p. 606.


Agrippina began talking of replacing Nero with his half-brother Britannicus. The historian Tacitus describes Nero as having had Britannicus poisoned, but Tacitus was inclined to use rumors. Some describe Agrippina as having poisoned Britannicus. NOTE Some others describe Britannicus as having died from a fall during one of his epileptic fits. Nero was still just seventeen when Britannicus died. It was Nero's first year as emperor, and his advisors noticed that he was disturbed by the rumor of his hand in Britannicus' death.


Nero tired of the Greek girl and took as his mistress a woman about seven years older than he: Poppaea Sabina. Agrippina disliked Poppaea Sabina. Nero was still attached to his mother, and Poppaea Sabina was pressuring Nero to grow up and rid himself of his mother's influence. Nero's advisors disliked Agrippina and feared that she might have Nero assassinated. The Senate and the public also disliked Agrippina. It appears that Nero became convinced by those around him that she should be eliminated. In the year 59 - when he was twenty-one - she was murdered, and it was not done as cleanly as he had hoped. Her death was presented to the world as a suicide. Most of the Senate thanked Nero for having escaped from such a dangerous woman, while Nero apparently remained disturbed by his participation in his mother's murder.


Agrippina had been one of those high born conservatives who disliked foreign ways, and, with Agrippina out of the way, Nero pursued his interest in music and poetry with more zest. He enjoyed expressing his good heart in song. From private performances and much praise he turned to public performances of music, song and drama. He knew that conservatives disapproved, that they thought music, song and drama vulgar, but he believed that he had the support of the younger art-loving set. He argued that kings and heroes of old were inclined to break into song and that song was sacred to Apollo. He called the new performances "Festivals of Youth" and was determined to break down the bigotry of the conservatives. He read his poems in public, played the lyre and acted in plays.


Nero's Festivals of Youth were popular. Even some old folks attended and participated in the choruses, while conservatives remained horrified that an emperor would dress as a musician and use the language of a paid singer to his audience. Nero gathered around him the young poets of Rome and encouraged them to write plays. He delighted in showing the world that Rome was cultured in addition to being a proud military center. The following year, 60, he created games similar to those of the Greeks, which he planned for every fifth year – games that included music, poetry, wrestling and chariot-racing. For the games he created a new amphitheater, and he participated in the chariot racing.


A bolt of lightning striking a table at the games inspired some conservatives to claim that the ancestral deities were taking action against Nero, and the expectation of a rebellion against Nero followed. Nero reprimanded one of his vocal critics, his cousin Rubellius Plautus, and he had the young man exiled to one of his estates in Asia Minor rather than executed as his mother might have demanded.


In 62, Nero's minister, Burrus, died, and Nero's aged Stoic advisor, Seneca, felt alienated from those who remained in Nero's inner circle. Seneca retired, and Burrus was replaced by Ofonius Tigellinus, who amused Nero with his callousness. Tigellinus described Stoics, including Seneca, as hypocrites for proclaiming preference for living simply, and he began exerting influence on Nero.


Also in 62, Nero was confronted with conspiracies against him. One was led by the husband of Octavia's half-sister, a man named Sulla, who was in touch with troops in Gaul. The other conspirator was again Rubellius Plautus. Nero felt more threatened this time, and both were charged with treason and put to death.


By the year 62, Nero's wife, Octavia, hated him. She was depressed, isolated from him and tense. Nero feared that she was spreading dislike of him in his household and at court. She had not given Nero a child, and Poppaea Sabina became pregnant. Nero divorced Octavia and gave her a new mansion. Conservatives were outraged at Nero's treatment of Octavia, and on the day of Nero's marriage to Poppaea Sabina supporters gathered at Octavia's mansion. Octavia, the story goes, addressed them, and news of the exited mob hostile to him and to Poppaea Sabina alarmed Nero. He had Octavia accused of having committed adultery during their marriage, and she was accused also of treason and executed.


Nero continued to indulge his appetite for company and for food. According to stories about him, his dinner parties might last from noon to midnight. Like Caligula he grew fat. And he continued to pursue his artistic ambitions. He entered singing contests. He is accused of taking along a group trained to clap for him and letting singers who out sang him know of his resentment.


Nero also pursued the pleasures of religious ecstasy. He was attracted to evangelists of various religious persuasions: to Zoroastrians, to a cult of a virgin-mother goddess named Arargatis, and to the cult of another virgin-mother goddess named Juno-Canathos. He spoke with Jews about Judaism. He met with a Gnostic magician named Simon Magus. And it is rumored that he interviewed the apostle Paul. But none of this interest in religious ecstasy was to benefit to Rome, the benefits of religious ecstasy dependent upon to character of the devotee.

The Great Fire


In the year 64, while Nero was at his villa at Antium thirty-five miles away, a great fire broke out in Rome. Fanned by winds, the fire raged for five days. Then it flared up again and burned for four more days. It burned wooden tenement houses - which were as high as six stories. And it burned the homes of the wealthy, including Nero's palace.


Nero instituted relief for those made homeless by the fire. He launched a program to rebuild Rome. Streets in the burned out area were to be widened. Tenements were to be reduced in height. There was to be open space between tenements and other buildings. There was to be more firefighting equipment and an extended distribution of water. Nero had his own home to replace, and in a burned out area that had been most crowded, Nero took three hundred acres for himself and started rebuilding a palace, to be called "The Golden House." This was unpopular with the upper classes, who saw it as a waste of money, and it was unpopular with the poor who had lived in the area. Among the poor a rumor arose that Nero had started the fire to make space for his great mansion, and graffiti appeared ridiculing Nero for building his palace at the expense of others.


Countering the rumor that blamed Nero for the fire, an official investigation concluded that the fire had been started by Jewish fanatics. Nero now learned of the difference between Christians as Jews and other Jews, and he put blame for the fire on the Christians. As punishment, Nero sent some Christians to their death in the Arena. But, according to the historian Tacitus, many Romans remained suspicious of Nero and they pitied the Christians, believing that instead of being sacrificed for the welfare of the state, the Christians were being sacrificed as Nero's scapegoats.

Nero's Demise


Nero was not inclined to bear frustrations with the same patience that was required of common people. Self-discipline and measure were the marks of exceptional people, of people who could handle power, and regarding these two qualities Nero appears to have been less than exceptional. He let his emotions get the best of him and flew into rages, killing his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina , it is claimed, by kicking her in the stomach. In places outside Rome, Nero remained popular, but not in Rome. There, many had come to think of him as unfit to be emperor, and in the year 65, in Rome, a conspiracy was hatched against him that included numerous Romans of prestige - a conspiracy led by Caius Piso, a well known and popular senator. Nero learned of the conspiracy. Of its forty-one participants, some were executed and some were ordered to commit suicide, including Nero's old advisor, Seneca.


Nero might have thought that he could successfully counter opposition with his retaliations, but in fact, like Caligula, his power depended upon what others thought of him, and he was losing the support of too many people. Most significantly, in a society where people could not vote someone out of office he was losing the support of those who commanded armies. Military commanders outside Rome were aware of Nero's unpopularity in Rome. Nero ordered the execution of Rome's commander in Spain, Servius Galba, and, with nothing to lose, Galba openly declared himself a subject of the Senate and the Roman people rather than of Nero. Troops in Gaul had also withdrawn their support from Nero, and in a trip there Nero failed to win back their loyalty. Nero found himself abandoned except for a few servants, and perhaps realizing that this meant death for him, he ran through the palace screaming hysterically.


Sensing Nero's lack of power, the Senate roused itself and declared Nero a public enemy and ordered his execution. Soldiers closed in on Nero at his villa four miles south of Rome. Nero blamed everybody for his demise but himself. Exactly how he died is a mystery, but one story claims that with the help of a servant he killed himself, bringing an end to the dynasty begun by Augustus: the Julio-Claudians.






Recommended Books


From Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68, by H.H. Scullard, 1990


Roman Realities by Finley Hooper, 1979


Nero by David Shatter, 90 pages, 1997, (ISBN 0415129311)


Nero by Arthur Weigall, 1930 (More favorable to Nero than some others.)


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Copyright © 1998 by Frank E. Smitha. reserved.

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