Thanks to the transformations in Roman administration made by Octavian Augustus during his reign, the Roman empire could enjoy two centuries of relative peace and prosperity, commonly known as Pax Romana – “Roman peace.” Many historians describe the 2nd century CE as the golden age of the empire, but it was not quite a time that would favour everyone, especially when it comes to power.
End of August’s rule
The death of Augustus left threats of civil war over the empire because there was no precedent responsible for the transfer of power under the new order of Rome. Augustus was able to create the illusions of a still-living republic, not wanting that power after his death would be inherited as in the monarchy system – that is automatically from father to son. At the same time, however, he wanted his successor to be closely associated with him. Having no male heir, Octavian decided to adopt Tiberius, who was now an adult son of Livia from her previous marriage to Tiberius Claudius Nero. The information about the election of Tiberius as princeps was received with approval in the Senate because at that time he was already quite a famous military commander. When he took power, Tiberius was 55 years old! From the death of Octavian, for the next 54 years members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty – the name comes from the family members of Augustus (Julian) and Tiberius (Claudian) – controlled the office of princeps, and in practice becoming “emperors”, always with great senate support.
During this period, Rome controlled a vast territory that was inhabited by a mixture of Roman citizens and predominantly local people; therefore, representatives of the Julio-Claudian dynasty sought to build loyalty, prevent unrest and finance the administration. In order for the above-mentioned goals to be realized, special attention was paid to the army, religious practices, and law
and culture. However, the greatest challenge facing the future emperors of this dynasty was to maintain the principate as a system that prospered in prosperity and guaranteed internal peace, and to protect the empire from numerous enemies, not only from invaders from outside but also from conspiratorial elites from within. The members of the first imperial dynasty in the history of Ancient Rome are presented below.
Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE) held the office of princeps for 23 years, but he had to pay a considerable price for the title – his new father forced him to divorce his beloved wife Vipsania so that he could marry Octavian’s daughter – Julia. Thanks to this event, he strengthened his family connections, but due to an extremely unhappy marriage, he fell into a depression and became a bitter ruler, living in seclusion on the island of Capri – next to Naples – where he lived for the last 10 years of his life, never returning to Rome.
Despite the fact that during his reign he was extremely unpopular among the inhabitants of Rome, during his reign there is a stable transition period, which was necessary to work out compromises between the emperor and the elites. During this period, princeps still needed reliable upper-class associates among the imperial administration, the army, and even local communities in the provinces. The longer this compromise lasted, the longer the empire would be assured of peace and prosperity. One of Tiberius’ most recognizable contributions is that he ordered the construction of a permanent Praetorian Guard camp in Rome, which happened in 23 CE. – so he could use the praetorians at any time – the guard the Senate feared. Tiberius died alone of natural causes, and his death and unpopularity among citizens sparked a great celebration in the streets.
Tiberius was succeeded by Gaius (12 – 41 CE), son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, better known as Caligula – “shoe”. He gained his nickname because his father, immediately after the birth of his son, lived with his family on the Rhine, where he commanded the local army. The conqueror of the Germans, he often showed his son in a soldier’s outfit, also wearing small leather shoes (sandals) sewn like soldiers, in Latin called caligae, which gave the future emperor the nickname Caligula. Due to family ties, he was chosen as the successor of Tiberius – he was the great-grandson of Augustus’ sister. It turned out that the new emperor liked power too much, and although he knew a little about warfare, he lacked leadership qualities. This led to the fact that in practice unlimited power unleashed in him unrestrained desires. He introduced many new taxes – he even taxed brothels. His rule was brutal, and cruel, and remembered the fact that the state money had been squandered on the desires of the emperor. He was even famous for his scandals, he behaved in a manner unworthy of the emperor, performing on the stages of theatres as a singer or disguising himself as woman. Even sexual adventures with your sisters are not ruled out.
In 41 CE when things got too far, two Praetorian Guards murdered the Emperor. The death of Gaius and the lack of a male descendant made the senators want to restore the true republic, but this idea was quickly overthrown by the praetorians themselves, as emperors were their patrons. This led to the fact that the guard found a relative of Octavian Augustus – Claudius, and despite his objections, they forcibly dragged him to their camp, proclaiming him emperor. The threat of the use of force paralyzed the senate, making them understand that the soldiers would always want the emperor and that their desire to return the republic had no chance of being realized – then they saw the true nature of the government at that time, showing that whoever had military strength had power.
Claudius (10 BCE – 54 CE) was already 50 years old when he took power, so it can be concluded that his life experience allowed him to rule surprisingly competently. He allowed people living in the provinces to enter the senate, which increased the importance of the inhabitants as clients of the empire. He also hired freedmen as administrators, guaranteeing their loyalty, as any promotions on behalf of the emperor transformed them into powerful people. Claudius was poisoned by his wife Agrippina in 54 CE. The reason for the murder was the desire for her son from her previous marriage – Nero – to assume imperial power.
Nero (37-68 CE), son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman consul in 32 CE, like Caligula, fell into absolute power. When taking power, he had no military or administrative training. His life was focused on music and acting. Initially, during his reign, he was popular with the inhabitants, thanks to organizing spectacular holidays and giving away cash to the poor. The new emperor loved to spend money on pleasures, and to collect, even more, he was able to invent conspiracies, and betrayals that were to be committed by wealthy Romans and later seized their estates. During his reign, the Great Fire of Rome took place in 64 CE – this event increased the wave of suspicions against the ruler because it was believed that Nero had ordered the buildings to be set on fire in order to make room for new construction projects. During the fire, 10 out of 14 districts in the Eternal City were destroyed. His actions led to a rebellion among the commanders in the provinces of the senators and even the praetorians themselves – one of their members bribed Nero’s guards to leave him. No longer able to defend himself and fearing arrest and public execution, the emperor ordered his servant to cut his throat.
The lack of a male heir ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty and sparked a civil war in CE 68 that led to a short but turbulent period known as the “year of the four emperors.” The death of Nero made the Roman population realize that from that moment on, the empire would be ruled by dynasties.