Chapter 3


The rise of the Roman empire: the Twelve Caesars (60 BC–AD 96)

The end of the republic

‘Originally the city of Rome was ruled by kings. Lucius Junius Brutus introduced republicanism and consulships; dictators were appointed on a temporary basis. The committee of ten did not survive more than two years; the granting of consular authority to military tribunes did not last long either. Cinna and Sulla held sway only for a short time. The powers of Pompey and Crassus soon devolved on Caesar. [Octavian] took over the military resources raised by Lepidus and Antony, and, with the entire state exhausted by civil wars, assumed control with the title of princeps.’

(Tacitus, Annals 1)

Julius Caesar (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

The twenty years that followed Sulla’s death saw the rise of three men of particular ambition and power, and the flowering of the political and forensic skills of a fourth. Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115–53 BC) had prodigious wealth; Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106–48 BC), ‘Pompey the Great’, was a born military leader and organizer; and Gaius Julius Caesar was an astute politician who was also a military genius. Together they took advantage of Caesar’s election as consul for 59 BC to form a triumvirate, which ruled unconstitutionally for several years. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) lived through these times and left to posterity many examples of his oratorical and prose styles in the form of speeches and letters. All four were stabbed to death within ten years of each other.

Cicero, like Marius, was born near Arpinum. He was sent to Rome to complete his education, which was interrupted by military service in 89 BC. (Capitoline Museum, Rome: René Seindal)

Cicero’s first important speech in the courts was in defence of Roscius, who had been charged with murdering his father. He was brave to take on the case, for the charge had been brought by one of Sulla’s favourite freedmen, who had an interest in a conviction. Roscius was acquitted, and Cicero prudently went abroad ‘for reasons of health and study’.

On his return to Rome after Sulla’s death, Cicero ascended the political ladder, helped by his oratory, which led the Sicilians to retain him as prosecutor in Rome of their former governor Verres (d. 43 BC), a notorious embezzler and extortionist. Cicero’s courtroom tactics, as well as his skills, were such that the defence counsel threw up his brief while the evidence was still being called.

Cicero was elected consul for 63 BC, when he dealt firmly with a conspiracy against the state led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (c. 109–62 BC). The turning point in Cicero’s career came in 61 BC, when he appeared in court as a witness and destroyed the alibi of Publius Clodius (c. 92–52 BC), accused of attending in drag a ‘ladies-only’ religious ceremony. Clodius was a powerful toady of Caesar, who used him as a means of driving Cicero into exile (because Cicero had refused to join the triumvirate, and had even criticized its right to govern). Caesar only reluctantly agreed to his return in 57 BC.

Ostia, port of Rome. Even where apartment blocks were well appointed, the streets were narrow and houses close together. Apartment blocks in Rome were often jerry-built. (VRoma: Via di Diana, Ostia: Susan Bonvallet)

Crassus bought cheap, from the state, the estates of those who had been proscribed by Sulla. He also ran a building racket. When there was a fire in the city, he would rush out and make a nominal offer not just for the burning building but for all the others in the neighbourhood. In this way, and by rebuilding damaged properties, he is said to have owned most of Rome. He used much of his wealth to gain popular favour, both essential assets for a politician.

At this time, gladiators were either convicted criminals or slaves, and had no choice in the matter. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Book of the Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

As the supreme commander appointed by the Senate in 72 BC against the slave revolt of Spartacus the gladiator, Crassus is remembered for two acts. He revived the ancient punishment of decimation for disobeying orders, dividing the five hundred of his men whom he regarded as the most culpable into fifty tens, then choosing by lot one out of each ten to be publicly executed before the whole army. Then, after the final defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC, he crucified the 6,000 survivors, leaving them to hang at regular intervals along the main road from Rome to Capua, where the rising had started.

Campaigns of Caesar (Gaul, Britain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Africa, Spain), Crassus (Italy, Parthia), and Pompey (Italy, Sicily, Africa, Spain, Mediterranean, Asia, Greece), 72–45 BC. (Ancient World Mapping Center)

Crassus and Pompey were consuls in 70 BC, and again in 55 BC, after which Crassus obtained the governorship of the province of Syria. In an attempt to add military glory to his wealth, he misguidedly took on the Parthians to the east. He was ignominiously defeated, and murdered while negotiating the terms of surrender.

Life-size bust of Pompey: first-century AD copy of a contemporary likeness. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

Pompey was first elected consul in 70 BC while under the statutory age limit and without having held any other office of state, though he had already made a name for himself as a soldier. In 67 BC he was appointed to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. The resources and powers put at his disposal were formidable, and included 250 ships, as well as 100,000 marines and 4,000 cavalry from Rome alone, which he reinforced with what was offered by other interested nations. With a concerted sweep against the pirates and their strongholds, he forced them out of business in just three months. He took 20,000 prisoners, most of whom he spared and offered employment as farmers.

He was then transferred to Asia, where he succeeded completely where others had failed, and defeated Mithridates of Pontus, in the process enlarging the Roman empire. Unwilling at that time to assume sole power in Rome, but anxious to keep it within his sights, he threw in his lot with Crassus and Caesar, whose daughter Julia he married in 59 BC, as his fourth wife.

Marble sarcophagus relief, AD 160–180, of Roman marriage ceremony. The couple are observing the solemn ceremony of clasping right hands, while the groom holds in his other hand the marriage contract. Between them is the matron-of-honour. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Though probably intended as a marriage of convenience, the partnership seems to have been a successful one, until Julia’s death in childbirth in 54 BC. There was now no one capable of reconciling the ambitions of Pompey and Caesar, neither of whom could bear to take second place to anyone.

It is also probable that Caesar, at the end of his campaign in Gaul (58–49 BC), wanting a further consulship and a command, and fearing prosecution for past irregularities if he did not get them, deliberately provoked a confrontation. He returned at the head of his army, had himself appointed temporary dictator, and pushed Pompey, his army and his senatorial supporters out of Italy and to final defeat at Pharsalus in Greece.

Pompey sought asylum in Egypt, but was assassinated by members of the Egyptian government as he stepped ashore. Caesar, in hot pursuit, was then persuaded by Cleopatra (68–30 BC), joint ruler of Egypt with her brother, to stay a while as her personal guest. He accepted her invitation with such pleasure that a son, known as Caesarion, was born the following year.

Bronze coin of Cleopatra VII, c. 35 BC, with her infant son, Caesarion. It was minted in Cyprus, which Caesar had given to Cleopatra in 47 BC as a parting gift. (Photo © CNG Coins)

In the meantime Caesar had been confirmed in his absence as dictator, an appointment which was regularly renewed. Thus began, with a few interregna, the rule of Rome by twelve men who, with one exception, successively held the name Caesar, by birth, by adoption, by descent through the female line or by incorporating it into their official title.

Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar: born 12 July 100 BC (or possibly 102) in Rome, son of Gaius Caesar and Aurelia. Governor of Gaul 58–49 BC. Appointed dictator for ten years in 47 BC; then for life on 14 February 44 BC. Married [1] Cornelia (one daughter, Julia); [2] Pompeia; [3] Calpurnia. Assassinated 15 March 44 BC. Deified 42 BC.

At the age of thirty, arguably the most famous Roman of them all was regarded as a dandy who had squandered his wife’s fortune (they had married when he was seventeen) as well as his own. He was, however, a fine public speaker, which served him well when campaigning successfully for the offices of quaestor (he served in Spain), aedile (his extravagance in providing gladiatorial shows and renovating public buildings at his own expense to gain further popularity put him even deeper in debt) and praetor (in 63 BC), when he resorted to massive bribery in order to be elected pontifex maximus. His duties as praetor took him again to Spain, where he discovered a talent as a military commander and amassed enough booty and tribute to pay off his debts.

The formation of the ruling triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey was a mark of Caesar’s determination to push through genuine and innovative measures in the face of a Senate that was suspicious of his motives, and to ensure that there was some continuity of progressive legislation after his year as consul was over. He then obtained the governorship of both provinces of Gaul for a period of five years, later extended for a second term: Cisalpine Gaul, the subjugated region south of the Alps and to the east of the Apennines as far as the river Rubicon; and Transalpine Gaul, roughly corresponding to modern-day Provence and Languedoc.

The tribes and regions of Gaul and southern Britain, 58–50 BC.

When Caesar had finished his series of brilliant but punitive campaigns, during which two million men, women and children are said to have died, he was master of the whole region to the west of the Rhine, which he crossed by military bridge to ensure that there would be no trouble from the Germanic tribes. In 55 and 54 BC he mounted expeditions to Britain, which until then had been unknown to the Roman world. In 55 he arrived without his cavalry, which had been prevented from landing by the weather. On both occasions storms and tides broke up his ships, which had been badly beached or wrongly anchored.

Celtic coin of Vercingetorix, late first century BC. (Julius Caesar: The Last Dictator website)

The size of his Gallic operation was matched by its complexity. Caesar’s most impressive achievement was the subjugation in 51 BC of Alesia, the fortified hill-city in which Vercingetorix, the Arvernian chief who had most successfully opposed Rome, made his final stand with his 80,000 infantry.

When Caesar left his province in 49 BC and crossed the Rubicon at the head of his troops, it was the signal that he came as an invader. After Pompey’s hasty departure and ultimate defeat, and his own fruitful holiday in Egypt, Caesar returned to Rome with his army via Asia Minor, pausing at Zela to annihilate the forces of Pharnaces of Pontus (d. 47 BC), son of Mithridates. This was the occasion of his celebrated message to the Senate, ‘Veni, vidi, vici!’: I came, I saw, I conquered!

Opposition from the Pompeian faction, however, was stamped out only after two more campaigns, in Africa and Spain, culminating in the Battle of Munda on 17 March 45 BC. In October of that year, Caesar was back in Rome. Five months later he was dead, at the hands of a band of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus (c. 85–42 BC) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (d. 42 BC), former Pompeians whom Caesar had pardoned after the Battle of Pharsalus.

The Ides of March! Silver denarius issued by Brutus in 43/42 BC to celebrate the assassination of Caesar. It carries two daggers, a cap of liberty, and the date of the murder, [E]ID. MAR. (Photo © CNG Coins)

In the meantime Caesar had established order in Rome, begun measures to reduce congestion in the city and to drain large tracts of marshy ground, given full voting rights to the inhabitants of his former province south of the Alps, revised the tax laws of Asia and Sicily, resettled many Romans in new homes in the Roman provinces, and reformed the calendar, which, with one slight adjustment, is the one in use today.

'The Death of Caesar' by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844). (Storia dell' Arte website)

The judgement of history is that Caesar’s driving ambition and energy led him to try to make too many changes too quickly and without ensuring that there were workable substitutes for the traditions he was sweeping away. Further, the senators were concerned not so much with reverting to democracy, but with preserving rule by the aristocracy, and their own positions in that rule. Caesar’s position was that of a king, and though he refused the crown it was for reasons of diplomacy, not modesty.

Caesar was the first living Roman to have his own portrait on a coin. Silver denarius of Julius Caesar, 44 BC. The inscription CAESAR DICT QUART refers to his being dictator four times. The curved symbol is a lituus, the staff used by augurs which here signifies his office of pontifex maximus. (VRoma: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Barbara McManus)

The imperium that Caesar assumed, however, gave him the position of sole ruler. The literal translation of imperium is something akin to both ‘command’ and ‘power’. The word is related to imperator, which came to mean emperor but was originally the title bestowed on a victorious military commander by his troops.

The package of powers that Julius Caesar’s successor assumed in 27 BC gave him the constitutional right to greater imperium than anyone else at the time. It is for this reason that the establishment of the rule of Rome by emperors is said to have begun then.

The Roman Empire in 44 BC at the death of Julius Caesar: provinces of the empire are in capital letters. (© Taylor & Francis Group)

Augustus (r. 27 BC–AD 14)

Augustus. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

Gaius (Julius Caesar) Octavi(an)us: born 23 September 63 BC in Rome, son of Gaius Octavius and Atia, niece of Julius Caesar, who adopted him as his heir. Consul 43, 33, 31–23 BC. Effectively became emperor in 27 BC, with extended powers in 23 BC. Married [1] Claudia; [2] Scribonia (one daughter, Julia); [3] Livia Drusilla, mother of Tiberius. Died at Nola, 19 August AD 14. Deified 17 September AD 14.

Caesar, in his will, named his great-nephew Gaius Octavius (later Augustus) his son by adoption and his principal heir. Gold aureus of Octavian, 43–31 BC, with his head on the obverse anda deified Julius Caesar on the reverse. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin: Barbara McManus)

Octavian was in Epirus, pursuing his military studies, when he heard of his great-uncle’s murder, and that Caesar had named him not only his son by adoption but also his principal heir. It was late April when he got back to Rome, by which time Marcus Antonius (c. 83–30 BC) – Marc Antony – and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (c. 90–13 BC), who had been Caesar’s chief assistants, had assumed control of the state, and Brutus and the other conspirators had, at the prompting of Cicero, been granted an amnesty by the Senate.

Bust believed to be of Marc Antony. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini: Ann Raia)

A confused series of battles and comings and goings resulted in Octavian being elected consul, at the age of nineteen, and forcing through a motion to the effect that he, Antony and Lepidus should be formally recognized as the ruling triumvirate for five years. Their first act was to revive the feared Sullan policy of proscription.

Cicero was one of the first to die. Too ill to escape his murderers, he was bundled into a litter by his slaves but was tracked down and killed by a swordcut to the neck. His head and hands were cut off and sent to Rome where, on the orders of Antony, they were nailed up in the Forum. (Vatican Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

While the triumvirate formally remained in power beyond its statutory term, the twelve years until 31 BC were almost entirely taken up with wars between its members, and against fellow Romans. Brutus and Cassius were defeated in two battles at Philippi in Macedonia in 42 BC, and committed suicide. Sextus Pompey (son of Pompey the Great and his third wife), having obtained a large fleet and taken possession of Sicily, was finally murdered by his own troops in 35 BC. Antony’s long-standing affair with Cleopatra, and his preference for her company and Alexandria over that of his wife Octavia (Octavian’s sister) and Rome, culminated in Octavian’s victory over the Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and the subsequent suicides of the lovers.

Gold aureus of Marc Antony (c. 36–35 BC), with Antony on the obverse and his wife Octavia on the reverse. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin: Barbara McManus)

Silver tetradrachm with striking image of Cleopatra, minted at Askalon in 50/49 BC, shortly before she met Julius Caesar. (VRoma: British Musem: Barbara McManus)

With Lepidus now a back number and Caesarion murdered, Octavian was in charge of the Roman world. However, he needed to assemble his powers into an acceptable constitutional form, avoiding any suggestion of a return to the monarchy or even to a dictatorship, which had caused so much trouble in the past. He achieved this gradually over a number of years, and in a manner which did not appear to undermine the authority of the Senate, at least as a consultative body. While continuing to hold successive consulships, in 27 BC he formally relinquished all the special powers he had been granted, but accepted in return for ten years the strategic provinces of Cilicia, Cyprus, Gaul, Spain and Syria, for which troops were required, together with his confirmation as divine successor to the pharaohs in Egypt.

In addition he renounced the name of Octavian in favour of the more dignified Augustus. In 23 BC, because of illness, he gave up his apparent claim to hold the office of consul for life. This was diplomatically a sound move which opened up to others an additional chance of honour (if not much responsibility), especially as in its place he was granted the privileges of a tribune of the people, with the powers to apply a veto at will and to take matters directly to the popular assemblies.

Gold aureus of Augustus sitting on a curule chair, denoting high office. The inscription is LEGES ET IURA P. R. RESTITUIT: 'He restored the laws and rights of the Roman people'. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

That illness proved to be only a minor setback in a rule that lasted over forty years and gave to the Western world the term ‘Augustan’ to denote an age of glittering literary achievement. Though the boundaries of the Roman empire had not yet reached their widest extent, Augustus consolidated them by strengthening the army and removing it from Italy to patrol the provinces. He remodelled the civil service, largely rebuilt parts of Rome itself, and appointed 3,500 firemen under a chief fire officer to guard against conflagrations.

Augustus' Rome. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Book of the Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970). 1 Temple of Vesta; 2 Regia, residence of the pontifex maximus, formerly home of the kings; 3 Rostra (speakers' platform); 4 Curia (Senate house); 5 Temple of Julius Caesar; 6 Temple of Castor and Pollux (rebuilt by Augustus); 7 Basilica Julia (built by Julius Caesar as an exchange and for judicial tribunals); 8 Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill; 9 Temple of Juno Moneta; 10 Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; 11 Forum.

Augustus died in his family home at Nola, in Campania, at the age of seventy-six. He was married three times, but his only child was a daughter by his second wife. He had, however, after several attempts to do so had been aborted by deaths, nominated a successor: his stepson Tiberius.

Denarius of Augustus, 13 BC, referred to (top) as Divi F[ilius] (son of a god). Bottom: His daughter Julia is flanked by her sons Gaius and Lucius, both of whom died before AD 4. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

The Roman empire in AD 14 at the death of Augustus: imperial provinces are in Roman capital letters; senatorial provinces are in italic capital lettters. (© Taylor & Francis Group)

Tiberius (r. AD 14–37)

Bust of Tiberius. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar: born 16 November 42 BC, son of Tiberius Claudius Nero (d. 33 BC) and Livia Drusilla (c. 58 BC–AD 29), who married Augustus in 39 BC. Became emperor in AD 14. Married [1] Vipsania (one son, Drusus 13 BC–AD 23); [2] Julia, daughter of Augustus. Died at Misenum, 16 March AD 37.

Though Tiberius had been groomed by Augustus as his successor, he was actually fourth choice after Agrippa, husband of Augustus’ only daughter Julia, and their sons Gaius and Lucius, all of whom died in Augustus’ lifetime. Thus, to an already diffident nature was added a sense of inferiority.

Dupondius with the head of Marcus Agrippa. COS III indicates that he had been consul three times, in 37, 28 and 27 BC. He died in 12 BC. His son, Agrippa junior, was born posthumously and, because of his violent character, was exiled in AD 7. (VRoma: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Barbara McManus)

On Agrippa’s death, Augustus compelled Tiberius to divorce his wife and become Julia’s third husband. Five years later, in 6 BC, in spite of his appointment to a five-year term as senior tribune of the people, a function until then performed by Augustus himself, Tiberius obtained leave of absence, and retired to Rhodes.

Julia, daughter of Augustus. Of the reasons suggested for Tiberius' departure to Rhodes, her behaviour is not the most unlikely. By the time Tiberius returned in AD 2, she had been banished by her father for adultery. (Vatican Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Tiberius, now Augustus’ adopted son, was then sent to command the imperial armies, all based outside Italy. From then until Augustus’ death, which happened while Tiberius was travelling, he hardly visited Rome. He was summoned back not by the Senate, but by his elderly mother Livia, Augustus’ widow. In order to secure his position, he had Agrippa junior, Augustus’ last surviving grandson, killed, though some said that this was organized by Livia.

It is said that Livia's first husband was forced to divorce her, and she married Augustus when six months pregnant with Drusus. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

There followed several years of intrigue over the future succession, in the course of which Tiberius’ son Drusus and his nephew Germanicus died. Tiberius was so affected by indecision that finally, in AD 26, he departed to his holiday villa on the island of Capri, never to return to the city.

The ruins of Tiberius' villa from the road, Capri. Several Roman historians suggested that it was his palace of sexual pleasures of various kinds. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Tiberius left the administration in the hands of Lucius Aelius Sejanus (d. AD 31), praetorian prefect (commander of the imperial guard), who was conspiring against his emperor while removing people in his own path to the post. Tiberius wrote to the Senate expressing his suspicions. Sejanus, his family, including his children, and many of his cronies were brutally executed.

Tiberius’ last years were still fraught with morbid mistrust. Whether, at the age of seventy-eight, he died naturally or was murdered is uncertain, but by then the number of serious candidates for the succession had been reduced to two: his own grandson, Tiberius Gemellus (c. AD 20–37), and his last surviving great-nephew, Gaius Caesar, now twenty-four, and nicknamed Caligula (‘Bootsie’) after the miniature army boots he had worn as a child.

With typical vacillation to the last, Tiberius named them joint heirs.

Bronze coin of Tiberius (c. AD 22). Tiberius Gemellus had a twin brother, Germanicus, who died in infancy. They are both depicted here in cornucopiae, with between them the winged caduceus, the herald's staff which is also the sign of the god Mercury. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin: Barbara McManus)

Germanicus Caesar, father of Caligula, was a nephew of Tiberius and the husband of his niece Agrippina. He died in mysterious circumstances in Syria. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

Caligula (r. AD 37–41)

Caligula: a chilling study of weakness and cruelty. (Ny Carlsberg Glypotek: René Seindal)

Gaius Caesar: born AD 12, son of Germanicus Caesar (15 BC–AD 19), nephew of Tiberius, and Agrippina (14 BC– AD 33), granddaughter of Tiberius. Became emperor in AD 37. Married [1] Junia Claudilla; [2] Livia Orestilla; [3] Lollia Paulina; [4] Caesonia (one daughter, Julia). Assassinated 24 January AD 41.

The question as to who would succeed Tiberius was resolved by Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro (d. AD 38), commander of the imperial guard in succession to Sejanus. He proposed Caligula's name to the Senate and there was no objection.

Caligula, though inexperienced in matters of government, recalled many political exiles and dropped charges against them; he also banished all male prostitutes. He formally adopted his cousin, Tiberius Gemellus, and appointed his uncle Claudius (his dead father's younger brother) to his first public office as consul. Then he fell ill. When he recovered, the citizens of Rome found themselves in a living nightmare.

Caligula became totally irrational, with delusions of divinity as well as of grandeur. He put Tiberius Gemellus and Macro to death without trial. He proposed that statues of himself be erected in synagogues. His extravagance knew no bounds, and he introduced heavy taxes to meet his personal expenditure.

Bronze coin of Caligula depicting his three sisters, Agrippina (later the mother of Nero), Drusilla and Julia. He is said to have committed incest with each of them in turn. (© CNG Coins)

In such an atmosphere executions and displays of bloodlust were commonplace, and conspiracies proliferated. Finally, one of the plots succeeded, and Caligula was assassinated by members of his imperial guard. His fourth wife and his child were murdered at the same time.

Underground passage from the imperial palace to the Area Palatina, in which Caligula was killed. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Claudius (r. AD 41–54)

Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus Caesar: born 1 August 10 BC at Lugdunum, Gaul, son of Nero Claudius Drusus (38–9 BC), brother of Tiberius, and Antonia (36 BC–AD 37), daughter of Marc Antony. Became emperor in AD 41. Married [1] Plautia Urgulanilla (one son, Drusus, d. c. AD 26; one daughter, Claudia); [2] Aelia Paetina (one daughter, Antonia); [3] Valeria Messalina (one son, Tiberius Claudius Britannicus, AD 41–55; one daughter, Octavia, d. AD 62); [4] Agrippina. Died 12 October AD 54. Deified AD 54.

After the assassination of Caligula, members of the imperial guard came across his uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain. They carried him off to their camp and made him an offer: to be their nominee as emperor. Obviously feeling that to be emperor was better than death, Claudius accepted and promised a special bonus in return, thus creating a precedent which future aspirants had to follow.

Member of the imperial guard. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

In the absence of any other obvious candidate, the Senate confirmed the choice of the imperial guard. Claudius was fifty at the time, and a scholar, but he had no experience of administration. He was also lame, had a tic, and stammered. In history and in the accounts of ancient historians, he comes across as a mishmash of conflicting characteristics: absent-minded, hesitant, muddled, determined, cruel (by proxy), intuitive, wise, and dominated by his wife and his personal staff of freedmen. He was probably all of these. If his choice of women was disastrous, there are other instances of this failing on the part of public figures. And he may, with sound reasoning, have preferred the advice of educated and trained executives from abroad to that of potentially suspect aristocratic senators, even if some of those executives did use their influence to their own advantage. It was a thoroughly sound if not glittering rule, which lasted almost fourteen years; even if it did end in violence, at least it was by poison at the hands of his wife, not by the dagger of a political assassin.

Claudius. A touch of weakness in the face, perhaps, but no doubt about the intelligence. (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal)

Claudius revived the office of censor, which had fallen into disuse, and took on the job himself, introducing into the Senate several chiefs from Gaul. He reorganized and rationalized the financial affairs of the state and empire, setting aside a separate fund for the emperor's private and household expenses. Almost all grain had to be imported, mainly from Africa and Egypt. To encourage potential importers and to build up stocks against winter months and times of famine, he offered to insure them against losses on the open sea. To make unloading easier and to relieve congestion in the Tiber, he carried out a scheme originally proposed by Julius Caesar and constructed the new port of Ostia on the coast.

Claudius' most far-reaching initiative led to the first successful full-scale invasion of Britain: a potentially hostile and possibly united nation just beyond the fringe of the existing empire presented a threat which could not be ignored. Besides, Claudius, for so long the butt of his family and peers, wanted a piece of military glory.

The principal tribes of Britain at this time. (From Antony Kamm, Scotland in Roman Times, Scottish Children's Press, 1998)

The force which sailed in AD 43 was a formidable one, even by Roman standards. Whether its leader, Aulus Plautius, had instructions to call on Claudius if he got into difficulties or simply to invite him over to preside at the kill is not clear. He did, however, get into difficulties. Though Togodumnus, son of Cunobellinus (Cymbeline), king of the Catuvellauni, whose capital was Colchester, had been killed, this acted as a spur to other tribes to unite in a determination to avenge his death.

In Rome preparations had already been made, including the mobilization of an elephant corps. Claudius handed over the administration of affairs to his consular colleague, then travelled overland, by river transport, and by sea to meet up with his troops, who were encamped by the river Thames. Assuming command, he took Colchester and subdued many other tribes. He was in Britain just sixteen days. Plautius followed up the advantage gained, and was governor of this newest province in the empire from AD 44 to 47. When Caratacus (brother of Togodumnus) was finally captured and brought to Rome in chains, Claudius pardoned him and his family.

Gold aureus of Claudius celebrating his British victory. The Senate granted him the title of Britannicus and authorized him to celebrate a triumph. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Claudius was married four times and, in spite of his physical disadvantages, he was more successful in fathering children than any of his imperial predecessors. At his succession, he was already into his third marriage, to Messalina, who three weeks later had a son. Eventually she was discovered too many times in flagrante delicto, and in AD 48, aged about twenty-four, she was executed.

Head and upper body of life-sized statue of Messalina (c. AD 45), with her infant son, afterwards known as Britannicus, the title having been conferred on him by the Senate at the same time as they made the award to his father. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Speculation was rife as to who would be the next imperial consort. It turned out to be Agrippina, Caligula's sister and Claudius' own niece. In order to marry her, he first had to have a law enacted to permit such a union. Agrippina had a teenage son by a former marriage, later known as Nero, and she persuaded Claudius formally to adopt him, and to give him his daughter Octavia in marriage. Then she poisoned him.

Gold aureus of AD 54, the first year of Nero's reign, showing the new emperor and his mother. He later had her murdered. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Nero (r. AD 54–68)

Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus: born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus at Antium, AD 37, son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, consul in AD 32, and Agrippina, sister of Caligula, who then married Crispus Passienus and later, in AD 49, her uncle Claudius. Became emperor in AD 54. Married [1] Octavia, daughter of Claudius; [2] Poppaea Sabina (one daughter, Claudia Augusta, died in infancy); [3] Statilia Messalina. Committed suicide 9 June AD 68.

Nero was artistic, sporting, brutal, weak, sensual, erratic, extravagant, sadistic, bisexual … and latterly almost certainly deranged. He was sixteen when his mother secured for him the office of emperor, by having him presented to the troops as their candidate and by promising what was now the customary bonus. Shortly afterwards the only other possible contender, Claudius’ son Britannicus, was dead, almost certainly poisoned.

During the early years of his reign, Nero was kept in hand by his tutor, the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and by Africanus Burrus, praetorian prefect, who between them managed to persuade him to withdraw, and forget, a proposal to abolish all indirect taxation. They also averted attempts by Agrippina to exert imperial influence until Nero took as his mistress Poppaea, wife of Marcus Salvius Otho, whom Nero now dispatched to be governor of Lusitania.

Agrippina. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

Agrippina sided with Nero’s wife, Octavia. Nero retaliated with a series of grotesque attempts to murder his mother, including the construction of a collapsible boat, which deposited her in the Bay of Naples. She swam ashore. Finally, in AD 59, he sent to her house a man who clubbed and stabbed her to death.

Wall painting from one of five dining rooms in a first-century AD luxury inn at Moregine, believed to have been built for Nero. This figure of Apollo with a lyre has a face which may be intended to be Nero's. When the emperor sang in public, accompanying himself on the lyre, no one was allowed to leave the auditorium. There are tales of women giving birth during Nero's recitals, and of men pretending to die and being carried out as if to burial. (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus)

Burrus died in AD 62. When Seneca retired soon afterwards, Nero became totally subject to corrupt and evil advisers, and indulged to the exclusion of everything else his passions for sport, music, preposterous parties and murder. Having divorced Octavia in AD 62 and then seeing to it that she was executed on a trumped-up charge of adultery, he married Poppaea, now divorced, before kicking her to death, it is said when she complained at his coming home late from the races.

Marble bust, c. AD 54–68, believed to be of Poppaea. She is said to have been a 'god-fearer', a Jewish worshipper who attended synagogue services without being a full proselyte, and to have intervened with Nero in favour of a deputation of priests from Jerusalem. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

In AD 64 fire ravaged Rome for six days, leaving only four of its fourteen districts undamaged. An unauthenticated report that Nero sang and played his lyre while the city burned made people suspicious of the relief measures he initiated. Nor did faith in his motives increase when he used a vast tract of land razed by the fire on which to build his ‘Golden Palace’, a huge luxury complex set in rambling pleasure gardens designed for his amusements.

Reconstruction of the domed octagonal hall built for Nero's new palace. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

When rumours of arson surfaced again, Nero, looking around for scapegoats, found them in members of the latest religious sect, Christianity, many of whom were rounded up and torn to death by dogs or crucified as a public spectacle.

In AD 65 there was a genuine conspiracy to assassinate Nero; when it was discovered there was terrible retribution in which Seneca and his nephew, the poet Lucan, died. People whom Nero suspected or disliked, as well as those who had merely aroused the jealousy of his advisers, were sent a note ordering them to commit suicide.

Finally the tide of organized revolt gathered pace. In AD 68, one of the governors in Gaul, Gaius Julius Vindex, himself Gallic-born, withdrew his oath of allegiance to the emperor and encouraged the governor of northern and eastern Spain, Galba, a hardened veteran of seventy-one, to do the same. Vindex’s troops were suppressed by legions who marched in from Germany, and Vindex committed suicide.

Galba, having informed the Senate that he was available if required to head a government, waited. The Senate, obviously relieved that someone else was prepared to take responsibility, declared Nero a public enemy and sentenced him to death by flogging. Nero thought of flight, dithered, then killed himself with the help of his secretary.

Bust of Nero, with half-beard. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Graffito caricature of Nero signed 'Tullius Romanus, soldier', found in the substructures of the imperial residence on the Palatine Hill. (From Rodolfo Lanciani, The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome, 1897: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Galba (r. AD 68–69)

Servius Sulpicius Galba: born 24 December 3 BC near Tarracina. Consul AD 33, after which he was governor of Upper Germany, and then, in AD 45, of Africa. Called back from retirement to be governor of Hispania Tarraconensis AD 61–68. Became emperor AD 68. Married Lepida (two sons, all three died early in his career). Assassinated 15 January AD 69.

Galba was the sole surviving descendant of an old republican family, several of whom had been consul. He was old, a cruel disciplinarian, and notoriously mean. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Galba's accession marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: he assumed the name Caesar when Nero's death was reported. It also proved that it was feasible for an emperor to emerge from, and be appointed, outside Rome itself.

Galba arrived in Rome in October 68, and committed the solecism of refusing to pay the traditional bonus which the imperial guard had been promised on his behalf. On 2 January AD 69, the legions in Germany proclaimed as emperor Aulus Vitellius, who had been appointed by Galba commander in Lower Germany. To try to avert civil war, Galba named as joint ruler and his successor Marcius Piso Licinianus, who had neither qualifications nor distinction. Otho, former husband of Poppaea, took offence and bribed the imperial guard to support him. On 15 January they swore allegiance to him and hacked Galba and Piso to death.

Otho (r. AD 69)

Marcus Salvius Otho: born 28 April AD 32. Governor of Lusitania AD 58–68. Married Poppaea Sabina, future wife of Nero. Became emperor 15 January AD 69. Committed suicide 14 April AD 69.

Coin of Otho. (Suzanne Cross)

Otho returned to Rome after having performed creditably in Lusitania. His immediate task was to overcome the threat of Vitellius. The armies of Upper and Lower Germany advanced into Italy, each by a different route. Otho crossed the Po and was outflanked. His army surrendered and he killed himself.

Vitellius (r. AD 69)

Aulus Vitellius: born 24 September AD 15. Consul AD 48, then governor of Africa. Governor of Lower Germany AD 68–69. Became emperor 14 April AD 69. Married [1] Petronia (one son); [2] Galeria Fundana (one son; one daughter). Assassinated 24 December AD 69.

Vitellius, son of a former consul, had some learning but little military experience. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Vitellius reached Rome in mid-July AD 69, and was officially recognized as emperor, though he refused the title of Caesar. He celebrated with bouts of entertaining, drinking and betting on the races, and was so out of touch with public sensitivities that as pontifex maximus he made a pronouncement about worship on a day which was regarded as unlucky.

During July, forces in the east swore their allegiance to Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commander in Judaea. The Danube legions did the same, and while Vespasian remained where he was, they marched into Italy, defeated the imperial army, and made a dash for Rome, which capitulated. Vitellius was hunted down and tortured to death on 24 December AD 69. Within one year three successive emperors of Rome had died violently, and now a fourth was acclaimed.

Vespasian (r. AD 69–79)

Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus: born 17 November AD 9 at Reate. Served in Thrace, Crete, Cyrene, Germany, Britain and Africa. Military commander in Judaea AD 66–69. Became emperor AD 69. Married Flavia Domitilla, who died c. AD 65 (two sons, Titus and Domitian; one daughter, Domitilla). Died at Reate 24 June AD 79. Deified AD 79.

A contemporary likeness of Vespasian: even the loss of the nose cannot detract from the impression of a tough but inherently kindly man. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

Vespasian was almost sixty-one when he arrived back in Rome in October AD 70, but he was still fit and active, and he had two sons, Titus (twenty-nine), who was left to continue the Jewish campaign, and Domitian (nineteen). Titus took Jerusalem, and on his return to Rome was made Vespasian's associate in government, also with the title Caesar, and appointed commander of the imperial guard.

Brass sestertius, AD 71, with the head of Vespasian. This coin was issued to celebrate the victory in the Jewish wars, which were not yet, however, quite over. The reverse depicts a captive Jew and a mourning Jewish woman under a palm tree, with the legend IVDAEA CAPTA ('Judaea subjugated'). The letters underneath stand for S[enatus] C[onsulto]: 'by decree of the Senate'. (Photo © CNG Coins)

Vespasian was a professional soldier who as a legionary commander had served with distinction during the first assault on Britain by Aulus Plautius. He was consul suffectus in AD 51, and subsequently governor of Africa, before being sent by Nero to conduct the war against the Jews. He had neither the time nor the liking for extravagant living, and was a first-rate administrator with a talent for picking the right man for a job. Such a man was Gnaeus Julius Agricola (AD 40–93), whom he appointed governor of Britain in AD 78. Though the destruction of Jerusalem and retaliation against the Jews were carried out with unnecessary severity, Jews were excused Caesar-worship.

The final Jewish pocket of resistance held out until AD 74, when the rock fortress of Masada was overcome and the inmates, 960 men, women and children, committed mass suicide. To take Masada, the Romans, who had had to carry over the desert all the necessary materials, as well as provisions and water, constructed a ramp (seen here from the top) rising 140 metres to the summit. Archaeological evidence gathered in the 1960s largely confirms the account of Josephus (AD 37–c. 100), who wrote a history of the Jewish wars at Vespasian's behest. (Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies, York University, Canada)

Vespasian took a sensible and enlightened course in other matters, too. He instituted the first salaried public professorship when he appointed Quintilian (AD 35–95) to a chair of literature and rhetoric. He exempted doctors and teachers of grammar and rhetoric from paying taxes, and created a new class of professional civil servants, drawn largely from the business community.

Funerary relief from the end of the first century BC. The central figure and the one on the left are freedmen with the term medicus ('doctor') inscribed under each of their names. Doctors were almost exclusively Greek, slaves, or freedmen. The freedwoman on the right has no such descriptive term, but female doctors were not unknown. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

Vespasian died of natural causes in the family home in the Sabine mountains. There were no doubts or worries about the succession.

Titus (r. AD 79–81)

Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus: born 30 December AD 40 in Rome, son of Vespasian and Flavia Domitilla. Legionary commander and then commander-in-chief in Judaea. Became associate emperor AD 71, then emperor AD 79. Married [1] Arrecina Tertulla; [2] Marcia Furnilla (one daughter, Flavia Julia). Died 13 September AD 81. Deified AD 81.

Marble bust of Titus. As a young man he was dangerously like Nero in his charm, intellect and proclivities. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Titus lived long enough to demonstrate that he had some talent for government, but not long enough for any judgement to be made as to how effective a ruler he might have been. We do, however, have more tangible evidence from his short reign than from that of many emperors who ruled for much longer.

The massive Arch of Titus, celebrating his triumphs over the Jews, still stands today in the Forum in Rome. (René Seindal)

In August AD 79 the volcanic Mount Vesuvius erupted, engulfing within an hour Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as several other towns and villages in the area. Many survivors managed to escape with the help of the fleet stationed at Misenum. Others died where they were.

Plaster cast of Pompeii victim, whose body, including skull and teeth, was preserved when the ash and lava cooled. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Some people suggested that the tragedy was divine retribution on Titus for his destruction of Jerusalem. Though he had been emperor for only a few weeks, he announced a state of emergency, set up a relief fund for the homeless, offered practical assistance in rehousing survivors, and appointed a team of commissioners to administer the disaster area.

Titus was twice married, but his only legitimate child was a daughter. While he was in Judaea he had a passionate affair with Berenice, daughter of the Jewish king Herod Agrippa, and brought her back to Rome. The pressure of public opinion, however, forced them apart, and she returned home. He was forty when he died suddenly. Some people suspected that it was the work of his younger brother, Domitian.

Domitian (r. AD 81–96)

Titus Flavius Domitianus Augustus: born 24 October AD 51 in Rome. Became emperor AD 81. Married Domitia Longina (no children). Murdered 18 September AD 96.

Both his father and his brother had kept Domitian at a distance from playing any part in the administration. So when supreme power finally came his way, he accepted it as his right and gloried in it, especially after having himself elected to the office of censor for life. The usual methods of address were not for him: he preferred to be known as ‘our master, our god’.

Gold aureus, AD 93/94, of Domitian, with on the reverse Minerva, goddess of crafts and industry, and also of war. The inscription, which begins under the neck and goes clockwise, continuing on the reverse, reads in full: 'The emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, with powers of a tribune for the thirteenth time / Imperator for the twenty-second time, Consul for the sixteenth time, perpetual Censor, Father of the Country'. (Photo © CNG Coins)

Under the Flavian emperors, the economy of the empire was rationalized still further, to the extent that expenditure could be projected. Dependent kingdoms were converted into provinces. Rome and its aristocracy became more cosmopolitan. Domitian helped these processes by efficient administration, combined with a refreshing pedantry.

Domitian insisted that spectators at public games came properly dressed in togas. These men in procession in a first-century AD fresco are wearing the toga praetexta of senators. (VRoma: Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: Barbara McManus)

Domitian was, however, often unsure when handling measures that required initiative. He attempted to resolve the problem of the Italian ‘wine lake’ by forbidding the planting of any new vines and ordering the destruction of vineyards on the far side of the Alps. Though he was popular with the army – he raised their pay, the first emperor since Augustus to do so – and had a successful campaign in Germany in AD 83, two or three years later he allowed himself to be deceived into leading his army into battle against a combined force of German tribes who were merely creating a diversion on the Danube. The result was a heavy defeat.

To bolster his forces for these campaigns he drafted in troops from Britain, thus ensuring that the initiative of Agricola in extending the frontiers of the empire into Scotland was largely dissipated. Though Agricola’s son-in-law, the historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56–after 117), suggests that Domitian’s recall of Agricola was a disaster, it could be justified from both a military and an economic point of view, and Agricola had served as governor for seven years, more than two full terms, a long time for such a post to be held.

Domitian, by all accounts, was a bad person, but a reasonably effective ruler. When he died, he was denied a state funeral, and his name was obliterated from all public buildings. (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal)

Under Domitian, widespread executions returned. He used a vague charge of maiestas (treason) to justify all manner of persecutions and killings, from which members of his own family were not exempt. Conspiracies, real and imaginary, abounded, but the murder of Domitian himself was not political. It was engineered by his former wife, Domitia, whom he had divorced but with whom he later reconciled. He was stabbed by a steward, ironically while reading the report of yet another fictitious plot.

The Senate, no doubt relieved that none of its members was openly involved, was at last in a position to make its own choice of ruler. It nominated a respected lawyer, Marcus Cocceius Nerva (AD 32–98), to take over the government. He was sixty-five and childless when he became emperor. These two factors must have influenced the decision of a Senate that did not want to be ruled by another family dynasty.

Case Studies

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74 - Bithynia and Cyrenaica become provinces.

73–71 - Slave revolt of Spartacus.

70 - First consulship of Pompey and Crassus. Trial of Verres by Cicero.

67 - Pompey crushes the pirates.

66–63 - Pompey, given exceptional powers in the East, defeats Mithridates and reorganizes the region. End of the Seleucid empire. Syria, including Judaea until 40 BC, is made a province.

63 - Consulship of Cicero. Conspiracy of Catiline. Caesar is elected pontifex maximus. Birth of Caesar’s great-nephew, the future Augustus.

60 - First triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey.

59 - First consulship of Caesar, who is appointed governor of Cisalpine Gaul with Illyricum for five years, to which the Senate adds Gallia Narbonensis (Transalpine Gaul). Pompey’s actions in the East ratified. Clodius becomes a pleb and is elected tribune of the people.

58–50 - Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The whole of Gaul becomes part of the empire.

56 - Renewal at Lucca of first triumvirate.

55 - Second consulship of Crassus and Pompey. Caesar’s term extended.

55–54 - Caesar’s invasions of Britain.

53 - Death of Crassus in Parthia.

52 - Pompey appointed sole consul.

49 - Pompey authorized to deal with Caesar, who crosses the Rubicon with his army, signifying that he comes as an invader. Pompey leaves for Greece. Caesar is dictator for eleven days, then resigns.

48 - Caesar defeats Pompey at Pharsalus. Pompey takes flight to Egypt, where he is murdered as he steps ashore. Caesar, in pursuit, stays to sort out Cleopatra’s affairs. He is reappointed dictator. Local war in Alexandria.

48–47 - Caesar in Egypt.

47 - Alexandrian War concluded with Jewish help. Caesar defeats Pharnaces, son of Mithridates, at Zela. (‘Veni, vidi, vici.’) Reaches Rome in September.

46 - Caesar is appointed dictator for ten years. He crosses to Africa from Sicily, and crushes Pompey’s supporters at Thapsus. Suicide of Cato. Caesar’s quadruple triumph. Cleopatra in Rome with her twelve-year-old husband (her brother Ptolemy XIV) and her one-year-old son Ptolemy Caesar (popularly called Caesarion). Caesar’s wide-ranging legislation includes the reform of the calendar, necessitating the year having fifteen months. He leaves for Spain.

45 - Final defeat of Pompeians in Spain. Caesar returns to Rome in October.

44 - Caesar designated perpetual dictator. He is assassinated 15 March, having announced that he will leave Rome on 18 March to lead his armies against the Parthians. Marc Antony, Caesar’s consular colleague, takes control. The Senate, at the instigation of Cicero, grants amnesties to the conspirators, and recognizes Octavian as Caesar’s heir. Octavian holds games in honour of Caesar’s birthday. Antony, having granted himself the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul for five years, besieges the sitting governor, Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators, in Mutina.

43 - First consulship of Octavian. Formation of second triumvirate: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus. Proscriptions, in which Cicero dies.

42 - Caesar is officially deified. The chief conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, are defeated at Philippi. Cisalpine Gaul incorporated into Italy. Antony goes to settle imperial affairs in the East.

40 - Octavian defeats at Perusia army led by Lucius Antonius, consul for 41 and Antony’s brother. ‘Treaty of Brundisium’ effectively divides the Roman world between Octavian and Antony, who marries Octavia, Octavian’s sister.

40–35 - Trouble with Sextus Pompeius, who finally surrenders in Asia and is executed.

38 - Octavian, having divorced his wife the previous year after she had given birth to his daughter Julia, marries Livia, mother of Tiberius and pregnant with Drusus.

37 - Renewal of triumvirate.

33 - Second consulship of Octavian. Legal end of triumvirate. Octavian steps up propaganda campaign against Antony.

32 - Antony divorces Octavia, and is attacked in the Senate by Octavian. War declared against Cleopatra.

31 - Battle of Actium on 2 September.

31–23 - Successive consulships of Octavian/Augustus.

30 - Having been called back to Italy by mutinies and general unrest, Octavian returns to the East, arriving in Egypt during the summer. Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide. Egypt is annexed by Rome and becomes the personal property of the emperor.

29 - Octavian celebrates triple triumph for victories in Dalmatia, at Actium and in Egypt. Temple of the Divine Julius dedicated.

28 - Octavian awarded the title of princeps. Octavian and his consular colleague Agrippa hold a census, the first since 70 BC. They also reduce the number of senators from 1,000 to 800.

27 - Octavian renounces his special powers and ‘transfers the state to the Roman people’. He accepts the provinces of Spain, Gaul and Syria for ten years, and assumes the name Augustus. Agrippa builds the first Pantheon, which is completed in 25.

The empire

 Julio-Claudians and Flavians

Rule of Augustus

23 - Augustus resigns his eleventh consulship, probably because of illness. He is awarded full tribunician powers for life, and extended imperium which gives him authority over any provincial governor and over the army (renewed for five years in 18 and 13 BC, and for ten years in 8 BC, and in AD 3 and 13).

22 - Famine and plague. Augustus declines a dictatorship and censorship for life, but accepts the post of corn supremo. He leaves for the East for three years.

21 - Agrippa is forced to divorce his wife and marry Augustus’ daughter Julia, whose husband Marcellus has died after being married to her for two years.

18 - The Senate is reduced to 600. Agrippa is granted special powers.

17 - Augustus adopts Agrippa’s and Julia’s two sons, Gaius and Lucius, as his own sons. Saecular Games celebrated.

15 - Tiberius and Drusus, Augustus’ stepsons, defeat the Raeti and Vindelici, whose territory becomes a Roman province.

13 - Tiberius’ first consulship. Augustus returns to Rome after three years in Gaul, and Agrippa after three years in the East. Agrippa’s special powers extended for five years.

12 - Following the death of Lepidus, Augustus is elected pontifex maximus. Death of Agrippa.

11 - Tiberius is forced to divorce his wife and marry Julia.

9   - Dedication of Ara Pacis in Rome.

8   - Tiberius scores victories in Germany.

7   - Tiberius awarded tribunician powers for five years; he retires to Rhodes.

6   - Death of Drusus. Death of Herod the Great.

2   - Banishment of Julia.


2   - Death of Lucius. Tiberius returns to Rome.   

4   - Death of Gaius. Augustus adopts Tiberius, who is granted tribunician powers for ten years. Tiberius adopts Germanicus, son of Drusus, and departs for Germany. Law restricting manumission.

6   - Augustus establishes aerarium militare to provide for retired soldiers, and creates the post of praefectus vigilum.

9   - Varian disaster.

13 - Augustus’ control of his provinces renewed for a further ten years. Tiberius’ powers are also renewed, with imperium equal to that of Augustus.

14 - Census enumerates five million Roman citizens. Death (19 August) and deification (17 September) of Augustus. Tiberius succeeds him. Mutinies in Pannonia and Germany. Sejanus appointed commander of imperial guard. Death of Julia.

Rule of Tiberius

16 - Germanicus advances to the river Elbe, but is recalled to Rome and the attempt to extend the Roman frontier is abandoned.

17 - Germanicus celebrates a triumph, then is sent to the East with powers to reorganize the provinces.

18 - Third consulship of Tiberius, with Germanicus, who falls out with Gnaeus Piso, legate of Syria. Death, in banishment, of the poet Ovid.

19 - Death of Germanicus in Syria, which Piso is forced by army pressure to leave.

20 - Piso, charged with treason and with procuring the death of Germanicus, commits suicide.

21 - Fourth consulship of Tiberius, with his son Drusus. Tiberius, however, retires for a time to Campania.

22 - Drusus awarded tribunician powers.

23 - Sejanus relocates the imperial guard to a camp immediately outside the city walls. Death of Drusus (attributed to Sejanus by Tacitus).

26 - Pontius Pilate becomes administrator of Judaea. Sejanus persuades Tiberius to leave Rome.

27 - Tiberius settles in Capri.

28 - Marriage of Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina (elder), to Domitius Ahenobarbus.

29 - Agrippina (elder) and her eldest son exiled. Death of Livia at the age of eighty-six.

31 - From Capri, Tiberius denounces Sejanus, on whom the Senate pronounces the death sentence.

33 - Probable date of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth under Roman law. Drusus, son of Germanicus, becomes one of over sixty well-known people executed for treason during the rule of Tiberius.

37 - Death of Tiberius (16 March). Gaius (Caligula), Tiberius’ great-nephew, becomes emperor and is suffect consul with his uncle Claudius. Death of Tiberius Gemellus, Tiberius’ grandson. Birth of the emperor Nero.

Rule of Caligula

38 - Death and deification of Caligula’s sister Drusilla. Riots in Alexandria between Jews and Greeks.

39 - Conspiracy of Aemilius Lepidus, widower of Drusilla, and C. Lentulus Gaetulicus, consul in 26 and now legate in Upper Germany, both of whom are executed. Caligula’s other two sisters are exiled. Caligula is on the Rhine and in Gaul over the winter.

40 - Caligula makes an expedition to the Channel. On his return to Rome, he orders a statue of himself to be set up in the Temple at Jerusalem. Deputation of Alexandrine Jews and Greeks.

41 - Assassination of Caligula. Claudius, with the help of Herod Agrippa in bringing round the Senate, is made emperor, having promised a donative to each member of the imperial guard equivalent to ten years’ pay, an unfortunate precedent. Herod Agrippa (Agrippa I), in addition to his existing territories, is also made king of Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea, which cease to be under the jurisdiction of the governor of Syria.

Rule of Claudius

42 - Mauretania is divided into two provinces.

43 - Invasion of Britain, part of which becomes a province under Aulus Plautius.

44 - Claudius celebrates a triumph for his victory in Britain and names his three-year-old son Britannicus. Achaea and Macedonia become subject to the authority of the Senate. Death of Agrippa I. Judaea reverts to being a province.

46 - Achaea is annexed.

47 - Plautius celebrates a triumph for his successes in Britain, the last occasion on which a subject is so honoured.

48 - As censor, a post he revives, Claudius registers some seven million citizens of Rome, and opens the way for more provincials to become senators. Death of the empress Messalina. Claudius marries Agrippina (the younger), the daughter of his brother Germanicus.

50 - Claudius adopts Nero, son of Agrippina.

51 - Final defeat in Wales of the British chief Caratacus, who is handed over by Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes. Claudius pardons him and his family and allows them to live out their lives in Rome. Vespasian is suffect consul.

53 - Marriage of Nero to Claudius’ daughter Octavia.

54 - Death of Claudius by poison (12 October). Accession of Nero. Claudius is deified.

Rule of Nero

55 - Nero rules initially with the advice of his tutor, Seneca, and Burrus, commander of the imperial guard. Claudius’ freedman, who was his financial secretary, is dismissed. Britannicus is poisoned. Gn. Domitius Corbulo appointed to military command in the East.

56 - Quaestors are replaced by two imperial officers (ex-praetors) at the treasury, to which Nero transfers forty million sesterces in 57.

59 - Nero finally succeeds in murdering his mother.

60 - Corbulo, after several military successes, settles the Armenian problem, and is appointed governor of Syria.

61 - In Britain, the Iceni (under Boudica) and Trinovantes revolt, causing great destruction and slaughter. They are finally defeated by Suetonius Paullinus, and Boudica commits suicide.

62 - Death of Burrus. Seneca withdraws from public life. Nero marries Poppaea, having divorced and subsequently murdered Octavia.

64 - Great fire of Rome.

65 - In the wake of a high-level conspiracy, there are many executions and enforced suicides, including that of Seneca. Death of Poppaea.

66–74 - First Jewish War.

66 - As First Jewish War begins, Vespasian is appointed military commander in Judaea. Nero marries Statilia Messalina.

68 - Nero returns from visits to Greece. Verginius Rufus, legate of Upper Germany, crushes rebellion of Vindex in Gaul. Death of Nero (6 June). End of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Galba enters Rome and is accepted as emperor.

69 - Year of the four emperors. Vitellius, governor of Lower Germany, is acclaimed emperor by his troops and those in Upper Germany. Galba and Piso, his nominee as successor, is killed by the imperial guard, who make Otho emperor (15 January). In northern Italy Vitellius defeats Otho, who commits suicide (14 April). Vitellius arrives in Rome (mid-July). Vespasian, in Judaea, is proclaimed emperor by Tiberius Alexander, prefect of Egypt (1 July), and is accepted as such by the troops in the East and on the Danube. The Danube legions capture Rome (21 December). Death of Vitellius (24 December).

From the accession of Vespasian to the end of the Flavian dynasty

70 - Vespasian and Titus are consuls. Titus takes Jerusalem; destruction of the Temple. Vespasian reaches Rome (October).

71 - Vespasian and Nerva are consuls. Triumph of Vespasian and Titus for victories in Judaea. Titus is appointed commander of the imperial guard and receives tribunician powers.

73 - First consulship of Domitian.

74 - Vespasian confers Latin rights on all parts of the Spanish peninsula. Fall of Masada marks end of First Jewish War.

78–84 - Agricola is governor of Britain.

79 - Death of Vespasian and accession of Titus (23 June). Eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii (August).

80 - Fire in Rome destroys Capitoline Temple. Opening of the Colosseum (the Flavian Amphitheatre).

81 - Erection of Arch of Titus. Death of Titus and accession of Domitian (13 September).

83 - Domitian campaigns in Germany.

84 - Battle of Mons Graupius in Scotland. Agricola is recalled.

86–92 - Domitian’s Danube wars.

96 - Assassination of Domitian. Senate elects Nerva to succeed him.