The First Caesars
Octavian Returns to Rome
Octavian was now, in the year 31 BC, in a position that was
utterly unprecedented. Civil war had troubled Rome for nearly
twenty years, during which time the machinery of government was
thrown into complete disarray. The constitution had been abrogated
and ignored so often that it could scarcely be said to exist.
The Senate, too, had been alternately ravaged and ignored, and
its rights and powers now were largely theoretical.
Against this Octavian had the wealth of Egypt, two hundred
thousand soldiers, an immense fleet, and complete authority.
He was also immensely popular. He conducted himself well, exhibited
traditional Roman virtues and values, and was hailed from one
end of the Mediterranean to the other as the bringer of peace.
After a generation of bloodshed, the ancient equivalent of 20
years of world war, everyone was eager for a peace-giver.
The question on everyone's mind was: what next? What would
Octavian do? He was still quite a young man, with the world to
command. Would he become a tyrant? A monarch?
Octavian (I've said it before) was a conservative, traditional
Roman. His desire was to preserve the Republic, and he had a
genuine respect for it. At the same time, he realized clearly,
perhaps more clearly than had his adoptive father, that the Republic
was moribund. Something new was in order.
His goals were simple: first and foremost, there would be
an end to civil war. Octavian from beginning to end insisted
on peace and insisted on public order. To effect this, he had
to retain control of the military. The Senate and the nobility
in general had failed in their duty towards the State in this
regard. Sulla had made a mistake in retiring and relinquishing
control of the army. Octavian would not make that mistake.
With control of the army came control of foreign policy and,
by implication, control of state finances. For a time, he simply
continued by virtue of the powers he had won as a triumvir.
His official title was imperator, by which he had full
consular power. As consul, he commanded the army. By other titles
he had control over all the provinces and the right to appoint
officials at every level of government. His personal wealth was
so vast that he was able to pay the salaries of as much as a
third of the government out of his own pocket.
And so he began arranging the empire. He reduced the number
of legions from sixty to twenty-nine, mustering out over 100,000
soldiers and founding numerous colonies. He again packed the
Senate, raising its number to 800, nearly all his own creatures.
This body proceeded to give the stamp of Republican law to his
It is worth noting here how makeshift this was. Octavian had
no grand plan, no innovations. To outward appearance, he worked
entirely within the system, employing traditional titles and
traditional powers; but, in reality, he was inventing a new system.
The title imperator would stick and the Imperium Romanum is traditionally
dated from Actium.
Even so, it took a number of years before Octavian hit on
the proper combination of titles, and the proper balance between
himself and the Senate.
For the next few years, Octavian ran everything. The business
of the city, of the provinces, the army, finance, foreign affairs
-- he tended to all of it, or he delegated it to hand-picked
men. It was a burden he could not carry indefinitely, and in
27 he made a significant change.
In the year 27, Octavian sent notice to the Senate that he
wished to speak to that body on a matter of grave importance.
Before the assembled senators, he spoke of all he had done for
Rome, detailing his accomplishments. He spoke also of how hard
was the work, and the toll it was taking on him. Saying he was
tired, and that he had already done far more for Rome than any
other individual citizen, he resigned all his offices.
The senators cried out in dismay. They pleaded with him to
reconsider, for the good of the state. A spokesman stepped forward
to offer a compromise: Octavian would remain consul, but a second
consul would be elected annually, as of old, so that he could
share the burden. He would remain proconsul over Italy, Spain,
Gaul and Syria, but the Senate would take up responsibility for
the rest of the provinces.
Octavian accepted these terms. A grateful Senate voted him
the cognomen Augustus, by which name he is generally known in
the history books. We usually call him Octavian until the year
27, and Augustus after that.
The likelihood is rather low that Augustus truly walked into
the Senate that day intended to retire from public life like
Sulla. He had too clear an understanding as to the true state
of the Republic. But he was tired and he was overworked, and
he needed some strategem by which to share power. So he (likely)
cooked up this resignation scene, with his own men putting forward
the compromise that he desired.
The effect of the arrangement of 27 was that the Senate now
was able to run domestic affairs. Once again, elections were
held for aedile, praetor, quaestor and the other traditional
offices of the Republic. The Senate even got to manage some provinces.
But Augustus retained control over the military, over finances,
and over foreign affairs.
The Settlement of 23
Ironically, for a world conqueror, Augustus was frequently
sick throughout his life. In 23, probably still from overwork,
he fell ill and nearly died. When he recovered, he again announced
that he wished to retire from public life. It is likely that
he was at least somewhat sincere this time, and that it took
real persuasion to keep him in office. The experience convinced
him that he had to share still more authority.
Having brought peace to the entire world, Augustus declared
the civil wars officially over. The settlement achieved became
the foundation of the Roman Empire for over 200 years. It's worth
looking at in some detail.
The Settlement of 23
Augustus resigned his consulship, having held the office a
total of twelve times. Instead, he chose the office of tribune,
so that he could pose as the champion and protector of the people
(a number of newspapers have "tribune" in their name
for the same reason).
His only other office was that of proconsul, but of a special
sort. The actual title was imperium praeconsulare maius
-- greater proconsular power. It was this title, this power,
that was the basis of being emperor.
A proconsul was a provincial governor. Under the old Republic,
a proconsul was the supreme civil and military officer of the
province, superior to all other Romans and natives in the province.
The geographic region covered by his authority was called the
imperium. So, Augustus received proconsular authority.
But his authority was maius; that is, it was greater.
The office meant that Augustus had the authority to intervene
anywhere in the Empire, at any level of Roman government, to
remove the magistrate and to issue orders by the power of that
office. If things went along as he wished, he could simply let
them be; but should someone become rebellious, or too publicly
corrupt, or merely unsatisfactory, Augustus could step in and
hold that office for as long as he wished.
This power meant that no one could possibly oppose the emperor.
He had power of life and death, if he chose, over every Roman
citizen. His genius was that he used this power with restraint
and wisdom throughout his life, a feat rare in any culture.
All his powers were consitutional, but no one had held so
many offices and such power at once and for so long. And no one
had ever been maius. Still, it was close enough. Upon
the arrangement of the settlement in 23, Augustus proclaimed
the Restoration of the Republic.
According to the public propaganda, therefore, the Republic
never fell. Augustus liked to think of himself not as an emperor
but as princeps -- first -- first citizen of Rome.
The Reign of Augustus
An important example of Augustus' wisdom in ruling was his
treatment of the Senate. He understood that the Senate was, in
many respects, the manifestation of the old Republic and that
the Republic still exercised a deep pull on the hearts of Romans.
Even though many were there by his own patronage, still he
allowed them a measure of independence. He would often submit
questions to them, asking their advice. He kept them informed
of his actions, rather than behaving autocratically. He let them
pass legislation and, if the point were minor, even yielded gracefully
on laws he did not like.
He treated the Senators with respect when speaking with them,
and accorded them honors. He never interfered with elections,
though he did let his preferences be known in some cases.
And he gave the Senate real power: provinces to govern, and
two consular armies. Much of the business of running the city
itself he likewise gave over to them.
By all these concessions he made his imperial rule easier
to tolerate. It was possible at least to pretend that the Republic
had somehow returned. Everything had changed, of course, and
all knew it. But the false front was respectable enough and while
there were some conspiracies hatched to restore the Republic,
none got very far. The benefits of life under Augustus were too
great to throw away lightly, and besides, the memories of the
civil wars were still vivid.
The Foundations of Imperial Power
I have mentioned already, the proconsular power of the emperor.
Augustus took other concrete steps to concentrate the key threads
of power in his own hands.
First and foremost was imperial control of the military. The
Senate had two legions, but the emperor had two dozen. Every
soldier in every legion swore an oath of allegiance to the emperor
personally, as well as to the Republic. Disloyalty to the emperor
Secondly, Augustus had control of the treasury. With the entire
nation of Egypt at his command, plus provincial income, the emperor
could do as he pleased without ever touching the state treasury.
Third, the emperor controlled foreign policy completely. He
could declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, all in his
own name and binding on the state.
Fourth, the emperor controlled the bureaucracy, the civil
service of Rome. This was a vast machine of administrators, judges,
governors, and tax collectors. Like the soldiers, they swore
an oath of personal loyalty. Indeed, Augustus was so rich that
he paid the salaries of many of them.
With all these under his control, he could well afford to
yield this or that office to the Roman nobility.
Augustus also undertook a variety of reforms and acts that
benefited the common people of Rome. Most notably, he undertook
a vast series of building projects that both gave employment
and beautified the city. In the Res Gestae, his own account
of his career, he stated that he found Rome a city of wood and
left it a city of marble.
He ensured water supply to most Roman houses, building or
completing aqueducts and a sewage system. He built or renovated
many temples. He created a fire department. He ensured at long
last a steady supply of wheat to the city and removed the constant
fear of famine. And he gave magnificent games, many of which
were free to the poor.
These and similar acts endeared him to the common people,
even as other acts won him the allegiance of the upper classes.
Augustus was himself no great military commander. But he had
a genius for attracting to himself men of brilliant ability.
These men gave him victory after victory.
In the east, he extended the empire into Arabia, reaching
the Red Sea. In Egypt, the empire extended to Ethiopia. In the
northeast, the empire encompassed much of modern Turkey.
He avoided Parthia, a competing empire that would long cause
trouble on Rome's eastern borders, but by negotiation he was
able to retrieve the two Roman standards lost by Crassus at Carrhae.
Roman influence reached even further into the Near East. Augustus
received embassies from as far away as India.
The Empire in the West
Even in the west, Augustus extended the limits of the empire.
Spain, a source of unending war ever since the 3rd century, was
at last pacified. Roman armies moved across North Africa to the
Atlantic, securing the territory right to the edges of the desert.
Roman ships sailed into the Atlantic and along both the European
and the African coast.
The Empire in the North
Augustus extended the limits of the empire to the Rhine River
and to the Danube. He established permanent garrisons across
both rivers for the first time. At long last, Rome no longer
feared the threat from the north.
No Roman conqueror before or since Augustus added so much
Augustus' Later Years
As he grew older, Augustus became increasingly preoccupied
with the question of the succession. What he did in this regard
was critically important for the future of his arrangements.
Everything Augustus had done was done by virtue of his personal
authority. There was nothing in the Roman constitution, nothing
in the structure of the assemblies or public offices, that would
guarantee anyone in the future would have his power.
But both by his own laws, and by general consensus, there
would be no return to the Republic upon his death. Not least
among Augustus' accomplishments was the fact that he lived a
long life and was able to see many of his opponents to the grave.
The only question now was who would succeed him.
Augustus' successor would come from his own family. That accorded
with his own inclinations and with the temperment of Rome in
general. And in this, Augustus suffered one tragedy after another.
All his favorites died, some under suspicious circumstances,
until the only one left with a claim was his stepson Tiberius.
He respected Tiberius as a military commander, but he did not
like the man and he had a low opinion of his political abilities.
Still, by 12 AD, Tiberius was the only male family member
of any competence left standing. So Augustus designated him as
Thus the precedent was set. The Roman state would not choose
the next emperor. Rather, the emperor would be drawn from the
family of Julius, and chosen by the emperor himself. The army,
the wealth, the offices, the power, all would devolve to him.
This was not a particularly good system, and it would come
back to haunt the Empire, time and time again. For the time being,
though, all seem well arranged.
Death of Augustus
Caesar Augustus died on the 14th of September in the year
14 AD. Three days later, he was declared divine, and shrines
for his worship were built. Indeed, such shrines had existed
even before his death, but he would not countenance them.
He left instructions to Tiberius in his will. Three points
are notable. First, he recommended that Tiberius restrict the
granting of citizenship and the freeing of slaves. Citizenship
would be devalued if extended too freely, and slaves were critical
to the functioning of the economy (there was, in the early first
century, something of a fad of manumission).
Second, he said to rely only on men of tried ability. He was
recommending against playing favorites, against granting offices
to friends and relatives unless they truly were worthy.
Finally, and above all, Augustus instructed Tiberius to keep
the Empire within the bounds he had set for it. Augustus had
been badly shaken by the defeat of Varro at the Teutoburger Wald,
and he was certain that further disasters awaited if Rome should
It is worth noting that, over the course of the next two centuries,
Roman emperors violated each of these three recommendations.
The succession went smoothly. There were no revolts, no mass
uprising to bring back the Republic. In the first place, few
wanted the Republic back. In the second place, Augustus had provided
for everything in his will. This system required that the emperor
die in old age and with time for planning. That would not always
prove to be the case.
I have taken time with Augustus because of his importance.
He was the single most important figure in Roman history, and
Rome figures large in the history of Europe.
His name became a title: Caesar. In Germany it is rendered
as Kaiser. After Rome fell, the rulers at Constantinople called
themselves Roman Emperors, though they spoke Greek. A thousand
years later, after Constantinople itself had fallen, the rulers
of Muscovy called their city the third Rome and called themselves
His father had reformed the Roman calendar, in part by adding
two months. The seventh month was named after him -- July; and
the eight month was named for Augustus. The insertion of these
two months explains why September, whose name means seven, is
actually the ninth month; similarly for October, November and
Cities like Augusta are named for him. So is Augsburg, Germany,
which was founded by Caesar's veterans and was named Augustus
The settlement of Augustus, an arrangement of a vast empire
more or less made up as he went along, lasted intact for nearly
250 years. His arrangement was not only for Rome but for the
entire classical world. No single individual can match that.
Yet, most strangely, the man does not seem to fit the part.
He was no Julius Caesar, nor Marc Antony, nor Sulla. He was not
especially daring or charismatic, not dashing or innovative.
He was hard-headed, conservative, pragmatic, determined. He knew
his duty, knew his limitations, and surrounded himself with good
He was no genius, yet he had the ability to inspire deep loyalty
in a wide range of men, from soldiers to politicians to artists.
He was the epitome of Roman virtues, as the Romans liked to imagine
themselves. Perhaps that is why he was so well loved. As Alexander
became the archetype for all future generals, so Augustus became
the archetype for future monarchs.
Tiberius was a tragic figure. He was an outstanding military
commander - the best of his age - but he was neither interested
in nor fitted for politics. Yet, because of his birth, he was
doomed to be emperor.
Character Stern, cold, reserved, formal. Strong sense
of duty. He was a great leader in the field, with real talent.
Tiberius' great flaw was that he was deeply suspicious of
others, to the point of paranoia. He was easily hurt and could
be cold- bloodedly vengeful.
He knew Augustus favored others over him and that he was about
the eighth choice. It was his mother, Livia, who was determined
that Tiberius should succeed. He was unenthusiastic about becoming
emperor and ended by loathing his position.
When H=Germanicus died, Tiberius was suspected. Germanicus'
widow, Agrippina, waged an unending vendetta against the house
of Caesar, creating crisis after crisis.
Tiberius' own son, Drusus, died. This was a cruel blow to
Tiberius, who turned to his commander of the Praetorian Guard,
Sejanus. He placed blind trust in Sejanus, believing everything
the man told him.
Segjanus waged war on Agrippina. He arrested a number of her
friends, supporters, even relatives. Some were executed, as Sejanus
used the Praetorian Guard as a tool for political terrorism.
Tiberius was deaf to the complaints.
At last Sejanus went too far. It became evident that he was
trying to position himself so either he or his heirs would succeed
Tiberius. Tiberius came to his senses in 31 and executed Sejanus.
The manner in which this was accomplished was typical of Tiberius'
later years. Tiberius gave no indication he was displeased with
Sejanus, but instead let him think he was in for a promotion.
When Sejanus was out of the city, Tiberius struck. He sent
a consul to Sejanus with a letter. The consul read it aloud to
him. It was full of hints designed to make Sejanus think he would
get his promotion.
In last paragraph he denounced Sejanus roundly as a traitor,
and the consul immediately arrested him for treason. No one lifted
a finger to help him, for by this time everyone feared him. He
was quickly tried and executed.
Tiberius had been betrayed by a man he had regarded as his
one true friend. He was convinced now that no one could be trusted.
There followed a terrible period in which there were many political
murders while Tiberius himself increasingly neglected the business
of government and amused himself at his country estates.
During these last years, Tiberius paid too much heed to informers,
believing the worst of everyone. Informers were paid for information
and some managed to make their fortunes by accusing one powerful
man after another of treason. Even the threat of such accusation
was enough to receive bribes.
There were many executions, sham trials. All the while, the
emperor hid at Capri, seldom visiting Rome.
There was no one within the Julian family now fit to succeed.
Tiberius played a cagey game, refusing to name anyone. The issue
Augustus had ducked was already sectionning to haunt Rome: how
to choose an emperor.
Tiberius' choice fell at last on a nephew, a young man well
liked in Roman circles. When Tiberius died, Caligula was hailed
as his successor.
His Character Caligula was the son of the murdered
Germanicus. Since opposition to Tiberius had gathered around
Agrippina, her son was immediately popoular. He was also well-liked
by the army.
He had travelled with his father in northern campaigns. He liked
to go around the camp wearing his father's boots, which earned
him his nickname of Little Boots -- Caligula.
He was known to be amiable, spirited, and clever. Later historians
would aver dark rumors about even his youngest days, but there
is no real evidence.
His Early Reign He started well. Raised to the purple
by the Praetorian Prefect, the Senate had no choice but to accept
him. Caligula moved quickly to win friends. He abolished the
sales tax, recalled those exiled in the reign of Tiberius, and
suppressed the use of paid informers. He gave splendid public
games and shows, winning the adoration of the common people of
Illness There is nothing in his early months to hint
at what was coming. Then, in 38, he fell ill of a fever and was
near death for weeks. When he recovered he was a monster.
Again, later historians told of endless foul acts committed before
his illness, but they were all private and secret (e.g., he allegedly
poisoned his own father, at the age of 10!). The public record
shows to trace of this personality.
After his illness, however, his excesses were public indeed.
Caligula recovered and quickly showed an new and terrible
face. He began to encourage treason trials and paid informers,
allowing the most outrageous accusations. He also encouraged
deification of himself, though he never actually achieved it.
He began to exhibit bizarre behavior, much of which was calculated
to show his contempt for the established order. Within the palace
he established silly passwords, like "kiss me, sweetie".
These passwords had to be repeated by the palace guards, who
were grizzled old centurions given guard duty as a kind of honorable
He set up a brothel using senators' wives, then required attendance.
He made his horse a Roman senator, complete with golden stall
and senatorial robes. He had his aged uncle Claudius tossed into
a river in February because, he said, he wanted to see if the
old fellow could swim.
All of these could be counted amusing or merely bizarre, but
Caligula cause many people to be executed. Suetonius and others
speak of terrible atrocities (ad fontes!).
Politically worse than any of these things, however, was his
relation with the army. He began to pursue an erratic foreign
policy. He alienated Judea for no good reason. He authorized
a wild dash into German that availed nothing. He prepared a major
invasion of Britain then inexplicably called it off at the last
minute. These things did not endear him to the army. And when
he alienated the Praetorian Guard itself, his days were numbered.
Death and Succession
By the year 41, Caligula had made too many enemies, and when
the Praetorian Guard, angry over issues of back pay, determined
to kill the emperor, no one revealed the plot. Caligula was murdered
by his own guard while exiting from the stadium of some public
The Praetorian Guard had not made ambitious political plans.
Their purpose was to kill Caligula and loot the palace, which
they did. As hours passed, they began to realize the political
implications of their act. They murdered all the members of Caligula's
family, so there should be no one in whose name retribution might
be exacted. And, slowly, it dawned on them that with no emperor
there was no longer need for a Guard.
In the course of looting the imperial palace, the Guard found
an old man hiding behind some curtains. It was Claudius, uncle
to Caligula. Claudius was aged, terrified, and generally regarded
as an idiot. The Guard hailed him as emperor, perhaps seriously,
perhaps only in jest. But when they paraded the old man through
the streets and the crowds likewise hailed him as imperator,
the die was cast. Poor old uncle Claudius, the family embarassment,
was now emperor.
Claudius had congenital defects. The cause might be any number
of things, but the symptoms are described in the histories. He
stuttered badly, was lame or had a limp of some sort, had a tendency
to drool, and his mind would wander so that he employed a slave
whose sole job was to remind the emperor what he had been saying.
Claudius was not stupid, however, though of all the family
only Augustus himself evidently recognized this. Claudius was
an avid reader, wrote numerous histories and literary works,
and was easily the most learned of the Julio-Claudians. Few knew
this, for most dismissed him as a fool. He also drank too much.
In short, he was never even remotely considered as a possible
successor to any emperor. His sole qualification to office was
that he belonged to the right family and was, indeed, virtually
the only survivor, for the simple reason that no one had ever
thought him dangerous enough to kill.
Claudius inherited a mess and, much to everyone's surprise,
managed to restore order and stability, though not without missteps.
His public career was generally successful, but his private life
was a catastrophe.
Claudius was determined to be a good emperor. Having lived
in the imperial circle his whole life, he trusted no one among
the great families of Rome. He relied heavily on slaves within
the palace, some of whom were quite well educated (mostly Greeks).
In so doing, Claudius began creating a sort of Imperial civil
service, whose officials were directly dependent on the emperor
and on whose loyalty he could rely. This did, however, mark a
further step away from traditional Roman government as Augustus
had conceived it.
Claudius' great achievement in foreign affairs was the final
conquest of Britain, which had first been invaded by Julius Caesar.
The Emperor in Love
Claudius' public successes were mitigated by his troubled
personal life. He fell in love with a beautiful young girl named
Messalina, who was licentious and decadent. He overlooked and
forgave all until she and one of her lovers were caught in a
plot to murder Claudius. He was forced to order her execution,
which genuinely broke his heart.
His next wife, Agrippina the Younger, was faithful but hardly
less scheming. She had a son from a previous marriage whom she
was determined to see succeed as emperor. She lavished infinite
affections on her golden-haired boy and schemed to have Claudius
grant him sole position as heir.
In his later years, Claudius sank into alcoholism. Whether
he died from it, or from poisoned mushrooms fed him by his wife,
cannot be known. Upon his death, Agrippina destroyed all of his
papers, so that none of Claudius' many works survive.
Agrippina got her way, whether by having Claudius sign a will
or by forging one. In any case, her son succeeded and become
the next emperor: Nero.
Nero was 16 when he became emperor. He had had the best education
Rome could offer, counting among his tutors Petronius and Seneca.
His mother adored him and lavished attention upon him. Yet, for
all that, he was vain and weak-willed and insecure -- qualities
that do not make for good Roman emperors.
Nero fancied himself an artist of some accomplishment. He
wrote poetry and performed music and greatly admired Greek culture.
During his reign he would enter the dramatic competitions at
the public games -- he usually won. He was so pleased with his
success that he entered Greek competitions as well. He won those,
too, greatly irritating the Greeks.
When he did turn his attention to affairs of state, he was
capable of being effective, as his plans for construction in
Rome evidence, but he seldom paid attention. He preferred his
social life and his poetry and his lyre.
He was capable of murderous cruelty when angered. Within five
years of becoming emperor he murdered his own mother. He later
forced his tutor and one-time friend Seneca to commit suicide,
while Petronius prudently retired from the capitol and public
life. Nero was a danger to those around him.
None of this behavior won the favor of the army. The emperor
was an embarassment. His lavish expeditions and building programs
were bankrupting the treasury. But his careful paranoia kept
him in office longer than Caligula had managed.
Fires, Friends, Foes
In the year 64 a fire broke out in a slum district of Rome
near the river. It quickly burned out of control, spreading to
other districts. It burned all day and all night, and by the
next day much of the city was on fire.
Acre after acre went up, and the blaze could be seen from
miles away. Another day past, and another, and still little could
be done. The Great Fire of Rome lasted for a full week, and when
it was done, whole districts were reduced to rubble. The damage
was so great, some feared the city would never recover.
The event would show the best and worst in Nero. He was out
of the city when the fire started, but he returned as soon as
he could. He opened up his own palace to house those made homeless,
and did what he could to help in the re-building. But this was
Nero, and he would not be Nero without being frivolous. So moved
was he by the sight of Rome burning that he composed a song on
the spot, on the theme of the burning of Troy (remember, Romans
believed their city was founded by Trojans). Nero did not play
the fiddle while Rome burned, the violin not having been invented
yet, but he probably played the lyre while composing his song,
giving rise to the legend and a memorable image.
With such terrible destruction, it was natural that people
should seek a scapegoat, and almost immediately people began
to say that Nero was behind it. The rumors were strengthened
when it was learned that Nero purchased 120 acres in the very
slum area where the fire had started, and was planning to build
an enormous palace. Clearly, people said, Nero had started the
fire intending that the slums should burn so he could buy the
land cheaply, but the fire had gotten out of control.
A great many people died in that fire, and a great many more
were ruined. The rumors flew, and the mood of the populace grew
ugly indeed. Nero began to be concerned. Even the Praetorian
Guard might no be reliable in the present situation. There is
no evidence that Nero was behind the fire at all; in truth, it
seems unlikely. But so great was the dislike for Nero, that everyone
readily believed it.
At this point, Nero's primary advisor, Tigellinus, made an
interesting suggestion to the emperor. The wrath of the mob needed
to be turned away from the emperor, he said; a new scapegoat
should be found. It had to be believable, and it had to be defenseless.
The Christians would serve admirably. They were a small sect,
disliked by most Romans, and suspected in rumor of all sorts
of crimes including disloyalty to the state. It would be just
So, Tigellinus' men began to spread the rumor. When the noise
grew loud enough, Nero made a big show of arresting a number
of Christians and executing them. Although most Romans were astute
and cynical enough to realize what Nero was doing, the gesture
was sufficient to defuse the very real threat of rioting, and
so the crisis past.
This, then, was the occasion of the first persecution of Christians
under the Roman Empire. It was a pointless, sorry affair, typical
of many of Nero's actions. But it was not really of the same
character as later persecutions, that really did aim at the eradication
of the Christian sect. All Nero wanted was to have someone to
take the blame.
For a memorable account of the Great Fire, you could read
the book Quo Vadis. The book was made into a movie in
the 1950s, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that era's
historical dramas. Still, Peter Ustinov played a delightful Nero,
and the movie is worth seeing just for his performance.
The Year of the Four Emperors
By the later 60s, Nero managed to alienate just about everyone
around him. The final straw came when he even managed to make
the army disgusted with him. He tried to have some generals arrested,
and some formed a conspiracy to do him in.
When Nero learned of the plot, he tried to flee. It was a
sad sight. One by one, his supporters faded away into the night,
until at last Nero was surrounded and nearly alone. He tried
to commit suicide, but was unable to keep his hand steady. So
he had one slave hold the sword and had another push him on to
The story of one chronicler is that Nero's dying words were:
Qualis artifex pereo! -- What a loss I shall be to the
arts! We don't really know if he said this, but the words are
certainly in character.
Nero was succeeded by one of the conspiring generals, Galba.
He was murdered within months and was replaced by another general,
Otho. He did not last the year and was replaced by Vitellius.
And still twelve months had not elapsed when Vitellius was killed
and was succeeded by Vespasian. The latter managed to stick,
founding a new dynasty, the Flavians. Thus, the year 69AD
is known as the Year of the Four Emperors. It's a tribute to
the essential strength of the young Empire that it did not fall
apart under such strains.
A Turning Point
The Year of the Four Emperors marks a real watershed in the
history of the Empire. The rule of the house of Julius (and its
related branch of Claudius) came to an end. There would be no
dynasticism in Rome, no ruling family.
Moreover, two of the four claimants in 69 were not even Roman
nobility, and Vespasian was not from the city, though he was
a Roman citizen. Anyone, it appeared, could be emperor in Rome,
provided only that they commanded the army.
This year revealed for all to see that Augustus had failed
in one critical respect: he had not removed the army from Roman
politics completely. Because the succession issue had not been
defined in law, the army was free to intervene and choose its
own emperor. No one could oppose the army because all other institutions
had been thoroughly gutted. Only the emperor was stronger than
Augustus had failed because he had not wanted to succeed.
There was not supposed to be a succession issue because Augustus
was merely first citizen. He had restored the Republic -- what
need was there of laws of succession?
And so, Augustus left an insoluble puzzle. Augustus had created
the Empire. For the Empire to work smoothly, every emperor after
him needed to be another Augustus. Nero was no Augustus, and
the system wrenched badly. Vespasian put it back on track, but
when Rome inherited another Nero, the system wrenched again.
Eventually, it wrenched so badly that it all but fell apart (3rd
century). What got put back together by Diocletion and Constantine
was an Empire quite different from the one Augustus had created.