How many Caesars were there? Power, sex, assassinations, divinity and theatrical plots. “The twelve Caesars” includes Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Nero was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Vespasian, Titus and Domitian were actually a separate dynasty called the Flavians. The writer Suetonius left us a biographical account in all its gory detail.
“Caesars” in the plural form shows us how the name of the highly revered Julius Caesar had become a synonym of ultimate leadership. It was regularly coupled with the name of his adoptive son Augustus to form the title “Augustus Caesar”. This was then coupled with the title of “Imperator” which Augustus had first enjoyed.
The 12 Caesars was the title of a biographical book written by the historian Suetonius. It refers to a series out of a long list of Roman Emperors starting from Julius Caesar and ending with Domitian.
It covered the two highly significant Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, with the brief interlude period between them in AD69 often known as “the year of the 4 Emperors”. Most of these emperors died a violent death , only three died a natural death and only one, Vespasian, was succeeded by his own natural son.
Notable for many modern readers is that Jesus Christ was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
Augustus chose his stepson Tiberius as his successor (son of his third wife Livia). Tiberius began his reign well and wisely but eventually succumbed to the intrigues of Rome. It is unclear where the blame may lie, certainly Tiberius didn’t win the love of republican writers such Tacitus and Suetonius. Not surprisingly the written memory left for posterity has been a negative one.
In his youth Tiberius was full of integrity and love for study. When he was given an army of his own he lead it through a string of victories and the provinces he was given to administer flourished. The citizens of Rome called him the “old man” because of his excessive sobriety and he would pass his free hours studying Greek and astrology. He was loved by his soldiers and not loved by the citizens of Rome for whom, perhaps, he represented a constant reprimand of their lost virtues.
Augustus preferred his brother Drusus for whom Tiberius himself had a great love and it is said that he himself suffered the death of his brother for many years after. Tiberius was in love with his wife but was ordered by Augustus to divorce in order to marry Augustus’ natural daughter Giulia. Tiberius then attempted to retire to Rhodes but his own mother’s ambitions meant that he was soon called back and thrust into the midst of the deepest intrigue which would eventually lead to the death of many if not most of those close to him. It is not surprising that by the end of his reign he is said to have lost his mind.
One of the primary accusations made against him is of jealousy for his nephew Germanicus who as commander of the Roman legions at the Rhine was gaining considerable popularity. Germanicus had succeeded in recovering some of the military insignia previously lost by general Varus.
Germanicus was loyal and made speeches in favour of Tiberius, however in spite of the war against the Germanic tribes not being over Tiberius had him removed and sent East. Shortly after Germanicus was poisoned and it is unclear whether this was ordered by Tiberius or not.
After Germanicus’ death Tiberius became suspicious of everyone and he imposed an increasingly authoritarian rule on his subjects. Any acts which may have been deemed as subversive were severely punished through death and confiscation of property. Spying and the number of informers increased.
Eventually Tiberius retired to the island of Capri and left a bureaucrat called Sejanus to rule in his stead. Sejanus was captain of the palace guards and he had won Tiberius’ trust by feeding him information regarding plots against the emperor’s life. It wasn’t long before Sejanus began to aspire to absolute rule and aimed to achieve it by eliminating those with a right to succession, such as Drusus, Tiberius’ son. Finally Sejanus himself was put to death by order of Tiberius whilst the sickly Tiberius was suffocated by his own servants.
The accounts of Tiberius’ reign are contradictory, certainly he ruled in a difficult period of court intrigue and murder. Writers of the time would make him the culprit of the vices which were increasingly evident at court and in Rome. It should however be remembered that he left the empire in a richer and more florid state than when he had received it to rule. He had maintained military peace and the empire seemed intact. Unfortunately the fabric of Rome itself was beginning to rot.
When Tiberius died the court at Rome flocked to the banner of Caligula (Caius Caesar), son of Germanicus. Tiberius himself had believed that Caligula would have the character and ability required to put Rome back on its tracks.
Through Suetonius we know Caligula once said “Utinam populus Romanus unam cervicem haberet”: Oh how I wish the Roman people had only one head (so I could decapitate it). This one phrase goes to the core of Roman emperor Caligula: his vicious approach to rule the dark legacy of power achieved by the military. In fact Caligula was eliminated by the military and Emperor Claudius who followed him was the first Roman emperor to be put into power by the military. A trend which was to manifest itself with great regularity in the forthcoming years and centuries.
But let’s start from the beginning: Caligula was born in 12AD and it’s probably more urban legend than reality that he was born in a military camp on the Rhine, but certainly he ended up living in such a camp at a very early age. His popular name “Caligula” is in fact a diminutive nick-name for the boots which the Roman soldiers wore which might be translated as “small boot”. His official name was Gaius Caesar or indeed became “GAIUS CAESAR AUGUSTUS GERMANICUS” once he was nominated emperor after Tiberius.
The name tells us much of his enviable Julio-Claudian lineage:
Caligula’s father Germanicus was a great and much loved general whose grandparents were Livia/Augustus on his fathers’ side (Germanicus was Augustus’ stepson) and from Mark Anthony/Octavia – Augustus’ sister by his mother’s side. Germanicus was also brother of Claudius: Caligula was Claudius’ nephew.
Caligula’s mother Agrippina the Elder was daughter of Augustus’ trusted ally Agrippa and Augustus’ only natural child Julia. She was therefore granddaughter of Emperor Augustus and the prototype model of Roman woman who took an increasingly important role in the fortunes of the Empire.
Caligula had eight brothers and sisters, of which 3 died young.
Nero Caesar – not to be confused with Nero the emperor!!! – Exiled and induced to suicide by Tiberius.
Drusus Caesar – also imprisoned and killed by starvation by Tiberius
Agrippina Minor – aka Agrippina the Younger. Survived Tiberius and Sejanus, teamed up with her sister Julia Livilla and participated (possibly led) a plot against Caligula’s life which led to her being exiled. Once Caligula was dead she was recalled by Claudius who she eventually married and murdered in order to place her own son Nero on the throne. Truly power hungry. Last survivor of true direct Julio Claudian descent, murdered by her own son Emperor Nero.
Julia Livilla – survived the murderous streak of Tiberius and Sejanus. Together with her two sisters Julia Drusilla and Agrippina Minor was granted great privileges in the early reign of Caligula. She made a good pair with her sister Agrippina, both of them becoming known for their wild lifestyle and later for being involved in a conspiracy against Caligula which led to their being exiled until after his death. However on return from exile she fell into contrast with her uncle Emperor Claudius’ wife Messalina and was eventually charged for adultery with Seneca, hence exiled again and eventually put to death by starvation.
Julia Drusilla – survived Tiberius’ murderous streak because she was married to his best friend. She was also the favoured sister of Caligula and greatly loved by him. Caligula named her heir to the throne – a notable thing for a woman but she died before him aged 22 and was greatly mourned by the Emperor who awarded her divine status and honors.
As can be seen much of Caligula’s family ended their lives prematurely. His father died when he was only eight. His mother Agrippina the Elder was exiled and killed by Tiberius/Sejanus, together with his two brothers Nero and Drusus. His sisters survived the reign of Tiberius and were greatly honoured by Caligula but two of them plotted against him and had to be exiled.
Looking at the above, it is perhaps easy to see how Caligula came to be affected by a hereditary epilepsy, became mad (most li
After his father’s death Caligula returned to Rome where he was looked after first by his greatgrandmother Livia and then by his grandmother Antonia, daughter of Mark Anthony. Antonia was responsible for Caligula’s first contacts with Graeco-Egyptian culture which lay at the root of many orientalising features of Caligula’s period of rule such as his extravagant, profligate, despotic and cruel approach, probably accentuated by mental disease. The strong influence of the isiacal cult (cult of the Egyptian deity Isis) was another example of the oriental influence on Caligula.
Suetonius tells us that an astrologer had predicted that Caligula had no more chance of becoming emperor than he had of crossing the bay of Naples on a horse (then known as the bay of Baiae). Whether true or fiction, it is certain that Caligula arranged an amazing stunt by building a pontoon across the bay and for two days riding his horse and then chariot and troops across it.
It is also possible that this event was a safe propagandistic means of displaying his military prowess (remember his youth spent playing on military camps) like other such “displays” such as having an escort of puppet kings from the oriental provinces in much the same way that Mark Anthony had done at Actium. He is also known for having organised fake barbarian incursions into military camps – the barbarians in reality being germanic soldiers from his personal guard. Last but not least his famous campaign for the invasion of Britain which he turned into a seashell collection field trip. The shells were dedicated as booty to Jupiter.
This rather capricious (mad) profligacy required a constant supply of money. This need for money and his despotic approach clearly translated into a reign of terror and fear of wealth confiscation. Leading members of wealthy families were regularly found guilty of trumped up charges so that the wealth could be confiscated. This reign of fear and abuse of power naturally resulted in numerous conspiracies, one of which met success with the support of the pretorian guards and palace liberti who distanced him from his personal guards and had him and his immediate family assassinated. Claudius was nominated emperor in his place.
Emperor Claudius aka “TIBERIUS CLAUDIUS CAESAR AUGUSTUS GERMANICUS” was an unexpected nominee for the imperial throne. His limping leg and partial deafness together with a relatively introverted character had kept him in the shadows and out of trouble during the reign of his nephew Caligula and of Tiberius before him. It also saved his life when the Praetorian guards stormed the palace and eliminated Caligula’s entire family. He was apparently found by one of the soldiers hiding behind a curtain, he was recognised and rather than being killed was “chosen” as heir.
Claudius’s father was Nero Claudius Drusus: son of Empress Livia and hence stepson of Augustus. His mother was Antonia: daughter of Mark Anthony and Octavia Minor (Emperor Augustus’ sister). So Augustus was Claudius’ step-grandfather through his father’s side and also his great uncle through his mother’s side. Nevertheless his paternal lineage made him a descendent of Claudian lineage rather than Julian.
So we have an issue of imperfect though highly esteemed lineage, coupled with some physical inabilities which lead to him being sidelined during childhood and early adulthood. A third issue was probably linked to his early work as a historian: it is likely that his views of the civil wars (involving Mark Anthony and Augustus) weren’t totally aligned with the accepted propaganda and this would clearly have counted against him in terms of family support. So much so that he was refused access to the public magistrate career (cursus honorum) first by Augustus and then Tiberius. It may of course have earned him some support from other sections of society who might have seen some hope of counter-current reform through him.
The result of this complex situation was that it saved Claudius from being eliminated as a threat to the throne in more than one occasion, yet once he achieved the throne his claim was less than perfect due to lineage and possibly even in terms of middle and lower class support rather than senatorial support. His position was continuously under challenge from various factions within the senate which he was forced to regularly (violently) quell at the cost of some impopularity amongst the nobility.
Another aspect which his upper class detractors raised against him was his desire/propensity for women only – which was considered by many as a sign of a potentially weak emperor, open to being manipulated (by his consorts). This was particularly the case with his third wife Messalina who had managed to gain herself a dreadful reputation as a harlot. She eventually made herself unbearably uncomfortable to the point she had to be repudiated in favour of his niece Agrippina: a woman of strong political contacts, renowned for her beauty and most importantly of impeccable Julian family lineage.
Claudius’ period of rule lasted 13 years from 41-54AD and wasn’t as inefectual as would have been expected from the bad start: he turned out to be a capable administrator of the empire, taking direct interest in law-making. His scholarly interests in history were clearly of advantage to him and he was also responsible for numerous major public works like the port of Ostia near Rome, roman roads and aqueducts. He was also responsible for the extension of the empire into various provinces such as Judaea, Thrace and the initial parts of Britain.
His good reign came to an end through sudden illness, it is suggested possibly poisoned with a dish of mushrooms by his wife Agrippina: She was tired of playing second fiddle and anxious to sit her own son Nero on the throne through whom she hoped to gain effective absolute control of the Roman state.
Emperor Trajan defined Emperor Nero’s first quinquennium as Rome’s greatest period – a period of enlightened rule which no other prince would be likely able to equal. Nero was at that point in his mid twenties and it is difficult to identify a single reason for the subsequent dark period of his rule. Possibly it was women such as his mother Agrippina’s excessive meddling, the struggle between his mother and his tutor for influence over the state’s running, or the influence of his wife Poppea who was as power hungry as his mother. At a more subtle level we can imagine it being due to his weak character, fear of plots against his life and the impatience of putting his own vision of Rome into action: a vision built around orientalising ideals of a new Roman culture, with a new city, fresh popular ideals based on the arts rather than war and revolving around his own central figure as sun-deity.
Nero’s fascination with oriental religion and the arts was something he learned at a very young age, also because it was diametrically opposite to what was expected of him from his mother as heir of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Nero’s early childhood had not been easy. The separation from his parents at a very early age and being shored up at his aunt’s house meant Nero’s character was relatively insecure and self centred, exacerbated by the teenage years spend at Claudius’ palace when all his desires were equivalent to commands.
He had come to power as a result of his mother’s political hunger as well as her unquestionable lineage. She had eliminated her husband Emperor Claudius in order to bring her son to power as a puppet under her control, yet dissatisfied by the presence of others such as Seneca and Poppea she threatened to remove her support and to place it on Claudius’ son, Britannicus. This was met with violence: first in the elimination of Britannicus through poisoning at a dinner party and later assassination of Agrippina herself. Murdering his own mother brought deep anguish and remorse but also renewed energy to implement his vision.
Implementation of his vision meant lavishing gifts on the population at large, organising great public games and feasts and even going on an artistic tour of Greece and Egypt complete with triumphant return much as any emperor-general would have celebrated after a long and daring military campaign.
A significant turning point was the great fire of Rome of AD64. An event which many blamed on the Emperor, though his involvement is highly unlikely. Fires were very common in Rome at the time and indeed several more sever fires occurred even after Nero’s rule. Nevertheless, the fire was blamed on him by many and this drove him to search for a scape-goat by blaming and persecuting the Christians who hitherto had been allowed to freely preach in the city but were now being rounded up and summarily killed like common criminals.
Nero’s support of the injured and damaged population and city was exemplary in many ways. Rome saw the first urban planning of it’s long history. New planning rules implied more use of inflammable materials such as concrete, wider streets and more space between buildings – sufficient for the fire emergency services to gain access to affected areas in future. The fire also provided large areas of land which had to be reconstructed. This brought great cost and the first devaluation of Roman coinage had a huge impact on the roman economy. It also brought the opportunity to buy up the enormous area of land required to build his much desired palace: the Domus Aurea. The Golden House. Intended at once as an imperial residence and a central piece of his propaganda.
It is clear that the time of Nero was a turning point in Roman art and architecture. A clear point of divergence from mere copying of Greek arts to a development of a Roman approach. The palace was built of mortar and brick instead of stone blocks. This meant that spaces could be manipulated far more effectively as could the artwork on the walls themselves. The size, extreme articulation, artwork and technology employed within the domus aurea was likely unrepeatable, but of such cost and disadvantage to the general citizenship that later emperors thought it better to remove the precious materials and build over it. Some parts have remained, thanks to the baths of Titus and trajan built over it and more recently the famous revolving dining room has also been unearthed on the Palatine hill.
Another example of the turning point in Roman architecture at Nero’s time are Nero’s thermal baths – the first to have been built with the symmetrical axis and distribution which acted as a template for all successive imperial baths after him.
However Nero grew paranoid as plots were formed against him, particularly by the Senatorial class which was directly impacted by his continuous need for money and his desire to flatten the social strata, eliminating their hereditary prerogatives which he had promised to maintain when he first took power. Many were put to death to do away with the increasing number of enemies but eventually the armies in the provinces revolted and his own Praetorian guard refused to protect him.
The senate finally saw that Nero was relatively alone and with the support of the Praetorian guard sentenced him to death by whipping. Nero preferred to commit suicide proclaiming the well known phrase “what an artist dies with me!”.
Nero’s death is shrouded in a good deal of mystery or at least in popular myth. He was not given an imperial burial, in fact the Senate pronounced that his name and memory should be struck from the annals. nevertheless Nero continued to have a strong following, particularly among the plebeian population. His funeral was arranged and paid for by a freed-woman who had once been his lover – Claudia Acte. Many continued to believe he would one day return to deliver them. The Christian church came to consider him equivalent to the anti-Christ.
A far more complete and balanced view of Emperor Nero’s life and reign has been expanded upon to include insights about his character profile, events in his life and look behind appearances: perhaps he wasn’t all bad….
The election of Nero’s successor was no easy thing, particularly when no one was left of the Caesar dynasty. This led to several pretenders laying a claim to being named emperor and as was to be expected several made it but in quick succession: Galba was put forward by the troops in Spain and the senate supported him, while in Rome the Praetorian guard supported Otho. Otho hoped to be chosen as successor to Galba but he was not and so the Praetorian guard killed Galba. Otho took over but the troops in Spain and Gaul chose to support a general called Vitelius. Vitelius’ forces met those of Otho and defeated him. Otho committed suicide and Vitelius took over. At this point another general called Vespasian was put forward as an alternative by the troops in Syria. Eventually Vitelius was put to death and Vespasian finally took over. The period from Nero to Vespasian was no longer than a year: 69AD.
Vespasian was a good soldier emperor and is best remembered for having started construction of the “Flavian Amphitheatre” better known as the Colosseum. He is also remembered for having been very careful with money. For example, he is said to have invented public toilets, for which one had to pay to use or be fined for soiling the city. He began his reign by settling down the numerous uprisings and revolts which he had inherited. Having put order in Rome he moved his focus to the revolts on the Rhine, in Gaul and in Judaea. The latter war he left to his son Titus to carry on. When Titus besieged Jerusalem the Jews fought to the last to defend their holy city. Historic accounts of the city’s capture tell of the great sufferings of these people at the hands of the Romans. The city and the great temple were plundered and razed to the ground, leaving only a few battlements standing in memory of what the Romans had been capable of. It is said that approximately 1 million Jews died and the few survivors left were scattered across many countries.
Vespasian also had a mind for learning and he is said to have awarded the famous Quintilian a salary out of the state treasury for his work as teacher of rhetoric and oratory in Rome. As well as undertaking the building of the Colosseum, Vespasian rebuilt the temple to Janus on the Capitoline hill which had been destroyed shortly before his coming to power. He also built a new forum.
An interesting anecdote is of a comet which appeared in AD79. The Romans were particularly keen on the meanings and omens to be read in the heavens and comets were generally regarded as an evil omen (making this a strong argument to suggest that a comet is not the star of Bethlehem which announced the birth of Jesus Christ). Within a year of the comet’s appearance emperor Vespasian was dead…..
Vespasian’s legacy was left to his son Titus. Like Vespasian, Titus was also a builder but while Vespasian was as coarse and pragmatic as his military career had made him Titus was rather more idealistic and full of good morals. He was known to his countrymen as a man of great kindness – “the delight of mankind” but this should be read in context: He celebrated his brother Domitian’s birthday in public games which involved the death of over two thousand Jews in gladiatorial combat or fighting against wild animals.
Titus completed the Colosseum, which hardly requires an introduction: it earned its name from the awe inspiring size. The amphitheater could seat over eighty thousand spectators and entertain them with shows of great variety, ranging from naval battles (by filling the bottom of it with water) through to stage shows, fights between animals and most famously, gladiatorial hand-to-hand combat.
He also built some extremely imposing baths. By this time the activity of bathing had become a luxury which all citizens of Rome had come to expect. Roman baths of this age accommodated thousands of people at any one time and as such were equipped with all the necessary apartments and distractions one might expect such as reading rooms, gyms, rest rooms and conference halls, not to mention other attractions.
The arch of Titus is particularly prominent in the Forum to this day. It was erected by Vespasian in honour of Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem.
It was during the reign of Titus that mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompei and Herculaneum. The eruption killed Pliny the elder, a great author of the time. In a letter written by Pliny’s nephew, known as “Pliny the younger” to the historian Tacitus, the disaster is described as witnessing the end of the world. Also during the reign of Titus a second great fire ravaged Rome.
The reign of good Titus was very short as unfortunately he died whilst attending the sick in a plague which had struck Rome.
Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor. Unfortunately both his character and reign were rather more erratic than his brother and father’s and this eventually lead to his assassination and to the senate’s decree to remove his name from documents and monuments. Early in his reign numerous senators as well as part of the army plotted against him and this could be the reason for his suspicious attitude to those about him. Certainly he was self-centred and rather like Nero he had statues of himself erected and instructed his subjects to burn incense and worship him as a god.
Existing monotheist religions, particularly the Christians and Jews of the time were not in a position to worship any other but the one God and this was read to mean they were treacherous and unfaithful to their emperor. They were therefore savagely persecuted. As a point of reference, the apostle John was banished at this time.
Domitian is also understood to have been rather weak as a military leader. Pliny the younger was of the opinion that when Domitian celebrated a triumph it was the enemy who was sure to have had the better of the Romans. For example Domitian attempted to push back the Dacians who lived along the Danube. Having been unsuccessful he was forced to pay them a yearly tribute in gold in order to keep them away. He appears to have organised a triumphal march for himself just the same and given that he had no captives to show off he purchased and dressed up slaves for the job.
Partly because of this weakness Domitian became jealous of his general Agricola who had succeeded in conquering Britain and southern Scotland and was making ready to conquer Ireland also. Domitian had Agricola recalled to Rome, rather like Tiberius had had Germanicus removed for doing his job too well. He also had all philosophers and men of literature banished (presumably because they could see through him and might subvert his subjects). A famous philosopher of the time was Epictetus, he too was banished.
In spite of all these rather negative attributes Domitian is said to have ruled the provinces firmly and wisely.
Domitian was the last of “the twelve Caesars” although in fact he was of the Flavian dynasty which had started with his father Vespasian. As has already been mentioned, by this time the name Caesar had become a title rather than a family name. In the 150 years since Julius Caesar only three emperor-dictators had died a natural death and only one of them was succeeded by his own offspring.
Caesar, Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian and Titus might be considered as having been “good” or at least left a positive memory and effect on the future of the Roman empire. Shame about the likes of Tiberius, Nero, Caligula and Domitian.
The period of the 12 Emperors was to be followed by that of the “5 good Emperors“:
List of Caesars and Emperors
The table below provides an overview of the Emperor-Caesars. A full list of Roman Emperors is further explored in this separate page.