Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian are generally regarded as “The twelve Caesars” although Nero was actually the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Vespasian, Titus and Domitian were actually a new dynasty called the Flavians. By the time of Emperor Domitian the name “Caesar” was no longer being used as a family name but rather as a title meaning “leader”. The Twelve Caesars are also regarded as a group because the historian Suetonius wrote biographies for these twelve and no more. Most of these emperors died a violent death , only three died a natural death and only one, Vespasian, was succeeded by his own son.
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 speaches 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.
It was during the reign of Tiberius that Jesus Christ was crucified.
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.
Like Tiberius, Caligula too had shown great promise in his youth but unfortunately he is best remembered for his bizarre acts of madness. Modern critics suggest that his rapid change of mental health were in all probability due to some form of disorder such as schizophrenia. In his moments of lucidity he seems to have been good-natured, it is a shame that these moments were few and far between.
“Caligula” was not in fact his name but rather his nickname meaning “little boots”, by virtue of the soldier’s shoes (Caligae) he used to wear as a child on his father’s military camp. His nickname is not the only colourful accent and as already mentioned it is generally accepted that Caligula was absolutely mad and a number of unusual eccentricities recur in popular memory.
For example he is said to have started an invasion of Britain which he then decided interrupt at the last moment as he ordered his soldiers to collect sea shells to take back to Rome. He proclaimed his favourite white horse to be a consul and made a marble stable for it to live in. Whilst at the circus he ordered vast crowds of the public to be thrown into the arena with the animals so that the show might become more exciting.
Similarly colourful were his ideas to introduce Egyptian customs into Rome. Much in line with that culture he chose to take his own sisters as lovers and to marry one of them, Drusilla, whom he named as successor to the throne only to later repudiate her and take his other sister on the day of her marriage.
Caligula was a big, athletic man but unfortunately he developed a bald patch on the top of his head. One day he decided he was embarrassed by this and decided that bald people should be put to death. This was followed by a similar hate for philosophers who were also condemned to death or deportation. Amongst these was the millionaire cum stoic philosopher Seneca who was later to become Nero’s tutor. It also seems Caligula meant to destroy the literary works written by the likes of Virgil.
Slowly he was running out of scapegoats. He decided to have his grandmother decapitated simply because looking at her he decided her head albeit beautiful didn’t suit her shoulders. Finally he decided that Jupiter himself was usurping the place which rightly belonged to the emperor and so he had all the heads on statues of Jupiter replaced with his own image.
In spite of being mad he was very conscious of the possibility of following Tiberius’ fate and so he instituted a powerful military guard called the “Praetorians”. As he rightly expected, his plans to do away with the greater part of the senate and any personal opponents soon led to a conspiracy being formed against him and he was murdered – by the captain of the Praetorian guards. The reign of Caligula lasted 4 years, 37-41AD. As with Tiberius, Suetonius’ pen made little positive concessions to Caligula.
Having acquired great political strength the Praetorian guards proclaimed Caligula’s uncle Claudius as emperor.
Caligula is remembered by Suetonius for having said “Utinam populus Romanus unam cervicem haberet“: Oh how I wish the Roman people had one head only (so I could decapitate it with a single stroke). Caligula’s dark legacy was the power he handed to the military by creating the Praetorian guards.
Claudius had been wise enough to deceive those about him to think he was an imbecile so that no one might regard him as a threat and see it necessary to murder him. His limp and stuttering speech assisted him greatly in creating this image but once he was proclaimed emperor he didn’t fear to show his true (good) self. It must be said that if Claudius had been acting he had done it very well because even his own mother referred to him as an abortion but certainly he turned out to be an excellent emperor.
Under Claudius many public engineering works were undertaken (“Claudius” mineral water is drunk to this day!). He himself enjoyed taking part in the great projects. One of these involved the draining of a lake. When all was ready after 11 years worth of preparatory works he had a great naval battle arranged on the lake, fought by 20,000 convicts and watched upon by the citizens of Rome.
In spite of having no military experienced he left Rome in the year 43 AD to conquer Britain. The people of Rome found this unlikely expedition amusing but he was good and careful to choose his generals well and it is interesting to note that the future emperor Vespasian fought under him. To everyone’s surprise Claudius came back in glory. He was magnanimous and dignified with his vanquished enemies and was the first emperor to grant freedom to an enemy king: Caractacus.
Unfortunately for Claudius he loved women. His fourth marriage is well remembered because his wife Messalina was much the same as he and it is difficult to decide which of them had more extra marital relationships. Eventually Messalina had to be put to death as she was under suspicion of plotting to take over the throne with her lover. With his fifth marriage he made the mistake of marrying his thirty-year-old niece Agrippina. Agrippina was a particularly power hungry woman who like Augustus’ wife Livia was obsessed with her son’s career. Agrippina grew tired of waiting for her son Nero to become emperor and so she poisoned Claudius with a plate of mushrooms.
During his youth Nero was tutored by the stoic philosopher Seneca who had been recalled from the exile which Caligula had inflicted upon him. Seneca at first succeeded to teach Nero to rule with love so that his subjects might love him back and remember him when he might die. When Nero became emperor Seneca wrote him a speech for the senate in which the new emperor pronounced he would circumscribe his rule to commanding the army whilst Seneca and Agrippina would look after affairs of state. During these early years Nero is said to have refused statues in his honour from being erected and even more interestingly to have done his utmost to avoid sentencing people to death.
But sure enough Agrippina’s hunger for power was not satisfied and Seneca’s hold on Nero caused her displeasure and she plainly wanted to wield power alone. Seneca and the captain of the Praetorian guards warned Nero. Agrippina was angered by this and threatened to have Nero replaced by Claudius’ son Britanicus to which Nero responded by having the latter killed and his mother confined to her quarters.
Many years later, emperor Trajan was to define Nero’s first stint as emperor as “Rome’s greatest period”. Nero was now in his mid twenties and it is difficult to decide where the blame lies for the subsequent dark period of his rule. Possibly his mother’s excessive meddling, perhaps the sudden friendship with the artistic elite through Petronius or most likely his meeting with a woman called Poppea who was as power hungry as Agrippina but far younger and more beautiful.
Poppea was keen to become empress and as such she refocused Nero back onto his job as emperor and set about eliminating distracting influences such as Seneca and Agrippina. When Nero went to his mother to ask for permission to divorce from his wife Tacitus tells us that Agrippina went as far as offering herself to him. Nero feared his mother and didn’t have the courage to eliminate her himself. It seems he made various different attempts before actually succeeding and in so doing he also lost his mind.
As well as losing his mind he also laid waste to the treasury and so it wasn’t long before he set to confiscating the wealth of any opponents he might find on his path, particularly the senators. Seneca attempted to reign Nero in but soon realised that there was little hope for him to do any good and so he retired, thus removing the last hope of sanity.
Popular memory of Nero from then on is not flattering although one should also remember this was an age of “dog eat dog”. Nero is said to have had artistic and theatrical ambitions which was hardly in keeping with the role which had been thrust upon him by Agrippina and Poppea. By his mid to late twenties Nero was but a shadow of his former self and quite devoted to feasting rather than fasting. It wasn’t long before he had his former wife Octavia exiled and then murdered. The people of Rome were horrified.
A particularly important moment came ten years into his reign: An enormous fire burned down much of Rome. In terms of scale this event was not dissimilar to the great fire of London. Nero is said to have done much to help the citizens: Grain was sold at a heavily discounted price, the palace gardens were opened so that refugees might have somewhere to go and new buildings were constructed to provide housing. However the vox populi (the voice on the street) was that Nero had lit the fire himself and while Rome burned he had sung and played his lyre.
Nero was frightened by this and as a good Tyrant he set about finding a useful scapegoat in the growing Christian community. The fact that the Christians refused to worship the emperor’s image or the other Roman gods set them apart from other citizens. Nero blamed them for the fire and had many of them put to death in a manner of ways, such as crucifixion, burning at the stake or even throwing them to be savaged by wild beasts and dogs. The manner in which the Christians were persecuted was so severe, even by the standard of the times, that they were pitied by many.
After the city had burned Nero had much of it rebuilt, however he utilised a significant part to build his own palace, known as the Golden House (Domus Aurea), which unified the imperial properties on the Palatine and Esquiline hills. The palace was so enormous that it was in effect a small citadel and it is said that the entrance hall was so lofty that it could house a statue of the emperor some 40meters in height (120 feet). The historian Tacitus tells us that the views over the gardens and vineyards were even more beautiful than the buildings and Nero himself felt it was sufficiently grandiose to boast about.
During construction of the palace Poppea died of an abortion. Nero was deeply affected by this. It is said that whilst he walked the streets of Rome in despair he met a young man who reminded him of Poppea. He had the man castrated and then married him.
It is interesting to note that it is as a consequence of this fire that special legislation was passed in Rome in order to render the city more secure against fires. For example the use of concrete was encouraged rather than wood. Streets were also made wider, partly in order to render it more difficult for fire to spread.
However Nero grew increasingly paranoid and tyrannical which lead to plots being formed against him. Many were put to death to do away with the increasing number of enemies but eventually the armies in the provinces began to revolt and his own Praetorian guard refused to protect him. The senate saw that Nero was alone and set to ensure the support of the Praetorian guard after which they sentenced him to death by whipping. On hearing this Nero preferred to commit suicide. When dying he is said to have exclaimed “what an artist dies with me!”.
The Year of the Four Emperors
The election of Nero’s successor was no easy thing, particularly when no one was left of the Caesar family. 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 amphitheatre 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 Pompey 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.