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Julio-Claudians: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero

Tiberius was 56 when he took power as emperor. It was a succession accompanied by a quiet murder. The victim was Agrippa Postumus, the slow-witted 26 year-old son of his wife Julia's by a previous marriage, feared as a possible rallying point for disaffected persons.

Tiberius let the Senate know that he was he who ruled, but he left the Senate with some duties, saving himself from being overburdened with work. He told the Senate to stop bothering him about every question that came up and to take initiative. But, to his disgust, Senators cringed before him.

An amphitheater collapsed killing many, and the Senate took action against the frauds of contractors, including the slackness of authorities responsible for some roads having become impassible. Tiberius dismissed the Senate's desire to crackdown against the idea of freedom for women, but he did suggest it ban those who had come to Rome to put on obscene shows. And he went further than had Augustus by outlawing altogether the Druid religion.

Tiberius didn't like crowds and did not appear at the gladiator contests as had Augustus. Rather than appear as a loving father figure to the citizenry, Tiberius was seen as unfriendly and was a disappointment.

At the age of 68, Tiberius left Rome for the island of Capri, where he would spend the rest of his life, ruling, relaxing and bathing with boys he called his minnows.



Emperor Caligula. He wanted to rule well.

Tiberius died at 77 and this news was welcomed by the citizenry. He was succeeded by the great grandson of Augustus: Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, whose nickname was Caligula.

Caligula was a mediocrity. He wanted to rule well but was ill-equipped to handle the challenge of absolute rule. He failed that ingredient needed with power: measure. He had not proven himself with accomplishments and service to Rome. He had merely been born into the right family. It was the emperor's guard, the Praetorian Guard, that selected Caligula – a selection rubber stamped by the Senate.

Caligula began by wanting to rule well. He returned to the courts the power to make independent decisions in sentencing people, and he increased the number of jurors. He began publishing a budget and he began more building. But along with good intentions he suffered from vanity. The godliness that was attributed to his great-grandfather Augustus may have led him to believe not that he was a god but that he should be worshiped as a god.

He lacked self-restraint. He indulged his appetites for food and grew fat and irritable. He indulged his sexual appetites. He wanted to be adored, but he made enemies and indulged an appetite for revenge and control. He used his power to have those he saw as enemies executed. A conspiracy against him arose among those who felt their lives endangered, including officers of the Praetorian Guard. In the year 41, at the age of 29, after having been in power three years and ten months, members of his guard assassinated him.

Emperor Claudius


Claudius, a physical wreck, he was unadmired within the ruling Julio-Claudian family. He survived and became a diligent emperor. But he married poorly.

By now, senators had acquired the habit of timidity. There would be no restoration of the Senate's power. Instead, rule passed to Caligula's uncle, Claudius, who had bribed the Praetorian Guard into supporting him.

Claudius stammered and had a disability that made him clumsy. He had been an embarrassment to the imperial family and had spent much of his life secluded, writing books on Roman, Etruscan and Carthaginian history. (He is the last person known to have been able to read Etruscan.) Like historians with any competence, his histories offended. Not taken seriously as a possible heir, he had survived purges during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula.

In addition to an unusually high intelligence, Claudius was genuinely affable. And he cared about the empire. He proved to be an able and efficient administrator. He was also an ambitious builder, constructing many new roads, aqueducts, and canals across the Empire.

Wanting public support, Claudius tried reviving the image of an expanding empire. A Celtic tribal king fled from southern Britain to Rome and appealed for help against invasion by another tribe in Britain, and this gave Claudius his opportunity in his third year of rule. Britain was a strange place for Romans, and Claudius' 40,000 troops at first refused to disembark from their invasion boats. But they overcame their first hesitation and that same year with their conquests they created Roman Britain, a new province.

An edict by Claudius held that a master who murdered his slave because the slave was no long of use to him could be tried for murder, and Claudius extended freedom to a slave who had been abandoned by his or her master.

He was annoyed by Jews and tried to expel them from Rome, but like others who thought of themselves as polytheists he was generally tolerant of the worship of gods that he didn't worship, but not tolerant of Druidism. Druids were known to perform human sacrifices, which the Romans viewed with abhorrence. It was around their Druid religion that Gauls rallied in opposition to Roman rule. With religious diffusion still common, Claudius was on guard against its spread and he had a Roman executed after he noticed a Druidic talisman on his breast.

Claudius married four times. The first was to his distant cousin Aemilia Lepida, but it was broken for political reasons. He divorced his second wife, Aelia Paetina. After becoming emperor he married again, when he was fifty and she was about twenty. She was flagrantly unfaithful and the marriage ended seven years later. His last marriage was on January 1, 49, to one of the few remaining descendants of Augustus, a great-granddaughter, Julia Agrippina (Agrippina the Younger), Caligula's sister. She was 33 and with a 10 year-old son by a previous marriage, a boy named Nero. And rumor has it she had poisoned her previous husband.

Empress Agrippina succeeded in getting Claudius to favor Nero as his heir-designate rather than his own son, Britannicus. In an attempt to make Nero eloquent, Agrippina had him schooled in mythology, the classical writers, rhetoric and philosophy. While a boy, Nero developed a liking for art, drama and music, especially singing, and he liked horses. When he was sixteen, Agrippina had him marry Claudius's daughter by a previous marriage: Octavia.

Agrippina used her power to destroy people she saw as a threat or who had crossed her. The Roman historian Tacitus was to write that in the year 53 she goaded Claudius "into acts of savagery" against her imagined enemies.

The following year, 54, Claudius died, some believe by Agrippina having poisoned him after he had expressed second thoughts about Nero as his successor.



Emperor Nero. He also wanted to rule well. But emotionally and intellectually he was no better than mediocre and therefore unfit for rule.

Nero became emperor at seventeen, the day that Claudius died. Like Caligula had wanted when he took power, Nero wanted to rule well. And, like Caligula, he craved public adoration. But he was never able to bear frustrations with patience. His mother became an irritant, and in the year 59 he had her murdered. Following this, Nero became more defensive and by the year 61 he had re-instituted treason trials.

His wife, Octavia, grew to hate him, and he feared that she was spreading dislike of him in his household and at court. He had her charged with treason and executed in the year 62. He had a love interest at this time, remarried and exercised this power against his next wife, Poppaea Sabina, one of the many attractive women across history who sought association with men of wealth and fame. She married Nero in 62.

In the year 64 was the great fire in Rome. It burned wooden tenement houses, which were as high as six stories, and it burned the home of the wealthy, including Nero's palace. According to the historian Tacitus, who wrote decades later, many Romans many believed the rumor that Nero had started the fire to make space for his new great mansion, and they pitied Christians who were blamed for the fire, believing that instead of being sacrificed for the welfare of the state, the Christians were being sacrificed as Nero's scapegoats.

The popularity Nero had wanted escaped him. Military commanders outside Rome were aware of Nero's unpopularity. Nero didn't realize where the real power was. In 68, he ordered the execution of his military commander in Spain, Servius Galba. With nothing to lose, Galba declared himself a subject of the Senate and Rome's citizens rather than of the emperor. Galba and his army headed for Rome. Realizing that he was powerless, Nero ran through his palace screaming hysterically. The Senate aroused itself, declared Nero a public enemy and ordered his execution. Soldiers closed in on Nero at his villa. The family dynasty begun by Augustus was at an end 54 years after it had begun. With Senate approval, power passed to Servius Galba. An era of rule by military men had begun.

Nero was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian family, a dynasty that had lasted only 54 years following the death of its founder, Augustus – not an ucommon length of time for a ruling dynasty, but much shorter than some other dynasties elsewhere in the world.


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