home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE | Jews and Christianity, to 500 CE


previous | next

Roman Emperors, Prosperity and Decline

First Emperor, Augustus | Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero | Blunders from Galba to Dometian | Emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Prosperity | Rome Absorbed and Ruined Economically | Order under Diocletian, to Constantine

Map: Roman Empire in the year 12 CE

Roman Empire in the year 12 CE

First Emperor, Augustus (27 BCE - 14 CE)

Rome's empire began more than two centuries before Rome's republic faded into rule by those called emperors, but it is by the name of Roman Empire that the post-Republican phase of ancient Roman civilization is often described.

The first emperor who ruled was Octavius, the nephew of Julius Caesar. He was recognized by the Senate as having authority over all of Rome's military, outside the city of Rome and within Rome. As a tribune for life he was allowed to convene the Senate when he pleased, to lay business before it and to veto its actions, to preside over elections and to speak first at any meeting. Given the powers of a censor, he had the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to make sure they were what he thought to be in Rome's interest. And the title of augustus signified religious authority. Rome's priests were obliged to put him in their prayers.

With the Gods

Augustus made an effort to put himself on the side of the gods by launching a crusade to revive temperance and morality. He tried setting an example by dressing without extravagance and by living in a modest house. He emphasized the worship of those gods he thought had given him victory in battle, among them the god Apollo. He claimed that Rome's gods had given him victory over Cleopatra and what he saw as the monstrous gods of Egypt. He forbade the worship of Isis, and he forbade Druidism and fortune telling. He collected the oracles of Sibyl – the woman believed to have prophetic power by way of Apollo – and he had her writings stored in a newly built temple for Apollo on the Palatine Hill.

Augustus Caesar

Augustus Caesar

Augustus tried to persuade one of the foremost writers of his time, the poet Horace, to create a work comparable to Homer's Iliad that would inspire Romans to the worship of the state's traditional gods and give the Romans pride in their history and their race. Horace was not interested, but the poet Virgil was. Virgil wrote the Aeneid, a story about the gods and the founding of the Roman race, a myth about the Romans having descended from Trojans who had fled the flames of Troy. The god Aeneas was described as the son of the goddess Venus and the Trojan Anchises. According to Virgil, among the descendants of Aeneas was Rhea Silva, who married Mars and gave birth to Romulus and Remus. And Virgil described Julius Caesar as a more distant descendant of Aeneas.

Augustus decided to protect the Roman race. Between 2 BCE and CE 4 he had laws passed that he hoped would reduce inter-breeding between Romans and non-Romans. These laws prohibited an indiscriminate emancipation of slaves, prohibited freed slaves from marrying Latins and prohibited Senators from marrying freed women.

Family Values

The Romans believed in the family, and they agreed that adultery should be illegal. They believed that the virtue of their women helped win their city favor from their gods, and they continued to be disgusted by criminality. Many Romans found pleasure in seeing criminals punished, which was done in the arena, Rome's entertainment center, where convicted criminals were forced to fight against each other or against ferocious animals. Occasionally, convicted criminals ran from the center of the arena, and men at the edge of the arena used hot branding irons to force the unwilling participant back to the contest, while the crowd expressed its disgust with the criminal's cowardice.

With wars having reduced Rome's population to a level lower than pleased him, Augustus saw having children as moral. He used his powers as tribune-for-life to initiate legislation that he hoped would encourage marriage. Infanticide remained legal and at a husband's discretion, but people who remained single or married without children after they were twenty were to be penalized through taxation. To further what he saw as morality, Augustus had prostitution taxed, and he made homosexuality a punishable offense. Adultery remained a crime, but it was no longer commonly punished by death. An adulterous wife and her lover could now be banished to different islands, with the woman obliged to wear the kind of short tunic worn by prostitutes.

Augustus' crusade for moral regeneration satisfied those who feared that evil would come with abandoned religious traditions. Many females continued to grow up patriotically and dutifully moral, and virginity before marriage continued to be seen as highly desirable and moral. But his moral crusade was hardly a success in changing behavior. Married men continued to look other than to their wives for sexual passion. With unmarried women endeavoring to remain virgins and married women constrained by the tough laws against adultery, males, married and otherwise, continued to seek sexual gratification and to some extent affection from prostitutes, and some from each other.

Augustus had his own daughter, Julia, punished for adultery. After Julia's two previous husbands had died (each of whom had been designated as heir to Augustus' power) Augustus arranged a marriage between Julia and his adopted son and heir, Tiberius. This involved Tiberius leaving a happy marriage. The marriage between Tiberius and Julia turned out to be an unhappy match. Tiberius was often away, and Julia searched for love and sexual gratification outside her marriage. Augustus heard of her infidelities, and he threatened her with death. Instead, he sent her to an island prison from which she was never to return, and he spoke of her as a disease of his flesh.

Expansion and Succession

By the end of his reign his armies had conquered northern Hispania, the Alpine regions of Raetia and Noricum Illyricum and Pannonia and had extended the empire's borders in Africa.

Concerning succession, he wanted to ensure stability and do this by designating an heir, done in an undramatic way that did not stir fears of monarchy. He wanted an heir who had proved himself through public service. No Roman law had given Augustus the right to pass his powers to anyone. But the Romans were without qualms about Augustus' transfer of power. They believed that for a continued peace and prosperity someone should rule as Augustus had ruled.

Augustus' choice was Tiberius, three years-old when Augustus married his mother, a divorcee, back in 39 BCE. Augustus married his stepson Tiberius to his daughter Julia and later adopted him, making him a member of the Julian family with the name Tiberius Julius Caesar. With the family name of Tiberius' father, the Julio-Claudian dynasty was born.

His service to Rome was as a military general and as a consul in 13 BCE. In 12 BCE he received military commissions in the volatile regions of Pannonia and Germania. He was consul a second time in 7 BCE. He withdrew from politics in 6 BCE but came back for a two-year campaign in Germania in the years 10 to 12 and returned to Rome triumphant, falling to the knee of Augustus, who was presiding over the ceremonies.

Augustus died in the year 14, at the age of 75. He was deified, and his will was read, which confirmed Tiberius as his sole surviving heir.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.