home | history

Caligula, Nero and a Few Others

Augustus Caesar was succeeded by his adopted son, and son-in-law, Tiberius. He ruled for a little more than 22 years (to his death in the year 37, around seven years after the crucifixion of Jesus). Tiberius was succeeded by Caligula (a nickname), the son of a granddaughter of Augustus, age 24.

Caligula intended to rule well. He returned independent decision-making to the courts. He ended the treason trials instituted by Tiberius. He published a budget and began building projects. But such power that he had required a temperament he lacked. Caligula was insufficient in self-restraint. The godliness that had been attributed to his great grandfather he assumed entitled him to be worshiped as gods are worshiped. And he indulged his appetite for food and grew fat – and irritable. He indulged also his appetite for revenge and control. He re-instituted treason trials and had those he considered enemies executed. After having been emperor three years and ten months, members of the Praetorian Guard and others who feared for their lives had him assassinated.

Caligula was succeeded by another member of the Julio-Claudian family, his uncle Claudius, who had bribed the Praetorian Guard into supporting him. (Family rule had become accepted as it was with monarchies and as it would in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of North Korea.) Claudius was a good administrator and a builder of many new roads, aqueducts and canals across the empire. He expanded the empire into Britain. His wife, Caligula's sister, was ambitious for her son from a former marriage, Nero. And it is rumored that she had Claudius poisoned. He died after almost 13 years as emperor.

Nero was to be the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Like Caligula he wanted to rule well, but he too was ill-quipped temperamentally. Like Caligula, Nero craved public adoration. And he was unable to bear frustrations with patience. His mother attempted to continue her control of him, and rumor has it that he thought that he was powerful enough to be rid of her by having her secretly murdered. By the year 50 – after 4.5 years of Nero's as emperor – she was dead, at the age of 43. (Conflicting stories of the assassination are described with some detail in Wikipedia.) Following the assassination, Nero is said to have become edgy and more defensive. Within a couple of years the treason trials were back. His wife, Octavia, grew to hate him, and he feared that she was spreading dislike of him in his household and at court. In the year 62 he had her changed with treason and executed.

In the year 64 the Great Fire shocked the city of Rome – a tinder-box of tightly packed wooden tenement buildings. Christians were blamed, and executed. Romans are reported as believing that Nero started the fire to make space for a his new great mansion. Nero was unpopular, and military commanders outside Rome war aware of it. Early in the year 68, Nero ordered the execution of his military commander in Spain – Servius Galba. Galba and his army headed for Rome. Galba had more power than Nero. Nero couldn't muster other armies to defend his rule. The Senate aroused itself, declared Nero a public enemy and ordered his execution. Surrounded by Galba's military, Nero killed himself (June 68). With Senate approval, Galba became emperor. Rule by the Julio-Claudian family had lasted 54 years – maybe something like an average length of time that a family dynasty could hold onto power.

As emperor, Galba tried to restore Rome's finances. With his frugality he alienated citizens and his soldiers. Galba didn't like the idea of having to bribe troops for their support. He announced his adoption of a son as his heir-to-be, but he failed to pay the Praetorian Guard the donation that it had come to expect for their support (more corruption that had developed in the system that Augustus Caesar had created). A wealthy senator, Otho, age 37, bribed the Praetorian Guard, and on 15 January 69, guardsmen assassinated Galba and his close associates. That same day the Senate named Otho emperor.

But Otho's rule went unrecognized by soldiers outside the capital. Several legions of Roman soldiers stationed on the lower Rhine River in Germany declared for the military commander there: Vitellius. And they began advancing on Italy. Otho won the support of soldiers in Dalmatia, Pannonia and Moesia (between the Adriatic Sea and the Danube River), A battle was fought in northern Italy. Otho lost – after he had been emperor for one month. The former ambitious senator committed suicide. Vitellius was proclaimed emperor. It was a short-lived glory. He ruled eight months. Another military force east of the Adriatic Sea had declared their commander, Vespasian, as emperor. (Vespasian had been fighting a revolt in Judea.) Vespasian and his army entered Rome, and the body of Vitellius was thrown into the Tiber River. Real power still lay as it had with Augustus, with those whom armed men supported – unlike democracies, with armed men under the authority of those elected by the voting public.


CONTINUE READING: Prosperity and Decline to 306 AD: before the Christian emperors

to the top | home

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.