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Caligula, Nero and a Few Others

Augustus Caesar was succeeded by his adopted son and son-in-law, Tiberius. Tiberius 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.

The youthful Caligula intended to rule well. He returned independent decision-making to the courts. He ended treason trials that had been instituted by Tiberius. He published a budget and began building projects.

Eventually, the power that he had acquired required a temperament and self-restraint that he did not have. The godliness that had been attributed to his great-grandfather, Augustus, 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 an appetite for striking back at those who displeased him. He re-instituted treason trials, and having the power to do so he had those he considered enemies executed. After having been emperor three years and ten months, members of the Praetorian Guard (his protectors) and others who feared for their lives had him assassinated.

Caligula was succeeded by another member of Augustus's family — the Julio-Claudians. This was Caligula's uncle, Claudius, who had bribed the Praetorian Guard into supporting him.

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, a boy by the name of Nero. And it is rumored that she had Claudius poisoned. Claudius 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-equipped 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 having been 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. Nero's wife, Octavia, grew to hate him. Nero feared that she was spreading dislike of him in his household and at court. In the year 62 he had her charged with treason and executed.

In the year 64, a Great Fire broke out in Rome, which was 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 his new great mansion. Nero unpopular increased, and military commanders outside of 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. Nero couldn't muster another army to defend his rule. The Senate aroused itself. Seeing Nero's weakness it 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.

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. A wealthy senator, Otho, age 37, bribed the Praetorian Guard, and on 15 January 69, guardsmen exercised what for dictatorships was a common political instrument: assassination. The 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 having 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. Rome's 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 remained as it had with Augustus, with whoever had the greatest military (violent) force — unlike democracies where armed men were supposed to be the authority of those elected by the voting public.

CONTINUE READING: Prosperity and Decline

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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.