Caesar Augustus’ Reign
Augustus was obsessed with a quest that plagued all Roman emperors. What would happen in Rome when he died?
The dilemma of dynastic succession would haunt Augustus for the rest of his life. His marriage to Livia had produced no male heirs.
The pressure of dynastic succession had claimed its first victim. Rome’s first emperor or eventually died in 14 AD at the age of 76.
He had ruled Rome peacefully for over 40 years. Augustus said, “I restored, I completed, I built, I gave. Augustus.”
Augustus had given Rome a sense of pride, stability and prosperity. Yet, he failed to provide what every dynasty needs most-a sense of security.
Imperial power seized by force can always be lost to force. Insecurity plagued Augustus’ successors.
Their paranoid delusions would be the undoing of his dynasty. Ironically, the biggest threat came from the Praetorian Guard, the elite troops meant to protect the emperors, not kill them.
Problems soon surfaced in the reign of Tiberius, Rome’s second emperor. He struggled in the shadow of Augustus throughout his reign.
In 29 AD, after 9 years on the throne, Tiberius retired to the Isle of Capri. He was exhausted by the pressure of power in Rome.
Tiberius left Rome in the care of Sejanus, the trusted Praetorian commander. Sejanus did not want to help the emperor. He wanted to be emperor.
With Tiberius played on his paranoia. He told them that conspires existed all over Rome. They were just a smokescreen to justify the murder of anyone between him and the imperial throne.
The truth finally reached Capri. The emperor acted quickly. He invited Sejanus to the Senate, promising a promotion.
It wasn’t a letter of promotion he read a letter for his arrest. Sejanus never made it to trial.
His treachery highlighted a fundamental problem in imperial Rome. Everyone knew the Praetorian Guard watched over the emperor, but who watched over the Praetorian Guard? Tiberius responded just in time.
Caligula, his successor wouldn’t have been so lucky. Notoriously brash, particularly towards the Senate.
But Caligula is best remembered for another relationship- With his racehorse, Incitatus. He gave the horse a marble house and an ivory bed.
He regularly invited horse to dinner in the imperial palace. He threw large parties for him.
But Caligula topped everything when he recommended the horse be elected Consul, the leading magistrate in Rome. To some people, it was more than the whim of a madman.
Rome’s rich and powerful were not so impressed. On January 24, 41 AD they bribed the Praetorian Guard to murder the emperor.
They wouldn’t have killed Caligula had they known the horror to come. By the middle of 1st AD Rome had thought the worst had passed.
Yet Nero, Rome’s 6th Emperor, would change all that. His dad died when he was 3 years old. He was brought up by his overbearing mother Agrippina, who had one ambition- to make her son emperor.
In 54 AD, at the tender age of 16 Nero became unwilling emperor. He began by doing what emperors were supposed to do.
Provided for the citizens. He built massive public baths and handed out cash to every Roman citizen. Rome, it seemed, was in capable hands.
But whose hands were they?
Agrippina exercised a humiliating influence over her son. She minted coins that showed her to be next to the emperor.
Nero was furious. He banished his mom from Rome, but distance did not solve the problem. Agrippina criticism incensed Nero. In a fit of anger, he asked the Praetorian Guard to silence his mother once and for all.
Romans were appalled.
It was the first glimpse of the emperor’s brooding insecurity. In 64AD, a huge fire swept through Rome, destroying a third of the city.
Half of the population was left homeless. Nero’s response was equally tragic.
On the ashes of the devastated city, he built a massive 50 acre palace. His golden house had lavish gardens and huge lakes.
Rumors quickly circulated that the emperor had intentionally started the fire to clear space for his new palace. Nero panicked.
He frantically searched for a scapegoat. He settled on an obscure cult that had recently arrived in Rome.
Nero named the culprits and punished the victims- they were called Christians. Vast numbers of innocents were convicted of crimes and killed.
Most Romans felt sympathy for the victims- Nero’s futile exercise failed. He took refuge in his own artistic fantasies and set off on a singing tour of Greece.
Not surprisingly, the most powerful man in the world won every competition he entered. The emperor bribed judges and forced audiences to sit through every performance.
Romans were outraged by Nero’s indulgences and incompetence. June 9, 68 AD the Senate declared him a public enemy and sentenced him to death.
Nero chooses a far more theatrical end. He took his own life.
It was the end of Rome’s first imperial dynasty.
Augustus had ruled with restraint. Tiberius had ruled with indifference. Nero had not really ruled at all.
There would be emperors, in Rome for nearly another 400 years, but their dynasties would all rule with the same rhythm of power.
Like Augustus, they would start out promising the best of times. But like Nero, they reigns would undermine Rome’s greatness.
Delusions would condemn millions to die. Power and glory, the curse of Imperial Rome.
Boak, A. E. (2010 ). A History Of Rome TO 565 AD. Ann Arbor, Michigan : Univeristy of Michigan Press.
de la Bédoyère, G. (2006). The Romans For Dummies. West Sussex, England : John Wiley & Sons.