Order from Chaos
The history of ancient Rome is one of alternating periods of peace and prosperity on the one hand, and destruction and civil unrest on the other. By the year 68 AD, Rome had already experienced several civil wars in its 800 year history, and they were only going to become more frequent as time went on. The appeal of one-man rule in Rome was that it was supposed to bring a sense of stability as well as effective, dynamic leadership -- two qualities that had frequently been of negligible prominence in the century before the development of the Principate system in 27 BC by the first Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustus and the dynasty he founded ruled the Empire for a little less than 100 years but nevertheless left an indelible mark on ideas regarding political organization in the ancient Western world. Unfortunately, not all of these ideas were necessarily positive ones. Contemporary observers and thinkers share an almost universal disdain for one-man rule for the simple fact that liberal democracies represent the default form of government in the world today. I would argue that the concept itself is not the problem, but rather the potential for excesses on the part of those in whom such power is vested: in the ancient world, look no further than Caligula, the third Roman Emperor, for a sense of why this would be; more contemporarily, examine the deeds of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. The other danger of one-man rule with regard to the Principate system of ancient Rome is that (a) there was no "official" mode of succession and (b) there was no legal recourse to removing a poor leader. These two shortcomings coalesced in Rome to provide an atmosphere of violence and instability, which is exactly what the system was designed to counter. In 68 AD, the Emperor Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians, committed suicide when the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy and had him officially proscribed. The Senate then gave the absolute power of his office to the governor of Spain and general Galba.
Although Galba and the Senate had hoped for an orderly transition, nothing of the sort happened. Several of the legions mutinied and proclaimed their own generals Imperator. Galba was killed in early 69, being succeeded by another general named Otho, who had been a friend and confidante of Nero's. Despite our conception of him as a tyrant who was universally hated, Nero was still popular in parts of the Empire -- particularly in Greece and Syria -- as well as among the common people of the city itself. Like Galba, however, Otho failed to win the support of certain crucial legions, and after losing an important military engagement with his main rival Vitellius, committed suicide after being in office for only a few months. Vitellius didn't last much longer and despite his attempts to actually abdicate the purple, was nevertheless killed by supporters of the popular general of the Eastern provinces, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, or simply Vespasian.
The Secret of Empire
Vespasian was an outsider to recent Roman politics, having been born into a humble (by the standards of the Empire, anyway) equestrian family outside of Rome. He rose quickly through the ranks of the army, however, and played an important part in the conquest of Britannia under the Emperor Claudius. He seems to have had a falling out with the Emperor Nero (supposedly over his obvious disdain for the latter's obnoxious theatrical/musical performances) and was sent into a sort of forced retirement. Later, however, Nero swallowed his pride and sent Vespasian and his son Titus Flavius Vespasianus the younger (known simply by his first name) to put down the revolt in Judea which ultimately concluded with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. At first, it seemed that Vespasian probably wouldn't last any longer than his three predecessors. By this time, however, Vespasian had learned the secret of Empire and had figured out how to cope with it: since the assassination of Caligula and the subsequent elevation of Claudius by the Praetorian Guard, the key had not been in securing the support of the Senate, but in securing the support of the military. Vespasian was a soldier's soldier, and despite some early setbacks, eventually earned the support of virtually all the legions of the Roman Empire. Vespasian appears to have been interested first and foremost in stabilizing the Empire internally instead of beginning military expeditions. He wisely promoted his son Titus to the position of commander of the Praetorian Guard, ensuring the force was comprised of men personally loyal only to the Emperor. During his reign, he only suffered one major revolt, this one on the part of the Gallic legions. This was put down pretty quickly, however, and no further serious military challenges to his rule came about for the rest of his reign. He spent much of his time concentrating on repairing the Roman economy -- through revamped taxation systems, including fees for urination in public toilets -- and paying greater attention to the rule of law. He expanded public works and asked for the cooperation of the Senate rather than antagonizing it like Caligula or obsequeiously cowtowing to it like Claudius. In at least two ways, Vespasian was like Augustus: first, he was seemingly able to please all parties all the time with few complaints, and second, he had started his own dynasty (that is to say, the Flavian one). When Vespasian died in 79 after ten years of rule, his alleged last words were "I fear that I am becoming a god!"
There was really no question as to who would succeed Vespasian as Emperor. Nobody was as close to the Emperor as his eldest son Titus, who served with him in the Jewish Revolt and was his co-consul on several occasions in the 70s. Titus was every bit as popular with the military as his father had been and had actually been responsible for securing the support of crucial Eastern legions at the uncertain beginning of Vespasian's reign. Titus carried on most of his father's policies and completed work on the Flavian Amphitheater, also known as the Colosseum. Free entertainment on such a massive scale was an instant hit with the general populace of Rome. The most bizarre aspect of Titus' reign was the appearance of a man claiming to be the late Nero who said that he was the rightful Emperor and that he would stop at nothing to reclaim his throne. Apparently his bark was worse than his bite, however, and within a short period of time, he fled in fear to Persia. Unfortunately for Titus, however, his reign also saw the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Titus began relief efforts for the survivors of the catastrophe, but suddenly died in 81 of an unknown illness.
How to Destroy a Dynasty
If the transition between the reigns of Vespasian and Titus was fairly seamless, the transition between Titus and his successor was anything but. Titus had no male children to succeed him, so when Titus was in his final illness, there was a real question as to who would wear the purple next. There was at least one person, however, who knew the answer to that question immediately: Titus' brother, Titus Flavius Domitianus -- known to us as Domitian. As sort of a prelude to knowing what his reign would be like, Domitian presented himself to the Praetorian Guard before his brother had even died and earned their support. Domitian was something of a nonentity; Vespasian had always clearly favored Titus and when the older brother was out on campaigns with his father, Domitian was receiving private schooling in the capital and holding relatively insignificant offices that hardly befit the son of an Emperor. Domitian was granted sporadic military commands, but his father saw to it that they were either managed for him by his chiefs of staff or not really important enough to warrant official Imperial intercession. In terms of earning victories, Domitian was thus successful, but some of these engagements were the equivalent of a 16 year old beating up a second grader. At any rate, Domitian preferred to engage in more academic pursuits and gained some popularity as a writer of historical treatises. Because Domitian had little meaningful governmental experience, the Senate was initially apprehensive of naming him Princeps. Still, there were really no other choices forthcoming and Domitian already had the support of the army, so his ascension was a fait accompli.
Despite being named Emperor, Domitian never forgave the Senate for their initial reticence and would make a habit of antagonizing them throughout the course of his reign. Like Vespasian, one of Domitian's chief concerns was the state of the economy. Domitian also saw the positive public relations effects of putting on lavish spectacles and building public works. Unfortunately, he frequently emphasized the latter at the expense of the former, and this policy crippled the denarius and the power of the Roman economy. At the same time, Domitian was well aware of his military inadequacies, so he began a series of expeditions in Gaul that seemed simple on paper, but were actually more difficult to successfully conclude than anyone had imagined. He granted himself the triumphs that had been denied to him during the reigns of his father and brother, despite the fact that they were basically empty celebrations.
In terms of administration, Domitian relied heavily on personal friends and sycophants, ignoring the ideas of the Senatorial class. Beyond that, he actively detested them, and he began a reign of terror that recalled the brutal proscriptions of the Emperor Tiberius. As an example, Domitian put two of his cousins to death for perceived personal slights. Titus Flavius Sabinus was a former consul whom someone addressed as "imperator" rather than "consul," as would have been in proper form as the former title was by this time reserved exclusively for the Emperor. Fearing a conspiracy, Domitian quickly had him executed. The man's son, Titus Flavius Clemens, was put to death for allegedly converting to Judaism (or perhaps Christianity; the latter belief was sometimes referred to as a "Jewish superstition" by Romans before the third century), despite the fact that Domitian had named Clemens' sons as his heirs and even adopted them as his own. Domitian's paranoia led to frequent persecutions and his removal from the reality of the negative impacts of his economic policies did not endear him to the plebians either. Even stranger, Domitian fancied himself a modern Augustus and took up the mantle of censor, naming himself responsible for ensuring and promoting good Roman values, of which Domitian exhibited very few. He stiffened penalties for adultery, but was famous as a practitioner of orgiastic behavior. Allegedly, Domitian impregnated Julia Flavia, the daughter of his late brother Titus, and then accidentally killed her during a forced abortion in the year 91. In 96, after 15 years of rule -- the longest of any of the Flavian Emperors -- was killed as a result of a complex assassination plot involving the Senate, the Praetorian Guard, his ex-wife Domitia Longina, and an embittered former servant of Julia Flavia. After his death, the Senate damned his memory and appointed the aged Nerva to succeed him.
The Flavian dynasty ruled Rome for 27 years -- significantly less than the 95 for which the Julio-Claudians ruled. Either way, the Flavians realized the importance of developing public works for securing the support of the populace, but more significantly, were the first to effectively exploit the legions and the Praetorian Guard as the surefire route to gaining and maintaining power. Vespasian is universally regarded as the best of the three Flavian Emperors, mainly on account of his natural charisma and his effective program of recovery. Vespasian also gets points for restoring the credibility of the Principate, which in the space of a few short years had been the cause of severe lawlessness and chaos. Titus is hard to quantify, as he reigned for only a short time, but few historians are outwarldy hostile toward him. Domitian, on the other hand, is a far more complex character. While it's easy to focus on his excesses, it's also important to remember that he ruled most of the known world for 15 years. He was reasonably popular with both the common people and the army, but since most historical works in the ancient world were written by aristocrats -- Domitian's perpetual enemies -- he has not enjoyed a great reputation. He seems to have had good intentions in mind with most of his projects, but the execution thereof was lacking and his personal eccentricities wound up getting him killed. He was, as Suetonius somewhat generously remarked, "a man of equal vice and virtue." It is worth noting as well that Domitian was consul at least 17 times, more than any other person in the nearly 1400 year history of that office (demonstrating his extremely active interest in government).
After the fall of the Flavians, Rome would enter into what Edward Gibbon saw as the "golden age" of Rome -- the near-century of peace and prosperity under the so-called Five Good Emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. After the tumultuous reign of Commodus, the son of Aurelius, history would repeat itself with various civil wars and more would-be Caesars claiming the purple on the basis of their being supported by their troops. This would ultimately lead to the fifty year Crisis of the Third Century and the collapse of the Principate system. For all the good the Flavians did, it is difficult to praise them for indirectly revealing the secret of Empire and opening the floodgates for anarchy and instability.
Julio-Claudian Dynasty | Flavian Dynasty | Five Good Emperors
Suetonius, "the Twelve Caesars."
Thanks to TheDebutante and DylanDog for corrections and suggestions.