A Brief History of Imperium
In any political system where executive authority or stewardship of the state is inherited via selection rather than election, it is more common than not that an incumbent ruler will choose his own successor before death or the expiration of his/her office, and such rulers frequently choose from a pool of familial relations. This is of course one of the hallmarks of monarchies, where a King or a Queen will usually choose their oldest progeny to rule once they themselves have passed away (although in the Middle Ages, this inheritance scheme was frequently compulsory due to the laws of primogeniture). The situation in ancient Rome was quite similar, but in some ways difficult for the aristocratic castes to swallow since the very notion of inheritable one-man rule was for many centuries anathema to the very fiber of the nation. After all, Rome had endured 250 years of a monarchical system whose defining feature was the corruption and abuses of power on the part of the (mainly Etruscan) Kings. In 509 BC, Lucius Junius Brutus led a revolt against Lucius Tarquinius Superbus -- an ambitious despot who came to power after his wife killed her own father, the previous King -- because the King's son Sextus Tarquinius had raped the noblewoman Lucretia, driving her to suicide and shaming the Roman aristocrats into action. It was thus seen in exceedingly bad form for any one person to claim total mastery over the Roman state and its provinces. That's not to say it didn't happen, of course.
Gaius Marius was a general of minor aristocratic status who became the first man in his family to be a member of the Roman Senate and later Consul. Such men were called novi homines ("new men") and by the first century BC, they were all the rage. Marius was a reformer who held the office of consul more times than was normally permitted by Roman law and tried to implement a meritocratic system of advancement within the military and in Roman society in general. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was a blueblooded Roman patrician and brilliant general who held onto old notions of blood and honour in Roman society and disliked Marius' "radical ideas." They were bound for a clash and Rome experienced a civil war between the two men's rival factions. Eventually, Sulla came out on top and assumed the office of dictator for 2 years despite the fact that a man was only supposed to serve in that capacity for a period of no greater than six months. Sulla's disregard for established rules of behavior for someone so concerned with mos maiorum (the way of the ancestors) and his success at it convinced other ambitious Roman generals that they could duplicate his feats and claim Rome solely for themselves. Within 40 years, Rome would suffer another, more catastrophic civil war between the forces of tradition and reform, with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus representing the former and Gaius Julius Caesar representing the latter. Caesar won out, of course, and assumed all of the accoutrements of royalty with the exception of the title. He was declared dictator for life, and he did in fact serve as dictator for the rest of his life -- that is to say, for a period of about a year before he was assassinated by a group of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus, a descendant of the same man who had driven out Tarquin more than four centuries earlier. Another civil war followed between the assassins and Caesar's successors, his friend Marcus Antonius and his teenaged great-nephew and adopted son, Octavian. The forces of Antony and Octavian were victorious, but the seductive idea of one-man rule was already too firmly entrenched in both of their heads and yet another civil war erupted between them, with Octavian ultimately proving the victor.
Although he was now only in his 30s, Octavian was the undisputed master of the Roman world. By the middle of the second century BC, Rome had ceased to be the Republic it had once been and effectively became an Empire; the only thing missing from the equation was an Emperor. In 27 BC, this situation was rectified when the Senate voted Octavian unprecedented imperium and auctoritas: broad executive authority with the power of life and death over the citizens of Rome as well as the power to decree legislation. Octavian was given the honorific Augustus, and that is the name by which he would be known for the remainder of his life. His official title was Princeps, which was a term used to denote the "first man" in the Senate. It was not a new title, but Augustus firmly established it as an inheritable position and the office became referred to as the Principate. The term "Emperor" is a retrospective title applied to the Princeps (it actually descends from the word Imperator, which meant field commander), but for the sake of familiarity, I'll use it from now on.
Julians and Claudians
Being an inheritable position, then, it would have behooved Augustus to have a son to take his place. Unfortunately for him, his only known offspring was a daughter named Julia and with the exception of one miscarriage, his second (and lifelong) wife Livia never bore him any children. Livia, however, had two sons of her own from her previous marriage to a man named Tiberius Claudius Nero (a common name in this family): Tiberius Claudius Nero the Younger and Decimus Claudius Drusus. Because of Roman naming conventions, this branch of the family was known as the Claudians; those on Augustus' side were known as Julians because his family name was Julius. The most logical match for creating an effective dynastic succession was a marriage between Julia and Tiberius, but it was an unhappy marriage which produced no children and ended when Augustus exiled his own daughter because of her infidelity to her husband.
From early on, there was a struggle between the two wings of the family over the question of who would eventually succeed Augustus as Emperor. Augustus was frequently ill with all manner of diseases and on one occasion when death seemed imminent, gave his signet ring to his lifelong friend and military commander Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Agrippa was at that time also Augustus' son-in-law, having been married to Julia before Tiberius. Unlike Julia's marriage to Tiberius, the one she had with Agrippa was very happy and produced five children. Agrippa died in 12 BC, however, so succeeding Augustus was clearly out of the question. Livia was hopeful that her husband would take notice of her sons, which he did, but rarely in a positive manner. Augustus disliked Tiberius, the elder of the two, on a personal level, although he begrudgingly admitted his talents as a military commander. Augustus instead turned his attentions toward his grandsons Gaius and Lucius to the point of adopting them and making them his heirs. He intended for both of them to succeed him as co-rulers, which set Tiberius into a morbid depression. He resigned all of his offices and "retired" to Rhodes so he could mope around about how nobody loved him. However, Lucius died in 2 AD and Gaius died a little less than two years later, both under obscure circumstances. Tiberius was now the only option that Augustus had for a successor and very reluctantly recalled him to Rome.
By the time Augustus died at an advanced age in 14 AD, Tiberius had officially jointly ruled with Augustus for a few years. He certainly had experience, but he was already in his mid-50s. In terms of his personality, Tiberius was the polar opposite of his stepfather. Augustus was robust, gregarious, and conservative, while Tiberius was dour, unpleasant, and kept eccentric company. When Augustus' will was read before the Senate, it indicated his desire to have Tiberius carry on in his stead. When the Senate offered to vote him the same powers that Augustus had had, Tiberius initially refused in a false display of humility (Augustus had done the same). The situation was incredibly awkward because Tiberius actually raised some pretty valid points about why he wasn't fit to be the sole head of the Roman state and the Senators weren't sure as to what they should do in response. Finally, the matter was cleared up when Tiberius "begrudgingly" accepted the office. This inauspicious beginning would characterize relations between Tiberius and the Senate for the rest of his life; he had inherited none of Augustus' natural charm and finesse in dealing with other people. Although he was a military man himself, Tiberius did not enjoy the support of the legions after his ascent to the purple. Instead, they supported his nephew Nero Claudius Drusus the Younger aka Nero Julius Caesar Germanicus. Germanicus was more similar in personality to Augustus and was actually both a Julian and a Claudian (he was the grandson of Augustus' sister and Mark Antony). Tiberius resented Germanicus because of his popularity, and indeed, had been required to adopt him as his heir as a prerequisite for Augustus adopting him as his. Germanicus died under suspicious circumstances in 19, and Tiberius has frequently been implicated as having had a hand in his mysterious final illness. Tiberius by this point was coming to rely more and more on Sejanus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to administer the affairs of state since as he got older, he only grew more and more apathetic in relation to his political duties. Tiberius detested the Senate as well as the Roman populace, and they returned the favor. Tiberius' only son Drusus died in 23, and three years later, Tiberius went into exile on the island of Capri.
On Capri, Tiberius acquired a reputation for vindictiveness, depravity, and sexual perversity. In collusion with Sejanus, he had two of Germanicus' male children murdered, leaving only the youngest Gaius alive. He had Germanicus' wife, Agrippina the Elder, beaten to death. On one bizarre occasion, a native fisherman living on Capri caught an exceptionally large mullet and took it to the Emperor's villa to give it as a gift. Tiberius, fearing the man meant to assassinate him, had him restrained while a member of the Praetorian Guard took the fish and rubbed it in his face until the man began bleeding. The fisherman remarked "I'm glad I didn't bring the crab I caught instead!" Upon hearing this, Tiberius ordered the crab to be brought to the villa, and the whole process was repeated again. History does not record the fisherman's response. In Rome, Sejanus was executing Senators left and right but somehow became implicated in a plot to assassinate Tiberius. Tiberius in turn had Sejanus tried in the Senate and executed. By 33, it was clear that Tiberius was not getting any younger. He had two prospective successors to choose from: his grandson Gemellus or his great-nephew Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, the son of Germanicus. Ultimately, Tiberius realized that Gaius was the better choice in terms of public relations (his father was still very popular in Rome, despite his having been dead for nearly 20 years) but required that Gaius name Gemellus as his successor. As a young boy, Gaius Germanicus frequently accompanied his father on his campaigns and the soldiers treated him like something of a mascot. His mother, Agrippina, made him a uniform complete with miniature soldier's boots known as caliga. The soldiers adoringly referred to him as "little boots" -- we call him Caligula.
When Tiberius died in 37 AD, the transition was smoother and was more widely accepted by the population and the Senate. Caligula was regarded as a new Augustus: someone young, vibrant, and moderate. And at first, this was how it went. Caligula pardoned many of the people Tiberius had condemned and showed largesse to the people. Then, toward the end of 37, Caligula fell seriously ill. He languished in agony for months and when he finally recovered, he was definitely a changed man. His behavior became increasingly erratic and the latent cruelty that had existed beneath the surface finally came bubbling out over the top. In 38, he had his "heir" Gemellus murdered. He lived the same aloof, indulgent lifestyle that Tiberius had, frequently forcing himself upon Senators' wives at dinner parties and then, upon returning to the table, discussing with their husbands the good and bad points of their performances. "I'll tell you, Valerius, she could probably suck a golf ball through a garden hose, but that was the worst reverse cowgirl I've ever experienced."
Caligula either made or attempted to make his horse Incitatus consul, showing even less regard for the Senate than his predecessor. He was also an ineffectual military commander, ordering his legions to conquer Britain and bring back the spoils of war. When they failed to proceed north from Gaul, he told them that their collective reward would be whatever seashells they could find scattered across the beach. Around this time, Caligula also began to fancy himself a god: he had a special tunnel built from his residence to the temple of Jupiter so that he could speak with his "brother" at any time. He once proclaimed "if you don't lift me up to Heaven, then I'll cast you down to Hell!" Caligula was also completely intolerant of anyone who did not worship him: in Judea, Jewish law prohibited such a thing and Caligula ordered the governor of the province to install a statue of himself on the altar of the Temple of Jerusalem. When his beloved sister Drusilla (with whom he had allegedly conducted a lifelong incestuous affair) died, he had her deified and forbade any Roman citizen from laughing, smiling, or dining with his or her parents or children for a period of about a month. In 41, he made repeated insinuations about a member of the Praetorian Guard having lost his genitals in combat and finally, the man became so frustrated that he simply killed the Emperor. What might have started as a lone act of anger erupted throughout the entire guard and both Caligula's wife Caesonia and their daughter Drusilla were murdered, the latter having her head slammed repeatedly against a wall.
This would become a recurring theme throughout the course of the Roman Empire, with both the Praetorians and the legions killing and then selecting the next Emperor. In this case, the Praetorians selected as Caligula's successor Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, later Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, usually just known as Claudius. Claudius was the brother of Caligula's father and the younger nephew of Tiberius. Because of his stuttering and certain minor physical abnormalities, Claudius had been marginalized his entire life by both the Julians and the Claudians. His own mother hated him and Tiberius never allowed him a place in government. Caligula despised him and kept him around for purposes of amusement. Beneath a somewhat inadequate exterior, however, Claudius was a scholar and a conscientious ruler. After nearly 30 years of bizarre and arbitray rule, Claudius wanted to get back to the basics of Roman leadership: he expanded the aqueduct system and decreed that the state would subsidize the bread supply for the city of Rome. He also sought to normalize relations with the Senate, choosing to work with them rather than against them. During his reign, the conquest of Britannia was completed, although this was very carefully managed by Claudius' military advisors. On the other hand, Claudius was famous for staging some of the most brutal gladiatorial combats Rome had ever witnessed and was completely dominated by the women in his life, none of whom were particularly savory characters. His first wife was the unattractive and unfaithful Urgulanilla, whom he divorced. His second wife was divorced for political reasons. His third wife, the flagrantly promiscuous Messalina, was executed because she was discovered to be complicit in a plot against Claudius' life. His fourth and final wife was his niece and the sister of Caligula, Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina had been previously married to a man named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and she was obsessed with having her son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, succeed Claudius. She seduced her uncle, who uncharacteristically forced the Senate and the Tribunal Assembly to accept and pass a law allowing uncles to marry their nieces. (It is reported that in all of Roman history, only one other person took advantage of this law besides Claudius.) Claudius had one son, Britannicus, whom he intended to succeed him. However, Agrippina eventually convinced Claudius to adopt Lucius, who in accordance with the Roman conventions of adoption, changed his name to Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, or simply Nero. Toward the end of his life, Claudius feared assassination by either Agrippina or her son and endeavoured to remove Nero from his will. Before he could do this, however, Agrippina fed her uncle-husband a meal of poisoned mushrooms, with the dish thereafter receiving the appelation "food for the gods."
End of the Road
In 54, Nero succeeded Claudius, but Agrippina was really the one calling the shots. She dominated the imperial court and made most of the decisions. Her image was featured on Roman currency, which was practically unheard of before that time. Nero resented his mother's constant interference in both the public and private realms of his life, telling him what to do with the Senate and who to marry. By 59, Nero had had enough and attempted to assassinate his mother by having a ceiling fall on top of her. When this laughably bad plan failed, he ordered that one of his barges be built with a collapsible deck, so Agrippina would fall through the middle of it and drown. Naturally, this didn't succeed either, and when Agrippina finally swam back to the manor, his guards bludgeoned her to death. Upon viewing her body, he is said to have remarked "I had no idea that I had such a beautiful mother!" After his mother's murder, Nero went on a rampage, indiscriminately proscribing whomever he disliked. Suetonius reports that on some occasions, he would disguise himself in a Gallic cloak and tunic and run through the streets of Rome with certain of his friends, beating and killing helpless passers-by.
Nero's true passion, however, was the arts. He held lavish theatrical spectacles and performed in many of them. He was apparently an adequate singer, but his performances dragged on for hours and hours, and nobody was allowed to leave them. Nero antagonized the Senate by executing its members for the slightest trace of disloyalty and by removing what little power they still held. Rome enjoyed many military successes under his leadership, however, and because of his pro-Hellenistic stances, was as beloved in the Eastern Empire as he was loathed in the West. One notable exception to this was the absolute antipathy that the Judeans felt for him as a result of his brutal suppression of their revolt in the late 60s. It is believed that Nero is the Beast of Revelation as his Greek name, Neron Kaisar, is transliterated in Hebrew as NRWN QSR, the numerical value of which adds up to 666. His lukewarm response to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 did not earn him any friends; as the ashes settled, he supposedly breathed a sigh of relief and said "now I can finally live!" as Nero had planned for some time to build a sumptuous palace in the area most badly affected by the blaze. At any rate, both the Senate and the military eventually tired of Nero's antics and in 68, declared him a public enemy. Realizing his time was running short, Nero committed suicide. His last words were said to have been "oh, what an artist the world is losing in me!"
The Julio-Claudian Dynasty ruled Rome uniterrupted from 27 BC to 68 AD. After Nero's death, Rome experienced one civil war after another, with the year 69 seeing no less than four Emperors. The ultimate victor, a low-born general named Titus Flavius Vespasianus, established the Flavian Dynasty which lasted from 69 to 96. The amazing thing about the Julio-Claudian Dynasty is how spectacular its complete implosion was. Augustus was the standard by which all subsequent Roman Emperors were measured, and I would say that none ever equaled his example. At the same time, however, Caligula and Nero are almost universally regarded as two of the worst and most tyrannical rulers that any society has ever had the misfortune to experience. The dangers of one-man rule are magnified greatly when combined with youth, inexperience, rage, horrid mood swings, mental illness, and apathy toward the welfare of one's people. Unfortunately for Rome, basically every other Imperial dynasty followed a similar pattern: the founder was regarded as a just and wise ruler, while his successors died violent deaths because of their eccentricities. Still, in terms of interesting stories, the tale of Julio-Claudians is pretty high on the list.
Roman Republic | Julio-Claudian Dynasty | Flavian Dynasty
Anthony Everitt, "Augustus."
Livy, "The Early History of Rome."
Suetonius, "The Twelve Caesars.
Tacitus, "The Annals."