HSC Ancient History Part 4: Historical Periods – Rome – The Julio-Claudians and the Roman Empire AD 14 – 69

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1. Non-Examinable Background


Generic Timeline of the Empire

753 BC – the founding of Rome by Romulus

Rome ruled by Monarchy

Circa 500 BC – Tarquin the Mad caused Romans to fear the possibility of being ruled by a single leader.

Republic rounded – Senate w/ 300 men

44 BC – Julius Caesar assassinated, civil war, Octavian takes over rule.

Circa 27 BC – arguably, the beginning of the Empire

14-69 AD – Julio Claudians

120 AD – High water mark for the empire w/ Hadrian ruling

Circa 330 AD – Constantine becomes Christian

476 AD – Rome Falls

Becomes the Byzantine empire until 1483

HSC Ancient History Roman Empire during Septimus reign

Government Structure

HSC Ancient History - Roman government structure

NB: The above diagram shows the ladder of political advancement (cursus honorum) during the late Republic.


  • 2 *consuls – chief magistrates who convened and presided over the Senate and assemblies, initiated and administered legislation, served as generals in military campaigns, and represented Rome in foreign affairs. Consuls could appoint and/or serve as *dictator for up to 6 months in times of emergency when the constitution was suspended. When their term of office was completed, consuls usually governed a province as *proconsul
  • 8 *praetors – served primarily as judges in law courts, but could convene the Senate and assemblies; they assumed administrative duties of consuls when these were absent from Rome. When their term of office was completed, praetors might govern a province as *propraetor.
  • 2 censors àelected every 5 years for terms of 1/2years; revised lists of senators and equestrians; conducted census of citizens and property assessments for tax purposes; granted state contracts.
  • 4 aedilesà supervised public places, public games, and the grain supply in the city of Rome; 2 were required to be plebeians, and the other two (who had more status) could come from either order; the latter 2 were called curule aediles.
  • 10 tribunesà had to be plebeian, because the office was established to protect the plebeians from arbitrary actions of magistrates. Hence the primary power of tribunes was negative; they could veto the act of any magistrate and stop any official act of administration. They were by law sacrosanct, meaning that anyone who attacked them physically could be immediately and summarily killed; they could convene the Senate and assemblies and initiate legislation.
  • 20 quaestorsà administered finances of state treasury and served in various capacities in the provinces; when elected quaestor, a man automatically became eligible for membership in the Senate, though censors had to appoint him to fill a vacancy


  • Composed of 600 magistrates and ex-magistrates (minimum qualification was election as quaestor) who served for life unless expelled by the censors
  • Normally met in a building called the Curia located in the Roman Forum.
  • Although technically an advisory body, in effect the Senate was the chief governmental body because it controlled public finances and foreign affairs, assigned military commands and provinces, and debated and passed decrees that would be submitted to the assemblies for final ratification
  • The Republican government was symbolized by the letters SPQR (senatus populusque Romanus), meaning “the Senate and the Roman people”


  • These were theoretically composed of all males who were full Roman citizens, though individuals had to attend in person in order to vote.
    • Assembly of the Curiae (comitia curiata): oldest assembly; by the late Republic had mostly ceremonial and clan functions.
    • Assembly of the Centuries (comitia centuriata): elected consuls, praetors, censors; declared war; served as court of appeal for citizens sentenced to death. The 193 centuries were determined by wealth, and the richest centuries were also the smallest, so individual votes in these counted more heavily (when a majority of the 193 votes was reached, voting was stopped, so some of the largest centuries rarely got to cast votes).
    • Assembly of the Tribes (comitia tributa): elected all other magistrates; voted yes or no on laws; the 35 tribes were originally determined geographically and then passed on by birth. A subgroup of this assembly, the Concilium Plebis, was open only to plebeians. This plebeian assembly elected the magistrates open only to plebeians (tribunes and plebeian aediles). After 287 BCE, the measures passed by the Concilium Plebis (plebiscita) had the force of laws binding on the whole state.

Roman Political Organisation Document

Under the emperors, Rome was administered by its two upper classes: the Senate, and the Equestrians (knights). Although the Senate was older and more distinguished, equestrians came to play an increasingly crucial role in the state.

The Senate

  • Unlike modern times, the Senate was not the upper house, it was the only house. There was no lower house, only the assembly.
  • Not directly elected; consisted of men who ad been once magistrates – elected by the assembly – (democratic element).
  • Once a Senator, a Senator for life – h/ever you can be thrown out by the censor
  • Traditionally, Romulus chose 100 senators from the heads of important families. Roman conservatism ensured this ancient body survived not only to the end of the Republic bat past The Empire itself. The Roman Senate was still debating in the 6th Century under the Ostrogoths.
  • Early Republic was 300 patres familias, joined by patricii to make a proud nobility of 1000 families.
  • From the 4th Century BC plebeian (new) nobles entered the Senate – intermarrying with the older nobility.
  • After a year as quaestor (lowest rank), Magistrates in the Republic entered the Senate.
  • The Senate’s formal powers – to preselect who could stand as magistrates, to approve measures before they went to the Assembly, to advise and consult – made it powerful enough, but this was eclipsed by its informal auctorias (prestige, authority).
  • The Senate expounded its views in a senatus consultum, the report of a debate. This had no legal authority, but magistrates normally accepted it.
  • A late development was the senatus consultum ultimum, a decree to end all debate.
  • The Senate guided the Republic effectively through the Punic and later wars.

The Senate and the Emperors

  • Augustus tried to restore the Senate’s dignity in running The Empire/
  • He held real power, but the Senate retained, and sometimes gained, important duties, including presiding over law courts and choosing governors for about a third of the provinces.
  • Senators also continued to be appointed legates – meaning they held power delegated from the emperor – as governors of “imperial” provinces such as Gaul and as generals of legions. By AD 100 almost half the Senate was composed of provincials – citizens born outside Italy and most consuls were not Italian born.

Senatorial Order

  • To become a senator was to attain the highest honours in the state, except that of emperor.
  • To win entry into the Senate, its members had to have a fortune in property (not cash) of one million sesterces. Many had far more.
  • In practice, Senate membership in the Principate was mainly hereditary. The son of a senator started his career at the age of 20 as a military tribune and could enter the Senate as a quaestor at the age of 25 if chosen by the princeps. He then worked his way up the cursus honorum until, if he was lucky, becoming consul at the age of 43. Under the empire, a consul did not

hold his office for a whole year but retired to let another fill the post. None of the offices carried a salary, but the governorship of a major province such as Africa did (one million sesterces a year), making it a coveted post.

  • Senators formed a class above normal Romans. They wore a special toga, which had a broad purple stripe, had the best seats at the theatre reserved for them and were often promised by a new emperor that their members would not be summarily arrested and executed. Until Diocletian, senatorial estates in Italy were free of tax, and even later senators retained many privileges, remaining immensely wealthy.

2. Development of the Principate

Impact of the death of Augustus

Augustus appears to have been preoccupied with the question of succession.

This was natural for a number of reasons:

  • The Roman nobility were concerned with the inheritance of political prestige. In order to maintain the good name of a family, sons were expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and equal or surpass their achievements.
  • Augustus had no natural son (only one daughter, Julia). He therefore needed to secure one through adoption if the prestige he had won was to be maintained by his family.
  • His recurring ill-health spurred him on in his arrangements to secure an heir. In 23 BC he was apparently close to death.
  • His extremely long life- despite his illnesses- meant that several of his chosen successors died before him.
  • The principate could not be inherited but there were those during Augustus’ lifetime who believed that some provision should be made for its transference when he died. There is evidence to suggest that Augustus found this difficult to reconcile with his insistence that the Roman state had not changed and with his belief that each leader should win power in open competition and according to merit; however, he remembered the disastrous rivalry that had occurred on the death of Julius Caesar, and he may have hoped that his authority would ensure the public succession of his private heir. Augustus used the device of associating members of his family with him in the tribunician power and taking them as colleagues through a grant of imperium in order to endorse them.

 Augustus’ Attempts to find a successor

Name Relationship to Augustus Political Promotion Outcome
Marcellus Nephew, married to Julia in 25 Permission to take all offices 10 years before the legal age, elected aedile at 18 Died 23 BC
Aggrippa Loyal friend, forced to marry the widowed Julia in 21 Granted proconsular imperium and powers if a tribune in 18BC for 5 years. Powers renewed in 13 BC Intended as regent for children adopted by Augustus in 17. Died 12 BC
Tiberius Stepson (elder son of Livia). Forced to divoce Vipsania and marry Julia, whom he hated, in 11 BC Permission to take office 5 years before the legal age in 24; praetorian rank in 19; given important Illrycum campaign. Received tribunican power for 5 years in 6 BC Intended as regent for Agrippa’s sons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar. Retired to Rhodes in 6 BC and AD 2.
Gaius and Lucius Caesar 



Grandsons of Augustus, adopted as his sons in 17 BC Entered public life, aged 15, in 5 and 2 BC respectively. Attended senate at 15, made priests and each proclaimed princeps iuventutis to be consuls at 20. Groomed as Augustus’ successors. Gaius: went to theeast in 1 BC; died

AD 4 in Lycia

Lucius: died AD 2




Tiberius Adopted as Augustus’ son in AD 4 (at the same time as for Augustus’ other grandson, Agrippa Postumus, who was exiled in AD 7) Received tribunician potestasten years, renewed in AD

13 for life.

Reluctantly accepted by

Augustus as possible successor.

Although having ason of his own, was

made to adopt

Germanicus, son of

his dead brother


Augustus always attempted to ensure the ultimate succession of someone with Julian blood, but was eventually forced to rely on Tiberius -a Claudian- as the only one with sufficient experience, since other members of the family were still too young. (The lineage of the Julian and Claudian families is described in chapter 21, ‘The Julio-Claudian dynasty’.) Germanic us, whom Tiberius was obliged to put ahead of his own son, although technically a Claudian had Julian blood and was married to Agrippina, the daughter of Julia and Agrippa.

It is generally thought that Augustus was not fond of Tiberius, although some of his correspondence seems to contradict this opinion. Suetonius believed:

  • “That Augustus weighed Tiberius’ good qualities against the bad, and decided that the good tipped the scale; he had publicly swom that his adoption of Tiberius was in the national interest, and had often referred to him as an outstanding general and the only one capable of defending Rome against her enemies” – Suetonius
  • On the other hand Tacitus, in his usual fashion of damning the principate and Tiberius, says:
  • “His appointment of Tiberius as his successor was due neither to personal affection nor to regard for the national interests. Thoroughly aware of Tiberius’ cruelty and arrogance , he intended to heighten his own glory by the contrast with one so inferior.” – Tacitus

Death of Augustus

  • Augustus died in August AD 14 – about a month short of his seventy-eighth birthday – and was given two eulogies, by Tiberius and his son Drusus. His body was carried by a group of senators to a funeral pyre on the Campus Martius, where it was burned; his ashes were placed in the family Mausoleum, built in 28 BC.
  • Four documents which had been entrusted to the Vestal Virgins for safekeeping were now handed over and read in the senate. According to Suetonius, they were his will (naming Tiberius and Livia as heirs to the major part of his estate), instructions regarding his funeral, a statement of the military and financial condition of the empire, and ‘a record of his reign which he wished to have engraved on bronze and posted to the entrance to the Mausoleum’- the Res Gestae.

An Evaluation of Augustus

  • It is very hard to get an accurate picture of Augustus, since the evidence is biased. There are the hostile republican accounts of his earlier career, the extravagant praise of his contemporary, Velleius Peterculus, the personal anecdotes and gossip of Suetonius and the sinister insinuations made by Tacitus. Added to these are his own forms of propaganda as expressed in the Res Gestae and his Forum Augustum.

Tacitus’ View of the Principate of Augustus

  • Tacitus, who attempts to outline the vices associated with one-man rule throughout his Annals, begins with the last years of the principate of Augustus; his attitude to it becomes very clear when he uses terms such as ‘a nation’s enslavement’ and ‘suppression of the old order’. After Augustus’ funeral ‘there was much discussion of Augustus himself … intelligent people praised or criticised him in varying terms’. Tacitus outlines the arguments for and against the principate, but gives twice as much space to those which are critical and allows the accusers to refute the Augustan supporters, but not vice versa.
Arguments in Favour Arguments against
  • Augustus was driven to civil war by filial duty and a national emergency.
  • He made many concessions to the other triumvirs.
  • “The only cure for the distracted country had been government by one man”- Tacitus because of Antony’s self-indulgence and Lepidus’ laziness.
  • He did not make himself dictator to restore order.
  • The frontiers of the empire were taken as far as natural boundaries.
  • Armies, fleets, and provinces were interrelated.
    “Roman citizens were protected by law”
  • Provincials were fairly treated.
  • Rome was beautified.
  • Force was spared to “preserve peace for the majority”
  • “Filial duty and national crisis were merely pretexts” His real motive “was lust for power”.
  • He raised an army “By bribery, pretended to support Sextus Pompeius” and usurped the rank of praetor.
  • He instigated the killing of at least one of the consuls Pansa and Hiritus and “took over both their armies”
  • He forced “the senate to make him consul”
  • He turned the army against the state.
  • “His judicial murders and land distributions were distasteful” to those who carried them out.
  • He cheated Sextus Pompeius and Lepidus.
  • Antony paid with his life for his friendship with Octavian.
    A bloodstained peace was followed by further disasters and assassinations.
    “He had abducted the wide of Tiberius Claudius Nero” while she was pregnant.
  • His friend, Vedius Polluo, was involved in debauchery.
  • “Livia was a real catastrophe to the nation, as a mother and to the Caesars as a stepmother”.
  • He “superseeded the worship of the gods” by having himself worshipped as a god by priests.
  • He appointed Tiberius as his successor because he hoped that his adopted son’s cruelty and arrogance “would heighten his own glory by the contrast with one so inferior”.

Changing role of the Princeps under the Julio Claudian Rulers: Tiberius

Tiberius’ Accession

Augustus’ hopes for a successor from among his direct descendants had been frustrated by the early deaths of his grandsons Lucius and Gaius Caesar. The favourite of his two stepsons, Drusus, had also died and so Tiberius Claudius Nero, the surviving stepson, had been adopted as Augustus’ son in AD 4. He took the name Tiberius Caesar Augustus, was granted civil and military authority and the powers of a tribune, and was ‘displayed to all the armies’. He had been a loyal and efficient deputy to Augustus before and after his adoption and had achieved great military and diplomatic successes along the northern frontiers and in the east.

Since Tiberius was Augustus’ designated successor, it was expected that on the death of his ‘father’ he would have his powers conferred on him by the senate, although they were entitled to choose someone else.

The consuls, followed by the commander of the Praetorian Guard, the senate, the knights and the people, swore allegiance to Tiberius, and the senate conferred the principate on him.

Despite the fact that he had the necessary experience and training to become princeps, Tiberius appeared to be genuinely reluctant to assume the position and “showed signs of hesitation when he addressed the senate” (Tacitus) Tacitus maintains that he was being hypocritical and was testing the attitude of the leading men. At no time does Tacitus consider that his motives were sincere.

There are a number of possible reasons for Tiberius’ hesitation in accepting the powers of princeps:

  1. As “There was no fixed or even generally recognised rule of succession within the imperial family” (Tacitus) Tiberius may have wanted to give the senate the freedom to set a precedent for transferring power in the future. As Tacitus says, Tiberius wanted to appear to have been chosen and called by the state, not to have “wormed his way in by an old man’s adoption, and intriges of the old man’s wife” (B. H. Warmington)
  2. T. Salmon says: “It may be that in this as in so much else, he was simply following Augustus’ example; the scene in AD 14 is strikingly reminiscent of the scene in 2 7 BC” (E. T. Salmon)
  3. Tiberius was fifty-five when Augustus died, and he already knew “what hard hazardous work it was to rule the empire” (Tacitus) Not only was he not a Julian, but he was reserved by nature and may have doubted his ability to handle the senate with the same tact as Augustus. Once before he had retired from public life (to Rhodes for seven years) as a protest.

Tiberius eventually accepted the powers of the princeps, “exhausted by the general outcry and individual entreaties” (Suetonius) of the senators. According to Suetonius, even when he finally accepted the position he hinted that he might resign at a later date: “… until I grow so old that you may be good enough to grant me a respite” (Suetonius)

The first incidents of Tiberius’ reign

The murder of Agrippa Postumus

Tacitus maintained that “the new reign’s first crime was the assassination of  Agrippa Postumus” (Tacitus), who was the grandson of Augustus and the youngest child of Julia and Agrippa. He had been adopted by Augustus as his son at the same time as Tiberi us (AD 4) because at that time the princeps still hoped that a member of the Julian clan would succeed him.

However, in AD 7 Augustus had been forced by his vulgar and brutal behaviour to banish him to a prison island, where he remained until the death of the princeps. He was murdered by the staff officer who guarded him, supposedly on written instructions from Tiberius. According to Suetonius, “Tiberius revealed Augustus’ death only after getting rid of young Agrippa Postumus” (Suetonius)

The mutinies on the frontiers

Troops use change of emperor to protest:

  • Immediately after Tiberius’ accession two serious mutinies occurred among the troops in Pannonia (on the Danube) and in Lower Germany (on the Rhine). Although these outbreaks were not personal protests against Tiberius, a change of emperor gave the troops the opportunity to show their dissatisfaction with existing conditions in the army and their concern about future terms of service.
  • Tacitus maintains, however, that there were those among the troops in Germany who hoped that their supreme commander, Germanicus (Tiberius’ nephew and adopted son), would “put himself at the disposal of the forces” (Tacitus) and allow himself to be declared emperor.

Grievances of the troops: Problems among troops in Germany and Pannonia

Tacitus outlines the grievances of the Pannonian troops and adds that the regular brigades in Lower Germany mutinied “for all the same reasons”. (Tacitus)

Length of service:

  • The usual term of service (twenty years) was often prolonged, so that “old men, mutilated by wounds’ were ‘serving their thirtieth or fortieth year” (FIND), and even after discharge many soldiers were kept on as reserves.


  • The pay of two and a half sesterces a day, or approximately 900 sesterces a year (225 denarii), was not considered enough by the soldiers since about two-thirds of it was deducted for clothes, weapons and equipment. They also complained about “the high cost of exemptions from duty” (Tacitus)


  • They complained about the savagery of the company commanders, the floggings, the drudgery of service, the severe winters, and being “dragged off to some remote country and “settled” in some waterlogged swamp or untilled mountainside” (Tacitus) It has been suggested that the subordination was partly due to the numbers of ex-slaves who had been recruited into the army in AD 6-9, after the Pannonian revolt and the Varian disaster.

The progress of the mutinies



According to Tacitus, the members of the regular army in Pannonia under the command of Q. Junius Blaesus were encouraged to mutiny by a private soldier, Percennius, who had been a professional applause-leader in the theatre and knew how to excite crowds. He urged them to demand payment of four sesterces a day, a sixteen-year term of service and a cash payment on retirement.

The emperor’s son, Drusus, sent to handle the crisis:

The commander, Blaesus, appealed to them to refrain from using violent and insubordinate measures to get what they wanted from the new emperor but rather to send delegates to request the sixteen-year term. When Blaesus’ own son was sent to Rome, the troops became more peaceful. However, a detachment of troops who had been building roads and bridges heard of the mutiny in the camp and rioted, looting the nearby villages and abusing their company commanders. When they returned to camp, the mutiny broke out anew and quickly gained momentum; new leaders inflamed the troops, who killed a number of senior officers.

Drusus plays on superstitions of the soldiers:

Tiberius sent his son, Drusus, to Pannonia, with two battalions of the Praetorian Guard plus the pick of his own German bodyguard. Accompanying Drusus and acting as his adviser was L. Aelius Sejanus, joint commander of the Guard. Tiberius gave Drusus no firm instructions, but directed him “to act as the circumstances required” (FIND)

Drusus addressed the mutineers and read to them a letter from Tiberius, who referred to them as his comrades and promised them that as soon as he was over the shock of Augustus’ death he would put their claims to the senate. In the meantime, Drusus was to grant them any concession that could be awarded without the necessity of senatorial debate. When the soldiers’ spokesman put forward their demands, Drusus reminded them that ‘the senate and the Emperor must have their say’. 25 The hostility of the men could have resulted in a further outbreak of rioting had it not been for an unexpected eclipse of the moon and Drusus’ clever handling of the situation. He played on their superstitions and fears that the waning moon was an omen indicating that their crimes would bring endless hardships. He had trusted officers suggest to the men that it was unwise to

treat the emperor’s son with hostility, and that their behaviour would not

gain them their reforms.

Mutiny quelled:

The following day Drusus addressed the men again, and although not a ‘practised orator, he spoke with natural dignity’. 26 He criticised their previous behaviour, but promised them a fair and merciful hearing from his father if discipline was restored. They pleaded for his pardon, and a delegation was sent to Tiberius. However, Drusus thought it necessary to execute the leaders of the mutiny while superstition still had a hold on the men.

Lower Germany:

Germanicus supreme commander of Rhine armies:

Supreme command of the legions of Upper and Lower Germany was in the hands of Germanicus, who at the time of the death of Augustus and the mutiny of the army of Lower Germany was making property assessments in Gaul. A. Caecina Severus, general of the mutinous troops, was unable to handle the situation as the frenzied men attacked and killed their company commanders.

More serious threat:

This mutiny was far more serious than the outbreak in Pannonia, since the umbers involved were greater and there was the possibility of the revolt spreading to the troops of Upper Germany and the Rhine frontier being abandoned, leaving Roman territory open to invasion.

Germanicus’ dramatic response to troops’ demands:

When Germanicus arrived at the camp, the mutinous troops ‘assailed him with all manner of complaints’27 and demanded that he end ‘this crushing service’ and pay them the legacies left by Augustus. They also added that if he wanted the throne, they would support him. His theatrical response to the latter suggestion included pulling a sword from his belt and lifting it as if to stab himself in the chest,  “shouting that death was better than disloyalty”. 28

Hasty Concessions Granted

Although Tacitus attempts to depict Germanicus’ handling of the mutiny in a very favourable light by playing down the negative aspects and devoting much more space to him than to Drusus, he cannot hide the fact that Germanicus did not show any evidence of great leadership in this situation. Germanicus decided to make some concessions in the name of the emperor, but they ‘were hastily improvised’, 29 and when a senatorial delegation arrived from Rome the men were afraid that the concessions ‘which they had won by mutinous methods would be cancelled by the senatorial delegation’. 30 The troops abused the members of the delegation, particularly the high-ranking Plancus, whom they planned to kill. Although Germanicus quelled the riot, Tacitus admits that he was criticised for failing to call in the loyal troops from Upper Germany instead of instigating ‘releases and payments and mild measures’. 31

Criticisms of Germanicus’ handling of the mutiny:

There was also general criticism of Germanicus for endangering the life of his pregnant wife, Agrippina, and his young son Gaius (Caligula ‘little boots’) by keeping them in the camp during the mutiny. Agrippina accompanied him on military campaigns as the model wife and also as a representative of the Julian family. Tacitus depicts her as the equal of her husband when she refused to leave the camp, reminding Germanicus ‘that she was of the blood of the divine Augustus and would live up to it, whatever the danger’. (Tacitus)

Tacitus’ description of Germanicus’ tearful farewell to his family; the men’s shame at what was happening; Germanicus’ outbursts against them and his invoking of the spirit of Augustus to ‘wash clean this stain’ (Tacitus) their petition for mercy, and his failure to intervene in the butchering of the ringleaders, gives the reader the  impression of rather weak leadership and undignified behaviour.

On the other hand, Germanicus had shown his loyalty to Tiberius who ‘was glad the mutiny had been put down. But he was not pleased that Germanicus had courted the army’s goodwill by money payments and accelerated discharges’. (FIND) According to Tacitus, Tiberius granted the troops in Pannonia the same concessions as those awarded to the troops in Germany.

Tacitus Justified His Actions:

The emperor, also according to Tacitus, had been criticised for endangering the state by sending ‘two half-grown boys’ (Tacitus) to control the mutinies instead of going himself. However, Tiberius felt it would be more dangerous for him to leave the capital at this stage and that it was important to ‘keep intact his imperial dignity’ (Tacitus) by dealing through his sons. It allowed Germanicus and Drusus to refer some of the points in question to him: if there were any reactions against them, he would be responsible for making the final decisions. This would be preferable to the emperor appearing at the camps and being treated contemptuously by the mutineers.

Tiberius’ Relationship with Germanicus

Germanicus, the son of Tiberius’ popular brother, Drusus (who had died in 9 BC), was adopted by Tiberius on the instigation of Augustus, even though Tiberius had a natural son of his own called Drusus.

Germanicus in the sources:

The sources paint a glowing but not altogether accurate picture of Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina. According to Suetonius, ‘Germanicus is everywhere described as having been of outstanding physical and moral excellence’. (Tacitus) Tacitus maintains that had he lived ‘he would have equalled Alexander [the Great] in military renown as easily as he outdid him in clemency, self-control and every other good quality’. (Tacitus) Also in Tacitus’ Annals, Agrippina emerges as the most admirable and striking of the imperial women.

There is no doubt that Germanicus was immensely popular with the Roman people and the army, was a loyal and competent commander and was a good diplomat. His popularity was probably due to his family lineage-he was partly Julian, and his wife was the granddaughter of Augustus. However, Tacitus’ excessive praise of Germanicus is not substantiated by a careful reading of the Annals. There is no evidence that he was a brilliant military ommander of the calibre of Alexander, and his actions while in the east show a certain amount of irresponsibility and arrogance. Tacitus’ motive is describing him in such a favourable light was to blacken the character of Tiberius by contrast.

Germanicus’ campaigns across the Rhine:

Once Germanicus had quelled the mutiny among the troops of Lower Germany, he embarked on a number of campaigns across the Rhine without the authority of Tiberius. His aim was probably twofold. Tacitus indicates that it was to restore discipline in the army, as ‘there was still a savage feeling among the troops- and a desire to make up for their lunacy by attacking the enemy’. (Tacitus) A second motive was possibly the desire to emulate and complete the work of his father, Drusus, by conquering and extending the border to the Elbe River, even though this was against the policy dictated by Augustus and followed closely by Tiberius.

Three campaigns – minor successes, substantial losses:

His three successive German campaigns in the years 14 to 16 were not major successes and were costly in manpower and supplies. His first foray across the Rhine was against the Marsi, who had been celebrating a festival and were still in a state of ‘uncontrolled drunken prostration’. (Tacitus) The helpless and unsuspecting Germans were slaughtered, and no compassion was shown by reason of age or sex.

In the following year, after preliminary successes against the Chatti, Germanicus aimed to avenge the disaster suffered by Varus six years before. He advanced against the Cherusci and their formidable leader, Arminius, gaining some territory, and then buried the remains of the three Roman legions destroyed in the Teutoberg Forest in AD 9, ‘laying  the first turf of the funeral mound as a heartfelt tribute’ (Tacitus) However, Arminius almost caught Germanicus and his men in a trap similar to the one that defeated Varus. The battle which resulted was indecisive, Arminius and his Germans were far from subdued and Germanicus had made only temporary gains. In AD 16 he campaigned once again, having constructed a huge fleet to transport his troops by sea and river into Arminius’ territory. In two battles he had only minor successes, and in withdrawing he suffered serious losses of men, ships and supplies in stormy seas.

Recalled to Rome by Tiberius:

Germanicus believed that one more campaigning season would end the war with the Germans. However, Tiberius (who had given him a certain amount of leeway, since he was his heir and popular with the army) instructed him to return to Rome. Tacitus attributes motives of jealousy to Tiberius, but the wars had been costly and provocative. More important, from the point of view of Tiberius, the activities of Germanicus contravened the policy of Augustus to maintain a strong frontier on the Rhine. Tiberius also preferred diplomacy to force, and he pointed out to Germanicus in a letter that in the nine times he had been sent into Germany by Augustus, he had ‘achieved less by force than by diplomacy’. (Tacitus)

Diplomatic mission to the east:

On his return to Rome, Germanicus was offered a second consulship with Tiberius as his colleague- and a diplomatic mission to the east to install a pro-Roman on the throne of Armenia. Tacitus maintains that Tiberius was attempting to find an honourable way to eliminate Germanicus, but Tiberius would have been aware of the need for the heir apparent to familiarise himself with the eastern situation, particularly with regard to

Parthia. After all, Tiberius had been sent there himself by Augustus.

Appointment of Piso to Syria:

Although Tiberius wished to use Germanicus’ diplomatic skills, he was aware that his adopted son was anxious to seek personal glory. He therefore arranged for Calpurnius Piso to take over the province of Syria in order to assist and keep an eye on Germanicus even though the emperor’s son had maius imperium (control over all governors and commanders) in the east.

Germanicus’ breaches of protocol:

Germanicus successfully carried out his task with regard to Armenia and negotiated with the Parthians, but during his ‘tour’ of the east he breached protocol on a number of occasions and it seems that Tiberius may have had some justification in sending Piso as a ‘watchdog’. Germanicus’ most serious mistake was in flouting the imperial edict regarding Egypt: no senator was permitted to enter Egypt without the emperor’s personal approval. Germanicus went there to look at the antiquities, walking ‘about without guards, in sandalled feet and Greek clothes imitating Scipio African us .. . ‘. (Tacitus) He committed another breach of protocol by releasing grains from the public granaries without Tiberius’ assent, thereby lowering the price of com, and he had his image cast on silver coins. Whether his behaviour was simply impulsive or was the result of arrogance is not certain, but he does appear to have been seeking personal advancement. ‘Tiberius criticised Germanicus mildly for his clothes and deportment, but reprimanded him severely for infringing a ruling of Augustus by entering Alexandria without the Emperor’s permission.’ (Tacitus)

Hostility between Piso and Gerrnanicus:

Unfortunately, Tiberius had shown lack of judgment in his selection of Piso, who chose to interpret his task to check on Germanicus and report back to Tiberius as the right to cancel or reverse Germanicus’ instructions. He also refused to provide Germanicus with troops. The relationship between the two men deteriorated and was not helped by the animosity of their respective wives, Agrippina and Plancina.

Death of Gerrnanicus:

When Germanicus ordered Piso out of the province, Piso retaliated by attempting to stir up the Syrian troops against Germanicus. Not long after Piso’s departure from his province, Germanicus became ill, and died. Tacitus records that on his deathbed Germanic us accused Piso and Plancina of poisoning him, and warned Agrippina ‘to forget her pride,

submit to cruel fortune, and, back in Rome, to avoid provoking those stronger than herself by competing for their power’. (Tacitus) Privately, he warned her of the danger from Tiberius.

At Germanicus’ funeral in Antioch there were many words spoken about his fine character. It is here that Tacitus compares Germanicus favourably with Alexander the Great.

Piso re-enters Syria and Agrippina’s accusations:

On the death of Germanicus PisD had been superseded in his province, but he attempted to re-establish control of Syria by force. When he failed he sailed for Italy, preceded by Agrippina, who accused him and Plancina of murdering her husband on the instructions of Tiberius. Tacitus says that she had returned quickly to Rome with Germanicus’ ashes, ‘impatient of anything that postponed revenge’. (Tacitus)

Gerrnanicus’ popularity:

Germanicus’ great popularity throughout the empire is obvious from the honours bestowed on him postumously and the triumphal arches, statues and flattering inscriptions set up in Rome, Syria and along the Rhine. Tiberius incurred the hostility of many by his failure to appear at the funeral ceremonies held in Rome, and by his call for moderation in mourning.

No evidence of murder by Piso:

There is no evidence for believing that either Piso or Tiberius had anything to do with Germanicus’ death, and Tacitus admits that it was ‘uncertain if the body showed signs of poisoning’. 4 7 However, any investigation into the affair was certain to cause problems for Tiberius. ‘He anticipated malevolence among senators and others’, 48 so referred the case to the senate and requested that they ‘offer the accused every opportunity of producing evidence which may establish his innocence or Germanicus’ unfairness, if there was any’.49 He also asked them not to take into account his own grief or the slanders invented against him.

Piso ‘s trial and death:

Piso was aquitted on the charge of poisoning Germanicus, but in anticipation of his condemnation for misconduct in his province, he committed suicide.

Hostility of Agrippina towards Tiberius:

Agrippina continued to believe that Tiberius had been responsible in some way for her husband’s death and was openly hostile towards him for the next nine years. She ignored Germanicus’ warning not to provoke those in power, and worked for the succession of her sons by building up a ‘party’ of supporters.

Tacitus portrays Germanicus as a brilliant and virtuous hero whose early death deprived the Roman world of a genius of the stature of Alexander. However, although in doing so he was reflecting the popular legend that had grown up about Germanicus in his own day, he used the ‘noble’ Germanicus as a contrast to the suspicious, hypocritical, deceptive ‘arch tyrant’, Tiberius.

The influence of Sejanus on Tiberius:

Tiberius’ trusted adviser:

After the death of Germanicus, Tiberius planned to promote his own son, Drusus, to secure the succession for him. In 21 Drusus became consul for the second time, and in the following year he was granted the tribunician authority. This not only embittered the faction loyal to Germanicus, but did not suit the plans of the capable prefect of the Praetorian Guard, L. Aelius Sejanus, who had become Tiberius’ trusted adviser.

Sejanus had been joint commander of the Guard with his father, and had served Augustus; he had accompanied Drusus to Pannonia during the revolts of AD 14, and from AD 17 he was sole prefect of the Guard. According to Tacitus he was the only one to whom Tiberius could speak ‘freely and unguardedly’, 50 and Tiberi us referred to him as ‘the partner of my labours’. 51

Sejanus’ ambition:

However, Sejanus ‘concealed behind a carefully modest exterior an unbounded lust for power’, 52 and he had already taken some steps to realise his ambitions. In 23, he concentrated the normally scattered battalions of the Praetorian Guard into one camp just outside Rome on the pretext that this arrangement would minimise discipline problems and be more effective in an emergency. His real reasons were to increase the Guard’s power and to intimidate the citizens.

Since Drusus suspected Sejanus’ designs and resented his influence over his father, he had to be removed. However, to do this would not ensure Sejanus’ rise to power, as there was ‘a well-stocked imperial house’, (Tacitus) including grown-up grandchildren.

Seduction of Livilla and death of Drusus:

Sejanus planned to remove these individuals at intervals. It appears that Livilla, Drusus’ unprincipled wife, was seduced by Sejanus and promised marriage and the throne if she poisoned her husband. Drusus died suddenly in 23, and Tiberius never really recovered from his grief at this death. According to Tacitus this was a turning point in the reign of

Tiberius, as he became more morose and came to depend on Sejanus to an even greater extent.

Court intrigue:

Sejanus was now at the centre of court intrigue since the imperial widows, Livia, Livilla and Agrippina, were jealous of each other, each constantly planning to undermine the others. Livia sided with Livilla against the bitter and outspoken Agrippina, who did not hide her hatred for Tiberius, whom she blamed for Germanicus’ death. Agrippina also attempted to advance the interests of her children, Nero and Drusus Caesar.

Sejanus’ plans for Agrippina:

When it became apparent that these great-grandchildren of Augustus were in line to succeed Tiberius, Sejanus planned to undermine the influence of their mother by playing off Livia and Livilla against her. ‘These ladies were to notify Tiberius that Agrippina, proud of her large family and relying on her popularity, had designs on the throne.’ (Tacitus)

Agrippina’ s ‘party':

Tired of Agrippina’s outspokenness and urged on by Sejanus, Tiberius was determined to crush Agrippina’s ‘party’ and there were many charges brought by the delatores (informers) against her friends and supporters.

Tiberius refuses to give Livilla in marriage to Sejanus:

Tacitus says that Sejanus, under pressure from Livilla, now applied to Tiberius for permission to marry her, but Tiberius was not in favour of this proposal. He believed that such a marriage would intensify Agrippina’s ill feeling and would split the imperial house in two, since the two widows were already rivals and his grandsons were tom between them. He also pointed out that it would create jealousy among the more distinguished men in the senate. However, he later allowed Sejanus to become betrothed to Livilla’s daughter.

Tiberius’ retirement to Capri:

Tiberius now made a serious mistake. Weary of the plotting factions and the hostility at court, he retired to the island of Capri. Tacitus says that this was done on the urging of Sejanus, who ‘foresaw many advantages in this. He himself would control access to the Emperor-as well as most of his correspondence, since it would be transmitted by the Guardsmen’ and he felt that the ageing monarch ‘would soon be readier to delegate governmental functions’. (Tacitus) He therefore encouraged the emperor to leave the capital. There is no evidence of truth in Tacitus’ other suggestions that Tiberius may have retired there to satisfy his perversions, or to escape the bullying of his mother or the hard day-to-day administration of the empire. In fact, his government from Capri was as efficient as ever, although his removal from Rome did allow Sejanus a free rein with his intrigues.

Emperor’s life saved by Sejanus:

An incident which further increased Sejanus’ power over Tiberius occurred at this time: Tiberius, Sejanus and a number of servants were dining in a natural cavern when a rock-fall threatened the emperor’s life and, it is said, Sejanus protected Tiberius from the falling boulders. From that time, ‘Tiberius believed him disinterested and listened trustingly to his advice, however disastrous’. (Tacitus)

Death of Livia guaranteed the ruin of Agrippina:

It was now a time of great tension for the members of the senate and for anybody with links with the family of Germanicus. Sejanus played Agrippina’s sons off against each other; he encouraged the ambition and jealousy of Drusus Caesar against his elder brother, Nero Caesar. However, it was not until the death of Livia (the Augusta) in 29 that Tiberius and Sejanus were able to remove Agrippina. According to Tacitus, ‘While the Augusta had lived there was still a moderating influence, for Tiberius had retained a deep-seated deference for his mother. Sejanus, too, had not ventured to outbid her parental authority’. (Tacitus) Soon after Livia’s death, Tiberius sent a letter to the senate charging Agrippina with insubordinate language and disobedient spirit’ and Nero with ‘homosexual indecency’, 58 and they were banished to barren islands. Drusus Caesar was imprisoned in Rome. Nero is believed to have been driven to suicide; Drusus was apparently executed in 33, the year of Agrippina’s death.
Sejanus’ ambitions revealed to Tiberius:

The position of Sejanus now appeared secure. He had control of the Praetorian Guard and the senate, was engaged to the granddaughter of Tiberius, was granted proconsular imperium and was honoured with statues and Games. However, when it became apparent that Tiberius was promoting Gaius, the youngest son of Agrippina, Sejanus plotted to kill him. Tiberius was warned by Antonia (mother of Germanicus) and carefully arranged Sejanus’ downfall, although he continued to make promises of further honours to the unsuspecting prefect. Naevius Sutorius Macro, the Prefect of the Vigiles, was sent to Rome to take command of the Praetorian Guard, and a letter from Tiberius was read in the senate denouncing Sejanus as a traitor.

Sejanus’ arrest and death:

He was arrested, taken to prison and executed immediately, and for over a year the supporters of Sejanus were prosecuted.

Executions increased in number:

When Sejanus’ ex-wife informed Tiberius that Livilla and Sejanus had been responsible for his son’s death, Tiberius became even more embittered and suspicious, taking a much harsher attitude to accusations of treason. It is this period which Tacitus refers to as the Reign of Terror. Although his account is undoubtedly exaggerated, some innocent people did lose their lives as a result of the increasing accusations made by the despicable delatores.

Tiberius, who remained at Capri until his death in AD 3 7 at the age of seventy-eight, continued to administer the empire through dispatches but often hesitated in making important decisions, and the senate became even more dependent on him.

Tiberius and the Senate

Need for Senatorial Support

If Augustus’ principate was to continue to appear legitimate, it was necessary for Tiberius to rule with the full co-operation of the senate. R. Syme maintains that he was genuine when he professed, at the beginning of his reign, his intention to govern as a true princeps. Tiberius needed the senate’s help. Running the empire was an enormous task; it was not until the time of Claudius that a centralised bureaucracy handled most of the business of empire. Also, Tiberius preferred to have an independent body helping him, since he appears to have been genuinely hesitant about the responsibility.

Tiberius’ attempts at co-ruling the Senate

Guarenteed Traditional Rights

Like Augustus, Tiberius attempted to uphold the traditional rights of the senate as well as treat it with dignity and as a partner in running the empire. Even Tacitus admits that this was the case before the death of Drusus in 23 .

“In the first place public business-and the most important private business was transacted in the senate. Among its chief men, there was freedom of discussion; their lapses into servility were arrested by the emperor himself. His conferments of office took into consideration birth, military distinction, and

civilian eminence, and the choice manifestly fell on the worthiest men. The consuls and praetors maintained their prestige. The lesser offices, too, each exercised their proper authority. Moreover, the treason court excepted, the laws were duly enforced.” (Tacitus)

Consulted the Senate

Tiberius genuinely sought its aid, sometimes on matters which were not its concern.

“. .. asking for advice in every matter that concerned the national revenue, the allocation of monopolies, and the construction or repair of public buildings.  He actually consulted them about the drafting or disbanding of troops, the stationing of legions and auxiliaries, the extension of military commands, the choice of generals to conduct particular campaigns and how to answer particular letters from foreign potentates.” (Suetonius)

Showed respect to Consuls

He showed courtesy and respect when addressing not only individual senators but the House as a whole, and stood in the presence of the consuls. “Tiberius made a habit of always allowing the consuls the initiative, as though the Republic still existed.” (Tacitus)

Avoided giving offence

Any titles which the nobility might find offensive, such as ‘imperator’ and ‘father of his country’, he avoided; he refused to have a month called after him or any temples constructed in his honour, and he discouraged flattery.

“He vetoed all bills for the dedication of temples and priests to his divinity, and reserved the right to sanction even the setting up of his statues and busts …

. . . Such was his hatred of flatterers that he refused to let senators approach his litter, whether in greeting or on business; … [and] if anyone, either in conversation or a speech, spoke of him in too fulsome terms, Tiberius would interrupt and sternly correct the phrase.” (Suetonius)

Widened range of duties

He enlarged and developed some of the senate’s duties. Under him the senate became practically the only legislative body after AD 14, as he transferred the election of magistrates to it from the people’s assembly. Although he followed Augustus’ example of commending candidates for election, he did it on a smaller scale and competition in the senate for official positions became a real contest, without the opportunity for electoral bribery that had occurred in the assembly. Tiberius never overrode the normal electoral system.

Increased Responsibilities

Under Tiberius the senate became the chief criminal court, particularly for treason trials. In theory it retained wide powers over the provinces and the State Treasury, and had increased administrative duties.

Supported Worthy Men

He was anxious to retain worthy men in the senate, and if any had fallen on hard times he was inclined to help them financially as in the case of Celer, to whom he awarded one million sesterces. He would not, however, assist those senators whose poverty was due to their own extravagance. He objected strongly when a young nobleman, Marcus Hortensius, who had been given one million sesterces by Augustus to marry and have a family, asked for assistance from the floor of the senate.

“If every poor man is to come here … and start requesting money for his children, the applicants will never be satisfied and the nation’s finances will collapse. When our ancestors authorised senators to digress sometimes from their subject-matter and raise matters of public importance when it was their turn to speak, this was not to enable us to promote our own private interests and personal finances.” (Tacitus)

When this speech was received with silence, Tiberius announced that he would give each of Hortensius’ children 200 000 sesterces.

Encouraged participation in decision making

Tiberius invited the senate to discuss provincial petitions from delegations of Ephesians and  Magnesians, and from many other cities. Tacitus points out, however, that “the extensive material and local rivalries proved wearisome” (Tacitus), and the senate asked the consuls to carry out investigations for them and then report back. Tiberius also sent a letter to  the senators “blaming them (by implication) for referring all their difficulties to him”; he was referring to their indecision about the choice of a governor for the province of Africa. They had requested Tiberius to make the choice; when he suggested two names, Lepidus and Blaesus, the senate (according to Tacitus) chose Blaesus, since he was Sejanus’ uncle.

Encouraged Independence

He encouraged the senate to be independent, and on a few occasions it did overrule him. Suetonius says that “If decrees were passed in defiance of his wishes, he abstained from complaint”, and once, when a motion was being voted on, “he went into a minority lobby and not a soul followed Him”. (Suetonius)

Complained of servility and subservience

However, generally the senators were subservient. Tacitus had complained that in Augustus’ reign “opposition did not exist” and that the senate was filled with men “who found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed politically … “.  This servility increased under Tiberius, and according to Tacitus “all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals”. Tiberius complained each time he left the Senate House that the senators were “men fit to be slaves” (Tacitus). Syme maintains that Tiberius was thirty years out of touch in his expectations of an independent senate, “for he had seldom seen the senate since his praetorship in 16 BC, and ‘forgot (or tried to forget) how far that body had been corrupted and debased by Caesar Augustus”.

Reasons for the Senate’s increasing subservience:

  • Tiberius’ character appeared threatening:

It is possible that in the earlier part of his reign Tiberius’ reserved temperament and hesitant attitude unnerved the senators, who never really knew what he was thinking; Tacitus refers often to the cryptic way in which Tiberius spoke. Senators apparently preferred not to take chances by speaking their minds. In fact, Tiberius generally respected those who spoke openly and frankly but was unable to impart this to the senate, because of his manner.

  • Free speech/treason:

Because there was no clear definition of the crime of treason, the distinction between free speech and treason was unclear. Senators were not prepared to take up contentious issues. As treason trials appeared to become more frequent, sycophancy increased.

  • Fear of Sejanus:

Senators feared the power wielded by Sejanus as commander of the Praetorian Guard, and his influence over Tiberius.

Individuals showed some independence

When Tiberius retired to Capri, Sejanus interfered in public business, influencing the decisions of both Tiberius and the senate. He also began a series of prosecutions of senators who had shown any friendship to the family of Germanicus.

Excessive Flattery

Senators, afraid for their own safety, “sought relief in flattery . Though assembled to consider some unrelated business, they voted the erection of altars to Mercy and Friendship- the latter to be flanked by statues of Tiberius and Sejanus.” (Tacitus)

The once proud senators also begged that Tiberius or Sejanus make an appearance in Rome, but when neither did senators and knights flocked to Campania, “anxiously regarding Sejanus” (Tacitus).  They waited for days for an interview, but were denied access to him and returned to Rome.

After the downfall of Sejanus Tiberius did not return to Rome, but continued to rule the empire from Capri. His early hopes of sharing the work with the senate had been disappointed, and he became increasingly impatient with its lack of independence.

There had been some individual cases of independent behaviour in the senate, such as that of the distinguished lawyer, Marcus Antistius Labeo.

However, “Labeo’s incorruptible independence” won him no imperial favours, and in fact his political career suffered as a result- “Labeo stopped short at the praetorship”.  Another senator who was not afraid to say what he believed in front of Tiberius was Aulua Cremutius Cordus, who was accused of praising Brutus in his History and of referring to Cassius as the “last of the Romans”. He defended himself bravely, pointing out that Julius Caesar and Augustus did not condemn other writers for their words but “endured them and let them be”(Tacitus). However, when he had concluded his defence and left the senate, he committed suicide. Tacitus suggests that this was because condemnation appeared certain, since the prosecutors were dependants of Sejanus and Tiberius’ face was grim as he listened to the defence. By subsequently ordering Cremutius’ books to be burnt, the senate once again showed the depths to which it had sunk.

Treason (maiestas trials)

Treason trials form a sinister part of Tacitus’ account of the reign of Tiberius, his purpose being to show the gradual degeneration of the reign into tyranny.

The Law of Treason

Treason was one of the earliest crimes subject to Roman law, but the definition of the crime of treason (maiestas) was never precise. For instance, Cicero believed that it was an attack on the dignity, greatness or power of the people or of those to whom the people had given power.

Definition of treason

Tacitus defined it as “official misconduct damaging the Roman state, such as betrayal of an army or incitement to sedition”(Tacitus).  Augustus redefined the law, and it came to be interpreted as any offence or insult offered to the princeps in deed, writing or speech. However, Augustus was hesitant about invoking the law.

Tiberius’ respect for the laws

When in AD 15 Tiberius was asked by a praetor, Q. Pompeius Macer, “whether cases under the treason law were to receive attention”, he replied that “the laws must take their course” (Tacitus). Since no precedent had been set by Augustus, the cases which came before the senate in the time of Tiberius tended to be test cases.


Position of delatores in Roman society

Rome had no public prosecutor; information was brought to the authorities, the senate and emperor. by private individuals. If a charge of treason brought by these informers (delatores) was upheld, they were awarded at least one-quarter of the property confiscated from the guilty person. The remaining three-quarters went into the treasury. This encouraged the growing ‘class’ of delatores to lie, bribe and manufacture evidence in order to secure the conviction of wealthy men. It also enabled ambitious Romans to eliminate their rivals. “It was an odious system, destructive of the very fabric of society.” (Dudley)

Types of delatores

Some delatores were like Romanius Hispo, who in AD 15 brought charges against M. Granius Marcellus, governor of Bithynia. He was “needy, obscure and restless”, and set a precedent “which enabled imitators to exchange beggary for wealth” Tacitus). Many were senators, such as Bruttedius Niger, whom Tacitus described as “a highly cultured man who, if he had gone straight, would have attained great eminence. But impatience spurred him to outstrip first his equals, then his superiors- and finally his own former ambitions.”

Example of methods used by delatores

Four ex-praetors, ambitious for the consulship, planned the downfall of Titius Sabinus, a respectable man whose only crime was that he was a loyal friend to the family of Oermanicus; this case is an example of the despicable methods to which many delatores resorted. Lucanius Latiaris, Marcus Porcius Cato, Pettlius Rufus and Marcus Opsius realised that the only access to the consulship was through Sejanus, “and only crimes secured Sejanus’ goodwill” (T). By pretending friendship with Sabinus, Latiaris tricked him into revealing his feelings for Germanicus’ family and his attitude towards Sejanus: three other senators hid in a space between the wall and ceiling of a room in order to overhear the incriminating evidence. Tacitus described this as a sordid trick. This method of collecting evidence threw conspicuous Romans into a “state of unprecedented agitation and terror” (T). People became secretive, avoiding conversations and encounters with close friends and family as well as with strangers. According to Tacitus “there was no alleviation of the accusers, who became more formidable and vicious every day”.


Many frivolous charges

Many of the charges were trivial and ridiculous, such as the accusations made against a Roman knight, Falanius. He was charged with allowing a comic actor-who was also a male prostitute-to assist in the worship of Augustus and with selling a statue of Augustus as part of some garden furniture.

  1. Scribonius Libo Drusus, a member of a prominent Roman family, was accused of subversive plotting because he placed too much confidence in astrological predictions. He was also charged with consulting a fortuneteller to find out “if he would be rich enough to pave the Via Appia with money as far as Brundisium”. Tacitus admitted that the charges were preposterous and pointless, but he cited this case because he believed “it initiated an evil which for many years corroded public life”. Other charges were easy to make and difficult to disprove, such as Hispo’s allegations that Marcellus had told scandalous stories about Tiberius.

Treason linked with other offences

Often the charge of treason was linked with other offences as in the case of Appuleia Varilla, a member of the imperial family (grandniece of Augustus). She was charged with treason for insulting Tiberius, his mother (Livia) and the deified Augustus, as well as for committing adultery.

There were, of course, genuine cases of treason such as Piso’s attempt to re-enter his province of Syria by force, and there were those condemned for real conspiracies against Tiberius.


Number and Frequency of treason trials exaggerated

Tacitus attempted to create in the minds of his readers the impression that the number and frequency of treason trials increased as Tiberius’ reign progressed. He builds up a picture of continuous prosecutions, culminating in the so-called Reign of Terror (after 33) during which many innocent men perished. However, a careful study of Tacitus’ account reveals that during Tiberius’ reign of almost twenty-three years no more than fifty-two people were charged with treason, and of these thirty were never executed. Of the twelve who were put to death, Tiberius is supposed to have ordered the execution of eight; an overzealous senate was responsible for the four apparently innocent victims.

Many suicided before trial

Many of those charged with treason and other offences chose to commit suicide rather than wait for the senate’s verdict. In the case of treason, if the accused killed himself his family was allowed to retain its property, apart from the quarter awarded to the informer.

Tiberius’ dismissal of trivial charges

In the first part of his reign Tiberius dismissed many cases which he considered  ridiculous and intervened in others to pardon the accused or to lessen the sentence. He made it very clear that he did not consider insulting remarks about himself or his mother as treasonable, but that disrespectful comments about the divine Augustus should be punished. When Tiberius heard the accusations against Falanius, he wrote to the consuls that “Augustus had not been voted divine honours in order to ruin Roman citizens” and “to include the latter’s statues in sales of houses or gardens was not sacrilegious”. On the suicide of Libo, the emperor commented that he “would have interceded for his life if he had not so hastily killed himself”. When Marcellus was charged with recounting “the most repulsive features in the Emperor’s character”, Tiberius “voted for aquittal on the treason counts”. In the case of Appuleia Varilla, he “insisted on a distinction between disrespectul remarks about  Augustus for which she should be condemned- and about himself, on which he desired no enquiry to be held”.  He also requested that any words spoken against his mother should not be the subject of a charge. In fact, “he released Appuleia from liability under the treason law.”  (All Tacitus)

Prosecutions increased after death of Sejanus

Tiberius did try at first to check the abuse of the law of treason by insisting that trials be fair and technically legal; later in his reign, as actual conspiracies against him increased and Sejanus played on his suspicions, the number of treason cases grew. After the death of Sejanus prosecutions against his friends continued for a year, but there were never the wholesale executions suggested by Tacitus, and his statement that “at Rome the massacre was continuous” (T)(limitation of Tacitus – not the case) is exaggerated. Tacitus actually recorded numerous deaths during this period, but some were from natural causes or were executions for other offences, while many were suicides.

Law of maiestas widened under Tiberius

Although the problem of the interpretation of the maiestas law was a legacy of Augustus and the delatores had long been an accepted part of the administration of justice, Tiberius does have to take responsibility for widening the law of treason, for failing to check the excessive activities of the informers in the latter part of his reign and for allowing so much power to the unscrupulous and ambitious Sejanus. The last years of his reign were marked by extreme tension and fear among the upper classes of Rome.

Munro’s Comments:

  • Augustus gives Maiestas a more broader definition – any offence or insult against the Princeps in deed, writing or speech. The problem is that the mix of definitions makes Maiestas very unclear. People are unsure whether it is maiestas or freedom of speech.
  • Augustus had set no precedent, so the cases which came before the senate in the time of Tiberius tended to be test cases – a landmark case. They determined the law and how similar cases would be approached in the future.
  • Delatores – latin for ‘informers’ – people you disrespect.
  • Rome had no public prosecutor – this is bad because private prosecutors meant there was a conflict of interest.
  • Incentive to convict people – you receive a 1/4 of their property/ money and you eliminate a political rival. (e.g. senator daltonius and senator munronius

Tiberius’ frontier and provincial policies

Tiberius’ government of the empire was carried out with real statesmanship. Even Tacitus admits this.

The Frontier Policy 

Augustus’ frontier policy followed

Tiberius followed Augustus’ advice to avoid an extension of the empire beyond its present frontiers except where it was necessary for security, such as in the east. He strengthened the eastern frontiers by “astute diplomacy without warfare” (T) and limited annexations of client-kingdoms, which Augustus had implied was acceptable once they were sufficiently Romanised. Tiberius paid particular attention to improving the discipline of the troops on the frontiers and to maintaining economy in the forces after the initial mutinies in Germany and Pannonia.

The Rhine

The northern frontier was maintained at the Rhine after Germanicus’ attempts to extend it to the Elbe were curtailed by Tiberius. His belief that the rebellious tribes beyond the Rhine could be “left to their own internal disturbances” (Tacitus) was justified when some years later, after the Romans had gone, national rivalries turned the German tribes led by Maroboduus and Arminius against each other.

The Danube

Tiberius used a number of methods of secure the Danube frontier. He hired a native leader to use the Suebi and Marcomanni to keep watch on the Upper Danube. He strengthened the middle Danube region by combining the previous senatorial provinces of Achaea and Macedonia with Moesia under the competent imperial legate, Poppaeus Sabinus, who was left in charge of this large province for twenty years. The Lower Danube area had been divided by Augustus between two Thracian kings. As a result of trouble between them, during which one was killed, Tiberius replaced them and appointed a Roman resident to supervise the new kings. There was intermittent trouble in this area until 46, when it was finally organised as a  province.

The East

Germanicus was sent to the east in AD 17 to settle the question of kingship in Armenia, where he appointed Ataxias III to the throne. The client-kingdoms of Cappadocia and Commagene were annexed, and Cilicia was added to Syria. Later, Tiberius installed a new king of Parthia.


The only serious frontier trouble spot for Tiberius was in Africa. Tacfarinas, a Numidian and once a member of the Roman army, was conversant with Roman military tactics. He carried out successful guerrilla raids on the province of Africa for seven years (17 -23). In 21, Junius Blaesus was put in command and succeeded in breaking the back of the insurrection, and in two years peace returned to the province.

Provincial Policy

Tiberius recognised Rome’s responsibility for the welfare of provincials, and would tolerate no abuses by governors or the Roman business class.

HSC Ancient History Tiberius Asia Minor coin

Despite Tiberius’ efforts to govern the provinces fairly and equally and to promote peace and prosperity, there were a number of problems.

Rebellion in Goal

As well as the trouble in Africa, there was a brief rebellion in Gaul in AD 21 which, according to Tacitus, was due to the burden of debt owed to Roman creditors. An added grievance may have been due to Tiberius’ attempt to curb the Druids.

Criticism over extended governorships

Tiberius’ policy of leaving governors in office for long periods in order to benefit the provincials fell down when he made a poor judgment about a governor. For example, ten years was too long for Pontius Pilatus (26-36), who was the governor of Judaea at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. He made a number of serious mistakes, provoking the inhabitants unnecessarily, and it took the governor of Syria, Vitellius, to conciliate the Jews after Pilatus was sent to Rome to stand trial.

Senate’s Resentment

The senate resented his guidance and control in the provinces, and were particularly affronted when he encroached on the senatorial sphere by refusing to permit a change of proconsuls for Asia and Africa and keeping the same men there for six years.

An evaluation of Tiberius and his reign

The Tacitean Tiberius

Tacitus’ treatment of Tiberius appears excessively harsh and he has often been criticised for ‘rewriting another tyrant’ because ‘he was unable to shake off the memory of the last years under Domitian’. (Syme, Tacitus, vol. 1, p. 422) However, Syme says that this is too simple an explanation of his bias against Tiberius. The tradition which survived about Tiberius-and which is reflected not only in Tacitus, but also in Suetonius and Dio Cassius-was uniformly hostile. Syme maintains that Tacitus faithfully recorded the documentary evidence, but could not refrain ‘from adding his own commentary and reconstruction in generous measure in order to heighten the colours and shape the outlines’. (Syme) Tacitus’ Tiberius therefore appears to be

“composed of layers. (There is) the Tiberius of history . . . there is the Tiberius of the hostile senatorial tradition . . . This composite has been endowed by Tacitus with some of the features and colours of Domitian. As a further refinement it has been modelled on those archetypal tyrants to be found in the philosophers and tragic poets.” (Dudley)

Although there are discrepancies between the facts recorded by Tacitus and his interpretation of them, it is possible from a careful reading of the Annals and the other ancient sources to arrive at a more realistic picture of ‘the Republican princeps to whom destiny awarded the inheritance of Caesar Augustus’. (Syme) In building up his picture of Tiberius, Tacitus ‘disclosed more than he intended’ and ‘certain features of the Tacitean

Tiberius, detestable on a superficial view, carried praise, not blame’. (Syme)

Tacitus believed, as did many of the ancients, that man’s nature never changed and that although it could be suppressed or disguised for a time, it would eventually come to the surface. Therefore, if Tiberius ended his reign as an evil man, he must have always had evil tendencies. Tacitus outlined what he considered to have been the various stages through which Tiberius’ character was revealed.

Stages in the revelation of Tiberius’ character

“His character, too, had its different stages. While he was a private citizen or holding commands under Augustus, his life was blameless; and so was his reputation. While Germanicus and Drusus still lived, he concealed his real self, cunningly affecting virtuous qualities. However, until his mother died there was good in Tiberius as well as evil. Again, as long as he favoured (or feared) Sejanus, the cruelty of Tiberius was detested but his perversions unrevealed. Then fear vanished, and with it shame. Thereafter he expressed only his own personality- by unrestrained infamy.” (Tacitus)

Tacitus has described Tiberi us as cryptic, secretive, cloaking his thoughts, keeping his true motives hidden, repressing his feelings, deceptive, dissembling, hypocritical, insincere, crafty, resentful, cruel, grim, terrifying, arrogant, morose, hesitant and secretly sensual.

In order to understand his character and behaviour it is necessary to study the predicaments in which he found himself with regard to his family, his environment and his career, and to remember that he was fifty five when became emperor.

HSC Ancient History Tiberius Character and Behaviour

Negative attributes


Hypocrisy and deceit

Tacitus accused Tiberius of hypocrisy and deceit. This criticism encompasses many of the other descriptions of him- as dissembling, secretive, hiding his thoughts and motives, and so on.

Considering the number of humiliations suffered by Tiberius at the hands of Augustus, it is not surprising that an old-fashioned and proud aristocrat would learn to hide his feelings and thoughts. His firm sense of duty to the state and to his adoptive father forced him to behave as though nothing had happened and to carry on in his official capacity.

His hesitation in assuming the power of princeps, interpreted by the senate as hypocrisy, may have been genuinely intended to give the senate the opportunity of setting a precedent for future imperial appointments. On the other hand, he may not have felt capable of running the empire single-handedly.

Once in office, his genuine intention to govern as a true princeps and to allow free debate meant that he had to be careful about expressing his own thoughts and feelings, in case they unduly influenced the senate. This was illustrated when a senator asked him: ‘Caesar, will you vote first or last? If first, I shall have your lead to follow; if last, I am afraid of inadvertently voting against you’ (Tacitus)

Also, when the senate sat as a court it was necessary for Tiberius to conceal his own attitude towards the people involved. For example, in the case of M. Scribonius Libo Drusus, charged with subversive plotting, ‘The Emperor, without altering his expression, read out the accusation and its signatures in a toneless voice calculated neither to aggravate not to extenuate the charges’. (Tacitus)

There were, however, occasions when Tiberius’ statements and behaviour did smack of hypocrisy. He continually promised to visit the provinces and the armies but never did, and after Drusus’ death,

“By reverting to empty discredited talk about restoring the Republic and handing the government to the consuls or others, he undermined the belief even in what he had said sincerely and truthfully” (Tacitus)

According to Tacitus, Tiberius regarded dissimulation, or the ability to ‘cloak his thoughts’, (Tacitus) as his greatest virtue. Although Tacitus criticised him for this characteristic, he in fact built up a picture of Tiberius as a successful ruler who survived for a very long time by dissimulation.


Vindictiveness was another charge made by Tacitus against Tiberius. This was associated with the bitter resentment that developed during his marriage to Julia and as a result of the hostility of Agrippina, the death of Drusus and the treachery of Sejanus.


Tiberius ordered the execution of Sempronius Gracchus. He had been Examples the lover of Julia when she was married to Agrippa, and when she ‘was transferred to Tiberius this persistent adulterer made her defiant and unfriendly to her new husband’. (Tacitus) He had been exiled to an African island, but when Tiberius became emperor he sent soldiers to kill him.

Tiberius also hated Gaius Asinius Gallus, who had married Vipsania, Tiberius’ first wife, when Tiberius had been forced against his will to divorce her and marry Julia. Gallus’ behaviour in the senate on a number of occasions provoked the anger of Tiberius. According to Dio Cassius, he was arrested in AD 30 (possibly as an associate of Sejanus) and imprisoned for three years. ‘He died of starvation- whether self-inflicted or forcible was undiscovered.’ (Tacitus) Tacitus records that after Agrippina’s death in the following year, Tiberius claimed that she had committed adultery with Gallus, so slandering both of them.

In his biography, Tiberius maintained that Sejanus had been killed for persecuting Nero and Drusus, yet after Sejanus’ death Tiberius did not lessen the suffering of the imprisoned Agrippina and Drusus. Even after their deaths he attacked them, slandering Agrippina and reciting publicly a record ‘of the prince’s daily doings and sayings’ while confined. He had had agents ‘noting every look and groan and even private mutterings’ of Drusus. (Tacitus)

It would have been strange if Tiberius had been unaffected by the revelation that his most trusted friend and adviser had been plotting against him and was responsible for his only son’s death. Tiberius’ natural suspicion of people was intensified and it was to be expected that Sejanus’ friends and relatives would suffer, although his treatment of Sejanus’ children, according to Tacitus, was unnecessary and excessively brutal. Tiberius’ vengeance against those involved with Sejanus was understandable but unfortunately there was little attempt to distinguish between those directly involved with him and those who were simply political acquaintances.

Not a bloodthirsty tyrant

There were certainly innocent victims at this time, but the ‘continuous massacres’ approved by an emperor ‘frenzied with bloodshed’ (Tacitus) were exaggerated. Many committed suicide out of fear, because they believed that Tiberius disliked them. Scullard points out that it is highly unlikely that Tiberius emerged as a bloodthirsty tyrant after maintaining ‘a mask of virtue for nearly seventy years’ (Scullard)

Grimness of manner

Tacitus also criticises Tiberius for his grim and morose manner, referring to his ‘natural glumness’. (Tacitus) Suetonius supports this view and records that Augustus so ‘disliked Tiberius’ dour manner as to interrupt his own careless chatter when he entered…’ (Suetonius) Considering the influences of his early years, it is not surprising that Tiberius should have grown up rather serious and morose. Neither is it surprising that his grimness, along with suspicion, should have increased with the years.

Vices unsubstantiated

No evidence for sensual perversions

The accusations of Tacitus and Suetonius regarding Tiberius’ sensual vices while on Capri cannot be substantiated by first-class evidence. Tacitus believed that Tiberius’ criminal lusts were uncontrollable, and ‘worthy of an oriental despot’. 128

Positive qualities

A more careful reading of the Annals reveals that Tiberius had many good qualities. He had a firm sense of the duty of a ruler, he behaved stoically at times of personal grief, he respected tradition, he was not deceived by pretence, he was frugal, courteous, slow to anger, and unperturbed by personal abuse; he hated excessive flattery and servility, believed in advancement for merit, respected those who spoke their minds and preferred to use diplomacy rather than force.

Tacitus admits that Tiberius not only efficiently administered the state but ‘ensured also that the provinces were not harassed by new impositions and that old impositions were not aggravated through official acquisitiveness or brutality’. (Tacitus)

It is possible to discern the historic Tiberius from the narrative of Tacitus. Although some of the modern attempts to cleanse his character have perhaps gone too far, F. B. Marsh and M.P. Charlesworth have successfully rehabilitated his character and achievements.

He was unpopular in Rome and was feared and hated by most of the senators. This was partly due to the faults in his character such as bluntness and lack of personal charm, to his naturally serious and morose nature, his insecurity and suspicion, and his cryptic way of speaking. Also, some of his policies did not endear him to the urban mob (cutting down on public expenditure) or the nobility (extension of tenure for imperial officials). The  increase in the maiestas trials and his retirement to Capri contributed most to the general condemnation of him.

Although he lacked brilliance, he had been a very successful military commander, was an extremely efficient administrator and was regarded highly by the provincials. He wisely continued the policies of Augustus, which gave the Roman world peace and prosperity for over twenty years. R. Syme makes an interesting evaluation of Tiberius when he says:

“Compelled to honour the precedents set by Augustus everywhere, Tiberius was hampered in thought and deed by his own past, and by the oppressive memory of Augustus … Tiberius was the victim of Augustus.”

Strengths and Weaknesses of Tiberius’ Reign

Strengths Weaknesses
Continuance of Augustus’ arrangements as much as possibleExcellent civil administration:

  • Alleviated food shortages
  • Maintained law and order in the city through the city prefect
  • Gave substantial relief to help victims of an amphitheatre tragedy and a fire on the Aventine
  • Supervised carefully the empire’s revenue
  • Cut down public expenses – erected few public buildings and reduced gladiatorial shows
  • Took measures to safeguard the countryside from brigandage
  • Reduced sales tax
  • Chose officials carefully

Attempt to work with senate:

  • Took no exceptional honours
  • Upheld traditional rights
  • Treated it with respect
  • Consulted it
  • Extended its administrative and legal functions

Provincial and frontier policies:

  • Maintained peace and prosperity
  • Settled disputes in provinces fairly
  • Gave extensive tax relief after earthquake damage
  • Built roads and bridges
  • Built public buildings in provinces
  • Chose best men wherever possible
  • Maintained thorough discipline, loyalty and efficiency in armies
  • Servility of senators- little co-rule, dependence on Tiberius
  • Treason trials and growing numbers of delatores
  • Crisis as a result of Germanicus’ death
  • Influence of Sejanus and elimination of members of imperial family
  • Retirement of Tiberius to Capri- alienation of senate
  • Vengeance taken on Sejanus’ supporters
  • Gaius given no training for public life – contributed to the difficulties of his reign
  • Praetorian Guard conscious of increased power- repercussions for future influence on succession

 The question of succession and the Death of Tiberius

Tiberius’ hesitation

Tiberius had hesitated over making a decision about the succession, although within the imperial family there were three possible candidates: Tiberius Gemellus, Gaius and Claudius. Tacitus said that “Tiberius feared that to nominate a successor outside the imperial house might bring contempt and humiliation upon Augustus’ memory” . (Tacitus)

Tiberius had made his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, joint heir with his grandnephew, Gaius. Gemellus, however, was still too young, although Tiberius may have hoped to live long enough for the boy to succeed him.

Gaius on Capri

On the other hand, Gaius (the remaining and youngest son of Germanicus) was “in the prime of early manhood” (Tacitus) and had been taken to live on Capri with Tiberius when he was nineteen. Although he had been given no training by Tiberi us to assume greater responsibility, he had won the support of Macro, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard who had succeeded Sejanus; Macro had been cultivating Gaius’ friendship since he had been on Capri. The other candidate, Claudius, was already middle aged and ‘”his weakmindedness was an objection.” (Tacitus).

Supposed part of Macro in Tiberius’ death

When it appeared that Tiberius was dying, Macro organised the sending of messages to provincial governors and generals and was supposed to have helped Gaius to hasten the death of Tiberius by ordering him to be smothered. Tiberius died in March AD 37, when seventy-eight.

Changing role of the Princeps under the Julio Claudian Rulers: Gaius

Gaius’ Accession

Tacitus had already indicated what was likely to happen if Gaius were to succeed Tiberius. The prospect of Gaius’ accession to the throne was enough to make a leading Roman, Lucius Arruntius, commit suicide.

Arruntius (recorded by Tacitus) predicted:

“If Tiberius, in spite of all his experience, has been transformed and deranged by absolute power, will Gaius do any better? Almost a boy, wholly ignorant, with a criminal upbringing, guided by Macro- the man chosen to suppress

Sejanus, though Macro is the worse man of the two and responsible for more terrible crimes and national suffering. I foresee even grimmer slavery ahead of us.”

Tiberius showed that he also was aware of the faults in Gaius’ character when he declared that “he has Sulla’s vices without his virtues” (Tacitus).

Declared emperor by Macro

However, Macro declared Gaius to be emperor, and according to Suetonius, “Gaius’ accession seemed to the Roman people – one might almost say  – to the whole world, like a dream come true” (Suetonius) since he was the son of the popular Germanicus. When he arrived in Rome the senate was unanimous in its conferment on him of absolute power, and it also declared Tiberius’ will, in which he had made his grandson joint heir with Gaius, invalid.

HSC Ancient History Caligula on a coin

Gaius and the Senate

The senate had grown increasingly servile and dependent on Tiberius, but during the reign of Gaius it was treated with absolute contempt.

For a brief period after his accession, Gaius wisely attempted to conciliate the senatorial nobility; this was apparently on the advice of his grandmother, Antonia. He put an end to the activities of informers (delatores) and the treason trials, honoured his uncle, Claudius, by choosing him as his colleague in the consulship, and recalled those senators exiled under Tiberius.

Effects of his illness in 37

However, sometime in 3 7 he suffered a serious illness and when he recovered, according to Suetonius, Gaius the emperor was replaced by Gaius the monster. His attitude to the senate changed radically as he moved more and more towards despotism, “doing away with the pretence that he was merely the chief executive of a republic”(Suetonius). In fact, he insisted on being treated as a god, basing his belief on the divine right of the Julian family.

Senators humiliated

He made no effort to hide his contempt for the senate and dispensed with its services generally as well as publicly humiliating individual senators. Suetonius maintains that he “made some of the highest officials run for miles beside his chariot, dressed in their gowns; or wait in short linen tunics at the head or foot of his dining couch”.

He deposed two consuls who forgot to announce his birthday and he had a sick ex-praetor executed because he asked for an extension of sick leave. The members of the senate were abused for having been friends of Sejanus or as informers against his mother and brothers.

He held the consulship in every year except 38; renewed the laws of treason, and encouraged informers so that he could use condemnations to confiscate the property of wealthy senators; ended the senate’s right to mint coinage in Rome; handed back to the people the election of magistrates, and executed any senator who offered him advice.

Gaius’ frontier and provincial policy

Gaius reversed Augustus’ policy – particularly with regard to Parthia – and rewarded ‘friends’ with client-kingdoms, hoping to bind them to him personally. He was autocratic, provocative and erratic in his foreign policy, and his treatment of the Jews in particular “revealed the havoc an irresponsible ruler might create”(Syme).

The Rhine

Gaius went to the Rhine frontier himself, since he needed the support of the army. He used the pretext that he wished to strengthen the frontiers but in fact he was concern d that one of the Rhine commanders’ Aemilius Lepidus, was in league with two of Gaius’ sisters in a conspiracy: Sulpicius Galba, a future Roman emperor, was given command of the Upper Rhine. Gaius’ objectives in Germany were unclear.


Whether Gaius seriously considered invading Britain or not, his army refused to make the crossing; he announced its annexation even though no military action had been taken. Refer to Suetonius, Gaius, 43-8.


Gaius’ actions in Africa were very provocative. He deposed Mauretania’s client-king (Ptolemy) and ordered him to commit suicide in preparation for its annexation, but its people resisted.

The senatorial governor in Africa was reduced to the status of a civil authority, and handed over his troops to an imperial legate.

The East

In the east, he restored some friendly kings and princes to their former thrones and found kingdoms for others he favoured: he restored Commagene to Antiochus, provided kingdoms for the three sons of a Thracian prince since they had been raised in Rome with him, and gave to his friend Herod Agrippa the territories belonging to his uncles. This created major disorders in that part of the world.

Gaius was anti-Semitic and his policy towards the Jews was to lead to future discontent. The Greeks and Jews in the Egyptian city of Alexandria were hostile towards each other- the Greeks were angry that the Romans had granted the Jews a large degree of autonomy. They not only refused them local citizenship but sent a deputation to Gaius to demand that the Jews be forced to display statues of the emperor in the synagogues in Alexandria and also in Jerusalem. Gaius supported their request, but fortunately died before it could be carried out.

Gaius weakened Rome’s position in the east by reversing Augustus’ policy of strengthening the frontiers against Parthia. By removing the King of Armenia from his throne, he gave Parthia the opportunity to regain influence in Armenia.

Gaius’s ‘madness’ and death

Gaius Unhinged

“Suetonius also reported that what had unhinged Caligula was an excessively strong aphrodisiac given him by his wife Caesonia. Philo . . . suggested that the illness from which he suffered in the early part of his reign was breakdown due to over-indulgence . . . He has been variously labelled epileptic, schizoid, schizophrenic or just chronically alcoholic. Tacitus describes his mind as disordered and upset, but Caligula was probably not mad in any accepted sense of the term; though diagnoses by modern psychologists or physicians are useless because there is no adequate evidence to go on.”

– M. Grant

“He even went on to manufacture statues of himself . . . He afterwards ordered temples to be erected and sacrifices to be offered to himself as to a god. Gaius was ruled by the charioteers and gladiators, and was the slave of actors and others connected with the stage . . . He caused great numbers of men to fight as gladiators . . . It was not the large number of those who perished that was so serious, though that was serious enough, but his excessive delight in their death and his insatiable desire for the sight of blood . . . Others . . . owed their ruin to the emperor’s illness of the preceding year and to the death of his sister Drusilla, since . . . anyone who had entertained or had greeted another, or even had bathed, during those days incurred punishment . . . One single incident will give the key to all that happened at that time: the emperor charged with maiestas and put to death a man who had sold hot water.”

– Cassius Dio

Natural Brutality

Suetonius details the numerous acts of cruelty, tyranny and extravagance carried out by Gaius after the illness which supposedly changed his personality and behaviour. However, Tacitus says that Tiberius was well aware of the evil nature of Gaius from an early age, and Suetonius agrees that even in the early days on Capri “Caligula could not control his natural brutality” and enjoyed watching executions and tortures.

Demands to be treated as a god

In his insistence on being treated as a god, he went to great lengths to see that his directions were carried out. He replaced the heads on many famous Greek statues with his own likeness; converted the shrine of the ‘heavenly twins’, Castor and Pollux, into the vestibule of his newly extended palace, and would be seen standing beside the gods; established a priesthood to supervise the worship of himself, and connected his palace to the Capitol by a bridge over the Temple of Augustus in order to share the home of the Capitoline Jupiter.

Cruelty to all classes

His cruelty knew no bounds and was not restricted to senators, knights and the people; it extended to members of his own family. He had Tiberius Gemellus killed because he appeared to have taken an antidote for poison, and he forced his father-in-law to cut his throat because he did not follow the imperial ship to sea during a storm. His unkind treatment of his grandmother, Antonia, is supposed to have speeded up her death. He “preserved his uncle Claudius mainly as a butt for practical jokes” (Suetonius)

Gaius enjoyed organising lingering ways to make people die, and not only watched these executions himself but also forced parents to watch the deaths of their sons. He devised methods of provoking the people at gladiatorial shows, closed the granaries so that they would go hungry, and enjoyed creating panic, so that large numbers died.

Criminal activities

He was promiscuous, and supposedly committed incest with his sisters.

His criminal activities focused particularly on devising “wickedly ingenious methods of raising funds by false accusations, auctions and taxes” (Suetonius) when he found himself bankrupt due to his extravagant lifestyle.

Death of Gemmellus

“He caused the death of Tiberius [Gemellus], who had assumed the toga virilis, had been given the title of princeps iuventutis, and finally had been adopted into the family. The complaint made against the lad was that he had prayed and expected that Gaius would die.”

– Cassius Dio

His assassination

Killed by Praetorians

Since Gaius had alienated most groups in Roman society, it was not surprising that there were several plots to assassinate him. Suetonius says that “His frantic and reckless behaviour roused murderous thoughts in certain minds”, 144 and in 41, at the age of 29, he was murdered at the Palatine Games by a tribune of the Praetorian Guard (Cassius Chaerea).

The conspirators had no particular person in mind to replace him as emperor, but most senators were determined to restore the republic.

“Such frantic and reckless behaviour roused murderous thoughts in certain minds . . . when two Guards colonels put their heads together and succeeded in killing him . . . On 24 January . . . Caligula, seated in the Theatre, could not make up his mind whether to rise for luncheon . . . his friends persuaded him to come out with them along a covered walk . . . some say that Chaerea came up behind Caligula as he stood talking . . . And with a cry of ‘Take this!’ gave him a deep sword-wound in the neck, whereupon Gaius Sabinus, the other colonel, stabbed him in the breast.”

– Suetonius

Changing role of the Princeps under the Julio Claudian Rulers: Claudius

Claudius’ accession:

  • Gaius killed 41, Claudius found hiding in the barracks – carried off to the barracks by some guardsmen –> he was pressed to accept imperial power from them.
  • After his initial fear, and encouraged by his friend Herod Agrippa, he accepted the position of emperor and bound himself to the Praetorian Guard with a donative of 15,000 sesterces each.
  • Claudius never forgot his debt to the Praetorians and repeated his payment annually –> this gives the guard a lot of power, it is a dangerous precedent
  • This was the first, but not the last time that the Praetorian Guard interfered in the succession.
  • The Roman Legions = Approx. 28 Legions x 5,000 each (not allowed in Italy)
  • Praetorian Guard = 6000 men, black cloaks –> allowed in Italy. 10 cohorts –> Sejanus brought all the cohorts back to Rome – previously they were scattered throughout Italy
  • The Senators were unaware of the situation and Claudius was forced upon them by the Guards –> after a certain resistance they transferred the imperial title on him ; he was 51 years old
  • Although Claudius’ physical problems (maybe Polio as a child) made him awkward and unstable on his feet, he was certainly not the fool which many ancient sources indicated.

As he was growing up, he was made aware of his inferiority within the imperial family and so devoted his time to his studies. He spoke and wrote in Greek and became increasingly interested in history, which he studied under the guidance of the great Livy. He began a history of Rome while still a boy.

  • Augustus and Livia were concerned about his future. Suetonius quotes a letter from Augustus to his wife, outlining his worries:
    • . . . The question is whether he has- shall I say?- full command of his five senses. If so I see nothing against sending him through the same degrees of office as his brother; the public … must not be given a chance of laughing at him and us. I fear that we shall find ourselves in constant trouble if the question of his fitness to officiate in this or that capacity keeps cropping up. We should therefore decide in advance whether he can or cannot be trusted with offices of state generally. –> scared of court gossip
  • It is suggested that he survived the conspiracies and intrigues by playing the fool. However, he did hold several official positions under Augustus, Tiberius and Gaius: he presided at Games, was given a seat in the College of Augurs and the insignia of a consul, and was made colleague with Gaius in the consulship.
  • Augustus is surprised at Claudius ability to make a public speech – he send a letter to Livia:
    • I’ll be damned if your grandson Tiberius Claudius hasn’t given me a pleasant surprise! How on earth anyone who talks so confusedly can nevertheless speak so well in public-with such clearness, saying all that needs to be said-I simply do not understand
    • He has been underestimated
  • He was therefore not totally without ability – he made every effort to associate himself with the Julian house and to appeal to all groups in Roman society

Claudius, the senate and the civil service:

Claudius and the Senate:

  • He’s feeling quite likely the needs for an emperor and a senate to work together – he feels the need for clear, defined jurisdiction. He wants the autocracy to be centralised – he can have people working for him.
  • Claudius was aware that the principate needed to be modified, since the definition of imperial and senatorial authority was very vague and the business of running the empire had become more complex.
  • However, he was conservative and -like Augustus- he knew that any move towards a centralised autocracy would have to be achieved slowly.
  • Also like Augustus, he showed great respect for the senate and attempted to increase its prestige. He encouraged the senators to debate and to vote seriously, and in his own speeches he argued with moderation and recognised the senate’s point of view.
    • If these proposals are approved by you, show your assent at once plainly and sincerely. If, however, you do not approve them then find some other remedies, but here in this temple now, or if you wish to take a longer time for consideration, take it so long as you recollect that wherever you meet you should produce an opinion of your own. For it is extremely unfitting, conscript fathers, to the high dignity of this order that at this meeting one man only … should make a speech . . . and the rest utter one word only, ‘Agreed’, and then after leaving the House remark ‘There we’ve given our opinion’. Suetonius  –> he wants people to have their own opinion and argue it , similar to Tiberius.
  • Claudius revised the membership of the senate in order to recruit the best political talent. He strengthened it by adding new patrician families and by extending senatorial privileges to the Aedui (Gauls). This latter measure aroused the senate’s anger, but the argument put forward by Claudius in favour of it revealed his statesmanlike attitude.
  • Senators, however ancient any institution seems, once upon a time it was new! First, plebeians joined patricians in office. Next, Latins were added. Then came men from other Italian peoples. The innovation now proposed will, in its turn, one day be old: what we seek to justify by precedents today will itself become a precedent. Tacitus –> he wants talent in the senate –> he is quite good at making a political argument about this
  • He also wished to expel notoriously bad senators, and he became censor in order to carry this out. However, rather than use the old severe method, he gave those concerned the opportunity to voluntarily renounce senatorial rank and so avoid humiliation –> clever moves to avoid political agitation, they avoid besmirching their family name.
  • In 44 he returned the provinces of Achaea and Macedonia to the senate-they had been converted into imperial provinces by Tiberius.
  • He also distributed the newly acquired imperial provinces equally between legates (governors) of senatorial and imperial rank.
  • The election of magistrates was returned to the senate (Gaius having transferred them once again to the assembly), and many senatorial decrees were issued during his reign.
  • He recognised the senate’s right to mint copper coinage, but although during his reign coins with the senate’s mark increased in number, Claudius’ head never appeared on them.
  • However, despite his apparent show of respect and his desire for the senate’s co-operation, he established a new system which he himself dominated. He encroached on the various spheres of senatorial privilege by setting up an imperial civil service (see p. 552). The senate began to lose its importance as a partner in the government as Claudius set up special departments staffed by his own personal freedmen, who were answerable to him. This centralised bureaucracy was established to ‘obtain administrative efficiency, not to humble the senate and the urban magistrates’ Salmon or to increase Claudius’ autocratic power.
  • The proud senatorial aristocracy became embittered as they watched the emperor entrust confidential tasks to the group of freedmen belonging to his household –> this defies the social hierarchy imbedded in their traditional ways of thinking
  • A new governing class was being created from men who stood outside the Roman tradition and represented the interests of the emperor.
  • The senate was weakened in other ways:
    • The treasury (Aerarium) came to a greater extent under Claudius’ control when he replaced its praetors with quaestors chosen by himself and holding their positions for three years.
    • In 53, jurisdiction of financial cases in the senatorial provinces was transferred from the proconsuls (governors) to Claudius’ own personal procurators. This meant that the fisci (provincial treasuries) were freed from the control of the senate.
    • Claudius spent much time in the law courts hearing criminal cases. Theoretically he had the right to do this, but it had previously been handed over to the senate. He expanded his own court so that the senate would not be forced to condemn its own members if they were charged with criminal offences; Claudius is supposed to have executed thirty-five senators during his reign. The members of the senate were particularly bitter about these prosecutions, since they believed that they were due to the influence exerted on Claudius by his freedmen and his wives.
    • On at least one occasion- and perhaps more-Claudius nominated the governor of a senatorial province. Dio Cassius records the appointment of Galba to the province of Africa.

The senate resented particularly the gradual encroachment on its rights by Claudius and the apparent power wielded by his freedmen. However, this did not stop it from voting honours and wealth for Narcissus and Pallas, Claudius’ most influential freedmen. Such was the subservience of the senators that they passed a copious and effusive decree rewarding Pallas for his diligence and fidelity as ‘guardian of the emperor’s property’. (Pliny the Elder) Pliny comments with disgust that these senators were slaves themselves

Claudius’ civil service and the influence of his freedmen

In order to increase administrative efficiency, Claudius developed specialised departments each under the control of one of his freedmen, most of whom were well-educated Greeks or Orientals.

Status and importance of freedmen

Narcissus was a kind of secretary-general (ab epistulis) to Claudius, handling the huge amount of correspondence (letters, resolutions, reports and so on) in Greek and Latin which passed between the emperor and Roman officials and provincials in all parts of the empire.

Pallas was the head of the financial department (a rationibus), and supervised the revenues which flowed into the imperial provincial fisci. These included money from the emperor’s personal estates and from the imperial provinces.

Callistus was the legal secretary (a libellis) whose duty was to attend to all petitions and requests to the emperor, to deal with judicial inquiries and to see that all papers on cases to come before the emperor were prepared.

Polybius was the privy seal and librarian (a studiis), providing Claudius with material for speeches and edicts as well as acting as his literary adviser.

Numerous other freedmen were employed in the bureaucracy, but these were the chief officers of the state. They became very powerful, and retained great influence with Claudius; the sources indicate that he became the tool of these freedmen, making no independent decisions. He did seek their advice, but was quite capable of challenging their opinions and usually made decisions based on administrative efficiency. Although the charges of favouritism, nepotism and corruption could be justified, these men were loyal and efficient ministers.

The development of this bureaucracy angered the senatorial and equestrian classes because Augustus and Tiberius had sought their advisers from among these two groups, whereas Claudius relied on foreigners who owed their allegiance to him.

Tacitus’ attitude towards freedmen/ involvement in court intrigue

Tacitus felt nothing but contempt for these freedmen, referring to them constantly as ex-slaves. They were involved in all the intrigues of the imperial court. Callistus had been associated with the conspiracy which resulted in the death of Gaius; Narcissus had been responsible for the death of Messalina’s stepfather (Gaius Appius Junius Silanus); Narcissus informed Claudius of Messalina’s misconduct, and ordered her execution; Pallas, Callistus and Narcissus each promoted a different candidate for Claudius’ fourth wife; Pallas, as the successful backer-and later lover of Agrippina, devoted himself to the promotion of her son, the future

Nero, at the expense of Claudius’ own son Britannicus, and Narcissus supported Britannicus against the intrigues of Agrippina and Pallas (see assignment, p. 560).

Honours and rewards given to freedmen

These men were not only honoured and rewarded by Claudius and the senate, but acquired immense wealth; Suetonius outlines some of the honours Claudius’ awarded his favourites. Posides, a eunuch, was given the same honour as soldiers who had fought in the British campaign (a headless spear). Felix was made governor of Judaea, while Harpocras rode through the streets of Rome and was permitted to give entertainments as if he were a member of the equestrian order.

“… Claudius had an even higher regard for Polybius, his literary mentor, who often walked between the two Consuls. But his firmest devotion was reserved for Narcissus, his secretary, and Pallas, his treasurer, whom he encouraged the senate to honour with large gifts of money and the insignia of quaestors and praetors as well.” (Suetonius)

Senatorial decrees of praise for Pallas

Tacitus and Pliny both record with disgust the decree of the senate -later inscribed on a monument- honouring Pallas ‘For his fidelity and loyalty towards his patrons’, whereby he was awarded ‘the insignia of praetorian rank together with 15 000 000 sesterces, of which he accepted the honour alone’. (Pliny) Tacitus adds further that he was thanked for letting ‘himself be regarded as one of the emperor’s servants’ (Tacitus) although he came from a long line of Arcadian kings. Tacitus was particularly critical of the senate for loading ‘praises of old-world frugality on a man who had once been a slave and was now worth three hundred million sesterces’. (Tacitus) Narcissus, whom Tacitus accused of greed and extravagance, owned a large estate in Egypt

Acquired great wealth

These men were able to acquire riches by both legitimate and illegitimate means. Suetonius relates the story that when ‘one day Claudius complained how little cash was left in the imperial treasury, someone answered neatly that he would have heaps of pocket money if only his two freedmen took him into partnership.’ (Suetonius)

The imperial freedmen were generally capable and intelligent advisers and civil servants in Claudius’ administration, but they wielded great power through patronage and intrigue and promoted their own interests wherever possible.

Some aspects of Claudius’ administration

Although the literary sources have tended to emphasise the negative side of Claudius’ reign, he showed sound political judgment and a capacity for serious and sustained work. Despite his lack of training for the position, he developed into an efficient administrator. Many of the changes he introduced were made during his censorship of 4 7 and 48.

Public Works Religion Finances Justice
Public utilities and great engineering feats Attempt to follow Augustus’ policy to restore some of the old religions Greater concentration of finances in the hands of the emperor Great interest in judicial matters – a large amount of time spent in the courts
Extensive road-building in Italy and the provinces, e.g. Via Claudia Augusta from Altinum to the DanubeCompletion of two aqueducts – the Aqua Claudia was a huge, double-arched aqueduct carrying water to the hills of Rome

Construction of a new harbour and lighthouse at Ostia, north of the Tiber mouth, which had silted up; the harbour was surrounded with huge walls.

Excavation of a 3-mile tunnel to drain the flood waters from the Fucine Lake and reclaim

agricultural land, employing 30 000 men for 11 years but not completely successful

Help in securing food supply by encouraging non-Romans to build ships and insuring ships and cargoes against storm damage

Celebration of the Secular Games only 47 years after AugustusReorganisation of a college of 60 haruspices for ancient Etruscan augeries

Expulsion of astrologers from Rome

Suppression of Druidism in Gaul greater than that of Tiberius

Attempt to curb the practice in Rome of some foreign cults (Jews denied the right to worship in synagogues) although tolerant of many

Extension of the pomerium (sacred boundary of Rome) to include the Campus Martius

Prohibition of worship of himself in temples in the provinces

Closer supervision of imperial treasury by department of the financial secretary, PallasProcurators created to look after the emperor’s personal estates and revenue as well as to supervise the inheritance tax

Increased control by imperial procurators in senatorial provinces

Greater control of the state treasury (Aerarium) by appointment of quaestors to administrate it.

Many legal abuses removed and legal business speeded upIntroduction of many minor laws, including legislation against:

  • Unruly behaviour in the theatre
  • Harsh treatment of debtors
  • Purchase and demolition of buildings for profit
  • Loans being made to a son in the expectation of his father’s death
  • Disclaiming of sick slaves by masters (if slaves recovered, they were given their freedom)

Frequent judgement of cases previously heard by the senate causing opposition

Claudius’ Frontier and Provincial Policies

Claudius’ foreign policy tended to follow that of Julius Caesar rather than of Augustan expansion and assimilation. His reign was one of military achievements, since he desired to be known as ‘extender of the empire’. He extended the frontiers if he thought it appropriate, and believed that direct Roman rule was preferable to client-kingdoms- he added five provinces. Like Julius Caesar, he was interested in raising the status of the provincials by encouraging Romanisation and extending Roman citizenship or Latin rights to both individuals and groups. He was responsible for founding many colonies, was always interested in good provincial administration and made it possible for more provincials to enter the senate. A good move from our perspective, but probably unpopular to Romans – letting Gauls and foreigners into the Senate.

The Rhine frontier and Gaul

Although Claudius did not basically change Tiberius’ policy towards the Rhine and Germany, he did extend the Roman frontier to the mouth of the Rhine; Corbulo carried this out for him. He believed that Gaul would never be completely Romanised while Britain remained independent, and this was one of his reasons for its annexation. Apart from establishing colonies at Triers and Cologne, he granted Roman and Latin citizenship to many Gallic tribes.


There were many reasons why Claudius wanted to annex Britain, but the most crucial was his belief that a successful British conquest would strengthen his regime and increase his popularity. He had read the Roman people accurately. Fifty thousand troops crossed the Channel in 43, and Claudius followed with reinforcements. When Camulodunum (Colchester) was taken he returned to Rome, leaving the legions to subdue further territory. Caractacus, a famous British leader, was captured but was spared by Claudius, and by 54 most of England (not Wales) south of a line drawn east to west through Lincoln was under Roman control. A number of client-kingdoms, including the Regni and the lceni, continued to exist. Although the city of Camulodunum became the centre of Caesar-worship, it was the growing port city of Londinium (London), which became the headquarters of the imperial governor.

North Africa

At the beginning of his reign Claudius had to deal with the rebellion in Mauretania, which was a legacy of Gaius. He annexed it and divided it into two provinces, Tingitana and Caesariensis. He attempted to curb the anti-Semitism of the Greeks of Alexandria and to insist that the Jews refrain from making demands for local citizenship.

Southeast Europe and the Danube area

Claudius returned control of Achaea and Macedonia once more to the senate, while Noricum, on the northern Danube frontier, was governed by an equestrian procurator.

The east

The Influence of Messalina and AgrippinaIn the east Claudius not only annexed and organised new provinces (Lycia in 4 3 and Thrace in 46), he reversed Gaius’ arrangements for J udaea ( 44), returned Commagene to its former ruler, enlarged Syria with the addition of lturaea and spread Roman influence around the Black Sea. Gaius’ weak policy towards Parthia had been very damaging, and Claudius strengthened Armenia after 49 when a Roman nominee, Mithridates, was placed on the throne. He also promoted internal strife in Parthia in order to keep the Parthians occupied.

HSC Ancient History - eastern Roman Empire Claudius

“Claudius fell so deeply under the influence of these freedmen and wives that he seemed to be their servant rather than their emperor “

He did many things “according to their wishes” – Suetonius

Most of the ancient sources depict Claudius as submissive to his wives and totally unaware of what was going on in his own household. Their influence of him and his ignorance of their behaviour are probably exaggerated, but there is no doubt that his third wife, Messalina, and his fourth, Agrippina, wielded considerable power at court.


Valeria Messalina was of Julian stock, related to Augustus on both sides of her family, and for this reason Gaius had arranged for his uncle Claudius to marry her. She was fourteen at the time and Claudius was over thirty years her senior.

Nature of Messalina

Although she bore him two children, Britannicus and Octavia, it is not surprising that she was concerned with gratifying her passions with other men. She was not only sexually depraved, but also insanely jealous of possible female rivals. Through her influence over Claudius and his freedmen, she gained whatever she wanted and eliminated those who stood in her way.

Prosecution of Rivals

She organised the destruction of Poppaea Sabina, one of her rivals, and acquired the lavish gardens of Decimus Valerius Asiaticus, Poppaea’s lover. “Agents were suborned to threaten Poppaea with imprisonment, and thus terrorise her into suicide” (Tacitus), and Asiaticus was brought to trial on the pretext of corrupting the army; he also committed suicide.

‘Marriage’ to Gaius Silius

She became more virulent, and “was only distracted from launching prosecutions and prosecutors by a new and almost maniacal love affair” (Salmon) with the young, handsome, intelligent nobleman, Gaius Silius, who was consul-elect. She made no secret of the relationship, visiting him at his home, clinging to him in public and showering him with wealth and distinctions. When in 48 they decided to publicly marry while Claudius was at Ostia, thus committing bigamy, the “imperial household shuddered”. (Tacitus)

Claudius’ freedmen feared that it was a senatorial conspiracy to put Silius on the throne and they “had everything to fear from a new emperor”. (Tacitus)

Narcissus took control in the destruction of Messalina

Tacitus describes the discussion between the freedmen Narcissus, Callistus and Pallas regarding the actions they should take to put an end to Messalina’s scandalous behaviour or to inform Claudius. Pallas and Callistus were loath to do anything which might endanger their own positions, but Narcissus decided to denounce her without any warning. He approached two of Claudius’ mistresses and bribed them into acting as informers. After their denunciations, Narcissus urged Claudius to take immediate action-otherwise Messalina’s new husband would control Rome. However, even after confirmation of the story was given to him by the controller of the grain supply and the commander of the Guard, Claudius was hesitant. He was urged to go immediately to the Guards’ camp to secure their support.

In order to make sure that Claudius would arrive safely at Rome from Ostia, Narcissus took over command of the Guard for the day and accompanied the emperor in his carriage. He presented Claudius with a document listing all of Messalina’s immoralities, and when she appeared with the two children on the outskirts of Rome to meet him, Narcissus had them removed. After taking Claudius to the home of Silius which was full of heirlooms of the imperial family, he conducted him to the Guards’ camp, where Silins and others involved with Messalina were condemned.

Messalina planned an appeal to Claudius, and according to Tacitus, “if Narcissus had not speedily caused her death, the fatal blow would have rebounded on her accuser” (Tacitus),  since Claudius’ anger appeared to be cooling. Narcissus gave orders (supposedly from Claudius) to officers of the Guard to kill her. The senate decreed that all statues of her and inscriptions bearing her name were to be removed, and they awarded Narcissus an honorary quaestorship.

The repercussions of her death

Tacitus ends this episode in his Annals with the ominous statement: “the vengeance on Messalina was just. But its consequences were grim”. He was referring to the convulsions that occurred in the imperial household with the rise to power of Agrippina, Claudius’ fourth wife.


Agrippina II, Claudius’ niece, had kept a low profile while Messalina was alive; she had already been persecuted by Messalina, and she feared for her son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (the future emperor, Nero). Agrippina was a widow, and on Messalina’s death wasted no time in securing support-particularly from the freedman Pallas-for her marriage to Claudius and promotion for her son at the expense of Messalina’s son, Britannicus.

According to the sources Agrippina completely dominated Claudius in the last years of his life, behaving as if she were a partner in his rule.


“always bowed to his wives commands” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.1)

“there seemed no difficulty in manipulating the mind of an emperor whose favour and animosity were always implanted and programmed by others” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.3)


“The emperor’s household was in convulsions as a result of the killing of Messalina” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.1)


“The state was transformed and everything passed under a woman’s control” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.5)

“Claudius…was being pushed into committing the most heinous crimes, also by the wiles of Agrippina” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.59)

“Her typically female lack of restraint, and her inordinate ambition” (Tacitus, Annals, 12.57)

Gauls in the Senate:

“By all means let them enjoy being citizens, but let them not cheapen the insignia of the senate and the dignity of the offices of state” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.23)

Freedmen/Messalina (2 in one!)

“During all of this [arrest of Messalina] Claudius maintained a strange silence and everything was passed under the control of his freedmen” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.52)

Strengths and Weaknesses of Claudius’ Reign

Strengths Weaknesses
  • He was an efficient and humane administrator. His social legislation illustrates his belief that it was his duty to look after the welfare of the people and to protect the weaker members of society such as women, slaves and minors. This was a preoccupation with him whether he was in the law courts or initiating policies. He provided public utilities, entertainments and justice, and he won the loyalty of the common people.
  • His policy of a assimilation was far-sighted, whether in the provinces (liberal extension of citizenship and encouragement of Romanisation through colonies) or by injecting new talent- the Aedui (Gauls)into the senate. He was highly appreciated by the provincials.
  • His successful military campaigns (Britain) gave him the support of the army. He also promoted the Praetorian Guard.
  • The creation of a centralised bureaucracy caused problems.  Claudius’ freedmen wielded great power as he delegated more and more state business to them. They were able to enrich themselves and secure the condemnation of anyone they wanted removed on even the flimsiest of evidence. The formation of the civil service deprived the senatorial and equestrian orders of much of their previous responsibilities, which created hostility towards Claudius.
  • His debauched and ambitious wives were responsible for the elimination of many influential people and the promotion of others of their choice. His weakness was shown when he allowed Agrippina practically equal status with himself.



Changing role of the Princeps under the Julio Claudian Rulers: Nero

The accession of Nero

Proclaimed emperor by Praetorians

Nero’s ultimate accession to the principate was due to the intrigues of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, in the years preceding Claudius’ death. On the sudden death of Claudius, his natural children were detained in the palace while Nero appeared outside with Burrus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. Nero was then taken to the Praetorian barracks where he was hailed as imperator, having made a promise to pay each guardsman 15 000 sesterces. Only then did he appear at the Senate House to receive the appropriate powers and honours.

As in the case of Gaius when Tiberius’ will was declared invalid so now the senate suppressed the will of Claudius – probably because it implied the equality of Nero and Britannicus. In the following year (55) Britannicus was poisoned, to remove the possibility of a Claudian conspiracy.

Nero was of average height with blond hair which he always had set in rows of curls- he was ‘pretty rather than handsome’, although his stomach protruded and his legs were spindly; Suetonius says that his body smelt and he was shameless in his manner of dress, often giving audiences in his silk dressing gown and slippers – yet despite his indulgent lifestyle, he was healthy

– Suetonius

HSC Ancient History Suetonius coin

  • A coin issued in the early part of Nero’s reign showing the young emperor with his mother, Agrippina the Younger; it clearly indicates Agrippina’s position at this stage
  • The only Roman coin where the Emperor has his mother with him – clearly shows her immense influence.

Nero’s character

Easily influenced, obviously insecure, as he gets more and more confident his influences are removed etc. he starts becoming a tyrant – we can see the progression of his reign.

Tacitus Quotes for Nero

  • Agrippina:
    • “devoted herself to scheming for her son…”
    • “Agrippina was gradually losing control over Nero.”
  • Seneca:
    • “had designs on him [Seneca] as a distinguished tutor for her young son…”
    • “he [Seneca] was believed to be devoted to her in gratitude for her favours.”
    • Seneca’s strength was “in amiable high principles and his tutition of Nero in public speaking.”
  • Burrus:
    • “The command was transferred [of the Praetorian Guard in 51] to Sextus Afranius Burrus…who was fully aware of the initiative behind his appointment”
    • “Burrus’ strength lay in soldierly efficiency and seriousness of character.”
    • “These two men, with an unanimity rare among partners in power by different methods were equally influential.”
    • “They collaborated in controlling the Emperor’s adolescence. Their policy was to direct his deviations from virtue into licensed channels of indulgence.”
    • “The death of Burrus caused great public distress”. It “undermined the influence of Seneca…now Nero listened to more disreputable advisers.”
  • Poppaea:
    • “Poppaea obtained access to Nero and established he ascendancy. First she used flirtatious wiles, pretending to be unable to resist her passion for Nero’s looks. Then as the emperor fell in love with her she became more haughty…”
  • Ofonius Tigellinus:
    • “Nero found his unending immoralities and evil reputation fascintaing”;
    • “Tigellinus was influential with the Emperor, in whose private debaucheries he participated.”
    • “Poppaea and Tigellinus, ultimate counsellors of the Emperor’s brutalities.”

An overview of Nero’s reign

The first phase

*(Because of Seneca and Burrus working together, curbing his vices, the first phase was stable and prosperous)

After the murder of Claudius, Nero was under the wise guidance of Seneca and Burrus from 56 to 61. This period has been referred to as the ‘quinquennium Neronis’, the five-year period of Nero’s reign which was generally marked by peace, prosperity, internal order and protection of the frontiers.

The welfare of Rome and Italy was considered. (include in essay under domestic policy)

  • Sufficient grain was assured by the appointment of an excellent prefect of the grain supply in the person of Faenius Rufus.
  • Claudius’ aqueduct system was extended and his harbour developments at Ostia were completed.
  • Provisions were made for better accommodation and greater order at


  • Nero twice distributed 400 sesterces each to the people.
  • Justice was carefully supervised and a law was passed allowing slaves to bring to the city prefect any complaints they had against their masters.
  • Nero replenished the bankrupt treasury with 40 000 000 sesterces of his own money, and replaced the quaestors in charge of the treasury with imperial prefects.
  • To check the serious depopulation of Italy, and to provide for the army, colonies were established at Capua, Nuceria, Puteoli and various other sites between 57 and 60.

The economic welfare of the provinces was promoted-Seneca had extensive financial interests.

Sound domestic and foreign policy under Seneca and Burrus

  • Governors charged with extortion were punished more readily. Of twelve governors tried for maladministration during the first seven years of Nero’s reign, over half were condemned.
  • An edict of 57 prevented governors from organising wild-beast and gladiatorial displays in their provinces.
  • The activities of the publicani were curbed even further.
  • Substantial aid was given to the Campanian cities (including Pompeii) which suffered an earthquake in AD 63.
  • An attempt to stimulate trade throughout the empire by abolishing harbour dues (establishing free trade) was a good scheme, but was blocked by the senate because there were practical difficulties in its implementation.

The second phase

*(The three major people holding him back lost control)

Influence of Poppaea and Tigellinus

The reasonable government of Nero under the guidance of Seneca and Burrus was replaced from 62 to 68 with a tyranny. Seneca and Burrus had aquiesced to Nero’s murder of Agrippina in 59, but they soon lost control over him as he was encouraged by Poppaea-his mistress, and later his wife-to rule alone. She created suspicions in Nero’s mind about Seneca and he retired after Burrus died in 62. Tigellinus, the coarse and vicious prefect of the vigiles, was appointed as one of the Praetorian prefects. He encouraged Nero in his cruelty and debauchery.

  • Nero’s artistic interests and passion for things Greek were given free rein. He was no longer content to perform in private, but was eager to display his talents in public.

Extravagance and debauchery

Nero and Poppea coin - extravagance and debauchery HSC Ancient History

A coin showing Nero and Poppea as the sun god and goddess –> influence of Poppea

  • His extravagant spending on the rebuilding of Rome after the Great Fire in 64, the construction of his Golden Palace, and the numerous parties and banquets at which all sorts of vices were indulged forced him to look for more ways of raising funds.
  • To finance his every whim, he forced the people of Italy and the provinces to pay more taxes, sold off many of the works of art from Greece, put wealthy people to death in order to confiscate their property, and debased the coinage.
  • He employed a large number of Greek and Oriental freedmen in positions of power-for example, Felix, the procurator of Judaea.
  • Under the influence of Poppaea, who wished to replace Octavia as his wife, he accused Octavia of adultery and sterility, banished her, and later had her murdered. Other members of the imperial family were also eliminated, including Tiberius’ grandson Rubellius Plautus, Claudius’ son-in-law Sulla, and a descendant of Augustus, Junius Silanus.


  • After the Great Fire he embarked on such a ferocious attack on the

Christians, whom he used as scapegoats, that the Roman citizens were eventually sickened by his brutality.

  • As a result of the attempted plot against his life in 65 (the conspiracy of Piso), he used Tigellinus to carry out savage reprisals which decimated the ranks of the old nobility.
  • By the last six years of his reign, Nero had alienated all classes of Romans.

Alienation of upper classes

His artistic and athletic desires alienated most groups in Roman society except the urban mob; they were enthusiastic about an emperor who enjoyed the same entertainments as themselves. The nobility and equites were shocked, offended and repelled by his undignified behaviour in public.

  1. At first his performances were semiprivate, with a few specially invited spectators.
  2. He then instituted ‘Youth Games’ (Ludi Iuvenales) comprising musical and theatrical performances in Latin and Greek, and held in his own gardens. This gave him the chance to perform, and it was the first occasion on which men of senatorial and equestrian rank took part
  3. A corps of young, wealthy Romans was formed in order to enthusiastically applaud Nero’s performances. They were called ‘Augustiani’, and were trained in rhythmic applause.
  4. He instituted the ‘Neronia’ (five-yearly contest), which lasted several days and included competitions in poetry, rhetoric, music and athletics. He encouraged the well-educated classes in Rome to enter

Nero’s performances become more public

  1. In 64, he made his first really public appearance in a Greek environment. He performed as singer and musician on the stage in Naples (a Greek city).

Tour of and performances in Greece

  1. He believed, however, that the Greeks in their own country were the only ones who would really appreciate his vast talents, so in 66 he set out for Greece. He remained there for a year, intending to extend his tour to the east. During this one year the Greeks held all four Games-Olympic, Isthmian, Pythian and Nemean-so that Nero could take part, and win all the prizes. He was awarded winner’s honours in contests in which he failed, or in some cases did not even enter.

A certain degree of megalomania was revealed when in 67 he repeated the proclamation of Flamininus (196 BC) at the Isthmian Games.

Reward for the Greeks

“Men of Hellas, I give you an unlooked for gift- if indeed anything may not be hoped for from one of my greatness of mind- a gift so great, you were incapable of asking for it. All Greeks inhabiting Achaea and the land called till now the Peloponnese receive freedom and immunity from taxes, something which not all of you enjoyed even in your happiest days.” – Warmington quoting an inscription found in Acraephia in Boeotia

The Great Fire, AD 64

In July 64 one of the most famous incidents of Nero’s principate occurred – a great fire, which burned for over a week. It had serious consequences for Nero and the people of Rome as well as for a group of ‘notoriously depraved’ people with ‘antisocial tendencies’, (Tacitus) called Christians. Although fires were common in Rome owing to the overcrowded and poorly built insulae tenements), this was ‘the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced’ (Tacitus)


The fire began in shops selling inflammable materials in the Circus Maximus area, and was fanned by a wind so that it quickly spread through the narrow streets of timber tenements and up the hills.

The extent of the damage

Only four of the fourteen regions of Rome escaped damage, while three were completely destroyed. Although the Forum, the Capitol and part of the Palatine were not damaged, many ancient shrines, public buildings, palaces, temples, mansions and tenements were burnt to the ground. ‘Among the losses too were … Greek artistic masterpieces, and authentic records of old Roman genius’· (Tacitus)

Accidental or deliberate?

Tacitus says that ‘whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act on the part of the emperor is uncertain – both versions have supporters’. However, he then adds that Nero was at Antium and only ‘returned to Rome when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built … ‘ (Tacitus)

Most other sources, including Suetonius and Dio Cassius, preferred to believe that Nero was responsible and in fact record that he sang of the Sack of Troy while he watched the city burn. Despite the lack of any evidence of his responsibility, tumours soon spread among the panicking people that his agents had been caught in the act of lighting the fire. It was believed that Nero wanted ‘to found a new city to be called after himself’. (Tacitus) This view was reinforced when a new outbreak started on the estate of Tigellinus.

Nero’s temporary relief measures

He opened his own gardens, the Field of Mars and public buildings for the homeless; emergency housing was built, food supplies were brought in from Ostia and surrounding towns, and the price of com was reduced considerably.

Persecution of the Christians

In an attempt to appease the gods the Sibylline Books were consulted and various rites carried out, but ‘neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had  been instigated’. (Tacitus) Nero desperately needed someone to blame (a scapegoat) and he chose the Christians, whom Suetonius described as ‘a sect professing a new and mischievous belief’. (Suetonius) Tacitus said that they were punished by Nero not so much for starting the fire, but for their ‘degraded and shameful practices’ (Tacitus) (the words and symbols used in the communion-the ‘body and blood of Christ’).

Those who admitted to being Christians were arrested, and informed on others. Their punishments were brutal- they were tom to pieces by dogs, crucified or made into human torches and ignited after dark to create a spectacle. Such unnecessary brutality moved even the urban mob to pity the victims.

Rebuilding Rome

The fire gave Nero the opportunity not only to rebuild Rome but to construct an enormous and lavish palace for himself, called the Domus Aurea (Golden House).

In rebuilding the burnt section of the city, he combined practicality with beauty. A proportion of each newly constructed house had to be of fireproof stone; streets were broadened; frontages were aligned; no semidetached houses were allowed; heights were restricted; houses were built around courtyards with protective colonnades in the front and with firefighting equipment readily available. A better water supply was provided also.

His new Golden House was so large that it extended from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill. The following extracts from Tacitus and Suetonius refer to the origin of Christianity and Nero’s Golden House .

“. . . the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstitution had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome.” – Tacitus

“The entrance hall was large enough to contain a huge statue of himself, 120 feet high; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, like a sea, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands … Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother-of-pearl. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers or of perfume from hidden sprinklers shower upon his guests. The main dining-room was circular, and its roof revolved, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water or sulphur water was always on tap in the baths.” – Suetonius

HSC Ancient History Nero golden house

Remains of the circular dining room of Nero’s Golden House, which had a revolving dome representing the sky.

Nero’s frontier and provincial policies

Little interest in the provinces

It appears that Nero had very little interest in the provinces apart from Greece, which interested him because of the artistic accomplishments of its people. He had no real interest in his troops and never visited them, and his only involvement in the provinces seems to have been his choice of governors for those which were armed (i.e. he is worried about putting the legions into the hand of someone who could oppose him). Some areas were fortunate to experience good government, while others suffered from incompetent administrators- as is evidenced by the outbreaks of revolt. He reversed Claudius’ policy with regard to client-kingdoms.

The Rhine and the west

There appeared to be no problems along the Rhine frontier, but although nothing much is recorded of events in the western provinces, it was from this area that the movement to eliminate Nero came.


Revolt of Boudicca

A dangerous situation arose in Britain with the uprising of Boudicca of the lceni. The lceni were victims of the Roman tax collectors and moneylenders, and Boudicca (widow of King Prasutagus) and her daughters were treated outrageously by the Romans. They were flogged and raped. Boudicca gained the support of other discontented British tribes, and serious revolt spread through the southeast. Despite the efforts of the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, the towns of Colchester, St Albans and London were threatened and over 70 000 people were killed. Reinforcements from Rome eventually enabled Suetonius to put down this serious threat to Roman control of Britain.

Southeast Europe, the Danube, and North Africa

In 67, Nero responded to a flattering delegation from Greece (Achaea) by freeing this province from the authority of the governor of Macedonia and granting it immunity from taxation. To compensate for the loss of the province, he gave the senate Sardinia. The Danube frontier caused no trouble at this time.

There is very little information on affairs in Africa during Nero’s reign.

The east

Nero faced his greatest dangers in the east.


The Roman nominee on the throne of Armenia was replaced by the Parthian king’s brother. Nero was advised to use force in Armenia, and the Roman commander, Corbulo, crossed the Euphrates River in 57 and captured Tigranocerta. When the new king of Armenia fled to join his brother in Parthia, Corbulo placed Tigranes on the throne, and this move provoked the Parthians. The king of Parthia made sure that the Roman province of Syria was prevented from sending help to the Romans, and Corbulo began negotiations. However, Nero decided to annex Armenia.

This was unsuccessful, since the Roman commander, Paetus, was defeated by the Parthians and Armenia was once more under their control. The Romans and Parthians reached a form of compromise- Tiridates (the brother of the Parthian king) was restored to the throne, but the Parthians agreed to allow the Romans to install him as king and he was crowned in a ceremony in Rome. This marked the beginning of approximately fifty years of peace between Parthia and Rome.


Another trouble spot was the province of Judaea. The Jews were always difficult to govern, and the post of governor was not popular. There was continued strife between Jews and Greeks, Jews and Christians, and the two Jewish sects, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Jewish desire for national independence, misgovernment by the Roman officials in Judaea between 62 and 64, and the Roman preoccupation with Armenia and Parthia led to rebellion in 66. In the following year Jerusalem was heavily fortified by the Jews and Josephus raised a force of 60 000, with which he defended Galilee. The future Roman emperor, Vespasian, was given the command against the Jews and in 67 and 68 he gradually overran the country; the death of Nero interrupted his task. It was not until the following year that Jerusalem was finally captured, after a herioc defence. Vespasian’s son, Titus, totally destroyed the city.

Nero and the Senate

Early relations with the senate reasonable

In a speech to the senate on his accession, the young Nero outlined his future policy. He promised to put an end to further encroachment on the senate’s authority. Criminal cases concerning Italy and the provinces were to be tried once again in the senatorial court and there was to be an end to the interference of freedmen in state affairs.

‘I will not judge every kind of case myself, he said, ‘and give too free rein to the influence of a few individuals by hearing prosecutors and defendants behind closed doors. From my house, bribery and favouritism will be excluded. I will keep personal and State affairs separate. The senate is to preserve its ancient functions. By applying to the consuls, people from Italy and the senatorial provinces may have access to its tribunals. I myself will look after the armies under my control’. Tacitus

Any charges brought by delatores were dismissed.

‘He refused to allow the prosecution of … a junior senator, Carinas Celer, who was accused by a slave.’

He rejected offers to erect gold and silver statues of himself, refused to accept the title of ‘Father of his country’, and exempted his colleague in the consulship from ‘swearing allegiance, like the other officials, to the Emperor’s acts. The senate praised this vigorously’. Promises of clemency were made in many speeches, and he ‘showed leniency by readmitting to the senate Plautius Lateranus, who had been expelled for adultery with Messalina’. With ‘the high-minded guidance’ of Seneca, Nero’s relationship with the senate was reasonable. There were even times when the senate was independent enough to block proposals put forward by the emperor himself, such as Nero’s suggestion of introducing free trade throughout the empire – this is a strong example as it is actions, not just words.


Some independent voices in the senate – Thrasea Paetus

Individual senators spoke out; one such was the Stoic, Thrasea Paetus, who was very influential in the early years of Nero’s principate and was open about his dislike of many of the adulatory decrees passed by the senate. Tacitus says that it was his practice ‘to pass over flatteries in silence or with curt agreement’, but when a decree of thanksgiving for Nero’s escape from his mother was being discussed, Thrasea left the Senate House, ‘thereby endangering himself’. However, when the treason law was revived in 62 and the praetor Antistius Sosanius was charged with writing verse satirising the emperor, ‘Thrasea’s independence made others less servile’. He had argued against the death sentence, and the rest of the senate-despite Nero’s anger-supported him. In the following year, Nero forbade Thrasea to accompany other senators to Antium to celebrate the birth of Nero’s daughter Claudia, and as a form of protest Thrasea withdrew from public life for three years.

Adulatory (excessive praising/ adoring) decrees

Adulatory senatorial decrees reached ‘new depths of sycophancy or abasement’ after Burrus’ death and Seneca’s retirement. Nero was under the influence of his mistress, Poppaea, who organised false charges against his wife, Octavia. As a result, Octavia was divorced, banished and later killed, and the senate celebrated the murder with a decree of thanksgiving. Two years after Poppaea’s marriage to Nero she died while pregnant (supposedly from a kick from Nero), and the senate deified her and her daughter. With the help of the low-born Praetorian perfect Tigellinus, whose cruelty and debauched activities offended all dignified Romans, Nero’s artistic activities and extravagances increased. He needed massive funds, but had already drained the treasury and deprived the senate of its right to mint copper coins; he therefore now took advantage of any opportunity to confiscate the property of senators. Link to Caligula – it has all occurred before – problem with absolute power.

Opposition to Nero Increased

Dissatisfaction with Nero among senators increased, until in 65 it culminated in a serious conspiracy against his life.

Conspiracy of Piso

A plot involving forty-one senators was formed to assassinate Nero and replace him with C. Calpurnius Piso, a member of one of the remaining republican families; Piso himself was not the originator of the conspiracy, which included such people as Lucan (the poet), Faenius Rufus (one of the two Praetorian prefects) and the consul-designate, Plautius Lateranus. There were also a number of officers of the Guards involved. Individual motives for joining the conspiracy varied, but most were probably disgusted with Nero’s criminal record, his abolition of the senate’s rights and, more particularly, the way in which he had lowered the tone of the imperial position – motives. However, the plot was discovered and many distinguished senators, innocent or guilty, were executed or forced to commit suicide. Many of the deaths followed the same pattern: guardsmen would be sent with Nero’s order to commit suicide, at which the accused would ‘open his veins’. Among those who died were Seneca (although ‘Nero had no proof of Seneca’s complicity’), his nephew Lucan, the consul M. Junius Vestinus Atticus (against whom there was no charge) and the consul-designate, Lateranus.


As a result of the conspiracy and the growing fear of Nero for his life, there were nineteen deaths and many exiles. ‘After the massacre of so many distinguished men, Nero finally coveted the destruction of Virtue herself by killing Thrasea and Marcius Barea Soranus. He had long hated them both. ‘ Tacitus (good quotes as you can comment on Tacitus’ aside) They had not been actively involved in the plot, but were outspoken against Nero.


In the remaining years of his reign, Nero’s informers were everywhere; wealthy and prominent senators were not safe from Tigellinus, on whose authority leading Romans could be destroyed without even the pretence of a trial. Some years of this tyrannical power almost annihilated the senatorial class-which Suetonius maintained was Nero’s avowed purpose.

‘Often he [Nero] hinted broadly that it was not his intention to spare the remaining senators, but would one day wipe out the entire Senatorial Order’. Suetonius

The revolt of Vindex and Galba and the downfall of Nero

Discontent in western provinces

While Nero was in Greece opposition against him grew not only in Rome, but in the western provinces particularly. Julius Vindex was the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, and with the support of other governors planned to rebel against Nero. When the proposed uprising became known Vindex suggested to the governor of Tarraconensis (Spain), Sulpicius Galba, that he accept the leadership of the revolt. Vindex was defeated by the governor of Upper Germany, and committed suicide, but Galba- the veteran aristocrat- declared himself ‘Legate of the Senate and Roman People’.

Galba declared emperor by army

His own troops hailed him as imperator, other commanders joined him, and he followed the practice of Claudius in offering the Praetorian Guard 30 000 sesterces per man. Tigellinus had deserted Nero; he was now without the support of the Praetorian Guard which, with the senate, recognised Galba as emperor and declared Nero a public enemy.

Suicide of Nero

Nero had alienated the upper class and had neglected the army, and for an emperor to survive under these conditions was difficult. He fled from Rome and hid in the home of one of his freedmen, but chose to commit suicide rather than wait for the soldiers to arrest him. His death at the age of only 31 brought to an end the supremacy of the Julian and Claudian gens.

Tacitus sums up the response to Nero’s death in his Histories.

The senators were happy and at once used their new freedom of speech more freely since they had an emperor who was still absent; the most important of the knights were next to the senators in feeling satisfaction; the respectable part of the people, attached to the powerful families_, and the clients and freedmen of the condemned and exiled, were full of hope. But the base plebs, addicted to the circus and the theatre, and the worst of the slaves, and those who had wasted their money and were maintained by the emperor, to his own disgrace, were resentful and open to rumour. The Praetorians, long accustomed to their oath to the Caesars, had been led to depose Nero by diplomacy and pressure rather than their own wish. ‘

Consequences of the Death of Nero

  • Senators were happy and took advantage of the power they gained with an absent emperor.
  • The important knights were similarly satisfied.
  • Powerful families and important people, as well as clients and freedmen who were in exile, were filled with hope.
  • Base plebs and those who enjoyed the circus and theatre, and slavers who were maintained by Nero, were resentful, as they gave him a lot of support.
  • The Praetorian guard had broken its oath to the Ceasars – perhaps losing a lot of trust – due to the pressures of diplomacy: “The Praetorians, long accustomed to their oath to the Caesars, had been led to depose Nero by diplomacy and pressure rather than their own wish.”
  • “above all things, he most eagerly coveted popularity”
  • “the public joy was so great upon the occasion” of his death.
  • “Of all the Roman emperors who had hitherto reigned, he seems to have been most corrupted by profligate favourites who flattered his follies and vices, to promote their own aggrandisement.  In the number of these was Tigellinus, who met at last with the fate which he had so amply merited.”

The Senate: Changing role and Responsibilities

According to Dio and Tacitus (Sources 9.20 and 9.21) the Senate was no longer the major ruling body of Rome. Augustus had usurped the Senate’s functions, yet it had handed him much of his authority. The Senate could have refused to give these honours and powers to Augustus, for it had the legal power; Augustus, however, controlled the ‘real’ power—the army. The Senate discussed issues, minted bronze and copper coinage, made laws through the passing of senatus consulta, acted as a court of justice and had charge of the senatorial provinces. However, Augustus changed its mode of operation by the introduction of the consilium (the senatorial council) and the use of his auctoritas. Dio explains the operation of the consilium:

“[Augustus] called in the consuls . . . to advise him for periods of six months, together with one of the holders of each of the other offices of state [that is, the magistrates], and fifteen men chosen by lot from the rest of the Senate. In consequence it became a practice that all legislation put forward by the emperors is communicated after a fashion through these advisers to all the other senators.”

Augustus depended on the senatorial class for the administrative machinery of the empire. By the end of his reign, the Senate virtually followed his orders. Tiberius tried to restore the Senate to its former position of executive responsibility, but to no avail—it had become too dependent on the princeps. Gaius treated the Senate with disdain. The Senate had no respect for Claudius because it was given no say in his selection as emperor. By the end of the Julio-Claudian period, the Senate had become almost irrelevant, an apathetic body ruled by factions.


  • Augustus tried to restore to the Senate its prestige, and treated it with some respect. He aimed to make the body operate more efficiently, so in 29/28 BC he revised the list of eligible senators and reduced the number from 1000 to 800. In 18 BC he reduced the Senate to 600. In 11 BC and AD 4 there were further revisions of the Senate. In 17 BC senators were fined for not attending Senate meetings.
  • Augustus relied upon the senatorial class to administer the state. For example, senatorial commissions were in charge of aqueducts, corn supply, roads and public buildings (Suetonius, Augustus, 37). Senators were recruited from the twenty young men who each year became quaestors, or financial secretaries. The quaestors were elected by the Senate but Augustus checked the list of candidates. Birth had been the main qualification for entry to the senatorial class, but in 13 BC Augustus established a minimum property qualification for senators of one million sesterces. It is known that Augustus financially assisted worthy members of the equestrian class to take the step up to the senatorial group.
  • Augustus had the right to introduce the first item to Senate meetings. The Senate basically acted as an advisory body to Augustus, but was able to pass resolutions, or senatus consulta. Augustus changed the way in which the Senate functioned by introducing the consilium—a committee composed of Augustus, the two consuls, a representative of each of the magistrates and fifteen men chosen by lot from the Senate. The consilium prepared the agenda for Senate meetings and discussed issues with Augustus. The Senate became, virtually ‘a rubber stamp’, for it was unlikely that its members would resist the direction of the consilium and the leading statesman, Augustus. In AD 13 the consilium was enlarged to include Augustus’ step-son Tiberius, the two adopted grandsons, the consuls designate and an additional five senators chosen by lot.
  • Augustus wanted the Senate to be a responsible and dignified body, so he insisted that religious observances were undertaken before the commencement of its meetings. In 9 BC it was determined that the Senate met twice a month. A quorum was established for certain types of business.
  • The Senate, in conjunction with the two consuls, formed a senatorial court and conducted trials of people of high rank. For example, Augustus brought to the Senate a case of maiestas, or treason, against Cassius Severus. Volesus Messalla was accused before the Senate of provincial misgovernment. The senatorial courts dealt not only with treason, but also with extortion and adultery.
  • The more settled peaceful provinces were administered by the Senate.
  • Under Augustus, the Senate retained control of the aerarium, or public treasury of Rome. However, we learn from the Res Gestae that the treasury was often empty and that Augustus had to make contributions to it, which meant that he exerted an unofficial control over the Senate’s expenditure. The setting up of the military treasury in AD 5–6 further reduced the Senate’s control of finances. The Senate minted bronze and copper coins with the mark ‘SC’  inscribed on them. Augustus seems to have had an influence on the design of these coins, as many of them reflect his policies.


  • Tiberius attempted to restore the traditional rights and dignity of the Senate by consulting it on every issue. He “commended to the senate Germanicus’ son Nero Caesar” and asked that he be “permitted to stand for the quaestorship five years ahead of the legal age”. (Tacitus, Annals, III, 29.1) Suetonius reports that he consulted the Senate on national revenue, repair of buildings, troop movements, military commands and foreign policy (Suetonius, Tiberius, 30.1–2). Being a traditionalist, Tiberius always entered the Senate House without an escort, and rose to greet the consuls (Suetonius, Tiberius, 31.4).
  • The election of magistrates was transferred from the comitia (people’s assembly) to the Senate. Tiberius tried to encourage the Senate to become a significant legislative body—the most important business was transacted in the Senate (Tacitus, Annals, IV, 6). Tiberius was concentrating more power in his own hands and taking a direct role in the electoral process (Levick, Tiberius, p. 96).
  • Tiberius abolished the consilium of Augustus and instead established a council of his friends plus a group of twenty men chosen for him from the Senate. The consilium of Tiberius advised him on administrative matters (Suetonius, Tiberius, 55).
  • Tiberius expanded the judicial role of the Senate by making it responsible for trying provincial officials and those charged with maiestas and (occasionally) murder. The senatorial court dealt with many treason cases in Tiberius’ reign. Like Augustus, Tiberius assisted indidivuals to meet the financial qualifications of the senatorial group. Others who asked for his help were told to prove their case before the Senate (Tacitus, Annals, I, 75.6). The Senate offered Tiberius titles and honours, which he refused (Suetonius, Tiberius, 26).
  • Although he wanted the Senate to be an independent body and encouraged it to debate and discuss issues,  the senators were sometimes reluctant to uphold their responsibilities. In AD 21 Tiberius reminded the Senate that its province of Africa required a new governor who would quell the rebellion that was occurring there. The Senate showed itself to be inadequate at this point, for it wanted Tiberius to make the choice (Tacitus, Annals, III, 32). Tiberius did not conduct purges of the Senate as Augustus had done, perhaps disapproving of his predecessor’s predecessor’s methods. He was also sparing in the number of men he admitted to the Senate.
  • In AD 19 the Senate took a greater role in religious matters when it chose a new Vestal Virgin. In 22 it debated on the rights of the Flamen Dialis and in 24 had to elect a replacement priest.
  • Senatorial commissions were set up to deal with the problems of the flooding of the Tiber, the care of public buildings, the maintenance of public records, investigation of catastrophes—such as the collapse of the Amphitheatre in AD 27 and periodic earthquakes.
  • As his reign progressed, Tiberius became increasingly frustrated with the Senate (Dio, Roman History, LVIII, 18, 3–6). He became so annoyed with the servility of the senators that he commented that they were “men fit to be slaves” (Tacitus, Annals, III, 64).
  • In AD 26 Tiberius left Rome and settled on Capri. When in Rome, he had regularly attended the Senate and this probably raised the level of the debate. As a result of his leaving Rome, Tiberius changed the centre of government. Levick notes that “the Senate, functioning as a court, was being exploited by rival factions . . . and incapable of operating as a serious deliberative body” (Levick, Tiberius, p. 113).


  • Two days after the death of Tiberius, Gaius appeared before the Senate, where “immediately and unanimously [it] conferred absolute power upon him” (Suetonius, Gaius, 14). He was given tribunician power and proconsular imperium as well as many titles. The balance that had been built up by Augustus and maintained by Tiberius was destroyed in one blow. At that meeting of the Senate, Tiberius’ will was declared null and void. By a senatorial decree, Gaius was given the power to do what he thought was right for the state.
  • At first, Gaius treated the Senate with great respect  and promised to share power with it (Dio, Roman History, LIX, 6). He won popularity with the Senate when he abolished the charges of maiestas, put an end to the use of delatores (informers) and recalled senators exiled in the reign of Tiberius. He was concerned for the welfare of senators, allowing them to sit on cushions at the shows instead of bare boards.
  • After his illness in AD 37, Gaius’ behaviour changed, now treating the Senate with contempt and dispensing with their services. Suetonius tells us that Gaius enjoyed humiliating senators by making them run beside his chariot dressed in their togas or wait on him dressed in their tunics (Suetonius, Gaius, 26). He was planning to give his horse, Incitatus, a consulship— an insult to the office and to the Senate (Suetonius, Gaius, 55). He abused the Senate for destroying his family, favouring Sejanus and being hostile to Tiberius (Suetonius, Gaius, 30).
  • In AD 38, Gaius renewed the laws of maiestas. He removed the Senate’s right to mint coins.
  • He executed any senators who tried to give him advice.
  • After the conspiracy of AD 39, senators became fearful that Gaius might suspect them of plotting against him. The Senate became sycophantic and granted him even more honours.
  • Senators such as Vinicianus, Valerius Asiaticus and Longinus were part of the plot that killed Gaius.
  • The Senate had little choice in confirming Gaius as princeps, given the arrangements of the Praetorian Guard. Yet the senators, according to Barrett, “must bear responsibility for the massive grant of powers they made to the young, inexperienced and almost totally unknown Caligula, and for their own reluctance to try to curb or restrain him.” The Senate responded to each humiliation by giving Gaius even more honours and by spending vast sums trying to entertain him (Barrett, Caligula, p. 239).


  • After Gaius’ assassination, Claudius was proclaimed ruler by the Praetorian Guard while the Senate debated whether to restore the republic. Josephus tells us that the Senate wanted to regain its former prestige. In AD 41 it declared Claudius a public enemy. Claudius granted 15 000 sesterces to every guardsman, as a result of which the Senate was forced to confer on him the powers of princeps. Claudius was resented because the Senate believed it had been given no say in the choice of ruler (Josephus, The Jewish War, XIX, 19, 212–67). “By forcing himself on the Senate, Claudius inflicted a deep wound in its authority and self-regard” (Levick, Claudius, p. 93).
  • When Claudius began his rule he completely ignored the fact that the Senate had seriously considered changing the form of government (Suetonius, Claudius, 11).
  • A number of senators had been involved in Gaius’ murder, but Claudius gave amnesties to all except the actual murderers. He tried to be conciliatory, recalling exiles, repealing Gaius’ laws and granting consulships to those with republican  sympathies. (Just like Gaius did in his rule, try to repair the things from the emperor before him)
  • Claudius displayed respect and courtesy to the Senate—he stood in its presence; restored to it the elections of the magistrates; held banquets for senators and their wives; personally visited sick senators; granted consulships to men of distinction and restored to the Senate its right to mint coinage.
  • Claudius attempted to increase the prestige of the Senate by expelling lazy senators (Tacitus, Annals, XII, 52). He encouraged the Senate to take its responsibilities seriously as a forum for discussion and for the passing of legislation. Foreign affairs and matters concerning the provinces were once more discussed by the Senate. There were more senatus consulta (piece of legislation with the senates blessing) passed in Claudius’ reign than in that of any other princeps (Levick, Claudius, p. 97).
  • Claudius established an efficient centralised administration. His reliance on this civil service encroached on senatorial areas of responsibility. He “renewed the practice of having advisers sit with him, a practice that had been abandoned when Tiberius retired to Capri” (Dio, Roman History, LX, 4.4). The Senate became even more hostile to Claudius (Tacitus, Annals, XII, 57). A further cause of hostility was his extensive use of freedmen such as Pallas, Narcissus and Polybius in the administration of Rome. Tiberius and Augustus had also used freedmen, but Claudius formalised their use.
  • Claudius kept many routine administrative details to himself and his selected assistants, so that the Senate felt that it was ignorant of the direction of government.
  • Claudius interfered in traditional areas of Senate responsibility. Charge of the imperial treasury was taken away from the Senate and given to procurators answerable to Claudius. Procurators were also placed on senatorial commissions. Claudius returned some provinces to the Senate but then he interfered in the administration of them.
  • In AD 41 Claudius abolished the charge of maiestas, but later revived it. Many of the trials for the accused were supposedly held in the palace behind closed doors or in the Senate before Claudius, the prefects and the freedmen (Dio, Roman History, LX, 16.3). Claudius regularly attended the senatorial courts but an increasing number of criminal matters were handled in the imperial court. (Another pattern: abolished maiestas but then brings it back, all the emperors have the same issue, it’s unpopular, yet they need to deal with the people undermining the central authority)
  • In AD 42 an attempted coup was hatched; Claudius was always fearful of the recurrence of plots. It was claimed that in Claudius’ reign, thirty-five senators and about 300 equestrians were killed (actually more than  Tiberius, despite his purported “reign of terror” (tacitus)).
  • Augustus had used the censorial power as an instrument of government, but Claudius revived the office of censor itself. As censor, he held a revision of the Senate and enrolled many of his supporters. He also introduced into the Senate worthy men from the provinces. (The Senate did not like admitting foreigners.) Seneca mocks Claudian policy in this matter: “He made up his mind, you know, to see the whole world in the toga, Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards, Britons and all” (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis, 3). (the senate is a very traditional body which dislikes new wealth and new blood – claudius wants a more efficient govt. and so he highlights freedmen, and takes away a lot of the criminal court from the senate – yet the senators, including Seneca, dislike this elevation of slaves)
  • Dio tells us that Claudius accepted all the titles and honours given to him at the beginning of his reign, with the exception of “father of his country”. He later accepted this when he felt he had earned it (Dio, Roman History, LX, 3.2). After the conquest of Britain in AD 43, the Senate gave him the title of ‘Britannicus’.
  • Claudius wanted the senators to express their views, but they were intimidated by the constant presence of the Praetorians, who supported Claudius. This element of force deepened senatorial resentment at Claudius’ rule. (The PG are making their presence known a bit more – they are supporting Claudius, and so the Senate are worried about being punished for expressing their views)


  • Because he was influenced by Seneca and Burrus, Nero’s elations with the Senate were at first good. He promised to  reverse the unpopular measures that Claudius had introduced. (PATTERN) In his first speech to the Senate, composed by Seneca, Nero promised that the Senate would exercise its traditional functions; that there would be no treason trials; that the freedmen would be controlled; that he would not conduct all the judicial business as Claudius had done and that he would model his leadership on that of Augustus. (Exactly what they had all done to begin with) Criminal cases in Italy and the provinces were tried in the senatorial court.
  • Initially, Nero rejected offers of statues and titles.
  • The Senate was able to debate freely (Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 25). Nero wanted to abolish customs duties, but the Senate prevented this (Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 50). (abolishing customs tax would be too hard, and the act the Senate overrided this shows the power he gave them to prevent even his desires.)
  • Coins were issued on the authority of the Senate.
  • After the murder of Agrippina in AD 59, the death of Burrus in AD 62 and Seneca’s retirement, Nero’s relations with the Senate deteriorated. According to Suetonius, Nero made senators and knights do battle in the arena at public shows (Suetonius, Nero, 12). As his reign progressed, Nero neglected his imperial duties in favour of poetry, drama and music. He appeared disinterested in discussing matters of state, preferring to demonstrate the mechanics of waterorgans or talk about his lyre-playing (Suetonius, Nero, 41).
  • Treason trials were revived by Tigellinus, the Praetorian prefect. A number of prominent senators and wealthy people were murdered. Many senators had their property confiscated. Nero “hinted broadly that it was not his intention to spare the remaining senators, but would one day wipe out the entire senatorial order” (Suetonius, Nero, 37).
  • Most of the senators became more sycophantic. For example, Nero’s wife Octavia was murdered and the Senate responded with decrees of thanksgiving. Nero’s daughter died—at the age of four months— and the Senate declared her a goddess. (This tragedy with the treason trials is partly the senates fault – they gave too much power to the emperors which corrupted them; relationships with the senate started off favourably, however the emperor suspected weaknesses in the senate, or they want to eulw themselves, caligula just wanted more money, claudius wanted efficient govt. nero just lost interest, in almost all cases it ended unfavourably, partly because the senate was useless, partly because the emperor had other ideas.)
  • Some senators, such as Thrasea Paetus, tried to resist Nero.
  • In AD 65 the Pisonian conspiracy was uncovered. A number of senators had conspired to assassinate Nero. After the plot was uncovered, the treason trials were conducted in secret. Many senators, both innocent and guilty, were murdered—including Seneca, Lucan and Thrasea Paetus. Tigellinus purged the Senate.
  • In AD 68 the Senate declared Nero a public enemy.

Reforms and Policies of the Julio-Claudian rulers: Political, Social, Legal, Religious and Administrative


It should be noted at the outset that imperial policy includes the treatment of provinces and frontiers. Provinces are those areas conquered and settled by the Romans, while frontiers refer to the imperial boundaries— those areas on the borders of the empire. The frontiers were fluid, moving frequently as initiatives expanded and contracted.

Political and geographical conditions were so variable within the empire that the Romans did not use a single strategy. They adopted various means to control the empire: military conquest; diplomacy; buffer zones of client states; the traditional method of ‘divide and rule’, whereby the emperors fostered internal conflicts. The Romans dealt with each area according to its own circumstances. Two areas of particular concern throughout this period were the Rhine–Danube frontier and the Syria–Asia Minor area that bordered on the Parthian empire.

Augustus intended to conquer the whole world, or at least to create the impression that he had. He projected the image of a world conqueror, a bringer of peace, the ruler over foreign kings. He extended the Roman Empire in some areas, but suffered a major setback in Germany. Retained the image of Pax Romana.

Tiberius had undertaken expeditions on behalf of Augustus. He understood the Augustan policies of consolidating the Roman frontiers and improving the government of the provinces. During his reign, therefore, Tiberius followed the Augustan policy of consolidation, and made some innovative changes to provincial government.

Gaius reversed Augustan policies in the East, particularly in Parthia and Judaea, which weakened Rome’s position. However, he made some wise decisions with regard to client kings.

Claudius adopted a policy of expansion and conquered Britain. Like Augustus before him, Claudius cultivated the image of a great conqueror.

Nero maintained the Roman frontiers but failed to solve some major provincial problems. His neglect of the provinces had dire consequences, for it was the provincial governors who led the revolts that ultimately caused his downfall.


The Augustan poets praised Augustus for extending the Roman Empire and bringing great glory and wealth to Rome. Augustus promoted several images of himself, including that of a world conqueror. At the beginning of the Res Gestae, he claimed that he had ‘subjected the world to the power of the Roman people’.

Augustus did not employ one overarching policy for the whole of the empire—particular circumstances dictated the use of specific methods. ‘Augustus . . . allowed the allied nations to manage their affairs according to their ancestral traditions.’ He was content to permit some territories to govern themselves, while over others he favoured the continuation of direct Roman rule. This idea of imperial flexibility ‘he impressed upon the Senate in writing’ (Dio, Roman History, LIV, 9).

Client kings: The general policy, was to leave the client kings or native rulers in control of their own territories. To ensure the loyalty of these client kingdoms, the Romans often held members of their families as hostages in Rome. If the local kingdoms were unstable or threatened Roman security, they were annexed and became provinces of Rome. Such client kingdoms were usually situated on the fringes of the empire, and acted as buffer zones between Roman controlled territory and the possibly hostile areas beyond.

Augustus’ aim was to have defensible frontiers against ‘barbarian’ invaders. He wanted to push frontiers to their natural limits without losing control of distant armies.

In 25 BC Augustus established Juba as the client king of Mauretania. He also established client kingdoms in Cappadocia, Commagene and Chalcis.

Senatorial and imperial provinces: In 27 BC the provinces were divided into senatorial and imperial units of administration. The Senate controlled the senatorial provinces, which rarely held troops; the imperial provinces were controlled by Augustus through his legati. ‘He handed over the weaker provinces to the Senate, on the ground that they were at peace and free from war, but he kept the stronger under his authority, arguing that they were insecure and exposed to danger and either had enemies near their frontiers or were capable of starting a serious rebellion on their own initiative’ (Dio, Roman History, LIII, 12).

Augustus established the client kingdom of Judaea,  which was put into the hands of Herod the Great. In AD 6, after Herod’s death, it became an imperial province.

The Balkans: Between 12 and 9 BC, Tiberius, on behalf of Augustus, conducted four campaigns in the Balkan region. A serious revolt erupted in Pannonia in AD 6, but eventually this area was divided into the two provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia.

Spain: In 26 BC Augustus personally led the army to north–west Spain to extend Roman control. It took further campaigns by M. Agrippa before Spain was subdued in 19 BC. Horace wrote an ode celebrating Augustus’ success in Spain, and the Ara Pacis was set up to honour the achievement.

Gaul: In 27–13 BC Gaul was divided into three districts: Belgica, Aquitania and Lugdunensis, for ease of administration.

Provincial government: Augustus saw provincial government as a priority and made extensive tours of the provinces: 27–24 BC—Gaul and Spain; 22–19 BC—the eastern provinces; 15–13 Gaul (Dio, Roman History, LIV, 20)

Augustus improved the provinces by his careful choice of governors and prefects, whom he paid generously in an effort to avoid administrative corruption.

Under Augustus, the usual tenure for commands was 3–5 years. The road system was improved between Rome and the provinces for better communication.

Augustus promoted colonisation and the development of towns throughout the empire.

Augustus encouraged the worship of Roma in the provinces, creating a bond of loyalty between the provincials and Rome.

Germany: Augustus planned to make the Elbe River the border of the northern frontier. As a result of the Varus disaster in AD 9 (Dio, Roman History, LVI, 18–23), Augustus concluded that the conquest of Germany was not possible. The tribal nature of the Germans and the difficulty of the terrain meant that it was too costly in manpower and resources to conquer. Instead the Romans extended and strengthened the northern frontier.

Egypt: Egypt was specially controlled by Augustus because of its great wealth; it almost became a private estate of the emperors. Only men of equestrian rank were sent as governors of Egypt. Senators had to gain special permission from imperial authorities even to set foot there (Res Gestae, 27).

The East: Augustus adopted a general policy of nonaggression in the East. On behalf of Augustus, Tiberius installed Tigranes on the Armenian throne. Augustus conducted diplomatic relations with Parthia and achieved a propaganda success when the Parthian king, Phraates, returned the Roman standards taken from Crassus in 53 BC (Dio, Roman Histories, LIV, 8).

In 25 BC Augustus annexed Galatia and strengthened Syria.

In 21 BC he settled the disputes on the Ethiopian– Egyptian frontier.

Augustus ‘was the first Roman to see the boundary of the empire and its defence as a single problem’ (Webster, Roman Imperial Army, p. 31). Augustan imperial policy ‘varied from region to region, adjusted for circumstances and contingencies.

Aggression alternated with restraint, conquest with diplomacy, advance with retreat. Acquisitions and annexations occurred in some areas, consolidation and negotiation in others . . . The regime persistently projected the impression of vigour, expansionism, triumph and dominance’ (Gruen, ‘Imperial Policy of Augustus’, p. 416). Augustus pursued an expansionist imperial policy but by the end of his reign he had to settle for a defensive policy.


Tiberius carefully followed Augustan advice to avoid extending the empire, and ‘left the frontiers in a more stable condition’ (Webster, Roman Imperial Army, p. 40). Before coming to power, Tiberius had spent twenty eight years abroad. As princeps, he neither visited the provinces nor left Italy. However, he did intervene when necessary. For example, when Germanicus entered Egypt without permission, Tiberius responded quickly.

Provincial government: Tiberius made two important innovations in his reign—he lengthened the tenure of provincial governors and centralised the system

of administration. Tiberius wanted the provinces to be governed by men of merit, so he allowed legates and governors to remain in their provinces for long periods of time. For example, C. Poppaeaus Sabinus served in Moesia (near Danube) for twenty-four years. Lengthening provincial commands allowed men to become familiar with the demands of their province. However, not all the appointments were prudent. Pontius Pilate governed the volatile area of Judaea for nine years (AD 27–36). Pilate made a number of serious mistakes that offended the Jews. He brought Roman military standards bearing the image of Tiberius into Jerusalem. He used part of the sacred treasure to build an aqueduct, and insisted on erecting golden shields in Herod’s Palace. All of these measures upset traditional Jewish law. Tiberius centralised the provincial administration by allowing some governors to rule their provinces from Rome. L. Aelius Lamia, for example, remained in Rome while fulfilling the office of legate of Syria from AD 21 to 32.

Rome was dependent on the provinces for supplies, especially grain (Tacitus, Annals, III, 54.6–8). It was the duty of the princeps to ensure that the provinces were efficiently exploited, hence Tiberius’ comment to the prefect of Egypt that he wanted his sheep shorn not flayed (Suetonius, Tiberius, 32.2).

Eleven prosecutions of provincial officials were conducted during Tiberius’ reign.

In AD 17 Tiberius displayed his generosity by remitting the taxes of twelve cities of Asia Minor that had been hit by earthquakes.

Tiberius had permanent military bases built along the Rhine and the Danube to strengthen the frontiers.

Rhine: The northern frontier was maintained at the Rhine after Germanicus’ attempts to expand it to the Elbe were stopped by Tiberius. In AD 28 the Romans suppressed a revolt of the Frisii.

Danube: Tiberius believed that if he left the rebellious tribes to their own internal disturbances they would eventually turn against themselves. He used a native leader, Catualda, to keep a watch on the upper Danube on behalf of the Romans (Tacitus, Annals, II, 60). He further strengthened the Danube area in AD 15, when Achaea and Macedonia became imperial provinces. Tiberius replaced the two kings in the lower Danube region and appointed a Roman to supervise them. The Danube was also strengthened by improved roads and river fleets.

The East: Germanicus settled the question of kingship in the East. A new treaty was negotiated with Parthia, and the Romans installed Zeno (Artaxes) as the new king of Armenia (Tacitus, Annals, II, 55). Once more the Romans asserted their authority in the area. In AD 17 the client kingdoms of Cappadocia and Commagene were annexed and became provinces of Rome.

Africa: A deserter, Tacfarinas, led revolts in the senatorial province of Africa from AD 17 to 24. Tiberius was annoyed with the Senate for allowing this situation to go on for seven years. Africa was an important area because it supplied two thirds of Roman grain needs. Junius Blaesus finally defeated Tacfarinas (Tacitus, Annals, IV, 21–5).

Gaul: Two Gallic noblemen Florus and Sacrovir, led revolts in the province of Gaul.

Tiberius’ principate was marked by tranquillity. A general environment of peace was interrupted by three minor disturbances.


Gaius appeared to be inconsistent in his policies (particularly in Parthia). He was influenced by his eastern friends and rewarded them with client kingdoms, hoping to ensure their loyalty. Commagene became a client kingdom again. Gaius established client states in Thrace, Pontus and Armenia Minor. His measures were well accepted, and Claudius maintained them.

Rhine: Gaius went to the Rhine area to secure the support of the army. He may have been contemplating a campaign in Germany (Suetonius, Gaius, 45–7). He used the pretext that he wished to strengthen the frontiers, but in fact he was concerned that one of the Rhine commanders, Lepidus, was in league with two of his sisters in a conspiracy. Galba was given command of the upper Rhine, and spent a number of years securing the frontier against the Germans.

Gaul: In AD 39 Gaius visited Gaul. It is believed that he planned an invasion of Britain, but the troops refused to make the crossing. Even though the invasion did not eventuate, Gaius announced Britain’s annexation.

Africa: Gaius ordered Ptolemy, the client king of Mauretania to commit suicide in preparation for its annexation. This was a very provocative action on Gaius’ part, and led to a civil war in Africa.

The East: Gaius restored dispossessed friendly kings to their former thrones and found kingdoms for others he favoured. He reversed Augustus’ policy of religious toleration in Judaea. He ordered the Jews to set up a statue of him in the Temple at Jerusalem, which caused considerable unrest in Judaea for a long period of time.

In Parthia, the Romans sought to maintain their authority with minimal military effort. Gaius reversed Augustan policy towards Parthia, enabling it to regain its influence in Armenia.

Barrett comments that Gaius ‘seems to have been concerned primarily with preserving stability in the (eastern) part of the empire, rather than with extending the Roman imperium’ (Barrett, Caligula, p. 222).


Claudius wanted to be remembered as the ‘extender of empire’. During his reign new territories, such as Britain, were added to Rome’s empire. Claudius expanded Rome’s imperial holdings, and assimilated the inhabitants of newly acquired territories. Like Augustus, he stressed the military role of the princeps.

Claudius’ prime concern seems to have been responsible and efficient government.

Rhine–Danube: Claudius maintained Tiberius’ defensive and diplomatic policy on the Rhine– Danube frontier, but moved the frontier to the Rhine River. To reinforce this area, fleets patrolled the Danube and roads were improved. Noricum became an imperial province governed by an equestrian procurator. Further south, the provinces of Achaea and Macedonia were returned to the control of the Senate.

In AD 47 Claudius prevented Corbulo from conducting any further aggressive and expansionary campaigns in Germany (Tacitus, Annals, XI, 19).

Britain: Claudius annexed Britain in AD 43. The factional fighting of the British chieftains provided Claudius with his excuse for the invasion. He was keen to enhance his military image and popularity with the army and to gain the riches of Britain. Aulus Plautius completed most of the conquest before giving way to Claudius, who took formal possession of Britain (Dio, Roman History, LX, 21.1–5). A colony of veterans was established at Camulodunum, and trade and business activity began in the town of Londinium, the headquarters of the imperial governor. By AD 54, the Romans controlled southern England, while the fringes of the British frontier were guarded by the client kingdoms of the Iceni, Regni and Brigantes tribes. The conquest of Britain was an important achievement for Claudius, for he had extended the boundary of the empire. The conquest was commemorated on coins, architecture and in literature.

Senatorial and imperial provinces: Claudius restored the provinces of Macedonia and Achaea to senatorial control (Dio, Roman History, LX, 24.1).

Mauretania, which had erupted during the reign of Gaius, was organised into two imperial provinces by Claudius. Britain, Thrace (AD 46), Lycia (AD 43) and Judaea also came under imperial control (Dio, Roman History, LX, 17.3–4). These provinces were governed by a procurator Augusti, personally accountable to Claudius. This centralisation of control was a feature of Claudius’ rule.

The East: Gaius had stirred up trouble with the Jews, but Claudius skilfully soothed their anger by reversing Gaius’ policies.

Judaea was a client kingdom under Herod Agrippa, but on his death in AD 44 it became an imperial province.

Poor relations prevailed between the Jews and Greeks of Alexandria. Claudius listened to the arguments of both sides and attempted to curb the ill feeling between the two groups.

In AD 49 Mithradates, a Roman appointee, was placed on the throne of Armenia. This kept the Parthians occupied (Tacitus, Annals, XI, 6–10).

Romanisation: Claudius improved the infrastructure of the empire. For example, the Via Claudia Augusta (a 525-km road) linked Augsburg to Trent in the Danube region. Numerous towns and colonies, such as Cologne and Triers, were built throughout the empire.

Gaul: Under Claudius, many provincials were granted Latin rights or, in some cases, full Roman citizenship. In AD 46 the whole Anauni tribe was granted Roman citizenship. In AD 48 Claudius even allowed some Gallic nobles to enter the Roman Senate (Tacitus, Annals, XI, 23.1–25.1). This was part of Claudius’ push to Romanise the empire, but it caused much alarm in some quarters of Roman society.

Client kingdoms: Claudius changed the governments of Raetia, Noricum, Mauretania and Thrace from client kingdoms to provinces. He believed that  direct Roman control was preferable to the system of client kingdoms.


Initially, under the guidance of Seneca and Burrus, Nero’s policy towards the empire showed restraint and consolidation. Nero was not interested in expanding the empire, only in spending the money derived from it (Suetonius, Nero, 31)

Nero displayed little real interest in the provinces and frontiers of the empire. He was inconsistent in his policies. He loved all things Greek, so he exempted Greece from paying taxes, but the rest of the empire had to pay dearly. He chose capable men as governors of upper and lower Germany— Scribonius Proculus and Scribonius Rufus. Later in his reign, he became afraid of military men and required them to commit suicide. Corbulo suffered such a fate (Dio, Roman History, LXII, 17). Griffin comments that ‘Nero did not put the provinces at risk by appointing incompetent governors. But he did put the confidence of the Senate at risk through his growing unwillingness to trust its aristocratic members and to reward military achievement . . . all Nero’s army commanders came to feel insecure as well as unappreciated, and it was only a matter of time until one of them initiated or supported an attempt at revolution’ (Griffin, Nero, p. 118).

Britain: According to Suetonius, Nero considered withdrawing the troops from Britain (Suetonius, Nero, 18). The serious uprising of Boudicca was caused by the greed of the Roman tax collectors and moneylenders. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, enjoyed a client relationship with Rome, but she rebelled against the harsh demands of the Romans. Other disgruntled tribes, such as the Trinovantes, joined her rebellion. They were successful in burning three Roman towns, including the capital, Londinium, before they were defeated (Dio, Roman History, LXII, 1–12).

Nero granted Latin rights to the people of the Maritime Alps.

He made edicts concerning all the provinces, not just those under imperial control.

The East: Nero attempted to annex Armenia. Corbulo advised Nero against these actions but was ignored. The Romans suffered a humiliating surrender and lost Armenia to the Parthians (Dio, Roman History, LXII, 19–23). Despite this, Nero the showman could not resist making a monumental display, in Rome, of presenting the throne to Tiridates.

In AD 64, the client kingdom of Pontus was annexed. As a result of this move, Asia Minor and the Black Sea area came under direct Roman control.

In AD 64, Gessius Florus was made procurator of Judaea and only increased the tension in the region by his heavy exactions until, in AD 66, the Jews rebelled. The Roman forces were defeated on this occasion. In the last years of Nero’s reign, Vespasian was sent to try to regain Judaea for the Romans.

By the end of Nero’s reign, the Roman Empire confronted serious problems. The governor of Gaul, Vindex, attempted to overthrow Nero, partly because the Gauls were suffering from the heavy burden of taxation (Dio, Roman History, LXIII, 22.2). Vindex conspired with Galba, the governor of Spain, who ultimately succeeded in depriving Nero of power.


The dynasty begun by Augustus came to an end in AD 68 with the death of Nero. A period of disruption prevailed until the Flavian dynasty was established.

Under the leadership of Augustus and the Julio-Claudians, Rome had changed dramatically:

  • the government had become more centralised and was now accountable to the princeps
  • the Senate had lost its importance as a governing body, but functioned as an administrator of parts of the empire
  • the army had increased its importance throughout
  • the period, finally acquiring sufficient power to choose the emperor
  • the image of the ruler had become a vital means of ensuring political survival—the military image was especially important to cultivate
  • despite encountering a few problems, the empire, on the whole, was well governed and stable.

By AD 68 the republican government had virtually disappeared; the centralised imperial government was well established.

Political roles of the Praetorian Guard and Army


  • The role of the princeps and the role of the army changed over time to become vital; for example the patron client relationship, the oath etc.

“If one looks at the Roman military system, one will  recognise that the possession of a large empire has come into their hands as the prize of their valour, not as a gift of fortune. For this people does not wait for the outbreak of war to practise with weapons nor do they sit idle in peacetime bestirring themselves only in times of need. Rather, they seem to have been born with weapons in their hands . . . no wonder that the boundaries of their empire are in the east to the Euphrates, in the west to the Atlantic Ocean, in the south the new lands of Libya and in the north the Danube and the Rhine. One would easily say that the people who have won this empire are greater than the empire itself.”

– Josephus, The Jewish War

The army had been instrumental in helping the Romans acquire and maintain their vast empire. Augustus understood the importance of keeping direct control over the army and of making it an instrument of the state rather than a weapon to be used by individual generals. He instituted changes that made the army a professional standing body—this Augustan structure was retained for the next few centuries. It became an important part of Roman tradition for the ruler to be seen as a capable military figure. Even Claudius astutely cultivated this image. When the rulers ignored the power of the army and failed to project a military presence, as Nero did, they ran the risk of being overthrown by the army.


  • Under Augustus the Roman army became a permanently organised professional army, replacing the militia arrangements of the republic.
  • Soldiers during the republic had depended on their generals for pay and rewards. Generals such as Pompey and Caesar often used their armies for their own political ends. Augustus was at pains to put the army under his control and separate the military and political roles that the army could play. Soldiers received their pay and rewards from the emperor or the centralised financial administration. This reduced their dependence on the commanding generals and hence weakened the patron–client relationship that existed between generals and soldiers. (Suetonius names this as the principal motive behind the reform.) The army was reliant on Augustus and now became his client.
  • In 29 BC Augustus took the title ‘imperator’ as part of his name. This emphasised the importance of his military leadership.
  • In 27 BC Augustus was given control of Spain, Syria and Gaul–Germany. This gave him control of four-fifths of the armed forces and the right to choose the generals and the legions. In 12 BC Illyricum was converted from a senatorial to an imperial province, thus adding to his control. ‘This long-term concentration of the supreme command of almost the entire armed forces in one hand was . . . unique and new’ (Raaflaub, ‘Political Significance’, p. 1010).
  • Augustus standardised the pay and allowances for the entire army. In 13 BC he fixed the period of service at twelve years for Praetorians and sixteen years for legionaries. In AD 6 it became sixteen years for Praetorians and twenty years for legionaries. He changed the bounty payable on completion of service from a piece of land (before 13 BC) to a lump sum of money equalling thirteen years’ pay. Before AD 6 this money came from Augustus’ private fortune. After AD 6 the reforms were funded by the military treasury (aerarium militare). The 5 per cent inheritance tax and the 1 per cent sales tax went into the military treasury (Suetonius, Augustus, 49).
  • As a result of these measures, conscription was no longer necessary. However, after the Varian disaster of AD 9 and the Pannonian revolt, conscription was briefly applied in Italy.
  • The legions were drawn mainly from the sons of veterans. Augustus forbade soldiers to marry during their term of service partly to improve military efficiency by keeping women and children out of the army camps. The children of the many men who ignored this law were regarded as illegitimate. The sons of soldiers tended to enlist to gain citizenship.
  • Augustus used the Praetorians as bodyguards. They became a permanent force. The urban cohorts were used as city police, but Augustus was careful never to have more than three cohorts in Rome (Suetonius, Augustus, 49). Other troops stationed in Rome were the vigiles (a fire brigade composed of 7000 freedmen).
  • Auxiliary cohorts, supplying specialist forces and cavalry, were also permanently established by Augustus. Sometimes these foreign troops were commanded by their own chieftains, but from the time of Augustus, equestrian tribunes and prefects mainly commanded them.
  • Two standing fleets commanded by equestrian prefects were established by Augustus, one at Misenum and one at Ravenna. There were also various river fleets stationed throughout the empire, such as those on the Rhine and the Danube (Suetonius, Augustus, 49)
  • Augustus strongly encouraged military service for senators and senatorial aspirants (Suetonius, Augustus, 38).
  • In 28 BC, Augustus reduced the number of legions from sixty to twenty-eight. This demonstrated to the Romans that he had fulfilled one of his main political platforms by bringing peace to the world. Financial considerations were at work here, as was a sense of the need to minimise the possibility of military revolts.
  • The Roman Empire covered a large area, but there was limited manpower available to maintain it. Troops were dispersed along the borders of the empire so as to avoid a concentration of the army in one place. A consequence of this was that soldiers were alienated from civil society.
  • The greatest military disaster of Augustus’ reign was the defeat of Varus in AD 9. The Germans annihilated Varus and three Roman legions in the Teutoberg forest. Much to the disgrace of the Romans, the Germans also captured the Roman standards. Augustus was supposedly haunted by this awful defeat and constantly cried out, ‘Varus give me back my legions!’ (Suetonius, Augustus, 23).
  • The control and patronage of the army was dominated by Augustus and his family. All provincial soldiers swore an oath to Augustus. After victories, at triumphs and on politically important occasions, donatives were distributed to the soldiers from Augustus’ fortune. In Res Gestae 3.3, Augustus explains that he settled 300 000 veterans in colonies. When his grandson was presented to the army in 8 BC, Augustus gave the soldiers a donative (Dio, Roman History, LX, 6.4). Colonies established by veterans bore such names as colonia Julia or Julia Augusta.
  • Augustus fostered the centurions by creating new career paths for them and allowing them entry into the equestrian order. These men were very loyal to Augustus. Under the Augustan system, the people who gained the top military positions were usually members of the imperial family or those who owed their careers to Augustus. The legati Augusti were appointed by Augustus and responsible to him. Augustus condemned haste and recklessness in his military commanders (Suetonius, Augustus, 25.1).
  • Augustus ensured that nobles and members of the senatorial class held positions of authority—though without real military power (Raaflaub, ‘Political Significance’, p. 1017).
  • Triumphs were no longer held by successful generals, but only by the imperial family. Personal connections with the army were regarded as important. Augustus went to Spain and Gaul and personally commanded the final stages of the war. In 19 BC he sent his step-son Tiberius to negotiate the return of the Parthian standards.
  • Augustus put the army on a stable footing and tried to eliminate the misuse of the army that had occurred at the end of the republic. The regulations concerning pay and years of service encountered some difficulties, for when Augustus died the armies in Pannonia and Germany staged serious revolts. By AD 14 these soldiers had not received the promised rewards of Augustus’ reforms.
  • Another difficulty was that each soldier had to pay for his own equipment, uniform and rations. The donatives came to be seen more as part of regular pay than as a gift.
  • Augustus’ military policy was to a large extent successful because he cared for the social and material needs of soldiers, officers and veterans; cultivated the ties of clientela; provided reliable leadership.


Tiberius enjoyed a long and distinguished military career before he became ruler. On his accession in AD 14 the armies in Pannonia and Germany mutined. These were serious revolts, and Velleius Paterculus, an experienced soldier, wrote that “the army . . . wanted a new leader, a new order of things, and a new republic . . . They even dared to threaten to dictate terms to the Senate and to the emperor” (Velleius Paterculus, History, 2.125.1). Tiberius’ son Drusus was sent to deal with the army in Pannonia,  and his nephew Germanicus quelled the revolt in Germany (Tacitus, Annals, I, 15–48). As emperor, Tiberius made no visits to the troops serving on the frontiers. He closely followed the measures that Augustus had put in place for the army. “His long career as commanding general provided him with such a bonus of loyalty within the armies that, after the mutinies of AD 14, there were only minor difficulties” (Raaflaub, ‘Political Significance, p. 1020).

  • According to Tacitus, during the reign of Tiberius there were eight Roman legions along the Rhine, three in Spain, two in Africa and Egypt, four in the East (guarding the territory from Syria to the Euphrates), two in Pannonia, Moesia and Dalmatia. In AD 23 Tiberius recruited soldiers from the Romanised people in the provinces and the descendants of veterans. He was not impressed by the quality of the Italians that were enlisting, saying that they were mainly the destitute and the lazy (Tacitus, Annals, IV, 4).
  • The army began to play a role not only on the events in the empire but also within Rome itself. The vigiles played a part in the downfall of Sejanus. The Praetorian prefect Sutorius Macro had previously been a prefect of the vigiles. While Sejanus was in the Senate House listening to the letter from Tiberius denouncing him, Macro dismissed Sejanus’ Praetorians and replaced them with a group of loyal vigiles (Dio, Roman History, LVIII, 9.6).
  • Tiberius sought to reduce robbery by decreasing the distances between military posts (Suetonius, Tiberius, 37).
  • Tiberius delegated military campaigns to able generals. He avoided aggressive action unless it was necessary, preferring to win by diplomacy rather than force (Tacitus, Annals, II, 26.3).
  • Tiberius provided reliable military leadership and cultivated ties with the legions. His success as a military commander stands in contrast to the inexperience of his successors, who, “aware of traditional expectations, suffered from lack of confidence in themselves and suspicion of military talent in others” (Griffin, Nero, p. 224).


  • Gaius was popular with the army because he was the son of Germanicus. He had spent his early years in the army camp and was given the nickname ‘Caligula’, meaning ‘little army boots’, because he was dressed in miniature army uniforms (Suetonius, Gaius, 9).
  • From Suetonius we learn that Gaius dismissed generals who were late in bringing their auxiliary troops. He discharged older centurions who were within a few days of retirement. As a cost-cutting measure he reduced the retirement bonuses for soldiers (Suetonius, Gaius, 44).
  • In AD 39/40 Gaius went to Gaul where he was acclaimed seven times (even though he fought no battles). He wanted to create a military image.
  • In AD 39 the army in Germany and the commander Gaetulicus, as well as members of the imperial family, were involved in a plot to overthrow Gaius, who visited Germany and quickly suppressed the revolt. Grant sees this as a turning point in Gaius’ reign (Grant, The Twelve Caesars, p. 124).


  • The Praetorians, rather than the Senate, chose Claudius as ruler. He therefore needed the support of a powerful group. Despite his scholarly pursuits, lack of military experience and unmilitary appearance, Claudius cultivated the soldiers throughout his reign, for he realised the importance of a military image.
  • In AD 41 Claudius faced a serious crisis when the governor of Dalmatia, Scribonianus, staged a revolt. However, Scribonianus’ legions refused to follow him, and so the revolt failed. Claudius rewarded the legions with the title ‘Claudia pia fidelis’, meaning ‘Claudius’ own loyal and true’.
  • Claudius did not have a personal relationship with the army when he began his reign. He quickly corrected this by personally leading his troops to subdue Britain in AD 43 (Dio, Roman History, LX, 21.4–22.2). On his return to Rome he held a triumph. Coinage of the period shows the title ‘imperator’ on one side and the triumphal arch honouring the achievement on the other side.
  • Claudius carefully cultivated his military image on coins, statues, buildings and on every possible public occasion. At the ceremony to celebrate the draining of the Fucine Lake, Claudius wore a military cloak (of imperial purple).
  • Claudius rewarded his troops with titles and grants of citizenship, and began the practice of awarding certificates for honourable discharge of soldiers
  • He was saluted as ‘imperator’ on twenty-seven occasions.
  • In AD 45 Claudius granted to the soldiers the privileges enjoyed by married men. Soldiers now had the right to give legacies to their children.
  • The army was well disciplined and generally content throughout Claudius’ reign. He chose capable men as generals—Galba, Corbulo, Vespasian, Suetonius Paulinus.


  • During his reign, Nero was given thirteen imperial salutations.
  • Nero had little concern for the soldiers, allowing their pay and rewards to fall into arrears.
  • Nero’s extravagant behaviour and emphasis on his artistic activities upset the army. He made no attempt to build a military image or cultivate ties with the army as Claudius had done.
  • He made serious mistakes in the choice of leaders. Caesonius Paetus, sent to the East to drive Tiridates out of Armenia, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Parthians.
  • Nero killed some of the more successful military generals. Corbulo had served with distinction in the East. He was then sent to Germany, but Nero feared him and had him killed.
  • Many groups, including the army, became disillusioned with Nero and with the increasingly powerful freedmen. When he went on his trip to the East, Nero left a freedman Helius in charge of Rome.
  • The soldiers and the provincial governors were upset by the heavy burden of taxation that Nero placed upon the provinces to fund his extravagance. Nero feared the power and threat posed by the military commanders.
  • In AD 68 Julius Vindex, the governor of Gaul, staged an unsuccessful revolt. Galba revolted in Spain. Macer and the legion in Africa turned against Nero, then the legions in Germany withdrew their support from him, as did the Praetorian Guard in Rome. Nero was forced to commit suicide. The army, then, played a role in Nero’s downfall.
  • Nero was unable to shoulder “the burden of expected military glory” (Griffin, Nero, p. 233).
  • The role of the princeps and the role of the army changed over time to become vital; the patron client relationship, the oath, etc.

The Year of the Four Emperors

1. Galba

Although Nero’s death had at first been welcomed with outbursts of joy, it roused varying emotions, not only in the city among the senators and people and the city soldiery, but also among all the legions and the generals; for the secret of empire was now disclosed, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome.

– Tacitus

Galba was already 70 years old when he succeeded Nero as emperor of Rome. It was no peaceful transfer of power. Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, had rebelled against Nero in March 68, and cast about for a suitable candidate to head his revolt.  Galba was a man of considerable ambition, even at his advanced age, and he avidly accepted Vindex’s invitation, having himself proclaimed emperor at Carthago Nova on 3 April. He gained the immediate support of the governors of Lusitania and Baetica, followed soon afterwards by those of Egypt, Africa and Mauretania. It looks, indeed, as if he had already made the necessary alliances and that his revolt was no mere accident of circumstances.

Galba had only a single legion at his disposal, and in purely military terms his bid for power was foolhardy in the extreme. Nero, however, was no favourite with the troops. When the Rhine legions crushed Vindex’s rebellion at Vesontio (Besant;:on) in May 68, they tried to make their commander Verginius Rufus emperor. Rufus declined the position, nor would he throw in his lot with Galba. It was not military secession but the perfidy of Nymphidius Sabinus, commander of the praetorian guard, which eventually drove Nero to despair and suicide.

The new administration

Galba was still in Spain when he was declared emperor by the senate on 8 June 68. He arrived in Rome in October, accompanied by a reputation for severity and avarice. He had shown himself a stern disciplinarian on several occasions, but his avarice came largely from the urgent need to recover the reckless expenditure of Nero’s last years. He ordered that of all gifts of money or property made by Nero (amounting to 2,200 million sesterces) 90 per cent should be returned, and he refused to pay the customary bounties to the army, telling them it was his habit to levy troops, not buy them.

A still greater problem was the corruption among the officials he appointed. The numerous people who had supported Calha’s rise to power now demanded places in the new administration. Many of them were greedy and unscrupulous individuals whose behaviour seriously  undermined Calha’s standing with the senate and the army. One of the worst was the ex-slave Icelus, rumoured to be Calha’s homosexual lover and to have stolen in 7 months more than all Nero’s freedmen had taken in over 13 years.

A violent ending

The beginning of the end came in January 69, when the armies of Upper and Lower Germany threw down Calha’s images and declared Aulus Vitellius their new emperor. This defection made Galba painfully aware of the need for an heir; the two sons born to him by his wife Lepida were both dead before his accession. He decided therefore to adopt Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus, a young man of distinguished family, then around 30 years old. The adoption took place on 10 January, and Piso was taken to the camp of the praetorian guard, where he was presented to the soldiers as Calha’s heir. Once again, however, Galba lost what support he might have gained by refusing to pay the soldiers the bounty expected on these occasions. Furthermore Piso, though apparently a man of good family and character, had spent much of Nero’s reign in exile, and had little political experience. The reaction to his adoption among the senate and people was at best one of indifference.

It thus became a relatively easy task for Piso’s disappointed rival, Marcus Salvius Otho, to win over the praetorian guard and seize power six days later. Otho had been governor of Lusitania under Nero, and was one of the first to declare his support for Galba. He felt it was he, not Piso, who was Galba’s natural successor, and when events did not turn out as he had hoped, he took matters into his own hands. On the morning of 15 January, Otho slipped away from the imperial entourage while Galba was sacrificing in the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. He was carried in a closed litter to the camp of the praetorian guard, where the soldiers proclaimed him emperor.

Confused reports began to reach Galba in the imperial palace. He debated whether to bar the doors and prepare for siege, or to go out boldly and confront the rebels. He opted for the latter and had himself carried in a litter to the Forum. There he was set upon by Otho’s horsemen, tipped from his litter near the Lacus Curtius, and stabbed in the neck by Camurius, a soldier of the Fifteenth Legion. According to Plutarch, his last words were ‘Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.’ Piso, meanwhile, fled for refuge to the Temple of Vesta, one of the most sacred spots in the Forum, but at length he too was dragged out and killed. Their heads were cut off and paraded about the city on poles, but Galba’s was later rescued by his steward Argivus, and buried with the rest of the body in the emperor’s own garden on the Via Aurelia.

Calha’s epitaph may be left to Tacitus: ‘He seemed too great to be a subject so long as he was subject, and all would have agreed that he was equal to the imperial office if he had never held it.’ The story of an old man dying courageously in office should excite our sympathy. Yet with his foolish parsimony and obstinate severity, it is difficult to regard Galba as a truly tragic figure.

2. Otho

When civil war in the balance lay, and mincing Otbo might have won the day, bloodshed too costly did he spare his land, and pierced his heart with an unfaltering band. Caesar to Cato yields, while both drew breath: greater than both is Otho in his death.

– Martial

The senate regarded the new emperor Otho with deep suspicion, both from his reputation as a companion of Nero, and for the violence by which he had seized power. They nonetheless voted him the usual powers and privileges, and during his short reign Otho governed with energy and ability. But he had great difficulty in broadening his support or consolidating his position, especially since the Rhine arn1ies had now proclaimed a rival emperor and civil war looked inevitable. Most of the provinces in fact swore allegiance to Otho – in Egypt he was depicted as pharaoh on temple walls- though Gaul and Spain declared for Vitellius.

Otho ordered that the statues of Nero be restored, hoping no doubt to win the allegiance of the surviving Neronian faction, and even reinstated some of Nero’s _officials. He tried to avoid civil war by offering to share power with Vitellius; he even proposed marriage to Vitellius’s daughter. By March, however, Vitellius’s legions were on the move, and Otho’s main preoccupation was the defence of Italy. His strategy was simple: to delay the Vitellian advance while he  waited for the Danube legions to come to his aid. With this in view, Otho sent an advance guard northwards to prevent the enemy from crossing the River Po, while a  diversionary force went by sea to southern Gaul. He himself left Rome on around 14 March, and established his main camp at Bedriacum, just north of the Po, some 20 miles east of Cremona.

Vitellius, meanwhile, had sent his army ahead in separate divisions under the command of Fabius Valens and Aulus Caecina Alienus. Caecina reached Italy first, and took up position outside Cremona. The arrival of the second division under Valens made the Vitellian army almost twice as large as the Othonian, and Otho’s commanders urged him to wait until the Danube legions arrived. The Vitellians forced the issue, however, by beginning work on a bridge which would have enabled them to cross the Po and advance on Rome. Otho was compelled to send his army against them, but in the first Battle of Cremona on 14 April, the Othonians were comprehensively defeated. When the news reached Otho at Brixellum the following day he decided he had no further stomach for the fight. He may also have wished to spare Italy the horror of a protracted civil war. Advising his friends and family to take what measures they could for their own safety, he retired to his room to sleep, then stabbed himself to death at dawn the next day (16 April).

Contemporaries could hardly believe that such a notorious bonviveur had chosen such a heroic end. The soldiers too were greatly impressed by his final act of courage; some even threw themselves on the funeral pyre in a wish to share his death. The ashes were gathered up and placed within a modest funeral monument. Otho had reigned only three months, but had shown promise of greater wisdom and ability than anyone had expected.

3. Vitellius

Seldom has the support of the army been gained by any man through honourable means to the degree that he [Vitellius} won it through his worthlessness

– Tacitus

Aulus Vitellius became emperor not on his own merits but through the luck of being in the right place at the right time. The German armies had not forgiven Galba for his refusal to reward them for their part in suppressing Julius Vindex. Accordingly, when Vitellius was appointed commander in Lower Germany in December 6 , he soon became part of a web of intrigue aimed at overthrowing the new emperor. Vitellius himself had no military accomplishments to his name, and his appointment may have been made for precisely that reason: to reduce the risk of rebellion by the disaffected Rhine armies. If so, then Galba badly misjudged the character and ambitions of the man he appointed.

The rebellion began on 1 Janua1-y 69, when the legions of Upper Germany refused to renew their oath of allegiance to the emperor. Within two days, the army of Lower G m1any joined the rebellion and declar d for Aulus Vitellius. Soon afterwards, Gaul, Britain and Raetia came over to their side. By the time the rebels marched south, however, it was not Gatba but Otho who they had to confront.

Vitellius was no soldier, and remained in Gaul while his generals Valens and Caecina overthrew Otho and captured Rome. When the news reached Vitellius he set out for the capital on a journey marked by revelry, feasting, drunkenness and general indiscipline on the part both of his army and entourage. Vitellius himself won no praise for his remarks when be visited the corpse-strewn battlefield at Cremona and declared that the smell of a dead enemy was sweet and that of a fellow-citizen sweeter still.

The emperor and his entourage entered Rom in a rather unseemly display of triumph around the end of June, but the transition to the new regime was generally smooth and peaceful. There were few executions and arrests. Vitellius confirmed many of Otho’s officials in their posts and even forgave Otho’s brother Salvius Titianus who had played a leading role in the previous regime. His feeling of security was reinforced by the arrival of couriers who reported the allegiance of the eastern armies. The legions which fought for Otho at Cremona had already been sent back to their old postings, or to new one in distant province.

To reward his victorious German legionnaires, Vitellius disbanded the existing praetorian guard and the urban cohorts stationed at Rome, and offered these positions to his own men. The result was an undisciplined scramble, but Vitellius was very much the creation of the German legions, and had little option but to give in to their demands.

The Flavian revolt

Vitellius did not long enjoy his position in peace. Around the middle of July news reached him that the army of the eastern provinces had set up a rival emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, a distinguished general who commanded widespread support. Vespasian was to hold Egypt while his colleague Mucianus, governor of Syria, led an invasion of Italy. Before this could materialize, however, Antonius Primus, commander of the Sixth Legion in Pannonia, and Cornelius Fuscus, imperial procurator in Illyricum, declared in favour of Vespasian and led the Danube legions in a rapid descent on Italy.

Theirs was a relatively modest force of only five legions, perhaps 30,000 men, only half what Vitellius had at his disposal in Italy. Primus nonetheless decided to strike before Vitellius could summon reinforcements from Germany, and led his soldiers south to Bedriacum, almost the same position that had been occupied by the Othonians six months before. The second Battle of Cremona began on 24 October and ended the next day in a complete victory for the Flavians. They pursued the fleeing Vitellians to Cremona, and captured both the camp and the city. For four days the Flavian troops burned, killed and looted, in an orgy of destruction which horrified all who heard of it.

Vitellius made a half-hearted attempt to hold the Appenine passes against the Flavian advance, but the army he sent went over to the Flavians without a fight at Narnia on 17 December. When Vitellius learned of this he tried to abdicate, hoping to save the lives of himself and his family, but his supporters would not have it, and forced him to return to the imperial palace. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s elder brother Titus Flavius Sabinus with a few friends attempted to act on Vitellius’s alleged abdication and seize control of the city. His party was attacked by Vitellius’s soldiers, however, and had to take refuge on the Capitol. Next day, the whole place went up in flames, including the venerable Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Flavius Sabinus and his supporters were captured, hauled before Vitellius and killed.

Two days later, on 20 December, the Flavian army fought their way into Rome. Vitellius had himself carried to his wife’s house on the Aventine, intending to flee to Campania, but then changed his mind, and returned to the palace. He found it deserted, so tying a money-belt round his waist he disguised himself in dirty clothing and hid in the door-keeper’s lodge, leaning a couch and mattress against the door. It was a pathetic final move. The Flavian troops soon dragged Vitellius from his hiding place, and hauled him half naked to the Forum, where he was tortured before being killed and thrown into the Tiber. He had been a poor choice for emperor, but it was a sorry end even so.

4. Vespasian

He, unlike all his predecessors, was the only emperor who was changed

for the better by his office.

– Tacitus

Vespasian was a new kind of Roman emperor: middle-class rather than patrician, and a man with wide experience in the provinces and the army, rather than a mere urban courtier. He gave the empire a period of stable and efficient government after the disturbances of the year 69. His tolerance and humour won him friends, and his conscientious attention to the welfare of Rome and the provinces set the empire on a new and firmer footing. The pity is we lack many details about the chronology and events of the reign. On the other hand, the testimony of Tacitus and Suetonius does afford us an image of the man himself, an able and determined individual who ended his days maintaining that the emperor should die on his feet.



Who is he/ what was his position before becoming emperor?
  • Servius Sulpicius Galba was the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis
  • Was 70 when he succeeded Nero
How has he become emperor?
  • It was not a peaceful transition
  • After Julis Vindex, a governor, rebelled against Nero in March 68, he appointed the seemingly excitedly accepted Galba
What as his main achievement as emperor?
  • Gained support of Egypt, Lusitania and Baetica + Africa
  • He returned 90% of Nero’s wealth from property + gifts etc (amounting to 2,200 million)
  • He also refused to pay the army, telling them it was his habit to levy troops, not buy them
  • Although he did have some problems with those who help him to power, they were often corrupt and demanded things of him
How did he die?
  • Armies of upper and lower Germany began to dislike him wanting to install their own leader
  • Aware of this, Galba, with two dead sons, adopted Piso… though with Galba refusing to accept to pay the Pretorian Guard Piso was widely rejected and it was easy for his opposition Otho to gain support.
  • Otho gained support from Pretorian guard
  • Otho was swan in by the praetorian guard and Galba went to the Forum to see what was happening where he was set upon by Otho’s horseman and stabbed in the neck
Why did he die?
  • Because Otho assumed Galba would let him be successor, when he chose Piso Otho decided to take things into his own hands


Who is he/ what was his position before becoming emperor?
  • Had been governing Lusitania under Nero and was one of the first to declare his support to Galba
How has he become emperor?
  • Won over the Pretorian Guard and took over and had people kill Galba
  • Senate were extremely suspicious, both from his reputation as a companion of Nero and for the violence by which he seized power
  • Though they gave him all the usual powers and in his short reign Otho governed with ability and energy
What was his main achievement as emperor?
  • Struggled to secure a successor + the Rhine armies now proclaimed a rival emperor and civil war looked inevitable
  • Egypt loved him and even depicted him as a pharaoh on temple walls
  • He ordered statues of Nero to be restored
  • Avoided war by offering to share power with rival ‘Vitellius’, even offering to marry his daughter
  • However Vitellius ignored him and moved towards Rome with his army
How did he die?
  • When Vitellius’ army arrived they comprehensively defeated those acting for Otho, knowing that defeat was inevitable Otho retired to his room slept and stabbed himself in the  morning
Why did he die?
  • Because if he didn’t kill himself his family would be stripped of their honor + he would have presumably been more brutally murdered.


Who is he/ what was his position before becoming emperor?
  • Vitellius had no military accomplishments to his name, he was appointed commander of lower Germany by Galba, perhaps to reduce risk of rebellion by the disaffected Rhine armies.
How has he become emperor?
  • The army refused to say their oath to Otho and swore their alliance with Vitellius
  • Stormed Rome and took over


What as his main achievement as emperor?
  • He continued to install some of Otho’s officials and forgave Otho’s brother who led the forces against him
  • Eastern Armies supported him
  • Disbanded the praetorian guard and gave the positions to the Germans who fought for him- resulting in an undisciplined scramble, but they put him there and had little option but to comply to their demands
How did he died?
  • Titus Flavius Vespasian, a distinguished general who commanded widespread support, launched an attack with the armies of eastern provinces to overthrow Vitellius
  • Vespasian leaders stormed Rome and killed Vitellius via torture in the forum
Why did he die?
  • Flavian troops dragged Vitellius from his hiding spot (hid in castle) and hauled him half naked to the forum, where he was tortured before being killed and thrown into the Tiber.


Who is he/ what was his position before becoming emperor?
  • Stormed Rome and took over, he was the Commander of the eastern provincial armies
How has he become emperor?
  • The eastern provinces pushed him to be emperors
What as his main achievement as emperor?
  • He gave the empire a period of stable and efficient government after the disturbances of the 69
  • His tolerance and humor won him friends and his conscientious attention to the welfare of Rome and the provinces set the empire on a new and firmer footing
  • “he unlike all his predecessors, was the only emperor who changed for the better by his office” – Tacitus
How did he died?
  • Of old age

4. HSC Past Questions


With  reference  to  the  quotation,  discuss  the  extent  to  which  the  Julio­ Claudians followed  Augustus’s  instruction.


Discuss the role of the Praetorian Guard in managing the problems of succession during this period.


“Nearly the whole of his [Claudius’] childhood and youth was so troubled by

various diseases that he grew dull-witted and had little physical strength; and

on reaching the age at which he should have won a magistracy or chosen a

private career, was considered by his family incapable of doing either.” Suetonius

With reference to the quotation, to what extent was Claudius an effective ruler?


To what extent was the army influential in this period?


To what extent was Tiberius a successful emperor?


How did the Julio-Claudians administer the empire?


Assess the contribution of imperial freedmen to Rome in this period.

  • Pallas and Narcissus


Account for the changing relationship between the Senate and the princeps in this period.

  • Main body on each emperor.


To what extent did the Julio-Claudians expand the empire?


Assess the impact of Nero’s principate on Rome.


Compare the administration of the empire during the principates of Tiberius and Gaius (Caligula).


Explain how the Praetorian Guard was used for political purposes during this period.


Assess the achievements of the principate of Tiberius.


Explain how problems of the succession were dealt with during the Julio-Claudian period.


Assess the reforms and policies of ONE Julio-Claudian ruler.


Explain why there were four emperors in AD 69.


Assess the impact and contributions of Augustus in Rome and its empire.


Evaluate the impact and contributions of Nero during this period.


Explain how Augustus consolidated and administered the Roman Empire during this period.


Assess the achievements and impact of Tiberius as princeps.


Explain how Augustus gained and maintained his constitutional position.


Explain how the praetorian guard and army were used for political purposes during this period.


Assess the reform programs and policies of Augustus.


Assess the contribution and impact of EITHER Claudius OR Nero as princeps.


Account for the development of EITHER imperial building programs OR imperial bureaucracy from Tiberius to Nero.


Explain how Augustus established and maintained his power.


What do TWO of the following tell us of the nature of Augustus’ rule

  1. Building program
  2. Legislation
  3. Res Gestae
  4. Writings of Horace and Virgil


Discuss the frontier problems faced by at least TWO Julio-Claudian emperors.


Use Source W and your own knowledge to answer the following. How influential were the women of the imperial family during this period?


She (Livia) too, was flattered a great deal by the senate. It was variously proposed that she should be called ‘parent’ and ‘mother’ of her country; and a large body of opinion held that the words ‘son of Julia’ ought to form part of the emperor’s name. He (Tiberius), however, repeatedly asserted that only reasonable honours must be paid to women. Tacitus


Use Source W and your own knowledge to answer the following. How far is Augustus’ statement an adequate assessment of the basis of his rule?


After this time (28/27 BC) I excelled all in influence, although I possessed no more official power than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies. AUGUSTUS, Res Gestae


Discuss TWO of the following during the reign of Tiberius.

  1. Treason trials
  2. The praetorian guard
  3. The equestrian order


What role did the army play in maintaining the rule of the Julio-Claudian emperors?

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