's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Post-Augustan Age

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A Survey of Post-Augustan Emperors[edit | edit source]

The first two centuries of the Roman Empire was marked by several emperors history remembers as being either extraordinarily good or extraordinarily wicked. What follows is a brief overview of some of these notable Caesars.

Tiberius (r. 14-37 CE)

The Emperor Tiberius

The first successor to Augustus was his step-son, Tiberius. Tiberius had been born to the family of Claudians, but following his mother divorced his father, she married the Emperor Augustus. To further seal the ties between Tiberius and Augustus, Tiberius married Augustus' daughter from a previous marriage and was even formally adopted by the emperor. This blending of the families continued on for forty more years, leading historians to name this the Julio-Claudian dynasty of rule.

Tiberius was recognized as an able military commander and expanded the borders of the empire largely in the north and northeastern peripheries by conquering Dalmatia, Pannonia, Raetia and even subjugating parts of Germania. However, Tiberius was a depressive figure who became even more gloomy and reclusive following the death of his son in 23 CE. He spent the last decade of his rule largely in seclusion on the Isle of Capri and let the Empire be run by the unscrupulous pair of Sejanus and Macro.

Caligula (r. 37-41 CE)

The Emperor Caligula

Of all the Roman Emperors, the most infamous remains Gaius Germanicus (who took the name "Caligula" or "Little Boots" because he would accompany his father on his military campaigns in Germania as a child). Caligula was the grand-nephew (as well as the adopted grandson) of the Emperor Tiberius, who named him as a joint successor to his reign with his biological grandson, Gemellus. There is historical debate about whether or not Caligula smothered Tiberius to death in order to hasten his death, however there is little debate that Calligula nullified his grandfather's will so that Gemellus would be ineligible to become emperor, on grounds of insanity.

Records of Caligula's reign indicate that for the first two years of his reign, he was a noble and moderate ruler. However, by the time of his assassination in 41 CE, a record of sado-masochistic and other deranged behavior from the Emperor began to emerge. Although historians question some of the validity of these claims, they paint a picture of an emperor who was self-absorbed, obsessed with sex and an indiscriminate killer. Accusations include believing he was the god Jupiter, declaring war against Poseidon (the ocean)to plunder the "spoils of the sea" (seashells), incest and general sexual debauchery, killing for mere amusement and wanting to make his horse a consul. Whether these stories have validity or they were fictions created to make Caligula seem worse than he was, does not matter. What matters is that Caligula had enemies in the Senate who believed him corrupt enough to assassinate in 41 CE.

Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) Much historical speculation has been made about Claudius' physical appearance, as well as his mental capabilities. The Roman historian Suetonius noted that Claudius had a limp, his head would twitch, he would stammer confused speech and drool. Apparently, the conditions worsened in moments when Claudius was agitated or confused. For a long time, historians suspected the emperor suffered from polio, lately the consensus is closer to it having been cerebral palsy. Because of his speech impediment, Claudius was thought to have been a benign idiot by Romans of the day. In spite of this, Claudius has gone down in history as one of the "good" emperors in Roman history and an effective ruler.

Nero (54-68 CE)

The Emperor Nero

Although Nero continued Rome on a trajectory of peace through diplomacy and an emphasis on cultural life through the creating of theaters and sporting spectacle, Nero has nonetheless gone down in history as one of the "bad" Roman emperors. Much of the negative historiographical attitudes towards Nero originated from the fact that he was a brutal persecutor of an emerging religious group: the Christians. Yet the most infamous historical "rumor" about Nero was that he "fiddled as Rome burned". While there is no evidence for Nero fiddling, Rome certainly did burn in 64 CE. Much of Rome was destroyed and many Romans believed that Nero himself conspired to burn much of the city down in order to make room for his enormous new palace, the Domus Aurea (the "Golden House"). By 68 CE, Nero's tax policies had become so unpopular that a rebellion was begun to remove Nero from power and install Galba as the new emperor. In a very short amount of time, momentum moved against Nero, who was declared an enemy of the state. Rather than face the shame of execution, Nero asked his secretary to help him perform an honorable suicide. With the death of Nero came the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Trajan (98-117 CE)

The Emperor Trajan

Trajan, a successful military commander, was adopted by the old and relatively unpopular emperor Nerva to serve as his successor. Trajan came to power shortly thereafter and became especially known for his civil engineering projects, changing the face of Rome with the construction of what became known as Trajan's Forum, Trajan's Market and Trajan's column. The subject of the relief on Trajan's column, his conquest of Dacia, was responsible for bringing great wealth into the Roman world due to the discovery of gold. Trajan's reputation as a great leader has endured almost continuously since his life. Following his reign, every new emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano ("[be] luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan").

Hadrian (117-138 CE) The Emperor Hadrian is notable, especially in Britain, for the construction of a monumental, 80 mile long wall which bears his name. Hadrian's Wall marked the northernmost border of the Roman Empire, dividing the line between what we now know as England and Scotland. The wall protected Roman Britannia from Scottish barbarians, as well as served as a checkpoint for trading, making taxation easier. Hadrian traveled extensively throughout the Empire and had a profound admiration for Greek culture. He promoted culture and the arts perhaps more than any other Roman Emperor, financing the rebuilding of the Pantheon in Rome in the domed form it retains to this day.

Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE)

The famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the only equestrian statue of a pre-Christian emperor to remain fully intact. while other similar statues of pagans were melted down by Christians, this one survived as it was mistakenly believed to be a representation of the Christian Emperor Constantine

The last of the "Five Good Emperors", Marcus Aurelius was also one of the great philosophers of stoicism, as seen in his philosophical work, Meditations. His philosophy was largely influenced by his time on military campaign and it turned to nature as a source of guidance and inspiration. Aurelius' reign was marked by the fending off of Germanic tribes on the border regions of the empire. Although these tribes were kept at bay for the time, it was an indication that they would become a greater threat to the empire in the coming centuries.