The founder of this line of emperors was Octavian, who became known in history as Emperor Augustus. He was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, later becoming his adopted son. The mother of Augustus was the daughter of Julia, sister of Julius Caesar.
His connection to Julius Caesar was twice through the female line, but this did not stop the Roman general from nominating Octavian as his heir. Octavian ruled over the Roman Empire from 31 b.c.e. until his death in 14 c.e. but carefully chose not to title himself as emperor.
When Octavian died in 14 c.e., Tiberius succeeded him as emperor. Tiberius Claudius Nero was the son of Livia, the second wife of Octavian, with her first husband, making him Octavian’s stepson. Tiberius was born in 42 b.c.e.
When he was two, his father, a prominent Roman aristocrat and the commander of Julius Caesar’s fleet, was forced to flee Rome—and from Octavian. Tiberius’s father had declared his support for Mark Antony and took the family to Sicily, and then to Greece, returning a few years later when an amnesty was announced.
When Tiberius was four, his parents divorced, and his mother married Octavian. He and his younger brother, Drusus Nero, both went to live with their mother and their stepfather, Octavian.
Tiberius was soon earmarked as Octavian’s possible successor, and when he was 13 he rode one of the horses in Octavian’s chariot in the victory parade through Rome after the Battle of Actium. Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina, the daughter of Marcus Agrippa. Tiberius then embarked on a military career.
In 20 b.c.e. the young Tiberius accompanied Octavian to Parthia where the Roman legions were keen on avenging a loss suffered 33 years earlier. Tiberius continued his time in the military, managing to capture Pannonia (encompassing much of modern-day Slovakia).
In 9 b.c.e. Nero Drusus, his younger brother fell from a horse in Germany. Tiberius made his way over to see him as quickly as possible, but Drusus died. Tiberius divorced his wife and married Julia.
In 6 b.c.e. Tiberius became a tribune, and then retired to Rhodes where he grew reclusive. In 14 c.e. Octavian died, and Tiberius, aged 54, became Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus. Octavian had not liked him but saw that he would be a capable administrator who could rule over the Roman Empire.
Tiberius began his reign well, although a possible rival, Postumus, was murdered soon afterward. The new emperor saw his role as consolidating the empire that Julius Caesar and Augustus had created.
He spent money wisely, ending massive gladiatorial shows, and during his reign of 23 years he left 20 times as much wealth in the government’s coffers as had been there when he took over. However, much of his reign was plagued by problems over succession.
His son Drusus died in 23 c.e., and soon afterward, Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard (who might have been involved in the death of Drusus) became the most powerful man in Rome after the emperor.
In 27 Tiberius, aged 67, moved to Capri. Tiberius held court on Capri, and the courtiers, guards, officials seeking favors and others also moved to the island. Many believe that Tiberius became mentally ill, as he started ordering executions, seemingly at random.
With Tiberius on Capri, Sejanus essentially ruled Rome, marrying the widow of the son of Tiberius. Many began to feel that Sejanus was about to become the anointed successor of Tiberius, yet when the emperor managed to smuggle a letter to the Senate in Rome asking for Sejanus to be executed, they complied.
In the end Tiberius nominated Caligula, a son of his stepdaughter, and also a great-nephew, as his successor. Tiberius returned to Rome and took part in ceremonial games that required him to throw a javelin.
The effort wrenched his shoulder, and he retired to bed where he fell into a coma. Caligula was proclaimed the new emperor in 31, but soon after this Tiberius regained consciousness. The new Praetorian Guard commander, Macro, immediately smothered the emperor.
Caligula and Claudius
Caligula was born Gaius Caesar in 12 c.e. and became known as Caligula (Little Boot) when he was a boy and accompanied some soldiers on a march, having his own miniature armor made. His father, Germanicus Caesar, was a stepson of Tiberius, and when his father died, he had become Gaius Caesar Germanicus. Caligula made a tremendous speech at the funeral for Tiberius.
Soon after he became emperor, he became ill and then started to display massive cruelty and sadism. Roman historians clearly did not like him, and from many accounts he was a despotic emperor.
With the coffers of Rome filled by Tiberius, Caligula started to squander money on an extravagant scale, so much so that he later had to resort to extorting money from wealthy Roman citizens. Caligula held lavish games at the Colosseum during which he watched massive displays of brutality and sadism.
At the same time he came to regard himself as a deity, and soon rumors spread that he would marry one of his sisters to establish a Ptolemaic-type succession whereby the oldest son married the oldest sister.
As his excesses became more and more horrendous, a coup d’état was planned, and a tribune of the Praetorian Guard killed Caligula on January 24, 41 c.e., when he was at the Palatine Games. His wife and daughter were also murdered. As the Praetorian Guard sacked the imperial palace, they found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, and proclaimed him the next emperor.
Claudius, born in 10 b.c.e., was always regarded as clumsy and stuttered a little and was an unexpected choice of emperor, having spent much of his time devoted to studying history and literature. Altogether he wrote, in Greek, 20 books on Etruscan history, and eight on Carthage, as well as an autobiography, but none of these books have survived.
Some of the senators sided with Claudius, and others supported a small insurrection in Dalmatia. Soon after his appointment as emperor, Claudius annexed Mauretania in North Africa and then decided to invade Britain. This took place in 43 c.e. with the Roman soldiers led by Aulus Plautius.
With victory assured Claudius arrived in Britain and established a large colony of Roman veterans around the capital, Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), although many were killed. Claudius significantly added to the empire by taking Lycia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Thrace, avoiding war with the Germans and the Parthians.
Claudius expended much of his energy on reforming the administration of the Roman Empire. He improved the legal system and established a large settlement of Roman army veterans in Britain and at Colonia Agrippinensis (modern-day Cologne).
He also made changes to the Roman religious practices. However, there was dissatisfaction in the Roman imperial family after Claudius divorced his wife Messalina and married his niece Agrippina.
He then adopted her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (who became the emperor Nero), and he became heir instead of Claudius’s son, Britannicus. On October 13, 54 c.e., Agrippina poisoned Claudius, allegedly with mushrooms, his favorite dish, leaving the adopted son of Claudius to become the next emperor.
Nero, The Fifth Roman Emperor
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, born in 37 c.e., had taken the title Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, and in 54 became Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the fifth Roman emperor. Nero’s father died when he was three, and his mother, who poisoned her second husband and then married her uncle Claudius before poisoning him, had brought him up.
She later poisoned Britannicus, Claudius’s biological son, as well. The Praetorian Guard proclaimed Nero emperor when he was 16. Initially, Nero pushed through some important reforms.
Nero forbade bloodshed in the circus, banned capital punishment, and allowed slaves to bring complaints against their masters. In the period after the death of Nero’s mother —killed on his orders in 59—and that of his wife Octavia, in June 62, also murdered at his instigation, Nero changed dramatically.
He married two more times, but neither marriage lasted. He quickly became famous for his extravagances and personal debauchery. Burrus died in 62 c.e., and Seneca soon lost his influence over the emperor. In 64 a large fire burned down a significant section of Rome, and Nero used it as an excuse to build his "Golden House", planned to span a third of the city of Rome.
The emperor was 35 miles away at Antium when the fire started, but this did not stop the accusations that he had started the blaze himself. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire, and soon afterward the persecution of Christians, and also many Jews, started.
Many Christians were arrested and taken to the Colosseum, where they were fed to lions to the amusement of tens of thousands of spectators. Others were crucified, covered in pitch, and set alight. Meanwhile Nero indulged himself in wild orgies and quickly spent the wealth that Claudius had amassed.
A plot to overthrow Nero in 65 failed but did show that he was resented by many of the population. Finally, a large rebellion broke out in Spain where the provincial governor Servius Sulpicius Galba led his troops through Gaul to Rome. Nero at first fainted when he heard the news.
He then pondered how to prevent the rebels from reaching Rome with one idea being to allow them to legally plunder Gaul, which he thought might occupy them for several months while he could collect together his own men. However, Galba led his men to Rome. With the Praetorian Guard fleeing, Nero was forced to leave for Greece.
There he was recognized, captured, and executed. Galba, who succeeded him, did not last long as emperor. He was quickly ousted by Marcus Salvius Otho in the following year, who was then ousted by Vitellius, and finally by Vespasian.