As Augustus approached the end of his lifetime, he had every reason to feel proud of himself.
His incredibly accomplished career had brought an end to a hundred years of instability and civil strife. He had unified, strengthened, enriched and expanded the Roman world, masterminding its transformation from a nominal Republic divided amongst feuding warlords to an effective autocracy with himself as its unquestioned ruler. The stable and efficient imperial system that he crafted, and the era of peace and prosperity that he enabled, would both endure for more than two centuries after his own death.
Yet, for all his accomplishments, there remained one issue central to the new Augustan system that Rome’s first emperor was never fully able to address during his own lifetime: the question of the imperial succession.
Who would be Rome’s next emperor?
Ideologically, this was a touchy issue because it embodied a clash between high-minded idealism and practical necessity. On the one hand, Augustus had spent his entire reign carefully painting his regime as merely a renewed Roman Republic, and himself as its leading citizen instead of its monarch. This made it difficult for Augustus to formally designate an heir apparent, especially from among his own family, without looking like a king. That was exactly the image that Augustus wanted to avoid.
On the other hand, if Augustus died without a strong, universally recognized successor to take his place and continue his work, Rome could easily slide back into the chaos of the late Republic. Generals and politicians would fight over the vacant position he’d leave behind and destroy everything he’d worked so hard to build.
In practical terms, the succession was a difficult matter for Augustus in particular due to his own longevity; his own natural lifespan was so long that he actually outlived several of his potential successors. Augustus had no biological sons of his own, but a nephew, a son-in-law and two grandsons, each of whom Augustus may have intended to succeed him at some point, died before him.
In Augustus’ last years, he finally settled his choice of successor on one of his few remaining options: his stepson, Tiberius. Although Tiberius had served as Augustus’ right-hand man from about 4 AD onwards, neither Augustus nor Tiberius seemed especially happy about the decision.
The Reluctant Autocrat
Tiberius had led a celebrated career as one of Rome’s greatest generals, proving himself capable as both a soldier and administrator. Unlike Augustus, however, Tiberius was not a natural politician. The emperor’s stepson lacked Augustus’ famous charisma and charm, and he’d always had an on-and-off relationship with his imperial stepfather.
Nevertheless, when Augustus finally died in 14 AD the 55-year-old Tiberius reluctantly agreed to honour his stepfather’s decision, and the Roman Senate confirmed his appointment as Rome’s new emperor in succession to Augustus.
The portrait of Tiberius’ character prior to becoming Emperor of Rome seems to paint a picture of a tired and bitter man, the result of a successful career tainted by a string of personal tragedies. Tiberius’ father died when he was just nine years old. His only brother died young after a bad fall from horseback. In 11 BC he was forced by his mother and stepfather to divorce the wife he loved for an arranged marriage to a wife he didn’t even like.
Yet, despite his evident dislike for ruling the empire, the early years of Tiberius’ reign suggest that he was a careful and responsible emperor, albeit not a popular one. This began to change in 23 AD, after Tiberius’ son Drusus Caesar died. In 26 AD Tiberius withdrew completely from public life, retiring the following year to the small Mediterranean island of Capri where he would spend the rest of his life in self-imposed exile.
The emperor never again returned to Rome. Instead, for years he left the reins of power in the hands of a man who should never have been trusted with them in the first place: Lucius Aelius Sejanus.
Soldier and Social Climber
Sejanus was the ambitious son of a minor noble family determined to advance his standing in Roman society by almost any means. In 15 AD he became the commander of the imperial bodyguard, a position he inherited from his father, and immediately began to work his way into Emperor Tiberius’ inner circle. As he repeatedly proved himself a capable subordinate to Tiberius, he was gradually granted ever-greater powers and duties by the weary emperor. However, Sejanus was openly disliked by the emperor’s son, Drusus, and Sejanus knew the hostility of someone so close to the throne could endanger his career, or even his life, after the old emperor died.
Whether motivated by ambition or survival, Sejanus decided to act preemptively. He began an affair with Drusus’ wife Livilla, and the Roman writers Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio unanimously agree that the ‘illness’ that killed Drusus in 23 AD was caused by gradual poisoning at the hands of Sejanus and Livilla. If so then it was well concealed, since no one at the time seemed to believe there was anything unnatural about the death of Livilla’s husband.
After Tiberius left Rome in 26 AD Sejanus was left with virtually unlimited authority to do as he pleased, with little to no oversight from the absent emperor. He promptly began using this newfound power to create a vast network of spies and informants, purge the Senate of his political opponents, and bring accusations of treason against multiple members of the imperial family to justify arresting, exiling or executing them, all the while claiming to be acting on the emperor’s behalf.
Schemer’s Downfall, Emperor’s Demise
Though he was clearly hungry for power, we cannot be entirely certain what ultimate goal served as motivation for Sejanus’ villainous actions. What specifically did he hope to accomplish by systematically hunting down and eliminating every prince of imperial blood he could get his hands on?
Perhaps by removing anyone with a better claim to the succession Sejanus hoped to force Tiberius into adopting him as his heir, thus making himself the next emperor. Maybe he was hoping to eliminate only the adult males of the imperial family so that when Tiberius died his successor would be an emperor too young to rule, such as Livilla’s son, giving Sejanus the opportunity to act as a sort of regent that would rule Rome on this child emperor’s behalf.
Whatever Sejanus’ eventual goal was, it was never accomplished. On 18 October, 31 AD Sejanus attended a meeting of the Senate. During this meeting, a letter from Emperor Tiberius was opened and read out loud to the senators. The letter denounced Sejanus as an enemy of the state, ordering his arrest and execution. Years of espionage, tyranny and political witch hunting by Sejanus had made him many enemies in the Senate, and they were all too happy to carry out the emperor’s orders.
Just as uncertain as Sejanus’ goal is Tiberius’ motive for destroying him. It’s possible that the emperor somehow discovered Sejanus’ role in the death of his son years before. It could be that Tiberius simply feared Sejanus was plotting against him and chose to act preemptively against his subordinate. Either way, the emperor clearly had no intention of returning to Rome even now that Sejanus was gone.
Tiberius spent what remained of his life on the island of Capri. According to ancient Roman writers Tiberius spent his days indulging in every imaginable excess of extravagance, gluttony, perversion and cruelty and finally died in 37 AD at the age of 78, a hated, spiteful, paranoid recluse. Given that many of the few surviving ancient Roman sources are notorious for sensationalism, exaggeration and pro-senatorial biases, their accounts of some of the old emperor’s more outrageous “excesses” should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
What is certainly clear, however, is that nothing Tiberius did during his lifetime could have been worse than his choice of who would rule Rome after his death. The name of the young man Tiberius chose to succeed him as Roman Emperor was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, but history knows him better by his nickname: Caligula.
Unlike Tiberius, Caligula did not bring the benefits of a long career of administrative and military experience to the imperial office. He had only once held a low-level public office, and even then in only an honorary capacity.
Caligula was born in 12 AD into what could only be called impeccable pedigree, even by the standards of the imperial family. His mother Agrippina the Elder was a granddaughter of Augustus, making Caligula a direct descendent of Rome’s revered first emperor. His father Germanicus was Tiberius’ nephew. A celebrated army general in his own right and a wildly popular imperial prince, Germanicus was considered to have a better claim to the throne than anyone aside from Tiberius himself.
Little Gaius spent much of his early childhood in Roman army camps along the Rhine River, since his father was in command of the legions stationed there. Germanicus’ soldiers adored their commander’s infant son, all the more so after his mother made Gaius a toddler-sized soldier’s outfit, complete with tiny army sandals, to wear around the camp. From then on the soldiers began to call him Caligula, meaning “little boot” in Latin, and although Gaius disliked the nickname it would follow him for the rest of his life.
Despite these almost idyllic early years, Caligula would soon become well-acquainted with family tragedy. Caligula was only seven years old when his father Germanicus died of illness in Syria. Malevolent rumours accused Emperor Tiberius of having Germanicus poisoned, jealous of his nephew’s popularity and success. Although little reliable evidence survives to suggest that Tiberius had anything to do with his nephew’s death there were many grief-stricken Romans, including Caligula’s mother, who were more than willing to believe otherwise.
The belief that Tiberius had murdered her husband would put Agrippina and her children on a collision course with the emperor in the years to come. Tensions between Agrippina and Tiberius were only made worse by the manipulations of Sejanus, who wanted to use the rift between them to his own advantage.
Sejanus seemed determined to make sure that Germanicus’ children would never rule Rome, and by the time of his death he had nearly succeeded. Caligula’s mother and two older brothers had been convicted of treason and exiled to small Mediterranean islands where they soon died, either of starvation or suicide, leaving Caligula as the sole surviving male heir of Germanicus.
From Capri to the Palatine
In 31 AD, Caligula was summoned to Capri by Tiberius to live with the emperor. Even though being in close contact with the man who had either engineered or failed to prevent the deaths of half his family must have been a frightening experience, Caligula proved himself a skilled actor and charmed the suspicious old emperor over the course of the next few years. His efforts paid off; when Tiberius died in 37 AD, his will left the Roman Empire in the hands of the 24-year-old Caligula.
The Senate and the people of Rome alike were thrilled at the accession of their new emperor. The son of the much-beloved Germanicus, Gaius Caligula was young, bright and cheerful; a vibrant contrast to his gloomy, suspicious old predecessor. Although Caligula spent money much more freely than either Augustus or Tiberius ever had, for the first few months of his reign there was little else to complain about in regards to the young emperor.
After spending just a few months as Roman Emperor, Caligula fell ill with a sickness that nearly killed him. After two millennia it’s impossible for historians to be certain exactly what this illness was, but by the time Caligula recovered from it he was a changed man. Whether the likeable, generous, open-minded Caligula had ever been a genuine part of his character or a mere charade all along, it was certainly gone now.
In its place was the monster history remembers best: an unhinged, amoral, tyrannical, whimsically-cruel degenerate. The emperor’s former openness was replaced almost overnight by paranoia; a cousin, a brother-in-law, a commander of the imperial bodyguard and many others were soon condemned to death for plotting against Caligula, whether they were guilty or not.
The Mad Emperor
Ancient literary sources accuse Caligula of committing every imaginable crime, cruelty and act of insanity: theft, torture, rape, murder, even incest. Given the pro-senatorial and sensationalist biases of the ancient writers some of the more extreme accusations may be lies or exaggerations, but even if this was the case Caligula was clearly indifferent to any notion of being a responsible ruler.
Caligula now cared only about doing whatever pleased him, whenever it pleased him regardless, or perhaps even because, of how much suffering he inflicted on others in the process. At some point, probably in 40 AD a group of conspirators, including nobles, senators and members of the Praetorian Guard, began plotting together towards a single goal: remove the mad emperor by any means necessary.
On 24 January, 41 AD, less than four years into his reign, Caligula became the first Roman emperor to die violently, setting an ominous precedent that many after him would someday follow. However, the emperor left political chaos in his wake even as he lay dead on the ground from dozens of stab wounds. Caligula had left no obvious heir to the throne, and the conspirators had never actually agreed on what course of action to follow after killing the emperor. Some wanted to restore the Roman Republic; others wanted to make themselves emperor in Caligula’s place.
Amid the confusion that followed, the Praetorian Guard took matters into its own hands. The soldiers tracked down Caligula’s old uncle Claudius and declared him emperor. Although the Senate was reluctant to accept him as the new emperor, since Claudius now had the support and protection of the imperial guard the senators soon realized that they had no other choice.
This dramatic turn of events was an early display of the true source of imperial power: ultimately it was the support of the military, not the Senate or the law, that made or unmade a Roman emperor. From now on, any Roman emperor who hoped to rule successfully would have to learn this lesson and learn it well.