With his victory over Antony at Actium, in 31 BCE and his annexation of Cleopatra’s kingdom of Egypt the following year, Octavian became the sole master of the Roman world. But how was he to ensure stability in the Roman world? He knew that if he were to give up his control of his armies, rivalries between senatorial proconsuls would soon lead to warfare; but if he was also keenly aware that if he were to cling on to his powers he would soon gain the enmity of the senate, as his adopted father Julius Caesar had done. Given that the senate was the fount of the lawful exercise of power, his position would soon become untenable.
During a few years of experimentation with different arrangements, Augustus gradually developed the formula which would become the foundation for imperial rule in succeeding centuries. At the heart of this stood the arrangements for control of the provinces – and therefore armies – of the empire.
By this arrangement, the senate had responsibility for the more peaceful, civilized and wealthy of the provinces, such as Africa, Greece, Macedonia and Asia. It appointed governors to these provinces, and their taxes flowed into the senatorial treasury.
The great proconsulate
In return he had the senate appoint him proconsul (initially for a period of ten years, then in perpetuity) of a huge provincia whihc included most of the frontier territories of the empire (this followed a republican precedent whereby a general such as Pompey was given broad, multi-province powers to deal with a threat to Roman rule). It was in Octavian’s provincia that the bulk of the Roman legions were now stationed, so he kept in his hands an an overwhelming preponderance of military power. He appointed his own lieutenants (who were all senators except in the case of Egypt, to which he appointed an equestrian Prefect) to govern the different territories he controlled, and the revenues from them flowed into a treasury whose officials answered to him. Collecting the revenue from his provinces (known by modern scholars as the imperial provinces, to distinguish them from the senatorial provinces) was put into the hands of financial officials drawn from the equestrian class, not the senatorial. This was the first step in creating an equestrian public career to go alongside the senatorial career, and drew that class more closely into the running of the empire.
Augustus and Princeps
In 27 BC the senate voted him the titles Augustus and Princeps. He already had the title imperator (a title given previously to victorious generals, and which enabled him and his successors to wear the distinctive purple toga worn by such men in their triumphs). Henceforward he and all his successors always had the words Imperator Caesar Augustus within their nomenclatures.
A few years later Augustus gave up his practice of holding one of the two consulships each year, thus giving more room for ambitious senators to hold what was traditionally regarded as the most prestigious magistracy in the Roman state. However, he gained some additional powers, the most important of which was a proconsular imperium, which gave him a supervisory authority over all the provinces in the empire, senatorial as well as imperial (click here for a fuller tally of the various titles, powers and offices which the position of emperor embraced).
Apart from the legal foundation for his supreme position within the Roman state which this series of offices, titles and powers constituted, Augustus was able to supplement his power through a number of other factors. The first of these was the sheer wealth which he now controlled. The richest province on the empire, Egypt, was now virtually his private estate; and he also owned a growing number of estates which had been confiscated by defeated rivals. In his daily life Augustus lived frugally; but he was able to use his vast wealth as a way of winning support from groups such as army veterans, cities in different parts of the empire, and of course individual senators and equestrians.
A second factor was the establishment of the Praetorian Guard. In Augustus’ time this was garrisoned in towns near Rome, rather than in Rome itself: only one of its nine cohorts (some 500 men) was on duty guarding his house at any one time. From his successor Tiberius’ time, however, the Praetorian Guard were housed in its own huge barracks just outside the walls of Rome. It was increased in size to twelve cohorts, with each cohort being of one thousand men. The commander of the guards became probably the second most powerful man in the empire after the emperor himself, even though not a senator.
One other aspect of Augustus’ reign should be mentioned, which certainly underpinned his position in the state but did not derive from republican precedents. This was the growth of the imperial cult, or “emperor worship”, as it is often called.
In a polytheistic religious context such as that of the Greeks and the Romans, where gods and goddesses have human virtues and frailties, and in which new cults had a tendency to spring up now and then, real flesh and blood human beings could occasionally become objects of worship.
The clearest example of this before Roman times was Alexander the Great, who during his lifetime assumed divine status after his conquest of Egypt and his being recognized as Pharaoh, a god-king. After his death a widespread cult grew up around his personality, and he was worshipped as a god throughout the Middle East.
His successors, the Hellenistic kings of Egypt, Syria, Pergamum and so on, followed in his footsteps by claiming divine status, and when Roman power spread into the Hellenistic world Roman proconsuls also found themselves being accorded similar divine honours. It had become a natural way for people to express loyalty and respect to rulers. The practice spread to Rome’s western conquests, with successful generals in Spain, for example, being praised in quasi-religious terms (religious banquet, acclamation as “saviour”, sacred shrines). Even in Rome itself, the Roman triumph may have had elements of divine worship attached to it (hence the necessity for a slave standing behind the general being honoured, saying, “remember, sir, you are not a god).
All these developments came to a crescendo immediately after Julius Caesar had defeated all his enemies in the civil wars and made himself the unchallenged master of he Roman world. Games were dedicated in his honour, statues set up to him, his image paraded with those of the other gods, his portrait put on coins – all things traditionally reserved for gods.
The outpouring of popular grief after Caesar’s assassination led to the rapid spread of a cult in his honour. Shrines were set up in Rome and in the provinces, with the senate’s (forced) approval. Thanks to his adoption as Caesar’s son, Augustus was able to call himself the “son of the divine Julius”. After Octavian’s victory at Actium, Asian cities requested that they might set up shrines to him as their “saviour”.
A policy eventually emerged that shrines might be allowed if they were to “the goddess Roma” as well as the emperor, and that non-Roman citizens might worship a living emperor, but Roman citizens might only worship an emperor after he had died. Octavian presided over the dedication of the temple to the “divine Julius” in Rome, and in 27 BC he accepted the title of Augustus, which had strong religious connotations of awe and reverence.
Under Augustus and his successors, therefore, the veneration of the emperor became an official cult, with its own temples and priests in every city. For Roman citizens, only dead emperors were worshipped as gods, and this only if the senate voted for his deification. Non-citizens could and did worship the living emperor. This was an enormously powerful underpinning to the status and position of the emperor in the Roman world.
Summary of the Augustan settlement
The chief underpinning of the emperors power, however, was implicit in the legal arrangements that had emerged in the Augustan settlement. This was that he and his successors became by far the greatest fount of patronage for senators and equestrians. Directly or indirectly they controlled appointments to all the high offices of the Roman state – legionary commands, provincial governorships, and senior government posts in Rome itself.
This Augustan settlement provided the Roman world with a framework of government which lasted more than two hundred years. Augustus as we should now call him, was thus the first of the long line of Roman emperors who were to rule the Roman world for hundreds of years.
[Click here for more on the position of the emperor in the first two centuries of the empire]
Augustus was sole master of the Roman world for more than forty years (31 BCE to 14 CE). Along the eastern frontier he brought Armenia into the Roman sphere and stabilized the frontier with Parthia; by forceful diplomacy he was also able to have the legionary standards lost at the disaster of Carrhae returned to the Romans.
In a vast series of conquests his generals annexed the wild lands of the Balkans, pushing the Roman frontiers to the Danube, and moved the frontier with the Germans to the Elbe. These conquests were interrupted by a fierce rebellion in Danube lands that needed over half the imperial army to crush it, and then in 9 CE, Quintilius Varus, commander on the Rhine, was trapped with three legions deep in the Teutoburg forest in Germany, and wiped out. Augustus was deeply affected by this disaster, and made no further attempts at conquest. He left advice in his will that the Roman empire should not be expanded.
Scholars often call the political system of the early empire the Principate, after one of the emperor’s main titles, princeps (somewhat loosely translated as “first citizen”). Such was the overwhelming bundle of powers that Augustus enjoyed that no one could stand against his wishes to transmit his position to a successor. A return to the Republican system would in any case have been completely impracticable.
The only question was, then, who should succeed Augustus?
During the first century of the empire, the emperors were members of what has been called the “Julio-Claudian” dynasty. This is something of a misnomer, as none of the emperors of this “dynasty” were able to transmit their power to a genetic offspring; however, they did all belong to the interrelated patrician families of the Julii or Claudii, either through birth or adoption, and were this able to maintain a fiction of inherited power.
Since Augustus had no sons, and his nephew and grandsons had all died before him, he chose his step-son, Tiberius (a member of the Claudian clan) to follow him.
Tiberius (reigned 14-37 CE), though undoubtedly able, was elderly and gloomy, and probably alcoholic. For much of his reign his ruthless Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, virtually ruled the empire until his downfall, which occurred when rumours surfaced that he was cooking up a plot against his master. In his last years Tiberius more or less retired to the island of Capri, off the coast of southern Italy, from where rumours of a depraved lifestyle filtered back to Rome.
Tiberius, as with Augustus having no surviving son, was succeeded by his great grand-nephew, Gaius (a member of the Julian clan, reigned 37-41 CE). Gaius, nicknamed “Caligula” (“Little Boots” after the small army boots he wore as a child when his father was a general), soon became insane. He lashed out at anyone he disliked or felt threatened by, and his blood-soaked rule was brought to an end when he was murdered by some of his servants and members of the Praetorian Guard.
In the chaotic scenes in the palace following Caligula’s murder, an elderly uncle of his (and grand-nephew of Augustus) was found by the guards and promptly elevated to the emperorship. This was Claudius (reigned 41-54 CE; as his name indicates, he was a Claudian).
Claudius had physical infirmities which made him liable to ridicule, but he was probably one of the most intelligent of all Roman emperors. It was during his reign that the conquest of Britain was launched.
He was not very sensible in his final marriage. The ambitious Agrippina had him adopt her son, Nero, and then, when he was 16, she poisoned Claudius (or so it was generally believed).
Nero (as the adopted son of Claudius, also therefore a Claudian) was the last of the Julio-Claudians. His reign (54-68 CE) was marked by more atrocities than any of his predecessors. He poisoned Claudius’ young son, Britannicus, murdered his mother Agrippina (after more than one attempt), divorced and executed his wife, Claudius’ daughter, and abandoned himself to various vices.
During Nero’s reign a huge fire destroyed a large section of Rome. Nero seems to have helped fund the rehousing of many people who had lost their homes, but he also used much of the land cleared by the fire to build a magnificent new palace on. This was called the “Golden House”, due to its unparalleled splendour. This led to rumours that Nero himself had started the fire to enable him to build this palace. He tried to deflect the blame onto members of the new Christian religion, which, despite it being barely thirty years since its founder Jesus of Nazareth had lived and died in Judaea, was already well established in Rome. He was the first emperor to instigate an official persecution of Christians.
Nero’s extravagance and eccentricities (he was fond of acting in public, an unheard of thing for a Roman aristocrat to do), did not endear him to the troops on the frontiers. He lost the loyalty of the Roman armies, and in the late 60s, a rebellion in Spain led quickly to his suicide.
The political situation under the Julio-Claudians
By the time of Augustus’ death the principate was the only political system which most people could remember. Perhaps because of this a rosy glow now hung over the memory of the old republic. Some senators, and not only those from old families with generations of consuls behind them, still hankered after the good old days when the senate had ruled supreme and there was no princeps to dwarf its members in authority and prestige.
Throughout the Julio-Claudian period, there were repeated conspiracies against the emperors, hatched by groups of senators and equestrians. This created an ongoing tension between emperor and senate which was never far below the surface. Some emperors, such as Gaius and Nero, succumbed to paranoia, prompting them to unleash a lethal campaign on the senators, with as many as one in then falling victim to their suspicions. At such times an atmosphere of fear prevailed in the corridors of power. Even under a moderate emperor like Claudius, who probably shared many of the Republican sympathies of some senators, several senators were executed on suspicion of treason.
Even in normal times senators were in a difficult position. Although the senate still retained important powers, and was required to deliberate on weighty matters, ambitious senators were now dependant upon the princeps for high office. it was natural that they should try to vote strictly according to the wishes of the emperor. This rather undermined the purpose of this institution, and in frustration Tiberius, for example, tried to conceal his own opinions on subjects which came before the senate, so that a proper debate could take place. This only made senators believe that he was trying to trap them into indiscretions.
The events following the murder of Caligula showed up the real powerlessness of the senate as a political institution. On news of the murder the senate immediately began discussing restoring the Republic. The Praetorian Guard, however, had acclaimed Gaius’ uncle Claudius as emperor and the senate had no choice but to acquiesce.
However, the emperors needed the senate. This body was the fount of legitimacy; all their offices and titles had been voted to them by the senate, and it was this fact that made the emperors’ position legal in the eyes of the Roman people. Moreover most of the emperors’ generals, governors, ministers and high officials were senators; he relied on their good service, and he was not disappointed.The majority of senators gave loyal and distinguished service, and even under the worst of rulers the empire continued to run smoothly. Finally, all the emperors at this period themselves came from the oldest and most prominent of the senatorial nobility – the Julian and Claudian clans, and the other ancient families to which they were related. It was unthinkable that they should do away with their own class.
The environment in which the emperor lived also gave another group some political importance – the Roman mob.
The emperors were frequently to be seen in public. They presided over games in the amphitheatre and races in the Circus Maximus; they took a central role in the festivities and rites of the state religion; they attended meetings of the senate; and some of them even visited public baths, mingling with fellow citizens on terms approaching equality. It is difficult for us today o imagine, removed as we are from the environment in which the politics of the principate took place, what it must have been like for an emperor and his entourage to be greeted by a huge and unruly crowd, angry at some policy or other that they had instigated. What is clear that emperors were indeed as careful as they could be to keep on the right side of the Roman mob. Caligula once joked, “would that the Roman people had but one throat”. This points to the fact that, whereas he could threaten senators and other individuals into obedience, the mob was beyond his control.
Perhaps the most famous instance of the mob’s influence on politics came in Nero’s reign. Nero was in fact popular with the mob. He enjoyed acting on stage, and whereas the upper classes despised him for this (it was very ungentlemanly behaviour), the mob loved it. In 64 CE, however, a devastating fire swept through Rome. Nero seems to have personally helped in the search for victims, and contributed towards the cost of rehousing, but he reserved a large part of of the land cleared by the fire for a magnificent new palace complex, nick-named the “Golden House”. Naturally rumours began to circulate that had started the fire himself to enable such a palace to be built. Fearing the ill-will of the mob, he to deflect the blame from himself to the Christian community in the city. This, despite the fact that it was barely 30 years since Jesus of Nazareth had lived and taught in distant Palestine, was now large enough to be a widely-felt presence in the imperial capital, and no doubt due to its preaching of a way of life which few wanted to share, was widely unpopular with the mob. Nero ordered that they should be rounded up and killed, the first official persecution of the young Church.
The provinces and frontiers under the Julio-Claudians
Despite the personal failings of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the empire as a whole continued to be well governed. Peace prevailed throughout the provinces. The system which Augustus had established, by which senior army officers and provincial governors were appointed and promoted on the emperor’s say so (though from a very narrow group within society, mostly senators, some equestrians), ensured a generally high standard of administration. Senior officials were well paid, discouraging corrupt practices; and provincials – especially the elites of the towns and cities of the empires – could make their complaints heard in Rome if a governor was notably corrupt or incompetent.
In the first century of the empire Roman citizenship began to spread widely amongst the subject peoples of the empire. The ruling classes also began to fill up with men from provincial families. Men from Spain were admitted into the senate in Augustus’ time (though he did try to keep the senate a mostly Italian body), and Claudius was the first emperor to promote Gauls from north of the Alps (i.e from amongst those who were descended from Rome’s ancestral enemies, the tribes of modern-day France) to the senate.
The frontiers of the empire continued to advance. Tiberius was not particularly interested in new conquests – the disaster of the Tuetoburg Forest was probably still too fresh in the minds of Rome’s leaders in his time. Claudius however began the conquest of Britain (43 CE), where he made a brief personal appearance. He also extended Roman territory to cover the whole of north Africa. Under Nero there were continuing wars in Britain, where the revolt of the Iceni tribe, under their fierce queen Boudica, came perilously close to driving the Romans out of the island. After Boudica’s defeat Roman expansion in Britain resumed.
A war with the Parthian empire also broke out in Nero’s reign, over control of the kingdom of Armenia. The successes of Nero’s general Corbulo soon brought Parthia to the negotiating table and Armenia back into Rome’s sphere of influence.
At this point, however, a revolt broke out amongst the Jews in Judaea. This remained undefeated at the time of Nero’s death (see below).
Reports of Nero’s eccentric behaviour (especially his public stage appearances) reached the troops on the frontier; they were not impressed. They heard of his extravagances as well, especially his magnificent but hugely expensive “Golden House”. To complete this he had to raise extra taxes in the provinces, and even so, the payment of troops fell into areas. Also, his ordering of the suicide of his most famous general, Corbulo, who was very popular amongst his troops, infuriated them. By the late 60s the army was in a mutinous mood. In 68 a rebellion broke out in Spain. Nero found that none of the frontier armies would supported him, and he committed suicide, saying, “What an artist the world is losing in me!”
With Nero’s suicide the Julio-Claudian house was now extinct: who would be emperor? In 68 and 69 CE four emperors came and went as different frontier armies marched on Italy is support of their own candidates (in each case one of their senior generals). First Galba, the governor in Spain, was recognised as emperor by his troops and marched into Italy; he was soon murdered at the instigation of his lieutenant, Otho. Otho was a former friend of Nero who had the support of the Praetorian Guard (and who had been alarmed by the disciplinarian approach of Galba). Otho’s forces were soon defeated by the Rhine armies, who had acclaimed one of their commanders, Vitellius, as emperor. By the end of 69 Vitellius, too, had been murdered, and Flavius Vespasian, at the head of the eastern armies, was triumphant.
Vespasian (reigned 69-79 CE) was an experienced and able soldier, He came from comparatively humble origins in Italy, the grandson of a centurion, a far cry from the old patrician stock of the Julio-Claudians. He took the name Caesar, which henceforth was purely a title, and set about restoring order. He put the imperial finances on a firm footing by heavy taxation, and appointed able governors to restore order and good government to the provinces. In Rome he demolished Nero’s Golden House, which had become a by-word for extravagant waste, and on the land thus made vacant he started building a huge new amphitheatre, the Coliseum. partly to relieve unemployment in Rome. When he died he had gained the respect of the senate and was immediately deified.
Vespasian was succeeded by his son, Titus (the first non-adoptive to follow his father as emperor). Titus (reigned 79-81 CE) was easy going and popular. He won further popularity by his generosity in helping the homeless victims of the eruption of Vesuvius, which completely destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Titus died after two years of natural causes. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Domitian.
Domitian (81-96 CE) was an efficient administrator, but cruel and suspicious. His behaviour provoked fear amongst those around him, and conspiracies, real and imagined, were launched against him. A reign of terror developed, as in the worst days of the Julio-Claudians; as then informers reigned supreme and senators in particular had to be very careful what they said and who they talked to. Eventually he was murdered by some of the palace servants.
The circumstances of Domitian’s death were not unlike that of the emperor Gaius: killed within his palace by members of his own domestic staff. What followed next was quite different, however, and had enduring consequences. The Praetorian Guard kept out of events and the senate found itself playing the key role of choosing the next emperor. They chose an elderly senator, Cocceius Nerva (reigned 96-8), who ruled competently and put an immediate stop to the reign of terror; but he was a stopgap choice. He was childless (like so many Roman aristocrats of the period), and by far the most important thing he did was to chose a highly suitable successor.
He adopted as son a highly respected general named Ulpius Traianus (Trajan). This ensured that his death was not followed by instability and civil war, and that sound rulership continued.
Nerva and his successors who reigned from 96 to 180 CE are known as the “Five Good Emperors”. Until the last one, Marcus Aurelius, they were all without sons to succeed them, and they all (except Marcus) took steps, well before they died, to ensure that there would be a suitable successor.
Trajan (reigned 96-117 CE) came from a Roman family long settled in Spain. He was an ambitious builder and soldier, and under him the Roman empire reached its greatest extent.
He was succeeded by his cousin, Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian, reigned 117-37 CE). After Trajan’s expansionism he pulled back behind defensible frontiers, which he strengthened. He adopted his relative Aurelius Antoninus as his successor, known to history as Antonius Pius (reigned 137-61). His was the most peaceful of any emperor’s reign.
He was succeeded by his adopted son Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who spent his whole reign campaigning on the Danubian frontier.
The political situation
Except for under the paranoid emperor Domitian, this period was much freer of tensions between emperor and senators than had been the case under the Julio-Claudians. The civil wars of the Year of the Four Emperors had perhaps underscored for all but the most die-hard republicans where the realities of power now lay. As the historian Tacitus said, the “secret was out – emperors could be made outside Rome”. It was now plain that the Roman armies were the real source of power in the empire; while an emperor retained their loyalty he was virtually unassailable. Ironically, this enabled the senators to devote their energies, not to opposition, but to loyal service to the emperors and in uphold the political order which now prevailed. Particularly under the Five Good Emperors, the political situation was marked by stability and quiet. The only dangerous moment was when rumours spread in the east that the emperor Marcus Aurelius had died, and the troops there acclaimed their commander Avidius Cassius as emperor. When this rumour proved false the crisis quickly passed.
Provinces and frontiers
At Nero’s death the revolt which had broken out in Judaea remained undefeated, and the civil wars that followed meant that no great effort could be made towards this objective. With Vespasian’s triumph in 69, his eldest son, Titus, who had been left in command against the Jews whilst Vespasian marched on Rome, vigorously prosecuted the war. After a bitter siege he captured Jerusalem in 70 CE, and raised the temple, the centre of the Jewish religion, to the ground.
Much of Domitian’s reign was taken up with frontier wars. His main achievement was the stabilisation of the Rhine-Danube front after a series of difficult campaigns.
Trajan undertook a major war of conquest beyond the Danube by marching into Dacia (modern Romania and eastern Hungary) and adding it to the empire after a hard-fought war. Trajan commemorated the Dacian war by erecting a huge column in a new forum he built in Rome. This column, which still stands, has realistic depictions of the Roman army on campaign, and is still studied by historians to see how the Roman army of the period was equipped, organized and fought.
Late in his reign Trajan invaded deep into the Parthian empire, intent on defeating that power once and for all. He marched his army right the way through Parthian territory, all the way to the Persian Gulf; but the problems of supply in a hostile land meant that he could not hold the territory, and had to retreat. He died on the way home. Nevertheless, he left the empire larger than it had ever been before.
Hadrian did not continue Trajan’s policy of expansion. Instead he sought to shore up the empire’s defences by organizing the frontiers more carefully. He ordered the building of the long wall that bears his name which runs from coast to coast across northern Britain; and he strengthened the fortifications along frontiers everywhere. He was a great traveller, going on tours of inspection to every part of the empire, interesting himself in the welfare of the provincials and the troops.
In 132 a second major Jewish revolt broke out, not only in Judaea but in many cities with Jewish communities in them. This was led by a man called Bar Kochba. It was put down without too much difficulty, and in the aftermath Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and 100 miles around. This was the beginning of their “Diaspora”, their dispersion amongst the nations of the world, without a homeland of their own. This would last until the state of Israel was established in 1947. On the site of the city of Jerusalem Hadrian established a Roman colony.
Antoninus Pius’ reign was one of the most peaceful in Roman history. The only military offensive was into Scotland, where he advanced the Roman frontier to the Firth-Forth line. In Antoninus’ reign, however, the empire was afflicted by a major plague that swept in from the east, and killed millions of people. It seems to have particularly struck the Roman army.
Looking back at that period it is difficult to escape the feeling that a turning point had been reached in the empire’s fortunes. The reign of Antonius’ successor, Marcus Aurelius, was troubled by long wars on the Danube as some barbarian tribes in central Europe sought to migrate across the frontiers into the empire. The Roman defences were hard put to it to contain the threat, and this set the tone for things to come. it may be that the plague had left the army chronically short of manpower. Perhaps significantly Marcus took the step of settling some of the invaders within the empire, in the Balkan provinces, to bolster the population in that region; and deported others to Britain to serve as auxiliaries in the Roman army there. From now on pressure along all the empire’s frontiers would increase, and Roman borders would more and more frequently be breached. The plague would also recur from time to time, keeping population levels somewhat lower than they had been before, and this will have added to the difficulties of mounting an effective defence.
Within the empire itself the period of the Flavians and Five Good Emperors was one of sound government and general peace. With peace came prosperity. The economy expanded to a level which would not be widely seen again until the 17th century. The cities of the empire received lavish endowments from their local elites, with theatres, baths, temples and other public works sprouting up. More and more people became Roman citizens, and the majority of the ruling class of the empire came from the provinces, rather than from Roman and Italy. This can be seen in the emperors themselves, who, from the time of Trajan, were seldom Italians.
Articles on Ancient Rome:
– of Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history