Chronology of the roman emperors - Chapter I: The Julio-Claudian dynasty
The Roman Empire spans the long period from the accession of Augustus in 27 BC to AD 476 (give or take). In other words, just over five centuries.
It would therefore simply not be possible to sum up the wealth and longevity of this historical period in just a few words.
Instead, we are delighted to offer you here, in a series of articles, a concise chronology of the succession of emperors, usurpers, and other tyrants who made their mark on life in the Roman Empire over the course of the centuries.
As logic dictates, we shall be starting here with the very first (but by no means least) emperors: those of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
The dynasty began with Augustus and ended with Nero.
Reign: 27 BC – AD 14
The first “emperor”, Octavius, granted the additional name of Augustus by the Roman Senate in 27 BC, was the grandnephew and posthumously adopted son of Julius Caesar.
Having taken an active role in the long civil war that preceded his succession (the slow and agonizing death of the Roman Republic in its first form), been a member of the Second Triumvirate, and skillfully defeating his rival Mark Anthony, his reign marked the start of peace and a “return to normality” for the institutions –a peace so ardently desired by the Romans after too many long years of unrest.
Concentrating all the powers, he did not refrain from reforming the institutions of the venerable Republic – of course, all without actually appearing to touch them though, so as not to step on anybody’s toes.
In this way, he avoided the pitfall of portraying himself as a monarch: the mistake which most likely cost his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, his life. In this way, he also laid the foundations for the Empire and its administration.
As far as the minting of coins was concerned, the Senate only retained that of bronze coins after Augustus opened a mint in Lyon in 15 BC specializing in silver denarii and the 7.8 gram gold coins known as aurei, which are equivalent to twenty-five denarii.
“Histoire de la Rome antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon, p. 214 (translated from French)
Death: Natural causes.
Reign: AD 14 – AD 37
Having been adopted by Augustus during his lifetime, who had anticipated his succession and made him his coadjutor, it was only natural that Tiberius should succeed his stepfather.
Although hardly charismatic and as unpopular with the Senate as he was with the people, he maintained control of the Empire and continued the series of reforms instigated by Augustus. Upon his death, the State’s coffers were overflowing, the Empire well organized, and the various, sporadic revolts had been efficiently suppressed.
However, there were some court intrigues due notably to his voluntary exile from Rome and his “remote” governance by mail from Capri.
Just goes to show that working remotely is by no means a new invention!
Death: Natural causes.
Reign: AD 37 – AD 41
As Tiberius had adopted Caligula prior to his death, it was he who succeeded him naturally and without objections at the age of 25.
The couple (Germanicus and Agrippina) has a number of children, including a little Gaius, a favorite among the soldiers, who see him walking among their ranks dressed in a uniform befitting his size and with small military boots on his feet. They nickname him Caligula (little boot).
“Histoire de la Rome antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon, p. 245 (translated from French)
The reign will be short.
Even if historians are more or less in agreement about taking the caricatures made of him with a pinch of salt, it is still evident that Caligula was by no means a pushover for those around him.
He clearly despised the institutions, regularly humiliated the Senate, and did not pull any punches when it came to reforms, unlike his cautious predecessors. In contrast, he must be awarded a certain “love” for the little people.
Subject to a certain madness or perhaps even certainly mad, he was cruel to the point of overkill and executions are common currency. He drained the State coffers and raised taxes considerably.
It should also be noted that he relocated the mint from Lyons to Rome.
Death: After four years of extremely turbulent reign, a plot was hatched, and he was murdered in AD 41.
Reign: AD 41 – AD 54
Claudius was the brother of Germanicus and therefore Caligula’s uncle. Following the success of the plot, and without waiting for the Senate’s approval, the Praetorian Guard did not hesitate to take action.
Still bewildered by what had happened, the guards roamed the palace, where they discovered, protruding from beneath a carefully drawn curtain, the feet of a man white as a sheet for fear of being driven out: it was Claudius (...). He was without a doubt more surprised than anyone to find himself catapulted to a position of which he had never dreamed.
“Histoire de la Rome antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon, p. 270 (translated from French)
With a pronounced stammer and a repeated victim of adultery, at 52 years of age, the new emperor was reluctantly the butt of many jokes. Against all odds, he proved to be probably one of the best administrators of the Empire and a great leader of effective reforms.
In particular, he was the first to assign administrative posts on the basis of merit rather than an individual’s name or patrician origin. In other words, ability became law. A true revolution at that time.
Death: Having taken too long to die of old age, someone likely helped him along the way with a tasty dish of prepared mushrooms.
Reign: AD 54 – AD 68
Adopted by Claudius, it was Nero who succeeded him.
His reign can be divided into two periods. The first, under the guidance of Seneca, relatively wise and informed. The second, beginning in AD 62, was more akin to the “Western” megalomaniacal governing style of the late Caligula.
It should be noted that it is unlikely that he was responsible for the great fire that ravaged Rome. On the other hand, the reconstruction in the form of the “new deal” in the ancient world was an a priori success. A costly one though.
All this combined with the sumptuous expenses of the reign would end up proving very costly (...). The gold coin is devalued from 7.7 to 7.3 grams, and the silver denarius, the currency commonly used in transactions, dropped in weight from 3.7 to 3.25 grams. The measure benefited trading circles and was to the detriment of the aristocracy who hoarded gold.
“Histoire de la Rome antique” by Lucien Jerphagnon, p. 285-286 (translated from French)
Death : In AD 68, a revolt in Gaul triggered the hatching of a new plot. The Praetorian Guard turned against him and he was declared a public enemy of the State. Nero fled and, with the aid of his secretary, committed suicide with a dagger before the Guard arrived.
And so the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end.
And the Year of the Four Emperors dawned.
Translation: Michael Wright
- “The Course of Empire: The Consummation of the Empire” by Thomas Cole (1836) (CC)
- “The Murder of Caesar” by Karl Theodor von Piloty (1867) (CC)
- Bust of the emperor Augustus photographed by Marcus Cyron (CC)
- Bust of the emperor Tiberius, photographer unknown (CC)
- Bust of the emperor Caligula photographed by Marcus Cyron (CC)
- Bust of the emperor Claudius, photographer unknown (CC)
- Bust of the emperor Nero photographed by Bibi Saint-Pol (CC)
- “Histoire de la Rome Antique, les armes et les mots” by Lucien Jerphagnon (available in French only)