Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Rest of the Twelve Caesars

Augustus had finally chosen his stepson Tiberius to succeed him. The senate requested him to accept the office, but Tiberius pretended to be unwilling. He said that with so many illustrious patriots in Rome, he hoped they would not throw the whole care and responsibility upon one. The senators did not dare to take him at his word, so they wept and wailed and embraced his knees and begged him to become their emperor. He replied that he was not equal to the weight of the whole government, but that if they wished to intrust him with some special part, he would undertake it. One senator was unwise enough to ask what part he desired. Tiberius showed his anger at this so plainly that the frightened man hastened to say that he only asked in order to be convinced out of Tiberius's own mouth that the empire could not be divided, but must be governed by the mind of one person.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


There were some legions of soldiers far away on the Rhine who were not afraid to say boldly that they did not want Tiberius for emperor, but their own commander, Germanicus, a nephew of Tiberius. Germanicus was loyal. He made an earnest speech to his soldiers and persuaded them to be true to Tiberius. He was at the place where Varus had suffered so terrible a defeat, and he succeeded in recovering one of the Roman eagles, the standards used in the army, which had been captured from Varus. The Germans, however, were not subdued, but for some reason Tiberius recalled Germanicus and sent him to the East. He died of poison, given him, it is thought, at the command of the emperor.

For several years Tiberius seemed to be trying to govern his country well, but he was jealous of Germanicus, and after Germanicus was dead, he was suspicious of every one. Any act or word that could be reported as showing the least slight to the emperor was punished by death. The victim's property was confiscated, and the informer received a share. While Drusus, son of the emperor, was ill, a wealthy Roman wrote a poem about him. An informer asserted that to look forward to the death of one of the emperor's family and to think of a possible reward for a poem on the subject was deserving of the most severe punishment, and the poet was slain.

Tiberius was keen enough to see the falseness of his flatterers, and so suspicious that he trusted no one. Finally he left Rome altogether and went to the beautiful island of Capreae (now called Capri) to spend the rest of his life. He chose a worthless man named Sejanus to carry out his orders in Rome. Sejanus was so elated by this that he fancied he might become emperor if Tiberius's heirs were only dead. Therefore he poisoned Drusus and others; but at length he himself was put to death for plotting to murder the emperor.

At last Tiberius became so ill that his physician assured the court he could not live more than two days. All flocked about Caligula, son of Germanicus, for he was to be the next ruler, and each was eager to come first to congratulate him and so win his favor. Suddenly a message was brought, "Tiberius is much better and has called for food." The whole assembly trembled with fear, and Caligula expected nothing else than to be put to death; but the servants of Tiberius smothered the sick man. Thus his days ended.

It was while Tiberius was reigning that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in the far-away province of Judaea.

The senate now recognized as emperor Caligula, the son of Germanicus and grandnephew of Tiberius. His name was Caius Caesar, but when he was a little boy, his mother took him to his father's camp dressed like a very small soldier. He wore caligae, or half-boots with heavy nails, such as were worn by the common soldiers, and the men gave him the pet name of Caligula, or little boot; and even after he became emperor, he was always called by this nickname.

Caligula was half mad, and he had a wild reign. There was no limit to his insane freaks. One day he had a great crowd of people seized at random and thrown into the water because, as he said, he wanted to see something unusual. The gladiatorial contests became more savage than ever. When he longed to see more people slain, he sometimes drove the spectators into the arena with the wild beasts. He plundered Gaul and set sail for Britain, but turned back before he was fairly at sea and ordered his soldiers to pick up shells to carry to Rome. He declared his favorite horse to be a consul, and he used to invite it to his table and present it with gilt corn in a golden basin. Then the horse was led back to his golden manger in his ivory stable. Caligula meant to destroy the works of Homer, Virgil, and Livy; and he meant to murder the greater part of the senate; but a conspiracy was formed against him and he was slain.

Caligula had been afraid of assassination, and to protect himself he had formed a bodyguard, or praetorian guard, as it was called, of six thousand soldiers. These soldiers had become very powerful, and when Caligula died, they declared that his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, should be their emperor. People had thought Claudius was almost an imbecile, and he had been wise enough to do nothing to prevent them from thinking so, that no one might consider it worth while to murder him. After he was made emperor, however, he was not afraid to be himself. He built for Rome an aqueduct and a most excellent harbor. He requested the senate to allow the nobles of Germany to become senators, and when they hesitated, he reminded them that Romulus admitted other tribes. "My own ancestor," he said, "was a Sabine, but he was received into Rome and made a patrician." The senate yielded.

Tiberius had threatened to invade Britain, and Claudius determined to conquer the island. He sent first a skilful general, and then he himself followed. Southern Britain was subdued, and the British chief Caractacus was carried to Rome as a captive. The Romans looked upon him as a savage barbarian, but he was calm and dignified, and when there was opportunity for him to speak to the emperor, he declared that he, too, was a prince and was descended from illustrious ancestors. "I had men and arms, horses, and riches," he said, "and where is the wonder if I was unwilling to part with them? If you Romans aim at ruling all mankind, it does not follow that all men should take the yoke upon them." In some way Claudius was persuaded to set him and his family free. They bowed in gratitude before him, then before his wife Agrippina, who sat on a throne near that of the emperor. She had married him in order that her son Nero by a former husband might succeed him. He had yielded to her will and had adopted Nero, but Agrippina became tired of waiting for her husband to die, and she poisoned him.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Nero became emperor at the age of seventeen. In spite of the wickedness of his mother, he had been carefully trained, for the writer Seneca had been his teacher. Seneca tried his best to make him kind and good. "Life is short, therefore live peaceably with all men," he said. "Live so that all will love you, and then they will mourn for you when you die." For a few years Nero obeyed him. This did not please Agrippina, and she threatened to induce the soldiers to make Nero's half-brother emperor. Then Nero slew both the half-brother and his mother. When he had been reigning ten years, a fire broke out in Rome which swept away the greater part of the city. Nero did all that he could to help the people who had lost everything. He put up buildings for them, threw open his gardens that they might have a refuge, and ordered grain to be sold at an extremely low price. Nevertheless, it was said that he had kindled the fire and had played on his lyre and sung while it was burning. Whether this was true or not, Nero was frightened and looked about him for some one to blame.

The religion of Christ had been preached in Rome, and there were many Christians in the city. The Romans could not understand a worship without images or temples, and they looked upon the followers of Jesus as heathen. The Christians believed it wrong to join in the worship of the gods and in the Roman festivals in their honor, and therefore the Romans called them, "Men who hate their fellow-men." It had become a custom to worship the emperor as a god and to burn incense before his statue. Christians could not take part in this, and therefore the Romans said they were not loyal, and if any misfortune came upon the state, it was often laid to their neglect of what was due to the gods. Nero laid the burning of the city to them and put large numbers of them to death. Some he crucified; some he covered with the skins of wild beasts and then set savage dogs upon them; some he smeared with pitch and burned at night to light his gardens. Even the angry and suffering Romans pitied them.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


After the fire the city was rebuilt. Money and treasures and statues of the gods were taken from the temples or wherever they could be found, whether in the provinces or in Italy itself, and brought to Rome to beautify the new city. Nero built himself a magnificent house with a portico a mile long. Its vestibule was lofty enough to give room to a statue of the emperor one hundred and twenty feet high. His banqueting room had pipes by which perfumes might be showered over the guests, and the ceiling was so curiously made that at a touch flowers were scattered among them. Everything was crusted with gems and mother-of-pearl. Around the house stretched vine-yards and woods and fields and pools so beautifully laid out and giving such extensive views that the historian Tacitus declared they were more wonderful than the buildings. Nero called his dwelling his Golden House. When it was finished, he boasted that at last he had a home that was fit for a man to live in.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Nero grew worse and worse—if a man as bad as he could grow any worse. Plots were formed against him, and he put Seneca to death on the charge of having joined in one of them. The armies in the provinces revolted, the praetorian guard refused to protect him, and finally the senate decreed that he should be scourged to death. When he heard of this, he took his own life.

Who should be made emperor? There were no more of the family of Caesar, and any one who had influence enough might hope to win the prize. The troops in Spain declared that Galba, their general, should rule, and the senate thought it wise to agree with them. But in Rome there was one Otho who was a favorite with the praetorian guard. He hoped to be adopted by Galba and to succeed him. Galba adopted some one else; then the guard killed him and proclaimed Otho emperor.

This was satisfactory to the army in the East; but the army in Gaul and Spain declared that their general Vitellius should become emperor. Part of Vitellius's army were on their way back to Italy. They met Otho and defeated him, and he took his own life. Vitellius was then in power; but there was also an army in Syria to be pleased. They claimed the throne for their general, Vespasian, and at length Vitellius was put to death and Vespasian was made emperor.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Vespasian was an honest old soldier who meant to do his best for the Romans. He had no easy position, for Rome was in disorder, there was a revolt in the region of the Rhine, and there was war in Judaea. He set to work first to make Rome orderly. He paid sincere respect to the senate, he lived simply and reasonably, and he saw to it that the laws were obeyed. He suppressed the revolt of the Gauls. The war in Judaea he left for his son Titus to carry on. Titus besieged Jerusalem. Though, the Jews fought to the last to defend their temple and the Holy City, the Romans were victorious. The Jewish historian Josephus had fought Vespasian boldly, but had returned to Rome with him and received pardon. He went back to Jerusalem and tried his best to persuade his countrymen to surrender, but they would not. Afterward he wrote an account of the sufferings of the people and the capture of the city which is almost too terrible to read. The wonderful temple, its front covered with plates of gold of amazing weight and of such brilliancy that no one could look at it when the light shone upon it at sunrise, fell into the hands of the Romans. They took what they would, then set to work to destroy the city. Three towers were left to show the strength of the fortifications that the Romans had demolished, then all that remained was so completely overthrown that, as Josephus wrote, no one would have known it had ever been inhabited. It is thought that one million of Jews perished. Those that were left were scattered through many countries.

The soldier emperor had a care also for the things of the mind. The famous Quintilian taught rhetoric and oratory in Rome, and Vespasian was so pleased with bib teaching that he gave him a salary from the imperial treasury. Quintilian had a little son whom he dearly loved, and his best work is a book about oratory which he composed for the boy to read when he should be old enough. The child died, and Quintilian wrote piteously, "What shall I do? I have lost the only comfort of my declining years."

In the tumults before Vespasian was firmly seated upon the throne, the temple on the Capitoline Hill had been destroyed. He rebuilt it, and also a new forum. He began the most prodigious structure of all ancient times, the Flavian amphitheatre, in which hunts of wild beasts and gladiatorial fights were to be shown. This was afterwards called the Colosseum, because of its vast size. Vespasian died before it was completed, leaving the empire to his son Titus.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Titus, too, was a builder. One of his most famous structures was a magnificent bathhouse. Among the Romans of this age, bathing was made a luxurious pleasure, and the bathhouses were immense buildings sometimes more than a quarter of a mile in length. They were adorned with statues, often made by the greatest sculptors. There were stately columns, walls faced with precious marbles and adorned with the richest of mosaics. Seneca said of them, "We are dissatisfied if we do not tread on gems in our baths." The bath itself was much like the present "Turkish "bath; and as the house was large enough to admit several thousand, it required a vast number of apartments. But this was only the beginning, for there were libraries, rooms for exercising, for resting, for conversing with one's friends, and halls in which a poet or an orator might find an audience. It was an immense casino, a "gigantic clubhouse," as it has been called. There was often a stadium for games with raised seats for spectators; there were long colonnades and beautiful grounds with fountains and shady walks where the bathers might stroll about as they would. It was during these times that the poet Juvenal wrote of the earlier days of Rome:

"It was not then a Roman's anxious thought

Where largest tortoise-shells were to be bought,

Where pearls might of the greatest price be had,

And shining jewels to adorn his bed,

That he at vast expense might loll his head.

Plain was his couch, and only rich his mind;

Contentedly he slept, as cheaply as he dined."

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Titus completed the Colosseum which his father had begun. In this more than eighty thousand spectators often gathered. The vast arena could be flooded by underground pipes almost in an instant, and thus afford an excellent opportunity for displays of mock naval battles. There were sixty or eighty ascending rows of seats made of marble and richly cushioned. A canopy gave protection from the sun and the rain. In this building the people of Rome sat and watched the bloody death of thousands of men and wild beasts.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The Romans were so used to bloodshed that they seem to have seldom felt compassion for suffering. Titus grieved that he had "lost a day "when during its hours he had done no one a kindness, and he was so good and just and generous that his people called him "the delight of mankind"; but even he was so hardened to suffering that after the fall of Jerusalem he had twenty-five hundred Jews burned to death or slain in contests with wild beasts or with one another and this was in honor of his brother Domitian's birthday!

During the reign of Titus, a second great fire swept over Rome. There was, too, a terrible eruption of Mount Vesuvius which buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The elder Pliny, a famous author, lost his life in this eruption; his nephew, who is spoken of as the younger Pliny, was a young man of eighteen at the time of the disaster. He wrote to the historian Tacitus a long letter about the awful calamity. He believed that the end of all things had come and that he was "perishing with the world itself."

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Titus was succeeded by his brother Domitian. During the reign of the latter, his general Agricola conquered Britain far into what is now Scotland, and built a wall from the Forth to the Clyde to keep off the savage tribes of the north. He planned to conquer Ireland; but Domitian had become jealous of his successful general and recalled him. The Dacians, who lived along the Danube, revolted, and Domitian himself went forth to quiet them. It was said that he never met the enemy, and that his forces were worsted in several engagements. Nevertheless, he returned to Rome in great glory and gave himself a triumph. He had no real captives to walk in the procession, for the excellent reason that he had not succeeded in taking any; but he bought large numbers of slaves and dressed them to represent the people whom he had failed to conquer. To free Rome from the attacks of these tribes, he humbled himself to give them every year a certain weight of gold. Pliny the younger declared that whenever Domitian celebrated a triumph, the Romans might be sure that not they, but their enemies, had gained something. Domitian drove away from the city all the literary men and philosophers. One of the most interesting of the latter was Epictetus. He was born a slave, but had become free by some means. He lived in a little hut, which was furnished with a bed and a lamp and nothing more; but he spoke so wisely about matters of life and thought that people were always eager to listen to him. His favorite maxim was, "Bear and forbear."

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Domitian governed the provinces firmly and wisely. He enforced the religious observances of the state and punished severely those who violated them. At the death of an emperor, it had become the custom among the Romans to declare that he had joined the gods and to offer up prayers to him. Domitian had no idea of waiting for these honors until he was dead. He set up statues of himself and commanded his subjects to burn incense before them. This, of course, neither the Jews nor the Christians could do; and therefore he persecuted them savagely. It was at this time that the apostle John was banished to the island of Patmos.

Early in Domitian's reign, part of his army and many senators conspired against him, and from that time he was suspicious of everyone and put many to death because of his fears. At last he was assassinated. It is said that his own wife joined in the plot against him. The senate decreed that his name should be struck out of their annals and erased from the various monuments.

These emperors, Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, are often spoken of as the "Twelve Caesars," but for no better reason than that the historian Suetonius, a friend of Pliny's, wrote the biographies of these twelve and no more. "Caesar" had come to be regarded as a title rather than a family name, and signified "emperor "or "sovereign." Of these twelve, only three, Augustus, Vespasian, and perhaps Titus, died a natural death; and only one, Vespasian, was succeeded by his own son.


Tiberius became emperor, though the soldiers on the Rhine wanted Germanicus. Tiberius was jealous and suspicious. He withdrew to Capreae. During the reign of Tiberius, Christ was crucified. At the death of Tiberius, Caligula became emperor. He was a strange, wild ruler. Caligula formed the praetorian guard. At his death, they demanded Claudius for their emperor. Claudius allowed the German nobles to become senators. He began the conquest of Britain.

Nero was accused of setting fire to Rome. He persecuted the Christians. The city was rebuilt and beautified. Nero's home was called the Golden House. In fear, he took his own life. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian became emperor successively. During the reign of Vespasian, his son Titus captured Jerusalem. Vespasian favored the orator Quintilian; he began the Colosseum and reared other structures. Titus built elaborate bathhouses and completed the Colosseum. While Titus reigned, Herculaneum and Pompeii were destroyed, in 79 A.D.

Domitian bribed the Dacians to leave Rome in peace. He banished Epictetus and other philosophers and literary men. He recalled Agricola from Britain. He persecuted the Christians and banished St. John to Patmos. "Caesar" was now regarded as a title rather than a family name.

Suggestions for Written Work

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  • What Juvenal thought of the Romans.
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