Ancient Rome—Height of Empire

14 to 235 A.D.
Reign of Tiberius to Last Severan Emperor

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Height of Empire

The Praetorian Guard—In the early Republican age consuls had only a few lictors assigned to guard them, but over time certain generals (aka praetors) began forming specialized cohorts for this purpose. As Emperor, Augustus increased the number of these hand-picked cohorts and stationed them inside the city. There, the praetorian guard became the eyes, ears, and enforcers of the imperial regime and their rise boded-ill for the people of Rome.

For most of the reign of the Julio-Claudian emperors (14-69 A.D.) the praetorian guards were the real rulers of Rome. Sejanus, a nephew of Maecenas, was the prefect of the guards during the reign of Tiberius. He built the Castra Praetoria barracks just outside the walls of Rome to house the elite guard and came very close to deposing the emperor altogether. Once his schemes were exposed, however, he was executed along with thousands of his followers. The murder of Sejanus however, did not diminish the power of the guards and for the next forty years the praetorians selected and deposed all subsequent emperors. Their preference was for weak, easily controlled leaders, and their mischief continued until they were permanently dissolved by Constantine.

Julio-Claudians—For fifty years following the reign of Augustus Caesar, descendants of Livia and Augustus held the imperial throne. Without exception, the Julio-Claudians were prone to murder, insanity, debauchery, sodomy, and perversions which in previous ages would have disqualified them from any magisterial office. Especially notable was the promiscuity of the women. The wives of Claudius were especially notorious, but other noblewomen including the daughter of Augustus, the wife of Maecenas, and the mistress of Nero, were involved in scandalous affairs. And this debauchery prevailed only a few generations after Julius had insisted that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion".

This rapid change in the morality of Roman noblewomen is powerful evidence that Phoenician influences were afoot. Whereas traditional Roman matrons were morally upright, the Phoenician women (i.e. Jezebel) were known as femme fatales and courtesans. They were also known to marry into noble families. Although Julius Caesar himself was a patrician, both he and Augustus surrounded themselves with "wealthy plebeians" and granted Roman citizenship to well-connected foreigners, so it seems likely that the imperial family was infiltrated.

Murder and Insanity—Almost as shocking as the licentiousness of the Julio-Claudians, was their proclivity to murder. Many family members died violent deaths, often at the hands of close friends or relatives. And the cycle of betrayal, murder, vengeance, and paranoia was self-perpetuating. A kill or be-killed ethic caused emperors, including Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero to justify purges of their political opponents and/or often family members. But this type of indiscriminant murder, which appears 'normal' during the imperial age, had been unthinkable during the Republican era. Romans took pride in their orderly legal system and deplore the massacres of Marius and Sulla. As recently as 60 B.C., the consul Cicero had been exiled for sentencing the Catiline conspirators to death without a trial. The prohibition against extrajudicial killing was another taboo from the Republican age that was upended by imperial rule and provides more evidence of noxious foreign influence at the highest levels of imperial society.

Year of Four Emperors: 69 A.D.—Nero was the last member of the fratricidal Julio-Claudian dynasty and he left no heir, so when the praetorians deposed him, they declared for Galba, an elderly patrician favored because he was respectable but weak. Galba was in turn overthrown by a faction that favored the much younger Otho. Meanwhile the German legions declared for their commander Vitellius, whom his subordinates favored because of his weak will and easy discipline. Vitellius's forces defeated Otho and he became the third emperor to in less than a year. Soon the eastern legions were disgusted by the weak and vacillating Vitellius, so they declared for Vespasian, a competent general who was then besieging Jerusalem. A civil war within Rome followed in which a number of buildings were destroyed, but by the time Vespasian marched to the city, Vitellius was dead and the issue was settled.

Flavian Dynasty: 70-96 A.D.—Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, was the first Roman emperor of equestrian rank, and he had attained his leadership position among the legions largely by merit. He had risen through the ranks with credit, and as emperor exhibited competent and independent. Emperor Vespasian reformed finances, brought the praetorian guard under control, replaced corrupt senators and restored discipline. Compared to previous emperors, he ruled relatively justly, but he rarely consulted with the senate and put his own men in all positions of importance. Under Vespasian, the rebuilding of Rome proceeded apace, and the Roman Colosseum was dedicated in 79 A.D., the last year of his reign.

Roman chariots

Vespasian shared power with his eldest son Titus who had successfully prosecuted the Jewish War after his father was called to Rome. Titus had proven himself a great general, and was popular with the people as well as the army so there was much lamenting when he died unexpectedly. At his death the throne then passed to his younger brother Domitian, who is portrayed as tyrannical by several of the historians of the age, especially those from the senatorial class. In religious matters Domitian promoted worship of traditional Roman deities and permitted cults dedicated to foreign gods. Christians, however, were not protected and some of the earliest known persecutions occurred under Domintan. It is said that he became murderous and paranoid after a failed assassination attempt, but his paranoia appears to have been justified, since a few years later he was murdered by members of his own court.

Five Good Emperors: 96-180 A.D.—Immediately after the death of Domitian, who died without an heir, the Senate declared in favor of Nerva, an elderly minister. As Nerva also had no heir, he adopted Trajan, an influential general born in Hispania, who was then assigned to the German legions. At the news of Nerva's death, Trajan consolidated his power among the foreign legions throughout the empire before approaching Rome. As emperor, Trajan ruled in consultation with the senate and his care in winning over potential rivals led to a long and peaceful reign. Hadrian, the successor of Trajan, was a nephew who was supposedly adopted on Trajan's deathbed, but in any case his succession was peaceful and he continued many of Trajan's policies.

During the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, the maximum extent of the empire was reached, the borders were secured, imperial finances were competently managed, and infrastructure, including walls, aqueducts, public buildings, and roads, were maintained. Hadrian especially, was a patron of the arts and literature, and promoted were patrons of the arts and literature. The second century A.D. was the "Silver Age" of Latin literature, which produced such literary greats as Lucan, Pliny ( the Elder), Juvenal, Martial, and Quintilian, and the historians, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius.

Both Trajan and Hadrian, like many Roman leaders of the imperial age, had homosexual tendencies, so their domestic relations were complicated. Trajan's wife Plotnia, however, portrayed herself as a traditional Roman matron, which, however, fraudulent, was a welcome relief from the scandals of previous empresses. She was an influential power behind the throne during both reigns and remains one of the few empresses whom history has portrayed in a favorable light.

When Hadrian was near death he insisted that his successor, Antoninus Pius adopt Marcus Aurelius as a condition of his own adoption by Hadrian. Marcus Aurelius was a relative of Hadrian and Trajan, so three of the 'Five Good Emperors' were part of the same Italo-Hispanic clan. Both Antoninus and Aurelius are treated kindly by historians, and Marcus Aurelius is often noted as a stoic philosopher, whose personal character was considered admirable. Unfortunately, his biological son, Commodus, was a disastrous choice as a successor and brought an abrupt end to nearly a century of peace, prosperity, and competent government.

Severan Dynasty: 193-239 A.D.—The beginning of the "fall" of Rome is often associated with Commodus, the corrupt son of Marcus Aurelius. His reign was as murderous and extravagant as that of Nero and coming after a century of good leadership, shocked the empire. He was eventually dispatched by one of his courtiers, but since no successor was named, the government of Rome fell into confusion, with five generals claiming the imperial title. A year-long civil war ensued but eventually Septimus Severus prevailed. To assure his undisputed rule, he began his reign by executing many of his opponents' supporters, the first of many purges over the forty year Severan dynasty.

While many other Roman emperors appear to have been under the influence of Phoenician agents, the Severans were the first openly Canaanite imperial family. Septimius spoke the Punic language as his native tongue and his wife Julia Domna was the wealthy daughter of a Syrian high-priest of Baal. The family openly engaged in Canaanite rituals and the boy-emperor Elagabalus, one of the last Severan kings, was the head-priest of the Syrian sun-god.

Septimus Severus, was a politically skilled general with supporters in Africa and Syria. He spent much of his reign traveling in order to keep the legions in line and to put down rebellions. Meanwhile his wife Julia Domna and the prefect of the praetorians ruled in Rome. His son, Caracalla was badly influenced by the decadence of the imperial court but took the advice of his father to heart. "Tend to the soldiers and ignore everyone else." With this background it is unsurprising that Caracalla ruled as a vicious tyrant, and opened his reign by killing his brother. Like his father, Caracalla spent all his time in camp and left his mother to to handle affairs in Rome. For the remainder of the Severan dynasty, the empire was ruled by Julia Domna and her nieces, serving as regents for boy emperors. They were unpopular and constantly engaged in scandals, but the family was so wealthy they persisted in power for decades. Eventually, however, all of the later Severan emperors—Caracalla, Egalabalus, and Alexander—were murdered by members of their own guard, and the Empire was plunged into fifty years of anarchy.

Characters—Height of Empire

Character/Date Short Biography

Julio-Claudian Emperors

Second emperor. Stepson of Augustus. Retired to Capri.
38–9 BC
Son of Livia, father of Germanicus. Died on campaign in Germany.
d. 31
Leader of Praetorians. Conspired to seize the throne from Tiberius.
Roman military hero and heir to the throne. Probably murdered.
Agrippina the Elder
Granddaughter of Augustus Caesar; accused Tiberius of killing her husband Germanicus.
Third emperor. Sadistic and probably insane.
Fourth emperor. Manipulated by wicked wives, Messalina and Agrippina.
Wicked, profligate, and promiscuous wife of Claudius.
Agrippina the Younger
Mother of Nero. Murdered Claudius to make way for his rise to the throne.
Fifth emperor. Murdered mother, wife, and brother. Fiddled while Rome burned.
Tutor and minister to Nero. Forced to commit suicide after falling from grace.
d. 65
Wicked mistress of Nero. Urged him to kill his mother and first wife.
d. 61
Queen of the Iceni. Led the largest revolt of Celtic Britons against the Romans.

Flavian Emperors

Declared emperor after Nero was deposed. Served less than a year.
Emperor for three months in 69 A.D. Committed suicide rather than continue civil war.
d. 69
Emperor for nine months in 69 A.D. Known as an incompetent glutton.
First emperor of humble origins. Founder of Flavian dynasty.
Second Flavian emperor. Conquered Jerusalem. Reigned with father Vespasian.
Third Flavian emperor. Known for purges and persecutions near end of reign.
Pliny ( the Elder)
Scholar, author of encyclopedias, naturalist. Wrote Natural Histories. Died at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
Jewish historian. Captured by Romans at Jotapata. Wrote the Jewish War.
Roman general and statesman. Governor of Britain. Pacified Wales.
Poet and satirist. Wrote twelve books of Epigrams.
Most outstanding moralist and biographer of ancient times. Wrote Lives of Greeks and Romans.
Historian. Related to Agricola. Wrote Germania, Histories, and Annals.

Five Good Emperors

First of the "Five Good Emperors." Ruled briefly between Domitian and Trajan.
Second of "Five Good Emperors." Ruled with justice and integrity. Conquered Dacia.
Pliny the Younger
Roman statesman and and orator. His letters are important historical sources.
Third of "Five Good Emperors." Talented artist and architect, good administrator.
Antoninus Pius
Fourth of "Five Good Emperors." Continued policy of consolidation. Ruled justly.
Marcus Aurelius
Fifth of "Five Good Emperors." Stoic philosopher. Improved condition of poor.
Corrupt son of Aurelius, misruled for twelve years and was murdered.

Severan Emperors

Septimus Severus
Seized Imperial throne after the death of Commodus. Put down many rebellions.
Brutal and iron-fisted emperor. Murdered brother Geta. Built "Baths of Caracalla."
Julia Domna
Wife of Severus; mother of Caracalla. Influential in Imperial government.

Timeline—Height of Empire

AD YearEvent
14> Death of Augustus Caesar, after reign of more than 45 years.
14-37 Reign of Tiberius, stepson of Augustus Caesar.
19 Tiberius is accused of murdering Germanicus, his rival for the throne.
31 Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian guard, executed for conspiring against Tiberius.
33 Death of Christ.
41 Assassination of imperial madman, Caligula, after short, tyrannical reign.
41-54 Reign of Claudius
43 Romans Reconquer BritainCaractacus defeated at the Battle of Medway.
54-68 Nero becomes emperor while still in his teens after the (suspicious) death of Claudius.
59 Nero murders his mother Agrippina the Younger, his wife Octavia, and his brother .
61 Widespread Revolt of the Britons under Boadicea is crused by the Romans.
64 Major fire in Rome, probably set by Nero, is blamed on "Christians".
68 Nero driven from throne by Praetorian Guards.
69 Civil War: Year of the Four Emperors as Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian contend for the throne.
70-81 Reign of Vespasian and his son Titus.
70 Fall of Jerusalem, and destruction of the temple.
79 Destruction of Pompey after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
80 Dedication of the Coliseum.
70-81 First widespread Christian Persecution under Emperor Domitian.
96-180> Era of the Five Good Emperors.
96-98 Nerva becomes the first Roman Emperor appointed by the Senate.
98-117 Trajan expands Roman territory, Conquers Dacia
117 Roman Empire reaches Maximum extent, as Dacian territory is incorporated.
117-138 Hadrian builds wall in Britain at Scottish border, consolidates empire.
138-161 Antoninus Pius presides of an exceptionally long and benevolent reign.
161-180 Marcus Aurelius, philosopher emperor, Fights the Alemanni.
180-192 Reign of Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius is marked by decadence and corruption.
193 Septimus Severus claims the throne after a Civil War following the death of Commodus.
197 Severus Campaigns in Parthia, expanding Roman rule to its furthest eastward extent.
211-239 Reign of the later Severans: Caracalla, Elagabalus and Alexander.
211 Caracalla murders his brother Geta so that he can rule alone.
239 Alexander Severus is assassinated—throne usurped by barbarian chief Maximinus.

Recommended Reading—Height of Empire

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - The Story of the Romans   Varus Avenged to The Senate of Women (22)
Church - Pictures from Roman Life and Story   Death of Germanicus to An Imperial Philosopher (30)

Supplemental Recommendations

Haaren - Famous Men of Rome   Nero to Marcus Aurelius (4)
Tappan - The Story of the Roman People   The Rest of the Caesars to The Five Good Emperors (2)
Harding - The City of the Seven seven   The Empire after Augustus to The Remains of Ancient Rome (2)
Lovell - Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum    entire book
Church - To the Lions    entire book
Church - The Burning of Rome    entire book
Morris - Historical Tales: Roman   An Imperial Monster to Destruction of Pompeii (10)
Church - Last Days of Jerusalem    entire book