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

Julio-Claudian Dynasty: 14-68 A.D.—For fifty years following the death of Augustus Caesar, descendents of Livia and Augustus held the imperial throne. Tragically, the royal family was prone to murder, insanity, debauchery, and every other imaginable vice, so that for nearly half a century, the Praetorian guard held most of the real power. The Praetorian guard, employed as the emperor's bodyguard, was responsible for the murder of Caligula, who followed Tiberius on the throne, and for elevating Claudius, who was thought to be easily controlled. On the death of Claudius, who was murdered by his wife Agrippina the Younger, the Praetorians arranged for the elevation of her son Nero to the throne, again opting for a malleable youth over an experienced and competent ruler.

Nero's rule was one of the most notorious in Roman history. He was an immature and indulgent young man, who replaced competent ministers with scoundrels, murdered his mother, brother, and wife, and intentionally set fire to the city of Rome in order to clear space for a grand imperial palace. Shortly afterward he discovered a conspiracy against him and executed dozens of Rome's most prominent citizens, he lost the support of the all-powerful Praetorian guard and was forced to commit suicide.

Year of Four Emperors: 69 A.D.—Nero was the last member of the fratricidal Julio-Claudian dynasty, and he left no heir, so the Praetorians declared for Galba, who was well-respected but old and infirm. Galba was in turn, overthrown by Otho, while the German legions declared for their commander Vitellius, whom his subordinates favored because of his weak will and easy discipline. Vitellius defeated Otho at the Battle of Bedriacum, and became the third emperor to in less than a year, but there were more changes to come. Disgusted by the weak leadership of Vitellius, the eastern legions declared for Vespasian, a competent and well-respected general who was then besieging Jerusalem. In the civil battles that followed, several capitol buildings in Rome were destroyed by fire, but by the time Vespasian marched on Rome, Vitellius was dead and the issue was settled.

Flavian Dynasty: 70-96 A.D.—Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty, was the first Roman emperor of genuinely humble parentage, who attained the throne purely by merit. He had risen through the ranks slowly and with great credit. By the time he assumed the throne, he had a thirty year career of competent management behind him and during his reign he reformed imperial finances, brought the Praetorian guard under sway, replaced corrupt senators, and restored discipline. In general, he ruled justly and was not prone to extravagant vice. 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 Roman Jewish Wars after his father was called to Rome. Titus had proven a great general, and was popular with both the army and the population, so there was much lamenting when he died only a few years after his father. The throne was then passed to Domitian, a younger and less talented brother of Titus. Tacitus, probably the most important historian from this era, was critical of Domitian, likely because he was related to his rival Agricola. It is certain that some of the earliest persecutions of Christians occurred under the reign of Domitian, and that he became murderous and paranoid after a failed assassination attempt.

Five Good Emperors: 96-180 A.D.—Whatever his faults, Domitian should be credited for establishing a tradition, adhered to for nearly 100 prosperous years, of selecting a competent leader to replace himself rather than passing the empire to biological kin. Domitian's chosen successor was Nerva, the first of the "Five Good Emperors", who reigned in Rome from 96 to 180 A.D. This period was undoubtedly the golden age of the Roman Empire. The five good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian , Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. During their peaceful and prosperous reigns, the maximum extent of the empire was reached, the borders were secured and defended, imperial finances were well managed, and infrastructure, including walls, aqueducts, public buildings, and roads, were maintained. Several of the emperors, and Hadrian in particular, 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.

The two emperors most notable for their virtuous lives and excellent administrative skills were Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Both were gracious in bearing but courageous in battle and uncomplaining in adversity. Marcus Aurelius was also noted as a stoic philosopher, and his life, which was full of tragedy, difficulties and disappointments gave a true test to his mettle. He is sometimes known as the "model pagan", and some of his meditations on philosophy are still extant. His only fault was faith in his biological son Commodus, whom he selected as his heir. Commodus proved to be a disastrous choice, who 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 or Caligula and coming after nearly a century of good leadership severely rocked the confidence of the empire. He was eventually dispatched by one of his courtiers, but since no successor was named, the government of Rome fell into confusion. Eventually Septimus Severus, a politically skilled senator with connections in Africa and Syria, rose to the throne. He spent much of his early reign putting down rebellions throughout the empire, and his sons, who were badly influence by the decadence of the imperial court, were nearly grown when he returned permanently to Rome. When Severan died, his eldest son Caracalla assumed the throne and murdered his brother Geta. Caracalla ruled for six years before being murdered himself, and was followed by two severan cousins, Elagabalus, and Alexander Severus. When Alexander was murdered by the leader of the Emperors private guard, 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."

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