The sixth and final ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero was the grand-nephew of his predecessor, the Emperor Claudius and the nephew of Caligula, Claudius’ predecessor. He would become legendary for his cruelty, although most of the accounts attesting to it are from contemporaries who disliked him, and may have been exaggerated. Nero was only 17 when he ascended to the throne – it was only because both these Emperors died without issue that he even got that close to power. If either of the two had had a son, Nero would today be a footnote.
Instead, he would reign for 13 years, being the Emperor during the great fire of Rome in 64 CE (history records that Nero was instrumental in the rebuilding of Rome afterwards – the business about the fiddling seems to have been a rumour spread by his political enemies), and the famed revolts of Britannia (led by Boudicca) and Judea (which ended in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora). Upon his death in 68 CE, (also without issue,) Nero threw the Empire into the chaos and civil war of what became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
Looking at the history of the last three Julio-Claudian Emperors, one can only conclude that for a people so infamous for their orgies, the Romans must have known a thing or two about birth control.
Eparchius Avitus was a member of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy of the empire in his day. He was a strong proponent of keeping Gaul in the empire, even holding his coronation in Toulouse. However, these views were unpopular with the Roman establishment, or rather, what remained of it after the city was sacked by the Vandals earlier that year.
However, he allowed the Vandals to take Hispania, and along with his appointment of other Gallo-Romans to important roles in his administration, this made him immensely unpopular, and he was deposed as Emperor after little more than a year on the throne.
The ancient feast of the god Lupercus, Lupercalia was an annual three day festival that ran from February 13 – 15 each year. It was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. It is the ancient predecessor of the Christian festival of St Valentine, which is now better known as the more secular Valentine’s Day.
According to Shakespeare, when Julius Caesar attended this particular one, he was offered the crown of a monarch three times and refused it on each of those times. Nonetheless, the reason why he was stabbed to death a month later was apparently his limitless ambition.
One of the most notoriously debauched and wicked Roman Emperors, over the course of his reign, Caligula’s name would become a byword for evil. One of the two joint heirs of Tiberius, Caligula may have ordered the murder of his predecessor and definitely ordered the disinheriting of his co-heir. Although Caligula started off popular with the people, his mood soured after an illness later in the year of his ascension to the throne and the deaths of beloved family members.
A financial crisis brought on by Caligula’s over-spending made him unpopular with both the Senate and the people of Rome, especially after it escalated into a famine. His lowered reputation, as sexually predatory, a drunkard and a killer with a hair-trigger temper, date from this time, and their veracity in unclear. What is certain is that Caligula’s reign lasted only until 41 CE, when he was assassinated and succeeded by Claudius.
Claudius was the fifth Emperor of Rome, and the first truly able ruler since Augustus, the first. He succeeded the previous Emperor, his nephew Caligula, upon the assassination of the latter. He was 50 years old, but still full of energy – although widely seen as a weakling, after serious illnesses when he was younger. As a result, Claudius often had to shore up his power with a few senatorial executions.
Claudius achieved much during his reign – Thrace, Noricum, Pamphylia, Lycia and Judea were all conquered during his reign, and the invasion of Britain also took place. In addition, Claudius ordered great amounts of construction, with roads, canals and aqueducts built at his command all over the empire. He also took a keen interest in the law, presiding over trials in Rome, often several of them in the one day.
To the modern mind, the word Dictator has all sorts of unpleasant associations, and it’s true that most of the ones you’re likely thinking of right now also applied to the rule of Gaius Julius Caesar over Rome and its empire. But that’s not to say that he didn’t achieve good things as well. His rewriting of the Roman constitution created a more unified empire and suppressed revolts in the provinces. On the other hand, it also decreased the power of most Roman institutions while increasing that of the dictator, creating an inherently unstable system – at least, when the dictator was himself unstable, as several of Julius’ successors were (like Nero or Caligula).
The nephew and chosen heir of Gaius Julius, Caesar before him, Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome and the architect of the Empire. His accession was not a simple one, though – it’s worth noting that it took 17 years from the death of the divine Julius for him to ascend to the throne in his own right.
He first formed a triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, but it was never a smoothly running system. Before long, war broke out between the three, with Lupidus and Antony battling Octavian (as Augustus was then known). Unfortunately for them, Octavian was better general than either of them, which is why he wound up being Emperor Augustus and they wound up being dead.
“Crossing the Rubicon” is now an expression for passing the point of no return: this is the original incident from which it derives. In 49 BCE, Gaius Julius, at that time just a general and not yet Caesar, led his army across the Rubicon river, which marked the border of Rome: to cross it marked him as a treasonous leader of a revolt against the Roman state. Famously, he is said to have quoted the Greek playwright Menander, saying “alea iacta est” – “the die is cast.”
Julius would be successful in his quest for the leadership of Rome and its empire (much of which, particularly Gaul, added by his own military genius): which is why history knows him best as Julius Caesar.
Not many people in the world would be crazy enough or determined enough to invade the Italian peninsula by traveling over the Alps from what is now France. They certainly wouldn’t do it with an army traveling variously on foot, on horseback or on elephant-back. But the Carthaginian general Hannibal was that crazy, that determined – and that brilliant. Known as “the father of strategy”, Hannibal wasn’t just one of the greatest military tacticians of his age, he was one of the greatest of all time.
No one in Rome thought he’d be able to muster much of a force, having traveled overland fighting the Roman rearguard all the way from Spain. Hannibal led a force of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants to the foot of the Alps, and crossed them with a massive loss of life, including almost all of the elephants. But the losses were not as high as his enemies had assumed they’d be. 20,000 infantry and 4000 cavalry survived, and the subsequent invasion of Italy was a bloodbath for the Romans.
Shakespeare’s verion might be better known, but the best historical account of the death of Big Julie was written by imperial biographer (and obsequious toady) Seutonius. It is from Suetonius that we have Caesar’s famous last words (asking Brutus ‘even you, my child?’, which Shakespeare rendered as ‘et tu, Brute?’) – although curiously, Seutonius himself reports those words as claimed by others, and for himself believes that Caesar said nothing.
This is somewhat hard to believe, given that Seutonius also recounts that Caesar was attacked by 60 or more men, and received a total of 23 stab wounds from his assailants – it appears that the proximate cause of death was loss of blood. (Fun fact: Caesar’s autopsy report is the earliest one to have survived to the present day.) In a larger sense, the cause of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar was political ambition – his own, and that of others.
One of the least successful Emperors of Rome, Florianus reigned for only 88 days – although which 88 we’re not quite sure. He proclaimed himself Emperor at some point in June 276 without the consent of the Senate, and eventually died after losing a battle against rival Imperial claimant (and his eventual successor) Probus – he was, in fact, assassinated by his own troops.
Florianus had little basis for his claim to the throne – he was allegedly the half-brother of the previous Emperor, Tacitus – and little experience at political or military leadership – as Probus’ defeat of Florianus’ larger army clearly showed. In the end, he was little more than a blip in Roman history, albeit an indicator of an Empire in decay.
Septimius Severus was the fifth and final Emperor of the infamous “Year of the Five Emperors” – and as that suggests, also the most successful. He reigned as the Roman Emperor for eighteen years, and founded a dynasty that would last for another 24 years beyond him.
Aside from Septimius himself, the best known of the Severans is probably Elagabalus (a.k.a. Heliogabalus). The dynasty’s record is mixed: although Septimius Severus successfully restored peace following the civil war of the late 2nd century, the dynasty was disturbed by highly unstable family relationships, and constant political turmoil. It was the last Imperial Roman dynasty of the Principiate (i.e. the Emperorship as founded by Augustus).
Olybrius is one of the least distinguished Emperors in Roman history. He reigned over the Western Roman Empire for only seven months, and for that whole time, he was little more than the puppet of the men who had put him on the throne, the general Ricimer and his nephew Gundobad.
Olybrius was of the Roman senatorial class, and by his marriage (to Placida, daughter of Emperor Valentinian III) a member of the Imperial House of Theodosius – the last of that House, in fact. He spent most of his reign distracted by religious matters while Ricimer and (after Ricimer’s death) Gundobad ruled in his name. He died of dropsy, and only three more Emperors followed him before the western empire died too.