SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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