Brief History of the World Wiki
Early Roman Empire
Colloseum sunrise.jpg
Period Classical Antiquity
Dates 31 BC-180 AD
Preceded by
Transition to the Roman Empire
Followed by
Crisis of the Roman Empire
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

–Seneca the Elder (d. 39 AD)

The Early Roman Empire lasted from about 31 BC until 180 AD. It began with the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, that left Octavian Caesar Augustus standing alone atop the Roman world, alone and unchallenged. It then ended with the ascension to the throne of Emperor Commodus, which ushered in a long period of escalating crisis for the Roman Empire.

Though no man is an empire, not even the great Alexander, the nature and government of the Roman Empire were to an astonishing degree the creation of one man of outstanding ability; Emperor Augustus. He slowly and deliberately re-established the political reality of his great-uncle’s dictatorship behind a façade of Republican piety. Since his rule ended a century of civil wars and began an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana, he came to hold the power of a de facto monarch. This was demonstrated by the succession of four members of Augustus' family. The rulers of the Roman world did not live easy lives; of the first five emperors, only Augustus himself and Tiberius died a natural death. But there were no serious efforts to restore the Roman Republic, for the ultimate basis of imperial power was always the legions. If there was confusion in the succession, then the army would decide, and this was what happened in the first great burst of civil war to shake the Empire, the Year of the Four Emperors of 69 AD, from which Vespasian emerged as victor. Vespasian was the grandson of a common centurion, far from the old ruling elite. He was the first of an unprecedented run of eight capable Emperors, who saw the Empire reach its full potential in a century long golden age. Among them are men invariably on the short-list of greatest Emperors: Trajan, the last of the great conquering Romans; Hadrian, returned to Augustus' goal of establishing permanently defensible frontiers for the Empire's vast territories, most famously building Hadrian's Wall in Scotland; Antoninus Pius, whose reign is often pointed to as the zenith of the Empire at the height of its power; and Marcus Aurelius, Rome's great philosopher Emperor. By this time, the Emperor ruled a far larger area than had Augustus: the conquest of Britain began in 43 AD and reach its furthest limit when Hadrian’s Wall was built some 60 years later; and Dacia (modern day Romania) was also conquered in 105 AD. These two centuries are traditionally regarded as the Pax Romana, when the Empire enjoyed a degree of social stability and economic prosperity that Rome had never before experienced.

At various stages, he groomed close relatives to succeed him: the first choice was his nephew Marcellus, but he died of a fever in 23 BC; his closest friend Marcus Agrippa seems to have long been the fallback option, but his death predated Augustus' in 12 BC; after that one grandson and possible heir died in 2 AD, another in 4 AD, and yet another was banished in 9 AD. In the end, he was succeeded by his step-son, Tiberius, who despite heavy lobbying by his mother had always been treated as a backup-plan at best. After his death in 14 AD, Augustus was deified as Julius Caesar had been. His reign laid the foundations of a regime that would lasted, in one form or another, for fifteen hundred years until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. He is usually consider one of the greatest Roman Emperor, if not the greatest. He left the Roman Empire so strong, prosperous and stable that for a long time it was able to endure even his often ineffectual dynastic successors. Some of these men were an object lesson in why absolute power should never be held by just one man, but it was a lesson that the Romans would never learn; there were no serious attempts to restore the Roman Republic.


Emperor Augustus (31 BC-14 AD)[]

Augustus of Prima Porta, the best-known statue of Caesar Augustus, and one of the most famous sculptures of the ancient world. It was The discovered in 1863, at the site of a villa owned by Augustus’ third and final wife, Livia Drusilla.

Victory at Actium left Octavian undisputed master of the Roman world; historians henceforth refer to him as Caesar Augustus (30 BC-14 AD). The suicides of Mark Antony and Cleopatra removed the last threat to his supremacy. The annexation of Egypt and seizure of the Ptolemaic treasury brought him financial independence. The loyalty of active soldiers and veterans alike made his military power overwhelming. The challenge was to regularise his own supremacy so as to make it generally acceptable. The fate of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, had shown that he could not act too much like a king without risking reopening the door to civil war. So in Augustus’ own version of events, Actium was not, as later historians would see it, the end of the Roman Republic, and beginning of the Roman Empire (30 BC-476 AD). Instead, it was fresh new start for the Republic. The longevity of Augustus' reign, more than forty years, was a key contributing factor to his success in re-establishing the reality of Caesar’s autocratic authority, behind an outward façade of Republican forms and traditions. As Tacitus wrote, the younger generation at his death in 14 AD had never known any other form of government. The attritional effect of the civil wars on hardline Republican sentiment was another factor. But his patience, his tact, and his mastery of propaganda should not be overlooked as well. Augustus' reign laid the foundations of a regime that lasted, in one form or another, for nearly fifteen-hundred years, through the decline of the Western Roman Empire, until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

A coin depicting Augustus found in the ancient Kingdom of Pandyan (modern-day southern India), a testimony to Indo-Roman trade.

The constitutional basis of imperial power was established in a series of compromises between Augustus and the Senate. To begin with, large-scale demobilization allayed people’s fears; from some 50 legions to a standing army of 28, about 170,000 soldiers. Regular elections followed, with Augustus, and his right-hand man Vipsanius Agrippa (d. 12 BC), inevitably chosen as Consuls. Then in 27 BC, Augustus made a great show of formally laying down all the extraordinary powers that had been granted to him in the years of crisis. At this demonstration of respect for the Republic, the Senate returned the favour. Augustus accepted, with much feigned reluctance, the governorship of just three outlying provinces; Spain, Gaul, and Syria (as well as Egypt). Of course, since the bulk of the soldiers were stationed there, this formalised his control over the army. In addition, he was allowed to establish a personal bodyguard, the “Praetorian Guard", which gave him, in effect, a private army in Italy itself; breaking the long tradition that Rome did not keep soldiers close to home. Augustus, meanwhile, retained the Consulship, which gave him all the legitimate power he need to rule the empire. It was at this time that the Senate granted him the brand-new title "Augustus", which meant simply "illustrious one", but became his primary title and name; though he himself preferred to be called by the humbler title First Citizen. In 23 BC, Augustus felt strong enough to work-out the next phase of his new world order. He gave up the Consulship, and never held it again; except for two brief periods, in 5 BC and 2 BC, for specific purposes. His exact motivation for doing this is not entirely clear. He may have realized that a lot of Senators resented his monopolization of what was still nominally the highest civilian office, which for them was the culmination of a lifelong dream. He was also suffering from a particularly serious illnesses at the time; perhaps he did not like the idea of publicly display himself at an election in such a weakened state. In any case, relinquishing the Consulship was no great sacrifice, because the Senate had grant him two important privileges. The first made him, in effect, Tribune of the Plebs for life, allowing him to convene the Senate or popular Assembly at will, and to veto any legislation in either. More particularly, a Tribunate surrounded him with a “democratic” aura, because of the ancient character of the office as defender of the common people. The year 23 BC likewise clarified the legal basis for Augustus’ control of the wider empire. The Senate invested him with a form of general Proconsular power, allowing him to intervene in any province he happened to visit, not only his own provinces. Augustus now had, in fact, every single power of state. But, while precedents can be cited for all Augustus’ various powers, he was smart enough never to indulge in them; he rarely proposed or vetoed legislation personally, leaving it to his opponents to recognise his strength and preferring to work behind the elected officials. The Senate had now become increasingly irrelevant; little more than a talking shop for old men. This is evidenced by Augustus issuing fines to Senators who failed to attend the Senate House. When this didn't work, in 13 BC, he was forced to change the rules so that business could be carried on even if the required quorum didn't show-up; four-hundred Senators out of the six-hundred. Nonetheless, this political framework, known as the "Principate", would be the basis of the imperial power until the constitutional overhaul of Diocletian in the late third-century, which introduced a more overtly authoritarian system, known as the "Dominate".

The Pantheon is the most famous of all the buildings of the Augustan era, and remains one of the great tourist attraction of Rome. The building that stands today is actually a rebuild commissioned by Trajan in 126 AD, after the original was destroyed in the great fire of 80 AD. But Hadrian chose to retain the design of Agrippa's older temple, right down to the inscriptions.

After 23 BC, no fundamental change in Augustus’ position occurred. Honours, of course, came his way. Included in his Tribunate authority were powers usually reserved for the Roman Censor, among which was a vaguely defined responsibility for upholding public morality. This was a role he actively indulged in, passing puritanical laws intended to revive worship in the traditional Roman gods, to discourage extravagance, incentivise marriage, penalise adultery, and encourage large families; the "Law of the three sons", for instance, held those in high regard who produced three male offspring. These strictures seems to have done little to change anyone's behaviour though, not least because Augustus himself had a well-earned reputation as a philanderer. Then, in 12 BC, after the death of his former Triumvirate colleague Marcus Lepidus, Augustus assumed his position as Pontifex Maximus (Chief Priest of Rome). He now had every power of monarchy: head of the civilian government, head of the army, and head of the church. An equally important power was Augustus' great private wealth, having built upon his inheritance from Julius Caesar, with the treasury of Cleopatra, and ongoing revenue of Egypt. This allowed him such luxuries as personally paying to extend the grain dole, to reward the army, to donate vast sums to the public treasury, and even to fund entire infrastructure projects. All this greatly boosted his popularity with the common people. Augustus, being a tactful and imaginative master of propaganda, knew how to cloak his autocratic regime in forms that would satisfy a war-torn generation. He had his boyhood friend Gaius Maecenas (d. 8 BC) set a veritable army of poets and artist to the task of preparing the population for his ascent to near godhood. Horace (d. 8 BC) praised his patron as the individual who bore the brunt of responsibility for initiating an era of relative stability and peace. known as the Pax Romana. Virgil (d. 19 BC), traditionally recognised as Rome's greatest poets, promoted the idea of a parallel between Augustus and Aeneas, the legendary founding-father of the Romans; specifically, Aeneas sought to establish a superior Roman civilization with a task of ruling the known world, just as Augustus sought to create a new Rome based on older traditions. These poets imitated the writing of classical Greece in form, but not in tone and outlook; it was the glory of Rome that inspired Virgil 's Aeneid, Horace's Odes, and Livy's monumental history of the Roman people. This fusion of Roman and Greek culture was also evident in Augustan art and architecture. On his deathbed, Augustus famously boasted "I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble". Although marble could be found in buildings of Rome before Augustus, it was not extensively used as a building material until his reign. Augustus’ countenance, meanwhile, proved a godsend to the Hellenized east, who were the best sculptors of the time, as they elevated his features into a moving, never-to-be-forgotten imperial style; which Napoleon’s artists, among others, keenly emulated.


In 29 BC, Augustus ordered the doors to the Temple of Janus closed, to symbolize that Rome had entered into a new time of peace. But the closure could not have been less appropriate. As Dio points out, almost every year of his forty-five-year reign saw military campaigns on one front or another, during which he dramatically enlarged the Empire. To protect Rome's eastern territories, Augustus opened negotiations with Rome's most dangerous neighbour, the Parthian Empire. He intended to pursue a new policy of peaceful co-existence, but not before recovering Rome's lost honour; the sacred legionary standards lost by Crassus thirty-three years earlier. With a Roman army stationed in Syria, Augustus managed to work out a "perpetual peace" with the Parthian king Phraates IV (d. 2 BC). Phraates agreed to return the standards. and Roman prisoners-of-war. What he got from Rome is less clear. We only know that Augustus gave Phraates an Italian slave-girl named Musa, who quickly became his favourite wife, and mother to his successor, Phraates V (4 AD). Many Romans were disappointed that Crassus' defeat had not been avenged by military means, but Augustus used the return of the standards as propaganda symbolizing the submission of Parthia to Rome. After securing the Empire's eastern flank, Augustus focused on establishing naturally defensible borders for the Empire. But first, he plugged some glaring hole actually within its actual frontiers. Prior to the final fight with Mark Antony, Augustus had pacified the Illyrian tribes of Dalmatia. He now did the same with the unpacified tribes of northern Spain and the Alps. But the real battlefronts was along the Danube and Elbe rivers, which Augustus intended to be the Empire's new frontiers. Victory in battle was not always permanently successful, with newly conquered territories retaken by Rome's Germanic enemies. The most famous example was the Roman defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (September 9 AD). The Germanic alliance was led by Arminius (d. 21 AD), a prince of the Cherusci tribe. As a youth, he had been sent to Rome as a hostage, where he received a Roman education, acquired Roman citizenship, and then served with distinction in the legions. Around 4 AD, Arminius returned to Germania, attached to the staff of the Roman commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus (d. 9 AD). This proved a mistake. Arminius began secretly plotting to unite the fiercely independent Germanic tribes to thwart Roman efforts to incorporate their homeland. In the autumn of 9 AD, the 25-year-old Arminius brought to Varus a false report of rebellion in northern Germany. Varus marched three full legions, over 20,000 men, right into the ambush that Arminius had set for them; all Roman accounts stress the completeness of the Roman defeat. According to Suetonius, an ageing Augustus was so shaken by the defeat that he would wandered the palace at night, repeatedly shouting, "Varus, give me back my legions!" The numbers of the lost legion - XVII, XVIII and XIX - would never be used again by the Romans; in contrast to other legions that were re-established after suffering defeat. Teutoburg Forest brought the triumphant period of expansion under Augustus to an abrupt end. In all her long history, the Empire would never again seriously attempt to expand beyond the Rhine river.

Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

Augustus had the actual power of an emperor, if not the title, and sought to establish a dynasty; a most unrepublican idea. But the Senate was not unsympathetic to the notion of an heir, since no one wanted a civil war to erupt as soon as Augustus died. Augustus lived well into his 70s, but his frequent illnesses meant that the question of who would inherit his unique position was always at the forefront of politics. But his search for a blood heir was tinged with tragedy. The problem was that he had no son of his own, only a daughter Julia. He first considered making his nephew, Marcellusa, his successsor, and so, back in 24 BC, he married Julia off to him; but Marcellus died just a year later. Next, Augustus married Julia to his most trusted friend, Agrippa; but he too died, in 12 BC. Rather than giving the poor woman some peace, Augustus then married her to his last candidate: his wife’s son by a previous marriage, Tiberius. But Tiberius was a placeholder; Augustus hoped to live long enough for one of Julia’s sons to grow old enough. Meanwhile, he had created a wretched family life for his daughter. Julia and Tiberius hated one another; he took himself off to Rhodes, while she grew ever more debauched and promiscuous. Her behaviour became so scandalous, in fact, that Augustus had her exiled to Pandateria, a tiny island with no men in sight. By 4 AD, Augustus had to give-up on finding himself a blood heir: two of Julia’s sons had died young, while the third had grown to be so odd that he was widely thought to be insane (he was sent to Pandateria as well). So Augustus was stuck with Tiberius, who was formally adopted as part of his immediate family in 13 AD. The action came just in time. In August 14 AD, Augustus was struck with dysentery while visiting Nola, near Naples; his father's birthplace. He grew progressively weaker, until he was unable to get out of his bed. Augustus' famous last words were, "Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit", a quote from a popular drama. In the last moments of his life, he could finally admit the truth that no one else dared; that his role as defender of the Republic had been nothing but a play-act, and his refusal of the title of Emperor a sham, all done for the sake of the audience.

Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD)[]

Statue of Tiberius from Priverno, made shortly after 37 AD, now in the Museo Chiaramonti of the Vatican Museums

Prior to becoming Emperor, Tiberius (14-37 AD) had proved himself one of Rome's most successful diplomats and able generals; negotiating the treaty with Parthia, and conquering much of the Balkans to the Danube. But he was no one’s first choice as Augustus' successor. He was cold, taciturn, and had some odd tics, such as making constant gestures with his fingers when he talked. When Tiberius went before the Senate, a month after Augustus’ death, to be formally recognized as head of state, he tried to follow Augustus’s own tactic of offering to lay-down his powers with apparent humility so that they could be willingly returned. Tiberius wasn’t very good at apparent humility, though. When the Senate tried to return his powers, he kept on half-refusing them until one Senator, thoroughly frustrated, shouted out, “Either do it, or have done with it!” But, in the end, Tiberius was confirmed as Augustus’s successor, and his first few years as Emperor went well. He gave respect to the authority of the Senate, and his policies were both patient and far-seeing; he did not attempt new conquests; stopped waste in the imperial treasury; and shied away from the more outlandish forms of pageantry to his office. The problems began with the rise of his nephew, Germanicus (19 AD). Tiberius seemed to suffer from something of an inferiority complex, understandably, since he had spent most of his life as Augustus' backup-plan. Indeed, before Augustus' death, Tiberius had been obliged to adopt his nephew, as though Augustus wanted Germanicus to be Tiberius' successor, rather than his own natural son, Drusus (d. 23 AD). A few years into Tiberius' reign, the legions posted on the Lower Rhine mutinied, over an unpaid bonus promised a bonus by Augustus, and not forthcoming from Tiberius. Germanicus was dispatched with a small force to bring the legions back in line. Rather than simply quell the mutiny, however, Germanicus rallied the mutineers and led them on a short campaign across the Rhine; stating that whatever plunder they could grab would count as their bonus. He even retrieved two of the three legionary eagles that had been lost at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Germanicus was now wildly popular, and regarded as the ideal successor to Tiberius. In 19 AD, Germanicus died under mysterious circumstances, and, on his deathbed, accused Tiberius of having him poisoned. Whether there was any truth to the rumour, the people of Rome believed it. As his popularity plummeted, Tiberius retreated from public life. More and more he delegated his authority to his son Drusus, and the man he had entrusted with the important command of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus (d. 31 AD). Though Drusus was being openly groomed as successor to his father, in practice, Sejanus was the second man in the Rome; and had ambitions for more. Sejanus saw Drusus was a threat to his position, since Tiberius was in his sixties, so there was a realistic possibility of the son succeeding the father in the near future. His method of eliminating him was elegant, if sinister; he seduced the young man's wife, and, with her help, Drusus was slowly poisoned and died, seemingly, of natural causes in 23 AD. At this, Tiberius seemed to lose heart. He soon left Rome altogether for an imperial villa on the island of Capri, just off the coast of Campania. Here he remained, leaving affairs more than ever to Sejanus, and never even visiting Rome. Before long Tiberius was Emperor in name only, and Sejanus had built the Praetorian Guard into the powerful political force, for which it is remembered. According to Tacitus, for a time, the presence of Livia, Augustus' widow, checked Sejanus' overt power. But her death in 29 AD changed all that. He embarked on a series of treason trials to weed-out any opposition, and prominent Romans lived in fear. In 31 AD, Sejanus shared the Consulship with Tiberius in absentia, and was finally given permission to marry into the imperial family; his bride was Livilla, the widow of Tiberius’ son. Now he not only had the substance of power, but its forms as well. But suddenly, at the end of 31 AD, Sejanus was summoned to a meeting of the Senate, where a letter from Tiberius was read ordering his immediate execution. What caused his downfall is unclear; ancient historians disagree on who alerted Tiberius to the growing threat of Sejanus. According to Josephus, one of more reliable historians for the period, it was Livilla's mother, together with Sejanus' estranged ex-wife. In the last six years of his reign, Tiberius grew ever more paranoid, and unleashed treason trials on Rome that dwarfed anything perpetuated by Sejanus. Any and all who had associated with Sejanus, or could in some way be tied to his schemes, suffered summarily executed. On Capri, Tiberius himself became ever more reclusive, and inclined to spend his days in pleasure. He built little caves and grottoes all over his private island, and hired boys and girls to dress up like nymphs; and carried on with them exactly as the name suggests. The locals took to calling him “that old goat”. He was the first Emperor to indulge himself in the indiscriminate fulfilment of all his desires; but not the last. In the spring of 37, Tiberius became ill, took to his bed, and lapsed into a coma. Although Tiberius was 77 and on his deathbed, ancient historians still claim that he was murdered. Tacitus relates that the Emperor appeared to stop breathing, and the news of the succession of his nephew, Caligula, was proclaimed to the world. Then Tiberius suddenly recovered, sat up, and asked for something to eat. Those who had moments before recognized Caligula as Emperor fled in fear of his wrath. Only the new Praetorian commander, Macro, kept his head, taking advantage of the confusion to smothered him with his own bedclothes. When Rome learned that Tiberius was safely dead, the people ran through the streets shouting, "To the Tiber with Tiberius!"; criminals were typically thrown into the river, rather than burnt or buried. Doubtless they believe that his successor could not possibly be worse, but Caligula would prove the old adage, No matter how bad things are, they can always be worse. While Tiberius had been troubling the Romans at home, down in Judea, a wandering prophet named Jesus of Nazareth, had preached and been executed by Pontius Pilate, the local Roman governor.

Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD)[]

Reconstructed bust of the Emperor Gaius, known as Caligula

Gaius Caesar Germanicus, better known by his nickname Caligula (37-41 AD), ruled for only four years, but left behind enough stories to be remembered as one of the worst Emperors in Roman history. He actually began his reign admired by everyone: he was the beloved son of the popular Germanicus; a direct descendant of Augustus through his mother; and, most importantly of all, he was not Tiberius. Caligula was particularly loved by the army, having spent his youth on campaign with father on the Rhine, where he was treated the legion's unofficial mascot. His nickname "Caligula" means "little boots," and derived from the miniature soldier's uniform he wore as a child. This proved to be the only charming thing about him, though. Ancient sources described Caligula as a noble and moderate Emperor for the first six months of his reign. He cancelled Tiberius' treason trials, pardoned the prisoners, invited exiles to return to Rome, and publicly burned all the gathered evidence. His financial policies were equally popular, if less prudent: he cancelled unpopular taxes; granted bonuses to the army, including the Praetorian Guard; and threw lavish gladiatorial games and chariot races to entertain the people. But sources are divided about Caligula’s true nature; some say that he was a monster from the outset, but managed to conceal it for a time; while others claim that, seven months into his reign, he fell serious illness and then emerged with a changed personality. It is hardly surprising that the young Emperor had psychological issues; he fled Sejanus' purges for Capri, and spent his youth toadying to a paranoid Tiberius, the man who might have murdered his father, surrounded by corruption and excess. All of the accounts list shocking crimes: he murdered his cousin, grandmother, father-in-law, and brother-in-law; he slept with all three of his sisters, and male and female prostitutes, as well as other men’s wives and then bragging about it; he wasted money for mere amusement, including a pontoon bridge, stretching over two-miles; he threatened to make his beloved horse a Consul, and certainly had no respect for the office. Though Caligula is credited with expanding the Empire into Mauritania (present-day Algeria), he also led a series of meaningless campaigns, only to earn some sense of military glory; most famously, a supposed invasion of Britain, during which he ordered his soldiers to collect seashells as "spoils of war" for his conquest of the English Channel. Rome had travelled a very long way in less than a century; from the city where the Senators killed Julius Caesar for behaving too much like a king, to now tolerating an insane tyrant. The problem was that Caligula’s disintegration did not inconvenience everyone; he lavished money and privileges on those who managed to stay on his good side. But, by 38 AD, Caligula's generosity for support, and extravagant lifestyle had exhausted the state's treasury. His solution was to bring back the treason trials of Tiberius, condemning men to death in order to confiscate their property; according to Suetonius, "He loved watching tortures and executions". In short, Caligula took everything that had made Tiberius’ final years unbearable, and made them ten times worse. In 40 AD, Caligula decided that he was divine, and ordered statues of himself set up across the entire Roman domain. Riots erupted in Jerusalem, as the Jews were forbidden by their own laws from worshipping images. The governor, a reasonable man named Petronius, fearing civil war if the order were carried out, sent a letter to Rome asking if it was really necessary. But the word that came back was unexpected: Caligula was dead, murdered by members of the Praetorian Guard, led by Cassius Chaerea, a man who had been the constant target for Caligula's insults. A few days later, Petronius received another letter, this one from the dead Caligula, threatening to put him to death if his statue was not set up in the Second Temple. Thus, the statue was never installed.

Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD)[]

Bust of Claudius at the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Caligula's assassination threw Rome into a brief period of political chaos. The Senate met and began debating a change of government. But two forces prevented this. First, the Senatorial debate quickly devolved from the restoration of the Republic, into an argument over which of them would be the new Emperor. And second, the Praetorian Guard seized the initiative, and called it for Claudius (41-54 AD), Caligula’s uncle; the dead Germanicus' younger brother. According to tradition, the Praetorians found Claudius trembling behind a curtain after the assassination, and spirited him away to the protection of their camp. Within a matter of days, Claudius had imperial power firmly in his hands; he had bribed the Praetorian Guard into supporting him; ordered Caligula's murderers executed (everyone was grateful to them, but leaving them alive would have established a dangerous precedent); cancelled Caligula's treason trials, and even gave back land Caligula had confiscated. It is a strange thing that Claudius became the fourth Roman Emperor: he was afflicted with a limp and slight deafness from a childhood illness; he was physically clumsy; and he stammered and his nose ran when he was stressed. He had probably survived all the recent purges, because Sejanus and Tiberius regarded him as a dullard, and Caligula found him a convenient target for his cruel jokes. It is stranger still that Claudius turned-out to be a good Emperor.


At home, Claudius took an active interest in government, something the Empire had not really seen since the days of Augustus. Many measures demonstrate his enlightened policies. He not only addressed the Senate with respect, but tried to remodel it into an effective advisory body, chiding the members for their reluctance to debate bills that he himself had introduced. He took a personal interest in the law, and judged many of the legal cases during his reign. He made the imperial bureaucracy more responsive, by dividing it into departments, with the department-heads forming a kind of executive cabinet. He was an ambitious builder, both in the capital and in the provinces, paying particular attention to connumication, roads, and canals. He also nursed the imperial treasury back to health after the excesses of Caligula's reign. The greatest achievement Claudius' reign was beginning the Roman conquest of Britain. Britain was an attractive target for Rome because of its mineral wealth, as well as being a haven for Gallic rebels; it was attractive to Claudius for the glory of following in the footsteps of Julius Caesar himself. So Claudius sent his trusted commander Aulus Plautius across the Channel with four legions, who, with little opposition, established a Roman frontier across the British south-east. When the Thames had been secured, Claudius himself arrived, bringing with him reinforcements and elephants, which no doubt made a great impression on the native Britons. For sixteen days, he took personal command of the campaign, capturing the Catuvellauni capital of Camulodunum (Colchester), which often served as the capital of the new province of Britannia. For his efforts, the Senate granted him a Triumph. Despite all his political and military accomplishments, Claudius’ private life was a disaster. His first wife, Messalina, cockolded him, and publicly married her lover, a recklessly defiant act which may have been the first step in an attempt coup. If so, it failed; Claudius had them both executed. Next, Claudius married his own niece Agrippina, Caligula’s sister, in an attempt to heel a feud between the Julian and Claudian branches of the imperial family, dating back to Germanicus' death. But Agrippina had a son by a previous marriage, a little boy named Nero. She strove with a single-minded determination to have her own son declared Claudius' heir, until Claudius' own natural son Britannicus reach legal manhood. As soon as he did, in 51 AD, Agrippina took steps to ensure the succession for Nero. According to Tacitus, she chose her poison carefully: something that would appear to be a wasting disease, rather than a sudden death which might betray her crime. Claudius was almost saved by an attack of diarrhea, which cleared much of the poison from his system, but Agrippina ordered the doctor, who was in on the plot, to administer more poison.

Emperor Nero (54-68 AD)[]

A plaster bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

Nero (54-68 BC) was only sixteen-years old when he became Emperor, by far the youngest Rome had seen. Like his predecessors, the early part of his eventful reign was considered by many to be good and moderate. His government put tax collectors under more strict control; slaves were gained increased legal protection; and the Senate enjoyed a period of renewed influence in state affairs. During this time, Nero allowed himself to be guided by more capable minds, particularly his mother Agrippina, his former tutor Seneca, and the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Burrus. But problems soon arose from competition for influence, with Agrippina on one side, hoping to control the government through her son, and Seneca and Burrus on the other. Matters came to a head in 55 AD, over Nero's personal life. Dissatisfied with his political marriage to Claudius' popular daughter, Octavia, Nero began an affair with a slave-girl, which Agrippina strongly disapproved of. Nero, of course, resisted her interference. With her influence over her son deteriorating, Agrippina fought back by turning her attention to a younger candidate for the throne; Claudius' fifteen-year-old son Britannicus, who was now on the verge of legal manhood. Nero's inevitable response was to have his stepbrother poisoned. After exiling his mother from Rome, Seneca and Burrus assumed control of the government, while Nero increasingly pursued his own personal pleasures. He surrounded himself with a circle of favourites, whose nocturnal drunken revelries in the streets were a scandal. An audience with the Emperor was as likely to involve listening to him playing the lyre, as a discussion of affairs of state. Then in 58 AD, Nero fell in love with Poppea, the beautiful young wife of the Senator (and later Emperor) Marcus Otho. Nero dispatched Otho to the far reaches of the empire, and moved Poppea into the palace, ignoring the protests of his wife. According to Tacitus, it was Poppea who convinced Nero to get rid of his mother for good. He planned Agrippina's death with great care; he was greatly concerned about appearances. First, he sent her off on a river cruise in a specially designed boat that was supposed to collapse and drown her; but she managed to swim to shore, much to his dismay, Next, he tried poison, but, having been forewarned of the plan, she took the antidote. His last effort was the simplest; he had her stabbed to death, but made it look like a suicide. Nero then proceeded to divorce Octavia, leaving him free to marry his mistress Poppea.

Queen Boudica in an engraving by William Sharp, 1793.

Meanwhile, the Roman legions in Britain were taking their cue from their Emperor and behaving with a complete lack of restraint. They had begun to build themselves a new city on the ruins of the old Catuvellauni capital of Colchester, as a colony for retired soldiers. As free labour, they enslaved the nearby Trinovante tribe, and took their land. Then in 60 AD, the client-king of another nearby tribe, the Iceni, died, leaving behind two daughters and a widow, Boudicca (d. 61 AD). As he had no son, the patriarchal Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, decided to simply annex the Iceni territory. According to Tacitus, when Roman soldiers stormed in, Boudica was flogged, and both her daughters raped. Boudicca, dishonoured and seeing her country disappearing before her eyes, launched an uprising that quick gathered momentum, as other Celtic-Briton tribes, with good reason to resent Roman rule, joined her cause. Boudicca first target was the partly built city of Colchester. The new city had only a tiny garrison, because the Roman governor was in Wales with the bulk of the legions, assaulting the druidic stronghold of Mona (modern Anglesey). The swelling horde of Britons overran Colchester without difficulty, slaughtering the garrison almost to a man. Suetonius, returning from Wales, marched to Londinium (modern London), the rebels' next target, but, judging he did not have the numbers, so left the city to its fate, and sought a field more advantageous for battle. Boudicca's army sacked Londinium and then Verulamium (modern St. Albans). Unfortunately for the Britons, when it came to set-piece battles, the Romans were second to none; even outnumbered more than ten to one. Suetonius chose a ground well; a narrow gorge with a wood behind him, so there could be no enemy except at his front. The Britons arrived to Battle of Watling Street (61 AD) in such confidence that they brought their wives to see the victory, stationing them on carts at the rear. The terrain proved their undoing. As the Britons charged, they were channelled into a tightly packed mass. Just before getting into close contact, the Romans threw their javelin, cutting-down some, and forcing others to discard their shields. At this, the legions advanced, cutting through their ranks until the Britons turned and fled the field. But the supply carts at their rear hampered the escape, and the rout turned into a massacre. According to Tacitus, Boudicca herself managed to escape, but took poison soon afterward. The next Roman governor walked more gingerly around the Britons, but there was no one to shake Nero into more temperate behaviour.

Fire in Rome by Hubert Robert. A painting of the great urban fire that occurred in July 64 AD.

The turning point in Nero's reign came in 62 AD, with the death of his key adviser Burrus, and forced retirement of Seneca. Released from their influence, Nero abandoned the restraint he had previously shown. That same year he called for the first treason trial of his reign. He also began to give rein to his artistic pretensions. He fancied himself not only a lyre player, but a charioteer and theatre actor tool; he began to give public performances. To the Roman elites these antics seemed to be a scandalous breach of the imperial dignity. Then in 64 AD, a great fire began in Rome. The city had always been vulnerable to fires - dry wood houses, crammed shoulder to shoulder - but this one was fanned by the winds to catastrophic proportions. It burned for seven days, then subsided, only to start again, and burned for three more. Three of Rome's fourteen districts were destroyed, and seven more severely damaged. Did Nero play his lyre (not a fiddle which had not yet been invented) as Rome burned? No. He wasn't even in the city at the time, and rushed back to organize a relief effort. But his behaviour in the aftermath gave fuel to rumours. He took advantage of the destruction to begin building a palatial palace complex, which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. Soon rumours held Nero responsible for the fire. To remove suspicion from himself, Nero had to find a scapegoat of his own, and chose for his target a small Eastern sect called the Christians. Almost by accident, Nero initiated the later Roman policy of half-hearted Christian persecution, in the process earning himself the reputation of "Antichrist" in the early Christian tradition. It is said, St. Peter and St. Paul were put to death during Nero's persecution. Meanwhile, the imperial government had problems in the east. Since the peace settlement of Augustus, it had been a Roman prerogative to appoint the vassal-kings of Armenia, as a buffer-state against Parthia, Rome’s implacable foe in the east. But the Armenians had long chafed under Roman rule, and, in the Emperor Claudius’ last years, a Parthian prince named Tiridates - the younger brother of the Parthian king, Vologases - had made himself Armenian king with the support of its people. At first, Nero took vigorous action, dispatching an able general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, to the east. Corbulo quickly brought the conflict to a satisfactory conclusion it seemed. Invading Armenia, he captured its capital, and set a Roman client-king back on the throne. But the Roman victory had come when the Parthians were facing troubles on their own eastern border: the Kingdom of Kushan. As soon as this had been dealt with, the Parthians turned their attention to Armenia, and, after a couple of years of inconclusive campaigning, inflicted a heavy defeat on the overconfident Romans at the Battle of Rhandeia (62 AD). The triumphal arch for Corbulo's earlier victory was already half-built when Parthian envoys arrived to discuss a new peace treaty. There was trouble elsewhere in the Roman domains, so Nero decided that it would be best to make peace: a Parthian prince would henceforth sit on the Armenian throne, but his nomination had to be approved by Rome. In 66 BC, three-thousand Parthians travelled to Rome to witness the ceremony of Nero handing over the Armenian crown to Tiridates. Perhaps Nero meant this to be a brilliant spectacle of Roman greatness, but, to the Romans, the sight of Parthians thronging their streets must have looked very like defeat.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, during the Great Jewish Revolt, painted by David Roberts, 1850,

The trouble that had prompted Nero's capitulation in Armenia was the Great Jewish Revolt (66-73 AD). Judea-Palestine had been a powderkeg ever since Caligula’s threat to put his own statue in the Second Temple, if not before. In 37 BC, Mark Antony, as part of his reorganisation of the eastern provinces, had done away with the old system of a combined chief-priest and secular-king of the Jews, and installed Herod (d. 4 BC) as an ordinary vassal-king. Herod is remembered for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including turning the shabbily rebuilt Temple into a showpiece for his greatness as a king; albeit one under Roman supervision. After Herod's death, Augustus, rather than choosing one of Herod’s three sons to succeed him, divided Judea into three parts; perhaps the size of the Temple had revealed family ambitions that needed to be quashed. In any case, one brother, Antipas, got Galilee including Jerusalem itself; Archelaus got the south; and Philip got the north. Antipas and Philip ruled without incident; but Archelaus proved so unpopular that, two years later, Augustus yanked him from his throne, and put a Roman governor in his place, in order to keep an eye on the whole region; as long as Antipas and Philip behaved themselves, the Romans tended to leave them alone. Another aspect of Herod's legacy was economic hardship; the heavy taxation that funded his building projects, was followed by widespread unemployment when it ceased. The province began to be an increasing source of trouble, which the split-leadership could not control. By the 40s AD, the great religious festivals were regularly disrupted by violence between three factions; Jews who resented the Romans as just another in the long line of foreign occupiers (the Pharisees); Jews who collaborated with and profited from their rule (the Sadducees); and the growing number of Greco-Roman settlers, particularly in the coastal towns. But the ultimate cause of the Great Jewish Revolt was something more mundane; tax policy. The Roman Empire had seen fit to do away with "tax-farming" almost everywhere, except in Judea; a practice whereby the burden of tax collection was assigned by the Roman governor to private contractors. The governor would determine the expected tax from census data, and anything above that amount was the tax-farmers profit. It was a system notorious for corruption, extortion and other unscrupulous methods. The crisis in Judea began as anti-taxation protests, that soon escalated into random attacks on Roman citizens and Jewish tax-farmers by an extremist Jewish sect, the Zealots. In 64 AD, the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, set the revolt in motion by sending soldiers to Second Temple, and claiming part of its treasury as the tax shortfall. Outraged, the Jewish population took up arms, and quickly overran the Roman garrisons across Judea; among others, the rebels surprised and took over the fortress of Masada. In response, the Roman governor of Syria sent about 30,000 troops to quell the Jewish revolt. The Syrian legions took large areas of the northern Judaea without much effort. But, having spread themselves too thin, a full legion was ambushed and defeated at the Battle of Beth Horon (66 AD); a heartening victory that proved something of a mixed blessing for the rebels. Nero, angry at the impudence, dispatched an experienced and unassuming general to crush the rebellion and punish the population; Titus Flavius Vespasian, the future Emperor. Arriving in the spring of 67 AD with more than 60,000 soldiers, Vespasian began a systematic campaign to subdue rebel-held strongholds with great slaughter. By the next spring, he held the north, and began to sweep south, but avoiding Jerusalem itself for fear of heavy loses against the fortified city. As Jewish rebels and refugees flooded into Jerusalem, it created political turmoil and bloody internecine violence. The Sadducee faction had shifted dramatically from elation to panic. They knew that the revolt was doomed, and implored the Zealots to open negotiations with the Romans in order to save as many Jewish lives as possible. The Zealots not only refused, but began publicly executing anyone who talked of surrender. By 68 AD, all the prominent leaders at the start of the revolt were dead; none of them at the hands of the Romans. In the spring of 70 AD, the Romans were at the gates of Jerusalem, besieging its walls. The Zealots, determined to engage the population in the defence of the city, intentionally burned the food stocks. It work to an extent; the city-dwellers knew they had to fight, but, as the days went by, they began to starve. Josephus, a Jewish historian and former rebel who served the Roman as a translator, provides vivid details of famine, including incidents of cannibalism, that occurred within the beleaguered city. Finally, after five-months of siege weapons, the Romans breached the walls. During the final stages of the Roman assault, the Zealots retreated to the Second Temple. After several attempts at breaching its walls, the Romans set fire to adjacent buildings, which starting a conflagration that destroyed, not only the five-hundred year-old Temple, but much of the city. The fall of Jerusalem was not quite the end. Roman mopping-up operations continued for another three years, culminating in the famous Siege at Masada. a virtually impregnable hilltop stronghold surrounded by sheer cliffs. It took the Romans three-months of rampart building to even reach the walls. When they finally broke through the walls of the citadel in 73 AD, they discovered 960 of the 967 Jewish defendered had killed their children and then themselves, rather than surrender; all but two women and five children who hid in the cisterns. The last Jewish stronghold was gone, as was Judea; it became an official Roman province. Masada quickly entered the Jewish collective consciousness, and is often revered in modern Israel as a symbol of Jewish heroism.

Meanwhile back in Rome, Nero’s behaviour had gotten, unbelievably, worse. He kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach during an argument, killing both her and his unborn child. Her death haunted him, so he ordered a young boy named Sporus, who greatly resembled his dead wife, castrated, and married him in a public ceremony. He was neglecting affairs of state, spending all his time at chariot-races, bankrupting the Empire. He was also unleashing his own little reign-of-terror; no less a figure than Corbulo, hero of the Armenian war, was condemned to death. In the spring of 68 AD, the governor of the Upper Rhine, Gaius Julius Vindex, rebelled against Nero's tax policy, and called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the wise and experienced governor of Spain, to join his cause and declare himself Emperor. Galba refused to act against Nero, and Vindex' revolt was easily crushed, but the whiff of suspicion lingered on Galba. Nero now made a fatal mistake; he declared Galba an enemy-of-the-state. At this, support for Galba only increased, culminating in the Praetorian Guard pledging their support for him. Nero, realizing that to lose the support of his bodyguard was to lose his throne, fled Rome for the port of Ostia, intending from there to take a ship to the still-loyal eastern provinces. But the soldiers at the port sensed the way the wind was blowing, and refused to obey his orders; tainting him with a line from the Aeneid, "Is it so dreadful a thing to die?" Nero returned to Rome, but found even his friends had abandoned him. Upon learning the Senate had met in emergency session to declare him an enemy-of-the-state, Nero prepared himself for suicide, pacing up and down muttering, "What an artist the world is losing". At last, the sound of approaching horsemen drove Nero to face the end. But he kept losing his nerve, so forced his freeman secretary to perform the deed.

Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD)[]

With no living male member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the death of Nero ushered in a period of chaotic uncertainty; the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). There was no clear mechanism to determine which of dozens of highly ambitious men ought to be Emperor. It was now revealed that the real power of the Emperor lay not in his authority as Proconsul, or Pontifex Maximus, or Tribune, or in any civilian office. The real power of the Emperor lay in the command of the army. The Empire was something like a military junta: a band of powerful generals who could put-up or remove a figurehead ruler, but who held the real power themselves.


Servius Sulpicius Galba was still in Spain when he received the news he had been declared Emperor by popularly acclaim. He did not remain popular for long, though. Galba was a well-respected general and administrator, but seemed to lack any political savvy at all. On his journey along the coast to Rome, anyone who did not offer their full-throated support was punished, often severely; the governor of Aquitania was executed, and the governor of the Upper Rhine relieved from his post. Having lost much goodwill, Galba made matters worse in Rome by refusing to pay-off the Praetorian Guard who had supported him, as the Emperors before him had done; their commander had already promised a huge bonus, without his knowledge. Galba was already past the age of seventy, hampered by arthritis, and childless, so the questions of who would succeed him immediately came to the fore. Seeking to reassure the Empire that Rome was still the centre of power, he adopted as his heir a level-headed Senator called Lucius Calpurnius Piso. This inevitably thwarted the ambitions of many men, and one of them, Marcus Salvius Otho, whose wife Nero had stolen and then murdered, was willing to go to extreme lengths. Omens began to appear, suggesting that Galba would not reign long; the most serious was when the sacred chickens deserted him during a sacrifice. The omens were probably arranged by the Praetorian Guard, who had been bribed to switch their allegiance by Otho. Seven months into his reign, Galba was sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo when the Praetorians proclaimed Otho to be Emperor in his place. Galba heard the news and charged into the Forum to confront the rebels. They killed him, and left his body there. Otho soon realized that it was easier to overthrow an emperor than rule as one. The governor of the Lower Rhine, Aulus Vitellius, was already marching on Rome; in fact, be had revolted against Galba, but saw no reason to stop now. Backing him were some of the finest legions in the Empire, veterans of the endemic Germanic raids and counter-raids. Otho put-up a creditable defence of Italy, but, after a minor defeat at the Battle of Bedriacum (April 69 AD), decided that it would do neither him nor Rome any good to embark on a full-scale civil war; he took his own life. It was the act of an honourable man, which was the kind of Emperor that Rome needed. What Rome got instead was Vitellius, an obese glutton indulging in lavish banquets and Triumphal parades that drove the imperial treasury close to bankruptcy. He also showed his violent nature, inviting potential rivals to the palace with promises of power, only to order their hasty execution. Before long the legions stationed in practically the whole eastern Empire had declared their support for yet another candidate; Titus Flavius Vespasian, the Roman general who made his name in Britain and then distinguished himself against the Great Jewish Revolt. Vespasian was not inclined to rashness, While his eldest son, Titus, was entrusted with the campaign in Judea-Palestine, a strong force drawn from Judea, Syria, and the Balkans marched on Italy under his lieutenants Mucianus and Primus. Vespasian himself took-up residence in Egypt, cutting-off the grain supply to Rome; and well-position to reinforce either campaign should it be needed. It was be a bloody end to a bloody year. Vespasian's forces won a crushing victory at the Second Battle of Bedriacum (October 69 AD), Realising all was lost, Vitellius attempted to abdicate in favour of Vespasian. But he was not allowed to do so by his supporters, resulting in a brutal battle for Rome, during which the great temple of Jupiter was burned to the ground. Soldiers eventually dragged Vitellius from his hiding-place, unceremoniously beheaded him, and disposed of his body in the traditional manner: by throwing it into the Tiber. The Senate, desperate to satisfy his unruly supporters before they burned anything else down, acknowledged Vespasian as Emperor the following day, 21 December 69 AD. The decree did not even list the names of Galba, Otho, or Vitellius: they had been erased from the record. The illusion that had characterised the rule of Augustus was still at the very centre of Roman politics.

Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD)[]

Bust of Vespasian founder of the Flavian dynasty

As it turned out, the Year of the Four Emperors had made a fine choice in Vespasian (69-79 AD). Though Edward Gibbon's famous Five Good Emperor does not begin until Nerva, many modern historians regard Vespasion as the first of eight effective Emperors, who gave Rome a century of relative calm, order, and good administration. Vespasian was an experienced general, and understood the way soldiers thought. One of his first acts, once in Rome, was to reassign commanders and redivide troops so that old loyalties would be destroyed. Next, he set the Empire back on firm financial footing, after Nero's excesses and the crisis of 69 AD. To do this, he not only increased old taxes and revoked various immunities, but invented new forms of taxation. The most famous was a tax on urine collection, used in dying for its ammonia content; when Vespasian's son Titus complained that this was distasteful, his father famously held up a gold coin and retorted Pecunia non olet ("money does not stink"). Through sound fiscal policy, he was able to plough the surplus into an ambitious building program in Rome and the provinces. Its crowning glory was the Flavian Amphitheatre, built on the site of Nero’s sprawling palace; better known today as The Colosseum. With the Senate, despite early misgivings, Vespasian succeeded in maintaining friendly relations, encouraging men to speak their peace, and showing good-natured tolerance to offences; in contrast to the treason trials of the Julio-Claudians. Modern historians do note that Vespasian was a master of propaganda to rival even the great Augustus. He was a generous patron to most of the important writers and historians of his day, including Tacitus, Josephus, and Pliny. Their histories speak suspiciously well of him, while condemning the Emperors who came before him. One component of Vespasian's propaganda revolved around his victory in Judea, and a prophecy that a man from that province, the Messiah, was destined to rule. But Vespasian himself knew he was just a man; his unpretentious manner, his rustic charm, and his simple lifestyle was a welcome change of pace from Nero's megalomania. In 79 AD, after a ten-year reign, Vespasian died of natural causes, probably of the flu, at the age of sixty-nine; the first Emperor to do so since Tiberius. With the feeling of death overwhelming him, he said, Vae, puto deus fio ("Dear me, I think I'm becoming a god"). Apparently the Senate agreed; he was deified later that year.

Emperor Titus (79–81 AD)[]

Bust of Emperor Titus, in the Capitoline Museum, Rome.

Vespasian had carefully groomed his eldest son Titus (79-81 AD) to be Emperor: he had been left in charge of ending the Great Jewish Revolt in 69 AD; was awarded a Triumph for his effort; held seven Consulships during his father's reign; and served as his commander of the Praetorian Guard. Vespasian died confident he was handing-over power to a capable man of experience, who, at thirty-nine years, might reign for many years to come. Alas, it was not to be; ruling for a scant two years. As Emperor, Titus was every bit as self-confident as his father, leading to the same kind of pragmatic moderation in government. He is best remembered for his generosity in relieving the suffering caused by three disasters, one after the other. The first was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, not far from the Bay of Naples, only two months into his reign. The mountain had been rumbling in the background for as long as most Romans could remember, and the people who lived in Pompeii, near its foot, were accustomed it; Pliny was in Pompeii on the day before the eruption, “There had been tremors for many days previously, a common occurrence in Campania, and no cause for panic”.  Those who did not escape the eruption were buried in twenty-five feet of ash, or choked by the heat and gasses; over two thousand people died in a single night.  Titus at once sent disaster relief from Rome, and visited the devastated areas himself as soon as it was safe. He was at Pompeii, when a fire broke out in Rome that lasted three days, destroying an enormous area of the city. Though much of the reconstruction occurred under his brother Domitian, Titus saw to the building of a new Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. He even stripped his palace of decorations to be distributed among the damaged temples and public buildings. And on the heels of the fire came an epidemic, which swept through the overpacked refugees in the city, killing them in scores. In 81 AD, still struggling with the aftermath of the disasters, Titus came down with a fever and died at the age of forty-one. He had been Emperor for just over two horrible years. Perhaps the fever was a relief. The last words he uttered before passing away were the enigmatic, "I have made but one mistake ..."; historians have speculated to which mistake ever since.

Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD)[]

Bust of Domitian, in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

The son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, Domitian (81-96 AD) is often credited by modern historians with laying the foundations of the coming era of Roman grandeur and power. It seems strange then that, after his death, the Senate condemned his memory to oblivion, and contemporary historians described him as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. Domitian had notoriously difficult relations with the Senate; and the hatred was mutual. Unlike his father and brother, Domitian had actually been in Rome throughout the crisis of 69 AD. He had seen first hand just how readily the Senatorial elite swung with the political breeze; praising the current usurper to the stars one minute, and retrospectively justifying their assassination the next. It was a lesson Domitian would not soon forget, regarding the Senate as an unreliable partner at best, and dangerous threat at worst. Where some Emperors upheld the public facade of the old Republic with less subtlety than others, Domitian dragged the ugly reality of imperial rule right out into the open; very loudly concentrating all power in the palace, and refusing even to play lip-service to the Senate's role in decision-making. Where Augustus had styled himself First Citizen, Domitian preferred to be addressed as Dominus et deus (“lord and god”). As a consequence, his government exhibited a ruthless but efficient authoritarian character.

The Arch of Titus was constructed by Domitian in 81 AD, to commemorate his brother's official deification. It has provided the general model for many triumphal arches into modern times; perhaps most famously inspiring Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

As Emperor, Domitian saw himself as the new Augustus, embarking on ambitious economic, military, and cultural reforms to right the ship of state. He was a micro-manager of the highest order, personally involving himself in almost all aspects of government. To help him govern, Domitian sought hard-working, loyal, conscientious, and honest administrators, qualities he found more often in men of middle-class rank (Equestrians) than the Senatorial elite. He rarely even favoured family members for public office, a policy that stood in contrast to the nepotism practiced by Vespasian and Titus. Even Suetonius, an unrelenting critic, admitted that the imperial bureaucracy never ran more efficiently than under Domitian. whose exacting standards and suspicious nature maintained historically low corruption among public officials. The reality of Domitian's autocratic regime was further reinforced by the fact that, more than any Emperor since Augustus, he spent significant periods of time away from the capital touring the provinces. Wherever he went, he brought the imperial court with him; the seat of power was no longer even in Rome. Domitian's far-sightedness was nowhere more evident than in his financial policy. Emperors in the past had often devalued the Roman currency to pay for their projects, without much regard for the resulting inflationary pressure. Domitian, in contrast, restored the silver purity of coins back to the Augustan standard (a standard it would never again achieve), and, instead, he set his ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy on ensuring rigorous taxation. especially on the wealthy elite. Though Domitian spent lavishly - erecting, restoring, and completing more buildings that any Emperor since Augustus - his successors came to power with a well-endowed treasury. Indeed, Domitian seemed determined to revive all things Augustan, even his least successful policies, such as his morality laws. Adultery was once again punishable by exile, and an unchaste Vestal Virgin became a capital crime, to little effect; though his crusade against bribery and corruption did tackle a real world problem that had been ignored for years, even by his father and brother. Domitian's military endeavours were generally defensive in nature, most notably developing the Limes Germanicus, which encompassed a vast network of roads, forts and watchtowers constructed along the Rhine-Danube frontier. His only significant expansion of the Empire was in Britain, where Gnaeus Julius Agricola led the legions as far north as modern-day Scotland, and very nearly captured the while island; his work would be left permanently incomplete though, as the legions were soon transferred to the Daube to help quell the growing Dacian menace.

The crisis of Domitian's reign began with the revolt of Antonius Saturninus, governor of the upper Rhine, in 89 AD. This was easily suppressed, but a series of treason trials followed. In his last five years, Domitian executed some twenty Senators, and exiled or confiscated the property of dozens more; he justified his actions, "no one believes in a conspiracy against the Emperor, unless the Emperor turns up murdered". Though Domitian killed no more men than cuddly old Claudius, his growing paranoia became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The execution of his own cousin convinced a group of court officials and family members that no one was safe, leading to his assassination in 96 AD.

Emperor Nerva (96-98 AD)[]

Bust of emperor Nerva, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome

The sudden assassination of Domitian threatened to open the door to civil war, but, on this occasion, the Senate acted quickly and wisely. Within hours of the news, they recognised as the new emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva (96-98 AD), who seemed to many the perfect stopgap. He was a member of a distinguished Senatorial family. He was a known Flavian loyalist, having closely served Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, thereby easily the transition. And he was already sixty-nine and childless, so ambitious men could reasonably hope to soon succeed him through adoption. While the Senate was inordinately pleased with having chosen the new Emperor, the other institution that had grown accustomed to having the final say on succession was not; the army, more specifically the Praetorian Guard. Nerva's brief reign was marred by difficulties. His attempt to win over the army with a generous bonus failed to silence protests over the violent regime change; further exacerbated by Nerva's reluctance to punish Domintian's assassins. His quest to win popularity with the people, by lowering the tax burden, led Rome into shaky financial territory. And his reluctance to assert his authority over the Senate, the one part of the political system that really supported him, ultimately led to chaos, as everyone acted in their own interests, while trying to settle old scores with personal enemies; leading one Consul to famously remark that Domitian's tyranny was preferable to Nerva's anarchy, Matters came to a head in 97 AD, when the Praetorian Guard mutinied, laying siege to the imperial palace, and taking Nerva hostage. He was forced to submit to their demands, including handing over those responsible for Domitian's death and even giving a speech thanking the rebellious Praetorians. Nerva was unharmed in this ordeal, but understandably shaken. He realized that his position was no longer tenable without the support of an heir, who had the approval of the army. Shortly afterwards, he announced that his heir would be the general Trajan, a favorite of the army, currently stationed on the Rhine. Just a few months later, Nerva died from a stroke. It was probably a welcome deliverance from a much nastier end.

Edward Gibbon, author of one of the most influential history books ever written.

The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. famously considered Nerva the first of the Five Good Emperors, five successive rulers under whom the Roman Empire "was governed with wisdom and virtue" until 180 AD. Modern historians note that, compared to his successors, Nerva was a well-meaning but weak and ineffectual ruler, his one notable achievement being the adoption of Trajan. Likewise, Gibbon's assertion that Nerva established a tradition of succession through adoption among these Emperors has found little support among modern historians. Adoptive succession was not a choice, but arose out of a lack of natural sons. As soon as an Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, could look towards a son, Commodus, to succeed him, adoptive succession was set aside. Moreover, all eight Emperors from Vespasian to Marcus Aurelius, are now regarded as effective rulers, only four of whom were adoptive successors. Indeed, adoptive succession would later prove to have its own significant drawback; if anyone could be Emperor, then ambitious men would always ask themselves, "why not me?"

Emperor Trajan (98–117 AD)[]

Trajan is consistently placed second, after Augustus, on any list of "Rome's greatest Emperors"; occasionally third, depending on your view of Constantine. He is remembered as an outstanding soldier-emperor, presiding over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the Empire to its greatest territorial extent.

When Nerva adopted Trajan (98-117 AD) as his successor, almost everyone agreed on his perfect suitability for the job. The most remarkable thing is that he actually managed to exceed these high expectations. The Roman historians are almost unanimous in praising Trajan. Every new Emperor after him would be honoured by the Senate with the wish Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (may he be "luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan"). Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born in Spain, near present-day Seville. Though frequently cited as the first provincial Emperor, he was born into a prominent Roman, or at least Italian, family with a very impressive military reputation. His father had served under Vespasian in the Great Jewish Revolt, and been rewarded with key governorships in Spain and Syria. As a young man, Trajan rose rapidly through the ranks of the army, proving himself a natural leader-of-men, with the sort of easy-going authority that made men, not just ready to serve, but eager to serve. The youthful commander's usefulness was recognized by Domitian in 89 AD, when he marched to the Rhine to help put-down the revolt of Saturninus. With his nature talent now joined with imperial favour, Trajan was on the fast-track, earning a Consulship in 91 AD, followed by governorships on the Danube-Rhine frontier. As governor, he earned himself a reputation for fair-dealing and competent administration, with none of the arrogant destain for provincials so often displayed by men raised on the Palatine Hill. As Emperor, Trajan would bring this worldview with him, fully recognising that the Empire would not survive if it remained simply a collection of conquered people ruled by an elite in Rome. His reign was a major milestone, allowing men of merit from across the multi-national Empire to believe that every door was open to them; in time, other Spaniards, Thracians, Syrians, and, most famously, a series of Illyrians would come to don the purple. When Nerva died, Trajan was accepted as Emperor by both the Senate and armies without incident; tradition maintains that it was his young cousin Hadrian, the future Emperor, who brought the news. It is a testament to Trajan's confidence that he did not immediately hasten to Rome, but instead spending his first year in office inspecting the frontiers to restore military discipline after Nerva's troubled reign. When he finally made his way to Rome, in the summer of 99 AD, Trajan set the tone for his reign by entering the capital on foot without pomp. He then continued in this vein with the Senate, ingratiating himself with the proud nobles by exhorting them to share the care-taking of the Empire with him. Although he maintained an excellent rapport with the Senatorial elite throughout his reign, he did not share power with them in any meaningful way. In domestic affairs, Trajan was concerned with both good government and public welfare; he ended the micro-management characteristic of Domitian's reign and instead trusted in the sound judgement of local officials; formalised the Alimenta program, initiated by Nerva, to help poor and orphan children; restored the dilapidated road network and sewers; built libraries, canals, bridges, aqueducts, and public baths to enhance the material lives of his subjects; and took "an oath that he would not shed Roman blood" and he made good his promise despite a few plots against him.


Of course, Trajan had his own reasons for wanting political peace at home, for his real passion was war. And he was very good at it, presiding over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the Empire to its greatest territorial extent. Trajan's first campaign was against Dacia, on the far-side of the Lower Danube (present-day Romania); the Dacian Wars (101-106 AD). Rome's defensive posture along the Rhine-Danube frontier was not a passive affair, but one of constant vigilance, of Germanic raids and Roman reprisals, of playing-off tribes against one another, and of nipping nascent alliances in the bud before they grew into something really dangerous. Ever since the Year of the Four Emperors, the Germanic tribes had grown more and more bold. Dacis was an unusually favourable location for a strong state, due to abundant silver and iron deposits. It first got Rome's attention under Domitian, who campaigned against their formidable king Decebalus (d. 106 AD), but was unable to procure a decisive victory. Then, with the distraction of the revolt of 89 AD, Domitian agreed to make Dacia a client-kingdom, paid an annual financial stipends to help defend the Empire's border against unpacified triibes. But, rather than becoming a peaceful buffer, Decebalus used the Roman money to fortify his southern defences and strengthen his army in anticipation of future hostilities with Rome. The new Emperor Trajan began preparing for his Dacian campaign with the sort of meticulousness that had not been seen since Julius Caesar. He spent three years reorganising the Rhine-Danube legions so that border security would not suffer, expanding the road network to ensure stable supply-lines, and building a temporary bridge across the Danube. By 101 AD, Trajan was ready to invade Dacia. After gaining the Senate's blessing, he carefully advanced towards the Dacian heartland, burning towns and villages en route. A Dacian army was defeated at the Battle of Tapae (September 101 AD), but Roman losses were so serious that Trajan withdrew back to the near-side of the Danube to regroup. Over the winter, Decebalus tried to wrong-foot Trajan by going on the offensive, but suffered another defeat at the Battle of Adamclisi (January 102). After this, Decebalus offered his surrender, and Trajan agreed on harsher terms that nonetheless left him on the Dacian throne. For a time Decebalus made a great show of complying with the terms, but soon began to reassert his hostility to Rome, leading to the final and overwhelming Roman invasion of 105 AD, To signal his intention, Trajan ordered his chief architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, to construct a permanent stone bridge over the Danube. Though Trajan`s Bridge was functional only until 270 AD, when Emperor Aurelian had it pulled down, it is regarded as the longest bridge built-by-man for more than a thousand years. Like the first war, the second involved several skirmishes that proved costly to the Roman legions. Trajan was not deterred by these setbacks though; more and more Roman legions crossed into Dacia, and relentlessly pushed northward towards the Dacian capital of Sarmisegetusa. When the Dacians repelled the first assault, Trajan turned to cunning; helped by a treacherous local, he cut-off the water supply to the city. Running short of water and food, Sarmisegetusa fell and was razed in the summer of 106 AD; Decebalus himself committed suicide rather than fall into Roman hands. The kingdom of Dacia was absorbed into the Empire as a province to prevent any further disruptions, and to exploit its silver mines, which would fund all of Rome's dreams for years to come. Trajan announced 123 days of celebrations throughout the Empire, and built Forum of Trajan to commemorate his victory. In the court rose the still-standing Trajan’s Column; 35-meters in height, with a 190-metre frieze winding around the shaft chronicling the Dacian campaigns.


If Trajan had stopped at the conquest of Dacia, he would have already gone down as one of the most successful Emperors in history. But his spectacular military career was not over yet. The Roman-Parthian War (115-117 AD) was provoked by Parthia's decision to put an unacceptable king on the throne of Armenia, a buffer-state over which the two empires had shared hegemony since the reign of Nero. The speed and scale of Trajan's response suggests that he had long been waiting for just such a pretext to win for greater glory for Rome in the east. He certainly refused all diplomatic efforts by the Parthian king Vologases III (d. 147 AD) to settle the impasse peacefully. In 114 AD, Trajan, at the age of sixty, marched into Armenia, deposed the offending Parthian-appointed king, and officially annexed the territory as a Roman province. Though the rationale for war had been met, the legions continued on eastwards, crossing into Persia itself on, what was clearly now, an open-ended war of conquest. Benefiting from an ongoing Parthian civil-war, Trajan swept south along the Tigris-Euphrates, capturing Babylon, Seleucia, and the administrative capital of Ctesiphon. He declared Mesopotamia a new province of the Empire, and had his statue erected on the shore of the Persian Gulf. His only regret, expressed in a letter to the Senate, was that he was too old to go on any further, and follow Alexander the Great's footsteps, all the way to India. I

In early 117 AD, Trajan was still suppressing Parthian resistance in the newly conquered lands , when another revolt flared up among the Jewish communities inside the Empire. This revolt grew more and more serious, until Trajan decided that he had better suspend operations in Parthia until a more auspicious time; turning his Eastern army over to Lusius Quietus, governor of Judaea. He no doubt saw this as a temporary setback, but was destined never to command an army in the field again.

Trajan's health started to decline throughout

Over the spring of 117 AD, Trajan grew ill, and set-out to sail back to Italy. He only got as far as Cilicia, where he had a stroke and died almost at once. He was sixty-four. Trajan was the last of the conquering Romans. Great generals would come and go in the following centuries. but their efforts were in defence of what Rome already had.

Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD)[]

Marble bust of Hadrian at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Capitoline Museums.

Trajan put the cherry on the top of an already successful reign by naming his nephew Hadrian (117-158 AD) as his successor; another man on most short-lists of greatest Emperors.

However there's widespread speculation that in fact Hadrian was not Trajan's choice. Although Hadrian's career obviously received a healthy leg-up from being the Emperor's only male relative, Trajan showed little sign of favouring him until he formally adopted him as heir on his deathbed. Many historian believe Hardian died without nominating an heir, and it was his widow Plotina who orchestrated the succession lest the Empire descend into civil war. If true, the plot bore-fruit for Rome for the next 21 year. Prior to becoming Emperor of Rome, Hadrian had held various important positions; terms as Consul in the Senate, ample military experience at the highest level, and had governed provinces notably Syria, one of the most critical posts in the Empire. His accession to the throne was not entirely smooth, but he had the support of the legions and people, and eliminated his rival with some reluctance.

When Hadrian's Wall was originally built, it was whitewashed a spotless ivory colour. In the dark climate of the north, it was a glowing white line that must have awed the unpacified tribes. Sections of the wall remain today, though much has been dismantled over the years to use the stones for various nearby construction projects.

Hadrian's reign was in marked contract to Trajan’s expansionist policies. He instead returned to Augustus' goal of establishing defensible frontiers for the Empire's vast territories; future emperor's would all follow his precedence, usually by necessity. Within day of becoming Emperor, Trajan made the extraordinary decision to order the legions to begin withdrawing from all the territories in the east that Trajan had just conquered, considering it to be indefensible; he later personally negotiated a new settlement with the Parthian king, where once again Armenia became a buffer-state and the Euphrates became Rome's eastern border. It’s a testament to Hadrian's political skill that he was able to carry out such an unpopular decision, in the face of domestic political outrage. Hadrian's defensive policy was not limited to the Euphrates. The eternally energetic Emperor spent more than half his reign away from Italy, in the process visiting almost every province of the Empire. Wherever he went, he restored a sense discipline and purpose in the legions, setting them to the task of building defensive fortifications to mark the permanent boundary of the civilised world. The defining artefact of his reign is Hadrian's Wall in Scotland, the 73-mile-long stone wall from the Solway Firth to the North Sea; it was largely completed in just six years. The wall marked the northern limit of Roman Britain, which since the initial conquest under Emperor Claudius, had been extended to all of Wales and Northern England, notably during the seven-year governorship of Gnaeus Julius Agricola from 77 AD. Defending the frontier was just one purpose of the wall. It was of course an awe-inspiring projection of Roman power that struck fear into their enemies; the wall was whitewashed and would have been visible for miles. But above all, the wall controlled tax and trade, both as part of Rome's divide-and-conquer policy with tribes beyond the wall (favouring cooperative tribes, and punishing defiant ones), and as a way of cutting-off conquered tribes within the walls from any support to the north. On his travels, Habrian also donated money for civil, religious, arts, cultural institutions, and building projects in practically every city he visited. In particular, Hardian, an ardent admirer of all things Greek, sought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire and gave his support to a building renaissance there. Yet, his policy would have disastrous results in Palestine. The province had been ravaged and heavily depopulated during various Jewish revolts, especially the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 AD. Hadrian order a massive reconstruction program in the Jerusalem in Greco-Roman style; upon the ruined Temple Mount would stand a new shrine to Jupiter. Jewish resentment at this sacrilege eventually boiled-over into the Third Jewish War (132–136 AD). Under the leadership of Simon bar Kokhba (d. 135 AD), a well-armed and organised insurrection erupted, quickly overwhelmed the local legions, and for over two years established an independent state over most of Palestine. But Hadrian was not going to stand by and watch a Roman province simply shrug-off their imperial masters. It took no fewer than twelve full legions to finally crush the revolt, in a bitter campaign against Jewish guerilla tactics, fought village by village throughout the region. In addition to heavy Roman casualties, it is estimated that some 580,000 Jews were killed in the fighting or from famine and disease; as one contemporary witness described it, "the Romans create a desert and they call it peace". After the revolt, Hadrian's harsh policies towards the Jewish community have been described as cultural genocide; he banned the Jews from entering Jerusalem, prohibited circumcision, banned the Hebrew calendar, banned the use of Torah law, and renamed the province Syria Palaestina, after the Philistines, the ancient enemy of the Jews. It is hard to understate the effect this had on the history of Judaism. From 136 AD, Palestine was no longer the centre of the Jewish world, and would not be again until the 20th-century. Many scholars mark this date as the true beginning of what we now know as the Jewish diaspora, first around the Roman Empire and ultimately the world.

Hadrian's last years were marred by illness and his temper grew shorter, with a marked increase in treason trials. His enemies in the Senate were quick to condemn this as confirmation that he had been a tyrant all along. The hawkish aristocracy had always resented his refusal to expand the frontiers, as well as his fondness for all things Greek, including an indiscreet homosexual relationship with a young man called Antinous. Hadrian died of heart failure at the age of 62 after prolonged chronic illness.

Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD)[]

Bust of Antoninus Pius, at Glyptothek, Munich

Before his death, Hadrian had announced to a shocked Roman world that he was adopting as his heir Antoninus Pius, a well-liked but obscure man already well into his 50s, who had spent his entire career in the Senate. Historians widely speculated that Hadrian intended Antoninus merely as a stop-gap for a few years, because his preferred heir, Marcus Aurelius, was still too young and inexperienced. If that had been the plan, it didn't work out that way, for Antoninus would rule Rome for 23-years. The reign of Antoninus Pius is often pointed to as the zenith of the Roman Empire at the height of its power. In many ways the assessment is correct. He was active in all aspects of imperial administration, and thoroughly engaged in the welfare of his subject. He was quite conservative and emphasised continuity over novelty in all things. This was most obvious in his attitude to public-works; he more or less abandoned new construction, and focused instead on maintaining the existent, especially roads. These years were the most harmonious in the history of the Empire, at peace at home and abroad, which in turn helped trade and commerce to flourish. He also strictly controlled imperial finances and rooted-out corrupt officials swiftly, which allowed for a generous surplus for the imperial treasury by the time of his death. Yet his reputations with the public never suffered from his tight-fistedness, because he was generous with his own personal fortune; there were a number of natural disasters during his reign, local famines, fires and an earthquake, and he underwrote the emergency relief from his own pocket. He also codified the law for the treatment of slaves, such as punishment for a master who killed a slave, a change long overdue since the days of acquiring new slaves through conquest were largely over after Trajan.

The shine on Antoninus Pius’ golden age is somewhat tarnished by what Rome had to endure in the decades after his death. Antoninus had no military experience to his name, never once left Italy in his 23-years on the throne, and paid scant attention to military affairs during his long reign. Rome's defense of her frontiers was not a passive process, but active vigilance to deftly manage the barbarian tribes beyond the borders: one tribes was played against another in a constant game of divide-and-conquer; a tribe might be offered an alliance on favourable trade terms if they would contribute to frontier defenses; and periodic minor campaigns by the legions against particularly troublesome tribes. Antoninus allowed a sense of complacency to set-in among the legions, undoing much of good work Hadrian had done. He maintained the list of alliances that he inherited from Hadrian, but steadfastly refused to extend it. Minor frontier problems that could had been dealt with by a more proactive military Emperor, were allowed to become crises for his successors; those barbarian tribes on the "outs" felt resentment at Rome, and those on the "ins" increasingly regarded Rome as now a paper tiger, ripe for plundering.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD)[]

Bust of Marcus Aurelius in the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France

Marcus Aurelius was not the choice of Antoninus Pius to succeed him as Emperor, but the far-seeing choice of Hadrian; Antoninus was obliged to adopt Hadrian's fifteen-year-old nephew as a condition to be Emperor himself. Being groomed from an early age to become Emperor might have gone to another man's head, but Marcus Aurelius even as a young man displayed the serious and scholarly temperament that would later earn him the reputation as Rome's great philosopher Emperor. He received the best education that Rome could provide, and eventually found himself drawn to the moral philosophy of Stoicism, guided by the most prominent Stoic of the day, Junius Rusticus (d. 170 AD); the rigid self-analysis appealed to the introspective young heir apparent, as did its emphasis on duty. His Stoic outlook is expressed throughout his ever-quotable book of Meditations which he wrote between 170 and 180 AD. During Antoninus' 23-year long reign, his step-father kept Marcus always at his side, and included him in every aspect of his imperial administration. While this was admirable preparation for becoming an effective Emperor, it did have one obvious drawback; since Antoninus never once left Rome, neither did Marcus. He never governed a province, or served in the legions, or even visit the places he would one day rule. It is to his great credit that he was able to overcome this lack of practical worldly experience, instead rising to every challenge of his reign with the perfect mix of steady confidence and genuine ability.

For the first eight years of his reign, Marcus Aurelius did not rule alone, instead elevating his younger brother Lucius Verus as co-Emperor. This was a watershed moment in the development of the imperial political system, and in less than a century multiple Emperors would become the rule, rather than the exception.

When Antoninus Pius died, Marcus Aurelius unexpectedly insisted on ruling jointly as co-Emperor with his younger brother Lucius Verus (169 AD), perhaps understanding what later Romans would take for granted, that one man could not govern the whole of the Mediterranean by himself. History books tend to mark this as the first time the Empire had multiple Emperors, but other similar power-sharing arrangement serve as precedence, not least that of Augustus and Marcus Agrippa. When the introspective Marcus Aurelius and fun-loving Lucius Verus became co-Emperors in 161 AD, the borders of the Empire had been quiet for more than 40 years. But their own reign was one of near continuous war, plague and disaster. The peace was immediately shattered by a newly aggressive Parthian Persia under Vologases IV (d. 140), who was riding high after reuniting what had become two distinct eastern and western halves of his empire. While the Romans were absorbed with the transfer of power, Vologases invaded the buffer state of Armenia, expelled its king, installed his own, and dared the new co-Emperors to do anything about it; the Roman–Parthian War (161–166 AD). When the initial local response resulted in a string of blundering defeats, co-emperor Lucius Verus was sent east to personally take-up overall charge of the campaigns, although its successful conclusion was chiefly the work of subordinate generals, notably the brilliant Avidius Cassius (d. 175 AD). By 163 AD, the Romans had retaken the Armenian capital in a well-planned campaign, and quickly drove-off what was left of the Parthian invasion force. After a year of posturing and failed peace talks between the two great powers, the Romans launch another invasion Parthia itself in 165 AD. After a string of victories including the sack the capital of Ctesiphon, Vologases finally sued for peace, agreeing term that left Armenia a Roman client-kingdom, as opposed to the power-sharing agreement prior to the war. But this Roman victory proved hollow, because legions returned from the east bringing with them the Antonine Plague. The plague, probably a smallpox epidemic, would mar the whole of Marcus and Lucius' reign. It first wreaked havoc in the legions and then in the public at large, putting the Empire in a permanent state of crisis for the next decade. Estimates suggest it killed roughly 5 million people or 10% of the Roman population. Indeed it was probably the plague that would eventually kill Lucius Verus in 169 AD.


Just as the Roman-Parthian War concluded, the northern frontier of the Empire was suddenly beset by unprecedented pressure on multiple fronts; the Marcomannic Wars (166-180 AD). The Rhine and Danube frontiers had always attracted barbarian tribes, whether to trade with Rome or raid. The Romans had long maintained a network of diplomatic influences among the tribes beyond the frontier, to keep them divided from one another; bribing one chieftain with tribute or a title, and encouraging inter-tribal rivalry in another. Emperor Antoninus Pius never left Italy, and this divide-and-conquer policy was neglected somewhat. At the same time, in Central Europe during the 2nd-century AD, the first movements of the Germanic Great Migrations were occurring, as tribes began moving southwards from the coast of the Baltic Sea, and other nomadic peoples migrated westwards from the southern Russian steppes. This new phenomena put pressure on the Germanic tribes on Rome's borders, who began to coalesce into larger and larger alliances. The process was further accelerated by migration pressure as a tribe known as the Goths began moving south from the North Sea coast, as well as the redeployment of legions to the east for the Roman–Parthian War. In 166 AD, a tribe called the Marcomanni, an ally of Rome for over a century, were the first of a forever shifting host of Germanic tribes to attack across the upper Danube. Not all wanted to raid and plunder; some were angling for improve trade arrangements, some fancied tribute to keep their tribe loyal, and others wanted the right to migrate into the Empire. With the Antonine Plague running rife in the legions, the raids could not be stopped at the border; one reached as far as the hinterland of Athens, and another even besieged Aquileia in the northern Italy itself. Marcus Aurelius spent nine years on the Danube frontier reestablishing stability, through a combination of carrot-and-stick to pacify each individual Germanic tribes in turn, and the outright genocide of particularly obstinate tribes. He might have stabilised things further, had it not been for a crisis in the east.

First page of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the 1792 English translation by Richard Graves. There is a great deal to admire in Marcus' little nuggets of wisdom, such as "Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present."

In 175 AD, a rumour spread through the eastern Empire that Marcus Aurelius had been killed in a skirmish on the Danube. This prompted the most renowned general of the day, Avidius Cassius, the hero of the Roman–Parthian War, to have himself proclaimed Emperor. The revolt quickly fizzled-out when it became clear that Marcus was still alive, and Cassius was assassinated by his own soldiers. Though the immediate crisis had past, the Emperor had to spend the next few years touring the east and restoring order. In his absence, the Germanic tribes on the Danube took advantage of the situation, and again began guerilla attacks on Roman positions across the frontier. Marcus Aurelius returned to the Danube frontier in 178 AD, where he reestablished stability once again shortly before his death in 180 AD. His death would mark a turning point in Roman history, with the transition from Marcus Aurelius to his son Commodus usually pointed to as the point at which the Pax Romana of the 2nd-century, gave way to crisis of the 3rd-century. Indeed many historians consider it the beginning of the long, slow general decline of the Roman Empire, though we are still three centuries from the last Roman Emperor, and more than a millennia from the fall of Constantinople.

Roman Achievement[]

The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, where an audience of some 65,000 could watch gladiatorial contests and public spectacles in Rome.

The empire of the Roman reached its zenith in the 2nd-century AD. If the Ancient Greek contribution to Western civilisation was essentially mental and spiritual, then that of Rome was structural and practical. Its essence was the Empire itself. Within its frontiers there was order and peace like never before. The Roman world had many internal difference, but on many levels was strikingly homogeneous, held together by road running between a network of cities.with often remarkably similar public buildings largely in stone; all had a forum, temples, an amphitheatre, and baths. The civilisation the Empire nurtured was unashamedly Hellenistic; Latin was the official language but all educated Romans were bilingual in Latin and Greek, and grew up to read the Greek classics. Governing this huge area required the solution to problems which had not been faced by the Greeks or solved by Persians. The complex bureaucracy that appeared under the Emperors was remarkable in scope. In modern time there has been a tendency to idealise the Roman Republic and to regard the Roman Empire as autocratic, even despotic. Yet, all the evidence is clear that the administration underwent substantial improvement under the Emperors, especially by comparison with the corruption of the last century of the Republic. Nevertheless, in most areas of learning and the arts, the Roman only provided again what the Greeks had already done better; one illustrative example is their historians who invariably sought to extol Roman virtues, rather than to criticise and to reinterpret events as the Greeks tradition had done. Only in two practical fields were the Romans great innovators: law and engineering. The great achievements of the Roman lawyers were accumulated over the centuries, beginning with the Twelve Tables (449 BC) and culminating in the Code of Justinian (529 AD). Roman law continued to be applied throughout most of Europe well into the 17th century, and serves as the basis for Civil Law and to a lessor extent Common Law, today, the two most widely used legal systems in the world. In engineering and architecture the quality of the Roman achievement is more immediately impressive. It can still be seen in relics all around the western Mediterranean shores and across wide tracts of western Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor. It was a source of pride to the Romans and one of the few things in which they were certain that they outstripped the Greeks. The Romans produced massive public buildings, great works of hydraulic engineering, virtually founded the practice of town-planning, discovered concrete, and invented the vaulted dome which revolutionised the shapes of buildings. In addition, for the first time the interior of buildings became part of the subject-matter of architecture. Roman roads and bridges were renowned for their durability, and many segments were still in active use a thousand years after the fall of the Western Empire. There's no doubt that this vast road network did much to ensure the longevity of the Empire, facilitating internal trade, swiftness of communication, and troop movement; Napoleon could not move couriers from Paris to Rome faster than could the Emperors of the 2nd-century AD. Of course the roads would eventually contribute to the Empire's undoing, allowing barbarian hordes to march from the frontiers to the gates of the capital with alarming quickness.

Birth of Christianity[]

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ our Savior

No trace of the life of Jesus of Nazareth survives in any contemporary historical record, except the four Gospels. He was, afterall, an obscure preacher in his own time. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the historical person of Jesus existed. He was born around the year 6 BC, during the reign of Augustus, in the Roman client-state of Judea-Palestine; king Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and there is some evidence of a Roman census in 6 BC. This was a turbulent time for the region. In 37 BC, Mark Antony, as part of his reorganisation of the eastern provinces, did away with the old system of a combined chief-priest and secular-king of the Jews, and installed Herod as an ordinary vassal king of Judea. Herod is remembered for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including turning the shabbily rebuilt Second Temple into a showpiece for his greatness as a king; albeit one under Roman supervision. But the Judean people resented the heavy taxation burden, and the growing influence of Greek-Roman culture, especially noticeable in the coastal towns. By Herod's death in 4 BC, Jewish religious festivals were often disrupted by fighting and rioting between rival factions; those who hated the Roman as just another in the long line of foreign occupiers (the Pharisees), and those who profited from their rule and favoured Hellenization (the Sadducees). Then there was an extremist faction, the Zealots, who sought to incite the people into rebellion against the Romans, and assassinated Jews who collaborate with them. Other Jews awaited the coming of a Messiah, a great, charismatic leader who would usher-in a new Kingdom of Israel; a concept that had entered Judaism during the dark days of exile in Babylon. Now Herod the Great was dead. Augustus, rather than choosing one of Herod’s three sons to succeed him, divided Palestine into three parts; perhaps the size of the Temple had revealed family ambitions that needed to be quashed. In any case, Antipas got Galilee, next to the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem itself; Archelaus got the south; and the third brother, Philip, got the north. Antipas and Philip ruled without incident; but Archelaus proved so unpopular that, two years later, Augustus yanked him from his throne, and put a Roman governor in his place, to keep an eye on the whole area; but as long as Antipas and Philip behaved themselves, the Romans tended to leave them alone. Into this volatile situation entered Jesus. His public ministry is traditionally understood to have begun when another popular preacher called John the Baptist baptised him in the River Jordan, as he baptised countless others in the days before his arrest and execution.Luke places this event in the 15th year of Tiberius' reign or 29 AD. John the Baptist is said to have recognised in Jesus a teacher like himself and perhaps something more: "Art thou He that cometh, or look we for another?" Jesus travelled through the small towns and villages of Galilee, northern Judea, teaching his message through parables. His devotional ideas did not go beyond Jewish tradition; observance of holy days and feasts, together with private prayer. But his moral teachings were something subtly new, emphasising repentance, moral justice, deliverance from sin, and eternal salvation available to all, not only to Jews. Jesus attracted a modest but incredibly loyal group of followers, due to his apparent ability to work miracles, especially of healing. Among his followers a group emerged who were his regular companions; the twelve disciples. In a climax of enthusiasm, Jesus and his followers travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival. His arrival was not welcomed by those in power; Jesus' message had often been critical of the Jewish religious authorities, and his actions did little to reassure them. He went to the Temple Mount, and caused a great disturbance; disrupting the merchants and money-changes, and challenging the priest's right to control Jewish religious life. The priests, having lost their political power, were extremely sensitive about guarding the religious power that remained to them. But in order to punish Jesus, they needed to make him look guilty of some political offence in front of Antipas, the vassal king who reported to Rome. The accusation they came up with was that Jesus had called himself “King of the Jews”, an affront bound to irritate Antipas. Antipas, who had no doubt heard of Tiberius' purges in Rome, was not about to do anything that smacked of independence. He sent Jesus directly to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. He too did not want to anger that unpredictable emperor; a Jewish revolution on his watch was not going to do him any good. So Pilate went with a better-safe-than-sorry policy, and agreed to execute Jesus. The method chosen, crucifixion, was the standard Roman punishment for revolutionaries; Spartacus’ followers had suffered the same fate. This was probably around 30 AD. With the details of Jesus' resurrected from the dead and ascension into Heaven, the Gospel account of Jesus became the birth of Christianity.


At the time of his death, Christians were only one tiny Jewish sect among many. But to his energetic followers a unique thing had happened; Jesus had been Christ the Messiah, the son of God, who would one day return to redeem the world. Two of Jesus’s disciples, St. Peter and St. James, emerged as the leaders of this little Christian community. Other Jews naturally saw in them a danger, and this soon brought the Christians their first martyr, St. Stephen, who was lynched by a Jewish mob. One of those who witnessed this event was Saul of Tarsus, known to history as St. Paul; he was the greatest influence in the making of Christianity after Jesus himself. After his dramatic conversion, he became the first great Christian missionary, since as a full Roman citizen he was free to travel throughout the Roman world. Paul's missionary journeys took him all over the eastern Mediterranean during which he introduced a startling new element to Christianity; the early Christians had all been Jews, but St. Paul began converting gentiles, people of non-Jewish descent. Supported by St. Peter and St. Paul, an apostolic council at Jerusalem in 50 AD took the momentous decision that Jesus' followers did not have to be Jews; circumcision and kosher dietary restrictions would not be compulsory for Christians. This was a crucial turning point for the Christian Church, turning it from just another sect of Judaism into a budding world religion, within an Empire in which all religions were tolerated unless they awoke public disorder.

Saint Peter's tomb under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The Acts of the Apostles give plentiful evidence of the uproar which Christian teachings could cause. In about 55 AD, St. Paul had to be rescued from a Jewish mob in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities. When put on trial, he appealed to the Emperor and to Rome he went, apparently with success. From that time he is lost to history, although early Christian tradition asserts that both St. Paul and St. Peter met their deaths in Rome during the 60s AD, thus becoming the two Saints most associated with the eternal city and underpinning the subsequent claims to primacy of the Popes in Rome. These deaths perhaps occurred during the Christian persecution under Emperor Nero following the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD). It is significant that just 40 years after the death of Jesus, Christians were sufficiently numerous in the capital to attract persecution. The successful spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire was not a unique phenomenon. By the 2nd-century AD, the traditional Roman pantheon of gods were losing their hold on the people, with Rome's conquest of the east having unleashed a slow inexorable religious revolution. For years the Roman authorities tried to stop the spread of these "eastern mystery cults", but despite various decrees and persecutions, Romans everywhere still searched for the answers to the meaning of life in everything from the cult of Isis, to Egyptian astrology, from Persian god of truth and order Mithras, to early Christianity. Those who were downtrodden, whether slaves, women, the poor, and common soldiers flocked to Christianity in particular, and its radical profession that all were equal in the eyes of God. This demographic of course happened to make up the bulk of the population of the Empire. Despite occasional persecution, Christianity continued to gain faithful adherents, until by the 3rd-century AD it was embraced by nearly 10% of the Roman population of all classes. They would eventually be plentiful enough for Constantine the Great to use Christianity as a political force to propel himself onto the throne as Emperor.