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AN ABRIDGED HISTORY OF ROME - PART I
VII - FROM TIBERIUS TO NERO
In this page:
The First Dynasty
Tiberius' first years
Tiberius Emperor of Capri
Nero (Via Sacra and Via Nova)
The First Dynasty
Augustus and his four successors are collectively known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty; while Augustus was celebrated as a wise man, his successors were associated with less flattering adjectives. According to the accounts of the Roman historians Tiberius was cruel, Caligula mad, Claudius weak and Nero, the last emperor of this dynasty, cruel, mad and weak.
This dreadful portrait of the first emperors is mainly due to the fact that Tacitus and Svetonius, the main historians who wrote about them, lived under the rule of the following emperors, from whom they hoped to gain favour by discrediting their predecessors.
Things got even worse for the Julio-Claudian emperors in the middle ages and during the Renaissance when other historians blamed them for their (assumed) role in the persecution of the early Christians.
Nero in particular became almost a symbol of evil, an interesting example of what the Romans called damnatio memoriae, literally "damnation of memory", a process for removing the remembrance of a person or of the good things he did.
The usage of erecting an arch to celebrate the triumph of a consul dates back approximately to the time of the Punic Wars. Several arches were built to celebrate Augustus and other members of his family: they are all lost. A gigantic inscription near Basilica Aemilia is what is left of an arch dedicated to Augustus by the Senate. The inscription makes reference to Lucius Caesar, a son of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and of Julia, daughter of Augustus. The old emperor adopted his grandson Lucius and his brother Gaius, thus indicating them as successors; but they both died before him and he eventually adopted Tiberius the son of Livia, his third wife.
Tiberius' First Years
Tiberius was 56 when Augustus died. He had an excellent military record having successfully led the Roman legions in many expeditions in Pannonia (Hungary) and Germany, but he was hardly popular. His mother Livia, third wife of Augustus, was behind his first decisions aimed at gaining the support of the Senate, to which he attributed the appointment of the magistrates, who were previously elected by assemblies open to all Romans.
He had also to deal with the great popularity of his nephew, Julius Caesar, known as Germanicus for his successful campaigns in Germany, where he defeated the tribes which had ambushed the Roman legions at Teutoburg. Tiberius allowed his nephew to celebrate in a grand manner his triumph in Rome, but then dispatched him to Syria to sever his links with his legionaries, who had already made an attempt to place Germanicus at the head of the empire.
In 19 Germanicus died in Antioch: the strange circumstances of his death were soon attributed to poisoning. The local Roman proconsul was suspected of having killed him. His ashes were brought home by his wife Agrippina Maior: she landed at Brindisi and the funerary procession from there to Rome was accompanied by extraordinary scenes of grief. Tiberius chose not to attend the funeral of Germanicus and his absence was interpreted as a sign that he might have ordered the poisoning of his nephew.
By conquering Egypt and Syria and by expanding their influence on a number of satellite kingdoms such as Armenia and Palestine, the Romans came in contact with countries where religious beliefs had aspects very different from theirs.
The main characteristic of the Roman religion was the strict link it made between deities and specific locations: so there were mountains under the protection of Apollo (such as Monte Soratte), islands under that of Aesculapius and the same applied to rivers, forests, springs and so on; the Greeks had the same approach and the Romans easily established a link between their deities and the Greek ones. Cosmogony and life after death, two key aspects of religion as we define it today, had little relevance for the Romans. Cosmogony, the theory explaining the origin of the world and of mankind, was just a minor part of the Roman and Greek myth. Life after death was portrayed by Homer and Virgil as an assembly of homesick shadows who assailed with questions and requests for favours the chance visitors of Hades, the underground kingdom of the dead.
The Romans attended religious ceremonies with a very utilitarian purpose: to protect from ill omen their actions. There were strict rules to be complied with before making some decisions and their violation was regarded as a sacrilege; the temples, rather than buildings for prayers, were sites freed from negative influences; so the cell where the statue of the god was placed was small in comparison to the whole building and the ceremonies took place outside the cell. The word templum (temple) meant for the Romans a space formally "inaugurated", sacred. The city of Rome itself was a temple where some actions were forbidden.
In essence we can say that the ancient Romans were superstitious rather than religious (some say this still applies to a lot of people).
In the eastern Mediterranean, in Mesopotamia and in Persia the Romans found very different religious beliefs under a Hellenized way of living. One aspect of these beliefs, typical of Egypt, was soon adopted by the Roman emperors: it consisted of their own deification. The Roman legionaries located in the eastern provinces were attracted by other local systems of religious worship based on initiation rites, mutual support among the members of the community, some forms of resurrection, a sole deity or at least a very limited number of deities. During the rule of Tiberius and of his successors these new religious practices reached Rome.
Tiberius Emperor of Capri
In 22 Tiberius nominated Julius Caesar Drusus as his successor. Drusus was the son of Tiberius and his beloved first wife Vipsania Agrippina. In 23 however Drusus died and again there were rumours of poisoning.
Tiberius no longer enjoyed living in Rome: he spent long periods in the imperial residences in the environs of Naples. In 27 he eventually chose to permanently live on Capri, a small island off the Gulf of Naples, where winter is extremely mild and a breeze tempers the summer heat. He was no longer keen to follow the day to day management of the government; for this he relied heavily on Lucius Elius Seianus, the commander of the imperial guard.
While on Capri Tiberius lived as a today's retired upper level manager in Florida who is just interested in the weather and in which kind of fish he will have for dinner, Seianus worked at his plans for becoming the next emperor (the image used as a background for this page shows the Faraglioni, three famous rocks of Capri).
In a matter of a few years several members of the imperial family and many senators were indicted by Seianus for plotting against Tiberius, who endorsed the accusations without moving from Capri, where he chose to remain even when Livia his mother passed away at the age of 86, after having played an important role in state affairs through her husband Augustus and her son.
In 31 however Tiberius at the insistence of his sister-in-law Antonia agreed to look into the behaviour of Seianus with a critical eye and realized he could be the next target of Seianus' plan. The old emperor had not lost his ability to manage difficult situations and make swift decisions. He let Seianus believe that an envoy he had sent to Rome was bringing his appointment as the next emperor. The announcement was expected to occur in the Senate where according to the Roman tradition Seianus could not go with his guards. Seianus went to the meeting feeling he was close to his final goal, but he was arrested in the presence of the flabbergasted senators, charged with plotting against the emperor, brought to Carcere Mamertino, sentenced to death and that same day strangled. In a matter of hours he went as the Italians say dalle stelle alle stalle (from stars to stables).
Tiberius continued to live on Capri; in 37 he decided to return to Rome, but he preferred to spend some time in the other imperial residences on the road. He fell ill and was brought to Cape Misenus, a base of the Roman fleet, where he passed away.
In each Roman legion a group of selected soldiers was placed under the direct orders of the legion commander; they were called Praetorians and Augustus gave this name to a small army of 9,000 troops who were lodged in Rome and its environs. They were intended to be the bodyguard of the emperor. As a matter of fact during the three centuries of their existence (they were dissolved by Constantine in 312) the praetorians were for most of the emperors a cause of worry, rather than a source of security.
Seianus managed to gain Tiberius' approval to build a large barracks for the praetorians immediately outside the pomerium, the boundary of the city of Rome which identified the area inside which it was forbidden to carry weapons. The Castra Praetoria design followed the pattern of the traditional Roman camp: it had a rectangular shape and it was divided into four quarters by two perpendicular streets. A wall surrounded the barracks and the vast area where the praetorians trained. When in 275 Emperor Aurelianus built the new walls of Rome those of Castra Praetoria became part of them. The side towards Rome was pulled down while the other three were strengthened and their gates were closed. Recent excavations have led to the quite surprising discovery that the barracks were made up of rather small rooms rather than by large dormitories.
In 35 Tiberius had appointed as his successors his grandson Tiberius Gemellus and Gaius Caesar, son of his nephew Germanicus. The army however did not respect the will of Tiberius; Germanicus had been a great commander and the legionaries wanted his son to be the sole ruler of the empire.
Gaius Caesar was so popular among the soldiers that he was usually called Caligula, after caligae, the military boots he used to wear when he was a child and accompanied his father on his military campaigns.
Caligula, to make sure his power would not be challenged, ordered the killing of Tiberius Gemellus. To please the army he engaged in an unsuccessful campaign in Germany and to please the lower classes of Rome he made distributions of subsidies and commodities. According to the historian Tacitus he became mad and his behaviour became so unpredictable that just four years after his accession to the imperial throne, the praetorians got sick of him and their commander killed him.
Caligula shared with most of the Romans a passion for horse-racing. His family owned most of the land where St. Peter's now stands and Caligula built there a private hippodrome, which is usually known as Circo Vaticano o di Nerone. He embellished this circus by placing at its centre an obelisk. Notwithstanding his private circus, he spent a lot of time at Circo Massimo watching the races in which his horse Incitatus (incited) took part. He was so fond of his horse that no expense was spared although we do not know whether Incitatus was actually happy to be living in a marble stable or to be eating from an ivory manger. Incitatus was covered with fine cloths with red borders and from this detail historians claim that Caligula appointed his horse to the position of senator. This anecdote is quoted every time a ruler appoints a person who does not have the proper requirements for holding that position and is chosen only for his personal relationship with the ruler. In 2005 Harriet Miers, chosen by President George W. Bush as a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, was called by some critics Bush's horse with a clear reference to Incitatus. Certainly there are a lot of Caligula's horses around the world.
Tiberius Claudius Drusus, aged 51, became the new emperor: nephew of Tiberius, brother of Germanicus and uncle of Caligula he had never been highly considered by his powerful relatives and maybe for this reason the praetorians acclaimed him emperor and the Senate willingly ratified the appointment.
He was a very rich man, with little political or military background, but with a cultural one. He had entrusted the management of his assets to some liberti, (freed, former slaves who usually maintained in their names a reference to their previous owner and continued to work for him) and he continued to do so with the state affairs. Overall his administration was well structured and both Rome and the provinces gained from a more careful handling of the various trade, financial and military issues the Empire was faced with.
He even led the Roman legions in a successful campaign in Britain at the end of which southern England became a Roman province. By peaceful means he acquired the remaining independent territories south of the Danube; he consolidated the Roman expansion in today's Morocco by establishing two new provinces.
All these achievements however were obscured by the fact that he was regarded as a puppet in the hand of his wives. Messalina, the first one, married Claudius when she was 15 and he was 50; she is portrayed by the Roman historians as lust-prone and there are several accounts describing how she satisfied her desires. As a matter of fact, profiting by a temporary absence of her husband, in 48 she made a failed attempt with her lover to dethrone Claudius. They both were executed.
Unfortunately for him, Claudius did not learn the lesson and in 49 he married another woman much younger than him, his niece Agrippina Minor, daughter of his brother Germanicus and of Agrippina Maior. Agrippina Minor was already on her third marriage and she had a boy, Lucius Domitius Nero, whom she convinced Claudius to appoint as his successor.
According to the traditional account in 54 Agrippina, after having ensured to her son the support of the praetorians, served to her husband a dish he liked very much: mushrooms. Whether he died of poisoning or of indigestion we do not know with certainty.
Claudius did his best to improve the living conditions of the Romans. He was aware that Rome needed a well organized logistic structure to bring and distribute in an orderly manner the vast amount of commodities required by its population. During a supply shortage he had personally experienced the fury of a hungry crowd.
He therefore gave subsidies to the merchants who shipped grain and oil to Rome during the winter season, when the risk of shipwreck was high. He provided Rome with a second harbour at Porto and he built Porticus Minuciae, a sort of central office which handled the administration and distribution of wheat to the lower classes.
He was also worried that the Romans would run out of drinking water so he built two aqueducts which brought additional water to Rome from the mountains near Subiaco. He celebrated their completion by erecting a monumental arch where the (joined) aqueducts crossed Via Labicana and Via Prenestina.
The new emperor was a young man of seventeen and in his first years of rule he sought the advice of Lucius Anneus Seneca, a philosopher who had presided over his education. Seneca suggested to the young emperor that he follow the ideal rex iustus (fair king) government pattern he had described in his works.
His mother Agrippina tried to exert on her young son the influence she had on her old husband, but Nero over the years became less inclined to accept her interference in state affairs. In 59 Nero ordered the killing of Agrippina, whom he suspected of plotting against him.
In 62 Ofonius Tigellinus gained the trust of Nero and as commander of the praetorians became his main advisor ousting Seneca from this role. Nero's behaviour became more and more that of an absolute monarch: this, coupled with his decisions in fiscal matters, led to a growing dissatisfaction in some sections of the Roman society and in the western provinces of the Empire, which resented the favours and exemptions Nero granted to the eastern provinces.
In 65 a major fire destroyed a large part of Rome; Nero was at his villa in Anzio; he immediately returned to Rome to cope with the effects of the disaster; the many public buildings of Campo Marzio which had not been affected by the fire were used to temporarily shelter the homeless and overall the decisions Nero took during this emergency were effective; he also issued new regulations to establish minimum distances between buildings and to limit the use of timber as construction material. The traditional accounts that the fire was ordered by him, that he watched its spreading from a high point on the Esquilino, that he sang while Rome was burning and that he ordered a persecution of the Christians charged with having caused the fire are most likely a defamatory legend.
In that same year Nero, having discovered a plot against him, sentenced to death a large number of those who had advised and assisted him in his first years in power, including Seneca, who committed suicide by severing his veins (and placed his feet in a basin of hot water to speed his death).
In 66 he left Rome for a long journey in the eastern provinces; he spent a full year in Greece granting to this province fiscal exemptions and political rights. On his return to Rome he had to increase taxation on the western provinces; the legions in Spain and Gallia rebelled at the orders respectively of Julius Vindice and Servius Sulpicius Galba; overall the army remained loyal to the emperor and Vindice was defeated, but Nero was convinced by one of his closest advisor to quit his imperial residence; his advisor then announced that Nero had fled the city and the Senate profiting by the uncertainty among the emperor's supporters, declared Galba the new emperor and Nero hostis (enemy) of Rome, a sort of ancient fatwa, by which every loyal citizen was given the authority to kill Nero. But Nero did not wait to be caught and asked a trusted libertus to kill him: Qualis artifex pereo! (what an artist dies in me!) were his last words according to Svetonius.
During the reign of Nero, the rule of Rome in Britain was consolidated by quelling a rebellion led by Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, a tribe living in East Anglia.
The main military developments however occurred at the other end of the empire, where the Roman legions were at war with the Parthians for the control of Armenia, an independent kingdom which often changed sides. In 66 after many years of conflict a political compromise was reached; it established that Tiridates, brother of the Parthians' king, was to be appointed king of Armenia, but he should receive the crown from the Roman emperor. Tiridates and his large retinue of archers and servants moved from the mountains of Armenia across Asia Minor (today's Turkey), Thracia (today's Bulgaria) and Illyria (Serbia and Croatia) to reach the Adriatic Sea. They crossed the sea and landed at Ancona where Tiridates was met by Nero; the two started a triumphal procession which ended in Rome where Tiridates was crowned by Nero, who for the occasion sang and played his lyre: in the following days banquets, games and other ceremonies completed the event, the cost of which, including Tiridates' travel expenses, was borne by the Romans. The memory of this display of oriental costumes and luxury reverberated on the iconography of the Magi, the kings from the east of the Christian tradition, and it was revived by the retinue which accompanied a Byzantine emperor who attended the Council of Florence in 1439 and by that which accompanied in 1492 the Sultan's envoy who brought to Rome the lance of Longinus.
Nero had grand plans for rebuilding Rome and he even considered renaming the city Neropolis. While he is mainly remembered for his Domus Aurea and for the temple he dedicated to Claudius, Nero also redesigned the Forum by straightening Via Sacra and by opening Via Nova, a new street parallel to Via Sacra.
The XIXth century archaeologists who excavated the Forum preferred the Rome of Augustus to that of his successors; the result of this choice is that today's Via Sacra is at a slightly lower level than most of the surviving buildings which flank it and which were aligned with the street designed at the time of Nero. Via Nova gives an idea of how the streets of Rome were designed in compliance with the new regulations issued by Nero.
The following external links show works of art portraying characters and events mentioned in this page:
Tiberius and his first wife Agrippina Vipsania by Peter Paul Rubens (1614).
Agrippina Maior landing with the ashes of Germanicus by William Turner (1839) - or alternatively try this link.
Agrippina Maior landing with the ashes of Germanicus by Gavin Hamilton (1723-98).
Totò (an Italian comedian) as Tiberius.
Caligula's horse by Salvador Dalì (1983).
Statues, busts, cameos of Claudius, Nero and their wives.
Messalina by Gustave Moreau (1826-98) - it opens in a separate page.
Sir Peter Ustinov as Nero - it opens in a separate page.
The Death of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens (1615).
The Death of Seneca by Jacques Louis David (1773).
Constantin Cavafy wrote a poem about Nero:
Nero wasn't worried at all when he heard
the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
"Beware the age of seventy-three."
Plenty of time to enjoy himself still.
He's thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.
Now, a little tired, he'll return to Rome -
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums...
evenings in the cities of Achaias ...
They ought to be singing his praises
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked bodies..
So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army -
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.
Translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
The Flavian Dynasty
I - The foundation and the early days of Rome
II - The early republican period
III - The Romans meet the elephants
IV - Expansion in the eastern Mediterranean
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus