Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eighty-One

The Problem of Succession

Between AD 14 and 69, Roman emperors grow progressively madder, the city burns, and the persecution of Christians begins

WITH AUGUSTUS DEAD, Tiberius, at the age of fifty-four, now held the sole power of princeps.

Tiberius knew that the people of Rome were not automatically going to acclaim him as the next Augustus; most of them knew that Augustus had chosen him, as Suetonius puts it, “through necessity rather than preference.”1 The Senate might very easily turn against him altogether, particularly if he seemed too anxious. So when he went before the senators, a month after Augustus’s death, to be formally recognized as head of state, he tried to follow Augustus’s own strategy of laying powers down with apparent humility so that they could be willingly returned. He wasn’t very good at apparent humility, though. When the Senate tried to return the powers, he kept on half-refusing them with ambiguous answers, until they were thoroughly frustrated and one of them shouted out, “Either do it, or have done with it!”2 Finally, he did manage to get himself confirmed as Augustus’s successor—but he never did end up with the title of Imperator, or with the new title of Augustus either.

He had appointed his own successor even before Augustus’s death: his nephew Germanicus, who had been serving as general in command of the legions at the Rhine (the Romans knew this province as Germany, and the Celtic tribes who roved through it as Germans). Now he brought Germanicus back to Rome and had him elected consul, and then sent him to govern the province of Syria.

Not long after arriving in Syria, Germanicus died, leaving behind him his wife and young son Caligula. The people of Rome began to whisper that Tiberius had ordered his murder. Since Tiberius had been behind Germanicus’s rise to power—preferring him over his own son Drusus, who was neither as handsome nor as popular—this was an unlikely accusation. But it took root. Tiberius was morose, unattractive, and heavy in speech; the man who kept power as emperor in all but name clearly needed to be personally magnetic, in order to paper over the crack between the appearance of republic and the reality of empire. Tiberius had none of the celebrated Caesarian charm.

Drusus, who lacked it as well, now became both consul and heir apparent. But in AD 23 he too died, apparently of stomach troubles. At this, Tiberius seemed to lose heart. He left Rome a little less than three years later and went first to Campania, and then to Capri. Here he remained, managing Roman affairs from a distance and never even visiting the city.

This kind of distant hand on affairs was not what the Senate had bargained for. The senators had given up their own authority so that a single authoritative presence could prevent civil war and revolt. But Tiberius was down in Capri, bathing in the surf with a gaggle of naked small boys whom he called his “minnows.” He was inclined more and more to spend his days in pleasure, and since he was now emperor (in all but name) he had the wealth to make this pleasure quite extraordinary. He built little caves and grottoes all over his private island and hired boys and girls to dress up like nymphs and Pan; these he called his “haunts of Venus,” and carried on in them exactly as the name suggests. He bought a famous work of pornography and kept it in his library “so that an illustration of the required position would always be available if anyone needed guidance in completing their performance.”3 The locals called him “that old goat.” He was the third Roman princeps, and the first to indulge himself in the indiscriminate fulfillment of all his desires. It had not taken long for that particular power to corrupt its officeholders.

Meanwhile the Senate was doing the work of keeping the city running. And civil war seemed to be looming. Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the commander of the new Praetorian Guard (that standing “private army” of the princeps) was angling to seize power as soon as Tiberius died.

But in 31 Tiberius found out, in a way unrecorded by Tacitus, that Sejanus was not only the lover of his dead son Drusus’s wife, but that the two of them had conspired to poison Drusus. He ordered Sejanus arrested and tried. Sejanus was convicted, and a purge ensued that swept up hundreds of citizens of Rome, including his own young children and even the son of the dead Germanicus, who starved to death in prison. From that time on, Tiberius’s self-indulgence began to turn into cruelty: “He spared no one torture or execution,” writes Suetonius.


81.1 Rome Under Tiberius

WHILE TIBERIUS was troubling the Romans at home, a wandering prophet named Jesus, down in Galilee, annoyed a large and powerful group of priests in Jerusalem by challenging their right to control the religious life of the Jews.229 Since the abolishment of the office of High Priest and Ethnarch, the priests no longer had any political power, and they were particularly sensitive to guarding the religious power that remained to them.

But in order to silence Jesus, they needed help from the Romans. They had to maneuver him into looking guilty of some political offense in front of Herod Antipas, the vassal king who reported to Rome. The accusation they came up with was that Jesus had called himself “King of the Jews,” something which was bound to irritate Herod.

But Herod, who had probably heard of the purges going on in Rome, was not about to do anything that smacked of independence; not when Tiberius was busy wiping out resistance. He sent Jesus directly to the Roman procurator who had replaced his brother Archelaus, with the message that the Romans, not he, had better do something about this problem.

This procurator, Pontius Pilate, was actually no surer of his own safety than Herod was. He too did not want to be suspected of doing anything that might undermine the power of that distant, angry, unpredictable princeps. A revolution in Palestine on his watch was not going to do him any good. So he agreed to execute Jesus, who had not contradicted him when Pilate had asked whether he was, in fact, claiming to be the king of the Jews. The method chosen, crucifixion, was the standard Roman punishment for revolutionaries; Spartacus’s followers had also suffered it.

Pilate went on following a better-safe-than-sorry policy. Not too much later, in 36 AD, he reacted to a similar mild threat from a bunch of rebelling Samaritans by executing them all. This produced a backlash of anti-Roman sentiment in Palestine. The Roman governor of Syria, Pilate’s superior, yanked him off the job and sent him back to Rome in disgrace.

IN 37, TIBERIUS DIED OF ILLNESS; it had taken him a long time to breathe his last, and someone finally smothered him. When Rome learned that he was safely dead, the people ran through the streets shouting, “Into the Tiber with Tiberius!”4

Neither Tiberius nor Augustus had ever claimed a royal title, but the transfer of powers was becoming a little more regal. Tiberius had chosen as his heir one of the dead Germanicus’s sons, young Caligula.230 But he had not bothered to go through the parade of making Caligula joint proconsul; Caligula had been given the job of quaestor (financial official) four years before, but never got any other title. The Senate awarded him the title of princeps, the authority of the Pontifex Maximus, and the military power of imperium without recognizing him first as the surviving member of a joint proconsulate, and without the formality of his surrendering his powers.

Caligula started off by relieving the grim suspicions that so many Romans were still living under, in the wake of Tiberius’s purge. He pardoned all prisoners, invited exiles to return to the city, and made a few tax reforms that helped out poorer Romans.

But the good beginning was deceptive. Ancient accounts are divided about Caligula’s behavior; some say that he was vicious from the beginning, but concealed it long enough to strengthen his power (Suetonius even says that his hand smothered Tiberius), while others claim that he suffered through a serious illness early in his reign and then emerged with a new personality. All of the accounts list shocking crimes: he murdered his cousin, his grandmother, and his father-in-law; he slept with all three of his sisters, as well as male and female prostitutes and other men’s wives; he had a senator torn apart and his pieces dragged through the street; he forced his bodyguards to play war with him, and killed them when they hesitated to strike him; he raised taxes and then spent money wildly. Rumor said that he intended to make his horse a consul, and certainly he had no respect for the office. In 39, he fired both of the consuls and dissolved the Senate by force.

In less than a century, Rome had travelled a very long way from the city where the senators had killed a man because he might possibly want to be emperor. Now Rome was tolerating an unheard-of autocracy. The problem with Caligula’s disintegration is that it didn’t inconvenience everyone equally; he lavished money and privileges on those who managed to stay on his good side. So there were always tongues ready to carry reports of treason to the princeps, and Caligula’s punishments were so inventively painful that few wanted to risk them.

This would not save him forever, although for a time he kept Rome’s eyes fixed on him, waiting for the next outrage. But the business of empire had not stopped while the empire’s central figure fell apart.

On Rome’s eastern border, the Parthian king Artabanus III, son of the patriot who had taken the throne away from the Romanized Vonones I, ruled over Parthia with a restored nationalism. He appears on his coins (many of them found in Ecbatana) with the ancient square-cut Persian beard, and his traditionalism was matched by his attempts to reassert strong control over the Parthian cities; he put his kinsmen, now princes of a royal family, on minor thrones to rule over regions of his kingdom and report to him, in a system copied from the old Persian satrapies.

Pliny says that there were eighteen of these mini-kingdoms in Parthia, and Artabanus III had his eye on making Armenia the nineteenth. Armenia, which had once belonged to the Seleucid empire, lay as a buffer state between Parthia and Rome. It was not exactly a free country. Since the reign of Augustus, Armenia had been what was euphemistically called “Roman protected,” meaning that Roman troops were propping up rule by a Roman-sympathizing king. Artabanaus planned to put his son Arsaces on the Armenian throne and make the state “Parthian protected” instead.

He attacked Armenia sometime in the thirties, with the help of hired Scythian troops from the north. Fighting in the capital city ended with Arsaces dead; Artabanus, unwilling to give up, seems to have made another assault with plans to crown another son.

The Roman commander, who did not necessarily want to carry on an out-and-out war so close to Rome’s far eastern border, offered peace talks. In AD 37, Artabanus agreed to meet a Roman diplomat right on the Roman-Parthian border—the middle of the Euphrates. Both men, unwilling to set foot in the other’s territory, walked forwards onto a bridge spanning the water, and carried on their negotiations right at the center. At the end, both Parthian and Roman troops had been committed to a partial withdrawal; Armenia would remain as a buffer state, with a certain shaky independence of its own.

Artabanus III wanted a pitched war with Rome as little as his Roman counterpart. Parthia was facing another enemy on its eastern border: the kingdom of Kushan.

The people of Kushan had originally been Yuezhi nomads. After the Yuezhi had invaded and broken down Greek Bactria, one Yuezhi tribe to the south had stretched its influence out over the clans around it, and had coalesced slowly into a country. The Kushan were an Asian people, but they used Greek script on their coins, learned on their journey south through Greek Bactria. The coins have Zeus on one side, and on the other a cross-legged seated figure who may be the Buddha; Kushan, which soon spread down as far as Gandhara, was woven through with influences from both west and south.

Around AD 30, the Kushan kingdom came under the rule of an ambitious man named Kujula Kadphises. Not a great deal is known about him, except that he held onto his throne for almost fifty years, and that during this time Kushan grew west far enough to start pushing on the eastern border of Artabanus III’s Parthia. The ancient Chinese chronicle Hou hanshi says that he “invaded Anxi” (Parthia); the “invasion” seems to have been more of a taking away of territories on the east which had not been a full part of the Parthian system. “Gaofu,” where Kabul now stands, is one of them. The Kushan, the Hou hanshi adds, became “very rich.”


81.2 Kushan

The growth of Kushan under Kujula Kadphises was abruptly checked when another warrior emerged from the shadows, conquered the area of the Punjab (which had been under Kushan’s control), and spread his own new kingdom up as far as the modern valley of Kabul. His name was Gondophernes.

We know of him mostly through a story written a century or so later: the Acts of Thomas, a text written by scholars who belonged to a theological offshoot of orthodox Christianity called Gnosticism. The story was first told in Syria, and relates the journeys of Thomas Didymus, the disciple of Jesus who is remembered in the New Testament gospels for refusing to believe in the Resurrection until he could see Jesus in the flesh. (This earned him the nickname Doubting Thomas.)

The story of Thomas’s journey to meet Gondophernes begins, in the Acts of Thomas, at Jerusalem. Jesus, after being crucified, has risen from the dead and appeared to the disciples, giving them the task of spreading the news about him throughout the world. Thomas draws the job of going to India. He isn’t enthusiastic about this, until he has a vision: “The Saviour appeared unto him by night and saith to him: Fear not, Thomas, go thou unto India and preach the word there, for my grace is with thee.” Not long afterwards, Thomas encounters by chance a merchant “come from India whose name was Abbanes, sent from the King Gondophernes.”5

The merchant agrees to be his guide into India. Eventually Gondophernes himself hears rumors of Thomas’s arrival, since various miracles have surrounded him. He summons Thomas into his presence and asks him, as a holy man, to bless his daughter and her brand-new husband; the two have just celebrated their marriage. Thomas agrees to pray for the royal bride and groom, after which Jesus appears to the two in their bedchamber and tells them that if they abjure delights of the flesh (“abstain from this foul intercourse”) and have no children, they will find enlightenment (a staple of gnostic theology). Both are convinced and become converts to Thomas’s brand of gnostic Christianity. When Gondophernes learns, however, that the two have decided to live in chaste harmony (which meant “no heirs”),

he rent his clothes and said unto them that stood by him: Go forth quickly and go about the whole city, and take and bring me that man that is a sorcerer who by ill fortune came unto this city; for with mine own hands I brought him into this house.6

Thomas manages to get away, and after various adventures makes his peace with the king, who is eventually converted and baptised himself.

For centuries, this story was dismissed as entirely mythical. But the discovery of Gondophernes’s coins reveal that he did indeed exist, and that he ruled in the north of India. And the story suggests that his kingdom had a great deal of interaction with lands much farther to the west.

Whether Gondophernes actually became a Christian is unknown; but Christianity itself was beginning to take shape, in the first century, as a new means of identity. The Jewish theologian Paul, a Roman citizen, was writing about the death and resurrection of Jesus as a process that is repeated in the lives of Christian believers. Conversion, he says in a letter written to the Christians at Rome, brings death to an old corrupt self, and the power of Christ then raises it back up, restored and new. “Count yourselves dead to sin,” Paul exhorts his readers, “but alive to God. Offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.”7 The spreading cult of Christianity gave its adherents a brand-new identity in place of the old.

But the old identity, though it may be transformed, does not completely disappear. In another letter, to Christians in Galatia, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Jesus Christ.” Yet elsewhere his letters make quite clear that Christians remained Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, not to mention male and female. A Christian had his (or her) core identity as a follower of Jesus Christ, but orthodox Christians did not relinquish their old nationalities, or their gender, or their place in the social hierarchy.

Christianity had, after all, originated in a conquered land—Judea—which had been allowed to keep its identity while donning another one at the same time. The Jews of Judea were Jews, not Romans; but they were also subjects of Rome, and some of them were even Roman citizens.

All Roman provincials faced this problem of balancing two different identities at the same time, but for Jews the problem was particularly acute. There was nothing inherently contradictory about being Roman and Christian, or Roman and Galatian, or even Roman and Egyptian. But Caligula was about to make it impossible to be both Roman and Jewish.

By AD 40, Caligula had decided that he was divine. He ordered statues of himself set up for worship: “He wished to be considered a god,” writes the historian Josephus, “and to be hailed as such.”8 Caligula’s decree stretched across the entire Roman domain. But in Jerusalem, the Jews, who were forbidden by their own laws to worship images, pled with the local Roman commander not to force them to do honor to Caligula’s statue.

The commander, a reasonable man named Petronius, agreed to send a letter to Rome asking whether worship of the statues was really necessary. But the word that came back from the capital city was unexpected: Caligula was dead. The Praetorian Guard had finally murdered him. He had been princeps for three years and ten months.

Twenty-seven days after the news of Caligula’s death arrived, another letter arrived: from the dead Caligula, threatening to put Petronius to death if the statues were not set up. The ship that carried the letter had been passed at sea by the faster ship bearing news of the madman’s end.

THE SENATE now considered doing away with the office of princeps altogether, and dividing the powers which had been temporarily united in the person of the princeps back into their old republican offices. But two forces prevented them. Caligula’s uncle Claudius, the brother of the dead Germanicus, had set his sights on the power of the princeps. The Praetorian Guard was willing to be bribed into supporting him; these elite soldiers had more say in Roman affairs now than soldiers had ever been granted before, and the restoration of the Republic would probably end in the guard’s dissolution. Under a republic, they would lose their jobs, their livelihood, and (most seductive) their power.

Within a matter of days, Claudius had his power as princeps, Pontifex Maximus, and imperator firmly in his hands; he had paid off the guards, ordered the murderers of Caligula killed (everyone was grateful to them, but leaving them alive established a bad precedent), and planned out his next acts.

He had decided, apparently, on a combination of fear and mercy to establish his position; he gave back land Caligula had confiscated, and pardoned all those whom Caligula had suspected of treason. His mercy also extended a form of amnesty to those Caligula had convicted, by burning the records of their trials.

The mercy only extended to the point that he feared for his own life, however. Between 41 and 42, he executed senators and Roman aristocrats indiscriminately if he thought he might be in danger. In this he was encouraged by his wife Messalina, whose affairs were matched only by her willingness to denounce her enemies to her husband for execution.

CLAUDIUS’S GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT was in Britain, where a king named Caratacus had risen to challenge the power of the Romans. For some time, legions in Britain had been busy helping the little tribes in the southeast fight off takeover by Caratacus. This didn’t commit Roman prestige to a full conquest of the island, but it did manage to keep Caratacus’s kingdom from gaining so much power that it might be impossible, down the road, to begin such a conquest.

By 43, Caratacus had gained enough territory in the south to threaten Roman control of the Channel. So Claudius sent four legions, including many soldiers from Gaul itself, across to push the Britons back from the coast.

When they landed at Kent, Caratacus’s men—who had never before seen such large Roman troops—were taken by surprise. The legions succeeded in fighting their way forwards and establishing a Roman frontier across the British southeast. When the Thames had been secured, Claudius himself arrived. For sixteen days, he took personal charge of the thrust forwards, an unusual act for a man who did very little personal fighting during his reign. Meanwhile the Second Legion advanced to the west under Claudius’s trusted commander Vespasian. The establishment of Roman power in Britain231 was the great political accomplishment of Claudius’s reign.

But before long, Claudius’s focus shifted to domestic troubles. His wife Messalina married her lover, a recklessly defiant act which may have been the first step in an attempt to overthrow Claudius himself. If so, it failed; Claudius had them both executed. After her death, Claudius married Caligula’s younger sister, his own niece Agrippina (this required special permission from the Senate). She had a son by a previous marriage, a little boy named Lucius Domitius. Claudius adopted him, giving him the family name of Nero.

In 51, he declared Nero his heir. As soon as he did, Agrippina began to take steps to assure her own survival. She fully expected him to grow tired of her (Tacitus says she was “particularly frightened” when she heard Claudius, in a drunken stupor, remark that “it was his destiny first to endure his wives’ misdeeds, and then to punish them”),9 and she wanted to see him gone and her son on the throne before he turned against both of them.

Tacitus says that she chose her poison carefully: something that would appear to be a wasting disease rather than “a sudden, drastic effect” which might betray her crime. In AD 54, she put the poison on Claudius’s dinner mushrooms. When Claudius was almost saved by an attack of diarrhea that emptied much of the poison out of his system, Agrippina ordered the doctor to make him vomit in order to save him. The doctor was in on the plot, and put more poison on the feather that he stuck down Claudius’s throat.

AT SIXTEEN, NERO became princeps. He was by far the youngest man to ever assume it; he could not even claim to be qualified by previous government service. The position had begun to look more and more like a monarchy.

Nero began his reign, like Claudius, by paying off the Praetorian Guard to remain on their good side. He also promised the Senate, in a speech written by his tutor Seneca, that they would be given back some of their powers, as Augustus would have wanted. This was an extraordinary move which suggested that he (or Seneca) was fully aware of just how far away from the original Republic he had now strayed. It was a risky move, and Nero’s decision to follow through on Seneca’s guidance showed both courage and daring.

But he also resorted to Claudian tactics to protect himself. Claudius’s natural son Britannicus (with the disgraced Messalina) died of an “epileptic fit” only four months later. Nero also ordered his mother’s guards dismissed, and had her exiled from the royal residence; she had already removed one princeps to secure her own position, and he wanted to remain safe.

After this, the first five years of Nero’s reign were markedly virtuous; later Romans gave them the name Quinquennium Neronis. Possibly his tutor Seneca was able to dominate him in his youth, or else he succumbed to the family curse of progressive dementia. In any case, from the age of twenty on his private behavior began to sink first towards overindulgence, and then towards insanity. In 58, he fell in love with Poppea, the wife of his friend Otho. Nero sent Otho off to a distant province and invited Poppea to stay in the palace; he was actually married already, but ignored his wife’s protests.

In 59, he decided to get rid of his mother for good. He built a collapsible boat which was supposed to fold in upon her and drown her, and then sent her off on a river cruise; he was not yet mad enough to be unconcerned about appearances. But she swam to shore, much to his dismay; according to one account, he ordered a servant to stab her as soon as she got to land. He then divorced his wife and then had her murdered and her head brought back to Poppea as a trophy. He also declared a divorce between Poppea and her husband Otho, and married her himself.

Meanwhile, the Roman soldiers in Britain were taking their cue from their leader and behaving with complete lack of restraint. They had begun to build themselves a new city in Britain, over the ruins of Caratacus’s old capital Camulodunum, a city which would be populated entirely by army veterans.10 As free labor, they enslaved the nearby tribe of the Trinovantes, taking their land away and forcing the people to build for them.

In 60, the king of another smallish tribe, the Iceni, died; he left behind him a widow, Boudiccea, and two daughters. As he had no son, the Roman governor in Britain decided simply to absorb the Iceni territory into the Roman province. And then Roman soldiers stormed in, raped both girls, and beat up Boudiccea.

Boudiccea, insulted, dishonored, and seeing her country disappearing before her eyes, led a revolt. The oppressed Trinovantes joined her. They planned an assault on the partly built city at Camulodunum, an attack which the Romans later said had been presaged by omens: the statue of Victory fell down, unbodied yells and shrieks were heard in the unfinished buildings, the sea turned blood red, and “shapes like human corpses” were left by the ebbing tide.

It didn’t take omens to see disaster coming, however. The new city had only a tiny garrison to guard it, and the swelling horde of Britons overran it without difficulty. The Ninth Division, which was headquartered there, was massacred, almost to a man; the governor fled to Gaul.

The Roman commander Paulinus saved the day by leading a violent retribution, and a properly organized wedge-force attack by armed soldiers soon broke the British resistance.11 Boudiccea fled and then took poison.

The next governor walked more gingerly around the Britons, and shook the Roman troops in Britain into more temperate behavior. But there was no one to shake Nero into temperance. He had affairs, drank tremendously, raised taxes in the provinces to pay for his indulgences, and started once again to hold the infamous treason trials as Caligula had done.


81.1. Nero. Marble head of Nero, Emperor of Rome 54–68. Staatliche Antikensammlung, Munich. Photo credit Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/ Art Resource, NY

In AD 64, a fire began in Rome, and spread quickly through the poorer parts of the city. A wind picked it up and strengthened it. The city was crammed with dry wood houses, shoulder to shoulder, and the fire burned its way to a height never seen before. “The disaster which the city then underwent, had no parallel save in the Gallic invasion,” wrote Dio Cassius. “The whole Palatine hill, the theater of Taurus, and nearly two thirds of the rest of the city were burned. Countless persons perished.”12

Nero was out of the city at the time, but his cruelty had convinced Rome that he was capable of anything. At once, rumor flew: Nero had started the fire in order to clear land for his new palace…or, worse, for the sheer entertainment.

In fact, Nero’s conscience was not yet entirely seared. He came back to the city and started relief operations, but he didn’t help matters on the first night of his return, when he was so moved by the epic sight of flames sweeping across Rome that he climbed up onto a roof and sang his way through a whole lay of “The Taking of Troy.” After that, his reputation was a lost cause. As Tacitus remarks, “All human efforts, all the lavish gifts of [Nero]…. did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.”13

The fire, the insanity, and the treason trials together impelled a group of senators to plan an assassination in April of 65. The Senate had not been this desperate since Caesar’s death, over a hundred years before. But the plan was discovered, the conspirators put to death, and Nero spiralled further into paranoia. His old tutor Seneca himself, learning that he was suspected of treason, killed himself with his wife, in their home, to avoid torture and execution.

Around this time the persecution of Christians began: Nero, while putting to death all suspected conspirators against him, needed to deflect attention from his own misdeeds. Christians provided him with a convenient scapegoat for the fire as well. But he also seems to have been motivated by genuine hatred. Sulpicius Severus’s Chronicle says:

Nero could not, by any means he tried, escape from the charge that the fire had been caused by his orders. He therefore turned the accusation against the Christians, and the most cruel tortures were accordingly inflicted upon the innocent. Nay, even new kinds of deaths were invented, so that, being covered in the skins of wild beasts, they perished by being devoured by dogs, while many were crucified or slain by fire, and not a few were set apart for this purpose, that when the day came to a close, they should be consumed to serve for light during the night…. At that time Paul and [the disciple] Peter were condemned to death, the former being beheaded with a sword, while Peter suffered crucifixion.14

Paul, the Roman Jew become Christian, who had put down in writing the clearest expression yet of the possibility that one identity could coexist in peoples of different nations and bind them together, was now seen as a potential danger to the empire.

IN 66, NERO made a decision which put him on the path to disaster: he gave up Armenia. Parthia’s current king, Vologases I, had refused to honor the agreement made in the middle of the Euphrates back in Caligula’s day, and had sent Parthian troops into Armenia to capture it. Roman troops had begun to fight back in 53 BC, the year before Claudius’s death, and the struggle had turned into an indecisive and draining war which had lasted nearly fourteen years. But there was trouble elsewhere in the Roman domains too; the provinces were restless and unhappy under too much tax, the army spread thin.

Nero decided that it would be best to make peace with Parthia. So he agreed to recognize Vologases’s brother, Tiridates, as king of Armenia. Three thousand Parthians travelled with Tiridates to Rome, to watch the ceremony of Nero handing over the Armenian crown. Perhaps Nero meant this to be a brilliant spectacle of Roman greatness—he ordered the doors to the Temple of Janus closed, indicating that the entire empire was now at peace—but to the Romans looking on, the sight of thousands of Parthians thronging their streets in victory must have looked very like defeat.

In addition Nero’s behavior had gotten, unbelievably, worse. He had kicked his pregnant wife to death in a rage, and then he had ordered a young boy named Sporus, who bore a resemblance to his dead wife, castrated so that he could marry Sporus in a public ceremony.

Two years after the capitulation in Armenia, the captain of the Praetorian Guard declared that the guard would support the governor of Hispania, an experienced soldier (and ex-consul) named Galba, if he wanted to claim the imperium: the supreme command of all Roman armed forces. Galba had the full support of his own troops in Hispania, plus the support of the governor of the neighboring province: this happened to be Otho, whose wife Nero had stolen and then murdered. He was glad to put his own army at Galba’s disposal.

Nero, realizing that to lose the support of the Praetorian Guard was to lose his throne, ran to the port of Ostia and ordered a ship. The Guard was close behind him, and none of the captains at the port would allow him on board. He hurried out of the city, but the Guard cornered him in a house on the outskirts. The traditional gesture in such a situation was to kill oneself. Nero was helped; one of his aides held his hand and shoved the dagger in. “Such was the public rejoicing,” Suetonius writes, “that the people put on liberty-caps and ran about all over the city.”15

GALBA WAS ALREADY past the age of seventy, hampered by arthritis, and had no connection whatsoever to any previous princeps of Rome. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the real power of the princeps lay not in his authority as proconsul, or Pontifex Maximus, or chief tribune, or in any of the civil offices which had been folded into the title of First Citizen. The real power of the princeps lay in the imperium, the supreme command of the army. And to keep the imperium, the ruler of Rome needed the support of the Praetorian Guard. The Republic had become an empire, and the empire was now run by something like a secret junta: a band of powerful soldiers who could put up or remove a figurehead ruler, but who held the real power themselves.

Galba turned out to be a bad figurehead. He marched to Rome at the head of his troops, with Otho at his side. But once there he declined to pay off the soldiers who had supported him, as the imperators before him had done.16 Soon omens began to appear, suggesting that he would not reign long; the most serious was when the sacred chickens deserted him during a sacrifice.17

The omens were probably arranged by disgruntled members of the Praetorian Guard, who had decided to switch their allegiance from Galba to Otho. Seven months after claiming the power of imperator, Galba was sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo when the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Otho to be imperator in his place. Galba heard the news and charged into the Forum to confront the rebels. They killed him there, threw his body in the road, and stuck his head on a pole.

The Senate, unhappily, agreed to confirm Otho as imperator and princeps. Meanwhile, the army stationed at the Rhine river announced that they wanted Vitellius, the commander of the forces in Germany, to be imperator instead. Now there were two imperators in the Roman Empire, one confirmed by the Senate as princeps and supported by the Praetorian Guard, the other unconfirmed but with a vast army at his back.

Vitellius marched down towards Italy, where his men built a bridge across the Po and met Otho’s smaller force at the Battle of Cremona. Otho’s army was scattered; with rare resignation, Otho decided that it would do neither him nor Rome any good to embark on a full-scale civil war. He put his affairs in order, burned his papers, gave away his belongings, had a good night’s sleep, and killed himself in the morning. It was the act of a man with a clear conscience and unusual courage, which was the kind of imperator Rome needed.

What Rome got instead was Vitellius, shrewd and unprincipled. He marched to Rome, where he showed his grasp of the power structure by dissolving the Praetorian Guard and recreating it from his own loyal troops.

The other Roman legions didn’t like this preferential treatment of the soldiers from the German province. Before long the troops stationed in the eastern part of the empire declared that they would support yet another candidate: Vespasian, the Roman general who had already distinguished himself in the wars against Britain, and who had been rewarded with the governorship of Syria.

Vespasian was nowhere near Rome; he was in his own province, putting down trouble in Palestine. Ever since Caligula’s threat to put his own statue in the temple, Jewish resistance to Roman rule had been growing; that demand had been avoided, but the Jews sensed that it would only be a matter of time before they were asked to do something truly appalling. In 66, a group of freedom fighters called Zealots had proclaimed war on the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem. The local governor had marched troops in but had been defeated, and the situation had grown serious enough for Vespasian himself, an experienced general, to intervene and wipe up the mess. With the help of his son and commander, Titus, Vespasian had managed to drive the rebels back inside Jerusalem, which was now under siege.232


Back in Rome, Vitellius was eating enormously, drinking, and indulging himself, while his soldiers prepared to defend his rule. Roman troops that supported Vespasian were marching towards them. The two armies met at Cremona, where the Vespasian-loyal soldiers eventually won a victory; but the victory began a four-day rampage of burning and destruction that stretched down to Rome itself. Vespasian’s supporters in the city tried to seize the Capitol from Vitellius, and in the battle that followed both the Capitol and the great Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus burned to the ground. In December of 69, soldiers broke into Vitellius’s own quarters, killed him, and disposed of his body in the traditional way: by throwing it into the Tiber.

Vespasian was willing to take his place, but he did not want to come all the way west to Rome before the siege of Jerusalem was settled. So the Senate, which was desperate to satisfy his unruly supporters before they burned anything else down, declared Vespasian to be princeps, as Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius had been before him. He was given the title without ever stepping foot in Rome.

The decree did not even list the names of Caligula, Nero, Galba, Otho, or Vitellius: they had been erased from the record, damnatio memoria. In the past year, four rulers had claimed the power of princeps, and it was clear that the fiction of power awarded by the Senate, on behalf of the people, was total fraud. The power in Rome was held by the strongest man with the most armed support. But by not listing the names of the men who had broken this illusion, the Senate denied their existence. The playacting that had characterized the rule of Augustus was still at the very center of Roman politics.

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