Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > From The Accession Of Tiberius, A.D. 14-37, To Domitian, A.D. 96

From The Accession Of Tiberius, A.D. 14-37, To Domitian, A.D. 96

A feeling resembling loyalty had grown up at Rome toward the family of Augustus, and no one ventured to dispute the claim of Tiberius to the throne. Livia, however, who had attended the death-bed of the emperor, concealed his death until her son arrived, and then proclaimed, at the same moment, the death of Augustus and the accession of his successor. The first event of the new reign was the assassination of Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Augustus, and, according to the modern rule of descent, the proper heir to the throne. The guilt of this act was shared between Tiberius and his mother, who were also accused of having hastened the death of Augustus.

Tiberius summoned the Senate to assemble, announced the death of the emperor, and pretended a wish to be relieved from the cares of empire; the Senate, however, refused to accept his feigned resignation, and he yielded to their wishes. This body now became the chief source of legislation. Tiberius took away from the people the power of making laws and of electing magistrates. The senatus consulta, or decrees of the Senate, were made the source of law, without any authority from the Comitia. The Senate selected the Consuls from four candidates presented to them by the emperor, and thus the last trace of the popular power passed away.

Meanwhile two mutinies occurred among the soldiers, which seemed at first to threaten a change in the government. The legions of Pannonia, complaining of long service and indifferent pay, rose against their commander Blæsus, but were induced to return to their duty by Drusus, the son of Tiberius. A more important insurrection broke out among the legions of the Rhine, who sought to prevail upon Germanicus, the son of Drusus, to accept the imperial crown. Germanicus, however, who was adorned with many noble qualities, refused to yield either to their entreaties or their threats. Agrippina, his wife, with the infant Caius, joined Germanicus in imploring the soldiers not to forget their duty; and they at length relented, and even gave up their leaders.

Germanicus had now deserved the hatred of the jealous and treacherous Tiberius. He was beloved by the people and the army, was frank, generous, and brave; he had married Agrippina, the daughter of Julia and Agrippa, and was the adopted son of the emperor himself. His mind had been highly cultivated, and he excelled in all elegant exercises. He seems, in fact, to have been one of the noblest of the Romans.

In A.D. 14 he led an army across the Rhine, but the next year planned a more important expedition, in which he defeated the Germans under Arminius, and buried the remains of the army of the unfortunate Varus under an earthen mound. His third campaign was still more successful. In A.D. 16 he gained an important battle in the valley of the Weser, and recovered the last of the eagles lost by Varus.

Tiberius, jealous of his fame, now recalled him, and resolved that the limits of the empire should not be enlarged. In A.D. 17 Germanicus triumphed, surrounded in his chariot by his five sons. The same year he was sent to the East to settle the affairs of the Eastern provinces. Meanwhile a war broke out in Germany between Arminius and Marboduus. Drusus was sent thither to contrive the destruction of both leaders, which he seems to have effected, since Marboduus was driven to seek protection from the Romans, while the brave Arminius was soon after slain by the hands of his fellow-Germans.

Germanicus, in A.D. 18, visited Athens, sailed up the Nile the same year, and then, having returned to Syria, died of poison administered to him by Cn. Piso, a friend of the Empress Livia. His death excited great grief at Rome, where he was buried with solemnity in A.D. 20. Piso, meanwhile, being tried before the Senate, and finding himself about to be condemned, sought a voluntary death.

Tiberius was cold and unpopular in his manners, awkward and even timid in his carriage, but a master of dissimulation. The only person of whom he stood in awe was his mother Livia; but he lived in constant fear of insurrection. The Lex Majestas, which he enlarged and enforced with unusual severity, was now the source of great evil to his country. This law defined treason against the emperor. Tiberius made it include words as well as acts, and thus he who spoke lightly of the emperor's person or authority might be punished with death.

From this law grew up the Delatores, or informers, persons who made it their chief occupation to denounce those who were obnoxious to the emperor. The informers soon grew numerous: some of them were persons of high rank, who sought to display their eloquence, and to win the favor of the emperor, by denouncing his opponents in envenomed rhetoric, while others were common spies. No man's life was safe at Rome from this moment, and the purest and wisest citizens were exposed to the attacks of an infinite number of delators. Tiberius encouraged the informers. Ælius Saturninus was flung from the Tarpeian Rock for a libel upon the emperor. Silanus was banished for "disparaging the majesty of Tiberius"

Tiberius, who professed to imitate the policy of Augustus in every particular, seems to have governed with firmness and ability. He improved the condition of the provinces, restrained the avarice of the provincial governors, maintained good order in the capital, and strove to check the growth of luxury; but the morals of the capital were now hopelessly depraved, and the vice and corruption of the whole world flowed into the streets of Rome.

Ælius Sejanus, the Præfect of the Prætorians, had long been the friend and chief adviser of the emperor. He was cruel, unscrupulous, and ambitious - the proper instrument of a tyrant. In A.D. 21 an insurrection broke out in Gaul, which was scarcely subdued when the Germans rose against the Romans. The Gauls, too, led by Sacrovir, a Druid, who exercised a superstitious influence over his countrymen, once more rebelled. Drusus, who had been made Consul with his father, was sent against them, and reduced them to subjection. The Druid Sacrovir burned himself in a house to which he had fled. In A.D. 22 Drusus received the tribunitian power. He was the only son of Tiberius, and was married to Livia, or Livilla, as she was sometimes called.

Sejanus had now conceived a design which led him to resolve upon the destruction of all the imperial family, since he himself began to aspire to the throne; and the elevation of Drusus filled him with disgust. In A.D. 23 he prevailed upon Tiberius to remove all the Prætorian Guards, about nine or ten thousand in number, to a camp near the city. He appointed their officers, won the soldiers with bribes and flatteries, and thus believed he had gained a sure support.

Drusus stood in his path, and he resolved to destroy him. He won the affections of Livilla, and prevailed upon her to poison her husband. The unhappy prince died in 23. Tiberius received the news of his son's death with a composure almost incredible. He told the Senate, who put on mourning robes, that he had given himself to his country. A splendid funeral procession was prepared for Drusus, in which the statues of Attus Clausus, the Sabine chief, the founder of the Claudian Gens, and of Æneas, and the Alban kings, were carried side by side, thus recalling the memories of the early regal dynasty, as well as of the severe founders of the Republic.

Agrippina, the widow of Germanicus, together with her numerous family, next aroused the hostility of Sejanus, and he resolved upon their destruction. In A.D. 25 he proposed for the hand of Livilla, but Tiberius refused to sanction the connection. In A.D. 26 eleven cities contended for the privilege of making Tiberius their tutelar deity, but he declined this honor. Soon after, the emperor, as if anxious to escape from the sarcasms and the scandal of Rome, retired from the city, accompanied by a single Senator, Cocceius Nerva, and at length, in A.D. 27, hid himself in the island of Capreæ, on the coast of Campania. Here he built twelve villas in different parts of the island, and lived with a few companions, shut out from mankind. No one was allowed to land upon the shores of Capreæ, and even fishermen who broke this rule through ignorance were severely punished. Every day, however, dispatches were brought from the continent, and he still continued to direct the affairs of his vast empire.

Sejanus was left to govern Rome, but frequently visited the Emperor at his island. In A.D. 29, Livia, the widow of Augustus, died, at the age of eighty-six years, having retained her powerful intellect and her love of political intrigue to the close of her life. It is said that her private charities were great, and that she remained faithful to the memory of her imperial husband. The family of Germanicus, meanwhile, were crushed by the arts of Sejanus. In A.D. 29 Tiberius directed the Senate to banish Agrippina and her son Nero, and they were confined separately upon two barren islands. Drusus, the second son, was soon after imprisoned; while Caius, the youngest, by his flatteries and caresses, preserved the favor of Tiberius, and was admitted into Capreæ. The emperor now began to doubt the fidelity of his chosen friend Sejanus, although their statues had been placed together in the Temple of Friendship on the island; and he sent a letter to the Senate in which he denounced him as a traitor. Such was the end of a guilty friendship. Sejanus was flung into the Mamertine Prison, and there strangled. The people threw his body into the Tiber, A.D. 31. Great numbers of his friends or relatives perished with him, and a general massacre filled Rome with terror. He was succeeded in his power by Sertorius Macro, who had aided in his destruction.

Tiberius, meanwhile, seems to have become a raging madman. He put to death his niece Agrippina, with her two children, and ruled over the Senate with pitiless cruelty. His companion, Cocceius Nerva, filled with melancholy at the misfortunes of his country, resolved upon suicide; nor could all the entreaties or commands of Tiberius prevail upon him to live. In A.D. 35 Tiberius made his will, dividing his estate between Caius, the youngest son of Germanicus, and Tiberius Gemellus, the son of the second Drusus. Macro, probably fearing the fate of Sejanus, had formed a close intimacy with Caius, and they now planned the death of the emperor, whose feeble health, however, since he was near seventy-seven years of age, promised Rome a speedy deliverance. Tiberius died March 16, A.D. 37, Macro, it is said, having smothered him with a pillow.

If we may trust the account of the Jew Philo, he left the empire in a prosperous condition. His cruelty, in fact, seems to have been exercised upon the great and the rich, while the people lived in security. His administration may be said to have been a fortunate one. His character and his crimes disgrace human nature.

Reverses of Roman brass Coins, showing Galleys
Reverses of Roman brass Coins, showing Galleys

REIGN OF CAIUS CALIGULA, A.D. 37-41. - Caius Cæsar, known as Caligula, was the son of Germanicus and Agrippina, and men fondly hoped that he had inherited the virtues of his father, whom he resembled in his personal appearance. The soldiers proclaimed him emperor, and the Senate and the people acknowledged him with unfeigned joy. He was now twenty-five years of age, and his first acts were generous and humane. He recalled many exiles, abolished various taxes, and gratified the people with spectacles and gifts. He also buried the remains of his mother and brother, who had died in exile, with decent solemnity.

But, having been seized with a severe illness after he had reigned eight months, upon his recovery his mind seemed to have been fatally injured. He abandoned himself to cruelty and lust; he surpassed the vices of Tiberius; and at length, declaring himself to be a god, would often go through the streets of Rome dressed as Bacchus, Venus, or Apollo: he compelled the people to worship him, and made the wealthiest citizens his priests. He even conferred the consulship on his favorite horse.

His boundless wastefulness soon consumed the public treasures, and he was forced to resort to every kind of extortion to obtain money. Having exhausted Rome and Italy, in A.D. 39 he led a large army across the Alps for the purpose of plundering Gaul, where the richest citizens were put to death and their property confiscated. He was assassinated in his palace January 24, A.D. 41.

REIGN OF TIBERIUS CLAUDIUS DRUSUS NERO, A.D. 41-54. - The Emperor Claudius was the son of Drusus and Antonia, and the brother of Germanicus. He was fifty-one years old when, after the murder of Caligula, the Prætorian Guard raised him to the throne. His health had always been delicate, his mind feeble, and he had never taken any part in public affairs. His first acts were popular and mild, but, having fallen under the control of his wife Messalina, who was a monster of wickedness, he put to death many of the best of the Romans. When, however, Messalina ventured to marry C. Silius, a young Roman knight, Claudius directed her execution. He then married his niece Agrippina, who prevailed upon him to set aside his son Britannicus, and to adopt her own son Nero, who was now destined for the throne. Nero was educated by the philosopher Seneca, together with Burrus Afranius, præfect of the Prætorians. Claudius, however, becoming suspicious of the designs of his wife, she resolved upon his death. Locusta, a noted poisoner, was hired to prepare a dish of poisoned mushrooms, of which Claudius ate: but the poison not proving fatal, the physician Xenophon forced a larger quantity into his throat, and he died October 13, A.D. 54.

Claudius was fond of letters, and wrote memoirs of his own time and histories in Greek of Etruria and of Carthage. He also made various useful laws, and carried out several public works of importance. He completed the Claudian aqueduct, begun by Caligula, and built a fort and light-house at Ostia, and a tunnel from Lake Lucinus to the River Liris. Colonia Agrippina (Cologne) was raised by his orders to the most important military station in Lower Germany.

In A.D. 43 a Roman army invaded Britain. Claudius himself entered that country soon after, and returned to Rome to triumph. But Vespasian, afterward emperor, together with his son Titus, overran Britain, defeated Caractacus, the brave British chieftain, and sent him and his family prisoners to Rome. Claudius, pleased with his manly conduct, gave him his liberty.

NERO, A.D. 54-68. - The first five years of the reign of Nero were marked by the mildness and equity of his government. He discouraged luxury, reduced the taxes, and increased the authority of the Senate. His two preceptors, Seneca and Burrus, controlled his mind, and restrained for a time the constitutional insanity of the Claudian race. At length, however, he sank into licentiousness, and from licentiousness to its necessary attendants, cruelty and crime. From a modest and philosophic youth, Nero became the most cruel and dissolute of tyrants. He quarreled with his mother Agrippina, who for his sake had murdered the feeble Claudius; and when she threatened to restore Britannicus to the throne, he ordered that young prince to be poisoned at an entertainment. In order to marry Poppæa Sabina, a beautiful and dissolute woman, wife of Salvius Otho, he resolved to divorce his wife Octavia, and also to murder his mother Agrippina. Under the pretense of a reconciliation, he invited Agrippina to meet him at Baiæ, where she was placed in a boat, which fell to pieces as she entered it. Agrippina swam to the shore, but was there assassinated by the orders of her son. The Roman Senate congratulated Nero upon this fearful deed, while the philosopher Seneca wrote a defense of the matricide. The philosopher, the Senate, and the emperor seem worthy of each other.

It would be impossible to enumerate all the crimes of Nero. In A.D. 64 a fire broke out in Rome, which lasted for six days, consuming the greater part of the city. Nero was supposed to have ordered the city to be fired, to obtain a clear representation of the burning of Troy, and, while Rome was in flames, amused himself by playing upon musical instruments. He sought to throw the odium of this event upon the Christians, and inflicted upon them fearful cruelties. The city was rebuilt upon an improved plan, and Nero's palace, called the Golden House, occupied a large part of the ruined capital with groves, gardens, and buildings of unequaled magnificence.

In A.D. 65 a plot was discovered in which many eminent Romans were engaged. The poet Lucan, Seneca, the philosopher and defender of matricide, together with many others, were put to death. In A.D. 67 Nero traveled to Greece, and performed on the cithara at the Olympian and Isthmian games. He also contended for the prize in singing, and put to death a singer whose voice was louder than his own. Stained with every crime of which human nature is capable, haunted by the shade of the mother he had murdered, and filled with remorse, Nero was finally dethroned by the Prætorian Guards, and died by his own hand, June 9, A.D. 68. He was the last of the Claudian family. No one remained who had an hereditary claim to the empire of Augustus, and the future emperors were selected by the Prætorian Guards or the provincial legions.

During this reign, Boadicea, the British queen, A.D. 61, revolted against the Romans and defeated several armies; but the governor, Suetonius Paulinus, conquered the insurgents in a battle in which eighty thousand Britons are said to have fallen. Boadicea, unwilling to survive her liberty, put an end to her life.

On the death of Nero, Servius Sulpicius Galba, already chosen emperor by the Prætorians and the Senate, was murdered in the Forum, January, A.D. 69. He was succeeded by Salvius Otho, the infamous friend of Nero, and the husband of Poppæa Sabina. The legions on the Rhine, however, proclaimed their own commander, A. Vitellius, emperor, and Otho's forces being defeated in a battle near Bedriacum, between Verona and Cremona, he destroyed himself.

Vitellius, the new emperor, was remarkable for his gluttony and his coarse vices. He neglected every duty of his office, and soon became universally contemptible. Vespasian, the distinguished general, who had been fighting successfully against the Jews in Palestine, was proclaimed emperor by the governor of Egypt. Leaving his son Titus to continue the war, Vespasian prepared to advance upon Rome. His brave adherent, Antonius Primus, at the head of the legions of the Danube, without any orders from Vespasian, marched into Italy and defeated the army of Vitellius. The Prætorians and the Roman populace still supported Vitellius; a fearful massacre took place in the city, and the Capitoline Temple was burned; but Antonius Primus took the Prætorian camp, and Vitellius was dragged from his palace and put to death, December 20, A.D. 69.

REIGN OF T. FLAVIUS VESPASIANUS, A.D. 69-79. - Vespasian, the founder of the first Flavian family of emperors, was a soldier of fortune, who had risen from a low station to high command in the army. He was brave, active, free from vice, and, although fond of money, was never charged with extortion or rapacity. Toward the close of the summer, A.D. 70, he arrived in Rome, and received the imperium from the Senate. He began at once to restore discipline in the army, and raised to the rank of Senators and Equites illustrious men from the provinces, as well as from Italy and Rome, thus giving to the provincials a certain share in the government. The courts of justice were purified, the Delatores, or spies, were discountenanced, and trials for treason ceased. To increase his revenues, Vespasian renewed the taxes in several provinces which had been exempted by Nero, and he introduced economy and good order into the administration of the finances. Yet he expended large sums in rebuilding the Capitoline Temple, and also in completing the Colosseum, whose immense ruins form one of the most remarkable features in the modern scenery of Rome. He built, too, the Temple of Peace and a public library. He appointed lecturers upon rhetoric, with a salary of 100 sesterces, but was possessed himself of little mental cultivation. He is even said to have disliked literary men, and, in the year A.D. 74, expelled the Stoic and Cynic philosophers from Rome.

In A.D. 70, September 2, his son Titus took the city of Jerusalem, after a brave defense by the Jews, who were finally betrayed by their own factions. The city was totally destroyed, and nearly half a million of the Jews perished in the siege. Those who survived, being forbidden to rebuild their city, were scattered over the empire, and each Jew was compelled to pay a yearly tax of two drachmæ, which was appropriated to rebuilding the Capitoline Temple. The Arch of Titus, which still exists at Rome, was erected in commemoration of the fall of Jerusalem.

Vespasian's generals repressed an insurrection of the Germans, and in A.D. 71 C. Julius Agricola, father-in-law of the historian Tacitus, entered Britain as legate to Petilius Cerialis. He was made governor of the province in A.D. 77, and led his victorious armies as far north as the Highlands of Scotland. This excellent character, by his justice and moderation, reconciled the Britons to the Roman yoke.

By his first wife, Flavia Domatilla, Vespasian had three children - Titus, Domitian, and Domatilla. When she died he formed an inferior kind of marriage with Cœnis, a woman of low station, who, however, seems to have deserved his esteem. He died 23d of June, A.D. 79, at the age of seventy. Although never a refined or cultivated man, Vespasian, by his hardy virtues, restored the vigor of the Roman government, and gave peace and prosperity to his subjects; while he who founded a library and established schools of rhetoric can not have been so wholly illiterate as some writers have imagined.


Titus was one of the most accomplished and benevolent of men. Eloquent, warlike, moderate in his desires, he was called Amor et deliciæ humani generis, "The love and the delight of the human race" In early life he had been thought inclined to severity, and his treatment of the Jews, at the fall of their city, does not seem in accordance with his character for humanity. But no sooner had he ascended the throne than he won a general affection. Such was the mildness of his government that no one was punished at Rome for political offenses. Those who conspired against him he not only pardoned, but took into his familiarity. He was so generous that he could refuse no request for aid. He was resolved, he said, that no one should leave his presence sorrowful; and he thought that day lost in which he had done no good deed. Titus wrote poems and tragedies in Greek, and was familiar with his native literature. During his reign, A.D. 79, occurred a violent eruption of Vesuvius, together with an earthquake, by which Herculaneum, Stabiæ, and Pompeii, three towns on the Bay of Naples, were destroyed. The emperor was so touched by the sufferings of the inhabitants that he expended nearly his whole private fortune in relieving their wants. Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were covered by lava or ashes, were thus preserved from farther decay, and, having been partially excavated and restored, enable us to form a truthful conception of the domestic life of the Roman cities in the age of Titus. We here enter the villas of the rich or the humble homes of the poor, and find every where traces of comfort, elegance, and taste.

The next year after the destruction of these cities, a fire broke out in Rome, which raged for three days, desolating the finest regions of the city. The Capitoline Temple was again destroyed, together with many buildings in the Campus Martius. A pestilence followed soon after, which ravaged Rome and all Italy.

In A.D. 81 Titus dedicated the Colosseum, which was now completed, and also his famous baths, the ruins of which may still be visited at Rome. Splendid games and spectacles were exhibited in honor of these events. Few military events occurred during this reign, the empire being perfectly quiet, except where the active Agricola was subduing the wandering tribes of Scotland.

At length Titus, having gone to the Sabine villa where his father Vespasian died, was himself suddenly arrested by death. It was believed that his brother Domitian was the cause of this unhappy event, and all the people lamented their emperor as if they had lost a father or a friend. Titus died September 13, A.D. 81.


Domitian, who was proclaimed emperor by the soldiers upon his brother's death, possessed the mental ability of the Flavian family, joined to the vices and cruelty of the Claudian. In him Nero or Caligula seemed revived. His first political acts, however, were often useful, and for several years he concealed his true disposition. But he soon surrounded himself with spies and informers, and put to death the noblest men of his time. To preserve the fidelity of the soldiers he doubled their pay, while he won the populace by games and donations. But, to maintain his expenditure, he confiscated the property of the richer citizens, and no man of wealth was safe from an accusation of treason.

Agricola, who had gained a great victory over the Caledonians at the foot of the Grampion Hills, and who was about to subdue all Scotland, Domitian recalled, being jealous of his military fame; and that brave leader passed the last eight years of his life in retirement at Rome, in order to avoid the suspicions of the tyrant. Meanwhile, the Dacians, led by their king Decebalus, having crossed the Danube, Domitian took the field against them, and, in A.D. 90, was defeated, and forced to conclude a humiliating peace. Yet, on his return to Rome, he celebrated a triumph, assuming the name of Dacicus. The next year an insurrection broke out among the German legions, which was, however, suppressed.

Domitian now ordered himself to be styled the "Lord and God," and was worshiped with divine honors. A ferocious jealousy of all excellence in others seemed to possess him with rage against the wise and good. The most eminent of the nobility were put to death. All philosophers, and among them the virtuous Epictetus, were banished from Rome. The Christians, which name now included many persons of high station, were murdered in great numbers. At last the tyrant resolved to put to death his wife Domitia, but she discovered his design, and had him assassinated, 18th September, A.D. 96. The Senate passed a decree that his name should be erased from all public monuments, and refused to yield to the wishes of the soldiers, who would have proclaimed him a god.

Copper Coin of Antoninus Pius, about A.D. 138, showing figure of Britannia
Copper Coin of Antoninus Pius, about A.D. 138, showing figure of Britannia
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