A Succinct Timeline of Roman Emperors—400 Years of Power Condensed
To say that the Roman Empire had its ups and downs would be the understatement of all understatements. No “nation” was more abruptly destabilized or even more abruptly stabilized than that of ancient Rome…perhaps with the exception of the United States.
Following the events of the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian, adopted son of the first dictator Julius Caesar, took over sole power of Rome and all her provinces. It was in this moment that the Republic officially transformed into the Empire. Octavian—renamed Augustus at the beginning of the new Principate—ruled for forty years before his death. The heir he secured was his adopted son Tiberius, though unfortunately Tiberius’ reluctance to rule as Emperor was not well-hidden. For the length of his reign—though he was respected—Tiberius attempted to let the Senate lead the affairs of the state.
A statue of Augustus as a younger Octavian, dated ca. 30 BC. (Public Domain)
The Dynasty Augustus: Caligula, Claudius, and Nero
Following Tiberius was his great nephew Caligula who ruled for just under four years. His sadistic leadership and essential emptying of the city’s treasuries—coupled, of course, with his overtly immoral sexual tendencies, led to a swift assassination. Caligula’s uncle Claudius was handed the Empire next, as the Senate was forced to make a quick decision when Caligula left no heir. (Or rather, his assassin left no living heir.)
- The Search Is On For Caligula’s Orgy Boats Where His Twisted Fantasies May Have Been Played Out
- The Praetorian Guards: To Serve and Protect the Roman Emperors… Most of the Time
Emperor Caligula. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Claudius’ leadership was filled with compassion and expansion. Caligula’s conspirators were pardoned, supposedly for the prevention of another assassination, while Claudius led his army the furthest into Britain they had ever been. Under Claudius, the first proper Roman colonia was founded at modern Colchester.
Proclaiming Claudius Emperor. (1867) By Lawrence Alma-Tadema. In one version of the tale of Claudius’ rise as the Emperor of Rome the Praetorian Guard found him hiding behind a curtain after Caligula’s death and proclaimed him as the emperor. (Public Domain)
This dynasty, however, would not last much longer. Poisoned (supposedly) by his own wife, Claudius was succeeded by his stepson, the infamous Emperor Nero. This emperor who spent an extraordinary amount of money on a Golden House, squashed the revolt of Queen Boudicca in Brittania, and purportedly played the fiddle while Rome burned around him, would last (rather surprisingly) for thirteen years as Rome’s leader. His death, a suicide influenced by the likelihood of assassination, brought an abrupt and fierce end to the dynasty Augustus attempted to create, and would pave the way for extensive Senatorial consideration about the benefits and pitfalls of blood-lineages.
A plaster bust of Nero, Pushkin Museum, Moscow. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Flavian Dynasty: Vespasian and his Sons
After Nero’s death, the power of the Principate was left without an owner. Thus followed the year of the Four Emperors—Galba, Otho, and Vitellus—eventually ending in the success of military general Vespasian as the new leader of the Roman people. Vespasian's rule and that of his two sons, Titus and Domitian, was riddled with military victory. The borders of Rome expanded, and powerful strides were made both in the eastern and western parts of the Empire. Vespasian rebuilt much of the city, including beginning the transformation of Nero's Domus Aurea into the renowned Colosseum.
- Lost History of a Mad Man? Revealing the Surprisingly Compassionate Side of Nero, One of the “Worst” Ancient Roman Emperors
- Damnation of Memory and the Efforts to Erase the Condemned from History
Vespasian. Plaster cast in Pushkin museum after original in Louvre. (Sariling gawa/CC BY SA 3.0)
Meanwhile, Titus’ two-year leadership—though proceeded by a valiant triumph over Judea—was predominately spent dealing with the greatest natural disaster of the Roman world: the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is a shame that Vespasian and Titus’ stable reigns ended when Vespasian’s younger son ascended in only 81 AD. Domitian, unfortunately for both the Roman people and the Flavian name, drove a wedge between the Senate and the army, in part because of the lavish paychecks he gave his soldiers. His assassination brought the Flavian dynasty to a screeching halt.
Bust of Roman emperor Domitianus. Antique head, body added in the 18th century. Musée du Louvre (Ma 1264), Paris. Formerly in the Albani Collection in Rome. (Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0)
Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian - The Nervan end of the Nervan-Antonine Dynasty
The Nervan-Antonine dynasty rose next—Nerva, the first namesake of the lineage, a friend of Domitian's and, more importantly, of the Senate. This dynasty was the first that purposely attempted to name successors outside the family. For the first few generations, this succeeded (in part due to a lack of heirs). Yet it also appears that the Senate’s belief that empires suffered under blood dynasties rule was accurate. While this peace would not last, the Roman Empire had almost one hundred years of more politically and mentally stable rulers.
Bronze statue of emperor Nerva, Forum of Nerva, Rome. (Carole Raddato/CC BY SA 2.0)
Under Nerva, the army and the Senate—the two "bodies" with the most power—ceased the feud caused by Domitian. His successor, Trajan, would surpass him after two years, not only in length of rulership, but in military deeds and civic duty. Best remembered for his double defeat of the Dacians in 101-102 and 105-106 AD, Trajan brought order and calm to the regions of modern day Romania for the first time. Trajan was then able to focus his attentions on public building projects, such as the Forum.
Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan at Tower Hill, London. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Hadrian, leader from Trajan's death in 117 until 138, quickly became another favored ruler. His philhellenism—love for all things Greek—would benefit his time as Emperor as he incorporated Greek art and architecture into Roman building projects and encouraged the study of the Greek language and academics (i.e., philosophy, literature, etc.). Hadrian also furthered the boundaries of the Empire to northern Britain (culminating in the construction of Hadrian's Wall), and later to Judea in the east.
The view along Hadrian's Wall towards Housesteads Roman Fort. (CC BY-NC 2.0 )
The Antonine Part of the Nervan-Antonine Dynasty: Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius
Antoninus Pius followed Hadrian from 138-161 AD and continued the trend of stable leadership. Though he was known for appreciating the more luxurious side of court life, Antoninus' time as emperor is positively remembered for its lack of documented military victories or defeats under Antoninus directly. Any provincial disruptions were handled predominately by the governors of the various regions and generals of the Roman army, additional powers granted by Antoninus as needed. Antoninus was more concerned, it seems, with improving Rome proper. On his death, Marcus Aurelius was left as heir, ruling jointly with Lucius Verus from 161 until Verus' death in 169.
Bust of Antoninus Pius, circa 150 AD. (Public Domain)
The philosopher-king of the Empire, Marcus Aurelius ruled as an intellect rather than a general. While his reign saw numerous victories against eastern and northern enemies, Marcus himself focused on stepping away from Antoninus' lavish preferences and putting more emphasis on personally responding to the people. Thus, when his legitimate son Commodus came to sole power in 181 AD, Rome was shaken by the increasingly unstable and reckless behavior. Within just over ten years, Commodus was assassinated in his bath.
Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People ( Public Domain )
The Year of the Five Emperors
The Year of the Five Emperors followed Commodus' untimely death, as distressing as the Year of the Four Emperors a hundred years prior. Once again, men attempted to gain power backed by their individual armies. In essence, there was more than one "declared" emperor at any given time of the year 193 AD.
The strife came to an end when Libyan Septimus Severus gained control; Severus ruled until 211, though his son Caracalla was co-emperor starting in 198 AD. Caracalla was, unfortunately, another blood-heir whose mental state should have been examined before being handed absolute power. After ensuring his brother's murder, Caracalla almost destroyed the Roman economy before embarking on one reckless conquest after another. Few were disappointed when his own soldier finally slew Caracalla while his back was turned.
- The Philosopher-King of Ancient Rome: Marcus Aurelius' Imperium
- Little Emperors and Their Regents: Child Rulers & the Supportive and Destructive People Behind Them
Bust of the emperor Caracalla. (CC BY 2.5)
A Soured Empire
Though the Roman Empire continued after Caracalla’s death, the respectability of it quickly soured. Imperial strife, economic hardships, and military greed forced Rome into the Crisis of the Third Century (235–284 AD), which only came to an end with the ascension of Diocletian in 284 AD. It was Diocletian who officially split the Empire; from his reign on, every emperor (now called an Augustus) had a co-emperor stationed in the opposite region—one ruled from Rome westward; the other from Byzantium eastward. Further, both emperors had a second-in-command leader, called a Caesar. Rome would never again be united.
The Inquisition of St. George by the Emperor Diocletian. (Public Domain)
This author argues that the official end of the Empire came at the end of the 5th century, when the western empire was overrun and sacked. While the eastern empire remained until the early medieval period—first as Byzantium then as Constantinople—it is often argued that what made Rome the most revered Empire in history had been lost long before the west fell, and was never recaptured by the east. The eastern empire slowly shifted away from the western ideals, as more and more influence from Greece and Turkey overwhelmed previously Roman values. Byzantium became its own unique type of Empire, while the remnants of Rome faded into the background of the migrating Germanic nations.
Top Image: Six of the Roman Emperors: Caligula (CC BY SA 3.0), Nero (CC BY-SA 3.0), Vespasian (Sariling gawa/CC BY SA 3.0), Domitian (Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0), Antoninus Pius (Public Domain), and Caracalla. (CC BY 2.5)
By Ryan Winters
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