The glorious Caesars

Rome’s first emperors are often decried as tyrannical, sex-mad monsters – but, as Tom Holland explains, the likes of Augustus, Caligula and Nero brought peace and stability to the Roman world...

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Almost 2,000 years after his death, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus remains the archetype of a monstrous leader. Caligula, as he is better known, is one of the few characters from ancient history to be as familiar to pornographers as to classicists.

The scandalous details of his reign have always provoked prurient fascination. “But enough of the emperor; now to the monster.” So wrote Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, an archivist in the imperial palace who doubled in his spare time as a biographer of the Caesars, and whose life of Caligula is the oldest extant account that we possess. Written almost a century after the emperor’s death, it catalogues a quite sensational array of depravities and crimes. He slept with his sisters! He dressed up as the goddess Venus! He planned to award his horse the highest magistracy in Rome! So appalling were his stunts that they seemed to shade into lunacy. Suetonius certainly had no doubt about this when explaining Caligula’s behaviour: “He was ill in both body and mind.”

But if Caligula was sick then so, too, was his city. The powers of life and death wielded by an emperor would have been abhorrent to an earlier generation. Almost a century before Caligula came to power, his great-great-great-great-uncle had been the first of his dynasty to establish an autocracy in Rome. The exploits of Gaius Julius Caesar were as spectacular as any in his city’s history: the permanent annexation of Gaul, as the Romans called what today is France, and invasions of Britain and Germany. He achieved his feats, though, as a citizen of a republic – one in which it was taken for granted by most that death was the only conceivable alternative to liberty.

When Julius Caesar, trampling this presumption, laid claim to a primacy over his fellow citizens, it resulted first in civil war and then, after he had crushed his domestic foes as he had previously crushed the Gauls, in his assassination. Only after two more murderous bouts of slaughtering one another were the Roman people finally inured to their servitude. Submission to the rule of a single man had redeemed their city and its empire from self-destruction – but the cure itself was a kind of disease.

Their new master called himself Augustus: the ‘Divinely Favoured One’. The great-nephew of Julius Caesar, he had waded through blood to secure the command of Rome and her empire – and then, once his rivals had been dispatched, had coolly posed as a prince of peace. As cunning as he was ruthless, as patient as he was decisive, Augustus managed to maintain his supremacy for decades, and then to die in his bed. Key to this achievement was his ability to rule with, rather than against the grain of, Roman tradition. By pretending that he was not an autocrat, he licensed his fellow citizens to pretend that they were still free. A veil of shimmering and seductive subtlety was draped over the brute contours of his dominance.

Over time, though, this veil became increasingly threadbare. On Augustus’s death in AD 14, the powers that he had accumulated over the course of his long and mendacious career stood revealed, not as temporary expediencies but rather as a package to be handed down to an heir. His choice of successor was a man raised since childhood in his own household, an aristocrat by the name of Tiberius. The many qualities of the new Caesar, which ranged from exemplary aristocratic pedigree to a track record as Rome’s finest general, had counted for less than his status as Augustus’s adopted son – and everyone knew it.

 

A diseased age

Tiberius, a man who all his life had been wedded to the virtues of the vanished republic, made an unhappy monarch; but Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius after a reign of 23 years, was unembarrassed. That he ruled the Roman world by virtue neither of age nor of experience but as the great-grandson of Augustus bothered him not the slightest. “Nature produced him, in my opinion, to demonstrate just how far unlimited vice can go when combined with unlimited power.” Such was the obituary delivered on Caligula by Seneca, a philosopher who had known him well. The judgment, though, was not just on Caligula, but also on Seneca’s own peers, who had cringed and grovelled before the emperor while he was still alive, and on the Roman people as a whole. The age was a rotten one: diseased, debased, degraded.

Or so many believed. Not everyone agreed. The regime established by Augustus would never have endured had it failed to offer what the Roman people had come so desperately to crave after decades of civil war: peace and order. The vast agglomeration of provinces ruled from Rome, stretching from the North Sea to the Sahara and from the Atlantic to the Fertile Crescent, reaped the benefits as well. Three centuries on, when the nativity of the most celebrated man born in Augustus’s reign – Jesus – stood in infinitely clearer focus than it had done at the time, a bishop named Eusebius could see in the emperor’s achievements the very guiding hand of God. “It was not just as a consequence of human action,” he declared, “that the greater part of the world should have come under Roman rule at the precise moment Jesus was born. The coincidence that saw our Saviour begin his mission against such a backdrop was undeniably arranged by divine agency. After all, had the world still been at war, and not united under a single form of government, then how much more difficult would it have been for the disciples to undertake their travels?”

 

The price of peace

Eusebius could see, with the perspective provided by distance, just how startling was the feat of globalisation brought to fulfilment under Augustus and his successors. Though the methods deployed to uphold it were brutal, the sheer immensity of the regions pacified by Roman arms was unprecedented.

“To accept a gift,” went an ancient saying, “is to sell your liberty.” Rome held her conquests in fee, but the peace that she bestowed upon them in exchange was not necessarily to be sniffed at. Whether in the suburbs of the capital itself – booming under the Caesars to become the largest city the world had ever seen – or across the span of the Mediterranean, united now for the first time under a single power, or in the furthermost corners of an empire, the pax Romana brought benefits to millions.

Provincials might well be grateful. “He cleared the sea of pirates, and filled it with merchant shipping.” So enthused a Jew from the Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria, writing in praise of Augustus. “He gave freedom to every city, brought order where there had been chaos, and civilised savage peoples.” Similar hymns of praise could be – and were – addressed to Tiberius and Caligula. The depravities for which these men would become notorious rarely had much impact on the wider world. In the provinces it mattered little who ruled as emperor – so long as the centre held.

Yet even in the empire’s farthest reaches, Caesar was a constant presence. How could he not be? “In the whole wide world, there is not a single thing that escapes him.” An exaggeration, of course – yet a due reflection of the fear and awe that an emperor could hardly help but inspire in his subjects. He alone had command of Rome’s monopoly of violence: the legions and the menacing apparatus of provincial government that ensured that taxes were paid, rebels slaughtered and malefactors thrown to beasts or nailed up on crosses. An emperor did not constantly need to be showing his hand for dread of his arbitrary power to be universal across the world.

Small wonder that the face of Caesar should have become, for millions of his subjects, the face of Rome. Rare was the town that did not boast some image of him: a statue, a portrait bust, a frieze. Even in the most provincial backwater, to handle money was to be familiar with Caesar’s profile. Within Augustus’s own lifetime, no living citizen had ever appeared on a Roman coin – but no sooner had he seized control of the world than his face was being minted everywhere, stamped on gold, silver and bronze. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Even an itinerant street-preacher in the wilds of Galilee, holding up a coin and demanding to know whose face it portrayed, could be confident of the answer: “Caesar’s.”


A first-century BC coin shows Augustus wearing a laurel wreath – symbol of military victory. © Getty

No surprise, then, that the character of an emperor – his achievements, his relationships and his foibles – should have been topics of obsessive fascination to his subjects. “Your destiny it is to live as in a theatre where your audience is the entire world.” This was the warning attributed by one Roman historian to Maecenas, a close confidant of Augustus. Whether or not he really said it, the sentiment was true to his master’s theatricality. Augustus, lying on his deathbed, was reported by Suetonius to have asked his friends whether he had played his part well in the comedy of life; assured that he had, he demanded their applause as he headed for the exit.

A good emperor had no choice but to be a good actor – as, too, did everyone else in the drama’s cast. Caesar, after all, was never alone on the stage. His potential successors were public figures by virtue of their relationship to him. Even the wife, the niece or the granddaughter of an emperor might have her role to play. Get it wrong and she was liable to pay a terrible price, but get it right and her face might appear on coins alongside Caesar’s own.

No household in history had ever before been so squarely in the public eye as that of Augustus. The fashions and hairstyles of its most prominent members, reproduced in exquisite detail by sculptors across the empire, set trends from Syria to Spain. Their achievements were celebrated with spectacularly showy monuments, their scandals repeated with relish from seaport to seaport. Propaganda and gossip, each feeding off the other, gave the dynasty of Augustus a celebrity that became, for the first time, continent-spanning. Time has barely dimmed it. Two millennia on, the west’s prime examples of tyranny continue to instruct and appal.

 

The exhaustion of cruelty

“Nothing could be fainter than those torches which allow us not to pierce the darkness but to glimpse it.” So wrote Seneca, shortly before his death in AD 65. The context of his observation was a shortcut that he had recently taken while travelling along the Bay of Naples, down a gloomy and dust-choked tunnel. “What a prison it was, and how long. Nothing could compare with it.”

As a man who had spent many years observing the imperial court, Seneca knew all about darkness. He certainly had no illusions about the nature of the regime established by Augustus. Even the peace that it had brought the world, he declared, had ultimately been founded upon nothing more noble than “the exhaustion of cruelty”. Despotism had been implicit in the new order from its beginning.

Yet what he detested, Seneca also adored. Contempt for power did not inhibit him from revelling in it. The darkness of Rome was lit by gold. Looking back to Augustus and his heirs from 2,000 years on, we too can recognise – in their mingling of tyranny and achievement, sadism and glamour, power-lust and celebrity – an aureate quality such as no dynasty since has ever quite managed to match.

“Caesar is the state.” How this came to be so is a story no less compelling, no less remarkable and no less salutary than it has ever been these past 2,000 years. 

 

The first five Roman emperors

The first emperor - Augustus (63 BC–AD 14, emperor from 27 BC)

Born Gaius Octavius, his adoption by his great-uncle Julius Caesar left him with a commanding name and fortune. By his mid-thirties he enjoyed an unprecedented dominance over the Roman world. In 27 BC he took the title Augustus: ‘Divinely Favoured One’. By the time of his death, he had established an autocracy secure enough to survive as long as the empire itself.

 

The iconic general:  Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37, emperor from AD 14) 

His mother’s marriage to Augustus won Tiberius a place at the heart of the new imperial dynasty. Though an accomplished general, he was unpopular with the masses, and his respect for republican traditions ensured he was never entirely comfortable as emperor. His retirement to Capri in AD 27 fuelled salacious rumours, but by maintaining peace he won respect in the provinces.

 

The witty sadist: Caligula (AD 12–41, emperor from AD 37)

Properly called Gaius, as a young boy he was nicknamed ‘Caligula’ (‘little boots’) by soldiers serving under his father. “I am rearing a viper,” declared Tiberius – and so it proved. On becoming emperor, Caligula’s twin tastes for theatricality and hurting people fuelled attacks on the authority of the Senate. Even so, when he was assassinated by his own guards in AD 41 his death was widely mourned.

 

The able ruler: Claudius (10 BC–AD 54, emperor from AD 41)

The nephew of Tiberius was prone to twitching and stammering, which hindered his political progress. He became Caesar when his nephew Caligula was murdered. Though widely despised as being under the thumb of women and freedmen, he proved an effective emperor, invading Britain and commissioning a new port for Rome. His death was believed to have been caused by his wife (and niece), Agrippina. 

 

The showman: Nero (AD 37–68, emperor from AD 54)

Known initially as Domitius, the son of Agrippina was adopted by Claudius; he later had his mother and wife murdered. He refined Caligula’s policy of appealing over the heads of the senatorial elite to the mass of the people; the more murderous his regime became, the more his showmanship flourished. Faced with rebellion, he committed suicide in AD 68 – marking the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Tom Holland is a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Making History.

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