The Julio-Claudians (27 B.C.–68 A.D.)
In 27 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus was awarded the honorific title of Augustus by a decree of the Senate. So began the Roman empire and the principate of the Julio-Claudians: Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.), Tiberius (r. 14–37 A.D.), Gaius Germanicus, known as Caligula (r. 37–41 A.D.), Claudius (r. 41–54 A.D.), and Nero (r. 54–68 A.D.). The Julio-Claudians, Roman nobles with an impressive ancestry, maintained Republican ideals and wished to involve the Senate and other Roman aristocrats in the government. This, however, eventually led to a decline in the power of the Senate and the extension of imperial control through equestrian officers and imperial freedmen. Peace and prosperity were maintained in the provinces and foreign policy, especially under Augustus and Tiberius, relied more on diplomacy than military force. With its borders secure and a stable central government, the Roman empire enjoyed a period of prosperity, technological advance, great achievements in the arts, and flourishing trade and commerce. Under Caligula, much time and revenues were devoted to extravagant games and spectacles, while under Claudius, the empire—and especially Italy and Rome itself—benefited from the emperor’s administrative reforms and enthusiasm for public works programs. Imperial expansion brought about colonization, urbanization, and extension of Roman citizenship in the provinces. The succeeding emperor, Nero, was a connoisseur and patron of the arts. He also extended the frontiers of the empire, but antagonized the upper class and failed to hold the loyalty of the Roman legions. Amid rebellion and civil war, the Julio-Claudian dynasty “came to an inglorious end with Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D.”
The Flavians (69–96 A.D.)
In 69 A.D., Vespasian (r. 69–79 A.D.) emerged as victor from the carnage of the civil wars. He restored confidence and prosperity to the empire by founding the Flavian dynasty and securing a peaceful succession for his two sons, Titus (r. 79–81 A.D.) and Domitian (r. 81–96 A.D.). The Flavians paid particular attention to the provinces, encouraging the spread of Roman citizenship and bestowing colonial status on cities. Artistic talent and technical skill inherited from Nero’s regime were used to aggrandize the military accomplishments of the new imperial dynasty. In the end, however, Domitian incurred the Senate’s displeasure with his absolutist tendencies and by elevating equestrian officers to positions of power formerly reserved for senators. Plots and conspiracies, followed by a vicious round of executions, eventually led to his assassination in 96 A.D.
The Five Good Emperors and the Age of the Antonines
The succeeding period is known as the age of the “Five Good Emperors”: Nerva (r. 96–98 A.D.), Trajan (r. 98–117 A.D.), Hadrian (r. 117–38 A.D.), Antoninus Pius (r. 138–61 A.D.), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–80 A.D.). It was a time when the distinction between provincials and Romans diminished as a greater number of emperors, senators, citizens, and soldiers came from provincial backgrounds and Italians no longer dominated the empire. Successors to the emperor were chosen from men of tried ability, and not according to the dynastic principle. Trajan was the first Roman not born in Italy to become emperor; his family came from Spain. He had a distinguished military career before being elevated to the purple by Nerva. Under Trajan, along with consolidation of the empire, great efforts were expended on wars of conquest in Dacia and Parthia. His accession ushered in an era of confidence unattested since the reign of Augustus. Trade and commerce flourished between the Roman empire and its northern and eastern neighbors. The provinces thrived and local aristocrats spent lavish sums on their cities. Latin literature flourished with the works of influential writers such as Martial, Juvenal, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, but at the same time a growing provincial influence was felt in every sphere, especially religion and sculpture. Under Trajan and Hadrian, new cities were founded and vast building programs initiated.
Antonine rule commenced with the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 138–61 A.D.), and included those of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–80 A.D.), Lucius Verus (r. 161–69 A.D.), and Commodus (r. 177–92 A.D.). The Antonine dynasty reflects the connections between wealthy provincial and Italian families. Antoninus Pius restored the status of the Senate without compromising his imperial power and quietly furthered the centralization of government. Upon his death, imperial powers for the first time were fully shared between his adoptive sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Incessant warfare and the threat of invasion along the northern frontier eventually drained imperial revenues. Marcus Aurelius chose his son, Commodus, as his successor, a choice that reverted to dynastic principle. It was Commodus who successfully made peace on the northern frontier, but in the end his misrule and corruption were devastating for the empire. His death ushered in a new period of civil wars.
The Severans and the Soldier-Emperors (193–284 A.D.)
In 193 A.D., Septimius Severus seized Rome and established a new dynasty. He rested his authority more overtly on the support of the army and substituted equestrian officers for senators in key administrative positions, thereby broadening imperial power throughout the empire. The Severan dynasty, comprising the relatively short reigns of Septimius (r. 193–211 A.D.), Caracalla (r. 211–17 A.D.), Macrinus (r. 217–18 A.D.), Elagabalus (r. 218–22 A.D.), and Alexander Severus (r. 222–35 A.D.), gave rise to the imperial candidates of Syrian background. Caracalla abolished all distinctions between Italians and provincials. Following his reign, however, military anarchy led to a succession of short reigns and eventually the rule of the soldier-emperors (235–84 A.D.).
In the age of the soldier-emperors, between the assassination of Alexander Severus, the last of the Severans, in 235 A.D. and the beginning of Diocletian’s reign in 284, at least sixteen men bore the title of emperor: Maximinus (r. 235–38 A.D.), Gordian I and II, Pupienus and Balbinus (r. 238 A.D.), Gordian III (r. 238–44 A.D.), Philip the Arab (r. 244–49 A.D.), the Illyrian Decius (r. 249–51 A.D.), Trebonianus Gallus (r. 251–53 A.D.), Aemilianus (r. 253 A.D.), Valerian (r. 253–60 A.D.), Gallienus (r. 253–68 A.D.), Claudius Gothicus (r. 268–70 A.D.), Aurelian (r. 270–75 A.D.), Tacitus (r. 275–76 A.D.), Probus (r. 276–82 A.D.), Carus (r. 282–83 A.D.), Carinus (r. 283–84 A.D.), and Numerianus (r. 283–84 A.D.). Most were fierce military men and none could hold the reins of power without the support of the army. Almost all, having taken power upon the murder of the preceding emperor, came to a premature and violent end. Social life declined in Roman towns and instead flourished among the country aristocracy, whose secure lifestyle in large fortified estates foreshadowed medieval feudalism.
Diocletian, Constantine, and the Late Empire (284–476 A.D.)
Finally, Diocletian (r. 284–305 A.D.) emerged as an able and strong ruler. He ensured the protection and reorganization of the empire by creating new, smaller provinces, making a clear distinction between the duties of military commanders and civil governors, and sharing overall control with colleagues—effectively dividing the empire into two halves, West and East. He established the tetrarchy (293 A.D.), naming Maximianus as co-Augustus, and Galerius and Constantius as two subordinate Caesars. This experiment in power-sharing lasted only a short time. Constantius’ son, Constantine (the Great), with dynastic ambitions of his own, set about defeating his imperial rivals and eventually reunited the Western and Eastern halves of the empire in 324 A.D. He then founded a new capital on the Bosphorus at Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople in his honor in 330 A.D.
As political power shifted to Constantinople, the church gradually replaced the declining civil authority at Rome. Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes, who lived along the northern borders of the empire and who had long been recruited to serve as mercenaries in the Roman army, began to emerge as powerful political and military forces in their own right. In the 370s, the Huns, horsemen from the Eurasian steppe, invaded areas along the Danube River, driving many of the Germanic tribes—including the Visigoths—into the Roman provinces. What began as a controlled resettlement of barbarians within the empire’s borders ended as an invasion. The emperor Valens was killed by the Visigoths at Adrianople in 378 A.D., and the succeeding emperor, Theodosius I (r. 379–95 A.D.), conducted campaigns against them, but failed to evict them from the empire. In 391 A.D., Theodosius ordered the closing of all temples and banned all forms of pagan cult. After his death in 395 A.D., the empire was divided between his sons, Honorius (Western Roman emperor) and Arcadius (Eastern Roman emperor). The West, separated from the East, could not long survive the incessant barbarian invasions. The Visigoth Alaric sacked Rome in 410 A.D. and, in 476 A.D., the German Odovacer advanced on the city and deposed Romulus Augustulus (r. 475–76 A.D.), commonly known as the last Roman emperor of the West. Odovacer became, in effect, king of Rome until 493 A.D., when Theodoric the Great established the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. The eastern Roman provinces survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., developing into the Byzantine empire, which itself survived until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.