|Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD)
Tiberius was the second emperor of Rome and a highly-successful soldier whose reputation for arrogance and debauchery is probably unfounded.
Tiberius Claudius Nero was born on 16 November 42 BC. In 39 BC, his mother Livia divorced his father and married Octavian, the future emperor Augustus in 27 BC. Tiberius had a brilliant military career and with his younger brother Drusus helped carry out the expansion of the Roman empire along the Danube and into modern day Germany (16 BC - 7 BC, 4 AD - 9 AD).
In 11 BC, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania and marry Julia, Augustus' daughter. In 6 BC, Tiberius abruptly retired to Rhodes. In 2 AD, he returned to Rome and in 4 AD, with Augustus's grandsons both dead, Tiberius was adopted as Augustus's son. Tiberius in turn adopted his nephew Germanicus (great-nephew of Augustus). He then went on campaign in northern Germany, securing the frontier and returning to Rome a hero.
Tiberius succeeded Augustus in 14 AD. Initially, his rule was positive. He improved the civil service and restored Rome's financial condition. However, Tiberius lacked Augustus' natural rapport with the Senate and he became increasingly unpopular. This contrasted strongly with the popularity of the charismatic Germanicus, his expected successor. When Germanicus died in 19 AD, it was widely believed that Tiberius had poisoned him in order that his own son, Drusus, should succeed. But in 23 AD, Drusus died, throwing open the question of the succession.
Tiberius's reliance upon the ambitious and brutal Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian guard (the imperial bodyguards), resulted in allegations of tyranny. In 27 AD, Tiberius retired to Capri, never returning to Rome. Two years later, realising that Sejanus was trying to seize power, Tiberius had him executed. In 35 AD, Tiberius made Gaius (son of Germanicus) and his own grandson, Gemellus, joint heirs.
Tiberius died on 16 March 37 AD and was succeeded by Gaius, also known as Caligula.
Caligula (AD 12 – 41)
'Caligula', more properly Gaius (Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus), was the third Roman emperor, in succession to Tiberius. He has gone down in history, perhaps unfairly, as Rome's most tyrannical emperor, but since we lack Tacitus' account of his short reign, it is impossible to know the truth behind the wilder stories.
Gaius was the son of the popular Germanicus and the great-grandson of Augustus - with the blood of Augustus from both sides of his family. From age two to four he lived on the Rhine with his father's legions, and the soldiers gave him the affectionate nickname 'Caligula', or 'Bootikins'.
After the death of his brother in 33 AD he was, with Gemellus (grandson of Tiberius), next in succession, and lived with Tiberius on Capreae. When Tiberius died in 37 AD, the Praetorian Prefect Macro ensured that Gaius, not Gemellus, became emperor. It was also rumoured that Gaius and the Praetorian Prefect Macro had hastened the death of Tiberius by smothering him with a pillow. Gemellus and Macro were both put to death at the beginning of the new reign.
The 24-year-old emperor was initially hugely popular - he was the son of Germanicus, had the blood of Augustus in his veins, and was a welcome change from the dour, absent Tiberius.
Departing from his predecessor's frugality, he provided lavish games for the Romans to enjoy, and abolished the sales tax. But seven months into his reign he fell ill, and he emerged from this as a megalomaniac - he may have lost his sanity, though this is doubtful.
He went out of his way to humiliate the senate (Suetonius says that he intended to make his horse consul), and encouraged treason trials for his own financial benefit. He also insisted on being treated as a god (in contrast to the wiser policy of Augustus). Excavations in the Roman forum in the summer of 2003 confirmed that he incorporated the ancient Temple of Castor and Pollux within his palace - a sacrilege reversed by his successor Claudius I.
Gaius had three sisters, with whom he was alleged to have committed incest, and they were given unprecedented public honours, being included in the soldiers' oath of allegiance. But Drusilla died in 38 AD, and the next year Agrippina and Livilla were exiled for involvement in a conspiracy.
In 39-40 AD, Gaius campaigned in Germany, as his father had done. More mysterious was his planned expedition against Britain in 40 AD. He got no further than the Channel, where he ordered the troops to gather seashells, a command which, despite many attempts, has not yet been satisfactorily explained.
His actions suggest that he needed military glory such as Augustus and Tiberius had enjoyed, but did not want the bother (or the expense) of a war. His triumph on his return in 40 AD was thought to have featured bogus Germans (slaves in disguise). He also particularly offended the Jews, intending to place a statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem.
In 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard assassinated Gaius, together with his wife Caesonia and his daughter. He was 29. Only the common people, who benefited from his extravagant spending, lamented his death.
Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD)
Claudius I was the emperor who added Britain to the Roman Empire.
Claudius was born on 1 August 10 BC in Gaul (now France) into the Roman imperial family. Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome, was his uncle. Claudius suffered from physical disabilities, including a limp and a speech impediment and was therefore treated with disdain by his family, and not considered as a future emperor. When Tiberius's successor Caligula was assassinated in January 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard found Claudius in the palace and acclaimed him as emperor. The senate held out against Claudius for two days, but then accepted him.
Relations between Claudius and the senate continued to be difficult, and the new emperor entrusted much of his administration to influential Greek freedmen of low social standing, which in turn alienated the senators. He also heard trials in private, rather than allowing senators to be judged by their peers.
Although he lacked a military reputation, the essential attribute of an emperor, in 43 AD Claudius undertook the conquest of Britain. He visited the island for 16 days, to preside over the capture of Colchester, the capital of the new province, and then returned to Rome in triumph. As well as Britain, Claudius added Mauretania (North Africa), Thrace (the Balkans) and Lycia (part of Turkey) to the Roman Empire.
Claudius had two children by his wife Messallina - Britannicus and Octavia. In 48 AD Messallina went through a marriage ceremony with the consul Silius as part of a plot against Claudius. Both were executed. Claudius then married his niece Agrippina the Younger who with her son Domitius, was the only surviving direct descendant of Augustus. Agrippina quickly appointed her own supporters to important positions and persuaded Claudius to adopt Domitius - who took the name Nero - as his son.
Claudius died on 13 October 54 AD after being poisoned, probably on the orders of Agrippina who feared Claudius would appoint Britannicus his heir over her son Nero. Nero became Emperor.
Nero (AD 37 - 68)
Nero was the fifth Roman emperor and the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He is remembered as an ineffectual, neglectful and brutal leader.
Nero was born near Rome on 15 December 37 AD and was known as a child as Domitius. Through his mother Agrippina he was the only surviving direct male descendant of the emperor Augustus. In 49 AD, Agrippina married her uncle, the emperor Claudius, and began to promote her own son's claim to the succession, at the expense of Claudius's own son, Britannicus. She persuaded Claudius to adopt Domitius - who now took the name Nero - as his son and when it seemed as if Britannicus would be favoured, she had Claudius poisoned and Nero became emperor.
Agrippina clearly wished to rule through Nero, and her portrait briefly appeared on the coins alongside his. But the new emperor paid more heed to his advisors Burrus and the philosopher Seneca, and the result was five years of exemplary government. Britannicus was poisoned by Nero a year into the new reign and in 59 AD, he had his mother put to death. In 62 AD, Burrus died and Seneca retired, removing the key restraining influences on Nero. He divorced his wife Octavia, who was later executed, and married his mistress Poppaea. Two years later, much of Rome was destroyed in a fire, for which Nero was blamed, although this is now regarded as unlikely. Nero diverted blame from himself by accusing the Christians - then a minor religious sect - of starting the fire, leading to a campaign of persecution. He provided help for Romans made homeless by the fire and set about the necessary rebuilding of the city, appropriating a large area for a new palace for himself. This was the architecturally and artistically innovative 'Golden House' (Domus Aurea).
Meanwhile, the Roman empire was in turmoil. Nero established Armenia as a buffer state against Parthia (Iran), but only after a costly war. There were revolts - in Britain (60 AD - 61 AD), led by Boudicca, and Judea (66 AD - 70 AD). In 65 AD, Gaius Calpurnius Piso led a conspiracy against the emperor and in the purge that followed, a number of prominent Romans were executed, including Seneca and his nephew, the epic poet Lucan. In 65 AD, Nero is believed to have kicked his wife Poppaea to death. His next wife was Statilia Messalina, whose first husband Nero had executed. In 68 AD, the Gallic and Spanish legions, along with the Praetorian Guards, rose against Nero and he fled Rome. The senate declared him a public enemy and he committed suicide on 9 June 68 AD. Disputes over his succession led to civil war in Rome.