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Published On: Sat, Nov 11th, 2017

A Succinct Timeline of Roman Emperors—400 Years of Power Condensed

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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.

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.)

Emperor Caligula.

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.

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.

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.

Vespasian. Plaster cast in Pushkin museum after original in Louvre.

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.

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

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