A Look at the Lives of the First 12 Roman Emperors

The Julio-Claudian and Flavian Caesars of Rome

The Death of Julius Caesar
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Most of the first 12 emperors of the Roman Empire fall into two dynasties: the five Julio-Claudians (27 BCE–68 CE, including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) and the three Flavians (69–79 CE, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). Others on the list provided to us by the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly known as Suetonius (ca. 69–after 122 CE) include Julius, the last leader of the Roman Republic, who was not properly an emperor although his predilections in that direction got him assassinated; and three leaders who were not around long enough to establish dynasties: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, all of whom ruled briefly and died in the "Year of the Four Emperors," 69 CE. 

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Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was a great Roman leader at the end of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar was born three days before the Ides of July, on July 13 in c. 100 BCE. His father's family was from the patrician gens of the Julii, which traced its lineage to the first king of Rome, Romulus, and the goddess Venus. His parents were Gaius Caesar and Aurelia, daughter of Lucius Aurelius Cotta. Caesar was related by marriage to Marius, who supported the populares, and opposed Sulla, who supported the optimates.

In 44 BCE conspirators claiming they feared Caesar was aiming to become king assassinated Caesar on the Ides of March.

 Of note:

  1. Julius Caesar was a general, a statesman, a lawgiver, an orator, and historian.
  2. He never lost a war.
  3. Caesar fixed the calendar.
  4. He is thought to have created the first news sheet, Acta Diurna, which was posted on the forum to let everyone who cared to read it know what the Assembly and Senate were up to.
  5. He instigated an enduring law against extortion.

Note that although the word Caesar signifies the ruler of the Roman emperor, in the case of the first of the Caesars, it was just his name. Julius Caesar was not an emperor.

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Octavian (Augustus)

Gaius Octavius—known as Augustus—was born on September 23, 63 BCE, to a prosperous family of knights. He was Julius Caesar's great-nephew. 

Augustus was born in Velitrae, southeast of Rome. His father (d. 59 BCE) was a Senator who became Praetor. His mother, Atia, was the niece of Julius Caesar. Augustus' rule of Rome ushered in an era of peace. He was so important to Roman history that the age which he dominated is called by his title—the Augustan Age

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Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome (born 42 BCE, died 37 CE) reigned as Emperor between 14–37 CE.

Tiberius was neither the first choice of Augustus nor popular with the Roman people. When he went into self-imposed exile to the island of Capri and left the ruthless, ambitious Praetorian Prefect, L. Aelius Sejanus, in charge back at Rome, he sealed his everlasting fame. If that weren't enough, Tiberius angered the senators by invoking treason (maiestas) charges against his enemies, and while in Capri he may have engaged in sexual perversions that were unsavory for the times and would be criminal in the U.S. today.

Tiberius was the son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His mother divorced and remarried Octavian (Augustus) in 39 BCE. Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina in about 20 BCE. He became consul in 13 BCE. and had a son Drusus. In 12 BCE, Augustus insisted that Tiberius get a divorce so he could marry Augustus' widowed daughter, Julia. This marriage was unhappy, but it put Tiberius in line for the throne for the first time. Tiberius deserted Rome for the first time (he did again at the end of his life) and went to Rhodes. When Augustus' succession plans had been foiled by deaths, he adopted Tiberius as his son and had Tiberius adopt as his own son his nephew Germanicus. The last year of his life, Augustus shared the rule with Tiberius and when he died, Tiberius was voted emperor by the senate.

Tiberius trusted Sejanus and appeared to be grooming him for his replacement when he was betrayed. Sejanus, his family and friends were tried, executed, or committed suicide. After the betrayal of Sejanus, Tiberius let Rome run itself and stayed away. He died at Misenum on March 16, 37 CE.

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Caligula "Little Boots"

Known as "Caligula" ('Little Boots'), Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born August 31, CE 12, died 41 CE, and ruled as emperor 37–41 CE. Caligula was the son of Augustus' adopted grandson, the very popular Germanicus, and his wife, Agrippina the Elder who was Augustus' granddaughter and a paragon of womanly virtue.

Soldiers nicknamed the boy Caligula 'little boots' for the small army boots he wore when with his father's troops.

When Emperor Tiberius died, on March 16, 37 CE, his will named Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus heirs. Caligula had the will voided and became sole emperor. Initially Caligula was very generous and popular, but that quickly changed. He was cruel, indulged in sexual aberrations that offended Rome, and was considered insane. The Praetorian Guard had him killed on January 24, 41 CE.

In his Caligula: The Corruption of Power, British historian Anthony A. Barrett lists several consequential events during Caligula's reign. Among others, he developed the policy that would soon be implemented in Britain. He was also the first of the men who would serve as full-fledged emperors, with unlimited power.

The Real Caligula

Barrett says there are serious difficulties in accounting for the life and reign of the Emperor Caligula. The period of Caligula's 4-year reign is missing from Tacitus' account of the Julio-Claudians. As a result, the historical sources are limited mainly to the late writers, the third century historian Cassius Dio and the late first century biographer Suetonius. Seneca the Younger was a contemporary, but he was a philosopher with personal reasons for disliking the emperor—Caligula criticized Seneca's writing and sent him into exile. Philo of Alexandria is another contemporary, who was concerned with the problems of Jews and blamed those problems on the Alexandrian Greeks and Caligula. Another Jewish historian was Josephus, a bit later. He detailed the death of Caligula, but Barrett says his account is confused and riddled with mistakes.

Barrett adds that most of the material on Caligula is trivial. It's even hard to present a chronology. However, Caligula fires the popular imagination far more than many other emperors with similarly short stints on the throne.

Tiberius on Caligula

Remembering that Tiberius did not name Caligula as sole successor, even though he recognized the likelihood that Caligula would murder any rivals, Tiberius made prescient remarks:

  • "You will slay this boy, and will be yourself slain by another."
    Tacitus Annals VI.
  • "'I am nursing a viper in Rome's bosom,' he once said. 'I am educating a Phaethon who will mishandle the fiery sun-chariot and scorch the whole world.'"
    The quotes come from Robert Graves' translation of Suetonius' Life of Caligula.
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Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus (10 BCE–54 CE), ruled as emperor, January 24, 41 CE–October 13, 54 CE) and known as Claudius, suffered from various physical infirmities which many thought reflected his mental state. As a result, Claudius was secluded, a fact that kept him safe. Having no public duties to perform, Claudius was free to pursue his interests. His first public office came at the age of 46. Claudius became emperor shortly after his nephew was assassinated by his bodyguard, on January 24, 41 CE. The tradition is that Claudius was found by some of the Praetorian Guard hiding behind a curtain. The guard hailed him as emperor.

It was during the reign of Claudius that Rome conquered Britain (43 CE). Claudius' son, born in 41, who had been named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, was re-named Britannicus for this. As Tacitus describes in his Agricola, Aulus Plautius was Britain's first Roman governor, appointed by Claudius after Plautius had led the successful invasion, with a Roman force that included the future Flavian emperor Vespasian whose older son, Titus, was a friend of Britannicus.

After adopting his fourth wife's son, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero), in 50 CE, Claudius made it clear that Nero was preferred for the succession over Britannicus. Tradition has it that Claudius' wife Agrippina, now secure in her son's future, killed her husband by means of a poison mushroom on October 13, 54 CE. Britannicus is thought to have died unnaturally in 55.

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Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (December 15, 37 CE–June 9, 68 CE, ruled the Roman Empire between October 13, 54 and June 9, 68.

"Although Nero's death had at first been welcomed with outbursts of joy, it roused varying emotions, not only in the city among the senators and people and the city soldiery, but also among all the legions and the generals; for the secret of empire was now disclosed, that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome."
-Tacitus Histories I.4

The boy who would become Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, on Dec. 15, 37 CE, the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Caligula's sister Agrippina the Younger at Antium, which is also where Nero was staying when the famous fire broke out. His father died in 40. As a young boy, Lucius received many honors, including leading youth in the Trojan Games in 47 and being prefect of the city (probably) for the 53 spring Latin games. He was allowed to wear the toga virilis at a young age (probably 14) instead of at the normal 16. Lucius' stepfather, the Emperor Claudius, died, probably at the hands of his wife Agrippina. Lucius, whose name had been changed to Nero Claudius Caesar (showing lineage from Augustus), became the Emperor Nero.

A series of unpopular treason laws in 62 CE and the fire in Rome in 64 helped seal Nero's reputation. Nero used the treason laws to kill whomever Nero considered a threat and the fire gave him the opportunity to build his golden palace, the "domus aurea." Between 64 and 68 a colossal statue of Nero was built that stood in the vestibule of the domus aurea. It was moved during the reign of Hadrian and was probably destroyed by the Goths in 410 or by earthquakes. Unrest throughout the empire eventually led Nero to commit suicide himself on June 9, 68 in Rome.

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Servius Galba (December 24, 3 BCE–January 15, 69, ruled 68–69) was born in Tarracina, the son of C. Sulpicius Galba and Mummia Achaica. Galba served in civil and military positions throughout the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors, but when he (then governor of Hispania Tarraconensis) became aware that Nero wanted him killed, he rebelled. Galba's agents won over to their side Nero's praetorian prefect. After Nero committed suicide, Galba, who was in Hispania, became emperor, arriving in Rome in October 68, in the company of Otho, governor of Lusitania. Although there is scholarly debate as to when Galba actually assumed power, taking titles of emperor and caesar, there is a dedication from October 15, 68 about the restoration of liberty that implies his ascension.

Galba antagonized many, including Otho, who promised financial rewards to the praetorians in exchange for their support. They declared Otho emperor on January 15, 69, and killed Galba.

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Otho (Marcus Salvius Otho, April 28, 32–April 16, 69) was of Etruscan ancestry and the son of a Roman knight, and he became emperor of Rome on the death of Galba in 69. He had entertained hopes of being adopted by Galba whom he had helped, but then turned against Galba. After Otho's soldiers proclaimed him emperor on January 15, 69, he had Galba assassinated. Meanwhile the troops in Germany proclaimed Vitellius emperor. Otho offered to share the power and to make Vitellius his son-in-law, but that was not in the cards.

After Otho's defeat at Bedriacum on April 14, it is thought that shame led Otho to plan his suicide. He was succeeded by Vitellius.

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Vitellius was born in September of 15 CE and spent his youth at Capri. He was on friendly terms with the last three Julio-Claudians and advanced to proconsul of North Africa. He was also a member of two priesthoods, including the Arval brotherhood. Galba appointed him governor of Lower Germany in 68.

Vitellus' troops proclaimed him emperor the next year instead of swearing their allegiance to Galba. In April, the soldiers in Rome and the Senate swore their allegiance to Vitellius. Vitellius made himself consul for life and pontifex maximus. By July, the soldiers of Egypt were supporting Vespasian. Otho's troops and others supported the Flavians, who marched into Rome.

Vitellius met his end by being tortured on the Scalae Gemoniae, killed and dragged by a hook into the Tiber.

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Titus Flavius Vespasianus was born in 9 CE, and ruled as emperor from 69 until his death 10 years later, succeeded by his son Titus. Vespasian's parents, of the equestrian class, were T. Flavius Sabinus and Vespasia Polla. Vespasian married Flavia Domitilla with whom he had a daughter and two sons, Titus and Domitian, both of whom became emperors.

Following a revolt in Judaea in 66, Nero gave Vespasian a special commission to take care of it. Following the suicide of Nero, Vespasian swore allegiance to his successors, but then revolted with the governor of Syria in spring of 69. He left the siege of Jerusalem to his son Titus.

On December 20, Vespasian arrived in Rome and Vitellius was dead. Vespasian, who then became emperor, launched a building plan and restoration of the city of Rome at a time when its wealth had been depleted by civil wars and irresponsible leadership. Vespasian reckoned that he needed 40 billion sesterces to fix Rome, so he inflated the currency and increased provincial taxation. He also gave money to insolvent senators so they could keep their positions. Suetonius says

"He was the first to establish a regular salary of a hundred thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid from the privy purse."
1914 Loeb translation of Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars "The Life of Vespasian"

For this reason it can be said that Vespasian was the first to start a system of public education.

Vespasian died of natural causes on June 23, 79.

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Titus, the older brother of Domitian, and the older son of the Emperor Vespasian and his wife Domitilla, was born December 30 in 41 CE. He grew up in the company of Britannicus, son of the Emperor Claudius, and shared Britannicus' training. This meant Titus had enough military training and was ready to be a legatus legionis when his father Vespasian received his Judaean command. While in Judaea, Titus fell in love with Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa. She later came to Rome where Titus continued his affair with her until he became emperor. When Vespasian died on June 24, 79, Titus became emperor. He lived another 26 months.

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Domitian was born in Rome on October 24, 51 CE, to the future emperor Vespasian. His brother Titus was about 10 years his senior and joined their father on his military campaign in Judaea while Domitian remained in Rome. In about the year 70, Domitian married Domitia Longina, daughter of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.

Domitian did not receive real power until his older brother died, when he gained imperium (real Roman power), the title Augustus, tribunician power, the office of the pontifex maximus, and the title of pater patriae. He later took the role of censor. Although the economy of Rome had suffered in recent decades and his father had devalued the currency, Domitian was able to raise it slightly (first he raised and then he reduced the increase) for the duration of his tenure. he raised the amount of taxes paid by the provinces. He extended power to equestrians and had several members of the senatorial class executed. After his assassination (September 8, 96), the Senate had his memory erased (damnatio memoriae).

Sources and Further Reading

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "A Look at the Lives of the First 12 Roman Emperors." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/coins-of-the-12-caesars-4126834. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). A Look at the Lives of the First 12 Roman Emperors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/coins-of-the-12-caesars-4126834 Gill, N.S. "A Look at the Lives of the First 12 Roman Emperors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/coins-of-the-12-caesars-4126834 (accessed June 10, 2023).