A Look at the Lives of the First 12 Roman Emperors (the "Caesars")

The Death of Julius Caesar
The Death of Julius Caesar. duncan1890/Getty Images

Learn more about the first twelve emperors of Rome. 

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Julius Caesar

Denarius of Julius Caesar
Silver denarius bearing the head of Julius Caesar as Pontifex Maximus, struck 44-45 B.C. G. Ferrero, The Women of the Caesars, New York, 1911. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

(Gaius) Julius Caesar was a great Roman leader at the end of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar was born 3 days before the Ides of July, on July 13 in c. 100 B.C. 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 B.C. 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

Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus Augustus. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Gaius Octavius -- aka Augustus -- was born on September 23, 63 B.C., 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 B.C.) 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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Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus
Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Tiberius was born 42 B.C.; Died A.D. 37; Reigned as Emperor A.D. 14-37. (More info on Tiberius beneath his picture.)

Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome, was not the first choice of Augustus and was not 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 Ti. Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His mother divorced and remarried Octavian (Augustus) in 39 B.C. Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina in about 20 B.C. He became consul in 13 B.C. and had a son Drusus. In 12 B.C., 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, A.D. 37.

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Caligula "Little Boots"

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Caligula. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Soldiers nicknamed the boy Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Caligula 'little boots' for the small army boots he wore when with his father's troops. More below.

Known as "Caligula" 'Little Boots', Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born August 31, A.D. 12, died A.D. 41, and ruled as emperor A.D. 37-41. 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.

When Emperor Tiberius died, on March 16, A.D. 37, 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, A.D. 41.

In his Caligula: The Corruption of Power, 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.

Sources on 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 1st century biographer Suetonius. Seneca the Younger was a contemporary, but he was a philosopher with personal reasons for disliking the emperor -- Caligula's criticism of Seneca's writing and his sending Seneca into exile. Philo of Alexandria is another contemporary, who was concerned with the problems of Jews and blamed the Alexandrian Greeks and Caligula. Another Jewish historian was Josephus, a bit later. He details 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.'"
    From Robert Graves' translation of Suetonius' Life of Caligula.
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Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Ti. Claudius Nero Germanicus (born 10 B.C., died 54 A.D., ruled as emperor, January 24, 41- October 13, 54 A.D.) More below....

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, A.D. 41. 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). 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 A.D. 50, 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, A.D. 54. Britannicus is thought to have died unnaturally in 55.

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Imperator Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Nero. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (born December 15, AD 37, died June AD 68, ruled October 13, 54 - 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

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Caligula's sister Agrippina the Younger, was born on Dec. 15 A.D. 37 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 A.D. 62 and the fire in Rome of A.D. 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 led Nero to commit suicide himself on June 9 A.D. 68 in Rome.

Sources and More Reading

Major sources on Nero include Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio, as well as inscriptions and coins.

  • "Nero as Incendiary," by Robert K. Bohm. The Classical World, Vol. 79, No. 6 (Jul. - Aug., 1986), pp. 400-401.
  • "Notes on the Early Life of Nero," by Russel Mortimer Geer. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 62, (1931), pp. 57-67.
  • "Zenodorus's "Colossus of Nero," by Fred C. Albertson. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 46, (2001), pp. 95-118.
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Emperor Galba
Servius Galba Imperator Caesar Augustus Emperor Galba. © British Museum Coin Collection and portableantiquities

One of the emperors during the year of the four emperors. (More info on Galba his beneath picture.)

Servius Galba was born December 24, 3 B.C., 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, coming to Rome in October 68, in the company of Otho, governor of Lusitania. Although there is 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.

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.


  • "The Emperor Galba's Assumption of Power: Some Chronological Considerations," by Arcadio del Castillo. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 51, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 2002), pp. 449-461.
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Imperator Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus Otho. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

One of the emperors during the year of the four emperors. (More info on Otho beneath his picture.)

Otho (Marcus Salvius Otho, born on 28 April A. D. 32 and died on 16 April A.D. 69) of Etruscan ancestry and the son of a Roman knight, was emperor of Rome in A.D. 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.

Read more about Otho.

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Aulus Vitellius Vitellius. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

One of the emperors during the year of the four emperors. (More info on Vitellius beneath his image.)

Vitellius was born in September A.D. 15. 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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Imperator Titus Flavius Vespasianus Caesar Vespasian. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Following the Julio-Claudians and the chaotic year of the four emperors, Vespasian was the first of the Flavian Dynasty of Roman emperors. More below....

Titus Flavius Vespasianus was born in A.D. 9, and ruled as emperor from A.D. 69 until his death 10 years later. He was 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 A.D. 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. 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 ( A history of Roman literature By Harold North Fowler).

Vespasian died of natural causes on June 23, A.D. 79.


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Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus
Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Titus was the second of the Flavian emperors and the older son of Emperor Vespasian. (More info on Titus beneath his picture.)

Titus, the older brother of Domitian, and the older son of the Emperor Vespasian and his wife Domitilla, was born December 30 around 41 A.D. He grew up in the company of Britannicus, son of the Emperor Claudius, and shared his 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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Imperator Caesar Domitianus Germanicus Augustus Domitian. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Domitian was the last of the Flavian emperors. (More info on Domitian beneath his picture.)

Domitian was born in Rome on October 24 A.D. 51, 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. Then 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, A.D. 96), the Senate had his memory erased (damnatio memoriae).