How the Romans Handled Problems of Imperial Successions

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Imperial Succession: Heirs vs Usurpers

Image ID: 1624736. The later Roman emperors.
Image ID: 1624736. The later Roman emperors. (1906) "Caracalla; Domitian; Trajan; Diocletian; Constantine; Septimius-Severus; Antoninus; Commodus; Julius; Hadrian". © NYPL Digital Gallery

The Rise of Kingdoms in the Roman Empire: Part III

Odoacer was only one in a long line of men who usurped the imperial throne. The imperial system lacked a fixed plan for succession. It's true that some men succeeded their fathers. Heredity or naming one's heir often worked out well, but the military, the Senate (ratifying the power of emperors), and Praetorian Guard worked swiftly to replace emperors who died without naming a successor.

Some Memorable Heirs

The first four men in the period of the five good emperors -- a period that followed the Julio-Claudian and the Flavian Dynasties where succession was at least in some sense biological -- failed to produce a biological heir. This may have had something to do with the good emperors' positive reputation in history, although their relative maturity at accession may also have been responsible. (Biological heirs inherit the throne when their father or other [usually male] relative dies, regardless of the age and training of his successor.)

~The fifth and final good emperor, Marcus Aurelius, broke this heir-selection pattern. His 18-year old son and heir, Commodus, who was one of the most unpopular emperors ever, succeeded him. Commodus was assassinated in a palace plot when he was 31.

~The emperor famed for his transvestism, Elagabalus, may have become emperor on the basis of a claim that his mother had an affair with Emperor Caracalla.

~And, as noted above, the first five, Julio-Claudian emperors, known for the supposedly perverted Tiberius, mad Caligula and suspected arsonist Nero, were related. That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement.

More on the Topic:

Usurpers Common, Especially in the 3rd Century

Heredity or bequests weren't necessary. Usurpation worked just as well. During the period known as the Crisis of the Third Century or the Age of Chaos (A.D. 235 to 284), there were 22 emperors, most of whom were assassinated. At the start of the fourth century, Burgundians named the usurper Jovinus emperor. In exchange for the elevation to the purple, he made them friends of Rome. Shortly thereafter, they acquired a kingdom, but this time, not for supporting a usurper, but for their loyalty to Rome.

Odoacer was the first to choose to refer to himself as rex italiae 'king of Italy' instead of emperor, but he wasn't the first king in the Roman empire. Earlier, Constantine's nephew Hannibalianus was made king of kings of Bithynia and Pontus in 335 (Goldsworthy, p.195). He was executed in 337. Table-turning continued. The throne of Emperor Julius Nepos had been usurped by Romulus Augustulus' father. After Odoacer usurped Romulus Augustulus' throne, he was recognized as legitimate ruler (with the title of "patrician") by the remaining Roman emperor in the East, Emperor Zeno1. The title of patrician2 was, in this late period, a non-hereditary honor usually given leading senators or the top commander. Although Italy was technically part of the Roman Empire, it was in reality a separate kingdom, emancipated from direct imperial control (Pelham, Outlines of Roman History (1895)). Following Odoacer's 14 years as king, the childless Ostrogothic King Theoderic replaced him (with imperial approval), traditionally, by slaying him himself.

[ 1: There are also famous ancient Greek philosophers of the same name.]
[2: Terry Pratchett's classical allusion-laden fictional Discworld series features an autocrat known as the Patrician.]

The Rise of Kingdoms in the Roman Empire Part

1 - Ancient History: From Prehistory to the Early Middle Ages
2 - Other Dates for Rome's Fall: Pros and Cons
3 - How the Romans Handled Problems of Imperial Successions
4 - The Barbarian at the Gates
5 - Early Rome and the Issue of Kings
6 - Caesar's Role in the Collapse of the Roman Republic
7 - Challenges the Empire Faced and Resolved by Division
8 - Administrative Units of the Later Roman Empire
9 - Kings Replace the Roman Emperor
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "How the Romans Handled Problems of Imperial Successions." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, Gill, N.S. (2016, August 9). How the Romans Handled Problems of Imperial Successions. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "How the Romans Handled Problems of Imperial Successions." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).