because history just ain't what it used to be

Were the Early Roman Emperors Really Fit to Lead?

In History on March 17, 2010 at 19:22

by David Knaide

The first Julio-Claudian dynasty consisted of the very first emperors of Rome, and although they started the Roman Empire, some of them were crazy tyrants who greatly abused their power. Following the death of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire started, and instead of having a Republic, individual emperors held the sole power. Aside from Augustus, the first emperor, probably the only reason they became emperors was because each had to be of family relation to the previous one. The emperors were not able to choose their heirs, and as a result, unfit men became all-powerful rulers of Rome. Some of the earliest emperors of Rome were quite unfit to hold this position.

Julius Caesar’s heir and the very first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar, did a good job of restoring order after the death of Caesar. However, the other emperors in the dynasty either did not want to rule the empire or were abusive of the power they had. The second Roman emperor was Tiberius. In the beginning of his reign, he did not seem to be ready for such power. In fact, he did not seem to want to be emperor at all, and he tried to use as little power as possible. (“Tiberius.” Wikipedia. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius#cite_note-40.) It did not take long, however, for this to change. Tacitus, an ancient historian who lived very shortly after Tiberius, wrote, “Suddenly fortune deranged everything; the emperor became a cruel tyrant, as well as an abettor of cruelty in others.” (“The Annals by Tacitus.” The Internet Classics Archive: 441 Searchable Works of Classical Literature. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.4.iv.html.) This became clear when Tiberius had a man called Sejanus killed because he was supposedly trying to become emperor himself. Tiberius did not stop there; he had anyone associated with Sejanus in any way assassinated. (“Tiberius.” Wikipedia. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius#cite_note-40.) Tiberius was definitely unfit for a position of such great power.

Though Tiberius was a bad emperor, his successor, Caligula, was far worse. Caligula was certifiably insane, and he abused his power greatly. Aside from this, he is said to have had a scandalous relationship with his own sister. His insanity is proven in the fact that he tried to make his horse a consul. (“Roman Emperors – DIR Caligula.” Roman Emperors – DIR. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.roman-emperors.org/gaius.htm.) Caligula not only insane, but he was also extremely cruel. He had many people killed, even those who were very close with him. For example, he had his own father-in-law murder himself on account of treason. He did the same thing to his right-hand man, Macro. Just a year or two after he became emperor, Caligula had almost driven the Roman Empire to become bankrupt. (“Caligula.” VROMA :: Home. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/caligula.html.) This is probably because he was wasting so much money on an unnecessary floating bridge made of ships. Without much money and ships for transport, Caligula caused the people to experience a famine. Despite the problems he caused, Caligula was very self-absorbed, and he thought of himself as a divine being. This cruel emperor was clearly not very popular among the people, so it is not surprise that after only four years of rule, he was assassinated. (“Caligula.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caligula.) It is obvious by looking at Caligula’s actions that he did not deserve the title of Emperor.

The next emperor in the Julio-Claudian Dynasty was Claudius, who was forced into the position after Caligula’s death. He had almost no experience, and when he was called to the Capitol, he returned word that he would not come. (“Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: Life of Claudius.” FORDHAM.EDU. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-claudius-worthington.html.) In fact, he was found hiding behind a curtain, and it is clear that he did not want to become emperor. He was a bit of a pushover; the first thing he did when he became emperor was pay the military a large sum of money so they would be loyal to him. (“Claudius.” The Roman Empire. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.roman-empire.net/emperors/claudius.html.) The Senate did not like him throughout his reign, and there were several attempts to kill him. Claudius was definitely not good at choosing a wife; he married four times, his third wife attempted to kill him, and his fourth succeeded. Because he did not want to become emperor in the first place, Claudius was not fit to have so much power.

Though he was the last emperor of the first dynasty, Nero was one of the worst. He had his own mother, who had helped him rise to the top, murdered after he came to power. Nero was another egotistical emperor, and one of his most infamous acts is the fire of Rome. He is said to have started a great fire at the Circus Maximus that spread and burned everything in its path for over five days. He supposedly did this in order to make space for the building of a new complex in his honor. In order to shift the blame away from himself, he targeted the Christians and had many of the killed and persecuted. (“Emperor Nero: 54-68.” Then Again. . . Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/Mediterranean/Nero.html.) Aside from this, Nero spent more time in Greece than he did in Rome. It seems that his own pleasures were more important to him than ruling the Roman Empire. The people eventually grew tired of him and actually forced him to commit suicide. Even on the verge of death, Nero remained egotistical and kept saying, “What an artist the world is losing!” (“Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Nero, C. 110 C.E.”FORDHAM.EDU. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suet-nero-rolfe.html.) Because he was so self-absorbed and interested in his own happiness, he was quite an unfit emperor of Rome.

The emperors of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero – were the first of the Roman Empire. Some of them were too selfish while others did not even want to be emperor. Aside from Augustus, the men of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty caused Rome a lot of trouble, and they were certainly unfit to be emperors.

Works Cited

“Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Nero, C. 110 C.E.” FORDHAM.EDU. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suet-nero-rolfe.html.

“Ancient History Sourcebook: Suetonius: Life of Claudius.” FORDHAM.EDU. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-claudius-worthington.html.

“The Annals by Tacitus.” The Internet Classics Archive: 441 Searchable Works of Classical Literature. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.4.iv.html.

“Caligula.” VROMA :: Home. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/caligula.html.

“Caligula.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caligula.

“Claudius.” The Roman Empire. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.roman-empire.net/emperors/claudius.html.

“Emperor Nero: 54-68.” Then Again. . . Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/Mediterranean/Nero.html.

“Nero.” NNDB: Tracking the Entire World. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.nndb.com/people/925/000087664.

“Roman Emperors – DIR Caligula.” Roman Emperors – DIR–De Imperatoribus Romanis Roman History Roman Roman Empire Imperator Basileus De Imperatoribus Romanis Encyclopedia Byzantine. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. http://www.roman-emperors.org/gaius.htm.

“Tiberius.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius#cite_note-40.

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  1. You guys are AWESOME!!! I just shared this article with my World Civ I class at Bunker Hill Community College–we’ve just been considering a very similar question with some of the same sources (Suetonius): what did “good leadership” mean in the early Roman Empire? Was their idea of a a good leader similar to ours or different? Maybe you’ll get some responses to this post from my class!

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