The Principate of Augustus
AUGUSTUS (27 B.C.-14 A.D.) is generally understood as the founder of the Roman Empire. Still, he and his successors referred to themselves as princeps (first citizen) until the third century. His problem was essentially that of his predecessor: how to deal with the problems facing Roman society justly, according to the principles of fides while at the same time maintaining Rome’s imperial strength and supporting her allies. In the first case, Augustus successfully identified which parts of the body politic it was necessary to satisfy. The army, the equites, the provincials, and Roman client-kings in the east, along with Augustus’ close friends, were the immediate beneficiaries of his regime. As for the Senate, he actively discouraged its involvement in political affairs in Rome, but encouraged the Senators to remain active in the affairs of local communities. He also fostered the rise of the decurianal class in provincial towns. Local elites found that Augustus would provide them with legitimacy in exchange for loyalty, and many among the Senatorial aristocracy discovered that the areas beyond the walls of Rome offered more opportunities for their ambition than did the Roman magisterial tradition.
The first years after the battle of Actium saw a gradual resolution of the conflicts that had raged for the previous fifty years. During this time, Octavian was generally content to hold the office of Consul, after 29 jointly with Agrippa. In many respects, throughout this period Octavian followed Cicero’s conception of the moderator rei publicae. One of his first tasks was to restore the finances of the Roman state. Here he was able to call on the wealth of Egypt which, after the defeat of Cleopatra, became a personal possession of the Emperor. Egyptian wealth funded a series of public works projects and ensured that many old debts could be paid off. The result was an economic revival as interest rates fell and public confidence in the government was restored. Octavian also restored the splendor of Rome through building projects. His patronage of important literary figures, Horace, Livy, and above all Virgil, ensured the support, although by no means equivocal, of the Roman intelligencia. The literary and artistic monuments of the Augustan era aided in identifying his reign as the Golden Age of Roman civilization.
One problem left over from the Civil Wars was the army. Augustus drastically reduced its size, from sixty legions to twenty eight. This reduction, of course, created the need to provide for the veterans, numbering some 100,000 men. To deal with these, Octavian established a host of new colonies, twenty-eight in Italy, as well as others in Africa and Syria. By 28, Octavian appeared to have restored order in the Empire, and the Senate recognized his success by granting he and Agrippa censorial power. Through exercise of his censoria potestas Octavian reduced the size of the Senate from 1,000 members to 800. This act appealed to conservatives and seemed to mark a return to a more traditional political order. The senate proclaimed Octavian princeps senatus — first senator.
At this point Octavian made a bold move. In 27 he formally renounced all his offices and powers and placed them in the hands of the Senate. The Senators protested loudly, and he agreed to take up the administration of a number of provinces, including Spain, Gaul, and Syria for ten years. Three days later, on January 16, 27, he was voted additional honors, including the title “Augustus.” He continued to use the honorific princeps, applied in the past to great statesmen, including Pompey. His choice of titles was astute as it deflected concerns about him resurrecting the monarchy while placing him in the tradition of important figures of the Republic. The month Sextilis was renamed “August” in his honor. After a furtive rebellion in 23, the Senate extended Augustus’ power, granting him authority over all proconsuls. This effectively placed the entire Empire and the Army under his control, although Augustus was careful to use his authority sparingly. He preferred to accept responsibility for dealing with immediate crises, then retaining his control over those areas of public life that he had been called upon to attend to. Here the classic example is when, after a famine, he was asked to remedy problems with the grain supply for Rome. Thereafter, Augustus and his successors regulated the grain trade and the distribution of food stuffs in Rome. Through such measures, Augustus gradually increased his authority until no part of the public sphere lay outside his imperium.
In order to administer the Empire, Augustus turned increasingly to the equestrian order. He reformed the order, establishing new criteria for entry, and increased its political importance vis-a-vis the Senatorial aristocracy. Equestrians were used as territorial governors, in particular in Egypt, and made responsible for other matters. The effect was to create a stable centralized bureaucracy where there had been none before. Augustus also established military police units, the urban cohorts, in major cities. Through these actions, the irregular ad hoc system of administration found in the Republic was replaced with a more professional civil service. In the army as well, through his appointment of generals and officers, the Roman military was increasingly professionalized.
In the late Republic, Rome was rarely faced with a serious threat from abroad. The only major power besides Rome in the Mediterranean world was the Parthian empire. The Parthians had indeed defeated a major Roman force under Crassus and continued to pose a tacit threat to Rome’s eastern provinces. But the Arsacid kings were in fact rather weak. Their empire was a loose confederation of princely fiefs ruled by Satraps whose loyalty was often questionable. Rarely could a large standing army be assembled, and so the nature of warfare in the east tended towards low intensity conflicts where large legionary armies were of little importance. In the east, Augustus generally relied on maintaining diplomatic ties with client kings along the frontier. A string of client kingdoms, stretching from Armenia to Palestine, provided a buffer against the Parthians. Augustus preferred diplomacy to war in his dealings with the Arsacid kings.
Despite his preferences, Augustus recognized that maintaining his political capital depended on renewing Rome’s martial glory. For nearly a generation, Rome’s military power had been consumed in civil wars. There was, especially among many conservatives, a sense that Rome’s power was waning. Augustus undertook to remedy this, largely through skillful manipulation of propaganda. He proclaimed his intent to restore Rome’s position in the East following Anthony’s defeats and the catastrophe of Carrhae. Although coins proclaimed a military victory over the Parthians, Augustus was able to retrieve the lost legionary standards and fix the border through diplomatic means. He secured Rome’s control over northern Spain after thirteen years of bloody fighting, while his step-son Tiberius conquered Illyria and pushed the borders of the Empire to the Danube. Despite a serious revolt in Illyricum in 6 AD and the loss of three legions to the Cheruscan leader Arminius in the Teutoburger forest in 9 AD, Augustus could claim extensive military success. This, it should be noted, was consistent with a Republican legacy of imperialism, and endeared him to the more conservative and backward looking politicians.
While the military campaigns in the north and west are important, it should be noted that the primary role played by the legions under Augustus, as under the late Republic, was to maintain order in the provinces. Five legions were stationed in Spain, five or six along the German frontier, five in Illyricum, three or four in Macedonia, three or four in Syria, three in Egypt, one in Africa, and one or two along the central Danube. The posting of troops in the provinces for years on end necessitated several changes. First of all, the old citizen levies of the Republic were clearly unsuited to long-term garrison duty, and the army was transformed into a fully professional service. Secondly, traditional marching camps were ill-suited for quartering troops for long periods of time. In the east, the army was billeted in major towns; in the west, permanent legionary camps had to be constructed. The presence of permanent garrisons sped up the pace of Romanization in the provinces and served as a major spur to the development of local economies and their incorporation into the imperial economic system.
In the newly conquered regions of the west the impact of the Augustan settlement was far more significant than in the more urbanized east. Gaul in particular underwent a dramatic transformation in the sixty years that followed Caesar’s conquest.
Caesar had campaigned in Gaul for eight years, and in the wake of his conquest Gaul was in shambles. Hundreds of thousands of Gauls had been killed in the fighting, hundreds of thousands had been sold into slavery, maimed, and dispossessed. The old social and economic order had been utterly destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the war, however, neither Caesar nor Augustus were in a position to remedy these problems. Rather, they initially focused their energy on the old Transalpine province, improving the roads and establishing citizen colonies at Narbo (Narbonne), Areleta (Arles), Forum Julii (Fréjus), and Baeterrae (Béziers). Italian immigrants flocked to the new cities, which, through the actions of Agrippa, were transformed into miniature versions of Rome. Through his support of public buildings, Augustus was able to “generate a visual image of Romanness that could give encouragement to the idea of assimilation and promote a sense of common unity and shared values in a heterogeneous mix of peoples.” Through these practices, Transalpina was transformed within a few decades into an extension of Roman Italy.
It was not until the twenties before Augustus could attempt to reconstruct the war-torn northern portions of Gaul. The first step was to secure the military road from Transalpina to the upper Rhine. To this end, Caesar had constructed a road leading from Massalia north, protected by three colonies: Noviodunum (Nyon), Lugdunum (Lyon), and Augusta Raurica (Augst). Beyond this, however, Gaul remained little changed. A revolt by the Morini in western Belgica in 30 BC, followed by uprisings among the Treveri along the Rhine and the Aquitani in the years that followed, forced Augustus to turn his attention to consolidating Rome’s hold on Gaul. Three new provinces were created — Belgica, Aquitania, and Lugdunensis — in addition to the older Transalpine, now renamed Narbonensis. In the provinces administrative towns were founded at Augustodunum Aeduorum (Autun), Augusta Trevarorum (Trier), and Juliomagus Andecavorum (Angers). The first provided a new focus for the Aedui. Established 20 km. east of their old capital at Bibracte, Autun lay on the new military road that lead to the channel port of Gesoriacum (Boulogne). As a military, administrative, and economic center, Autun proved a magnet to the Aedui, who abandoned Bibracte and moved to the new city. Trier served a similar function, providing a focal point for the rebellious Treveri. Angers commanded the heights above the Loire river, the main highway connecting the Roman settlements in south eastern Gaul with the Atlantic.
In areas beyond these centers, the administration of Gaul was carried out largely by local leaders. A fixed feature of Gallic society had been noble retinues, bands of horsemen led by young aristocrats which carried out raids against neighboring peoples. Rome recruited these bands as cavalry auxiliaries. The effect of this policy was two-fold. First, by recruiting these bands, a disruptive element in society was tamed and redirected to suit Rome’s policies. Second, service under Roman arms introduced the Gauls to aspects of Roman culture and administration. After completing their service, the Gallic auxiliaries returned home as ambassadors of Roman civilization. In civilian affairs, with the demise of the older chieftaincies, leaders in the pagi of various tribes assumed responsibilities for local government. Initially, these local leaders even issued their own coinage and carried out their duties with minimal influence from Rome.
With the beginnings of the German campaigns in 12 BC, the Roman military presence in Gaul was stepped up, with at least 45,000 legionaries stationed along the Rhine. These provided a ready market for locally produced wares, and the Gallic economy experience a significant boom. The production of metal wares and pottery, in particular the highly successful terra siglata, increased. In addition, Gaul now was fully integrated into the trade networks with Italy. One significant change was that now trade shifted away from the older Atlantic route, over Toulouse to the Garonne river, and was concentrated along the eastern frontier. Here the Belgii came to play an important role, providing food stuffs and other supplies for Roman troops along the northern frontier, while acting as middlemen in trade between Britain and Gaul.
The impact of Augustus’ reorganization of Gaul was felt beyond the area of direct Roman control. Prior to Caesar’s conquest, Gaul had been a major source of slaves. Although the Gallic war initially produced a slave surplus, with the acquisition of Gaul, it was no longer possible to harvest its population to fill Italy’s demand for servile labor. Instead, Rome was forced to turn to Britain as a source. Here the important link was through Belgica, and it appears that Belgii were even settling in southern and eastern Britain in the years surrounding the conquest. Contacts with the Roman economy and political influence led to the emergence of a more urbanized society in the first century AD. Nonetheless, the corrosive influence of the slave trade had a destabilizing effect on Britain, creating a condition of endemic warfare fed by Rome’s unceasing demand for human capital. As before in Gaul, wine was the primary item which Rome offered, only now Gallic and Spanish vineyards replaced Italian ones as the source.
Augustus’ consolidation of Gaul is instructive on a number of points. First of all, the growth of the Gallic economy and its stimulating effects on the economies of Spain and Britain, occurred, to some extent, at the expense of Italy. The opening of new trade routes and access to cheap labor, and the opportunities for service in the provincial military and civil administration ultimately effected a shift of political and economic activity away from Italy to the periphery. Secondly, the Gallic settlement is in many ways symptomatic of the nature of the “Augustan Revolution.” Augustus merely brought to completion a process that had begun under the Republic, and his administration was built primarily upon foundations laid down before Caesar’s conquest. In that sense, as impressive as the transformation of Gaul in the years 50 BC to 10 AD might be, it was accomplished though fundamentally traditional means.
Perhaps the thorniest problem faced by Augustus was not a matter of foreign policy. It was the succession to the principate. Initially Augustus hoped to leave his empire to his nephew Marcellus, but this led to a conflict with his old colleague Agrippa. The sudden death of Marcellus in 23 BC perhaps prevented a full scale rift, and Augustus recognized Agrippa as his heir. Agrippa married his daughter Julia, Marcellus’ widow, to seal the deal. Agrippa died in 12 BC, but he left behind three sons by Julia: Gaius, Lucius, and Posthumus. On these Augustus’ pinned his hopes, and for some years felt certain that one of his grandsons would succeed to the principate. But it was not to be. Lucius died in 2 AD; Gaius followed his brother to the grave two years later. That left Posthumus, but on the advise of his wife Livia, Augustus agreed to pass over him and name her son Tiberius as heir. As before, Julia was the cement to seal the bargain, but she and Tiberius did not get on. Her outrageous behavior and manifest adultery led to her banishment, along with her son Posthumus. Ultimately, deprived of any heirs of his body, Augustus was forced to leave his empire to Tiberius when he died in 14 AD. The failure of his plans to erect a hereditary monarchy plagued the Empire for generations, and throughout its history, rebellion and assassination formed the chief means of succession.
All that being said, it can be stated with certainty that Augustus truly created the Roman principate. To a large extent this was an accident — by the time of his death he had held supreme power for forty-four years, and hardly anyone remained who could remember the Republic. And while it cannot be said that he did not create a new political system, his policies at home and abroad derived from established methods. In that sense, the transformation of the empire under Augustus was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Augustus was very careful to cover his actions with the veil of legality. Under the Republic, the Senate had never had any legally secured position. Augustus, however, scrupulously confirmed his power by Senatorial decrees. He ruled the provinces through his proconsular imperium following standard practices, and maintained his position in Rome by holding consulships and tribunates, voted to him for periods of ten and five years. At the same time, there was a subtle drift of power to the imperial office. Augustus ruled on the basis of his auctoritas. By the time of his death, he was worshipped in the east as a god, while a substantial Imperial cult began to emerge in the west. The deification of the emperor represented a postiori a sense that divine power was the only explanation for the new political stability and the benefits derived from Augustus’ rule. Here we can see the growth of imperial power on two levels: a gradual absorption of republican functions and offices into the realm of Augustus’ imperium; and the growth of extra-constitutional bases of power, the army and the imperial cult, which gradually assumed greater significance than the older offices of the Republic.
The principate of Augustus, with its curious mix of autocracy and traditional Republican ideals, provided the model for all successive emperors. For the next two centuries, the preservation of the Augustan system, derived from Ciceronian ideals, was the crucial dynamic of imperial politics. As Mason Hammond observed:
The ideal of the principate, that of cooperation between the Senate, representing the best men of the state, Cicero’s optimi cives, and the princeps, the first among equals, remained the criterion by which later generations judged their rulers. The emperors from Tiberius to Severus Alexander are still called ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to the degree that they modeled themselves on or departed from this Augustan ideal.
Rome and the Germans
THE latter part of Augustus’ reign saw perhaps the most audacious of that ruler’s undertakings, the conquest of Germany. After some initial spectacular successes, the Roman advance into Germany was halted and turned back in a series of stunning reverses. Although Tiberius continued the war, he soon broke it off, leaving the Rhine and Danube rivers as the northern limits of Roman rule. From that point onwards, Rome continued to look warily at her Germanic neighbors, and a complex interaction began which ultimately would lead to the destruction of the Western Empire.
Who were the Germani? This is not a simple question, but rather has consistently been the subject of intense debate, often sparked more by political than scholarly motives. The early Greeks knew nothing of them. While Herodotus discussed the Celts and “Scythians,” an Iranian people who settled along the Danube and Black Sea, he appears totally ignorant about the residents of north central Europe. The first ancient author to distinguish the Germans from the Celts was Pytheas of Massalia in the fourth century BC. Thereafter, no ancient writer dealt with the subject for some two centuries. The next author to take up the German question was Posidonius of Apamea (ca. 135-50 BC) a teacher of Cicero and author of a now-lost set of histories which provided later authors, principally Sallust, Caesar, Tacitus, and Plutarch, with much of their information on the events of the late second and early first century. The context for Posidonius’ ethnographic discussions of the Germans was a series of raids by the Cimbri and Teutones into Gaul and Italy between 113 and 101 BC. But since all we have of Posidonius concerning the Germans are isolated fragments, we are forced to turn to later authors for our information.
The first significant work dealing with the Germans is Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Caesar gave a fairly detailed account of the nature of the Germans in the first century AD. He identified the Rhine as a major cultural dividing line, and noted that while the Celts lived a more settled life, the Germans were a very primitive, semi-nomadic people. He identified the Suebi as the leading tribe among them, but was none-too-forthcoming with praise for their political or military skill.
The direct confrontations between Rome and the Germans after 12 BC sparked a wealth of new literature on the subject. One important author from the first century AD was Velleius Paterculus. He had served as an officer along the Rhine at the time of the Varian disaster of 9 AD, and his account of the German wars presents Rome’s enemy in a vicious light. Indeed, Velleius Paterculus may be seen as a chief contributor to the Roman tendency to view the Germans with a mixture of fear, mistrust, and vehement hatred. Less bellicose was the Bellum Germaniae of the elder Pliny. Though now lost, Pliny’s work continued in the tradition of older ethnography and provided the main source for Tacitus’ famous second century work, the Germania.
Tacitus remains the most widely read source on the early Germans, but by the time his work was written (ca. 120 AD) the Germans had been in direct and constant contact with Rome for nearly two centuries. Hence the society he describes appears to be rather different from that hinted at in Caesar or Posidonius. So while Tacitus remains valuable, he is best read as a commentator on the state of Germany after it had encountered Rome. For the earlier period, in the absence of literary evidence, we must turn to linguistics and archaeology in our search for the origins of the Germanic peoples.
The Germanic peoples spoke an Indo-European language, part of a large sub-group which include the Baltic and Slavic families of languages. All of these dialects appear to have had their origins around the Baltic Sea, the Germanic languages emerging in the western most parts. The Germanic family of languages is divided, in turn, into three major groupings: Western Germanic (including the modern languages of German, Dutch, English, and Frisian); Northern Germanic (the Scandinavian languages, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic); Eastern Germanic (Gothic, Vandalic, Burgundian — all extinct). The center point of these dialects would appear to be Denmark, placing the point of origin for Germanic (or proto-Germanic) in the Danish peninsula, stretching perhaps north into Skåne in southern Sweden, and south along the coast between Holstein and the mouth of the Vistula. The standard date given for the emergence of Germanic as distinct from Balto-Slavic is between 2500 and 1000 BC, in other words, during the later Bronze Age.
This linguistic evidence corresponds to archeology. In Jutland and Holstein, a late Bronze Age culture, named after the Danish town of Jarstorf, emerged during this same time period, and exhibits many of the characteristics later identified as common to Germanic cultures in Scandinavia and on the continent. It would seem safe to assume, then, that the origins of the Germanic peoples and their language can be linked with the rise and spread of the Jarstorf culture at the end of the Bronze Age.
The spread of Germanic peoples into north-central Europe, however, appears to have occurred much later, in the third century BC. Prior to and during that time, they were deeply affected by contact with the Celtic peoples to the south. Imported Celtic metal wares, most notably the famous Gundestrop cauldron, are found in early Iron Age Danish graves. Germanic funerary practices also seemed to have followed Celtic models. It is not unlikely that marital alliances between Celtic and Germanic notables occurred, and, in general, the line between the two cultures is difficult to draw.
What seems to have inspired the southward movement of the Germans were the Celtic migrations associated with the emergence of the La Tène culture in the period after 500 BC. As the Celts moved further south, the Germanic peoples followed, reaching the Rhine and Danube in the second century BC. Two Celtic groups, the Boii along the lower Elbe, and the Scordisci on the middle Danubian plain, were strong enough to deflect penetration by the Germans into this area. Hence the Germanic peoples were split: one group continued south along the Rhine; another moved eastward into modern Poland on a trajectory towards the Black Sea. This latter group was in direct contact with the Slavs and Iranian peoples of the Pontic steppes, and their culture developed its own distinctive patterns. This contact with eastern peoples, moreover, might help to explain the differences between the Eastern Germanic dialects and those spoken in the west.
As mentioned earlier, Rome’s first direct contacts came with the raids of the Cimbri and Teutones during the time of Marius. In his description of the Germans, Caesar perhaps gives us a clue to understanding what lay behind these attacks:
The highest praise among the German states goes to those who ravage their borders and so maintain the wider unpopulated area around themselves. They think it a true mark of bravery to drive neighboring peoples from their land and force them to make way, so no one dares to dwell nearby. … There is no discredit attached to acts of robbery which take place outside the borders of each state: in fact, they claim that these take place to train their young men and reduce their laziness. And besides, when one of the leaders states at an assembly that he will take command, and that those who wish to support him must declare themselves, then the men who approve him and his cause rise up, pledge their assistance, and win praise from the people. Any who pledge assistance but then do not support him are considered deserters and traitors, and their word is distrusted in every respect from then on.
The image is of a society wherein aristocrats attract followings, chiefly for the purpose of raiding into the lands of their neighbors and maintaining acordon sanitaire around the settlements of their tribe. The aristocratic retinue, termed comitatus by Tacitus and later authors, emerges as the dominant extra-tribal association in primitive Germany. These retinues arose “feeding upon and fuelling the system of endemic warfare” and were probably composed of “warriors alienated from the land, whose livelihood was based entirely upon obtaining spoils.” The Cimbri and Teutonic raiders would appear to fit this description, of a military band arising on the fringes of society.
So, then, what conditioned the development of such bands? The history of the Celts offers a possible solution. Just as the La Tène culture arose among warriors on the periphery of the older Hallstatt centers, so too might the rise of the Germanic warrior aristocracy have been conditioned by the demands by the settled Celtic states of Gaul and the middle Danube on the Germanic peoples to the north. The demand for raw materials, including slaves, to feed the trading economies of the Celtic centers would have inspired competition among neighboring peoples to procure these resources, in return for prestige goods. But, as was the case in Gaul, these demands had a destabilizing effect, while the influx of status goods altered the traditional definitions of prestige.
The Roman advance to the Danube under Augustus most likely led to further disruption of the older social patterns and encouraged the rise of tyrannies in the closing years of the pre-Christian era. By 19 BC, Augustus had fairly well secured the stability of the Mediterranean rim, and a raid by the Sugambri into Belgica in 16 BC prompted an aggressive response. The following year, Roman legions crossed the Alps and conquered the Celtic tribes on the southern rim of the Danube, and Raeti and the Vindelici. Two new provinces, Raetia and Noricum, with its capital at Vindelicorum (Vienna) were established.
Once the Danubian frontier had been secured, Augustus began in earnest his conquest of Germany. His stepson Drusus led his armies across the Rhine in a series of campaigns between 12 and 9 BC. He advanced up the Lippe river, and pushed the limits of Roman military power to the Elbe river in the north. After Drusus’ death in 9 AD, his brother Tiberius assumed command, and in two campaigns (8-7 BC and 4-5 AD) appeared to have secured Drusus’ conquests.
In the wake of the Roman invasions, however, more powerful Germanic leaders emerged in the north and the south. As the Romans advanced to the Elbe, the Marcomanni, originally settled along the Main valley, turned east towards the land of the Boii under the leadership of Maroboduus. Maroboduus had served as a Roman cavalry officer before returning to assume leadership over his people. While his initial rise to power followed the traditional pattern of the alienated aristocrat, Maroboduus took this a step further, proclaiming himself leader for life and ruling without the consent of the assembly. Under his command, the Marcomanni crushed the Boii and assumed control over the fertile, wealthy, and strategically important Bohemian plateau.
Although Maroboduus may have initially assumed power with the support of Rome, his newly acquired realm soon became the focus of Roman imperialism. Tiberius and Augustus saw control of the upper Elbe and Vlatava river valleys of Bohemia as critical for securing Germany. If Bohemia could be conquered, then a more or less straight frontier, stretching from the Baltic Sea, along the Elbe-Vlatava line, then along the Danube to the Black Sea, could be erected. This could be more easily defended than the extended Rhine-Danube frontier. The date set for the assault was 6 AD: Tiberius would attack the Marcomanni from the south while a second force would advance along the coast and then strike south along the Elbe. The Marcomanni would be caught in a pincer and most likely would have been vanquished.
The Marcomannic campaign, intended to complete the conquest of Germany, was delayed, however, by the eruption of a revolt in Illyricum. Tiberius’ forces were diverted, and soon he was forced to commit nearly all of his troops to suppressing the rebellion. Ultimately it took three years and fifteen legions — more than half the available Roman troops — to restore order. Only in 9 AD was Tiberius able to begin thinking about his German campaign.
Before he could act, disaster struck. The Cheruscan noble Arminius orchestrated a rebellion in northern Germany. Like Maroboduus, Arminius had served as a Roman cavalry officer. Indeed his father-in-law Segestes was a good friend to the Romans, while his brother Flavus remained in Roman service and ended up settling in Italy. Arminius, however, was not content to remain at Rome’s beck and call. His revolt prompted the commander of the Rhenish forces, Quintillius Varus, to lead three legions into central Germany.
Varus had once been procurator of Judaea and had been appointed civilian governor over the new province of Germania. He was not a military leader, and was thoroughly out of his element dealing with Arminius. As a former Roman officer, Arminius understood Roman tactics and strategy and used this and his knowledge of the terrain to lure Varus into a trap. In the Teutoberger forest, the legions were ambushed and annihilated. Over the next two weeks, Arminius overran the Roman garrisons east of the Rhine. Only a handful of troops survived, and the Rhine frontier was left wide open. Germanicus and Tiberius rushed to seal the gap but the damage had already been done. In a few weeks, twenty years of Roman expansion had been undone: Germany was lost to Rome forever.
In the wake of the Varian disaster, Tiberius was able to restore the Rhine defenses, but, for the moment, offensive action was out of the question. At the beginning of the Illyrian revolt, Maroboduus secured a peace treaty and an alliance with Rome. He was able to use this time to secure his control over Bohemia, while Arminius attempted to emulate his neighbor and make himself master of the free Germans. But he had many enemies, including members of his own family, and had been forced to keep many nobles and chieftains in chains during the revolt. Ultimately he was overthrown, and rulers more amenable to Rome’s cause took replaced him. The Hermanduri made an alliance with Rome and were settled along the middle Main, while in 19 AD Tiberius’ son Drusus Caesar set up the Quadan chief Vannius as ruler just north of the Danube as a buffer against the Marcomanni. Arminius’ brother Flavus remained in Roman service until his death, and in 47 AD his son Italicus, born in Rome, was made chief of the Cherusci, with a little help from Roman gold, Roman arms, and some Langobardic mercenaries.
The emergence of Germanic “client states” represents the second phase of Roman involvement. Vannius and Flavus recognized that Roman money and arms could help them in their plans to become kings. Here the model was Maroboduus, condemned by Arminius as a traitor and an imperial agent. Perhaps; but Maroboduus was ultimately more successful in retaining his power than Arminius had been. And what of his ultimate fate? In AD 19 Maroboduus was overthrown by one of his nobles, perhaps with Rome’s permission, and fled to the Roman empire. He moved to Ravenna and lived out the rest of his days in comfort, as befitted a retired Roman officer.
The Varian disaster did not end Roman attempts to conquer Germany. After Augustus’ death Tiberius sent Germanicus to emulate Drusus’ advance to the Elbe. But after two successful campaigns in AD 15-16, Germanicus was recalled and sent to Syria. Tiberius apparently had decided that the war had gone on long enough. The Rhine was fixed as Rome’s frontier in Germany. Not for another seventy years would a Roman emperor seek to conquer the residents of what came to be called “Free Germany.”
In the decades that followed Tiberius’ decision to fix the frontier, Roman merchants began to exploit the German markets, searching, as always for slaves and other commodities sought after in the Roman world. But the traditional Roman product — Wine — was rejected by the Germans. Instead, it would appear that the Germans required coin as payment. Coins were also the chief gift given to secure the loyalty of client kings and nobles acting as Rome’s agents. Consequently, Free Germany is littered with coin hordes, extending some 200 km. beyond the Roman frontier. The main exchange seems to have been silver in return for loyalty. The Germans did have a taste for Roman finished goods, in particular bronze and silver plates and drinking vessels and Roman glass. Weapons too crossed the border, in spite of strict prohibitions against selling weapons to barbarians. The major concentrations of Roman objects are in Denmark and Bohemia, although objects found their way further north and east. On the other side, it is unclear what the Germans could provide to the Romans. Slaves seem likely, although our sources are mute on this point. Hides and cattle, required by the army, also seem likely candidates, along with forest products. But above all, the nature of Roman-Germanic exchange seems to have been conditioned by political, rather than economic concerns.
That politics appears to have taken precedence over purely economic concerns ultimately meant that the impact of the Romans on the Germans was distinct from that of the Phoenicians Greeks and Romans on the Iberians and Celts over the previous millennium. No cities, bolstered by an upsurge in trade and industry, emerged in Germany. Roman involvement aimed generally at rewarding her allies while at the same time preventing large states or coalitions from forming. Germany remained politically fragmented. Roman trade and patronage dislocated society, inspiring internecine conflicts that often spilled over onto Roman soil. All in all, for the next several centuries, Germany remained a perpetual source of concern.
The volatility of Germany seemed to favor the rise of tyrannies of the sort created by Maroboduus and Arminius. And here it is worth noting that it was Roman military training that gave these men the tools to transform traditional Germanic warbands into authoritarian kingdoms. The development of Germanic kingship in the years leading up to and during the age of the Germanic invasions owed more to Roman generalship and military ideas than to primitive Germanic custom. True, most Germans who served under Roman arms chose to avoid returning to the lands of their birth. But as the Roman system degenerated into a series of usurpations and civil wars in the third and fourth century, and as Germanic warriors were recruited into the Roman army and rose through the ranks to command those armies, would it not follow that Germany as a whole might be drawn into the internal convulsions of the Roman state? If that was indeed the case, then Augustus’ failure to conquer Germany can be said to have ultimately lead to the fall of the western Roman Empire.
The Empire under Tiberius and Gaius
THE reigns of Augustus’ immediate successors, Tiberius (14 AD-37) and Gaius, better known as Caligula (37-41) saw the first major test of the Augustan principate. While Augustus could claim to have “restored the Republic,” by the time of his death it was clear that he had concentrated political power in his own hands. The problem of defining the role of the princeps after his death hung over his successor like a cloud. Neither were seen, either by contemporaries or moderns, as great leaders, and while each began his reign with a degree of promise, both squandered their support through carelessness, cruelty and excess. Still, the principate survived them, and their reigns confirmed the monarchic principle.
Tiberius was born in 42 BC, the son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia. His father had initially been an opponent of Octavian, but became his ally owing to the conduct of Marc Antony. Not long after Octavian and the elder Tiberius were reconciled, however, Octavian became infatuated with his wife Livia, and in 38 BC, shortly after the birth of her second child Drusus, she obtained a divorce and married Octavian. Tiberius Claudius Nero died in 33, thereafter Octavian adopted both Tiberius and Drusus as his own sons. Marital ties linked both boys closely with the imperial house: Tiberius was made to marry a daughter of Agrippa, while Drusus married Antonia, the daughter of Marc Antony and Octavian’s sister Octavia. By 20 BC, Tiberius and Drusus had received a number of honors from Augustus, and in that year they received the lost legionary standards from the Parthians, closely associating them with Augustus’ successful policies. By 13 BC Tiberius had advanced to the Consulship, while his brother had assumed command of Rome’s armies in Germany.
After 6 BC, Tiberius and Augustus had a falling-out, and he retired to the island of Rhodes to lick his wounds. The deaths of Augustus’ grandsons, however, brought him back to Rome as Augustus’ only heir. He was restored to favor on account of his skillful handling of the Illyrian rebellion and the German problem after 9 AD. Hence when Tiberius ascended to the principate, he was a well respected military leader, with experience as a diplomat in the east and the full support of Augustus.
Tiberius’ first problem was a mutiny of troops along the German frontier. He sent his nephew Germanicus to deal with the problem, but he was only able to restore order through producing a forged letter from Tiberius and paying a donative to the troops out of his own purse. It was during this revolt that, according to tradition, Germanicus’ infant son Gaius was kidnapped by the troops and then, either by them or his mother, dressed up in the outfit of a legionary. Gaius received at that time the nickname “Caligula” or “little boot” after the Caliga or legionary boots he wore as part of his costume. The following year, in 15 AD, Germanicus began his own offensives in Germany, but it is not clear whether he did so with Tiberius’ approval. Indeed, Tiberius recalled Germanicus and sent him to deal with matters in the east. In the wake of the revolt, Tiberius recognized the danger posed to himself by concentrations of the Imperial army on the frontiers. Germanicus was eminently loyal, but a less scrupulous general could have exploited the situation to his own benefit. Thus Tiberius decided to break up the Rhenish army, distributing the Legions along the frontier. While this helped restore order and limited the threat of mutiny, it also weakened the offensive potential of the Roman Army on the Rhine. Thereafter its role would be primarily defensive.
In Rome there was the problem of the succession. Augustus had willed his lands and title to Tiberius, but the problem of the Senate remained. Tiberius sought official confirmation of his position of the Senate, threatening to resign. His actions were reminiscent of those of Augustus in 27 BC, and while later authors, in particular Tacitus, perceived this as a cynical manipulation, it seems more likely that Tiberius was merely trying to emulate his predecessor in all things. Moreover, there is reason to believe that Tiberius may had actually wanted to retire. He was already 55 years old, and a long life of arduous military service had taken a toll on his body. In any event, after the Senate confirmed his position as Princeps, Tiberius tended to defer to the Senate in most matters. He often sat in on their sessions, engaging in debates as a member of the Senate, rather than as its chief officer. Over all, Tiberius used his imperium with much restraint and was a model ruler in the first ten years of his principate.
In the provinces, Tiberius depended heavily upon the support of Germanicus, who was sent east in 17 AD to remedy a potentially dangerous situation on the Parthian frontier. The king of Armenia had died in 17, and both Roman and Parthia hoped to put on the throne a rule of their choice. Moreover, the rulers of several other eastern client states, namely Cappadocia, Commagene, and Cilicia, died about this same time. Germanicus was able place the Roman candidate on the Armenian throne, while annexing the other three states into the Empire. For the next seventeen years, the situation remained secure, despite the sudden death of Germanicus at Antioch in 19. There was the potential of scandal, as Germanicus’ colleague in Syria, Piso, was accused of poisoning him. Germanicus’ widow Agrippina decided that Tiberius had plotted her husband’s death out of jealously, though there are no grounds for this assumption. Even so, it led to a fierce rivalry between the two that ultimately led to her banishment and murder.
On other fronts, a revolt arose in Gaul, led by the Druids in 21. This was put down with great severity, as was a simultaneous uprising in North Africa. By and large, however, these were isolated occurrences. Tiberius was very adept at selecting governors in the provinces. He dealt with venal or ineffective governors harshly, and some who were called to Rome on charges of extortion preferred to take their own lives than face judgement at Tiberius’ hands. Perhaps the best of his governors was Vitellius, who took control of Syria after the death of Germanicus. He was able to negotiate a long peace with Parthia in 34 BC, one that maintained stability along that frontier for several generations. A mediocre, though more famous appointment was Tiberius’ procurator in Judea, Pontius Pilate. At this level of the imperial administration, Tiberius appears to have been an able judge of men, and even the least effective of his governors were above average.
It was unfortunate that closer to home Tiberius’ judgement was less acute. In 16 or 17, Tiberius named Aelius Sejanus to the post of Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus came from an Equestrian family of Etruscan origin. Though an effective commander, he was extremely ambitious, and after the death of Germanicus began to plot his own rise to power. Tiberius’ son Drusus despised Sejanus, and the rivalry between the two was intensified after Sejanus seduced Drusus’ wife Livilla. In 21 Drusus died — it seems likely that he was poisoned by Sejanus and Livilla — and this left Tiberius without a viable heir. Although Drusus had had twin sons by Livilla, one of these had died in infancy, while the surviving child, Tiberius Gemellus, was sickly and might not survive. Shortly thereafter, in 26, Tiberius retired to the island a Capri. He was by now nearly seventy years old, worn out by the demands of public life and deeply saddened by the deaths of Germanicus and Drusus.
For the next five years, Tiberius remained in Capri. Lurid tales were told of orgies and perversion, but given the emperor’s advanced age, these seem highly unlikely. In fact, Tiberius gathered around him a number of Greek scholars that he had come to know during his years in Rhodes. He remained in close contact with the Senate in Rome, but his prolonged absence presented some serious political questions. First, he could not actively serve as princeps senatus while away from Rome, and while he corresponded with the Senate, the fiction that he was merely one of its members and not a monarch became rather difficult to uphold.
Secondly, there was Sejanus. He gradually isolated Tiberius from the Senate. Agrippina and her son Nero were denounced. They may not have been entirely innocent victims, but it is clear that for some years Sejanus had been feeding misinformation to Tiberius about an “Agripinnan faction” in Rome. On the other side, Sejanus probably is responsible for rumors that Tiberius was trying to poison Agrippina, and this only led to her becoming more outspoken against the Emperor. By 27 she appears to have been placed under house arrest. Although the dowager empress Livia had no great love for Agrippina, so long as Livia was alive, Sejanus was careful to make no direct bid for power. Livia’s death in 29 at the ripe old age of eighty-six removed the last check on Sejanus’ ambition. Agrippina and Nero were sent into exile, in part because Sejanus was able to dupe her younger son Drusus into corroborating the charges against her. By way of reward, Sejanus had Drusus imprisoned on trumped up treason charges in 30.
By the end of 30 Sejanus’ position seemed secured. He married Livilla, linking himself to the Imperial family, and in 31 jointly held the consulship with Tiberius. For all intents and purposes he now appeared to be Tiberius’ successor, having successfully eliminated all rivals. But then his fortunes turned. Various accounts suggest that Sejanus was now planning to seize power: whether this was true seems, on the face of it, unlikely, but it is possible that his attacks on the children of Germanicus might have roused Tiberius’ suspicions. It is true that in the summer of 31 Tiberius had brought the last son of Germanicus, Caligula, to join him at Capri lest he follow the path of Drusus and Nero. About this same time, Germanicus’ mother, Antonia smuggled a letter to Tiberius past Sejanus’ spies which revealed the truth about Sejanus’ actions.
With the aid of the Prefect of the Vigiles (the Roman police force), Suturius Macro, Tiberius orchestrated a coup against Sejanus. Tiberius resigned his consulship and demanded that Sejanus do the same. He then ordered Sejanus to come to the Senate on October 18, 31. Sejanus was led to believe that he was to be granted the tribunicia potestas. This would have made him legally inviolable and would have marked the penultimate step towards assuming the purple. In truth, the letter which was read in the Senate was an indictment against him. Macro kept the Praetorians in the camp, and secured the city to prevent Sejanus from escaping. Sejanus was arrested and strangled in prison. In the wake of his fall, an number of senators and other figures were indicted for treason. Worst of all, prior to taking her own life, Sejanus’ ex-wife sent a letter to Tiberius revealing how her husband and Livilla had conspired to murder Tiberius’ son Drusus. Livilla was killed for her actions — according to several accounts her mother Antonia locked in a room of the palace and allowed her to starve to death. Over the next few years, some seventy high ranking people met their deaths for their complicity in the tyranny of Sejanus.
After the smoke had cleared the stink lingered. By 33 Tiberius had completed his revenge, but he was an angry, bitter, and disillusioned man. The person whom he had trusted the most had betrayed him, killing his only son and fomenting a rift in the imperial family. Caligula was all that remained — Germanicus’ brother Claudius was not considered for succession on account of physical and supposed mental infirmities. Tiberius began grooming him for succession and named he and Gemellus as joint heirs. When Tiberius died in 37, however, Gemellus was still a young boy. Caligula, now twenty-five, was recognized as princeps by the army and the Senate. He also had the support of Macro — it was rumored that on Caligula’s order, Macro had smothered the old emperor in his bed.
In retrospect, Tiberius was not a bad emperor. He left a full treasury, and while Tacitus and others denounced his “tyranny” for the treason trials that followed Sejanus’ fall, this is a case of over kill. Certainly seventy-odd victims does not compare with the carnage of the civil wars of the previous century. Had Tiberius died in 23 or 26, he might well have been hailed as a great emperor, but the Sejanus affair cast a pall over his record. Perhaps Tiberius’ greatest sin was that we was not Augustus, and despite his better qualities, the second princeps paled in comparison with the first.
The four year reign of Gaius Caesar, better known to the world as Caligula, presents a puzzle. The historical accounts of Dio and Seutonius present the image of a mad emperor who believed himself to be a god. They painted lurid tales of orgies and debauchery, telling of his incest with his sisters and how he made senators prostitute their wives to raise money for the public purse. Most of these charges are patently absurd, and disentangling the realities from the fiction is a difficult task.
Caligula came to the throne as a popular figure. Both his father Germanicus and his grandfather Drusus had been great heros to the Romans. After the rather spartan regime of Tiberius, Caligula restored the circuses and spent lavishly on entertainments for the masses. He was particularly addicted to horse racing, and had a special track built for himself on the Mons Vaticanus outside of the city. His actions during the first months of his reign, in fact, seemed promising. The Senate voted him the titles and honors held by Augustus en bloc, setting a precedent. And while Tiberius and Augustus both had been hesitant about accepting the Senate’s accolades, Caligula had no such scruples.
During the summer of 37, however, Caligula was struck down with a serious illness, a fever which later authors have seen as the cause of his erratic behavior later in his reign. By the end of September he appears to have turned the corner, and by the end of October was fully recovered. It was at this point that his tyranny is said to have begun. The first victims were two senators who, in an effort to ingratiate themselves to the emperor, publicly offered up their own lives in return for the emperor’s recovery. Caligula demanded that they live up to their obligations. The sources are unclear as to both men’s fates. It seems likely that they were spared, but not before being publicly humiliated for such blatant attempts to curry the emperor’s favor.
The next two victims were far more prominent. First Tiberius Gemellus was accused of having plotted and prayed for Caligula’s death. A sickly boy, he regularly took medicine for his cough, but his accusers (Macro stands in the background here) claimed that it was an antidote to poison. The suggestion was that either he was planning on poisoning the emperor or that he believed Caligula was trying to poison him. Either way, these actions were treasonable, and the boy was brought a sword to fall upon. He could not have been more than fifteen at this point, and required some “help” in dispatching himself. Not long thereafter Macro fell. Caligula apparently tired of his elder advisor’s tutelage. Phil claims that when Macro offered him advise, Caligula replied “who dares to teach me?” Macro probably wished to remain the power behind the throne, but after the death of Gemellus, his services were no longer needed.
During 38 Caligula’s irregular relationship with his sister Drusilla appears to have intensified. Rumor had it that as children the two had been caught by their grandmother in the act. Now he seems to have continued to carry on a sexual relationship with Drusilla. And not with Drusilla alone: Caligula seems to have taken her husband as a lover, and the more sordid tales describe the two engaging in herculean bouts of passion. All this changed, however, when Drusilla died in June. He immediately had her consecrated as a goddess after the fashion of Augustus. While the divination of a woman was not all that unusual, the choice of one who had done absolutely nothing of merit except sleep with her brother was a bit much. As a recent biographer of the emperor has noted, “By deciding to elevate her to the status of goddess, Caligula demonstrated his increasing egocentricity, his conviction that the state as an institution was designed to serve his own personal needs, rather than what the communal interests might dictate.”
After Drusilla’s death, Caligula became ever more autocratic. Financial strains led him to bring leading senators to trial on charges of treason only for the reason of confiscating their fortunes. Then it was discovered that own of his victims was in fact bankrupt, this prompted the callous reply “then he died in vain.” Contrary to the practices of Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula continued to hold the office of Consul after the first year of his principate. These actions were perhaps more grievous than his claims to divinity. Augustus and Julius Caesar had both be deified after death, but even before that particularly in the east both were worshiped as gods. Caligula made no effort to discourage such actions, and even encouraged it. In this, he was clearly emulating the style of Hellenistic monarchs, from whom he learned the style of imperial autocracy. While such a pattern of rule was not so much of a concern in the east, it provoked reaction in Rome. Two conspiracies arose against him in 39, one involving his sister Agrippina. Both were crushed, and led to an intensification of repression.
It was at this juncture that crises arose in the provinces. The death of the ruler of the client kingdom of Mauritania led to the outbreak of civil war in that region. The new king, Ptolemy, was executed by Caligula, possibly for his involvement in plots against the emperor. Mauritania was then annexed into the empire, but years of bitter fighting were required to pacify the region. Meanwhile, Caligula’s hatred for the Jews, probably fed by Alexandrian Greeks in his inner circle, pushed Jews in Alexandria and Judaea to the point of revolt. His plans to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem provoked a storm of protest. Luckily, the client king of Judaea, Herod Agrippa, was an old friend of Caligula’s, having been reared in Rome. Herod is said to have convinced Caligula to give up his plans, and thus prevented a full scale revolt. The situation in Alexandria was even more dangerous, at the time of Caligula’s death, the Jews had stockpile weapons in preparation for a general revolt. Only the emperor’s death prevented bloodshed.
By 41, many members of the Roman aristocracy had had all they could of Caligula’s autocratic manner. A conspiracy, led in part by Cassius Chaerea, a former lieutenant of Germanicus, assassinated the emperor in January of February of 41 as he was leaving the theater for lunch. Chaerea attempted to split Caligula’s skull with his sword, by only succeeded in shattering the emperor’s jaw. The other conspirators joined in, and during the ensuing melee, stabbed him no less than thirty times. Few wept.
Claudius and the Conquest of Britain
MURDER and mayhem followed Caligula’s death. His wife Caesonia was killed as was their daughter whose head was smashed against a wall. During the chaos, Caligula’s uncle Claudius was found hiding behind some curtains in the palace. The praetorians took him off to their camp, and for a time it appeared that he too was marked for death. But in the end, thanks in part to his promise of a hefty monetary gift, Claudius was proclaimed emperor by the guard. The Senate, meanwhile, had called an emergency session and was contemplating the restoration of the Republic. The threat of the Praetorians and the oratorical skills of Herod Agrippa in the Senate chambers, however, convinced the Senators to accept Claudius as their princeps.
Claudius (41-54) was the younger son of Drusus and Antonia, the daughter of Marc Antony. He had been born on Lugdunum in Gaul in 10 BC while his mother was on the way to join her husband on the Rhine. Not a year after his birth, however, Drusus died after his horse fell on him. Antonia probably always associated Claudius’ birth with the loss of her husband, and this contributed to her dislike for the boy. He also suffered from some sort of physical disability. His right side was afflicted by a palsy or stiffness; he dragged his right leg and was subject to spasms and involuntary movements of his head and right hand. The cause of his malady has oftentimes been cited as polio, but a mild form of cerebral palsy has more recently been suggested as a better explanation. His stutter, referred to in the sources, might have resulted from being forced to use his left hand since his right was weakened by the palsy. Stuttering often results in children who are left handed and forced to write with their right. Regardless of the causes, such physical infirmities did not endear him to the Romans: his mother referred to him as a monstrosity that nature had begun and never finished. The imperial family viewed him as an embarrassment and kept him out of public life. He was never allowed to enter the Senate and was still a member of the equestrian order at his accession.
History often provides and outlet to people unable to engage in politics. Sallust and Thucydides, Trotsky and Kerensky, Churchill and Nixon: all these men turned to writing history after they were prematurely driven from the political arena. Unable to directly influence Roman history, Claudius devoted much of his youth to writing about it, producing forty-one books on Augustus, as well as histories of the Etruscans and Carthaginians, an autobiography, and essays on Cicero and the Roman alphabet. Sadly, all of these works are now lost to us, though they provided source material for later authors such as Pliny, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Moreover, his years of research meant that Claudius came to the purple with an unprecedented knowledge of Roman history and politics.
Nevertheless, Claudius was not to receive a rousing welcome from the Senators. There is reason to suggest that he may have had wind of the assassination of Caligula and had made deals with certain Senators to secure his own survival in the aftermath. This could explain his liberality towards the conspirators. At the same time, the Senate was in general hostile. He was declared “public enemy” after Caligula’s death, and it took a full month before the Senate would recognize his position. In the meantime, Claudius assumed the titles that had been granted to Caligula. It is this act that has led some scholars to identify Claudius as the first emperor, since he did not rise to power on account of being the princeps senatus. Rather, he was put into office at the point of the sword with the support of the Praetorian Guard and the army. When a group of Senators attempted a coup in 42, the army deserted them, remaining true to their leader. Claudius became ruler not as leader of the Senate, but as imperator of the army. In that sense, his accession had more in common with that of Julius Caesar than Augustus.
Throughout his reign, Claudius found the Senate an intractable enemy, and despite frequent efforts to curry favor among its members, he ultimately found manipulating elections and arresting Senators much more efficient than debate as means to securing consensus.
For political reasons it was expedient for Claudius to extend the borders of the empire. A successful conquest would do much to bolster his popularity at home, while providing at the same time coins for his purse. His opportunity arose when an anti-Roman reaction in Britain led the exiled king of the Atrebati, Verica, fled to Gaul and sought aid from the emperor. This led to the invasion and conquest of Britain in 43.
Claudius undertook the invasion in clear emulation of Julius Caesar, who had first brought Roman troops onto British soil some ninety years before. During the intervening period, much had changed. Prior to Caesar, the main focus of economic life in Britain had been in the south-west, with the port of Hengistbury near Plymouth as the main center of trade with the continent, along the old Atlantic route. Caesar’s conquest, however, and the presence of the Romans along the Rhine shifted the focus away from Hengistbury towards the eastern regions. Belgic settlers and traders operating out of Gesoriacum (Boulogne) came to dominate in the east. Indeed, the culture of the lower Thames appears “virtually indistinguishable from that of Belgic Gaul.” Caesar established diplomatic ties with the tribes north of the Thames in Essex during his campaigns of 55 and 54, strengthening the position of this area vis-a-vis the rest of Britain. Thereafter, a more urban civilization arose, where a large number of Roman imports were consumed. Beyond this core area lay four tribal domains, those of the Iceni, Corieltauvi, Dobunni, and Duotriges. Each of the urban centers and peripheral regions produced their own coinage, generally in imitation of Roman and Gallic issues on the continent. As in pre-conquest Gaul, the main exports were slaves, acquired in the western regions.
Among the more settled groups, three major kingdoms emerged. In Essex were Caesar’s old allies, the Trinovantes. To the south lay the Belgic kingdom of the Atrebates, which developed into a Roman client state. Between them were the Catuvellauni, Caesar’s primary enemy during the British campaign. Tasciovanus became king of the Catuvellauni between 20 and 15 BC, and during the next decade began pressing on the lands of Rome’s allies. He also began minting his own coins during this period, and numismatic evidence suggests that the Catuvellauni emerged as both the primary economic and political power in Britain. Tasciovanus was succeeded by his son Cunobelinus, the Cymbeline of British folklore and the Shakespeare play, between 5 and 10 AD. During his thirty-year reign Cunobelinus conquered the Trinovantes and began reducing the Atrebates. It has be estimated that Cunobelinus issued over a million coins, a sign of the extent of his economic power. The Varian disaster and Tiberius’ reluctance to intervene in British affairs allowed Cunobelinus the luxury to enrich himself at the expense of Rome’s allies.
Shortly before Claudius’ succession, Cunobelinus died and was succeeded by two of his sons, Togodumnus and Caratacus (Caractacus). Both were vigorously anti-Roman and made short work of the Artebates. Their king, Verica, fled to Gaul. Since the time of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, this had been a common practice. Rome had formed economic and diplomatic ties with many leading British nobles, and during times of civil disorder, these often sought asylum in Roman Gaul. By the time of Claudius, there was a sizable expatriate population in Gaul which could be called upon to support and invasion. While Claudius probably needed no real pretext for his invasion, the ejection of Rome’s main ally in Britain provided a ready justification for his action, and would have ensured the support of Britons on both sides of the channel.
The actual assault began in 43, and by 47 a military frontier had been established stretching from the Exe river in Devon up to the Severn estuary then north to the Trent river. Behind the frontier a major road was constructed, the Fosse Way, leading from Exeter to Lincoln. The client kingdom of the Atrebates was restored and a second client state set up among the Iceni ruled by Prasatuges and his queen, Boudica. Only the urbanized areas were to be incorporated into the Empire — Claudius recognized from the failure of the German wars in the previous generations the difficulties involved in trying to subject unsettled barbarians. But even in the southeast, Rome’s position was vulnerable — Caratacus rebelled in 47-48, and other tribes followed. The rebellions were crushed, but the danger remained.
Claudius was able to celebrate a triumph on account of his conquest, and this did much to help his reputation. He also gained the credit for bringing the war in Mauritania to an end and for crushing a revolt in Lycia in Asia Minor. Along the other frontiers, things were relatively calm, but this carried problems along with it. Idle troops were a potential source of rebellion, and he commissioned his forces to carry out improvements of the frontier defenses. Old wooden forts along the Rhine and Danube were replaced with stone edifices. The road networks in Spain and Gaul were extended. To tie the provinces to Rome, Claudius also made generous grants of citizenship to Iberians and Gauls. In many respects, Claudius’ actions in the provinces marked a return to Augustan policies abandoned by Tiberius and Caligula. He founded colonies and organized the province of Noricum, conquered under Augustus but left to its own devises for over thirty years. All in all, Claudius had a profound impact on consolidating Rome’s control over its more distant possessions.
At home, Claudius’ reign saw the creation of a more formal bureaucratic administration, focused around the freedmen of his household. When it came to administrators and generals, Claudius was a fairly good judge of men. The future emperors Galba and Vespasian were among his most trusted commanders, and the latter in many ways emulated his former patron when he assumed the purple. Within his family, however, Claudius appeared the consummate fool. His wife Valeria Messalina spent much of her time putting horns on his head. She has been credited with setting up a “pornocracy” in the palace, where officials were raised and lowered in favor based upon their ability to fulfill her sensual desires. For her role in a Senatorial coup, Claudius had her executed. His fourth and last wife was his niece Agrippina the younger, a sister of Caligula. He chose her perhaps because he respected her judgement, but that was a mistake. She manoeuvered her son Nero into becoming Claudius’ heir, pushing aside his own son Brittanicus. Eventually she murdered the emperor by serving him poisoned mushrooms.
The reign of Claudius marks the development of the principate of Augustus into a true monarchy. A central administration emerged, displacing the Senate in many matters, in particular finance. And as the Senate receded in importance, it became ever more clear that the main source of imperial authority was the support of the army. Claudius, a man who never had the physical stamina to have held a legionary command, paradoxically became the first emperor to seize power at the head of an army. Despite his better efforts to govern after the fashion of Augustus, the Senate could never forget that Claudius had usurped the throne. Nonetheless, his successes were many, and Claudius ended his days as the first emperor since Augustus to be proclaimed a god after his death.
Crisis and Rebellion
CLAUDIUS was succeeded by his adopted son Nero (54-68). Like all of his predecessors, Nero began well, but ultimately is remembered as one of the worst of all Roman rulers. He provided the inspiration for the Beast of the Apocalypse while providing the early Christian church with the most eminent of its martyrs. His misrule led to serious revolts in the provinces and ultimately to a civil war which brought an end to the dynasty established by Augustus. Truly, he fiddled while Rome burnt.
The first five years of Nero’s reign appeared to mark a return to the Augustan principle. He assumed power without a hitch, and swore to the Senate that he would abolish the treason courts that had flourished under Claudius while returning power to the Senators. Nero would dismiss the freedmen, dismantle the authoritarian bureaucracy and rule in a responsible manner. And, at least for the moment, he appeared to keep his promises. In reality, however, power was concentrated in the hands of his chief advisors, the philosopher Seneca and Burrus, Prefect of the Praetorian guard. If government ran smoothly, it was because they were actually in charge.
Meanwhile, Nero’s mother Agrippina was frustrated in her hopes that she would rule through her son. Although she had been chiefly responsible for bringing him to the throne, Burrus and Seneca were able to exploit the ill-will between Nero and his mother. Cut off from Nero, Agrippina began cozying up to her step-son Brittanicus, but in 55 he was poisoned, most likely by order of the regents. She then set her sights on Nero’s estranged wife, Claudius’ daughter Octavia. Nero refused to tolerate Agrippina’s support of Octavia, and drove his mother into exile. His mistress Poppea continued to feed his hatred, and in 59 he decided to murder his mother. He first arranged for her to drown, putting her in a collapsible boat. But his hopes that her death would appear to be an accident were dashed when she swam to safety. He then accused her of plotting his death, and on his orders she was beaten to death.
While Burrus and Seneca ruled, this allowed Nero to indulge his fantasies of being a great artist. He learned to play the harp and gave vocal recitals, despite the fact that he had a terrible voice. His audience was compelled to clap and exhibit joy at his performance: his best general, Vespasian, was temporarily disgraced and removed from command for nodding off at a concert. As his conceit and megalomania grew, he tired of the influence of Seneca and Burrus. Burrus died of natural causes in 62; thereafter treason trials began again. He divorced Octavia to marry his mistress Poppea — her husband Otho was sent off to furthest Spain to get him out of the way. When the people of Rome protested on Octavia’s behalf, she was executed on trumped up charges of treason. For expressing his disgust, Seneca was forced into retirement. The last restraints on Nero were gone.
On the night of July 18, 64 a fire broke out in Rome that raged for over a week. The city was devastated, and Nero initiated a massive building project. Parts of his plan were useful — the streets in the old part of town were laid out anew and new apartment blocks set up to replace dilapidated slums. But the bulk of his efforts went to building a new palace, the Golden House. This was to be a seaside villa in the heart of Rome, complete with an artificial lake. Beside the palace he had erected a 120 foot tall statue of himself. The palace and the statue fed rumors that Nero had started the fire himself, and to deflect attention, he sought a scapegoat. He might have initially thought of blaming the Jews — during Claudius’ reign there had been several riots among the Jewish community. But Poppea was a crypto-Jew herself, and that meant that another group had to be found. Nero decided upon the Christians.
The Christian community in Rome had emerged during the reign of Claudius. Suetonius records how riots broke out among the Jews, instigated by the followers of “Crestus.” Jews were exiled from the city along with some Christians. As many of the latter went to Corinth, this act formed the background to the struggled within the Corinthian church described in the book of Acts and Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. The Christian community in Rome appears to have be reestablished after 52, and was growing in size. Nero executed scores of Christians at the circus built by Caligula on the Mons Vaticanus. This lends some credence to the tradition that identifies the Vatican as the site of St. Peter’s martyrdom. Some victims were fed to wild animals; others he had smeared with pitch and set alight to serve as living torches to illuminate nighttime entertainments. But if Nero thought such excesses would remove suspicions about his role in the fire, he was sadly mistaken. The barbarity of his punishments created sympathy for the martyrs and made stories about his tyranny more credible.
The rapacity of Nero’s tax collectors led to the outbreak of a revolt in Britian in 60 AD. Presatuges, king of the Iceni, died, and the Romans attempted to annex his kingdom. The conduct of tax collectors and Roman officials, however, led to a violent reaction, especially after they flogged Presatuges’ widow, Boudica, and raped her daughters. Boudica raised a revolt which threatened to eliminate the Roman presence in Britain. It was not until 67 that she had been defeated and the Briton’s subjugated.
In the east, a major war threatened when the Parthians occupied Armenia in 55. The Parthian ruler Vologeses placed his own brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne, in violation of previous treaties. The Roman general Corbulo, one of the brightest stars during Claudius’ reign, was sent to rectify the situation. But he found the army in a deplorable state, and had to spend two years restoring discipline. He was frequently at loggerheads with the indolent governor of Syria. In 57 he was able drive into Armenia, and after a rigorous winter campaign captured the Armenian capital and forced Tiridates to retreat. A second successful campaign followed in 59, but the fear of provoking the Parthians further led Corbulo to disengage. Nero hoped to continue the offensive, however, and despite Corbulo’s pleas to negotiate from a position of strength, sent his favorite Paetus to lead an army against the Parthians. Incompetence and cowardice, however, led Paetus to surrender without a fight when confronted by a Parthian army. With only two legions to spare, Rome was forced to negotiate a peace on unfavorable terms, recognizing Tiridates as king in 66. Although Nero tried to make it appear as if he had won a great victory, the weakness of Roman arms in the east was plainly evident. This problem became ever more acute when a major uprising began among the Jews in 66. Of this more will be said.
The end of the Parthian war and the outbreak of the Jewish conflict coincided with the first in a series of coups that would ultimately lead to Nero’s downfall. In 65 a conspiracy arose around the person of Calpurnius Piso. Several Senators were implicated in the plot to assassinate the emperor, but one of Piso’s freedmen ratted on him. Several leading figures were forced to commit suicide in the aftermath, among them Seneca and Corbulo. Two of the victims were literary personalities. The poet Lucan, Seneca’s nephew, had originally been among Nero’s favorites, as had Petronius, author of the famous (or infamous) Satyricon. The works of both authors, however, reveal a growing dissatisfaction with Nero, both in the caricatures of Petronius and in Lucan’s epic on the Civil Wars. Lucan died quoting from his own works on the tragedy of his death; Petronius appended a list of Nero’s sexual perversions to his will, one so accurate that Nero panicked and urgently sought to find out his source. It is telling that Nero identified rival poets as well as the entire Stoic school of philosophy as sources of the revolt. Such charges did not hold water, but that the ruler who identified himself with Apollo as patron of the Muses persecuted poets and thinkers is ironic, to say the least.
Nero’s artistic sensibilities led him to abandon Rome after the Pisonian conspiracy. The Romans, he thought, were too gauche to appreciate his abilities: only in Greece would he be properly lauded. The two years he spent away from Rome, however, only gave his opponents time to regroup. By the time his advisors were able to convince him to return to Rome in 68, it was already too late. The legions in Lyon rose up in rebellion under a Gallo-Roman general, Vindex. In Spain, Galba proclaimed himself “Legate of the Roman Senate and People,” apparently renouncing Nero as his sovereign. Although the Rhenish legions under Verginius were able to defeat Vindex, they immediately recognized Galba as emperor. Galba’s confederates in Rome were able to bribe the praetorians and they recognized him as emperor. The Senate followed, hailing Galba as princeps while declaring Nero a public enemy. Nero heard of his denunciation and planned to flee, but his supporters quickly abandoned him to his fate. Assisted by one of his freedmen, Nero committed suicide on June 8, 68. His last words were qualis artifex pereo: “what an artist has perished.”
The new emperor was no stranger to imperial politics. Born in 3 BC, Galba had been a favorite of both Augustus and Tiberius, and remained in good graces through the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. Once on the throne, however, he was unable to retain the loyalty of his chief supporters. He was stingy with the praetorian guard and did not pay them what he had initially promised. Fearing the Rhenish legions, he dismissed Verginius and appointed Vitellius as their commander. At home, he opted not to name Otho, one of his strongest supporters from the early days of the revolt, as heir. Such acts led to a swift reaction. Otho turned to the praetorians, and in early January they proclaimed him emperor. Simultaneously, the Rhenish troops raised up Vitellius. Abandoned in Rome and on the frontier, Galba was murdered by the praetorians on January 15, 69 after a reign of less than eight months.
Otho was much younger and more willing to open the public purse to his guard, but he was faced with a serious threat from Vitellius. In April the Rhenish troops entered Italy, and Otho recognized that he must defeat his rival in the field to maintain the purple. He failed, and committed suicide after a serious defeat at Cremona on April 16. Over the next few months, Vitellius’ forces advanced on Rome. When he arrived on July 1, he was proclaimed emperor by the Senate, but he too had enemies to face. The army in Judaea, led by Vespasian had remained loyal to Galba, but after his murder the troops proclaimed their commander as emperor. The Egyptian and Danubian legions followed in their support for Vespasian, and in August two forces, one from Alexandria led by Mucianus, the second from the Danube under Antonius Primus, marched on Rome.
Between August and December, 69, civil order collapsed. In October, Vitellius’ army, demoralized and without an effective commander, was savaged by the troops of Antonius Primus outside Cremona. Within Rome, partisans of Vespasian were also at work. Vespasian’s brother-in-law, Sabinus, nearly persuaded Vitellius to abdicate, but his failure to do so sparked fighting within the city. The Flavians occupied the capital, and on December 19, partisans of Vitellius besieged them, setting fire to the temple of Jupiter. Sabinus was killed, but not before bringing Vespasian’s son Domitian to assume leadership over the faction. The next day Primus’ army arrived at Rome and made short work of Vitellius’ forces. The emperor was captured and taken to the forum where he was executed. Domitian assumed responsibility for the government until his father could come to Rome, although it would appear that Mucianus, after his arrival in Rome, was actually in charge. Vespasian wisely determined to wait and see whether or not his position was secure, and did not appear in his capital until September, 70. So ended the “Year of the Four Emperors.” What followed were twelve decades of peace and relative calm.
The Jewish War
ONE of the most important events during the years 66-70 was the Jewish rebellion. The background to the Jewish Rebellion is to be sought in the chronic instability of the region. Rome’s involvement, as indicated earlier, began with the Maccabeean war, but the social, political, and religious issues that lay behind that revolt remained unresolved after Rome’s conquest of Judea under Pompey the Great. Of these, more will be said later, but for the moment, one key problem was banditry. Banditry was endemic in the hills around the more prosperous areas of Galilee, Judaea, and the Lebanese coast. The bandits themselves were marginalized peoples, often adversely effected by the centralization of authority in the Roman provinces and client kingdoms. Rome’s client king in Judaea, Herod the Great, undertook to suppress the bandits in 47-46 BC. He focussed his energies on a band led by Ezekias which had been attacking villages around Tyre. Ezekias and many of his followers were killed, but while this brought praise from Roman authorities and the Syrian population, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem condemned Herod for shedding Jewish blood. In a second campaign in 38 BC, Herod’s attempts to impose order were identified with reducing the Jews to Roman slavery, and the xenophobic religious rhetoric of the Maccabeean period was revived. Ezekias’ son Judas later emerged as one of the first leaders of the Zealots, a radical Jewish nationalist group. Many preferred suicide to capture, and the number of martyrs to the cause of resisting Roman tyranny grew steadily.
The association between the bandits and religion, in particular the defense of the purity of Jewish religion from foreign influence, led some to romanticize the bandits and see them as heros. Hence when Roman authorities tried to hunt them down, many Jewish communities hid the bandits. This led to some savage reprisals: Quintillius Varus, while he was governor of Syria, destroyed the town of Sapphorus and sold its inhabitants into slavery for harboring fugitives. The Roman practice of holding communities liable for isolated acts by terrorists only increased support for anyone who resisted Roman rule. That Varus at one point is said to have crucified 3,000 rebels could not have helped matters.
The procurators and governors who served under Nero generally ranged from inept to disastrous, and tensions mounted throughout the sixties. Antonius Felix (52-60) found himself faced with Zealots and the “People of the Knife” (sicarii), a group of assassins. Concern over the growing Christian community led to some cooperation between the Roman and Jewish authorities, leading to the execution of several Christian leaders, among them James the brother of Jesus, in 63. In 66, however, the storm broke when the High Priest in Jerusalem refused to sacrifice in honor of the emperor. Riots broke out and the Roman garrison in the city was massacred.
The Roman governor of Syria was unable to deal with the matter — he had only one legion to spare, and with the persistence of the Parthian threat, he felt it imprudent to move against the Jews. Rather, Nero had to dispatch three legions under the command of Vespasian to crush the rebellion. Vespasian began his campaign in 67, and quickly reduced Galilee. The commander of the Galilean forces was Josephus, and when his comrades decided to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, Josephus opted not to join them. Rather, he turned to support Vespasian, prophesying loudly that he would soon be emperor. Later Josephus wrote an extensive history of the conflict, and remains the principal source for the event.
Vespasian had reduced nearly all of Judaea by the end of 68; all that remained was Jerusalem itself. When news came of Nero’s fall, however, Vespasian broke off the action and determined to wait for the outcome of the civil wars. After he assumed his new title as princeps in 70, Vespasian left his son Titus in command of the legions. He was able to occupy parts of Jerusalem, then turned his energies on reducing the temple mount. Conflicts among the Jews aided the Roman cause, and in August, 70 the temple fell to Titus’ legions. The temple was sacked and destroyed, the Sanhedrin abolished, and the old tax that Jews were allowed to pay for the upkeep of the temple was diverted to Rome. Jews elsewhere in the Empire retained their old legal privileges, but Israel as a political entity ceased to exist.
For his actions, Titus was widely praised in Rome. After his death in 81 a triumphal arch depicting scenes of his victory was set up in the city, and for generations thereafter, Romans could see the fruits of Titus’ triumph. Indeed, the depictions of the objects looted from the temple provide one of the most important sources for the reconstruction of the furnishings of the temple. Beyond that, however, Titus’ actions had a profound effect on religion. His destruction of the temple brought an end to the older political religion of Judaism and ensured that Rabbinic Judaism would prosper. The destruction of Jerusalem also had a profound impact on Christianity, as Palestine ceased to be the center of the Christian community. On account of this it has been said that Titus may have been the most important religious reformer in history.
The Flavian Dynasty
THE accession of Vespasian in 69 AD marked the beginning of the Flavian dynasty, destined to rule the Roman world for the next quarter century. For the historian, this period presents certain problems. Whereas the narrative sources for the Julio-Claudian period are rich in detail, the history of the Empire over the next several centuries is more difficult to piece together. This could well be seen as a reflection of the relative calm that marked this time. The period from the accession of Vespasian to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 183 were a period of consolidation and relative internal security. If there was ever a Pax Romana, then it ought to be said to have begun under the Flavians.
Vespasian’s seizure of power presented a distinct constitutional dilemma. For over a century, Rome had been under the control of descendants and relatives of Julius Caesar. Augustus was both Caesar’s nephew and his adopted son. Tiberius had been Augustus’ adopted son and son-in-law; Caligula was his great-grandson; Claudius was his grand nephew; Nero was his great-grandson. Vespasian had no ties whatsoever to the Julio-Claudian dynasty and hence no claim to having inherited the auctoritas of Caesar or Augustus. Hence it was necessary for him to associate himself as closely as possible with his predecessors. In particular, Vespasian chose to link himself with Claudius, the last deified emperor. He had initially come to prominence as a field commander in Britain during Claudius’ reign, and his son Titus had been raised in the imperial household and was, according to tradition, an intimate friend of Brittanicus. This close identification with Claudius necessitated demonizing Nero. So the story was told of how Titus had been sitting beside Brittanicus at the banquet where the latter was poisoned. Other tales had Vespasian disgraced for sleeping through one of Nero’s concerts. But given the fact that Vespasian had been given command of three legions in Judaea and had been allowed, contrary to all precedent, to name his son as commander of one of them, suggests that Vespasian was much more in Nero’s corner than he and later historians would have us believe.
The identification with Claudius was largely a practical measure. Like Claudius, Vespasian had been declared emperor at the head of an army, and the legal devices devised by Claudius to cover up his usurpation provided a ready precedent for Vespasian. The lex de imperio Vespasiani, the Senatorial decree that formally conferred the imperial office on Vespasian, derived from the original confirmation of Claudius. It gave the new ruler en bloc the powers that had been gradually assumed by Augustus and Tiberius, adding as well more extensive control over financial matters. The lex de imperil Vespasiani confirmed in law what had become true in practice: the principate was a fixed feature of the Roman constitution, and the imperial title was a legitimate office of state, not merely an informal recognition of auctoritas.
The Flavian state assumed an ever more bureaucratic character. The fiscal administration became more professionalized, continuing the process begun under Claudius, although members of the equestrian order gradually replaced freedmen in positions of authority. Vespasian found his finances in a deplorable state. He was forced to sell off imperial lands in Egypt to raise cash, and raised taxes and eliminated exemptions in order to secure his income. Latin citizenship was granted to all the native cities of Spain, in part to extend the tax base. In Rome it was necessary to undo much of the damage left over from the fire of 64 as well as that caused during the civil war. The capitol was rebuilt, and a new amphitheater was built on the site of Nero’s Golden House. It took its name from the colossal statue of himself that Nero had set up: the Colosseum. Such projects took some of the sting out of the new taxes. Moreover, Vespasian’s concern for the intricate details of finance ensured greater equity in the collection and dissemination of funds. It has even been suggested that he was the first emperor to actually look at the budget figures for the entire empire.
In the provinces, Vespasian was immediately faced with serious problems. As the Rhenish and Danubian legions were pulled away from the frontier to fight in the civil wars, this opened the borders of the empire to assault. The Dacians chose to raid across the Danube in 69, but luckily Mucianus was able to defeat them and force them back. More pressing was a revolt along the lower Rhine. Civilis, commander of the remaining Roman forces in the north, rose in rebellion in 69, purporting to be acting in the interests of Vespasian. He drew to his side Batavian auxiliaries and disaffected Gallic leaders. After Vitellius was defeated, he threw off all pretext, and began talking of creating a Gallic empire. Other Gauls and Germans joined his cause, looking to throw off the Roman yoke. The remnants of two legions were besieged at Vetera (Xanten) and starved into submission. When they surrendered, Civilis’ barbarian troops massacred them. By now Civilis was in complete control of lower Germany, but his Gallic Empire had not long to live. Nine legions were sent out from Rome and after bitter fighting, Civilis was defeated.
The Batavian revolt brought about a change in frontier policy. It was clearly dangerous to allow barbarian troops to serve too close to home. In future, they would be stationed a good distance from their homeland: the Batavians, for example, were moved to Passau on the borders of Noricum and Raetia. As for the legions, four were disbanded in the wake of the rebellion. Five new legions were called up, and the remaining transferred to different posts.
With the conclusion of the Jewish war in 70 and the defeat of Civilis, Vespasian began to extend the Roman frontier in Germany. Here he was following the frontier policy of Claudius, temporarily abandoned by the artist Nero. Claudius had established a number of bridgeheads on the German side of the upper Rhine and upper Danube. A road extending north into the Black Forest had been begun. The goal was to occupy the Agri Decumates and to establish a shorter land frontier connecting the Rhine with the Danube. Vespasian continued this policy, as did his immediate successors. In the end, the frontier was shortened by some 240 km., greatly simplifying its defense.
Vespasian also emulated Claudius in renewing the conquest of Britain. The immediate cause of renewed hostility was a civil war in the client kingdom of Brigantia. Three first-rate military governors, ending with Tacitus’ father-in-law Julius Agricola, served the Flavian emperors in Britian, and by 84 the entire southern part of the island was under Roman control.
Vespasian died in June, 79. Tacitus remarked that he had been the first emperor who actually improved with age. In recognition of his sound administration, he was deified immediately after his death. The transition of power to his son Titus was smooth, though some had questions as to his character. He had initially won great fame for his victories in the Jewish Rebellion, but after returning to Rome he held a series of offices which did not endear him to the Senate. In particular, Titus served as commander of the Praetorian Guard under his father. Titus’ long-running affair with Bernice, the daughter of the last Jewish king of the Herodian line, led to scandal and concerns about his piety. As it turned out, Titus proved to be affable and quickly won over the Senators and the Roman people. He completed the Colosseum and built a new complex of baths. But after only two years on the throne, Titus died in September, 81.
The last emperor of the Flavian dynasty was Domitian (81-96).He is often remembered as one of the worst emperors. Historians record a “reign of terror” and the execution of Senators. He was also been portrayed as a sexual deviant, who seduced a Senator’s wife, committed incest with his niece, and indulged in other practices. Despite his sexual misconduct, he issued strict moral legislation, have a Vestal Virgin buried alive for adultery. Such laws made him appear to be a hypocrite as well. For Christians, he was their worst persecutor since Nero. In truth, most of the more serious complaints about is morality appear unfounded, the product of deliberate propaganda by his opponents after his death. Christian traditions tend to derive more from these sources than authentic accounts of martyrs.
This is not to say Domitian was not a troublesome character. On the one hand, he was a dedicated administrator, even more obsessed with the minutiae of government than his father had been. He was also suspicious by nature, and incompetent or venal officials tended to suffer at his hands. This meant, of course, that in the provinces people found his regime beneficial. Most of his critics were associated with the Roman Senate: among the common folk and the army in particular he remained a popular figure. At the same time, he was rather obtuse, socially inept, and had a streak of cruelty. At one point he held a dinner party where all the guests were requested to dress in mourning. The hall was draped in black; tombstones were used for place cards; the only food served were customary offerings to the dead; the only permissible subject for conversation was death and dying. When each guest left, they were not permitted to be accompanied by their own servants; strangers followed them home. Naturally each feared that he was marked for death, but, as it turns out, the whole thing was a morbid joke. The point was clear — people were terrified of Domitian, and he knew it and used it to his advantage.
Domitian had been in Rome during the chaotic days of December, 69. After Vitellius’ death, he briefly assumed power until his father could arrive, but it would appear that his position was largely symbolic. During that period he presumably seduced Domitia Longina, wife of a prominent Senator and the daughter of Nero’s general Corbulo. In the end, she divorced her husband and Domitian married her. Although later accounts claimed that their marriage was stormy, the various tales contradict one another. It appears that he was generally faithful to her. And as far as his choice of spouse, Domitian could hardly have done better. Her father had been the most respected and admired military leader of his day. Moreover, he had been a victim of Nero, as had Domitia’s brother and brother-in-law. The marriage thus associated Domitian with the Senatorial opposition to Nero, as well as with a family with a plenitude of auctoritas.
During the reigns of Vespasian and Titus Domitian held six consulships, generally alternating with his other relatives. This left him with few, if any, official duties. He never commanded an army, although he earnestly desired to. He ultimately ended up spending a good deal of time hunting at his villa at Alba, some 20 km from Rome. By the time he came to the throne, Domitian was already frustrated with the lack of opportunities offered to him to pursue glory on his own.
It is not surprising, therefore, that immediately after his succession, Domitian began a series of wars. His first campaign was against the Germanic Chatti in 82/83. He brought to fruition his father’s plan to annex and occupy the Agri Decumates. To secure Rome’s gains, Domitian built a series of fortresses and watchtowers in the area between the Main and Danube rivers. North of the Main, a more solid defensive barrier was constructed, defending the northeast side of the Rhine-Main confluence.
Along the Danube, Domitian had three major opponents to consider: the Sarmatians, the Suebic tribes of the Marcomanni and Quadi, and the Dacians. At the beginning of his reign, Domitian strengthened the Danubian defenses, increasing the number of legions deployed on that frontier from one to four. The immediate concern was the rise of Decebalus to power among the Dacians. Originally, the various Dacian tribes had been disunited, and it was no great matter for the Romans to keep them in line. During the “Year of the Four Emperors,” however, they had begun raiding across the river. Decebalus was able to unite the tribes. Under his rule, for the next twenty years the Dacians posed a serious threat to Roman interests along the lower Danube.
In 84 Domitian initiate the first in a series of wars with the Dacians. The initial campaigns of 84-86 ended in disaster, but in 88 the Romans won a significant victory. This allowed them to negotiate a peace settlement. Domitian apparently felt it better now to try to recruit Decebalus as a client king rather than attempt to conquer Dacia outright. Growing unrest among the Sarmatians, Marcomanni, and Quadi forced Domitian’s hand after these tribes began testing the border defenses in Pannonia after 87. Once peace on the Dacian front was assured, Domitian turned against his enemies in Pannonia in 89. Two campaigns are generally identified, the first in 89, the second in 92, but recently scholars have unearthed evidence suggesting that a third, more ambitious campaign was getting under way in 96 when Domitian was killed.
Finally, we should note the campaign in Britain undertaken by Julius Agricola. We know a good deal about Agricola’s actions thanks to his nephew, the historian Tacitus, but it is not clear how accurate Tacitus’ verdict on the campaign were. Agricola had been in the process of completing the conquest of Britian when Titus died, and broke off military activities while he awaited Domitian’s permission to continue. Permission was granted, but the emperor withdrew several key units, largely because he did not have sufficient strategic reserves to execute his plans in Dacia and Pannonia. The demands for troops in these regions forced Domitian to stop the British offensive and Agricola was subsequently recalled to Rome. Tacitus claimed it was out of Domitian’s jealousy over Agricola’s success as the reason for the latter’s recall, but clearly, the conquest of Britian must have been a secondary strategic concern to securing the middle and lower Danube from attack.
All in all, during Domitian’s reign the army was more active on more fronts than it had been since the time of Augustus. This made Domitian popular with the army, that and the fact that he raised the soldiers’ pay. Only one military revolt is noted, that of the German legate Saturninus in 89, but Saturninus could not obtain the support of the rank and file as Vitellius and Vespasian had. The troops, with very few exceptions, remained loyal to Domitian.
At home, the situation was different. Domitian’s relations with the Senators were notoriously bad. His major mistake was to treat Senator’s no different from anyone else in the administration of justice. As Dio noted, “Domitian did not care that the senate frequently saw fit to pass decrees that it should be unlawful for the emperor to put to death any of his peers.” Consequently, some eleven Senators were executed under Domitian. Most of them were killed for plotting revolution, although one victim was condemned for being a Christian. There was nothing inherently unjust or cruel about this — the Romans were certainly not squeamish about shedding human blood. The real issue was that Domitian refused to acknowledge a distinct and privileged status for the Senators. A recent biographer states that “From the beginning, Domitian’s terms were clear and the aristocracy were well aware of them.” Further,
[Domitian] stressed the reality of his autocracy. Lacking the experience of Vespasian and the diplomatic talents of Titus, he made no effort to disguise what he regarded as the nature of the principate. His was a personal monarchy and he saw himself as a benevolent despot.
Unfortunately, few of the Senators saw him as benevolent, and support for his principate eroded even among his friends in the Senate. Ultimately, this led to the conspiracy of 96, leading up to his assassination on September 18.
Domitian’s corpse was barely cold by the time the Senate appointed a new emperor, the elderly Senator Nerva. Nerva had been part of the inner circle at Domitian’s court, and his elevation to the purple on the morrow of the assassination presents certain problems. Certainly he could not have been uninformed about the conspiracy, and this suggests that it arose among those closest to the emperor.
The primary aim of the conspirators appears to have been to restore more power to the senatorial aristocracy at a time when the emperor was increasingly appointing Equestrians to important positions. In particular, Equestrians began acquiring military commands, previously restricted to Senators. In any event, the assassination was a conservative reaction, and marked a refusal to recognize a trend that had been developing since the time of Augustus. The political role of the Senate was disappearing — policy was determined by the emperor and his advisors. Where political opportunities arose was in the bureaucracy, but even under the Republic, the Senate had shown little interest in or skill at administration. Hence it was natural that such posts would fall to Equestrians and Freedmen, the orders most trusted by Augustus and his heirs. Domitian’s greatest sin, then, was that he was honest. His philhellinism, like that of Caligula and Nero, reflected the reality that the only model of kingship was that provided by the Hellenistic kings of the east. But to Romans, unabashed autocracy was unacceptable. Domitian’s refusal to play the game, to pay deference to Republican ideals in the Augustan fashion, was the ultimate cause of his downfall.
Trajan and Hadrian
IN the aftermath of Domitian’s assassination, Nerva was chosen by the Senate as his successor. He was chosen largely because the Senate perceived him to be a representative of the nobiles and Italians. Domitian’s preferential treatment of non-Italians when it came to appointing Senators — 38% of the new Senators were from outside Italy, more than a quarter being from Greece — created a revulsion among the old Roman aristocracy. Nerva’s regime was intended to restore the prominence of Italy. As it turned out, Nerva’s principate had few long term effects. He died in January, 98 after only sixteen months on the throne.
As a usurper, Nerva recognized that he was vulnerable without the support of the army. Consequently, in 97 he revived the principle of adoptive succession practiced by the Julio-Claudian rulers and adopted the respected general Ulpius Trajanus as his heir. Trajan had been born in Baetica in Spain. He was a provincial and a “new man,” and his appointment seems at first at odds with the goals of the conspirators of 96. But Nerva’s judgement here was acute. Trajan and Nerva were linked by kinship, and Trajan had proven his worth in 89 when he crushed the revolt of Saturninus. But Trajan probably had not asked for the honor: he was still on the frontier when he heard of his adoption and succession to the principate.
The reign of Trajan marks the apogee of Roman power. He was perhaps the best field general the empire ever produced, and unlike Tiberius and Vespasian, he was still in his prime at the time of his accession. He was left a number of problems from his predecessors. The Danube frontier was still vulnerable — the Dacians and Marcomanni had been pacified but not vanquished. On the Parthian frontier the peace was as fragile as ever. Trajan’s campaigns against the Dacians and Parthians were justified, and among the most dramatic successes of Roman arms since the times of Caesar.
The problem of the Danubian frontier remained despite Domitian’s treaty with Decabalus. Trajan’s first priority was to secure the Danube. Timber forts and watchtowers were replaced with more durable structures. Two new legions were raised, increasing the total number of legions along the lower Danube to at least thirteen. In 101 Trajan felt ready to strike and crossed the river into Dacian territory. As often happened, the barbarians retreated, refusing to offer battle. During the winter of 101-102 Trajan consolidated his gains until Decabalus attempted a counter-attack into Moesia. This was easily repulsed, and over the next year Roman troops continued their march into Dacia. After Trajan capture the capital, Decabalus surrendered. In 105, however, he rebelled and attempted to drive out the remaining Roman garrisons. After serious fighting Decabalus was defeated and committed suicide.
With the conquest of Dacia, Trajan was able to realign his forces along the Danube. The middle Danubian defenses, across from the Quadi and Marcomanni, were strengthened, while the defensive works along the lower Danube could now be dismantled. With the lower Danube secure, Moesia and Thrace experienced an economic boom. New roads and secure water transport along the Danube ensured ready access to the Mediterranean cities. Around the new military posts cities emerged in what had been a relatively backward area.
After the conclusion of the Dacian war, Trajan turned his attention east towards Parthia. For generations, the Romans had been gradually extending the frontier towards the Euphrates river in the north, and south to the Red Sea. The last Roman client state, that of the Nabataeans in the Nigev and northern Arabia, was annexed in 106. A Roman naval squadron was now active in the Red Sea and Roman naval forces could penetrate the Indian Ocean. Thus Rome was in a position to tap directly into the lucrative trade with India and the far east, without depending on Parthian intermediaries. To make matters worse, under Vespasian, the gradual advance of the Romans onto the upper Euphrates was a concern to the Parthians, as was Roman control over Armenia. Consequently, the Parthian king Osroes seized Armenia and placed his own candidate on the throne, contrary to the treaty with Nero. Although the chronology is not entirely clear, it appears that between 112 and 114 Trajan invaded Armenia and annexed it into the empire, making it part of a large new province. Such an act was a direct provocation of the Parthians, and initiated a second Parthian war in 115. In this campaign, Trajan advanced sough along the Euphrates towards the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon. After a short siege, Ctesiphon was captured, and Trajan was able to proceed to the head of the Persian Gulf. Internal conflicts with his nobles prevented Osroes from offering much in the way of resistance, and Trajan was able to incorporate most of Mesopotamia into the Empire.
The strains of the Parthian wars began to show on all fronts. Revolts broke out in Judaea and Egypt, while raiding across the frontiers in Britain and the middle Danube increased as legions were stripped from the borders for service in the Middle East. Trajan’s own health suffered as well, and on 8 August, 117 he died on campaign, handing over the throne and some serious problems to his adopted successor, Hadrian.
Hadrian, like Trajan, had been born in Baetica in Spain, his mother’s family being from the old Phoenician colony of Gads (Cadiz). His paternal grandfather had married Trajan’s aunt, and when Hadrian’s own father died in 85, he became Trajan’s ward. He held a number of military commands in Moesia and Upper Germany. Under Trajan he served as first staff officer in the Dacian war. After a brief stint as the Senate’s archivist, Hadrian went on to administer several provinces, including Pannonia and Syria. He was in Syria at the time of Trajan’s death. The circumstances of his accession are unclear. Only the day after Trajan died was it announced that he had adopted Hadrian as his successor, prior to the point their was little to suggest that he had identified any heir. But as a member of Trajan’s family, Hadrian was an obvious choice. Moreover, Trajan could not have anticipated so early a death. It seems likely that he was grooming Hadrian for succession, but had not had time to formalize the arrangement.
The Senate voted Hadrian the imperium and other powers in due course, although the new emperor did not arrive in Rome until a year after his accession. He was otherwise occupied suppressing the revolt in Judaea and securing the eastern frontiers. The Emperor’s absence allowed a Senatorial conspiracy to form as four members of the “old guard” that had plotted against Domitian decided to assassinate him. Their plot was discovered and all three were executed. Although Hadrian always respected the Senate’s prerogatives, the realities of the monarchical system led to frequent tension between the Emperor and the Senators. Hadrian was, however, too wise to flaunt his power and this prevented an open rift.
Trajan had been the great conqueror: it was Hadrian’s lot to be the great consolidator. He is chiefly important for constructing a series of fortifications to defend the frontiers of the empire. His policy derived from a keen strategic sense, as well as his experience serving under Trajan in the east:
As Trajan’s chief of staff, he had been in an excellent position to see the results of the great wars on the Danube and in the East. He realized that these victories and conquests, so glorious to the military men, were draining Rome’s economy and adding great and unnecessary province to the Empire, and which would need even more troops to protect. He saw his task as establishing firm boundaries round the Empire as limits of Rome’s control and creating a highly disciplined army, constantly alert to any danger from without.
Such a policy necessarily led to conflicts with the Senate and the general staff, all of whom, mostly for political reasons, demanded further wars of conquest. It also led to concerns that by abandoning imperialism, the army would lose its edge. Hence the second century historian Fronto, no friend to Hadrian, described the soldiers after Trajan being “demoralized by dull and lax service” and “almost destitute of military training.” Certainly Hadrian’s decision to abandon Mesopotamia was wildly unpopular. None the less, the new policy was far more prudent than that which proceeded it. For the next several years, Hadrian toured the provinces, laying out the Limes, the fortified perimeter of the Empire.
The most dramatic expression of Hadrian’s efforts is the great wall in Britain bearing his name. Hadrian’s Wall was nearly 120 km. in length, 2.4 meters thick and at least 4.5 meters in height. A berm 6 meters wide and a ditch 8 meters wide and 3 meters deep was placed in front of the wall. Every Roman mile along the wall milecastles were built, with barracks for thirty to fifty men. Three turrets or watchtowers were built into the wall between each milecastle. The wall stretched from Solway firth in the west to the mouth of the Tyne river. Along the coast a series of small forts were built. A military road ran behind the wall, with connections to Roman cities further south. Construction probably began around 122, after Hadrian’s visit to England, and was essentially complete by 140.
In Germany, along the Rhine and Danube, a similar system was put in place, with a continuous barrier wall along the landward strengthened by regular towers and forts linked together by a system of roads. In Germany the wall generally consisted of an earthen embankment surmounted by a wood palisade, usually 3 meters in height. A 1-2 meter deep ditch lay in front of the wall. Along some stretches through rocky terrain, unmortered stone was used in place of timber.
The main function of the Limes was not necessarily to stop a major invasion, but rather to slow down invading forces. It was primarily intended to prevent small scale raiding, since the barriers were too tall for a person to climb over. The Limes also funneled trade through approved gates, preventing free exchange across the frontier. Since trade had to be conducted through the openings in the barrier, this made it easier to regulate trade and to collect tolls and customs duties.
Hadrian stated that the Limes fortifications would divide the barbarians “from us.” The presence of the barrier, along with the Emperor’s frequent visits to the front-line garrison towns, provided a sense of security along the frontier. The population grew and there was a positive growth in the provincial economy, in part primed by the massive government expenditures occasioned by building Hadrian’s defensive system. In addition retired veterans often chose to buy land and settle down in the areas around their former posting. This created a military “squirearchy” which would later provide a major recruiting base for the Roman army. At the same time, these men saw themselves as defending their own lands and interests: the long-term effect of this development would be to intensify localism.
The last years of Hadrian’s reign were marred by a serious revolt in Judaea, the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 132. Civil unrest had continued in Judaea after the suppression of the revolt of 66-70, and Hadrian’s plan to found a new colony at the destroyed city of Jerusalem provoked outrage among the pious Jews. Particularly odious was his intent to construct a temple to Jupiter on the old Temple Mount. The war that followed was essentially a drawn out guerrilla war of savage intensity. The Romans lost one legion; Jewish casualties have been estimated to have run as high as half a million dead. By the end of 135 the rebellion had been essentially stamped out, but it was a bitter end to a largely peaceful reign.
Hadrian died in 138. His last few years had saw a decrease in tensions with the Senate, largely because they had grown too apathetic to resist the growth of the monarchy. He devoted much energy artistic endeavors; the Pantheon in Rome is perhaps his greatest monument. His death ended a period that can be clearly seen as the high point of the Roman Empire. Assessing the meaning of their reigns, however, is problematic. Trajan’s conquests and Hadrian’s walls have generally been identified as necessary acts, required to overawe a dangerous Parthian Empire and to secure the northern frontiers from assaults by ravenous barbarians. Such a view suggests that what drove Trajan and Hadrian both were defensive concerns. But as Benjamin Isaac recently noted, Parthia very rarely crossed the borders of the Empire before the seventh century. Although Armenia was a bone of contention, the Roman’s consistently expressed their concerns for defending Syria, and for protecting that region, control of Armenia is superfluous. Rather, Isaac suggests an alternative view which “recognizes that Romans considered expansion desirable if it could be attained at reasonable cost.” Trajan was merely carrying out on Rome’s age old desire to conquer the east, and he felt that the time had arrived. And Hadrian’s forts were never intended to mark the end of the Empire’s influence, only the limits of the area they were willing to defend. The ideal that drove these rulers, like Augustus, was of imperium sine fine; empire without end.
The Antonine Monarchs
HADRIAN left no sons to inherit his empire. He did not get on well with his wife, and by 136 needed to look for a successor. His first choice was a cultured but generally unimpressive aristocrat named Aelius, but he died after only a few years. Hence in 138 Hadrian adopted Aurelius Antoninus as his heir. During the last year of Hadrian’s life, Antoninus functioned essentially as a regent for the ailing emperor. Consequently, the transition of power from Hadrian to Antoninus was fairly smooth. No revolts emerged among the troops and the Senate accepted his accession with little protest. Antoninus had his predecessor deified almost immediately, and his devotion to the cult of Hadrian as well as his scrupulous attendance to the religious duties of the princeps led the Senate to grant him the title Pius. It is by this name, Antoninus Pius, that the first of the Antonine monarchs is generally known.
The reign of Antoninus Pius was one of relative calm. He continued the work of consolidation begun by Hadrian, although the outbreak of a revolt in Britian caused him to renew offensive actions along the Scots border after 140. He pushed the frontier further north and constructed a defensive barrier connecting the river Clyde with the Firth of Forth. For the next twenty years, the Romans attempted to hold this position, but in the end it proved untenable. By 165 they had retreated back to Hadrian’s wall and dismantled much of the Antonine Wall. Clearly in Britian Hadrian’s Wall represented the furthest extent of Roman control; to pass beyond it had proven impossible.
In Germany the frontier defenses were also moved up, and a line of walls and forts stretching some 80 km in an almost direct line shortened the length of the Hadrianic Limes considerably. Antoninus Pius continued building forts along the German frontier, but most of these were smaller than previous legionary camps. Most were intended to house only a small number of troops, indicating that the empire was having to distribute its forces ever more thinly along the frontier. This economy of force may perhaps be seen as a symptom of problems to come. Rome needed far more men that it could supply to defend the fortified frontiers in a systematic fashion. The problem of supply and demand is also reflected in the tax revolts that flared up in Greece and Egypt during this time.
By and large, however, the reign of Antoninus Pius was remembered as a time of calm and repose. But that might have been one of the problems he bequeathed to his successors. Although Marcus Aurelius praised his adopted father on a number of accounts, his statement that Antoninus “disliked restlessness and change, and had a rooted preference for the same places and the same pursuits” suggests at over-conservatism. Considering Marcus Aurelius’ words, Michael Grant writes
Under this man as ruler, the empire with all of its merits and faults, was running smoothly. It could be described as a good time (TEMPRVM FELICITAS) In fact, things were running so smoothly that they hardly seemed to move at all. Everything had become static. The Roman world seemed in a state of equipoise, propped up by its rich accumulation of wealth and experience, and apparently destined to continue indefinitely according to this established pattern.
The problem, as we all know, was that the empire did not simply “continue indefinitely.” The ossification that Grant notes became one of the primary symptoms of a social, political, and economic system that appeared unable to adjust effectively to the changes, challenges, and disasters that were about to befall it.
Antoninus Pius had two sons prior to his adoption by Hadrian, but both of these subsequently died. In the last months before Hadrian’s death, therefore, he adopted his wife’s nephew, Marcus Varus, as his son. He also adopted Lucius, the son of Aelius, Hadrian’s first heir. Both boys were renamed to associate them for fully with the imperial house. Lucius received the cognomen Varus, while Marcus was called Aurelius after his adopted father. Lucius Varus and Marcus Aurelius were designated as Antoninus’ successors even before Hadrian’s death. Both boys were raised in the imperial household and were depicted with Hadrian and Antoninus in statues and medallions. This provided the image of dynastic continuity in the succession. That continuity was further strengthened when Marcus Aurelius married Antoninus’ daughter Faustina.
Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Varus assumed control over the empire after the death of Antoninus Pius. Only Marcus was granted imperium by the Senate, but he agreed to share it equally with his adopted brother. Henceforth both men held the title of Augustus. This was unprecedented, but lay the foundations for a division of power that became more common in the late Empire. The two rulers had very different personalities. Lucius was something of a bon vivant, very cultured with a keen sense of humor. Hadrian appeared to have greatly enjoyed his company. Marcus Aurelius was much more serious, bordering on dull. Although Hadrian referred to him as “Verissimus” — “most truthful,” a pun on his original name — this was as much a jab at Marcus’ cheerless demeanor as a compliment. Up until the death of Lucius Varus in 169 relations between the coregents appear to have been amicable.
Antoninus Pius had forseen that a major war with Parthia lay in the not too distant future. The war broke out with all due force in 162 when Vologaeses III (148-192) invaded Armenia and placed his son Pacorus on the throne. The Roman forces in Cappodocia attempted to deflect the Parthians but were defeated; the Syrian legions suffered setbacks as well. Marcus decided to send Lucius Varus at the head of the army to deal with the Parthian threat. Lucius had no particular military skills — his function was largely symbolic. Rather, a host of first-rate Roman generals accompanied him. By 166 the Romans had defeated the Parthians in a series of bloody battles. The important frontier post of Duro Europos was captured in 164/165, while the two major cities of Parthia, Seleucia and Ctesiphon, were sacked again.
By 166, it looked as if Rome was on the brink of repeating Trajan’s successes, and began seriously looking to advance into Medes and Persia. But the army encountered a plague — perhaps smallpox — which decimated its ranks. Worse yet, the troops transmitted the plague to the empire as a whole. Although our evidence is slim, it appears that the plague had a serious effect on the empire. Accounts tell of carts piled high with corpses, of bodies rotting in the streets of major cities. Tax revenues fell sharply as did the income from imperial estates. The resource base for the empire had apparently been undercut in a way that threatened the very existence of the empire.
Just as the plague was making its debut in the empire, the northern frontiers were shattered by a series of invasions. In 162 the Chatti had raided attacked the Rhine frontier but were easily driven back. In 166 and 167 the Langobardi pressed south along the Elbe from the old homeland in the north and attempted to cross the Danube. In both cases, the Chatti and Langobardi were apparently seeking new land to settle. The reason for their migrations appear to have been the movements of a new people, the Goths, from their home along the Baltic coast southward towards the Black Sea. Throughout the arc of the Carpathian mountains, coin hordes from the time of Domitian onwards point to extreme distress in central Europe. The old patterns of exchange and political power were irreparably broken, and as the Goths pushed south, the peoples before them were pressed against the borders of the Empire. The situation came to a head in 167 when the Quadi and Marcomanni crossed the Danube and began raiding in force into Raetia, Noricum, Moesia and Pannonia.
The Quadi and Marcomanni had been Roman clients since the time of Tiberius, and for a century had been of little concern to the Romans. The Quadi in particular seemed to have forgotten their warrior past and their land was gradually being transformed into a model client state. But now both groups reappeared as threats to Rome. They looted gold mines, burnt villas, and slaughtered Roman garrisons throughout the northern provinces. Some 20,000 troops are said to have been killed when Carnuntum fell. Aquileia in northern Italy was besieged, and all of Italy seemed at their mercy.
In 169 Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Varus set out from Rome to deal with the invaders. They relieved Aquileia, then continued north to secure the Danube. Lucius Varus, never in good health, died on the campaign, leaving Marcus as sole emperor and commander. In 171 the Marcomanni were surprised as they tried to cross back into Bohemia laden with plunder. After a bitter fight, the Marcomanni were defeated, but the war continued. The effects of plague and the excessive demands of the military began to show as riots broke out across the Empire. The Sarmatians attacked Noricum in 175, just as it appeared that the frontier had been secured. Further campaigns in 177 and 178 were required to restore stability. By 180 the war had come to an end, largely on account of the exhaustion of both sides.
The Marcomannic war represents a turning point in Roman history. Between 173 and 180, after the initially crisis had been overcome, it appeared as if Rome might be able to annex the lands of the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians. This would have extended the borders of the empire to the line of mountains stretching from the Franconian highlands and the Erzgebirge of Saxony to the Carpathians and onto Dacia. This, of course, had been part of the goal of Augustus and Tiberius, but once again, events had prevented the emperor from realizing his goal. The Parthian War, the plague, and the civil discord that had been spawned by these two events left the empire without sufficient troops to prosecute the Marcomannic war to its completion. The problem of finding recruits and paying them became ever more acute. The immediate solutions to this problems foreshadowed developments that were ultimately to lead to the demise of the old Empire.
First of all, there was the matter of pay. The empire was stripped for cash, and Marcus Aurelius, following Antoninus Pius, was forced to devalue the currency to pay the troops. But the army’s demand for higher wages led to further devaluation and its necessary result, runaway inflation. After the death of Marcus Aurelius, the value of Roman currency fell sharply: inflation continued unabated and the economy faltered and in many areas collapsed. The demographic crisis brought on by the plague meant that there were fewer able-bodied men in the empire to fill out the ranks. Freed slaves and persons generally held to be unfit for military service were often employed. The horrific casualties of the Parthian and Marcomannic wars ensured that there were few veterans in the legions: there was little time to train recruits sufficiently, so the ranks were filled out with poorly trained conscripts. Marcus began to skim off the better troops from the legions to form special units which would spearhead his campaigns, but while this created a strong, well-disciplined force, his policy left the bulk of the legions with men of inferior quality. Ultimately the legions were doomed — they were gradually denigrated into regional defense forces, made up of local militias (Limitanei). The best troops were pooled into mobile field armies, led by the emperor of his chief generals. While it took until the time of Constantine for this transformation to be complete, the seeds were planted by Marcus Aurelius.
An additional “solution” applied by Marcus Aurelius should be noted. After defeating the Sarmatians in 175, the emperor recruited some 5500 prisoners into his army, sending them to Britian to deal with attacks by the Picts and Scots in 180. This recruitment en masse of a body of barbarian prisoners were unusual, and presaged the later imperial policy of recruiting large groups of barbarians to fill out gaps in the army.
We really cannot know what was Marcus Aureleus’ intention with these policies. The only written work he left to posterity was a work of philosophy, the Meditations. It is a work in the Stoic vein, and has often been used as a source for discussion the emperor’s political views. But while theMeditations speaks grandly about service and the defense of liberty, the aristocracy were the primary beneficiaries of Marcus Aurelius’ domestic policies. He increased the authority of aristocrats over their estates, allowing Senators to acquire more land outside of Italy than had previously been required. Freedmen were removed from positions of authority, and in Athens and presumably other provincial towns, the descendants of freed slaves were barred from sitting on the city council. So just at the point when the financial pressures of the state were beginning to squeeze the lower classes, and as inflation and war disrupted trade, Marcus Aurelius bolstered the social and economic position of the highest classes. Such policies would severely undercut the economic foundations of the Empire.
Marcus Aurelius died in 180 just as he was about to throw his last reserves into a bid to conquer the Marcomanni and Sarmatians. He left the throne to his son Commodus who quickly — and wisely — called off the offensive. Thus began the reign of Commodus (180-193), remembered as perhaps the worst of all Roman Emperors. Karl Christ wrote of Commodus that
His reign degenerated into an appalling exhibition of pathological and unbridled despotism. In excesses of bestial sensuality, and the apotheosis of the princeps as gladiator, the perversion of the herculean ideal, the Augustan form of the principate was systematically debauched and destroyed.
Commodus was basically a lazy man, devoted to pleasure rather than rule. He was lucky that he was served in the provinces by governors who were efficient and largely loyal. Commodus spent much of his time killing animals in the arena, then developed a taste for fighting as a gladiator. His lust for the kill soon spilled out, and hundreds of persons from all ranks — some of whom he slew in person in the ring — fell victim to his proscriptions.
Like all weak rulers, Commodus began to view himself as a god, and identified himself as the incarnation of Hercules on earth. This was not all that unusual — Hercules was the first human to become a god, and Hellenistic rulers from Alexander onward represented themselves in the Herculean mold. For the emperors from Trajan onward, Hercules presented an ideal and a model. For Trajan, it was through military conquest that he would emulate Hercules and earn immortality. For Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius it was through just government and pious devotion to the religious traditions of Rome. For Commodus, the lazy and incompetent, glory and divinity would be won through gladiatorial combat. It was a sick perversion of religion and tradition that the Romans found inexcusable. When he proclaimed himself chief of the gladiators and decided to take up residence in their stable next to the Colosseum, this was too much. After seeing the names of some of their chief supporters on a proscription list, a group of senators assassinated Commodus on January 1, 193 as he left the stable to appear as Consul and Gladiator. The next day, the Senate proclaimed Pertinax, commander of the Roman armies in Britian, as emperor. The Senatorial decree defamed Commodus in the strictest terms:
From the enemy of the fatherland let the marks of honor be dragged away! Let the parricide’s honor be dragged away! Let the parricide be dragged along! Let the enemy of the fatherland, the parricide, the gladiator, be mangled in the charnel-house! The executioner of the Senate is the enemy of the gods, the murderer of the Senate is the enemy of the gods! … That we may be safe, Jupiter Best and Greatest, preserve Pertinax for us! Good fortune to the trustiness of the praetorians, good fortune to the loyalty of the Senate! … Let the remembrance of the parricide, the gladiator be wiped out! The gladiator to the charnel-house! Give heed, Caesar! Let the executioner be dragged with the hook, let the executioner of the Senate be dragged with the hook, in the ancient fashion! More savage than Domitian, more foul than Nero, as he did to others, let it be done to him!
The tone of anger is unmistakable, but the irony of the message is more profound still. The blessing of Jupiter notwithstanding, Pertinax would be dead within the year, an offering to the untrustworthiness of the praetorians and the disloyalty of the Senate. And in the wake of his murder would follow a string of usurpations and civil wars that would ultimately bring down the principate established by Augustus.