Lecture 18: The Post-Augustan Julio-Claudian Emperors (14-41 CE).

Lecture 18, Thursday November 13th 2019

Julio-Claudian Emperors

Augustus 27 BCE – 14 CE
Tiberius 14 – 37 CE
Gaius ‘Caligula’ 37 – 41 CE
Claudius 41 – 54 CE
Nero 54 – 68 CE

Death of Augustus: 19 August 14 CE

Suetonius (Life of Augustus 99): …calling for a mirror, he had his hair combed and his falling jaws set straight. After that, calling in his friends and asking whether it seemed to them that he had played the comedy of life fitly, he added the tag:

“Since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands
And from the stage dismiss me with applause.”

Then he sent them all off, and while he was asking some newcomers from the city about the daughter of Drusus, who was ill, he suddenly passed away as he was kissing Livia, uttering these last words: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell,” thus blessed with an easy death and such a one as he had always longed for. For almost always on hearing that anyone had died swiftly and painlessly, he prayed that he and his might have a like euthanasia, for that was the term he was wont to use. He gave but one single sign of wandering before he breathed his last, calling out in sudden terror that forty men were carrying him off. And even this was rather a premonition than a delusion, since it was that very number of soldiers of the praetorian guard that carried him forth to lie in state. [100] He died in the same room as his father Octavius, in the consulship of two Sextuses, Pompeius and  Appuleius, on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September at the ninth hour, just thirty-five days before his seventy-sixth birthday.

Murder of Augustus?

Tacitus* (Annales 1.5): …the illness of Augustus began to take a graver turn; and some suspected foul play on the part of his wife.

*Tacitus (c. 56 – 120 CE): senator and Roman historian. His Annales, published c. 110-120 CE (during reign of Trajan, 98 – 117 CE), examined the reigns of the Julio-Claudians up till death of Nero in 68 CE.

Dio Cassius (56.30): So Augustus fell sick and died. Livia incurred some suspicion in connexion with his death, in view of the fact that he had secretly sailed over to the  island to see Agrippa and seemed about to become completely reconciled with him.  For she was afraid, some say, that Augustus would bring him back to make him sovereign, and so smeared with poison some figs that were still on trees from which Augustus was used to gather the fruit with his own hands; then she ate those that had not been smeared, offering the poisoned ones to him At any rate, from this or some other cause he became ill, and sending for his associates, he told them all his wishes, adding finally: “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.”  He did not thereby refer literally to the appearance of its buildings, but rather to the strength of the empire. And by asking them for their applause, after the manner of the comic actors, as if at the close of a mime, he ridiculed most tellingly the whole life of man.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 11.37.45 AM.pngScreen Shot 2018-04-15 at 11.40.13 AMScreenshots of I, Claudius ep 4 “Poison is Queen”. Livia, played by Siân Phillips, contemplates the figs (38:38); Augustus, played by Brian Blessed, on his death bed looks at Livia (39:07).

Apotheosis of Augustus (14 CE)

Dio Cassius (56.42): Such was the eulogy read by Tiberius. Afterwards the same men as before took up the couch and carried it through the triumphal gateway, according to a decree of the senate. Present and taking part in the funeral procession were the senate and the  equestrian order, their wives, the praetorian guard, and practically all the others who were in the city at the time. When the body had been placed on the pyre in the Campus Martius, all the priests marched round it first; and then the knights, not only those belonging to the equestrian order but the others as well, and the infantry from the garrison ran round it; and they cast upon it all the triumphal decorations that any of them had ever received from him for any deed of valour.  Next the centurions took torches, conformably to a decree of the senate, and lighted the pyre from beneath. So it was consumed, and an eagle released from it flew aloft, appearing to bear his spirit to heaven. When these ceremonies had been performed, all the other people departed; but Livia remained on the spot for five days in company with the most prominent knights, and then gathered up his bones and placed them in his tomb…[46] At the time they declared Augustus immortal, assigned to him priests and sacred rites, and made Livia, who was already called Julia and Augusta, his priestess; they also permitted her to employ a lictor when she exercised her sacred office. On her part, she bestowed a million sesterces upon a certain Numerius Atticus, a senator and ex-praetor, because he swore that he had seen Augustus ascending to heaven after the manner of which tradition tells concerning Proculus and Romulus [see lecture 3 for apotheosis of Romulus].  A shrine voted by the senate and built by Livia and Tiberius was erected to the dead emperor in Rome, and others in many different places, some of the communities voluntarily building them and others unwillingly. Also the house at Nola where he passed away was dedicated to him as a precinct. While his shrine was being erected in Rome, they placed a golden image of him on a couch in the temple of Mars Ultor, and to this they paid all the honours that they were afterwards to give to his statue.

Imperial succession


The Gemma Augustea (‘Augustan gem-stone’) depicts the transfer of power from Augustus to Tiberius in 14 CE. Early 1st c. CE. Carved from a piece of onyx, 7½ x 9 inches. Below: erection of a trophy by Roman soldiers; bottom left and bottom right: human captives, slaves of war. Representation of the erection of a trophy for Tiberius in 12 CE in victory over the Germans. This motif was represented again and again on public and private monuments, stressing military strength. Above: crowning of Augustus, in the guise of Jupiter (eagle at his feet). Roma sits next to him. Between Augustus and Roma, sign of zodiac, Capricorn; referring (?) to the date he was called Augustus (Jan. 16 27 BCE). Upper left: Tiberius arrives on a chariot, already designated as next emperor. Image: James Steakley (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia. Watch this short video (4 mins) from the Getty Villa which shows how ancient craftsmen carved gemstones.

Ramage & Ramage (2015: 145): “The gem, slightly trimmed since antiquity and remounted in a modern setting, was cut from a piece that had two veins: a dark bluish colour below and white on the upper layer. By controlling the depth of carving, the artist cut the figures out of a white vein, and removed the stone down to the blue layer to make the background.”

Tiberius: Rome’s dark prince (14 – 37 CE)

CL 102 Spring 2018-career of Tiberius[CL 102 Spring 2018-career of Tiberius printable pdf]

Tiberius’ voluntary exile to Rhodes (6 BCE – 2 CE)

Suetonius (Life of Tiberius 10, 13): …though in the prime of life and health, he suddenly decided to go into retirement and to withdraw as far as possible from the centre of the stage; perhaps from disgust at his wife, whom he dared neither accuse nor put away, though he could no longer endure her; or perhaps, avoiding the contempt born of familiarity, to keep up his prestige by absence, or even add to it, in case his country should ever need him. Some think that, since the children of Augustus were now of age, he voluntarily gave up the position and the virtual assumption of the second rank which he had long held, thus following the example of Marcus Agrippa [see Suet. Aug. 66], who withdrew to Mytilene when Marcellus began his public career, so that he might not seem either to oppose or belittle him by his presence. This was, in fact, the reason which Tiberius himself gave, but afterwards. At the time he asked for leave of absence on the ground of weariness of office and a desire to rest; and he would not give way either to his mother’s urgent entreaties or to the complaint which his step-father openly made in the senate, that he was being forsaken. [13]…With Augustus’ consent therefore Tiberius was recalled, but on the understanding that he should take no part or active interest in public affairs.

Tiberius becomes emperor (14 CE)

Suetonius (Life of Tiberius 24): Though Tiberius did not hesitate at once to assume and to exercise the imperial authority, surrounding himself with a guard of soldiers, that is, with the actual power and the outward sign of sovereignty, yet he refused the title for a long time, with barefaced hypocrisy now upbraiding his friends who urged him to accept it, saying that they did not realise what a monster the empire was, and now by evasive answers and calculating hesitancy keeping  the senators in suspense when they implored him to yield, and fell at his feet. Finally, some lost patience, and one man cried out in the confusion: “Let him take it or leave it.” Another openly voiced the taunt that others were slow in doing what they promised, but that he was slow to promise what he was already doing. At last, as though on compulsion, and complaining that a wretched and burdensome slavery was being forced upon him, he accepted the empire, but in such fashion as to suggest the hope that he would one day lay it down. His own words are: “Until I come to the time when it may seem right to you to grant an old man some repose.”

  • 14 CE: two mutinies by Roman legions stationed on the Rhine and Danube (Tac. Ann. 1.16-23), put down by Drusus (bio son) and Germanicus (adopted son)
  • 15-16 CE: campaigns in Germania by Germanicus inconclusive and expensive
  • 16 CE: conspiracy against Tiberius by M. Scribonius Drusus Libo = first treason trial conducted by the senate; Tacitus describes it at length (Annales 2.27-32) to demonstrate an evil that would dominate political life
  • 17-24 CE: revolts in Africa under Tacfarinas
  • 21 CE: revolt of Gallic Treveri and Aedui who were in heavy debt
  • 19 CE: death of Germanicus in Syria — suspicion that he had been poisoned by Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (gov. of Syria; cos. with Tiberius in 7 BCE) by Tiberius’ command so that Tiberius’ bio son, Drusus, could be emperor; extraordinary funeral honours granted to Germanicus by senate (Tacitus, Annales 2.83)

The trial of Piso de maiestate (20 CE)

Beth Severy (2000: 319): “Tacitus provides in the Annales the specific historical background. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, appointed governor of Syria by Tiberius in 17 CE, quarreled with Tiberius’ adopted son Germanicus, who had been given supervisory command of Roman forces in the east (Ann. 2.43, 2.55, 2.57, 2.69). When Piso was replaced as governor, he briefly left his province, only to return in armed conflict against his gubernatorial successor (2.74.2, 2.80-81). At about the same time, in 19 CE, Germanicus died, and rumors accused Piso of poisoning him (2.69-71, 2.73.5-6). The death of an imperial heir, the procession of his widow [Agrippina] and children to Rome (2.75), an outbreak of armed civil conflict, and ongoing rumors created quite a public stir (2.82; cf. Suet. Calig. 5).”

Tacitus (Annales 2.69): After this, Piso left for Seleucia, awaiting the outcome of the sickness which had again attacked Germanicus. The cruel virulence of the disease was intensified by the patient’s belief that Piso had given him poison; and it is a fact that explorations in the floor and walls brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name GERMANICUS, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave. At the same time, emissaries from Piso were accused of keeping a too inquisitive watch upon the ravages of the disease.

An example of a Roman lead curse tablet (1st c. BCE) now in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Curses could be inscribed on almost any material, but lead is the most common. The tablet (left: JHUAM 2011.01) was rolled together with four others and pierced through with an iron nail (right: JHUAM 2011.06). A Latin name for a curse is defixio which means ‘to pin down’. For more details, see Johns Hopkins. Image: Johns Hopkins. 130 curse tablets have been found at Bath (England).

Definition of maiestas (Oxford Classical Dictionary): “maiestas: used as an abbreviation for the crime maiestas minuta populi Romani, ‘the diminution of the majesty of the Roman people’…By Tiberius’ reign prosecutions for maiestas might be brought before not only the quaestio maiestatis (see quaestiones) but either the senate, sitting under the presidency of the emperor or consuls, or the emperor himself (Tacitus Annales 3. 10–12). Condemned persons were increasingly liable to the death sentence with no opportunity given to retire into exile; their property was confiscated for the imperial state treasury and their names were obliterated from public record (damnatio memoriae). Since it was even permitted to prosecute those who were dead, one could not be sure of escaping the last two consequences by committing suicide…Information was laid and prosecutions brought by individuals (senators, where the senate was the court used). Certain men came to make a profession of this, being rewarded with at least a quarter of the accused man’s property, if they secured condemnation, and were labelled delatores. Charges of maiestas were increasingly frequent under Tiberius and after 23 CE disfigured his reign.”

s c de pisone patre.jpgSenatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre. Bronze tablet inscribed with the decree of the senate condemning Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (December 10th 20 CE). Piso had been accused of the murder by poisoning of Germanicus and of maiestas and took his own life on 8 December 20 CE. CIL II², 5, n. 900. Found near Seville, Spain. Six copies of these transcripts have been found in southern Spain in recent years. We also have the Tabula Hebana (found in Italy, 1947) and Tabula Siarensis (found in 1982, Spain) containing decrees enumerating honours for Germanicus. The trial of Piso is dramatized by the historian, Tacitus (Ann. 3.11-18). Image: The Roman Law Library, by Y. Lassard & A. Koptev. For the Latin and English of this text, see Potter-Damon 1999.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 6.08.35 PM.pngScreenshots of I, Claudius ep 5 “Some Justice”. Sejanus, played by Patrick Stewart, confronts Piso (30:33).

The rise and fall of Sejanus (23-31 CE)

  • Lucius Aelius Sejanus: an equestrian with family ties to prefects of Egypt and consuls, became commander of the praetorian guard by 15 CE
  • 23 CE: concentrated the praetorian guard in barracks at the porta Viminalis, Rome; brought together into the same camp all of the urban cohorts which had previously been dispersed througout the city
  • 23 CE: after the death of Tiberius’ son, Drusus (by Sejanus’ poison: Tac. Ann. 4.8; Dio Cassius 57.22), Sejanus gained great influence with Tiberius, who was so attached to him that he referred to him publicly as the “partner” of his toils (socius laborum, Tac. Ann. 4.2)
  • 25 CE: Sejanus asked to marry the widow of Tiberius’ son (Drusus), Livilla; Tiberius refused because of Sejanus’ low birth (Tac. Ann. 4.3, 4.8-11; Dio Cassius 57.22.2)
  • 26 CE: Tiberius retires to Campania, shutting himself away on the island of Capri, which he would virtually never leave again 
  • 29 CE: Sejanus arranged for the exile of Agrippina (the elder — daughter of Julia + Agrippa; widow of Germanicus) and her children; she starved to death in 33 CE on the island of Pandateria — she was survived by one son, the future emperor Gaius ‘Caligula’; and three daughters: Agrippina the younger, Julia Drusilla, Julia Livilla
  • 31 CE: Sejanus is appointed consul with Tiberius. Tiberius, from Capri, brings about Sejanus’ downfall. In Tiberius’ autobiography (Suet. Tib. 61), he claims that he punished Sejanus for plotting against children of Germanicus. Dio Cassius (58.4) says that Tiberius realized Sejanus could declare himself emperor at any moment. Sejanus is executed, as are his followers, and his young children. Sejanus suffers a damnatio memoriae (Varner 2004: 92)

Capri.netView from the ruins of Tiberius’ villa (Villa Iovis) on modern Capri, an island off the south side of the Gulf of Naples in the Campanian region of Italy. Image: capri.net.

Retreat from public life

  • 31-37 CE: Tiberius governs from Capri, encouraging the practices of informers (delatores) in maiestas cases — many maiestas trials take place
  • Tiberius dies March 37 CE at Misenum. He is not deified, but cremated and placed in the Mausoleum (Suet. Gaius 13). There is no clear plan for succession.


Marble portrait bust of Caligula with paint residue (left), 1st c. CE. Plaster replica (right) trying to reconstruct ancient paint. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Image: public domain via Wikimedia.

Rise of Emperor Gaius ‘Caligula’ (37-41 CE)

Suetonius (Life of Gaius 9): His surname Caligula* he derived from a joke of the troops, because he was brought up in their  midst in the dress of a common soldier. To what extent besides he won their love and devotion by being reared in fellowship with them is especially evident from the fact that when they threatened mutiny after the death of Augustus and were ready for any act of madness, the mere sight of Gaius unquestionably calmed them.

*Caligula = “Little Boots” (though singular in number, i.e. “little boot”). Caliga = half-boot worn by soldiers.

  • Caligula = son of Agrippina the elder + Germanicus; since Agrippina was granddaughter of Augustus + Germanicus son of Antonia the younger, Caligula was related by blood to both Augustus + Mark Antony
  • Suetonius (Gaius 51) attributes his behaviour to mental illness: “He was sound neither of body nor mind” (Suet. Gaius 50).
  • Caligula made his horse a priest (Dio Cassius 59.28.6); Suetonius (Gaius 55) tells us that this horse was called “Swifty” (Incitatus), that Caligula built Swifty a house, gave him slaves, and planned to make him consul
  • Tiberius “Gemellus“, son of Drusus (Tiberius’ son) was in Tiberius’ will made heir jointly with Caligula. The senate annulled the will, Caligula adopted Tiberius Gemellus and had him hailed as princeps iuuentutis (Suet. Gaius 15), but Caligula had him killed in the first year of his reign
  • Caligula drew up a battle line on the shore of the English Channel, ‘and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather sea-shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them “spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.”‘ (Suet. Gaius 46)
  • According to Suetonius (Gaius 24), “he lived in habitual incest with all his sisters”, especially Drusilla

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Screenshots of I, Claudius ep 8 “Zeus, by Jove!”. Caligula, played by John Hurt (aka Ollivander in Harry Potter films), prepares to remove the fetus from the womb of Drusilla, played by Beth Morris (48:23; 48:33). Mary Beard on this scene: “the most shockingly memorable scene of the whole series is the appearance of Caligula’s bloody face in full screen – having just (off screen!) ripped the foetus of his own child out of his pregnant sister’s body and eaten it, in imitation of the god Jupiter, who in Roman myth had done much the same. This incident was a complete figment of the screenwriter’s imagination, but it captures horribly well the image of this ghastly emperor.”

Assassination (January 24, 41 CE)

Suetonius (Life of Gaius 58): From this point there are two versions of the story: some say that as he was talking with the boys, Chaerea came up behind, and gave him a deep cut in the neck, having first cried, “Take that,” and that then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, who was the other conspirator and faced Gaius, stabbed him in the breast. Others say that Sabinus, after getting rid of the crowd through centurions who were in the plot, asked for the watchword, as soldiers do, and that when Gaius gave him “Jupiter,” he cried “So be it,” and as Gaius looked around, he split his jawbone with a blow of his sword.  As he lay upon the ground and with writhing limbs called out that he still lived, the others dispatched him with thirty wounds; for the general signal was “Strike again.”

Further reading: 


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