Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
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Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.
In this lesson, we're going to tackle the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of the Roman Empire. In power from 27 BCE to 68 CE, the dynasty included the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Although many of its members seemed a bit nuts, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty is arguably the most famous dynasty of the Empire. As we go through the details of this dynasty, it may just seem like a really violent soap opera. Men came to power through forced marriage, divorce, assassination, and murder.
While discussing the twists and turns that make this dynasty infamous, there are three main points I'd like us to grasp. First, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty was the first dynasty to rule the Roman Empire. Second, Augustus was its first emperor and the only Julio-Claudian not to face a violent death. Last, none of the emperors of the dynasty were succeeded by their biological sons, or in other words, their direct male heir. Keeping these three things in mind, let's get to our Julio-Claudian emperors.
As previously stated, Augustus kicked off the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. From the Roman family group, Julia, he gives us the Julio part of the Julio-Claudian name. Although he is remembered by history as Augustus, his actual name was Octavian. Furthermore, he was the adopted son and actual great nephew of the famous Julius Caesar. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, and after winning an infamous battle with the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman senate declared Octavian the guy in charge, giving him the name Augustus, meaning great, venerable, or revered. This occurred in the year 27 BCE.
Ironically, Augustus never declared himself emperor, but instead called himself the First Citizen. However, due to the power and control he wielded, history and tradition have awarded him the title of the first Roman emperor. During his reign, he definitely lived up to this title, having complete authority over every Roman colony. This power enabled him to restore peace within the Empire, beginning the famous Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. Under this peace, the agricultural production, economy, and arts of the Empire boomed, and in 2 BCE Augustus was declared Pater Patriae, the father of his country.
His illustrious reign came to an end with his natural, non-violent death in the year 14 CE. Upon his death, Tiberius, from the Roman family group, Claudia, took the throne. Hence the name, Julio-Claudian Dynasty.
Now, let's remember none of the Julio-Claudian emperors were succeeded by their biological sons. In fact, Tiberius was the son of Augustus' wife from her first marriage. He was, what we would call, Augustus' step-son. In order to make the family connection even stronger, and in perfect soap opera style, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his wife, and then take the hand of his, Augustus', daughter in marriage.
Unlike his predecessor, Tiberius was a soldier who never really wanted to be an emperor. Not one for enjoying the pomp and circumstance of Rome, he spent a large part of his reign on the island of Capri. While there, he abandoned most of his imperial duties to his advisor, Sejanus. Unfortunately, Sejanus decided to have an affair with the wife of Tiberius' son. This didn't go over to well with Tiberius, and after a series of very dramatic events, Sejanus was brutally executed.
History tells us Tiberius became more and more paranoid as he aged. His later years were filled with the trial and executions of those he even suspected of treason. As his paranoia grew, he remained on the island of Capri. Having reached their fill of his paranoia and murderous reign, Tiberius was assassinated by a member of his praetorian guard, or body guards, in the year 37 CE. With this violent death of the second Julio-Claudian emperor, Caligula took the throne.
Caligula was the adopted, not biological, son of Tiberius. Although they weren't truly father and son, it could be said Caligula was a chip off the old Tiberius block. Like his adopted dad, Caligula executed many of his subjects for treason. Taking things a step further, he murdered his own adopted son, pillaged the treasuries of Rome, and is generally remembered as being a madman. Whether all the stories of his violent reign are true, his unpopularity did lead to his assassination in the year 41 CE, making him the second Julio-Claudian emperor to die a violent death. This brings us to Claudius, the next guy to claim the throne.
Turning things a bit up-side down, Claudius was actually the uncle of his predecessor, Caligula. Making him stand out from his fellow Julio-Claudians, Claudius was chosen by the army, not a ruling emperor or the senate. Although the army actually chose him because they thought he would be weak and easy to control, Claudius ended up being rather competent. He waged several military campaigns and is credited for increasing the territory of the Roman Empire.
He is most famous for his conquering of Britain in the year 43 CE. Although Claudius may have been an excellent soldier, he was a very poor judge of character. In 54 CE he was murdered by his wife, who also happened to be his niece, and her son Nero, a son from another man, we might add, took the throne. Thus, we have another Julio-Claudian dying a violent death and someone not his son taking the throne.
Unfortunately for the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, Nero takes the cake as one of the most infamous emperors of Rome. Although it has never been proven, he is accused of starting the 64 CE Great Fire of Rome. Making him even more notorious, history tells us he blamed the Christians for the fire and began persecuting them en masse. Add to this, he is credited with the murder of his mom (yes, the same woman who poisoned her husband so he could have the throne), his first wife, and his stepbrother, and you can see why Rome reached their fill of him by 68 CE. Facing a sentence of death from the Roman senate, Nero committed suicide. Dying with no heir in place, his suicide brought the final violent death to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.
Like an exciting, yet violent soap opera, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty ruled the Roman Empire from 27 BCE to 68 CE. It included the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. It was the first dynasty to rule the Roman Empire; its first emperor being the uber famous Augustus himself. Not only is he credited as the first Roman emperor, he was the only Julio-Claudian emperor not to meet a violent end. Speaking of ends, we should also remember none of the emperors of the dynasty were succeeded by their biological sons, or in other words, their direct male heir. Despite their dysfunctional, soap opera-like family dynamics, the Julio-Claudians were the first, and arguably most famous, ruling dynasty of the Roman Empire.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
15 chapters | 163 lessons