The Roman Empire: The Julio-Claudian Principate

Instructor: Brian Cunningham

Brian has completed his first year of a doctoral program in Classics, and has taught at the university level. He has been published for his historical research.

''In this lesson you will be learning about the significance of the first imperial dynasty of the Roman Empire, called the Julio-Claudians, beginning with Augustus and ending with Nero. Specifically, how these men's relationship with different aspects of their administrations affected the development of the Principate, or rule by the First Citizen.''


Map of the Roman Empire, first century A.D.
Roman Empire, first century AD

Imagine that you have traveled back in time to witness the Golden Age of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century A.D., a period the Romans called the Pax Romana, or 'Roman Peace'. The vast territory under its command comprised of millions of people and countless cultures, stretching from Syria in the east to modern day Portugal in the west; from North Africa to Britain. Standing in the middle of the Forum in Rome, crown jewel of the city, you see signs all around you of Rome's greatness and majesty: gigantic marble columns; temples to house worship of the gods; the sound of gold and silver coins changing hands across the busy marketplace; statues so lifelike that they look like they could move at ant moment. One statue in particular catches your eye- a larger than life representation of a powerful man standing with an embossed breastplate, a scepter resting on his left arm, his right arm outstretched with his index finger pointed to an endless future. This is the statue of the emperor Caesar Augustus.


Statue of Augustus Caesar
Statue of Augustus

Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, was an exceedingly clever man who emerged as the sole master of the Roman world in 27 B.C., and was given the honorary title of Augustus, or 'revered one' by the Senate to honor his victory over Antony and Cleopatra. Rather than become ensnared by conspicuous signs of powers as his adopted father did, Augustus was more low key, and preferred to be known as princeps, Latin for 'first citizen'. Numerous powers were granted to the newly named Augustus in the following years that gave him total dominion over all aspects of the government and military. He limited the size of the army to twenty-eight legions of roughly five thousand soldiers per, and created a personal bodyguard unit, called the Praetorian Guard, to ensure his safety. All members of the military swore a personal oath of loyalty to him and his family. He respected the Senate, and encouraged his governors to rule responsibly. People worshiped his image together with the personification of Rome in what was known the Imperial Cult. Overall, Augustus' reign was a time of peace and prosperity for the Romans. He initiated a massive building program, and said of his work, 'I found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble'. Augustus set the precedent for all future emperors to follow.


The next emperor, Tiberius (r. 14-37 A.D.) was wildly unpopular and had huge problems securing the loyalty of the army. Initially, he had to kill some of his officers to get his point across (makes you wonder why they disliked him so much, huh?). He preferred a hands-off approach to leadership, entrusting matters of state to other administrators, or to the head of the Praetorian Guard, a man named Sejanus who later conspired against him. Another praetorian prefect, Macro, ruled after Sejanus. The growing power of this elite bodyguard unit would be a major problem for emperors in years to come, making and breaking emperors as they saw fit. This first became evident during the reign of Caligula (r. 37-41 A.D.). After less than four years his increasingly unstable and erratic behavior caused everyone to turn against him. Wanting to change the Principate into an obvious dictatorship, he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard. His uncle, Claudius, (r. 41-54 AD) was then chosen by the Guard to ascend the throne.

Painting showing Claudius being found by the Praetorian Guard and Proclaimed Emperor
Claudius and Praetorian Guard

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