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Roman Emperors Pt. 3

Updated on December 14, 2009


Reigned:  24 January 41 – 13 October 54

Born Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Claudius was installed by the Praetorian Guard, which had killed Caligula.  Having suffered maladies all his life, he had lived in obscurity and his very survival is considered by many to be the result of those maladies.  Because of them, neither Tiberius or Caligula ever considered him a legitimate potential threat.

Caligula’s reign left the Empire in a dangerous condition.  The Treasury had been looted, the Senate decimated and the people alienated.  The Praetorians reportedly proclaimed him Emperor as someone they could control since he was considered an imbecile. The Senate, terrified of the Praetorian Guard and hopeful that Claudius was, indeed, an imbecile, confirmed Claudius as Emperor.  (Caesar and Christ, p. 268, Will Durant)

However, it is possible that Claudius’ ascent came from a shrewdness that even  veil and more sinister view even from historians.   Early the afternoon of 24 January 41, both the Emperor Caligula and Claudius attended a display of dancer.  Claudius took his leave early and Caligula was assassinated soon after.

His first act as Emperor was to reward 15,000 sesterces to every soldier in the Praetorian Guard but had Caligula’s assassins executed   (Caesar and Christ, p. 269, Will Durant)

Claudius’ reign was a turning point in the history of the Principate Emperors.  He promoted talented administrators who were not part of the senatorial or equestrian classes.  He followed the lead of Julius Caesar and sent four Rome Legions to Britain and, after a four decade campaign, annexed it as a province of Rome. 

His relationships with his wives and children typify the difficulties of succession faced by all Roman Emperors.  He adopted his fourth wife's son, who reigned catastrophically as Nero, bringing the dynasty to an ignoble end.

At 57, Claudius had married 32 year old Agrippina, who immediately reached for the throne and a new cruelty reflected that ambition.  When Claudius finally awakened to her ambitions, he decided to name Britannicus his heir rather than Nero, Agrippina’s son.  Agrippina fed her husband poisonous mushrooms and he died after 12 hours of agony.  (Caesar and Christ, p. 271-75, Will Durant)


Reigned:  13 October 54 – 11 June 68

Nero became Emperor at 17.  While he focused on diplomacy, trade, and increasing the cultural capital of the empire, his rule is associated with tyranny, cruelty and extravagance, although he may have been popular with Rome’s “lower class.”  He was one of the earliest persecutors of Christians and executed his mother.

At 22, His brutality and utter indifference to the suffering he inflicted on others included those near him.   His wife Poppaea convinced him that his mother was plotting against him.  Finally, he relented to Poppaea’s will and tried to have her drowned but she swam to safety so his men pursued her to her villa and, reportedly, did not die easily.  When he viewed her uncovered corpse, he remarked “I did not know I had so beautiful mother.”  Caesar and Christ, p. 277, Will Durant  But Poppaea fared no better than his mother.  In advanced pregnancy, Nero allegedly kicked her in the stomach after she reproached him come returning late to the palace.  She died and a now regretful Nero had her body embalmed with rare spices and presided over a pompous funeral.  According to Suetonius, a young ex-slave named Sporus caught Nero’s eye as resembling Poppaea so Nero had him castrated, married him and “used him in every way like a woman”; whereupon a wit expressed the wish that Nero’s father had had such a wife.” Caesar and Christ, p. 281-82, Will Durant   

His early reign saw several revolts which added to his early popularity in Rome.  Troubles in Parthia and Armenia required him to send legions to quell the insurrections.  Britain also revolted when the Druid queen Boudica lead the revolt which destroyed several cities before the Roman Legions could quell them.  The first of the Jewish wars occurred in 66 an Nero dispatched Vespasian and was famous for Rome’s breaching of the walls of Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple of Jerusalem. 

His consolidation of power came at the expense of the Senate.   Rome’s great fire erupted on 18 July 19 and burned for a day.  After the fire, Nero opened his palaces to the new homeless and arranged food supplies for them to prevent starvation and embarked on a new urban development plan, building houses of brick and spacing them out.  He also built himself a new palace and a 30 meter statue of himself.  He also embarked on a campaign to persecute Christians, reportedly blaming them for the fire, and suffered them to fates which Christian churches would, in turn, visit upon heretics, completing the circle of irony. 

Nero's consolidation of power also included a slow usurping of authority from the Senate and the increase of Rome’s dislike for his tax policies.  In 68, a revolt arose over those tax policies.  In putting down the revolt, the Roman legions sought to install their leader as Emperor.  When the Praetorian Guard abandoned pretense of loyalty to Nero, he attempted to flee to a loyal eastern province.  When the sailors refused his commands, he returned to Rome.  When he learned the Senate had ordered him to be beaten to death, Nero soon killed himself.

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(Courtesy of


Reigned:  8 June 68 – 15 January 69

Born Servius Sulpicius Galba, Galba seized power after Nero’s suicide, with the support of the Roman legions in Spain when he was 65 and came from great wealth.  His life long reputation was one of his military capability, strictness and impartiality.  When he ascended to power, he refused to pay the Praetorian Guard bribes for their loyalty.  His age had drained his earlier energies and the fate of Rome found itself increasingly in the hands of three of Galba’s friends, increasing his unpopularity throughout the Empire. 

Following a revolt by legions in Germania, he appointed as successor who the Romans rejected.  Because no bribes were coming their way, the Praetorian Guard feigned indignation at his nominated successor.  When a new rebellion arose, Galba went to meet with them, only to be met with the Praetorian Guards who butchered him.

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(Courtesy of


Reigned:  15 January 69 – 16 April 69

Treacherous in his ascent to power, his power was the first of the Emperors with short lived reign.  Announcing he could pay his debts only by becoming Emperor, the Praetorian Guards, who killed Galba, persuaded the Senate to accept him as Emperor, just as the Roman armies in Germany and Egypt hailed their respective generals – Aulus Vitellius and Titus Flavius Vespasianus – as Emperors.   Vitellius invaded Italy, sweeping away the weak resistance of northern garrisons and the Praetorian Guard.  Otho killed himself after his 95 day reign and Vitellius mounted the throne.   (Caesar and Christ, p. 284-5, Will Durant)


Reigned:  17April 69 – 20 December 69

Vitellius’ central goal seemed to be to make every meal a banquet.  His claim to the throne was soon challenged by legions stationed in the Eastern provinces, who proclaimed their commander Vespasian emperor.  Vespasian’s troops entered Rome and Vitellius was dragged from his concealment, tortured and slain.  His body was drawn through the streets on a hook and flung into the Tiber. (Caesar and Christ, p. 285, Will Durant)

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