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The Roman Empire (60 BCE-160 CE)

Nero and the 'Year of the Four Emperors' (54-69)

Caligula and Claudius (37-54): The Pitfalls and Regularization of Personal Rule

The Short-Lived Flavian Dynasty: 69-96 CE


Nero's rule began well in 54. He was a Julio-Claudian descended from Mark Antony and Octavian, and was tutored by the Praetorian Prefect Burrus and the literateur Seneca. These two helped him initially to make good on his promises of good government, and the years 55-61 were later called quinquennium Neronis, Nero's five good years. His ministers evolved an odd, yet successful Parthian policy. In the last days of Claudius, the Parthian king Voloqesus made his brother Tiridates the king of Armenia. This presented the dilemma to Rome of Parthia and Armenia becoming uncomfortably close. In 55, Nero's administration sent general Corbulo to the East to retrain the Syrian legions. In 58-59, he was able to chase Tiridates out of Armenia, yet war with Parthia in 62 presented setbacks. During the winter a whole army surrendered to the Persians, yet in the spring of 63, Corbulo drove the entire Parthian host out of Asia Minor. Peace terms dictated that Tiridates could be king, but that he and his successors would have to come to Rome to get his crown. This was an odd policy, but worked for the next 200 years.

Nero had ascended to the Principate at the age of sixteen, and his mother Agrippina had assumed that she would rule through him. She had several of her relatives killed in her aspirations and paranoia, and aroused the severe dislike of Seneca and Burrus. Their efforts to get rid of her were increasingly confused, and Claudius' son Britannicus was eventually killed in the jockeying for position. While Seneca and Burrus controlled Nero to a degree, he feared his mother, and decided to have her done in. First, she was driven from the palace. Later, in 59, the Princeps had her over to dinner, and sent her home in a collapsing boat; rather than drowning, she swam to shore on the boat's collapse. On shore, she was finally beaten to death by sailors on Nero's orders. The Senate accepted Seneca and Burrus' cover-up.

In 59 CE, the real Nero stepped forward. Henceforth he totally neglected military and provincial matters; he wanted to be known only as a showman, a star in the ancient Hellenistic fashion, writing poetry and playing the harp. He brought the Greek games to Rome and actually competed in them. Rome was scandalized by the public nature of his acts. When Burrus died, he appointed as Praetorian prefects sinister characters such as Ofonius Tigellinus who were prepared to pander to his most base impulses. At this point, Seneca retired from public life. Also in 62 he engineered the death of his wife Octavia, daughter of Claudius. Nero had a close friend named Otho, whom he sent to Lusitania as propraetor, and whose wife Poppaea Sabina he took as a mistress. She convinced Nero to divorce Octavia for sterility and adultery. After removal to Campania and a second conviction for adultery, Octavia was killed. By the mid-60s, Nero was totally out of control. He killed Poppaea—who had encouraged Agrippina's murder in the first place—by kicking her during a pregnancy. Then, on July 18, 64, Rome burned. Three of its fourteen neighborhoods were totally razed, while seven more sustained serious damage. Nero was away when the fire began, yet returned and energetically tried to salvage the city, providing relief to the newly homeless survivors. He also insisted on better fire codes. Yet his comment that the blaze provided an excellent opportunity for urban renewal, and the general popular hatred of him, gave rise to the suspicion that he either started the fire, or stood by while it consumed Rome. To deflect such criticisms, he focused urban dislike on the Christians of Rome. Both they and the Jews were frequently mistrusted; Poppaea's sympathy for the latter spared them. City-wide persecutions of Christians commenced. These were the first recorded Roman persecutions of Christians, and are supposedly the ones in which Peter and Paul died. Under the direction of the city Prefect, Christians were smeared with lye and set afire in the Vatican arena; others were used as animal bait in the Circus.

Matters began an unrecoverable downward spiral in 65, the year of a senatorial plot against Nero. After the Rome fire, Nero had spent lavishly in restoring palaces and building himself new ones. Hew then needed more funds, and began murdering those with wealth. The Roman nobility began to fear for their existence. As well, they increasingly resented Nero's reliance on Near Eastern freedmen as army officers and senators. In 65, a relatively broad-based conspiracy emerged. Including the consul designate as well as co-Praetorian Prefect Rufus, it also embraced several senators, who planned to seat C. Calpurnius Piso as the new emperor. Hence the term Piso's Conspiracy. The night before the plot's implementation, imperial agents detected it, and in the ensuing terror of vengeance, nineteen major Rome personalities were executed— including Seneca. After this Tigellinus was given free reign to conduct a purge. It became increasingly widespread, with Tiberian-era treason trials returning en masse. He then took his Hellenic addictions to new levels. When Tiridates arrived for his crown in 66, he was made to worship Nero as a god. Next, the Princeps elected to go to Greece and compete in the games there. In the aftermath of a second coup attempt planned by Vinicianus, he assumed the latter's father-in-law Corbulo was its leading figure. Summoning him to Rome, Nero ordered him to commit suicide. Nero proceeded to do this with several generals from the upper and lower Rhine region. Nero thus alienated the army as a whole. Rather than patronizing it, as did previous Princeps, he avoided military camps, and even appointed his oriental freedmen as generals. The army was no longer a pillar of the Principate.

At this point, in 66, Judaea re-emerged as a trouble spot. It had never stopped simmering since Caligula's blunders. There were socio-economic tensions as well as religious problems. While several members of the Jewish upper classes had undergone a willing process of cultural Hellenization, those of the lower classes had remained strictly orthodox in religion as well as cultural outlook. As well, there were radical Jewish groups—the Essenes and Dead Sea sect, who secluded themselves from society into messianic communes, as well as more militant anti-Hellenist/Roman groups such as the Sicarii, or 'daggers' in Greek. These intra-Jewish tensions were matched by growing conflict between Jews and pagans, including civil disturbances. Originally, Judaea had come into the Empire peacefully under Pompei, becoming an imperial province under Augustus. It had never felt the weight of conquest. Its administrator was the procurator in Caesaria, with only 3,000 troops. In 66, however, the anti-Hellenistic component of the masses and priesthood revolted, hoping to restore a kingdom along the lines of the Hasmonean dynasty. After riots in Jerusalem and Caesaria, Temple sacrifice in the name of the Emperor ceased. This was the sign of open revolt. At the beginning the procurator Gessius Florus called upon the governor of Syria for aid, but the latter withdrew his forces, whereupon the revolt spread throughout Judaea and the Galilee. Jerusalem was fortified against Roman entry. Nero was still in Greece at this time, and sent the general Vespasianus to Syria in 67. All of Judaea was in arms at this point, so Vespasianus began by reducing the rural areas. By 68, he had isolated Jerusalem, and then everything slowed down.

Early in 68 Nero had made off to Naples. In the spring the southern Gaul (Gallia Luqduniensus) governor C. Julius Vindex revolted, claiming he was acting in defense of the Senate. He was a Romanized Gaulic whose forebears had taken Claudius at his word. He was also a second-generation senator. He wrote letters to other Rhine generals suggesting that they unite against Nero. This was too civil a manner of revolt for Roman generals. The Iberian (Hispania Terracomnius) governor S. Sulpicius Galba revolted, also declaring for the Senate. A member of an ancient senatorial family, he proclaimed himself Princeps. He was supported by other Spanish governors, as well as by some African propraetors. While the two raised armies, L. Virgilius Rufus from Upper Germany responded to Vindex's letters by defeating him. Hailed by his troops as Caesar, he declared no interest in rule. At this point Galba went to Rome. No one stopped him. The Praetorian Guard as well as the Senate accepted him, and he proclaimed himself Caesar. In early 69, Nero saw he no longer had any support, and committed suicide. Thus ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Nero's death ushered in the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was weak as an emperor for two reasons: 1) he had no funds in the fiscus with which to keep his troops in line and bribe the Praetorian guard; and 2) he was Emperor just because of his troops and only his troops. The Rhine legions were ill disposed towards him, so declared Aullus Vitellus emperor in 69 as well. He took several Rhine legions to Italy to fight Galba. In the interim, however, M. Salvius Otho—one of Galba's first supporters—went to the Praetorian camp and bribed the forces into recognizing him as emperor, after which the Guard caught and killed Galba.

An earlier protege of Nero, Otho was degenerate and ineffective. Still, he won the support of the Danube and Thrace area legions, and was somewhat popular in Rome. Still, all his military support was much farther away than was his opponent Vitellus. Early in 69, Otho led the Praetorian Guard through Cisalpine Gaul to Cremona where he met Vitellus in battle. The Praetorian forces were outnumbered five to one, and Otho was eliminated at a battle remembered as Bedricum I. Vitellus then went south to Rome and the Senate recognized him as Princeps. At this point the simmering enmity between the legions of the Rhine and those of Syria came into play. In the summer of 69 the latter proclaimed Vespasianus Emperor. He left his son Titus in Judaea to deal with the Jewish Revolt and made for Rome. He never actually met Vitellus in battle. M. Antonius Primus, a Danube region general, gave Vespasianus support and military muscle. He sent legions to Italy and also began revolts against Vitellus in the Italian towns. Vitellus reacted by dispatching an army to northern Italy, which met Primus at Cremona. The majority of Vitellus' officers went over to Primus, while his soldiers refused to defect, probably still hoping for financial reward. At what became known as Bedricum II, Primus was victorious and his forces plundered for four days. Vitellus had fled to Rome by now, and Primus followed him in force. His opponent's remaining legions fought for Rome in a street-by-street manner, yet Primus ultimately won. Rome was plundered by legionnaires on 22 December 69, and Vespasianus was installed as Princeps by the beginning of 70 CE. The best, most balanced man had won.

For the most part, the Roman frontiers had remained stable throughout 69, even while denuded of legions engaged in civil war. A good general and a savvy politician, Vespasianus was therefore a good political general. He faced two immediate problems: the Jewish Revolt in Judaea, and continuing revolt of the Batavians on the lower Rhine. The latter had begun their uprising due to Primus' instigation so as to detain Vitellus Rhine area troops. They were led by Civilus, yet would not desist when told to do so by Antonius. Batavians under Civilus terrorized the Rhineland, and he convinced the Roman auxiliaries, as well as up to three legions and several Gaulic tribesmen to join him. Thus, by the middle of 70, all the Rhineland and eastern Gaul was in arms. Only with sustained efforts by fresh legions were the disturbances put down. As regards Judaea, Vespasianus had left his sonTitus there. He conquered all of Jerusalem after a grueling 139-day siege. His forces then went out of control—they tore down and burned the Temple, and then the city, murdering much of the high priesthood and carrying others off into slavery. Much booty was then taken to Rome. The revolt lingered on for another three years, in strongholds such as Masada and Gamla. Ultimately, a legion was stationed in the region under the legate Gessius Florus, and Judaea became a second-rate military province. Still, the Jews were allowed to retain most of their privileges related to religious practice, with the Temple tax now going to Rome.


That Neros' demise would emerge from the army is not surprising, given the close military-Princeps relationship. His key mistakes therefore were first to ignore the army and then to begin killing its generals. The remaining Generals were forced into revolt either by a sense of Roman honor, or for self-preservation. What was truly shocking, though, was that Augustus' professional army had gone totally out of control, even turning against itself and arrogating to itself the prerogative of proclaiming emperors from within its ranks. A sequel to this will be seen in the third century. At the same time, the army demonstrated its combination of neglect and contempt for the Senate and civilian population of Rome. Thus, the greatest weakness of the Principate was that when the Princeps lost army support, mayhem ensued.

In addition to founding a new dynasty, the eventual victor of 69, Vespasianus, was a different sort of Emperor. He was a provincial from the Sabine region, whose social origins were equestrian. His father had been an equestrian, following a publicani career under Augustus. Vespasian had received an excellent education, even learning Greek, which was somewhat rare for that era. He had commanded a legion in Britain, had ascended to the level of consul, and invaded Africa. During Nero's time, he was one of Rome's most influential commanders and received command of the legions subduing the Jewish Revolt. In 70 CE, he was a sixty-one-year old, known for his parsimoniousness and good humor tempered by shrewdness.

With the exception of the Jewish Revolt and the Batavian confrontation, Vespasian's reign was peaceful, and the Emperor was able to devote time to its organization. A fundamental change was effected along the borders. The Rhine revolt had shown the drawbacks of using auxiliaries in the regions from which they were recruited. This was now ended, and along with their deployment away from home, they were now commanded by Roman officers. Change continued in other areas, but not in formal terms. The Principate survived, and in theory, no added powers accrued to Vespasian than to his predecessors, and the Senate's prerogatives were at least titularly still intact. Bu the Senate was nothing like a partner to Vespasian. He expected them to obey his directives and they proved quite malleable. The Emperor was able to enforce his insistence that he be allowed to choose the proconsuls for provincial commands, ending any illusion of a diarchy. Though Vespasianus was an autocrat and the illusions of the Augustus period were gone, the Princeps was a respectable, respectful autocrat. As well, he saved the Empire from chaos, providing it instead with stability.

Furthermore, the Flavians represented the administrative class of equestrians from which they emerged, and this group began to monopolize government. A new aristocracy of Italian town origins was established, and from 65-96 CE, 50% of the old senatorial families disappear, to be replaced by Italian town equestrians. Like Vespasian, they were sober, industrious, and boring, but effective. Officials such as Trajanus and Agricola believed in public service, honesty, and moderation, thus endowing Roman government with increased propriety, efficiency, and professionalism. The imperial court of Rome was made more solemn, and the provincial administration was cleaned up, providing the second-century basis of civil administration associated with Rome's golden age. Vespasian also tried to improve finances, increasing provincial tribute, there were even small advances on the German frontier, and Vespasian was even able to entirely arrange an amicable succession prior to his death. It is also important to remember that while Domitian was somewhat vicious and not nearly as respectful as Vespasian or Titus, the same basic policies were continued, with government efficiency and fiscal soundness growing.

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