The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Bust of First Century Emperors
The story of Rome’s Emperors in the first century AD has got it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride.

Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny.

Hereditary rule

Why was the first century so turbulent? The first answer is simple: hereditary rule. For most of this period, emperors were not chosen on the basis of their ability or honesty, but simply because they were born in the right family.

For every great leader, such as Augustus, there was a tyrant like Caligula. For every Claudius there was a Nero; for every Vespasian, a Domitian. Only at the end of the period did Rome take the succession into its own hands and select somebody who was reasonably sane, smart and honest.

Force and violence

What’s more, the empire started through violence and depended on force. Emperors could only survive if their people believed they could outgun anyone and everyone else. If an army grew dissatisfied, the emperor was in trouble; if dissatisfaction spread further, he was finished.

Civil war had brought Caesar to power. Once emperor and without an obvious heir, he had adopted Augustus. He may have been the first to choose a successor and call it hereditary succession, but he was not the last – Claudius sidelined his own son in favor of Nero, while Nerva "adopted" Trajan to ensure a smooth succession.

With the Imperial throne offering such enormous power, and the rules of inheritance always open to interpretation, it’s no wonder that members of the royal family jostled for position or used extreme methods to get the result they wanted.

Job for life

Finally, once on the throne, there was no easy exit. Emperors had no elections or term limits, no early retirement or pension plans. It was a job for life, so if an emperor was mad, bad or dangerous, the only solution was to cut that life short. Everybody knew it, so paranoia ruled.

For many, the sacrifices required to get the top job were enormous: Tiberius had to divorce the woman he loved for one he did not; Caligula saw most of his family executed or exiled; Claudius was betrayed and then poisoned by the women he loved.

Although the rewards of power were enormous, many smaller players – like Titus, Galba or Vitellius – barely had time to try on the imperial robes before they died. In the first century, politics could seriously damage your health.

Where to next:
The Social Order in Ancient Rome – Emperors and Patricians
Religion in Ancient Rome – Roman worship

Related Links:

The Emperor Game   The Emperor Game
Quiz: Who are you?   Quiz: Who are you?
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn

- Julius Caesar
- Augustus
- Tiberius
- Caligula
- Claudius
- Nero
- Galba et al
- Vespasian
- Titus & Domitian
- Nerva & Trajan

Social Order

Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels


The Roman Empire - In The First Century