The limits of power: the Julio-Claudian emperors, AD 14–68

Power is never absolute. The Roman emperors were among the most powerful rulers in history, yet the survival of their regimes depended upon successful management of a complex of contradictory pressures. Often their position at the summit of the political order was precarious. Occasionally they were toppled. And the last of the Julio-Claudians so mismanaged the politics of empire that the dynasty was destroyed in civil war.

Not least among the problems was the succession. The army was the basis of power and could, if it chose, intervene to decide who should wield it; without a clear succession, therefore, the danger was that a dispute between rival candidates might lead to civil war. There was, of course, no constitutional precedent for succession to the Principate. Rome under the emperors was not an hereditary monarchy. The forms of power were still those of the Republic: ostensibly the ‘leading man’ received his authority from the Senate, and in theory any man could succeed him (or, indeed, none at all). In practice, however, the hereditary principle was strongly developed at the outset. It was helped by the common Roman belief that personal qualities could be inherited, such that ancestry and family were considered strong arguments for preferment. Of perhaps greater value was inheritance of the emperor’s personal fortune and estate, making the prospective successor the richest man in the empire. If no natural son was available, the heir, in established Roman tradition, might be adopted, as Octavian had been by Julius Caesar. Either way, he would be advanced rapidly through a series of senior posts to gain appropriate experience and public recognition.

Augustus, whose health was poor, was preoccupied by the succession throughout his reign, advancing a series of candidates, all of whom save the last (reluctant) choice predeceased him. The emperor had no son of his own, but for many years personal antipathy prevented him supporting his stepson Tiberius, who, in many respects, was the obvious candidate. On both his father’s and mother’s side Tiberius was a member of the Claudii, an illustrious blue-blooded family that claimed its first consul-ship as early as 495 BC, and had a grand total of 28 consulships in all, plus five dictatorships, seven censorhips, and six triumphs. It was, in short, one of the oldest and most accomplished patrician families in Rome. Moreover, by AD 9, when his position as heir finally became unassailable, Tiberius was the most prominent figure in Roman public life after Augustus. The empire’s greatest soldier, he had spent much of the previous quarter century on campaign, making peace with Parthia, conquering Pannonia, and winning many great victories in Germany. With no other suitable candidates remaining, and with a character and record above reproach, Tiberius was the man finally chosen by the ageing Augustus to succeed him. When the old emperor died, Tiberius had already been promoted to all the offices which in combination made him constitutionally princeps. The succession was therefore seamless.

Born a patrician, highly educated, culturally philhellene, philosophically in sympathy with the Stoics (who advocated willing acceptance of public duties), and ideologically a Roman traditionalist, Tiberius seemed a relic of the Republican Senate, a strange successor to Octavian-Augustus, the faction-leader and upstart dictator. Secure in his aristocratic status and personal accomplishments, Tiberius, with nothing to prove, aimed to rule as his superior intelligence and conservative instincts directed – avoiding military adventures, treating the Senate with respect, defending hierarchy, tradition and order. It proved to be a modus operandi that, however seemingly worthy, the princeps, perched on the pinnacle of power, could not sustain.

The essence of aristocratic politics was competition for high office and the power, wealth and honour which were its rewards. Under the Republic this competition had been mediated by the Senate, and, until the time of Marius at least, rivalry had been contained by the constitution’s strongly collegiate character. The system broke down during the 1st century BC, to be replaced, under triumvirs and emperors, by a form of court government. Autocracy required the appointment of loyalists, so advancement came to depend on association with whichever was the dominant court faction. Since insiders had an interest in monopolizing the privileges of power, outsiders would find their careers stalled. They then had three options: to curry favour and somehow gain entry to the court faction; to restore the Republic and a collegiate system for allocating posts; or to overthrow the dominant faction and replace it, including perhaps the emperor himself. Thus, when aristocratic competition for office was displaced from Senate to court, parliamentary manoeuvres gave way to court factionalism. When intrigues developed into plots – real and imagined – the court struck back with purges and executions. The resultant bitterness fostered a new round of plotting.

Intrigue penetrated the court itself, where, as Tiberius visibly aged, three factions manoeuvred to secure the succession. When Tiberius himself – worn out by failure, bored with court politics, fearful of assassination – retired to the island of Capri in AD 26, the faction of Sejanus became dominant. Sejanus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, was left in effective control of the empire, trusted by Tiberius because his equestrian status made him dependent on imperial patronage and appeared to impose limits on ambition. His status, however, merely made his dominance more hateful, and as Sejanus manoeuvred to strengthen his position against rival factions, he came under suspicion. He must have feared a future without Tiberius, when, as the former creature of the tyrant, he would have been at the mercy of his enemies. He may have been planning a coup to pre-empt inevitable downfall. We will never know. Tiberius, certainly, was persuaded that Sejanus was plotting, and in October AD 31 orders were dispatched from Capri for the arrest and execution of the traitor. A letter of condemnation was read out in the Senate in the presence of the unsuspecting prefect. The Guard had already been stood down by its newly appointed commander, and the Senate House surrounded by the paramilitary corps ofvigiles. Sejanus was dead by nightfall, and Macro the new Praetorian Prefect and effective ruler of the Empire.

The state terror reached a new intensity. Tiberius, old, paranoid and isolated, was easily persuaded of the guilt of suspects. Macro and his protégé – Tiberius’s nephew and prospective successor, the young Gaius Caligula – were determined to maintain their dominance through the short period of life remaining to the emperor. Their mechanism of power was the treason trial. Informers (delatores) were encouraged to come forward and denounce suspects for ‘diminishing the majesty of the Roman People’ (maiestas minuta). This vague, catch-all, essentially meaningless charge was used to destroy a succession of prominent figures, the example serving to intimidate other potential opponents. Great state trials continued through the remaining six years of the reign, a grinding machine of terror to shore up Tiberius’s principate, Macro’s ascendancy, and Caligula’s succession. At the end, even the tyrant himself may have fallen victim to his agent’s bloody rule. He died at Misenum on the Bay of Naples during an occasional visit to the mainland. Tacitus reports foul play. The story goes that after the emperor’s apparent death Caligula’s succession had been announced, but that Tiberius had promptly rallied and ordered a meal. ‘There was a general panic-stricken dispersal. Every face was composed to show grief – or lack of awareness. Only Gaius stood in stupefied silence, his soaring hopes dashed, expecting the worst. Macro, unperturbed, ordered the old man to be smothered with a heap of bed-clothes and left alone.’(5)

Caligula was an inexperienced and mentally unstable young man. He owed his elevation – and early popularity – to his Julio-Claudian ancestry, being great-nephew of Tiberius, and great step-grandson of Augustus. His father Germanicus and grandfather Drusus had both been famous generals. Tiberius had been hated at the end, the terror casting a pall over official Rome, and the beginning of the new reign was celebrated with general enthusiasm. Yet Caligula’s madness soon revealed itself. The contradiction between supreme power and personal insecurity quickly unhinged the ruler. Seriously ill in 37 BC, Caligula was disconcerted to discover that the business of government had continued perfectly well without him. Macro, his leading minister, fell under suspicion and was struck down. Other high-ranking courtiers were also purged. The court was filled with a coterie of aristocratic youth and celebrities of stage and stadium – nonentities whose presence would not expose the young emperor’s inexperience and inadequacies. A series of flamboyant public events was organized – such as a military parade, led by Caligula dressed as Alexander the Great, which passed along a 5 km bridge of boats specially constructed for the purpose on the Bay of Naples. The ruling class – largely excluded from this travesty of government – was quickly alienated. Matters came to crisis-point in AD 39. Though details are obscure, it seems that Caligula faced a major plot, since we hear that both consuls were sacked and replaced by stooges, and that there were changes in military commands and several forced suicides. Among the victims of the purge were Caligula’s brother-in-law and remaining sisters, and the Governors of Pannonia and Upper Germany, both big military provinces.

It must have dawned on Caligula that gestures were not enough to secure the allegiance of the governing class; the emperor had to prove himself fit to rule by real achievement. So Caligula planned a great campaign in the north, first to cow the German tribes and stabilize the Rhine frontier, then to conquer Britain. Though he came from a family of great soldiers, Caligula yet lacked military accomplishments of his own. Great victories in the North would restore his battered public image.

The campaign was a disaster. Though Caligula’s generals won limited gains in Germany, the emperor was disgraced by personal cowardice, having to be passed to the rear over the heads of his soldiers at news of the enemy’s imminent approach. Later, on the Channel coast, either the emperor lost his nerve entirely, or the soldiers, having no confidence in their leader, mutinied and refused to embark. Whatever the cause, instead of invading Britain, Caligula’s soldiers were ordered to collect seashells on the shore, and these were sent back to Rome as spoils of a victory over Neptune.

In the winter of AD 40–41 a great plot formed to destroy the regime. Though most senators remained cravenly inert, a minority feared the damage to the empire and was prepared to act to restore good government. Many more probably knew of the plot but kept their silence. It was the army, though, that was decisive, especially men of the imperial bodyguard, whose adherence would maximize the chances of successful assassination. Caligula’s arrogance, bullying and unpredictability had eroded the support of even his own police-chiefs – the prefects and tribunes of the Praetorian Guard – who were left fearful for their own safety. Other leading courtiers were also among the active conspirators. The rot had, in fact, eaten into the narrow coterie of family and friends around the ruler. Caligula sensed the danger. For three months after his return from the North he refused to enter the capital, instead issuing a string of alarming statements, threatening violent retribution on his enemies, offering himself as emperor of equestrians and people in opposition to the senators, and, perhaps most worrying of all, announcing that he had become a god. Late in AD 40 he launched a minor purge, but the regime’s security apparatus was degrading, and only marginal figures were destroyed; the core of the conspiracy remained undetected. In late January AD 41, when Caligula retired from his seat at the Palatine Games to lunch and bathe, he was attacked in the tunnels beneath his palace by a group of army officers led by two tribunes of the Guard and hacked to death. Thus Caligula, as the historian Dio Cassius dryly observed, discovered by actual experience that he was not a god after all.

At first there was pandemonium. Someone dispatched a death-squad to kill the empress and her daughter. On the other hand, the emperor’s German bodyguard went berserk, killed several senators in the games stadium, and seemed poised for a general massacre; only with difficulty were they restrained as city officials began to assert control. Fearful of general disorder, the consuls summoned the Senate to emergency session on the Capitoline, moved the city treasures there, and mobilized the Urban Cohorts to provide a defensive cordon. As debate began, some urged the restoration of libertas (liberty: the collective rule of the senatorial elite). The terror of Tiberius and the madness of Caligula had breached the central Augustan principle of polite deceit that was supposed to govern relations between princeps and Senate. The ten years preceding the coup of AD 41 had revealed tyranny behind the façade of Republicanism. The fear engendered made libertas an attractive option. Others, however, rallied around the rival candidatures of different senators, pursuing the self-interested factionalism now inherent in the Roman political system. The session became rancorous and inconclusive as it ground on into the night. It also became increasingly irrelevant, for the embryonic senatorial state on the Capitoline Hill was confronted by an alternative embryonic court on the other side of the city.

The Praetorian Guard had found Claudius – uncle of Caligula, nephew of Tiberius, step-grandson of Augustus – hiding in the palace, recognized him, and carried him off to their barracks. His presence was the occasion for another great debate on the future government of Rome, this time a debate not of politicians but of soldiers, indeed of guardsmen, the most pampered of the emperor’s soldiers, enjoying easy conditions of service, high pay, generous donatives, and all the amenities and comforts of the capital city. These privileges were inextricably bound up with Julio-Claudian power: the Praetorians were creatures of Caesarian patronage. Claudius, the senior surviving male member of the imperial house, being the best candidate for emperor available, the Praetorian Guard ended their assembly by acclaiming a new princeps.

For a while, the farce continued. On one side of the city, an assembly of millionaires and career politicians, protected by a thin cordon of riot police, bickered over which of their self-interested cliques should form a government. On the other, several thousand hired thugs guarded an obscure middle-aged aristocrat as a growing trickle of supporters and sycophants arrived to pay homage. But it did not last long. Power flowed through the night from Senate to court. As news spread, the Caesarian mob rallied to the Julio-Claudian, the place-seekers headed for the barracks, and the cordon of outnumbered police around the Capitoline broke up, fearing a clash with the Guard. In the light of morning, their semblance of power dissolved, a gloomy little party of politicians and officers made its way across the city to concede defeat. Claudius was carried in triumph to the imperial palace on the Palatine. The coup of AD 41 had ended in Julio-Claudian victory. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, it had taken eight years to crush Republicanism. After Caligula’s, it took just 24 hours.

The victor was a portly, twitching, stammering, somewhat debauched intellectual, who had been denied a conventional political and military career by his snobbish family because they were embarrassed by his ‘physical and mental deficiency’ (in fact, though we cannot be sure, Claudius probably suffered from cerebral palsy). Wrongly assumed to be stupid, relatively inexperienced and unknown, Claudius was easily caricatured by his enemies as a fool. Furthermore, he had now become the willing tool of insurgent soldiers, a figurehead ruler whose power rested on the naked coercion of an intimidated Senate. He was both Claudius the Fool and Claudius the Usurper. The new regime’s spin-doctors had work to do. The danger became apparent the following year, when dissident senators and generals hatched a plot to bring one of the huge legionary armies stationed in the Balkans to Rome. The soldiers refused to march, and the coup collapsed after five days. Snatch-squads rounded up suspects. There were show-trials in the Senate. Bodies were dumped in the Tiber. All told, during Claudius’s 13-year reign, 35 senators and 321 equestrians were executed for treason. His court was filled with equestrians, freedmen, provincials and others of secondary status whose loyalty could be trusted. Claudius rested uneasy on his throne, hated by many of his peers as a mediocrity and tyrant presiding over a regime of upstarts. It is for this reason that Claudius was both ‘the last of the populares’ and also conqueror of Britain.

Claudius bought popularity in the old-fashioned way. He paid the Praetorian Guard a donative of up to 5,000 denarii per man (Caligula had paid just 500). The rest of the army received a donative totalling almost 200 million denarii – virtually an entire year’s tax revenue. The mob was bribed with cash handouts, grain doles, public-works programmes, and gladiatorial games. All this largesse drained the treasuries. The cost of Caesarian populism had traditionally been met by war booty, however, and war was precisely what Claudius’s advisors proposed; and not only for the booty – also to legitimize the new principate, inspire party loyalists, and marginalize the malcontents and would-be plotters.

Britain was the obvious target. The expansion of the Catuvellaunian kingdom in the south east – at the expense of a Roman client-king – provided a handy casus belli. Caligula’s officers had already done the staff-work – for the abortive invasion of AD 40. Britain was mysterious, dangerous, ‘beyond Ocean’, and in some sense unfinished business ever since the expeditions of Julius Caesar a century before. While an invasion of Britain was probably less risky than war in the East or in Germany, it could none the less be presented to the public otherwise: as one of the greatest of Roman military achievements. Also, the island was rich enough to subsidize Claudius’s largesse.

The invasion was, as predicted, a spectacular success. Aulus Plautius and 40,000 men were landed in the early summer of AD 43. Shortly afterwards they won a two-day pitched battle against Caratacus and the main field army of the Catuvellaunian kingdom. Claudius then arrived in person to head the triumphal entry into the enemy capital at Camulodunum (Colchester) and receive the surrender of 11 British kings. It was, says Barbara Levick, Claudius’s modern biographer, ‘the greatest event of his reign’ and ‘one of his prime claims to rule, as his systematic exploitation of it shows’.(6) There were celebrations in Rome in AD 43 when news of the victory first reached the capital; more when Claudius arrived home in AD 44, having toured the western provinces on the way; and yet more when Aulus Plautius returned in AD 47, when the city boundary was extended in commemoration in AD 49, and finally when the captured British leader Caratacus was paraded through the streets of the city in AD 51.

Otherwise, on the frontiers, Claudian policy was conservative. It was the policy of the late Augustus and of Tiberius: to eschew further conquests, consolidate the frontiers, assimilate new subjects. Caligula and Claudius had broken with this policy in relation to Britain, but in both cases they were motivated not by strategy but by the political insecurity of their respective regimes. Once Claudius the Fool-Usurper had transformed himself into Claudius the Conqueror, he reverted to the policy of imperial retrenchment. The power of the empire was in part mirage. It appeared invulnerable and all-conquering. This appearance – what imperial statesmen sometimes call ‘prestige’ – was vital to its security. But in truth it had reached the limits of its capacity for expansion. Campaigns were sometimes undertaken to straighten, shorten and otherwise strengthen existing frontiers, but even these were capable of provoking intractable resistance. Tacfarinas, a Numidian who had deserted from Roman auxiliary service, led a long guerrilla war in North Africa between AD 17 and 24. The reasons are obscure, but the disruption of traditional nomadic migration routes by Roman frontier operations may have been one of them. Heavy Roman taxation could also provoke revolt, as in Gaul under Florus and Sacrovir in AD 21, where again leadership was provided by elements in the Romanized elite who had been alienated by their erstwhile masters. Tiberius urged moderation upon imperial governors, aspiring to have his ‘sheep shorn, not flayed’; but on the ground, where tax-collectors, recruiting officers, loan-sharks and slave-dealers battened on to the provinces under the protection of the Roman army, the reality was often very different. Rome ruled through fear. Fear was instilled by ‘prestige’: the conviction of the victims that the imperial state had the power to crush them if they fought back. And prestige depended upon victory. Military adventures beyond the frontier risked defeat, a haemorrhaging of men, a denting of prestige. Super-exploitation risked revolt, a diverting of men to internal security, an overextended army. The Claudian invasion of Britain was an anomaly, therefore, one driven by political necessity, not a wholesale return to the glory days of Pompey and Caesar.

Claudius ruled Britain, but not his own court. The dominant factions there were headed by two successive wives. The first, Messallina, was about 16 when she married the middle-aged Claudius shortly before his accession. She produced a son in AD 41, later named Britannicus, an obvious potential heir to the throne. But Messallina was a naïve, ambitious and reckless schemer, who eventually overreached herself. Though the events of her downfall are hard to decipher, she appears to have taken part in some sort of ‘marriage’ to her lover, and whether this was a prank or an attempted coup, it was certainly used by her enemies at court to destroy her. The couple were arrested and summarily executed by leading freedman Narcissus and a detachment of the Guard. Claudius’s second wife, Agrippina, more mature and subtle but no less scheming than the first, manoeuvred to displace Britannicus in favour of her own son by a previous marriage, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Claudius was persuaded to adopt Ahenobarbus – who thus became Nero Claudius Caesar – and to marry him to Messallina’s daughter Octavia. Having consolidated her faction’s power by forming an alliance with Burrus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and fearing that Nero’s hedonistic character might cause her husband second thoughts, Agrippina had no further use for Claudius. It is rumoured she murdered him by serving up a plate of poisoned mushrooms.

Nero was 16 when he became emperor, and for the first eight years of his reign the government was controlled by his former tutor Seneca, a Romano-Hispanic senator and intellectual, and Burrus, the Romano-Gallic equestrian who commanded the Guard. Both men were competent. Relations with the governing class were good. Appointments were not restricted to a narrow clique. There were no state trials of senators or equestrians between AD 54 and 62. But in the latter year Burrus died, Seneca retired, and Nero assumed personal responsibility for government. Few men elevated to such high office have been less suited. Nero was a vain, hedonistic, upper-class playboy with a distinctly psychotic personality. His relationship with his mother was probably incestuous and certainly highly charged. When she spitefully transferred her affections to Britannicus, Nero had his rival murdered at the dinner table. When she continued to scheme – or because he imagined she did – mother and son became increasingly estranged, until finally, in AD 59, Nero dispatched a death-squad to bludgeon her to death in the family villa on the Bay of Naples. When he assumed power in AD 62, he divorced his wife Octavia (who was later exiled and then executed) and married his mistress Poppaea Sabina (whom he would also later kill). At the same time he promoted Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus to command of the Praetorian Guard in place of Burrus. These three – Nero, Poppaea and Tigellinus – headed an all-powerful court faction devoted to private indulgence and public spectacles. The degradation of government was symbolized by Nero’s personal addiction to the games and his ambition to win acclaim as an artist. His appearances culminated in AD 67, when, during a tour of Greece, all four major games festivals were celebrated in the same year, and the emperor was awarded all 800 prizes. The tactfulness of the Greeks was amply rewarded: imperial taxation was abolished in their province.

Roman traditionalists viewed it all with bitter contempt. The dominant faction had turned the state into a junket. Their purpose was simply to retain power, amass wealth, and pursue pleasure. Rome’s pretensions to govern and civilize the world were made a mockery. But the regime might well have survived had it not threatened the property of the ruling class and the integrity of the empire. The crux of the problem was finance. The expenditures on luxury and largesse were vast. When, in AD 66, the Armenian client-king Tiridates made a state visit to Rome, for example, the expenses amounted to 200,000 denarii per day. Continual prodigious expense at the centre of the empire was met by rising exploitation in the provinces. The dangers inherent in this policy had been demonstrated often enough: the army was fully extended guarding the frontiers, and the reserves did not exist to suppress internal revolts without compromising border security. Super-exploitation – the flaying of sheep – risked revolts that might overwhelm the army: this, the lesson of the Teutoburg Forest, was as valid in AD 66 as in AD 9.

Already there had been a major revolt in Britain in AD 60 or 61. It was provoked by heavy-handed land seizures and debt-collection. Specifically, Nero’s agents moved in to take over the territory of the Iceni when the client-king Prasutagus died. Their purpose was probably to add former royal land to the imperial estate, and to impose Roman taxation on everyone else. At the same time, multimillionaire creditors, like the leading minister Seneca, were calling in overdue debts, now grossly inflated by the crippling interest rates that prevailed in the Roman world, a form of legalized swindling with which the hapless British notables were probably unfamiliar until they received demand for repayment. The peasantry was oppressed by taxes, labour services, and, around the new Romancolonia at Colchester, the confiscation of their farms. When Boudica, the widowed queen of the Iceni, raised the banner of revolt, tens of thousands joined her. The rebel army defeated a legion and destroyed three towns before its annihiliation in battle by the Roman governor. Events might easily have turned out differently: the Romans had been heavily outnumbered in the final battle; had they been commanded by another Varus, the Roman occupation of Britain might have ended as abruptly as that of Germany.

No general lessons were drawn from the Boudican Revolt, however. Nor from a humiliating defeat suffered by the Roman army in AD 62 during its long-running war with Parthia over the status of Armenia (AD 53–63). It should have been clear that tax-rates were being ratcheted up to dangerous levels, and that the army was overextended. Taxation was almost certainly the issue which, in spring AD 66, ignited the greatest anti-imperialist revolt of the century. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman governor Gessius Florus had demanded 100,000 denarii from the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem ‘for Caesar’s needs’. He may, under pressure from above, have been attempting to make good a shortfall in revenue due to an incipient tax strike. Anticipating resistance, he sent in the troops. Clashes with groups of demonstrators ended in massacre and provoked full-scale urban insurrection. Overwhelmed, the governor and his troops abandoned the city. When Cestius Gallus, Governor of Syria, tried to smash his way back with an army of 30,000 men in the autumn, he was defeated with heavy loss at the battle of Beth-Horon north-west of the capital and sent into headlong retreat. That winter, the revolt spread across Palestine, and tens of thousands were organized into revolutionary militias to resist the Roman army in the spring.

It took the Romans three years to recapture Jerusalem, and three more to suppress continuing residual resistance. The siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 turned into an apocalyptic confrontation between the haves and have-nots of the Roman Empire. The city was defended for almost five months by some 25,000 militiamen, mainly recruited from peasant villages and inspired by a millenarian message of imminent freedom from corrupt rulers, tax-collectors and landlords. They eventually succumbed to the overwhelming power of 60,000 professional soldiers, and were consumed by fire, sword, famine, pestilence and the cross. Handfuls escaped across the desert to continue the fight from remote fortresses, but these too, one by one, were suppressed – until, by AD 73, only Masada remained. Here, when the Romans broke in, they were confronted by an eerie silence, for the defenders, knowing their walls breached, had committed suicide in preference to defeat and slavery, and now lay dead, 960 of them, in rows, the men, women and children of each family side-by-side.

By this time, Nero, and with him the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty, had perished. The Jewish Revolution, coming so soon after the Boudican Revolt, had alerted the Roman ruling class to the danger represented by the regime. Anxiety was compounded by the growing eccentricity, luxuria and corruption of the court clique. When fire swept through Rome in AD 64, the government diverted suspicion from itself by initiating a ghastly anti-Christian pogrom. Meanwhile, debris was cleared from the gutted districts to lay out a vast new imperial palace and park complex, the grounds two, three, perhaps four times the size of the present Vatican, including a fabulous pavilion that became known as the Domus Aurea (Golden House), complete with revolving dining-room, and a colossal bronze statue of the emperor in the guise of the sun-god Apollo. But a plot to overthrow the megalomaniac dictator in AD 65 was betrayed, and some 30 eminent men – a mixture of career politicians, guards officers, Republican die-hards, intellectuals and literati – were driven to suicide or exile. Thereafter the regime remained suspicious, and the familiar machinery of state terror ground into action, fed by the work of informers, police and torturers. No high-ranking person, no aristocratic estate, was safe. Corbulo, greatest general of the age, victor over the Parthians in Armenia, was forced to commit suicide in the winter of AD 66–67.

When the emperor and his retinue were away touring Greece in AD 67, a new conspiracy was formed, this time extending outwards from Rome to encompass the governors and generals who commanded the main frontier armies. Upon his return to Italy early in AD 68, Nero was confronted by news that Vindex, Governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, had risen in revolt, supported by the Romano-Gallic leaders of three native tribes. A Romanized Gaul himself, he could not aspire to the imperial purple; instead, undoubtedly by prior arrangement, he called on Servius Sulpicius Galba, a 73-year-old senator from an old Republican family who was currently Governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to accept the throne. But the revolt faltered. Vindex and his Gallic levies were defeated by loyalist troops from the Rhineland, and Galba, fearing the worst, retreated into the interior of his province. Had Nero and his agents acted quickly and efficiently, they might yet have saved themselves. But that was not their way. The politics of real power, when generals and armies were in play, were beyond them. When the commander of the Roman troops in Africa declared against the regime, Nymphidius Rufus, Tigellinus’s fellow Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, turned traitor and bribed the guardsmen into declaring for Galba. The Senate followed suit. Nero was declared an outlaw, fled the city, and shortly afterwards committed suicide at a nearby villa even as rebel troops arrived to arrest him.

The Neronian regime had tested imperial power to its limits. These limits were essentially three: major wars of conquest risked overstretching the army and imposing crippling losses; excessive exploitation risked provincial revolt and an unsustainable burden of internal security; and court factionalism and state terror risked civil war by destroying the coherence of the Roman ruling class. Had the Jewish Revolt of AD 66–70 coincided with the Parthian war of AD 53–63, the empire could well have faced military disaster. As it was, the frontiers held, and internal order was restored. But the crisis in relations between court and Senate was not so easily resolved. In fact, the crisis spiralled rapidly out of control. As the Julio-Claudian dynasty plunged into the abyss, it dragged the Roman state with it. For the first time in a century, Italy was to be ravished by Roman armies from distant frontiers, come home to fight a brutal civil war for mastery of the empire.

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