Part I

Augustus Defines the System

Chapter One


Roman society in the Republic was always hereditary: sons followed fathers as property-owners and as politicians; men who were elected to political office thereby made their family a political force; to be the son of a patrician, the oldest class of nobility, meant that election to office was easier and could be achieved at a younger age than for plebeians. Noble Roman families were so desperate to ensure that they continued in existence that adoption even of an adult male was not infrequently resorted to. For noble Roman families heredity was their claim to power and wealth, as if by right.

At the same time, the Roman Republic was organized politically in such a way as to deny that heredity was the all-important criterion for office and power, though that is what nobles tended to assume. It provided for election to the offices of governing authority at all levels, and the non-nobles had a large part in the electoral process. It was always possible for ‘new men’ to elbow their way into the ranks of the active politicians by displaying wealth and ability, and by using the links of patronage. It was normal practice to split the authority of offices between two or more magistrates: two consuls, two aediles, several praetors, and quaestors. Their conduct was overseen by the institution of the Senate, of which they became members on election to one of these offices and, less importantly, by several comitia, assemblies of citizens whose spheres of authority overlapped. This complex system was, so the theory had it, instituted to prevent authority in the Republic from becoming concentrated in the hands of a single man such as a king, and had emerged because the last king had developed into a tyrant. This elaborate system of division and balance eventually failed, and in the last century of the Republic the policies or ambitions of several men who commanded armies loyal more to them than the state strained the system to breaking-point, as well as the difficulties the Republic faced in controlling a large overseas empire. The Senate proved to be incapable of adapting to the strains of controlling such men. The result was intermittent one-man dictatorships – an almost extinct Republican emergency office that was revived and greatly extended – culminating in Julius Caesar’s assumption of a perpetual dictatorship, followed by a series of civil wars lasting nearly twenty years. Finally there was Octavian, the winner in the civil wars, who became Augustus, the sole ruler who the system had been developed to avoid. He was a bloodthirsty competitor for power; as Augustus he claimed to be repairing the damage to the Republic.

The imperial system was, therefore, not one that could easily be accommodated to the Republic out of which it grew. The dictators of the first century BC came to their sole power by subverting, overthrowing and battering down the practices of that constitution, using brute force where words or threats did not work. So the first emperor, Octavian/Augustus, who had achieved his sole power by those very same methods, had to work very hard for a very long time to achieve acceptance as emperor by his senatorial peers. His personal advantages – youth, political ingenuity and affability – were complemented by a vigorous resort to ruthlessness whenever he felt it necessary, and his longevity meant that he outlived all his enemies.

Octavian owed his position first of all to his inheritance: he was the grand-nephew and the nearest male relative of Julius Caesar, and he thus became C. Julius Caesar by his adoption.1 Julius Caesar’s own position was, however, only in a minimal part the result of heredity, and Octavian’s own origin and descent were fairly obscure. Caesar’s father, though noble and patrician, was of no particular distinction, and Caesar himself was wont to emphasize his supposed descent from the goddess Venus rather than his immediate parentage, and his amorous behaviour was supposed to confirm that descent, but he had achieved a dominating political position at Rome by his own brutal, cunning and devious efforts and heredity played only a small part in it.

Octavian was the son of C. Octavius, who had only reached the rank of praetor before dying relatively young. He had married the niece of Julius Caesar well before the dictator achieved great eminence, and only became dynastically important because Caesar himself had no children. Octavius the son, while still a student, gained his career boost of massive proportions by retrospective adoption by Caesar as his son. This was done in the dead man’s will, presumably for the want of any closer relative. He also inherited Caesar’s wealth, his status as a patrician (by his adoption), and his political prestige and, after Caesar’s divination, the right to call himself the son of a god, a collection of attributes that gave him instant prestige and authority even as a teenager.

Above all, he developed the same driving ambition as his adoptive father. What he made of this was his own work, from his early ferocious bloodletting and his political thrusting and timing to victory in several civil wars, despite having minimal military and naval command abilities. His prime ability was in politics, and he was able to retain the devotion of a group of men whose own abilities made up for his deficiencies. In the process his rivals fell away or died or were destroyed, and by 31 BC he was alone on the same pinnacle reached by Caesar, and had achieved it by not dissimilar ruthless methods. Caesar had kept his pre-eminent position for no more than a year or so before being murdered at the age of 56; Octavian kept his for life, a long life, and he died a natural death at the age of 76.

Having gained sole power and imposed this in Rome, Octavian was given the quasi-divine title/name of Augustus. He then spent the next four decades or more alternately seeking ways to maintain and perpetuate his power, and stamping about the Empire organizing it and seeing to the conquest of new territories. His lack of military ability was neutralized by the abilities of his colleagues, above all the able and faithful M. Vipsanius Agrippa and his stepson Ti. Claudius Nero (the future Emperor Tiberius), whose joint and successive achievements in Augustus’ name gave him the reputation of being the greatest conqueror in Roman history in terms of territory acquired. Augustus might not have been much of a commander in the field, but as an organizer of victory and an employer of talent he was a master.

He had to operate to a large degree within Roman traditional methods. This was a matter of public relations, but also in order to disguise the changes he was making and to operate within public expectations; it was also his own personal preference. So he held the traditional Roman office of consul, eschewing Caesar’s dictatorship for life; though he was consul repeatedly, a less than traditional practice which bred resentment in those denied the office by his occupation of it. He carefully avoided even the implicit offer of a royal crown. He spent some time experimenting with various combinations of offices and powers before finally settling on a choice selection which he held in effective perpetuity; they were usually awarded for terms of years, but were always renewed. Tribunicia potestatis, the power (not the office) of tribune, allowed him to legislate through control of the citizens’ assembly, and incidentally had the advantage of conferring sacrosanctity: the power of a Roman commander to control the legions (Imperator, which became in effect his name), and the authority of a proconsul to govern the provinces and to appoint deputies (legates) to go out to govern these for him. Above all, it was the auctoritas that came from the accumulation of these posts and his long-lived power that secured his position. He held many more consulships (eventually thirteen) than any other Roman could aspire to, and had been given repeated salutations as Imperator by the troops of which he was the sole (if usually absent) commander.

In the background all the time, however, was the army. It was more Augustus’ army than Rome’s, and he appointed its commanders – legates again – and the troops fought in his name as much as in that of the ‘Senate and People in Rome’ which was blazoned on their standards. Always behind him loomed that army; his power was ultimately based on it, as was that of every emperor who came after him.

The ten or fifteen years after achieving sole power by the victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC were spent in devising ways of ensuring that the power he had gained remained his and remained acceptable to most Romans. He first tried the old idea of holding successive consulships, being consul every year from 31 to 23 BC, which was annoying to Roman nobles who expected to hold the office by right of birth. With a dozen of these offices behind him, however, he had accumulated sufficient auctoritas that he could stand back and let other nobles in, but he also used his prestige to control access to the office and to the other offices as well. He therefore gradually reached the position where he reckoned that the tribunician power (tribunicia potestatis) and the authority of the governor of provinces (proconsular imperium), modified so as to remain to him when within the city, were all the offices that were really needed, plus the religious authority of chief priest (pontifex maximus) and near divinity as the son of a god, all backed up by control of the army of course.

This set of offices and powers was by no means the sort of thing that would have been acceptable to any Roman before him. However, he had won a civil war, he commanded the whole army, he had gained that immense auctoritas, and above all he had brought peace of a sort to the city and to the Empire. By working within the old offices and their powers he made his unprecedented position broadly acceptable, but he always faced enemies and his actual power was always somewhat limited.

It is a mark of the limits of the emperor’s power at this stage in imperial history that Augustus felt he had to bow to the wishes of the Roman aristocracy. His political support among them was a good deal less than it was among the ordinary people of Rome, who could be relied on to demand that he, not the Senate, take action in any emergency. Nevertheless, the particular offices he held proved to be sufficient, and by giving up continuous consulships he allowed more of those who expected to be consul by right to take up the office. At the same time, in a subtle way, by his not being consul he devalued the office which, of course, was no longer the head of the state as it had been in the past.

In theory these various offices and powers were given him by the laws of the Roman people, which had to be recommended by the Senate to the popular assemblies, the comitia. The latter, however, had been effectively hobbled by Augustus’ time, so that their ratification of senatorial measures had become a formality. (They lingered on through the first century AD, the last sign of their existence coming at the time of Nerva’s accession in AD 96.) In effect, therefore, the Senate had become the primary legislative body of the Empire, which should have enhanced the authority of the members, but the emperor’s powers included the right to issue legal decisions, which amounted to the right to legislate – this was part of his tribunician power – and in effect it was a matter of bureaucratic decrees. What the Senate had gained, the emperor removed.

The tribunician power was cloaked in a religious aura which provided the personal protection of sacrosanctity. This aura was reinforced by the new name awarded him by the Senate, after consultation, of course. ‘Augustus’ was a word that implied a priestliness, a contact with the gods, and sacrosanctity. It gave him a further element of auctoritas, one far above any other Roman, aristocrat or citizen had or could have, though this was personal to him alone. The power of the proconsular imperium gave him authority to appoint governors in the provinces he ruled (which was most of them), as well as command of the armies in those provinces; this task, of course, was delegated to the governors, or to the legionary commanders, all of whom were his legates and chosen and appointed by him.

This proconsular power had to be tweaked somewhat, just like many other powers he took, since a proconsul was not, under the Republic’s rules, permitted to enter the city while still commanding troops. Augustus’ effective control of the Senate was sufficient to gain him a special dispensation, another break with the Republican system. This was the clearest indication, if anyone cared to look, that the position he had reached was wholly anomalous to anything in the Republican system. It had been fundamental to that system that political discourse in the city should be conducted unarmed, and that offices of power should be duplicated to prevent the use of power by one man. Augustus’ whole position was summed up in the title he affected, princeps, an adaptation of a Republican term, but it was the adaptation that was significant; ‘First Man’ would be a fair translation.

As a result, and in a sense as a quid pro quo for this concession, he was now able to relinquish into other hands the elective offices he had monopolized, though they largely ceased to be subject to election for he retained the right of nomination. So he no longer shut out others from the great offices of state: consul, tribune, priesthoods, praetor, even occasionally imperator. His personal prestige could now permit this: the ‘Augustus’ title, thirteen consulships, repeated salutations as imperator; no one could approach this record.

It was this set of positions and powers and offices which amounted to the power that adhered to this and future emperors. Each man who became or aspired to that post acquired or claimed these powers. The award of at least some of them, above all the tribunician power, became the way in which an emperor designated his successor. Also by controlling the elections to other offices – from quaestor up to consul – the emperors were able to define the composition of the Senate, which was the only source of legitimate power that could compete with him.

Above all, despite several periods of illness and any number of plots against him, Augustus lived on. He died almost the oldest man ever to be emperor, as well as the first. By the time he died in AD 14, aged 76, no one could remember the old Republic; even the oldest man alive could not recall anything before Augustus, except the civil wars, the memory of which all agreed was exceptionally hideous. Augustus outlived both his contemporaries and most of the next generation as well. So the system he constructed became the norm; a return to the scramble of the Republican politics was impossible since no one knew how to do it.2

It was in organizing his own heredity that Augustus met his greatest problem and one that repeatedly defeated him. From the time when he cleared his last political hurdle, the destruction of the competing power of M. Antonius at Actium, in order to pursue his programme of the ‘restoration of the Republic’, the first emperor searched for a successor. The record shows that, above all, he wished it to be one of his own blood. (In this, as ever, he showed himself a true heir of Julius Caesar, both in the ambition and in his inability to provide such an heir.) His frequent illnesses made the necessity for a choice clear, at least to him, but all too often the chosen one inconveniently died, while he himself recovered and lived on.

Augustus’ basic problem was that first, he had no son, and second, that his wish for a successor conflicted with the desire of the Roman aristocracy not to see a dynasty of rulers establish itself. Augustus eventually succeeded here also, but not in any way he had wished, nor in the person hoped for. His methods established a process of organizing the succession that was devious and very adaptable, though these very qualities meant that the process was often unclear. In the absence of a son, he had to rely for dynastic continuity on his only daughter, Julia, born of his second marriage with Scribonia. Julia’s marital experience was therefore dictated by her father for his own political requirements. It was not an experience she enjoyed.

He also had a sister, Octavia, the second string to his bow, and her marriages were similarly arranged for Augustus’ political ends; she had been married to M. Antonius during the decade-long Cold War between the two men in the 30s BC. She then returned to her brother’s court with two daughters by Anthony; she had been married earlier to C. Claudius Marcellus and had two daughters and a son by that marriage as well. These became more of Augustus’ marriage pawns. Augustus’ own third marriage, to Livia, was childless, but she had two sons, Ti. Claudius Nero and Nero Claudius Drusus by her own first marriage. All these people were thus the unfortunate instruments of Augustus’ search for a successor, and thoroughly unhappy he managed to make them in the process. (See Genealogical Tables I and II.)


The strong insistence Augustus displayed on inheritance within his family is curious in that both he and his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, were essentially self-made men; similarly the opposition by the Roman nobility to the establishment of an imperial dynasty was paradoxical, since the foundation of Roman society was hereditary succession in noble families. However, Caesar had made his own way, to be sure with an insistence upon his own pride and dignity, but he had little inheritable prestige from his ancestors; Augustus’ father had reached the praetorship, but before him there was essentially no one who counted. Neither man had sons, and only a single daughter each. Yet both were determined to be dynastic founders, so proving themselves to be true members of Rome’s nobility. The prevailing sense of hereditary rights among the Roman aristocracy therefore affected them as well, so that if they could not look back over a long and distinguished line of forebears, they could show a determination that there would be an even more distinguished line to follow them. Instead of being the final twigs on their family trees, or lone plants, they would be the roots.

One of Augustus’ problems in this area was that, despite the hereditary imperatives within which he operated, because his political settlement involved the political sleight of hand that he called the ‘restoration of the Republic’, he was unable to designate someone openly as his political successor. After all, the imperial regime did not yet exist, and the fiction was that he was simply the ‘first man’ of the state. The further fiction was that what he had to do was to designate a single person as heir to his personal possessions. Having done so, he then had to provide the chosen one with a particularly notable political career so that the successor would follow him as the most obvious next ‘first man’. This would include, at the least, one or preferably several consulships, experience in the governorship of one or more provinces, command of an army for a time, preferably successfully, and a long and detailed experience in the intrigue-ridden and dangerous world of Roman politics, and the chosen one had also to survive all this.

This career could be speeded up by the application of the auctoritas of Augustus, but it could not be evaded, and all these jobs should preferably be completed before the final award of the tribunicia potestatis and, what went with it, the authority of the proconsul. These distinctions would thus be the final indication that the chosen one was the chosen political successor. Because of his determination to respect the republican system, if that is not too misleading a formulation, Augustus had to do this by means of the traditional methods, by working with and through the Senate. It was all a daunting task that would take years to accomplish and, as it turned out, Augustus had to go through it all four times. His actual successors gradually pared away at these requirements.


The process of training a successor necessarily took several years, for the various offices were annual affairs and could not be held simultaneously. Because he had no son, it was the husbands of his daughter and sister and the children they produced – his grandsons and nephews and his stepchildren – who were the people assumed to be his heirs, and for a time there was plenty of choice. (See Genealogical Table II.)

Octavia’s first husband, C. Claudius Marcellus, was from a highly-distinguished Republican lineage; their son Marcus, familiarly referred to simply as Marcellus, was Augustus’ first choice. He was born in 42 BC, so was 15 years old in 27 when Augustus began his search for a successor. Marcellus was promoted rapidly with an early induction as a priest, and he was curule aedile (a magistrate) at the age of 16. These rapid promotions, combined with his marriage to Augustus’ daughter Julia in 25, were clear signs of his selection. It might be, however, that Marcellus was seen only as a son-in-law and as the father of Julia’s children in the future and not actually intended to be the next emperor. Nonetheless he was clearly singled out. He was given the status of praetor without having had to go through the tedium of holding the office, and the right to stand for election as consul ten years before the legal age; since he was a patrician, this meant he would be able to do so at the age of 22 in 20 BC.

Success in the election was, of course, guaranteed. At the same time Livia’s eldest son Tiberius Claudius Nero, and so Augustus’ stepson, was elected quaestor (one rank down from aedile) and given the right to stand for consul five years early. He had been born in the same year as Marcellus, so he could not stand until 15 BC. Since the only previous case of an early election had been that of Augustus himself, who became consul at 19, the implications were clear: Marcellus was going to be trained as Augustus’ successor, while Tiberius’ prize of advancement was generally assumed to be the result of pressure from Livia. In fact, Tiberius worked his way through several offices, conscientiously performing his duties. As for Marcellus, before he could reach his promised consulship, he died, in 22 BC. He had not even done his procreative duty, for he and Julia had no children.

Julia was now quickly married off to Augustus’ strong ‘right arm’, M. Vipsanius Agrippa, the man to whom in many ways Augustus owed his military successes. Julia was 17 and Agrippa was about the same age as her father. He was of undistinguished birth, but he had great abilities both as a military commander and an administrator: he was a friend of Augustus’ from their student days, and he was undeviatingly loyal to Augustus and always willing to undertake the most difficult tasks uncomplainingly. He was despised for all this by many of the less successful but more highly-born Roman nobles. He had already been married to Marcella, Marcellus’ sister, with whom he had a daughter, Vipsania. Now Agrippa was ordered to divorce Marcella and marry Julia, who thereupon did her dynastic duty by producing five grandchildren for Augustus. The first two were boys, Gaius and Lucius, and it was on them that Augustus now fixed his dynastic plan, but in case he died – this must be the reason – he brought Agrippa into the scheme as well. He was already the biological father of the boys, and was wholly trustworthy in any task Augustus gave him. The two boys were adopted by Augustus as his own sons, and Agrippa was given the same powers as Augustus himself – tribunician and proconsular authority – limited to five years, but renewable. (He had already held the consulship three times, more than any other contemporary except Augustus himself.)3

The plan, evidently, was for Agrippa to fill in as temporary princeps if Augustus died, until the boys, or a survivor of them, became old enough to rule. Meanwhile Agrippa was kept busy trouble-shooting in different parts of the Empire, and the two boys could be trained, and fast-tracked to the necessary offices when adult, under Augustus’ personal supervision. In the background, as a second string, were Tiberius and Drusus, Augustus’ stepsons. The former now had praetorian rank, and Drusus had also been awarded the right to stand for election five years early. Augustus therefore could feel that he had lots of strings to his bow, but all this planning and scheming came to a crisis in 13–12 BC. Tiberius was serving as consul at the age of 29, three years early, when in that winter Agrippa, commanding once too often in a winter campaign, died on his way back to Rome. (For Agrippa as the progenitor of emperors, see Genealogical Table III.)


By the time of Agrippa’s appointment as joint princeps in 18 BC it had become clear how the choice of a successor was to be managed. The choice was Augustus’ to make, though the actual selection had to be partially disguised so as to soothe Republican and senatorial feelings. If the chosen one was adult, the powers of tribune and proconsul would be awarded by the Senate at the ‘request’ of Augustus, though in effect, of course, the Senate had no choice. If the chosen man was sub-adult he would be promoted quickly through the offices of state, skipping those that were the most tedious; again, this had to be done by arrangement with the Senate at the formal request of Augustus. By reducing to 22 the age at which the nominee could be consul, he would gather the necessary prestige to face the Senate and in the meantime he could be taken or sent on military and diplomatic missions to introduce him to the provincial power-men, the provinces themselves, and above all to the army. A quick and victorious campaign with the chosen one in nominal command would be a bonus.

This process could scarcely take less than ten years. If the nominee was adult he would have gone through some of the earlier stages in the normal sequence, though accelerated, but even so, these several elements could still take several years. If the candidate was a child, his selection would still mean he would only be available to succeed to full power in his 20s.

Because Augustus felt that he had to cooperate with and through the Senate, the Senate’s approval was necessary for the choice of successor, at least in theory. Yet, despite all this planning, no one could know what would really happen when Augustus died. The Senate would need to give some sort of collective decision on a successor, or a successor regime, which in part explains the Senate’s involvement from the start. If the Senate was not presented with a clear successor the whole of Augustus’ work could well fall apart, and he was concerned, not surprisingly, that his work should endure.

The death of Agrippa in 13 BC did not, in the event, derail Augustus’ plans too much. Gaius and Lucius had by this time survived the dangerous first five years of life. They had also been joined by two sisters, Julia and Agrippina, and by another brother, Agrippa Postumus. For the next decade Augustus fixed his hopes and plans on the two elder boys, who were now, because of his adoption, called Gaius and Lucius Caesar. In addition, his Claudian stepsons, Tiberius and Lucius, were now adult and had benefited from their advancement, and both grew into very capable generals and administrators. Tiberius was consul in 13 BC and Drusus in 9 BC, both some years in advance of the legal age, by senatorial dispensation.

Indeed, Tiberius appeared to take Agrippa’s place in many ways. He had campaigned successfully in Pannonia, one of Agrippa’s areas, and he and Drusus campaigned successfully in Germany. After Agrippa’s death, Augustus made Tiberius marry Julia; to do this Tiberius had to divorce his wife, who was Agrippa’s own daughter Vipsania. So Tiberius was married to his stepsister, who was also the mother of his ex-wife. He very much resented having to break with Vipsania and did not at all like being married to Julia. They had a child, which was Augustus’ aim, but it died in infancy and they then lived apart. Augustus’ schemes paid little attention to his victim’s feelings or their preferences.

The marriage-and-divorce policy of the first emperor is another sign that he was dynastically-minded, in contradiction to his claimed achievement of ‘restoring’ the Republic. It was not merely a matter of trying to ensure that his bloodline continued, though he clearly regarded his daughter as a sort of brood mare whose main purpose was to produce children. He was also concerned to select marriage partners for Julia from a fairly restricted range of men. Marcellus and Julia were first cousins, Tiberius and Julia were step-related, Tiberius’ brother married Antonia, a daughter of Octavia, and so they were also in the same step-relationship, Tiberius’ first wife Vipsania was the granddaughter of Octavia, and so they were also in the same step-relationship, Tiberius’ first wife Vipsania was the granddaughter of Octavia. This was dynastically important for Augustus, clearly, but genetically it was likely to be dangerous if pursued into another generation. (These intermarriages are reminiscent of the similar dynastic system practised by the Ptolemies in Egypt, as if Cleopatra’s influence permeated and hovered over the life of her greatest enemy.)

On the other hand, other members of the imperial family married out: Octavia’s eldest daughter Marcella (maior) married L. Domitius Ahenobarbus; Julia’s eldest daughter (also Julia) married L. Aemilius Paullus; and, of course, Octavia had been married to M. Antonius and to C. Claudius Marcellus. This was genetically safer, but Augustus’ purpose, paralleling his work to define the succession – for he was in control of these marriages as well – was to link these important Republican families with that of the princeps, so providing it with the good ancestral Republican aura that Augustus himself did not have, and bringing aristocratic support to the newly-imperial family.

Eventually Tiberius became weary of Augustus’ manipulations. His brother Drusus died in 9 BC, while he was consul and campaigning in Germany. Tiberius spent the years after Drusus’ death campaigning there, which he reduced to some order, and when he returned to Rome in 6 BC he decided he had done enough – or had had enough – and announced that he would retire to Rhodes. Augustus attempted to recruit him to his schemes by awarding him the tribunician power for five years in the pattern of Agrippa’s career, but Tiberius was less biddable than Agrippa. He went to Rhodes anyway, where he stayed for the next eight years. After his tribunician power expired in 1 BC, he became very vulnerable.

Augustus, perforce, now concentrated his plans on his two elder grandsons, his adopted sons. The elder, Gaius, was made princeps iuventutis in 5 BC, the year after Tiberius’ withdrawal, and Augustus took up his twelfth consulship at the same time to do the boy honour. Therefore, if anyone had any doubts, they were now set at rest: Gaius, with his title echoing Augustus’ own, was clearly destined to be the next emperor. His brother Lucius had the same distinction awarded him in 2 BC, when Augustus held his thirteenth consulship. The emperor was awarded, or rather finally accepted, a new title, pater patriae, at the same time.

For a few years this scheme worked. Gaius became consul in AD 1, aged only 20 – just about the age Augustus had been when he forced himself into that office at the head of an army – and was then employed with some modest success in the East. Lucius was sent to Spain in AD 2 for the same purpose, to gain experience of government and a province. Yet in only two years, the whole scheme then collapsed. Lucius died on his way to Spain; Gaius actually commanded in the East, but was wounded in a siege; he died in Lycia from the wound in AD 4. The elaborate plan had failed. For the third time, Augustus’ choice as successor had died.

The two boys had a younger brother, Agrippa Postumus, but he was not considered suitable material, being regarded as akin to a wild animal, or at least so it was said; though unlike his brothers he was healthy and tough. He was exiled to an island, Planasia, off the Etrurian coast, where he was kept under guard. As a result the government’s propaganda about him could not be checked by direct investigation, if anyone had the temerity to try.

When Gaius died, Augustus was faced by the necessity of making yet another new choice of heir. By this time the emperor was in his mid-60s, in a time when the average length of a man’s life was half that, though it was certainly higher for the better-fed and better-doctored upper-class men. However, Augustus could not seriously expect to live another ten years (although he did), during which period another child could grow to adulthood and be groomed for the succession. There were some male plebeian relations still available: his grandson Agrippa Postumus, and Germanicus and Claudius, two sons of Drusus. They were Augustus’ grandnephews, but Claudius suffered a disability and was not regarded as suitable imperial material any more than Agrippa Postumus; Germanicus, aged 16, might be a suitable candidate, but hardly in advance of his uncle Tiberius. Tiberius himself returned to Rome in AD 2.

Augustus was, therefore, compelled to select the mature, experienced and competent Tiberius as his successor in place of the series of immature children he had so far favoured. A complexity of adoptions was designed, together with a determined display of reluctance by Tiberius which compelled Augustus to argue publicly for his scheme and so be pinned down to it. Tiberius adopted Germanicus as his son, and Germanicus therefore joined Tiberius’ own son as one of the next generation of successors. Augustus then adopted Tiberius and Agrippa Postumus as his own sons. Agrippa was only an adolescent at this point, and regarded as unsuitable successor material; there could be no implication that Tiberius was to be coequal with him. To make it all quite clear, Tiberius was given tribunician and proconsular authority for ten years, a period during which it was no doubt assumed that Augustus would die, and during which the younger generation – Agrippa Postumus, Germanicus and Drusus – would mature. This was not what Augustus really wanted, but it was only what he could get in the light of the failure of his own line. As a consolation, the eldest of the younger set, Germanicus, was betrothed to the daughter of Julia and Agrippa, Agrippina. If they survived and had children, Augustus’ line would survive after all through them. (For the design, see Genealogical Table IV.)4


The historian Tacitus claimed that Tiberius’ selection was due to the influence of Livia over her husband; ‘his mother’s secret machinations’, he called it. No doubt her influence really was exerted in favour of her only surviving son, but with or without her influence, it is difficult to see who else Augustus could have chosen if he had wished his life’s work, by contrast with his descent by blood, to continue. It was not possible to go to someone outside his extended family, since that would only annoy all the others who felt that they had an equal ‘right’ to be chosen; Tiberius was the only member of his family who was both capable and adult and, for that matter, able to assert a degree of independence, which should have been one of the criteria Augustus was looking for all along.

For here was the rub. The thoroughgoing ambiguity of Augustus’ political system that is summed up in the term ‘principate’, which moderns tend to apply to it, was basic to his problem and his choices. Principate means, of course, rule by one man, the princeps, but this was a system of rule based on influence and authority rather than direct control. Augustus’ accumulation of honours and offices was such that his influence was a hugely powerful force, but his system had always been a fairly delicate balance between one man’s auctoritas and the continuing Republican system of elections and the work of the Senate and even the popular Assemblies. Augustus could use his personal power to ensure, mostly, that the elective offices were held by men who would not make trouble, a preference that rapidly translated into choosing men he felt were due for rewards and favours. He could take power as censor and thereby purge the Senate of men he disliked, men who were inadequate, personally or in wealth, or men who opposed him too vigorously and too intelligently, a purge he carried out three times. At the end of all this there can have been few senators left who were willing to stand up to him. However, the forms were generally observed, and the Senate, above all, continued to be active and respected.

If this carefully-constructed and managed system was to continue after Augustus it had to be run by someone who had experienced it. It was far too delicate for an outsider – Agrippa Postumus, for example, exiled on his island – to be expected to do so. It depended too much on the dispensing of favours, the knowledge of individuals and their families and ambitions, and the interaction of the fairly limited set of men, and some women, that comprised the senatorial class. These were the men who held the old Republican offices, who governed provinces, who commanded legions, who conducted wars, who operated the judicial system; in short, those who sat in the Senate. An outsider could not work such a system without the intimate knowledge of the people involved and how the system worked, which could only be gained by existing within it for years. This is why Augustus had been at such pains to train up his various young descendants over a period of thirty years. The investment in time and emotion in the series of failures would have crushed many men.

It was considered by some that there were alternatives to a successor who would take over Augustus’ place in the system. Tacitus pithily noted these alternatives were ‘freedom’ or civil war.5 Freedom meant a return to the old Republic, of which no one then living had any experience. Civil war was either feared or desired; those who desired it were surely thinking in terms of assuming Augustus’ place as victors (just as he had assumed Caesar’s place as the victor after his own civil wars).

Those wishing that such possible alternatives might come about were deemed by Tacitus to be few, though he cannot have known any number and the secret wishes of most men remained secret. He does say that most people, when it was known that Augustus was dying, discussed his possible successors. Therefore, if this is the case, one may say that Augustus had achieved success in one part of his work: the system he had developed had been accepted by the great majority of the political class in Rome, and the question now was not how to dismantle the system or change or replace it, but who would operate it and with what success. Yet until an actual succession had taken place it could not be seen as a permanent system. So Augustus would never know whether his system survived, or whether his family became a ruling dynasty.

The years and deaths and incapacities had eventually reduced the potential candidates to five: one of them, Agrippa Postumus, was ruled out as untrained, even untrainable, but he was Augustus’ adopted son and he had to be considered; Tiberius was full of years and competence, had the authority of two consulships and the tribunician and proconsular powers; Tiberius’ own son Drusus and his nephews Claudius and Germanicus were all three deemed too young, though Drusus and Germanicus had commanded armies by the time Augustus died and Germanicus was singled out as Tiberius’ adopted son. Judging them to be too young was, of course, a judgement also on Augustus’ selection methods. However, promoting these boys ahead of their adoptive-father-cum-uncle would defeat Augustus’ hereditary predilections and it was something that Tiberius, now in a very powerful position, would scarcely permit. When it came down to a choice, in the last year or so of Augustus’ life, there was in effect no choice left: it had to be Tiberius.

Tiberius’ qualifications for the succession were the offices he had held, together with Augustus’ final acquiescence. After all Augustus’ experimentation, it was the list of offices and achievements of Tiberius that became the required set awarded to future emperors, and it was the absence of the training Tiberius had had which became the problem for Augustus’ posterity and thus for the fate of his system. After all, if a potential successor received the proper training, why should he wait for the emperor to die? A trained successor was an immediate danger. It thus became impossible to train one.

The imperial office did get into the hands of outsiders – by which is meant those without the training for the job by going through the rigours of the system itself – and this development was in fact inevitable, but it turned out that the proper training, by occupying and running the several magistracies, commanding armies and governing provinces, simply could not be combined with selection as an heir. The chosen heir had to be selected young, which meant he would be too young to go through the offices; if an adult was chosen he would have gone through them already and would be an outsider to the family. Adults could not be chosen, since they would not be of the family unless they married into it like Agrippa or, indeed, like Tiberius. So future emperors would inevitably be inexperienced; in terms of the way the system worked, they would be outsiders, and would be faced with having to operate the system in ignorance of its construction and capabilities. That is, the system of a ‘restored Republic’, as designed by Augustus, could not continue; in the face of a quasi-hereditary system of succession, it would have to change into an autocracy.

Tiberius had been consul twice, having worked his way through the preliminary offices from quaestor onwards. He had commanded armies, of from one to ten legions, in campaigns in the Balkans and in Germany and in the East; indeed, it was under his command-in-chief that Germany had first been conquered, and it had been under him that it had been held after the disaster contrived by P. Quinctilius Varus in AD 9, and Varus was another of those closely connected to the princeps. In all this Tiberius was way ahead of any other Roman, none of whom had more than one consulship to his name, and only Tiberius’ own son Drusus and his own nephew and adopted son Germanicus had commanded armies of similar size and importance with real success. The seal was put on his position in AD 13, when his tribunician power and proconsular authority expired: they were renewed for another ten years, and he was also given power to conduct the census as well. In all respects except years and prestige, he was now Augustus’ equal in authority.6

Augustus died a year later. He did so slowly, making it possible for people to become accustomed to his approaching death, and for Tiberius to be summoned to the death scene (from Illyricum, where he was intending to campaign), so as to be able to take over full control without serious disruption. He was the man who gave the watchword to the Guard, thereby establishing his right to command it, and as soon as Augustus was dead the body was taken to Rome (from Nola in Campania, where he died), by Tiberius and his mother Livia, Augustus’ widow. Tacitus implies that the announcement of the death was delayed so that Tiberius could take control; if so it made good sense, but it was probably not necessary.7

This was the first time that one princeps had succeeded another. There seems to have been a certain hesitation all round as to how to proceed. Ignoring Tacitus’ cynical interpretation of everyone’s actions, what occurred was actually quite straightforward. The coffin containing Augustus’ body was taken ceremoniously from Nola to Rome with Tiberius walking behind it all the way, and then there was about a week for the cremation and the funeral to take place. Only then did the Senate meet, summoned by Tiberius in his capacity as a holder of the tribunician power, to discuss the future. The new princeps, who clearly had the authority of that office by virtue of the grant of powers the year before, received oaths of allegiance from the magistrates in order of seniority. First the consuls (one of whom was a Pompeius, the other a relative of Tiberius by marriage), then the Guard Commander and the Prefect of the Corn Supply, and followed, though Tacitus does not mention this, by the other magistrates – praetors, aediles, tribunes and quaestors – then ‘the Senate, army, and public’, presumably all senators, all army officers present, and those of the public who wished to do so.8

In fact, as Tacitus makes clear, Tiberius was already princeps when all this was taking place. He had received all the requisite powers the year before, and he was provided with his own guard at that time, so for the past year he had in fact been joint princeps along with Augustus. The ceremony at Rome – the funeral, the Senate meeting, the oaths of allegiance – was thus largely a formality, but it was a necessary formality, since it is a requirement of any process of succession that it should take place in public. In Republican Rome, the consuls took up their posts in public by a familiar ceremony, visible to spectators, as did other magistrates. A secret succession is automatically a questionable one; a public succession – that is, one which is visible to and observed by many people, whether or not they took an oath of allegiance – was indispensable.

There was also another action that may well be necessary at a succession: the killing of any serious competitor. So Agrippa Postumus was murdered by his guardian, on orders given by one of Tiberius ‘confidants’, whatever that may mean. Augustus had interviewed Agrippa personally at his island exile not all that long before, and it seems likely that he had left contingent orders for the killing to be done as soon as he himself died. That this was a necessary precaution to avoid serious trouble is shown by the fact that there was at least one plot to ‘rescue’ Agrippa from his island and take him to the army in Germany, no doubt so as to proclaim him emperor,9 and there were at least two cases of ‘false Agrippas’ attempting to cause trouble in the next two decades. Agrippa’s death was yet one more to add to the long list of Augustus’ victims: he may have claimed to restore the Republic, but he had done so by a series of fictions and over the bodies of many thousands of Romans and provincials; that his last victim was his own grandson was all too typical of his ferocity.

In Rome, the succession was accomplished with due solemnity and formality, and in the provinces the news of the change occasioned no real surprise. The army was different. A concentration of three legions in Pannonia staged a riot that developed into a mutiny, replete with demands for better pay and conditions of service, and the beatings and murders of unpopular officers. The mutiny was quelled only by concessions agreed on the spot by Tiberius’ son Drusus. This was a disturbance in part due to the fears of the soldiers that the change of emperor might worsen their conditions; it was not the component of a succession crisis.10

The army in Germany was a good deal larger than that in Pannonia. It was under the overall command of Germanicus, now Tiberius’ adopted son. Part of the army, the four legions at Ubii (the later Cologne), also mutinied. The same sort of grievances were aired and demands put forward as in Pannonia, and this time some of the men apparently wanted to make Germanicus emperor, though this idea did not get very far. The same sort of timely concessions on pay, length of service and so on brought these disturbances to an end fairly quickly. As in Pannonia, it was the prospect of an improvement in their lives that the soldiers grasped at.11 It would need someone with a taste of political intrigue to bring such a force to the point of proclaiming an alternative emperor. The slave who concocted the plot to bring Agrippa Postumus to the army in Germany had that very idea. So, obviously, had Augustus.

That the army as a whole accepted the change was due, one would say, to a fairly obvious set of conditions: Augustus was very old, and his death had surely been expected for years; Tiberius was well-known in the army and the Empire, and well-known to be Augustus’ choice as heir; and he had been invested in advance with the necessary powers. There were alternatives to Tiberius, as the German army clearly appreciated, as did the slave who wanted to proclaim Agrippa Postumus. The actual succession all went smoothly because of good advance preparation. It would not always be so, and the army had already shown that it knew it had the power to make an emperor, disregarding formal qualifications. Augustus’ fiction might work in Rome where the senators could appreciate its subtlety and its necessity, but it was seen to be transparent and vulnerable elsewhere.

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