The Historical Context

The Roman Empire in the reign of Augustus



A simplified Julio-Claudian family tree 

click to enlarge



Briefly describe the government of Rome under Augustus  

a. The Augustan 'Settlements'

• In the sea-battle of Actium (31bc) Augustus defeated Anthony and Cleopatra and thereafter ruled the entire empire under a 'principate'
• The 'First Settlement': in 27bc the Senate gave Augustus the titles of Augustus ('illustrious one') and Princeps ('leader'). It allowed him to wear a laurel wreath as a crown. Also, Augustus was permanently Consul.
• The 'Second Settlement': in 23bc Augustus stepped down as permanent Consul. However he kept the consular imperium (i.e. power - from 19bc he sat in the Senate in between the two Consuls), and the Senate granted him the imperium proconsulare maius (power over all the provincial proconsuls) and the tribunicia potestas.
• Although the Settlements appeared to support the dignity and authority of the Senate, in reality Augustus held all the power.
• In 2bc Augustus was declared Pater Patriae ('Father of the Fatherland')

b. The Bases of the Emperor's Power

Augustus liked to call himself the princeps civitatis ('first citizen') sharing power with the Senate, but in reality he was a dictatorial ruler.  The key bases of his power were:
• The consular imperium: this gave him all the powers of a consul, but allowed ordinary Senators to become consuls. In particular, the imperium of Rome gave him command of the armed forces inside the city of Rome. The imperium proconsulare maius gave Augustus control over all the proconsuls (governors of provinces). 

• The tribunicia potestas: this gave him all the powers of a tribune = the authority to convene the Senate, to veto laws he did not like and to give the death penalty. Tribunes were also 'sacrosanct' - it was the duty of every Roman to kill anybody who hindered the tribune.
• At some time Augustus took over the powers of censor; this allowed him to determine who became a senator, and also to supervise public morals (e.g. he passed laws encouraging marriage).

• He directly controlled a huge 'imperial province' including Gaul, Syria and Spain - i.e. where all the legions were stationed (thus he contolled the Army). The emperor also ruled Egypt as a personal kingdom, which gave him access to its great wealth, and control over the grain supply.
• He set up the Praetorian Guard - an elite guard of soldiers who formed him personal bodyguard - and stationed them in Rome.

c. The Imperial Household - freedmen

Because the administration of the empire had now passed from the Senate to the Imperial household, many of the administrative posts were given to freed slaves ('freedmen') from the emperor's household. Some freedmen became very powerful and rich. Seeing this, the aristocratic senators became jealous, and Claudius especially was criticised for his dependence on freedmen.

d. The Imperial Household - women

Although Roman women traditionally had no power, because the administration of the empire had now passed from the Senate to the Imperial household, powerful women within the imperial household were now able to exercise great influence over the government, because they had personal access to the emperor. Seeing this, the aristocratic senators became jealous, and Claudius especially was criticised for his dependence on his wives.

e. The struggle for power

• All of the first five emperors failed to produce a son who survived to succeed them; this created intrigue, instability and plots as other people competed to become the successor.

• Since all power was held within a very tight imperial court of just two families, all the intrigue became very incestuous and violent.



List and briefly describe the first five Roman Emperors 

Note that we actually KNOW very little about the emperors, because the sources are so unreliable - see Mr Clare's  Historiography of the Roman Emperors - Part I which describes how Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula have been portrayed over the years.

a. Augustus

Tacitus claims that Augustus deceived the people and destroyed the power of the Senate .

b. Tiberius

Although Tacitus claims Tiberius was a bloody-thirsty tyrant, most historians recognise nowadays that he was a careful ruler who kept out of wars, helped the economy and trade to grow, and left a full treasury.

c. Caligula

Although Suetonius would have us believe Caligula was a monster, most historians today regard his reign as a failed attempt to turn Augustus's system of government (which preserved the appearance of senatorial dignity) into a more open despotism.

d. Claudius

see below

e. Nero

see below



Who was Germanicus? 

a. Family

Germanicus was the grandson of Livia (Augustus's 3rd wife), and his mother was Augustus's daughter. He was a great favourite of Augustus, and for a time was named as his heir.

b. Popularity

• Germanicus was immensely popular; Tacitus gives a list of attributes including polite, modest, a good (i.e. republican) citizen, handsome, a father, a soldier, merciful, etc.

• Part of his popularity was because he was known (like his father) to favour a return to the Republic

• He knew how to use his children and wife as a propaganda weapon (e.g., unusually, he took them with him on campaign). In Germany in ad14 - he used Caligula ('little boots' - a nickname from the tiny soldiers' boots Germanicus allowed Caligula to wear) to suppress a mutiny by making the soldiers ashamed (he said he would have to send Agrippina the Elder and Caligula away because he could no longer trust the legion to protect them).

• He was especially popular with the army (which worried Tiberius).

c. Germany

In ad14 he was appointed commander in Germany (where, in ad9, the disaster of the Teutoberg Forest had occurred); in two campaigns (ad15 and ad16) Germanicus advanced to the Forest, buried the Roman dead there, freed a number of Roman prisoners, and defeated the Germanic tribes. On his return he was (exceptionally) granted a triumph. He had however, by crossing the Rhine, defied Tiberius's policy of 'no-further-expansion' - which threatened Tiberius.

d. Asia

In ad18 Germanicus was sent to Asia, where he conquered Cappadocia and made it a Roman province. However, he went to Egypt without permission, and gave a number of orders beyond his authority - which alarmed Tiberius.

e. Death

Soon after, Germanicus died in Antioch, allegedly poisoned by Piso, governor of Syria, with whom he had quarrelled. It was rumoured that Tiberius was behind the murder.



What was Germanicus's legacy to his daughter Agrippina the Younger?  

a. Family

A family tracing back to Augustus - this was incredibly important in the imperial household

b. Popularity

- especially the loyalty of the army, but also the general populace. When Tiberius accused Agrippina the Elder in ad29, the mob turned onto the streets to protest.

c. Propaganda and its limitations

Agrippina had accompanied Germanicus on campaign and on his triumph, and taken his ashes with her mother back to Rome; she knew how to 'work' a crowd. (She also realised that the love of the crowd could not save you from the emperor - i.e. that power was more important than popularity.)

d. Reputation for rebelliousness

Germanicus's family had the reputation of being in favour of the republic - this was NOT an advantage in the imperial court

e. Jealousy

Tiberius (and many others) were jealous and wary of Germanicus's family, which put them in constant danger.



Agrippina's Youth and developing personality  

a. At Germanicus's triumph, ad 17


b. At the mourning of Germanicus, ad 19


c. Marriage to Domitius, ad 28


d. Agrippina the Elder exiled, ad 29


e. Domitius accused, ad37


f. Caligula's sister, ad37-38


g. Agrippina on coins, ad37


h. Agrippina exiled, ad39


h. Birth of Nero, ad37




Roman names 

a. Praenomen

A name chosen from a very short (c.18) list of common names (e.g. Gaius, Marcus, Lucius, Drusus)

b. Nomen

The clan name ( e.g. Aemilius, Julius, Claudius, Domitius)

c. Cognomen

A family name, derived from some achievement, or characteristic, or origin of the family (e.g. Caesar, Agricola, Hispanus). Some people had more than one cognomen, to show their family connections.

d. Agnomen

A nickname, often given for a great achievement (e.g. Africanus, Germanicus, Felix).

e. Roman girls' names

Roman girls were given no praenomen, and used the female form of their father's nomen (e.g the daughter of Domitius would be called Domitia. Where there were two daughters they would be called [Domitia] Major and [Domitia] Minor, and further daughters would be given a number - e.g. [Domitia] Tertia.  





The following web pages will help you complete the task:

This document contains the relevant sections of the set
OCR Textbook.

Mr Clare's Historiography of the Roman Emperors - Part I describes how Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula have been portrayed over the years.



 Read the following passage from Tacitus, and write answers to the questions which follow:

Tacitus, Annals, book 3, Chapter 4
The day on which the remains of Germanicus were carried into the Mausoleum of Augustus was characterised either by a deep silence or loud cries of grief. The route through the city was full of people; torches lit up the Campus Martius. The soldiers in armour, the magistrates without badges of office, the people arranged in the tribes were shouting continually that state was destroyed, and that no hope was left; they shouted so readily and openly that you might believe they had not remembered who ruled them. But nothing affected Tiberius more than the enthusiasm for Agrippina [the Elder]; they called her the honour of the country, the only blood-relative of Augustus, the one surviving model of the old values; as they turned to the sky and the gods, they prayed that her children might be unharmed and survive their enemies.

What does this passage tell us about Germanicus?  [4]

In your opinion, how reliable is Tacitus’s description of Germanicus? You must refer both to this passage, and to your knowledge of Tacitus as a writer. [5]

Explain how Germanicus helped and hindered his daughter's career.  [4]