Ancient Rome

Understanding Augustus’s reign with secrets

Beneath the surface of peace, scandal and hypocrisy festered, tainting the legacy of Augustus's imperial dynasty.

augustus first emperer of rome

The self-proclaimed savior of Rome, Augustus, carefully crafted an image of prosperity and virtue during his 41-year reign. He established the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace, and transformed Rome with grandiose architecture. Yet, the official record only tells part of the story. Beneath the surface, scandal and hypocrisy festered, tainting the legacy of his imperial dynasty.

Augustus’ personal life contrasted sharply with the splendor bestowed upon Rome. While he lived modestly and championed traditional Roman values, rumors swirled around his depravity. His beloved wife, Livia Augusta, embodied the ideal Roman matron: austere, loyal, and unwavering. However, her unwavering support masked her complicity in the Emperor’s indulgences.

With chilling pragmatism, Livia ignored her husband’s transgressions, preserving the illusion of propriety and power. In a chilling display of this, she dismissed the scandal of naked men inadvertently exposed in her presence. For her, the preservation of dignity and power mattered more than any notion of individual morality.

The contradictions of the Augustan era highlight the stark difference between the public façade of Roman virtue and the often-corrupt reality that simmered beneath.

Family vagues

For Emperor Augustus, personal peccadilloes were no obstacle to his public crusade for traditional Roman virtues. He aggressively promoted “family values” while engaging in liaisons with concubines. Yet, adultery that threatened the social hierarchy was intolerable. In one telling example, Augustus executed his own friend, a freedman, for adulterous affairs with noblewomen. It was the insult to the status quo, not the moral failing, that the Emperor abhorred.

Such was Augustus’s conviction on the dangers of adultery that he enacted sweeping legislation against it. Husbands who caught their wives in the act held the legal right to kill both wife and lover. A similar execution right extended to fathers regarding their daughters. Furthermore, a husband who discovered his wife’s infidelity was not only permitted divorce but obligated to initiate proceedings within a 60-day window. Failure to do so brought social disgrace and financial forfeiture for the woman. Augustus further restricted women’s public appearances and imposed mandatory marriage on both sexes; men under 60 and women under 50 who remained unwed forfeited inheritance rights.

An Dutiful Daughter

While Augustus and his wife Livia projected a united imperial front, domestic discord lurked beneath the surface. Livia, Augustus’s third wife, replaced the ‘nagging’ Scribonia, who had provided the Emperor with the one thing he truly appreciated – a daughter, Julia. Yet, Augustus’s paternal fondness waned as Julia grew into adulthood.

Julia, raised alongside her stepbrothers, became a thorn in her father’s side. Her first arranged marriage, to her cousin, had potential but was cut short by his death. Her second, to Augustus’s much-older ally Agrippa, was a disaster. Despite providing the Emperor with grandsons and heirs, Julia embarked on a scandalous affair with Sempronius Gracchus – rumored to be the first of many.

In 12 B.C.E., Agrippa’s death was promptly followed by Augustus arranging yet another marriage, this time to his stepson, Tiberius. A poor match from the start, Julia’s infidelities now not only stained the imperial house but inflicted humiliation upon her new husband – a fellow member of the ruling family. Julia flaunted her lovers and reveled in public drinking sessions within the Forum – a brazen defiance of her father’s strict social edicts on female behavior. One suspects her actions stemmed from a deep-seated desire to wound Augustus as profoundly as possible.

Augustus, Emperor of Rome, found his options limited. Legally, he could have executed his daughter. Instead, he inflicted harsh punishment on her primary lover, Iullus Antonius, driving him to suicide. Several other paramours were exiled, including Sempronius Gracchus. Julia herself was banished to a remote island with her mother, Scribonia, denied contact with men and basic comforts. Augustus, consumed by bitterness, would only refer to his daughter as “his cancer.” His public fury masked a private wound.

A sad succession

The dictates of imperial succession often clashed with the yearnings of the individual, as starkly evidenced in the fraught union of Tiberius and Julia. Despite a contented marriage to Vipsania Agrippina, Tiberius was compelled by Augustus to divorce his wife and marry his own stepsister. This political necessity tore Tiberius from a woman he deeply loved – a fact made tragically clear when he followed a weeping Vipsania through the streets after encountering her.

Julia and Tiberius embodied a stark contrast. While Julia succumbed to revelry and scandalous affairs, Tiberius distinguished himself in military service and political affairs. His dedication to duty made his wife’s conduct even more unbearable. Despite notable success, Tiberius remained profoundly saddened, earning the designation “saddest of men” from historian Pliny the Elder.

In an act defying both logic and his adoptive father, Tiberius abdicated his public roles in 6 B.C.E., retiring to Rhodes like an exile. Enraged, Augustus rejected his pleas to return, only relenting in 2 C.E. Still, Tiberius returned stripped of his official position. However, the deaths of Augustus’s chosen heirs, Gaius and Lucius, paved an unexpected path for Tiberius’s imperial inheritance.

Augustus died in 14 C.E., famously querying, “How did you like the performance?” The role of Emperor, one Augustus had essentially created, proved difficult to replicate. Tiberius in particular lacked the charisma and decisiveness of his predecessor and bore the scars of a life marred by political maneuvering and personal heartbreak.

An envious emperor

Tiberius, burdened with a role he never sought, let the Roman Empire languish in uncertainty. The Senate, once the backbone of the Republic, had withered under a succession of autocrats. Yet, Tiberius urged it to reclaim its authority. His own discomfort with power was a stark contrast to the ambition of others, a fact which bred resentment, especially toward his stepmother Livia. Her influence, born out of necessity in his floundering reign, was an unwelcome reminder of his inadequacies.

The brilliant military campaigns of Germanicus fueled this insecurity. Augustus had forced Tiberius to adopt Livia’s grandson, ensuring that Germanicus Julius Caesar Claudianus would bear the prestigious name earned by his father’s triumphs in Germania. The younger Germanicus solidified the legacy of his namesake, quashing rebellions with decisive brilliance.

Tiberius’ past military prowess lay long dormant, replaced by a sense of disorientation that cast a shadow over his leadership. When he ascended to the throne, the army’s initial unrest had been swiftly calmed only by Germanicus himself – a testament to his popularity among both troops and leaders. Despite his unwavering loyalty to Tiberius, Germanicus remained the undisputed hero of the Empire.

Then, in 18 CE, news arrived from Asia: Germanicus had fallen ill and died with shocking swiftness. Rumors of poison, whispered accusations of imperial treachery, spread like wildfire. His widow, Agrippina, returned bearing his ashes, her six children clinging to her in a spectacle of inconsolable grief. The sight ignited public sorrow at Augustus’ mausoleum. But this outpouring quickly turned to a dangerous rage, with demands to “Give us back Germanicus!” plastered defiantly throughout the city. It seemed that in death, Germanicus had become a figurehead, his memory a weapon wielded against the man who replaced him.

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Figure of suspicion

The death of Germanicus, Rome’s beloved general, left an empire in turmoil. Whispers swirled, and fingers pointed directly at Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the exiled Governor of Syria and a known enemy of the fallen prince. It was in Piso’s former territory, in the city of Antioch, that Germanicus met his untimely demise. Piso’s brazen attempt to reclaim Syria after Germanicus’s death only fanned the flames of suspicion. Was this audacious act a reward for carrying out the Emperor Tiberius’s sinister orders?

Tiberius, forced to appease a grieving public, convened a trial. Yet, before Piso could face his accusers, he was found dead – suicide, some claimed. Yet, doubts lingered: did Piso take his own life out of guilt, or did the Emperor silence him to bury the truth?

The shadow of suspicion fell heavily upon Tiberius. After all, his history with Germanicus’s fiery widow Agrippina was fraught with bitterness. Granddaughter of Augustus and daughter of the disgraced Julia, Agrippina carried her mother’s fierce spirit. She openly accused Tiberius of murdering her husband, further eroding the Emperor’s standing. His subsequent banishment of Agrippina only served to solidify her belief that her sons, not Tiberius’s own heir, were the rightful successors to the throne.

A plot of murder

Emperor Tiberius, a man of astute political cunning, found himself vulnerable to a threat he could not see. His paranoia, though sharp when focused on potential rivals like Germanicus, left him blind to the true danger lurking closer to home. He placed boundless trust in Lucius Aelius Sejanus, his Praetorian Prefect and advisor. This trust would prove catastrophic.

The Praetorian Guard, once a mere personal bodyguard, transformed under Sejanus’s hand. He molded them into a formidable force, expanding their reach and solidifying their position within the Roman power structure. Tiberius, content to see the burden of governance shouldered by another, remained willfully ignorant of the danger this posed.

Sejanus, a man of cold ambition and ruthless pragmatism, saw his path to ultimate power blocked by Julius Caesar Drusus – Tiberius’s own son and designated heir. The Praetorian Prefect and the heir circled each other with a mutual wariness that would ultimately erupt into open conflict.

Sejanus’s solution was chillingly simple. He seduced Drusus’s wife, Livilla, a descendant of the formidable Livia, imbued with her grandmother’s thirst for power. Livilla, likely sensing Drusus as a waning star in the face of Germanicus’s legacy and his widow Agrippina’s influence, aligned herself with Sejanus. Ambition, not mere lust, fueled their affair. To prove his intentions, Sejanus made the brutal and calculated move of divorcing his wife and abandoning his children.

In 23 C.E. the conspirators struck. Drusus fell victim to a poison, administered by his physician Eudemus, that mimicked a slow, natural illness. And so, as poison seeped through his veins, the true heir of Tiberius faded from the picture.

Exile again

The death of Drusus marked a pivotal shift in the reign of Tiberius. Though the loss itself may have caused him less grief than expected, it nonetheless heightened his vulnerability. This void of power did not inspire him to reassert control; instead, it fueled his withdrawal from governance and intensified his reliance upon his ambitious Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus.

Paranoia permeated Tiberius’s thoughts. In 26 C.E., Agrippina’s simple request to remarry sparked a spiral of suspicion regarding her motives and dynastic aspirations. Sejanus, driven by his own fear of Agrippina’s sons, stoked the embers of the emperor’s anxieties. Despite Agrippina’s unconcealed support for her sons, Tiberius’s reaction was extreme, banishing her to Pandateria – a grim echo of her own mother’s fate.

Tiberius’s own retreat mirrored the exile he inflicted upon Agrippina. Haunted by whispers of plots against him, he abandoned Rome for the island of Capri, a move perhaps born more of fear than of any desire for leisure. In his absence, Sejanus consolidated his grip on the city, his affair with Livilla further cementing his position. Now, only the formidable figure of Livia, Tiberius’s aging mother, stood as an obstacle to the Prefect’s unrestrained ambition.

Sejanus makes his move

By the close of the second decade C.E., Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, wielded an unprecedented degree of power in ancient Rome. With Emperor Tiberius secluded in Capri, Sejanus served as the de facto ruler of the expansive empire. His influence extended to the elite Praetorian Guard, transformed from a modest escort unit into a 12,000-strong force loyal only to him. Sejanus had ensnared the emperor in a web of reliance, shaping Rome’s fate from the shadows as his own ambitions surged.

Sejanus’ status, however grand, remained that of an official— a constraint he aimed to break. The death of Livia, Tiberius’ formidable mother, in 29 C.E. cleared the path for his ascension. Sejanus unleashed a wave of treason trials against Rome’s most prominent families. Relying on dubious testimony from his network of informers, these trials were nothing more than a tool to eliminate threats and instill terror among the aristocracy. Unable to resist Sejanus’ reach, many nobles tragically chose suicide over the torment of his henchmen.

The ruthless Prefect targeted Agrippina, widow of Germanicus, and her lineage with particular zeal. Tiberius, long suspicious of Agrippina’s influence, readily agreed to her persecution. She and her two eldest sons, Nero and Drusus Caesar, were banished and later imprisoned. Nero was either murdered or forced to take his own life while Drusus perished from state-imposed starvation. Agrippina met a similar fate, tortured and denied even the release of a self-inflicted death. After four years of agony, she succumbed, leaving her three daughters and youngest son, known as Caligula, to face the treacherous landscape of Sejanus’ Rome.

Caligula, only 17 at the time, feigned harmlessness to deflect Tiberius’ suspicion, becoming a grotesque ward of the emperor. In 31 C.E., Tiberius brought the young man to Capri – a place mired in vice but one that ironically ensured Caligula’s survival.

The Downfall of Sejanus

Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, enjoyed nearly unparalleled power at the heart of the Roman Empire. His meteoric rise was fueled by his close relationship with Emperor Tiberius. However, Sejanus’ relentless ambition ultimately proved his undoing.

In 25 C.E., Sejanus’ bold attempt to marry into the imperial family was met with the Emperor’s stern rebuke. Sejanus momentarily retreated, but by 31 C.E. his ambitions had swelled anew, leading him to announce his betrothal to Livilla, widow of Tiberius’ son. This brazen move triggered a decisive course of events.

Antonia Minor, Livilla’s formidable mother, alerted Tiberius to a sinister plot, revealing Livilla and Sejanus were conspiring to murder the Emperor and his heir, Caligula. Their goal: to elevate Sejanus to the throne.

This revelation spurred Tiberius into action. His initial inaction transformed into swift, strategic moves. He bolstered Caligula’s position and decisively replaced Sejanus with Naevius Sutorius Macro as Prefect. Sensing a shift in power, Sejanus’ once-loyal followers distanced themselves, leaving him vulnerable.

Tiberius masterfully lured Sejanus to a Senate meeting under the guise of bestowing a new honor. Before the assembled senators, an imperial letter exposed Sejanus’ treachery, leading to his immediate arrest.

Sejanus was condemned to death that night. His lifeless body, cast down the Gemonian Steps, became a gruesome testament to his fallen status. A frenzy of retribution ensued, with his supporters ruthlessly hunted, and his name obliterated from historical records.

His family was not spared. His son was executed, and his mother, complicit in the death of Tiberius’ son Drusus, committed suicide. Livilla, starved by her own mother, met a similarly tragic end.

The Mad Emperor: Tiberius and the Reign of Fear

The betrayal of Sejanus and the revelation of his son Drusus’s murder shattered Tiberius, leaving him a hollow shell of the man he once was. While some historians paint him as an uncaring figure, the shock of this vile revelation likely paralyzed the aging emperor. Consumed by dread, Tiberius retreated further into isolation, abandoning the helm of the empire while it spiraled into chaos.

Where decisiveness was needed, Tiberius succumbed to fear, unleashing a torrent of purges. Executions became a grotesque spectacle – their frequency defied the sanctity of holidays and festivals. Families faced the tribunal as units, and none escaped. Terror and greed seeped into the heart of Roman justice as children denounced their parents for reward. Desperate victims, seeking to escape the torment of public execution, resorted to poison or self-harm, only to be revived and made to suffer their final moments under the jeering eyes of the mob.

The Gemonian Steps, once a place of law, morphed into an abattoir. Iron hooks wrenched the condemned to their deaths, their bodies discarded and left to the insatiable cruelty of the masses. Even young girls weren’t spared; monstrous officials adhered to the letter of the law by defiling them before their gruesome demise. Sejanus’s death was but a prelude – his fall ignited a bloodbath engulfing Rome in unspeakable horror.

For six more agonizing years, Tiberius’s reign festered. His death in 37 C.E., rumored to be a suffocation at the hands of Macro and perhaps even his heir, Caligula, was met not with mourning but with jubilation. The streets of Rome echoed with a single cry: “Into the Tiber with Tiberius!”

David Thompson
David Thompson Thompson
David Thompson received his Ph.D. in Ancient History from Oxford University. His blog entries explore the philosophical and military achievements of ancient Greece and Rome.

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