The Roman Empire is commonly referred to as the post-Republican phase of the ancient Roman civilization, although Rome’s empire began more than two centuries before Rome’s republic turned into rule by emperors, beginning with Augustus Caesar.
An empire is, of course, a political body held together by force — not a body of people united by a common identity and devotion. Those who held power over the Roman empire did not have the loyalty of much of its people to draw on as a force against invaders. And the Roman empire had other weaknesses. Some, including a few emperors, saw this weakness as immorality and the displeasure of God or the gods. But more obvious fault was Rome’s system of governance. Rome itself had become something other than a voluntary association of its citizens. Rome the city, in fact, disintegrated as a political entity before its empire disintegrated. Rome as a center of power and governance was by then little more than a bad idea.
Rome’s political decline had begun with the politics of violence and civil war that had accompanied the fall of the Republic, and it continued during the rule of Emperor Augustus. No Roman law gave Augustus the right to pass his powers to anyone. And Augustus apparently failed to see that by passing his offices to his son-in-law, and adopted son, Tiberius, he was creating the kind of monarchical rule that he had thought often created incompetent rulers. And Roman citizens in general were without qualms about Augustus’ transfer of power. There were examples enough about the weakness of rule by family, and these were times when people read history more than novels. But the Romans ignored the lesson that could have been drawn from rule by dynasty. Instead, they believed that for a continued peace and prosperity someone should rule as Augustus had ruled.
Tiberius ruled between the years 14 and 37 and was succeeded by the great grandson of Augustus: Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, whose nickname was Caligula. It was the emperor’s guard, the Praetorian Guard, that selected Caligula — a selection rubber stamped by the Senate.
Caligula was a mediocrity. He wanted to rule well but was ill-equipped to handle the challenge of absolute rule. He failed at self-restraint. He indulged his appetites for food and grew fat and irritable. He indulged his sexual appetites. He wanted to be adored, but he made enemies and indulged an appetite for revenge and control. He used his power to have those he saw as enemies executed. A conspiracy against him arose among those who felt their lives endangered, including officers of the Praetorian Guard. In the year 41, at the age of 29, after having been in power three years and ten months, members of his guard assassinated him.
The Senate might have been able to assert its authority and end rule by the family of Augustus, restoring the Republic, but by now the senators had acquired the habit of timidity. Instead, rule passed to Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, who had bribed the Praetorian Guard into supporting him.
Emperor Claudius handled power reasonably well, but he married a woman with a son named Nero, whom Claudius adopted as his son. And soon Claudius was dead, from poison it seems. Nero became emperor, another royal mediocrity ill-quipped mentally for rule. Like Caligula, wanted to rule well. And, like Caligula, he craved public adoration. But he was never able to bear frustrations with patience. His wife, Octavia, grew to hate him, and he feared that she was spreading dislike of him in his household and at court. He had her charged with treason and executed. He remarried and exercised this power against his next wife, Poppaea Sabina. His mother also became an irritant, and he had her murdered.
The popularity Nero wanted escaped him. Military commanders outside Rome were aware of Nero’s unpopularity. Nero ordered the execution of his military commander in Spain, Servius Galba. With nothing to lose, Galba declared himself a subject of the Senate and Rome’s citizens rather than of the emperor. Galba and his army headed for Rome. Realizing that he was powerless, Nero ran through his palace screaming hysterically. Aware of Nero’s lack of power, the Senate aroused itself, declared Nero a public enemy and ordered his execution. Soldiers closed in on Nero at his villa. The family dynasty begun by Augustus was at an end 54 years after it had begun. With Senate approval, power passed to Servius Galba. An era of more succession problems and rule by military men had begun.