The Julio-Claudian dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of ancient Rome, consisting of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. The term Julio-Claudian refers to the general biological and adoptive family of the group, as they did not all rise to power through traditional biological secession. The Julio-Claudian dynasty boasts some of the most well-known (and hated) emperors in Roman history and encompasses both extreme highs and lows of its imperial rule during its time. Read on for 6 facts about the Julio-Claudians.
“The successes and reverses of the old Roman people have been recorded by famous historians; and fine intellects were not wanting to describe the times of Augustus, till growing sycophancy scared them away. The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred”
– Tacitus, Annals
1. “Julio-Claudian” Refers To The First Five Emperors Of Rome
The Julio-Claudian line of Roman emperors officially began with Octavian, later known as Augustus. Following the murder of Julius Caesar, Octavian first partnered with general Mark Antony to pursue and defeat the murderers. Later the two men fell out over the distribution of power and began yet another war.
Octavian emerged victorious, heir to the power of Rome and the name of Julius Caesar. Though he was only officially adopted in Julius Caesar’s will, Octavian was still the nephew of the famous Caesar and shared in the family line. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero make up the line of Julio-Claudians. They are some of the most famous names in Roman history.
2. They Were Among The Oldest Families Of Rome
Romans considered their family ties to be exceedingly important. The first Roman Senate included 100 members, each representing various families of the founding tribes. Each of the families represented in the first Senate became a part of the Patrician class, the absolute elite of Roman society. Even if financially destitute, identity as a Patrician placed one higher than the richest Plebeian, the later families of Rome.
Through the founding myths of Rome, popularized by Virgil in his epic poem, the Aeneid, the Julio-Claudians not only traced their roots back to the earliest families of Rome but also to Romulus and Remus, the legendary twins who established the city. They were even traced to two deities, the goddess Venus and the god Mars. Venus was said to be the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Virgil tells that in the aftermath of the destruction of Troy, Aeneas escaped and fled across the Mediterranean, pursuing his destiny to found the greatest civilization in history. After years of wandering, he landed in Italy. By way of war and marriage, the Trojan wanderers combined with the Latins and founded Alba Longa.
Aeneas’s descendants ruled as the Alban kings and queens, and eventually produced Romulus and Remus, who were fathered by Mars. In the classic model of myth, the king of Alba Longa feared that the twins would be a threat to his rule, so he ordered them killed. The interference of the river god of the Tiber saved them from an early demise. They grew up suckled by a female wolf near the site of Rome then adopted by a local shepherd. After helping to restore their deposed grandfather to the throne of Alba Longa, they set out to establish their own city, and so founded Rome.
3. The Dynasty Included Three “First Men” Worthy Of The Title
The historian Tacitus, though notoriously Republican and anti-emperor, was not altogether wrong in the above quote. The first five emperors of Rome operated by an extraordinarily frail balance, unable to claim the office of a ruler for fear of assassination, yet still making decisions in that capacity and having to hold onto power or risk another devastating civil war. The resulting tension meant that they were frequently quick to punish and even execute those that saw to be a threat to their power, leaving a lot of hatred behind them.
For all that, the Julio-Claudians did produce some good rulers. Augustus was an immensely capable and cunning emperor. The creation of his position as princeps was done masterfully using his charisma and skill, as well as military victory and intimidation. He also had an exemplary support team whom he trusted, headed up by his closest friend and right-hand man, Agrippa. Succeeding Augustus, Tiberius continued many of the policies begun by his step-father and enjoyed successful rule, though he seemed to despise it. He eventually withdrew from active rule to enjoy his own pleasures at his spacious villa on Capri, a contributing factor in his poor reputation.
Similarly, Claudius’ legacy was tainted by his apparent disability, though it is still unclear exactly what his limitations were. It seems that it may have only been a physical deformity of some kind, but it was enough that he was initially rejected as a candidate for princeps. In the wake of Caligula’s murder, the Praetorians found Claudius hiding behind balcony curtains in the palace and made him emperor. He proved a capable one, though later paranoia blackened his reputation as well.
4. And Two Of The Worst Men
Perhaps two of the most infamous names of Roman history also emerged from the Julio-Claudian dynasty, those of Caligula and Nero. For the first few months of his rule, Caligula appeared to be everything his subjects could wish, kind, generous, respectful, and just. Yet supposedly, Tiberius had seen the darkness in his young adoptive grandson long before his own death, and once stated that he was “nursing a viper for the Roman people.”
After an illness that almost claimed his life, Caligula showed a different side of himself. He devoted himself to his pleasurable lifestyle and the theatre and games, squandering the imperial treasury on extravagant living. He was so enamored of a particular racehorse named Incitatus that he would invite the horse to lavish imperial dinners, and even planned to make the horse consul. Even worse than eccentricity, he became vindictive and cruel, enjoying executions and the pain of the family of the condemned, and eventually devolving into sickening tortures. Finally, his own Praetorian Guard murdered him in only the fourth year of his rule.
Nero’s reign was quite similar, beginning with promise but falling into suspicion, condemnation, and many deaths. In some ways, Nero appeared to be less degenerate than Caligula and may have mostly suffered from a lack of skill as a ruler. However, his many executions of those conspiring against him, whether real or imagined, made him unpopular. He even murdered his own mother. His apparent lack of concern over the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. created the saying still famous today, “Nero fiddles while Rome burns.” Eventually, faced with rebellion and loss of power, Nero committed suicide.
5. None Of Them Passed Their Power Onto A Natural-Born Son
Although considered a family dynasty, no member of the Julio-Claudians managed to leave their power to their own son. Augustus’s only child was a daughter named Julia. Obviously hoping to keep the rule in the family, Augustus carefully chose her husbands in an attempt to control the succession, but tragedy struck continuously. His nephew Marcellus passed away young, and so he remarried Julia to his closest friend, Agrippa. Agrippa and Julia had three sons and two daughters, yet Agrippa himself died before Augustus, as did his two eldest sons. The third apparently did not possess the character that Augustus had hoped to see in his heir, and so he instead passed his power onto Tiberius, his stepson. Tiberius also suffered the death of his child, outliving his son and intended heir, Drusus. Power instead passed to his grand-nephew, Caligula.
Like Augustus, Caligula’s only child was a daughter. In the chaos following his murder, the Praetorians that found his Uncle Claudius hiding in the palace quickly declared him emperor to halt the possibility of war. Claudius’s eldest son died as a young man, and his second son was too young to take power in the event of his death, so Claudius also adopted Nero, his step-son after his marriage to Agrippina the Younger. After Claudius’s death, his natural son, Britannicus, intended to join Nero as co-emperor, died mysteriously just before his fourteenth birthday. All sources unanimously accuse Nero of poisoning his step-brother. The final member of the dynasty, Nero, also produced only a daughter, and he committed suicide in disgrace without ever having planned his succession.
6. The End Of The Julio-Claudians Plunged Rome Back Into Civil War
The lack of an heir to Nero, as well as the brewing revolution that prompted his deposition and suicide, sent Rome spiraling back into brutal civil wars. The year following Nero’s death, the“Year of the Four Emperors,” saw three important men in succession claim imperial power, only to be killed in the attempt. The only survivor was the fourth and final claimant, Vespasian, who successfully defeated all opponents and rose to power as emperor, founding the Flavian Dynasty of Rome.
Although almost every emperor for the remainder of Rome’s history would attempt to claim relation to either Julius Caesar or Augustus, the Julio-Claudian line fell largely into obscurity after the death of Nero, with only a few names entering into the history books in the centuries to come. The great-great-great-granddaughter of Augustus, Domitia Longina, married Emperor Domitian, the second son of Vespasian and the third ruler of the Flavian Dynasty.
Another line of the Julio-Claudians married the maternal uncle of Nerva, who the Senate made emperor after another round of violent civil wars following the fall of the Flavian Dynasty. During the rule of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, another descendant of Julio-Claudians, Gaius Avidius Cassius, received dubious fame for declaring himself emperor upon hearing that Emperor Marcus Aurelius had died. Unfortunately, the rumor was false, and Marcus Aurelius was alive and well. Avidius Cassius was in too deep by that point, and stuck to his claim, only to be killed by one of his own soldiers.