To envisage past Roman emperors is to perceive men of wealth, power, and material excess. It was a position in history commanding of such authority and resources as to be almost unimaginable. It was made so by the armies, the bodyguards, the courts, the retinues, the crowds, the palaces, the statues, the games, the flattery, the eulogies, the poems, the banquets, the orgies, the slaves, the triumphs, and the monuments. It was also the sheer authority of ‘life and death’ command over all those around you. Few positions in history have matched the weight and power of a Roman emperor. Were not Roman emperors deified as divine, transcending to the status of earthly gods? Did they not command unrivaled power, opulence, and prestige?
Yet, this is only one perspective. A closer study can quickly discern that this was only one side of a very contrasting coin. Being an emperor was, in fact highly fraught, dangerous, and a personally constrictive position. Viewed as something of a burden by some of the figures called to take it up, it was certainly very dangerous.
Complexities Of Being A Roman Emperor
For all the power that imperial power conferred, we must also balance its many complexities. These included the Senate’s deadly politics, the mutinous revolts of the army, and the ever-fickle actions of the unpredictable Roman mob. This was no walk in the park. Foreign wars, invasions, domestic disasters (natural and man-made), the plots, the coups and assassinations (failed and successful), the dynastic rivals, the sycophantic courtiers, the accusers, the libelers, the satirists, the lampooners, the denouncers, the prophecies, the unfavorable omens, the poisonings, the cliques, the power struggles, the palace intrigues, the promiscuous and plotting wives, the overbearing mothers, and the ambitious successors were all part of the role. The deadly tightrope of imperial politics required balancing such complex, unpredictable, and dangerous forces. It was a critical balancing act directly linked to an emperor’s personal viability, health, and longevity.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca understood this on the broadest of human terms:
“… what look like towering heights are indeed precipices. … there are many who are forced to cling to their pinnacle because they cannot descend without falling … they are not so much elevated as impaled.” [Seneca, Dialogues: On Tranquility of Mind, 10 ]
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Looking beyond the obvious wealth and power that emperors commanded, it becomes apparent that being an emperor could hardly have been a more precarious pinnacle. It was a position that many were forced to cling to for their very lives.
To be a Roman emperor was no ‘easy gig’, and it was certainly not a position that every figure wanted. As we shall now see, within the early Julio-Claudian period alone, amongst Rome’s earliest emperors, history can identify at least 3 figures (possibly more) that may not really have wanted the gig at all.
Holding The Wolf By The Ears: The Imperial Dilemma
Through the powerful insight of the historian Tacitus, we learn arguably the most crucial aspect of what it meant to be a Roman emperor:
“Rome is not like primitive countries with their kings. Here we have no ruling caste dominating a nation of slaves. You are called to be the leader of men who can tolerate neither total slavery nor total liberty.” [Tacitus, Histories, I.16]
These words go to the very heart of the great imperial balancing act required of all early Roman emperors.
This reminds us that the position of an emperor was far from straightforward and certainly not comfortable. As distinct from the incessant chaos and civil wars of the late Republic, Imperial stability required powerful and largely autocratic rulers. Yet Roman sensibilities, as galvanized through many centuries of Republican tradition, would not tolerate even the semblance of a tyrant. Or even worse, a King!
It was a bitterly ironic paradox, the lack of understanding of which proved the undoing of Julius Caesar:
“The Republic is nothing but a name, without substance or reality.”
[Suetonius, Julius Caesar 77]
In one sense, Caesar was correct; the Republic as Romans had known it for many centuries was certainly gone: no longer sustainable against the incessant, violent power rivalries of its own voracious elite. Men of equal title, rank, and ambition to any Caesar had long sought to harness the resources of the state to make war on their rivals in an ever-escalating pursuit of dominance. Rome made King’s Landing look like a kindergarten.
However, where Caesar was wrong – and this was crucial – was that the deeply ingrained sensibilities of the Roman Republic were certainly not dead. Those Republican orthodoxies formed arguably the very essence of Rome itself, and it was these values that Caesar ultimately failed to understand, though he attempted to pay them lip service:
“I am Caesar, and no King”
[Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 79]
Too little, too late, rang the unconvincing protestations of the imperial progenitor. Julius Caesar paid for his fundamental mistakes on the floor of the Senate House.
It was a lesson that no subsequent Roman emperors could dare ignore. How to square autocratic rule with the semblance of Republican freedom? It was a balancing act so complex, so potentially deadly, that it dominated the waking thoughts of every emperor. It was a problem so fearsomely difficult to square as to lead Tiberius to describe ruling as like:
“… holding a wolf by the ears.”
[Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, 25]
An emperor was only safely in control so far as he held power and guile not to release the unpredictable and savage animal that was Rome. Fail to dominate that beast, and he was as good as dead. Rome’s emperors truly were clinging to their lofty pinnacles.
1. Augustus [27 BCE – 14CE] – The Dilemma Of Augustus
Few historians believe that Augustus – the founding father of Imperial rule – can be listed as one of history’s reluctant Roman emperors. Quite the opposite, Augustus, more than any other figure, was the singular force credited with establishing the Principate (the new imperial system). Even Augustus, the acclaimed New Romulus and 2nd founder of a new Rome, faced the same dilemma as Roman emperors. Indeed, if we are to believe our sources, Augustus underwent more than one crisis of leadership:
“Twice he meditated giving up his absolute authority: first immediately after he put down Anthony; remembering that he had often charged him with being the obstacle to the restoration of the Republic: and second by reason of a long lingering illness where he sent for the magistrates and the Senate to his own household and delivered them a particular account of the state of the empire” [Suet, Life of Augustus, 28]
How heartfelt these deliberations were is open to debate? Augustus was, after all an acclaimed master of propaganda, and it is not inconceivable that we would seek to fashion himself as the ‘reluctant’ ruler: the father of his country, selflessly taking on the great weight of onerous rule for the common good. However, Augustus’s assertion was reticent also chimes with a sustained narrative in Cassius Dio’s history when he relays similar deliberations. In that account, Augustus and his closest associates actively considered the relinquishment of power and the re-establishment of the Republic:
“And you [as Emperor] must not be deceived either by the vast scope of its authority, or the magnitude of its possessions, or its host of bodyguards or its throng of courtiers. For men who take on great power take on many troubles; those who lay up great wealth are required to spend it on the same scale; the host of bodyguards is recruited because of the host of conspirators; and as for the flatterers, they would be more likely to destroy you than to preserve you. For all these reasons, no man who has given the matter due thought would desire to become supreme ruler.” [Cassius Dio, The Roman History 52.10.]”
So came the advice of Augustus’s right-hand man, the general Agrippa providing a distinct voice of caution.
Although the dialogue is imagined, its substance and reasoning are very real, and the passage cogently represents the dilemma that Augustus faced as the new ruler of Rome. But it was his other friend and associate Maecenas, taking on the role of pro-monarchist, that would carry the day:
“The question we are considering is not a matter of seizing hold of something, but of resolving not to lose it and thus exposing [ourselves] to further danger. For you will not be forgiven if you thrust the control of affairs into the hands of the populace, or even if you entrust it to some other man. Remember that many have suffered at your hands, that virtually all of them will lay claim to sovereign power and that none of them will be willing to let you go unpunished for your actions or survive as a rival.” [Cassius Dio, Roman Histories, LII.17]
It seems Maecenas well understood that it was not safe to let the savage wolf go. It was this reasoning that carried the day. A position echoed by the biographer Suetonius when he concluded:
“But, [Augustus] considering that it would be both hazardous to himself to return to the condition of a private person, and might be dangerous to the public to have the government again placed under the control of the people, resolved to keep it in his own hands, whether for his own good or that of the commonwealth, it is hard to say.” [Suet Aug 28]
Suetonius is ambiguous as to Augustus’s exact motivation – selfish or altruistic – but it is not unreasonable to assume that it was probably both. That he did not relinquish power and did everything possible to establish the power of the Principate ultimately speaks for itself. However, the debate and the angst were real, and it was conceivably a closely considered thing. In doing so, a mainstay of Imperial reality was established:
“Never let go of the wolf.”
The unhappy ghost of Julius Caesar stalked the night dreams of many a Roman prince.
2. Tiberius [14CE – 37CE] – The Recluse Emperor
The second emperor to Rome, Tiberius, had his own personal battle being a prince, and it is possible to see him as a very reluctant ruler of Rome. On at least two notable occasions, Tiberius shunned his princely status and withdrew entirely from public life. As the adopted son of Augusts, Tiberius was a very different kind of emperor.
Tiberius might not have come to power at all had it not been for the fact that Augustus’s natural heirs [his grandsons Lucius and Gaius Caesar] did not survive him. It’s arguable that even Augustus felt any love towards his number three choice:
“Oh, unhappy people of Rome to be ground by the jaws of such a slow devourer.” [Suetonius, Augustus, 21]
Characterized as moody and vindictive, on a personal level Tiberius is depicted as a difficult, detached man who took offense easily and held long-smoldering grudges. In his early rule, which started promisingly, he walked a delicate and often ambiguous path with the Senate and state, paying lip service to Republican freedoms:
“In a free state both the mind and tongue, ought to be free.” [Suet, Aug 28.]
He even feigned some reluctance in taking up the Principate, though the consensus was that this was not genuine:
“But grand sentiments of this kind sounded unconvincing. Besides, what Tiberius said, even when he did not aim at concealment, was – by habit or nature – always hesitant, always cryptic.” [Tacitus, Annals of Rome, 1.10]
Genuine or not, few if any senators felt confident enough to take him at his word and propose the restitution of the Republic. That would have been suicide, and thus did Tiberius hold power, though he pretended it was a burden:
“A good and useful prince, who you have invested with so great and absolute a power, ought to be a slave to the state, to the whole body of the people, and often to individuals likewise …” [Suet, Life of Tiberius, 29]
Such devotion to duty had not always been present. In analyzing Tiberius’s desire to rule, we cannot ignore that he utterly rejected royal life before his accession in a very public way.
The First Exile Of Tiberius
Before the death of Augustus’s heirs in 6 BCE, we are told that in an act of self-imposed exile, Tiberius suddenly and unexpectedly excused himself from Roman political life and took off to the island of Rhodes. There he lived for some years as a private citizen, rejecting all insignia of rank and effectively living as a private citizen. The sources make it clear that Tiberius left Roman political life very much of his own will and against that of both Emperor Augustus and his mother. Having spent two years on the island, Tiberius was rather caught-out when permission to return to Rome was not granted by Augustus, who was clearly not well-favored to his prodigal heir. Indeed, only after a total of eight years away, when Augustus’s natural heirs had perished, was Tiberius allowed to come back to Rome.
It was all a bit of a scandal, and the histories themselves do not offer much in the way of explanation. Was Tiberius seeking to avoid his infamous wife Julia (the original good time had by all), or was he, as reported ‘satiated with honors’? Perhaps he was actually seeking to distance himself from the dynastic succession politics that inevitably did not favor him at that time? It’s not entirely clear, but when set against his later reclusive behavior, a strong case can be made that Tiberius was indeed amongst the reluctant Roman emperors. He was a man who, more than once, utterly shunned the pressures of imperial life.
Prolonged Withdrawal Of An Unhappy Recluse
Although Tiberius began his reign solidly enough, our sources are clear that his rule deteriorated greatly, with the latter part descending into tense, bitter periods of political denunciations, false trials, and a malevolent rule. “Men Fit to be Slaves” was reportedly an insult that Tiberius frequently used against the Senators of Rome.
This being the reported insult that this Roman emperor frequently leveled at the Senators of Rome. Over several compounding years, Tiberius increasingly withdrew from Roman life and the capital, living first in Campania and then on Capri’s island, which became his private and secluded retreat. His rule descended into a most public rejection of Rome’s expected duties, and he prevented delegations from visiting him, ruling via agent, imperial edict, and messengers. All sources agree that the death of his son Drusus, then his mother, and the eventual coup [31BCE] of his most trusted praetorian prefect, Sejanus, the ‘partner of his labors’ on whom he relied heavily, all soured the emperor into deeper isolation and reproachful bitterness. Governed by grief and seclusion, Tiberius ruled reluctantly and at a distance, only returning to Rome on two occasions, but never actually entering the city.
Tiberius became a true recluse, that if vicious rumor in Rome was to be believed was an increasingly deranged deviant and doer of many distasteful acts (Suetonius’s accounts are shocking). Friendless and in weak health, Tiberius died of ill health, though there were rumors that he was eventually hastened on his way. The populace of Rome was said to have rejoiced at the news. Cicero would have disapproved, but he would not have been surprised:
“That is how a Tyrant lives – without mutual trust, without affection, without any assurance of mutual goodwill. In such a life suspicion and anxiety reign everywhere, and friendship has no place. For no one can love the person he fears – or the person he believes himself to be feared by. Tyrants are courted naturally: but the courting is insincere, and it only lasts for a time. When they fall, and they usually do, it becomes very evident how short of friends they have been.”
[Cicero, Laelius: On Friendship14.52]
It’s important to say that Tiberius is not viewed by history as one of history’s terrible Roman emperors. Although very unpopular, we must balance his relatively stable rule with the really destructive periods of reigns like that of Caligula or Nero. Well could Tacitus ask through the mouth of Lucius Arruntius:
“If Tiberius in spite of all his experience, has been transformed and deranged by absolute power, will Gaius [Caligula] do better?” [Tacitus, Annals, 6.49]
Oh, dear! This was a question so gloriously understated – in light of events – as to be funny in the darkest of ways. Caligula [37CE – 41CE], who succeeded Tiberius, was not at all reluctant, though the same could not be said of his many victims.
3. Claudius [41CE – 54CE] – The Emperor Dragged To The Throne
The last of the early Roman emperors we shall consider is Claudius, who, in a way quite different way from our previous examples, was quite literally dragged to the throne. I mean literally. A relatively moderate and well-reasoned emperor by reputation, Claudius came to power in his 50s, in an unexpected manner that was somewhat less than dignified and bore no bearing on his own wishes or aspirations.
It all followed perhaps the bloodiest rule of all Roman emperors, the reign of Caligula. It was a period of fewer than 4 years that has become synonymous to history with its acts of madness, erratic violence, and insane cruelty. By the year 41CE, something had to change, and it fell to a tribune of the Praetorian guard, Cassius Chaerea, who was wronged and maligned by the emperor. He led a conspiracy that would see Caligula violently cut down within his palace in Rome.
“What kinship does not face ruin and trampling down, the tyrant and the hangman? And these things are not separated by wide intervals: there is only a brief hour between sitting on a throne and kneeling to another.”
[Seneca, Dialogues: On Tranquility of Mind, 11]
Not since Julius Caesar in 44 BCE had Rome’s ruler been assassinated, openly, violently, and in cold blood.
For the much put-upon Claudius, uncle of Caligula, this was a defining and life-changing moment. Through the biographer Suetonius we learn that Claudius had himself been living on ‘borrowed time’ under his nephew’s rule. On a number of occasions, he had come close to real physical danger. Ruthlessly teased and attacked by court detractors, Claudius had endured a number of accusations and lawsuits that had even seen him made bankrupt: the object of ridicule at both the court and in the Senate. Few Roman emperors have known better than Claudius what it meant to live under the glare of imperial terror.
There is no suggestion that Claudius was part of the assassination that killed Caligula, but he was the immediate and unintended beneficiary. In one of the most famous and random incidents of imperial history, the cowering uncle, hiding in fear of his life, following the murder of Caligula, had authority very much thrust upon him:
“Being among others prevented from approaching [Caligula] by the conspirators, who dispersed the crowd, [Claudius] retired into an apartment called the Hermaeum, under color of a desire for privacy; and soon afterward, being terrified by the rumor of [Caligula’s] murder, he crept into an adjoining balcony, where he hid himself behind the hangings of the door. A common soldier who happened to pass that way, spied his feet and desirous of knowing who he was, pulled him out; when, immediately recognizing him, he threw himself in a great fright at his feet and saluted him by the title of emperor. He then conducted him to his fellow soldiers, who were all in a great rage and irresolute what they should do. They put him into a litter and as the slaves of the palace had all fled, took their turns in carrying them hither on their shoulders …” [Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 10]
Claudius was lucky to survive the night in such a volatile situation, and Suetonius makes clear that his very life hung in the balance until he was able to regain composure and negotiate with the Praetorians. Amongst the consuls and the Senate, there were conflicted moves to restore the Republic, but the Praetorians knew which side their bread was buttered on. A Republic does not need an imperial guard, and a negotiated donation of 1500 sesterces per man was enough to secure Praetorian loyalty and seal the deal. Rome’s fickle mob also clamored for a new emperor, and so carried the succession in Claudius’s favor.
As book-ended by the notorious reigns of Caligula, who preceded him and Nero, who followed him, Claudius went on to be amongst the well-regarded Roman emperors, though the women in his life bullied him. Whether he actually wished to rule or was just seeking to stay alive is a debated point, but few Roman emperors have been granted less agency in their accession to power. In that sense, he was indeed a reluctant emperor.
Conclusion On Reluctant Roman Emperors
For all their great power, Roman emperors had a difficult job. Whether we can ever know which rulers were truly reluctant and which were greedy for that power is debatable. What we can certainly discern is that most had a complex relationship with power. Whether it be the constitutional angst of an Augustus, the reclusive impulse of a Tiberius, or the physical dragging to the power of a Claudius, no rule was without its significant personal challenges. So perhaps can we appreciate the wisdom of Seneca, himself a victim of an emperor:
“We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds … One man is bound by high office, another by wealth: good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin in others: some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own: some are restricted to one place under exile, others by priesthoods; all life is a servitude.” [Seneca, Dialogues: On Tranquility of Mind, 10]
Roman emperors seemed all-powerful to the casual observer, but ever was their position actually vulnerable and fraught with complexity.
To ‘hold the wolf by the ears’ was inherently dangerous, and yet to reject that power could be more dangerous still. What looked like towering heights were indeed dangerous precipices. Being an emperor was a deadly job that not all men wanted.