How did the Roman Empire end up with so many maniacal leaders? The answer lies in the actions of Rome’s very first emperor, Augustus, and the precedent he established for how emperors were selected.
Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D.) brilliantly succeeded in figuring out how to single-handedly rule Rome without overtly seeming like a king. Despite this, his reign was marked by many other spectacular achievements.
Augustus brought peace and stability to the Roman world after an era of chaos and civil war. He patronized art and artists such as Virgil and Ovid, secured the borders and reformed the army, and reorganized Roman society, passing numerous laws intended to restore morality. He extensively rebuilt the city of Rome, in his own words “inheriting a city of brick, but leaving one built of marble.” Augustus became the inspiration and model for subsequent leaders.
However, there was one major flaw in his settlement of the empire: the issue of succession.
This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The Issue of Succession
Since there was no official position of emperor, there was nothing concrete to transfer to the next person. Even above the question of how to pass on the empire, there was the additionally vexing problem of how to select the best-qualified ruler.
What was the ideal method for choosing the next emperor? For better or worse, Augustus settled on the principle of heredity. The next emperor would be the nearest male blood relative to the previous one.
Augustus’s choice of heredity as the mechanism for succession was somewhat curious as he had no close male relatives. He had no sons from any of his three marriages, nor did he have any brothers. What he had to work with were three women: his sister, Octavia; his daughter, Julia; and his third wife, Livia.
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Promising Heirs: Marcellus and Agrippa
Augustus looked first to his sister Octavia, who had a promising heir in her teenage son, Marcellus. To solidify Marcellus as his heir, Augustus forced his 14-year-old daughter Julia to marry Marcellus in 25 B.C. Augustus then began grooming Marcellus to take over, appointing him—despite his youth—to several government posts, so that he would gain experience and respect as a leader.
Marcellus was bright and popular, and his future seemed promising. Two years later, however, Marcellus caught an illness, and unexpectedly died when he was just 19 years old.
Augustus next focused his attention on his loyal friend and general, Agrippa, who had played a key role in Augustus’s rise to power and had effectively served as his second-in-command. Eighteen-year-old Julia was compelled to marry 43-year-old Agrippa, making the general Augustus’s heir.
Even though the two men were the same age, everyone assumed that Agrippa would outlive the current emperor. Augustus had always been sickly, whereas Agrippa had a robust constitution. Agrippa was highly competent, extremely experienced, and widely respected.
Everything once again seemed fine—until Agrippa unexpectedly died in 12 B.C.
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Adopted Sons: Gaius and Lucius
All was not lost, however, because the union of Agrippa and Julia had produced two sons, Gaius and Lucius.
Augustus was very fond of these grandsons. He pushed the Senate to grant them extraordinary honors. The boys were featured on coins, touted as the “young principes,” and given important military and political posts. Gaius was appointed to the consulship, the highest office in the government, at the tender age of 20.
To make the succession even clearer, Augustus adopted Gaius and Lucius as his own. Despite their privileged upbringing, both boys seemed stable and promising.
In 2 A.D., while en route to Spain to gain additional military experience, Lucius fell ill and died at the age of 19. There was still his brother, Gaius, who had already served in numerous military and government posts. However, just 18 months later, Gaius was slightly wounded in a skirmish in Armenia. Though not serious, the injury did not heal properly. Gaius fell ill and shortly thereafter, died in 4 A.D. at the age of 23 years old.
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Augustus had to begin again and select another heir. By now it was an issue of some urgency since Augustus himself was 66 years old and had never been particularly healthy.
All attempts by Augustus to find an heir had thus far focused on his family, the Julian family. Now, he had run out of close male Julians. The only remaining male even remotely connected to Augustus was his stepson from Livia: Tiberius Claudius Nero.
After the death of Agrippa, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania, Agrippa’s daughter, whom he loved, to marry the widowed Julia. The hapless Julia was also less than thrilled with this arrangement. Augustus disliked Tiberius, but he now had little choice but to adopt Tiberius as his son and promote him as heir to the throne.
Resentful of being repeatedly used as a dynastic pawn, Julia sought happiness by having many affairs. This enraged the image-conscious Augustus since her behavior undermined his desire to present his own family as a model of propriety. He responded by banishing his daughter to a tiny island less than a square mile in area.
By marrying Julia, Tiberius became at the same time Augustus’s son by adoption, his stepson by marriage, and his son-in-law by marriage. It was also a union between stepsiblings. By this convoluted path, Augustus ended up promoting a member of the Claudian family, rather than the Julian one, as his heir.
Augustus Sets a Precedent
Throughout all of this, Augustus steadfastly persisted in basing the succession on the principle of heredity. Thus, he set the precedent for how future emperors would be chosen. They would be the nearest male blood relative, another characteristic of a monarchy.
Augustus surprised everyone by living a long time. He finally died in 14 A.D. of natural causes at the ripe age of 75.
The moment of Augustus’s death was perhaps the best opportunity to restore the Roman Republic. However, Augustus had ruled so long that no one was left alive who could remember the old Republic.
The sheer length of Augustus’s reign is one of the main reasons why the system he set up took hold so strongly and became the model for future rulers of Rome.
Common Questions About Roman Emperor Augustus
Augustus became the first Roman Emperor after defeating Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium. As he was heir to Julius Caesar, he had a claim.
Augustus’ greatest contributions were to unite the nations of Rome under Pax Romana, ending the civil wars, and to establish civil services such as fire fighting and police jobs available to any citizen who could do them. He made roads and established a standing army.
Augustus died of natural causes at the age of 75 in 14 C.E.