Mothers and Emperors

Agrippina crowning her son Nero emperor of Rome, 54 CE; relief from the Sebasteion, an excavated temple in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey
Carole Raddato/Aphrodisias Museum, Turkey
Agrippina crowning her son Nero emperor of Rome, 54 CE; relief from the Sebasteion, an excavated temple in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey

For ninety-nine years a single family ruled Rome. Five of its members in turn controlled the government and the army. But this was not a monarchy: none ruled by right, and the institutions of the old Roman republic remained in place—the consuls, the Senate, even the elections.

This peculiar regime owed its origins to one remarkable man. Gaius Octavius Thurinus was just a teenager when he abandoned the quiet life of the Roman landed gentry in 44 BCE to take up arms against the assassins of his great-uncle Julius Caesar, who had adopted him in his will. For the next thirteen years he fought Caesar’s enemies and then his own. He took advantage of his adoptive father’s posthumous deification to assume a new name: Imperator Caesar Divi Filius—“General Caesar, son of a god.” And finally, in 31 BCE, when he was thirty-one, he defeated the combined fleet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium to win control of the Roman Empire.

He governed the Roman state for forty-six years through a series of familiar Republican appointments, but outside their traditional restrictions. At first he served continuously as consul, by tradition a one-year post. After eight years he vacated that office but retained the powers of a tribune of the plebs, which allowed him to veto in the interests of the Roman people any legislation, election, or administrative action. At the same time, he transformed Rome’s conscript citizen militia into a standing professional army, which he controlled, since the Senate had granted him military powers throughout the empire greater than those of any other commander. The term he used to describe his anomalous position was Princeps, or “First Man,” and in 27 BCE the Senate awarded him the title Augustus, “consecrated,” the name by which he is known today.

Dictatorship is one thing, dynasty quite another. The Romans had forcibly expelled their monarchy in the sixth century BCE and could not stomach its return. Athough Augustus enthusiastically promoted family members to positions of political and military power, he publicly denied any dynastic ambitions. Perhaps he was telling the truth: succession planning is not the only possible explanation for the preferment of one’s own family. Even on his deathbed in 14 CE, he was said to have been discussing a variety of senators as possible successors. But with his demise, and after a show of great reluctance, his stepson Tiberius took power.

Tiberius was by then an experienced general and politician in his mid-fifties, but he had in the past shown hesitation…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.