I will be dealing with sweeping statements and unsupported generalisations here, in order to get through about eight hundred years in a few paragraphs.
There will be holes in these statements which you could drive a bus through. Please don’t hold that against me!
Traditionally, the founding of Rome was dated to 753 BC. Nobody knows if this was true, but in some ways it doesn’t matter.
The important fact is that dates were all given as ‘AVC’ (ab urbe condita , or ‘after the founding of the city’). This says a lot about the importance of Rome to the Roman people.
In the earliest days of Rome, the city was ruled by kings. There are legends about the kings, but few (possibly no) proven facts. The only thing we can say for sure was that later Romans believed in the kings.
The kings were strong, and wise, and great leaders. But then they became petty and cruel and dangerous. Sound familiar? It’s a common theme in myth/history.
The end of the kings
The kings were overthrown: the last king was killed by a man called Brutus, for the crime of raping another man’s wife.
Again, this may not have happened. The important thing is that later Romans cared about this story, and valued it as part of their identity.
These letters, found everywhere in ancient and even modern Rome, stand for Senatus populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and the People of Rome’.
This is a Roman statement of values and identity: they were a people governed by the Senate and the People. This was a statement that they would no longer be ruled by one man.
For centuries Rome was governed by a Republic. It wasn’t a democracy as we would understand it: the main concern was not equal rights for all, but the distribution of power away from a single ruler.
So key positions (such as consul) could only be held for a year, or a couple of years in exceptional circumstances.
There was a position, known as ‘dictator’, which allowed one man to take charge in a time of crisis; but again, this was a fixed-term position.
The Civil Wars
Eventually, some generals started to claim more power than they were constitutionally allowed to hold, and with armies at their backs they started civil wars.
The civil wars continued, on and off, for several generations, until there were people in Rome who had known nothing but war, siege and famine their whole lives.
For a while, it looked like one man might actually win the civil wars and bring peace. Julius Caesar was a brilliant general, a charismatic speaker and an aristocrat descended from the Julian line: he ticked all the boxes.
Unfortunately in his entourage he had a Brutus, descended from the Brutus who killed the last king; and Julius Caesar was starting to act a bit too much like a king. So Brutus and his confederates assassinated him, and the wars began again.
Enter Octavian, nephew of Julius and everything that Julius wasn’t. He was a bit weedy, not particularly well-known, and relied on his generals to fight his campaigns for him – but he was an absolute genius at politics and political spin.
Octavian and his supporters won against Brutus and his supporters – but then they proceeded to do what no-one else had done. They won power and then they kept it.
Octavian changed his name to Augustus, and decreed a policy of clemency – he publicly and ostentatiously forgave those who had fought against him.
People started to relax, for the first time in generations. Augustan clemency was hugely important to many people, and there was a wave of gratitude and support for him.
Emperors and Kings
Augustus was smart, and cautious – and his uncle had been assassinated for acting like a king. So he didn’t – he kept up appearances. He was merely first among equals, steering the Republic towards a better future.
Augustus’ achievement in reconciling the Roman people to one-man rule should not be underestimated.
Augustus was careful, but after decades of his almost unchallenged power, eventually everyone accepted that he and he alone was in charge.
He tried to leave the system that he’d built to his successors – but the problem was that none of his successors had been born to it, and none of them possessed the same combination of ruthlessness and guile which secured Augustus the Empire.
All of the Julio-Claudians failed in some area, weakening the system.
Tiberius was a general, and a good one. He struggled with politics, and tried to hide out in his holiday home at Capri.
Caligula was young, inexperienced, and undoubtedly unstable. That was very messy.
Claudius was disabled (exactly how is a matter for debate), ignored, and treated as a joke. He was intelligent, possibly even wise, but PR was a problem, and he made some very bad choices in his personal life.
Nero started out well, but something went wrong, and his decisions became erratic. Eventually he was assassinated, and the civil wars began again.
Historians have agendas. For instance:
- Livy states his intention of showing examples of what to follow and what to avoid: he presents extreme and antithetical pictures.
- Tacitus is pro-Republican: he has a personal stake in presenting emperors as ‘bad’.
- Suetonius is a biographer, not a historian. Biographies were supposed to be entertaining, so Suetonius offers rumours and scandals.