I was thrilled to see that The Teaching Company has added a 36-lecture series on the Roman Emperors to their Classics offerings. I've already received mine and look forward to listening to it.
"They are said to be the most powerful rulers who ever lived—a checkered mix of the wise, the brutal, and the unhinged. For more than five centuries they presided over a multi-ethnic empire that was nearly always at war, if not with neighbors then with rebellious factions within the empire itself. The full scope of their powers was not systematized in constitutional law, a fact that tempted many of them to overreach disastrously; and the lack of clear rules of succession meant that most of them died violently.
Yet, on balance, the emperors of Rome served as a stabilizing influence in a realm that straddled three continents and covered more than 32 modern nation-states, with a population numbering about 60 million souls at the height of Roman prosperity.
Rulers Treated as Gods
How did this system of rule come about? What did it replace? And who were the colorful, cruel, and crafty men who filled this almost omnipotent post? Television series such as I, Claudius have explored the complex personalities of several of the better-known emperors, whom you will meet in depth in this course:
- Augustus: Known as Octavian during the long civil wars that extinguished the Roman Republic, he titled himself "Augustus," the first emperor of Rome, after vanquishing all rivals and becoming the undisputed strong man of the sprawling empire.
- Caligula: Supposedly the most deranged Roman emperor of all, Caligula executed people indiscriminately, sent his troops on nonsensical maneuvers, and famously invited his favorite horse to dinner and planned to make him consul. But were his crimes exaggerated by ancient sources?
- Claudius: Reputedly a halfwit who was named Caligula's successor by the imperial guards on a whim, Claudius may actually have connived in Caligula's murder and arranged his own elevation. Whatever his route to power, his reign was surprisingly successful.
- Nero: As emperor, Nero performed in chariot races, dramas, and poetry recitals. The "fiddle" he reportedly played while Rome burned was actually a lyre, but the mystery remains: Did he set the fire himself, was it an accident, or were the Christians really responsible, as he claimed?
- Trajan: Moderate at home and warlike abroad, Trajan was the perfect mix of Roman virtues. His reign inaugurated the period of the empire's greatest strength and stability, when emperors adopted their successors from among able army commanders. But that sensible policy did not last.
- Commodus: The son of the esteemed philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus believed himself to be Hercules reincarnated—a role he enacted in the Colosseum in combats with wild beasts and gladiators. He renamed Rome and all the months of the year after himself.
- Diocletian: The Roman Empire seemed doomed to disintegration until this general rose to the top job. He subdivided imperial authority, established a new system of succession, and institutionalized the despotic powers of his office, giving the empire a new lease on life.
- Constantine: The first Christian emperor was apparently reluctant to forsake the old pagan gods; they continued to appear in official iconography. But Constantine's endorsement of Christianity and his founding of a new capital called Constantinople opened a new era of Western history.