History for the Rest of Us

Great Fire of Rome

Great Fire of Rome

Jul 13, 2013

On July 19, 64 AD the Great Fire of Rome began in the merchant area of the city and burned for six days. Three of Rome’s fourteen districts were ‘leveled to the ground’ and seven others were reduced ‘to a few scorched and mangled ruins’ according to Tacitus. There are contradictory accounts explaining the cause of the fire. Rumors were rampant that Nero had sent men into the city to set it on fire, while he sang songs of the destruction of Troy and played on his lyre. The following verse, orally conveyed or posted on a city wall at the time, expresses the sentiment of residents of the city: Though Nero may pluck the cords of a lyre, And the Parthian King the string of a bow, He who chants to the lyre with heavenly fire Is Apollo as much as his far-darting foe. Suetonius indicated that ‘Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called the “beauty of the flames”; then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang The Sack of Ilium from beginning to end’. Some believed that the fire was an accident. Tacitus says that Nero wasn’t in Rome when the fire started but was in Antium, returning only when the fire threatened a mansion he had built. Many inhabitants of the city were further convinced that the fires should be attributed to Nero when he decided to build the ‘Domus Aurea’, his ‘Golden House’, a massive palace complex, on the site. Nero placed blame on the Christians as indicated by Tacitus. ‘…to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians’. Related Stories: Temple of Mars Ultor Nerva Forum of Nerva Forum of Trajan Belly Button of Rome Elsewhere on the Web: Yale Courses:Notorious Nero and his Amazing Architectural Legacy Items from the Creating History...

Tiberius’ Path to Emperor

Tiberius’ Path to Emperor

Mar 6, 2013

Ancestry Tiberius was born on the Palatine, November 16, 42 BC. His father, Tiberius Claudius Nero, came from the respected Claudian line; and his mother was Livia Drusilla who a few years after Tiberius’ birth hastily divorced her husband and married Octavian (Augustus) in a politically expedient marriage. Marcus Agrippa Notwithstanding the fact that Tiberius was now well placed, in the eyes of Augustus there was a long line of successors standing between Tiberius and the throne. When Augustus thought he was dying in 23 BC, he passed his signet ring to Marcus Agrippa. The initial indications were that there would be a power struggle between Agrippa, his trusted friend, and Marcellus his son-in-law (husband of Julia) and nephew (son of his sister Octavia). But late in 23 BC Marcellus fell ill and died, strenthening Agrippa’s position to become the next Emperor. This position was strengthened further when Augustus had Agrippa divorce his wife and marry Augustus’ newly widowed daughter Julia. Three Potential Heirs The marriage produced three potential heirs for Augustus, Gaius born in 20 BC, Lucius born in 17 BC, and Agrippa Postumus born in 12 BC shortly after the death of Agrippa. Augustus realized that with his friend Agrippa dead, if he should die, his grandsons would be without a guardian. To remedy the situation, he forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania (who was a daughter of Agrippa) and marry the again widowed Julia. The marriage took place on February 12, 11 BC. The heirs now had an additional guardian, however this wouldn’t protect them from the fate that would befall them. Lucius died 20 August 2 AD, and his brother Gaius died a year and a half later on 21 February 4 AD. Removal of a Final Rival Six days after the death of Gaius, Augustus adopted Tiberius and Agrippa Postumus who was then only 15 years old. Tiberius was now on the short list to become Emperor. Within three years, Agrippa Postumus was exiled. The reasons are unclear for his exile. Tacitus indicates that it was due to being shunned and disliked by Livia particularly since he was the only thing standing in the way of her son becoming Emperor....

Nero Becomes Emperor

Nero Becomes Emperor

Dec 15, 2012

A.D. 54 Claudius is sick. Agrippina’s joy. About one year after Nero’s marriage to Octavia the emperor Claudius was suddenly taken sick. On learning this, Agrippina was very much excited and very much pleased. If the sickness should result in the emperor’s death, her son she thought would immediately succeed him. Every thing had been long since fully arranged for such a result, and all was now ready, she imagined, for the change. Her schemes. Estimation in which Nero was held. It is true that Nero was still very young, but then he was uncommonly mature both in mind and in person, for one of his years; and the people had been accustomed for some time to look upon him as a man. Among other means which Agrippina had resorted to for giving an appearance of manliness and maturity to the character of her son, she had brought him forward in the Roman Forum as a public advocate, and he had made orations there in several instances, with great success. He had been well instructed in those studies which were connected with the art of oratory, and as his person and manners were agreeable, and his countenance intelligent and prepossessing, and especially as the confidence which he felt in his powers gave him an air of great self-possession and composure, the impression which he made was very favorable. The people were in fact predisposed to be pleased with and to applaud the efforts of a young orator so illustrious in rank and station—and the ability which he displayed, although he was so young, was such as to justify, unquestionably, in some degree, the honors that they paid him. Agrippina considers herself in danger. Agrippina, therefore, supposing that her son was now far enough advanced in public consideration to make it in some degree certain that he would be the emperor’s successor, was ready at any time for her husband to die. His sickness therefore filled her mind with excitement and hope. There was another motive too, besides her ambitious desires for the advancement of her son, that made her desirous that Claudius should not live. She had been now for several months somewhat solicitous...

Caesar Augustus

Caesar Augustus

Sep 21, 2012

63 B.C.-14 A.D. Caius Julius Cæsar Octavianus Augustus, son of Caius Octavius and Atia (Julius Cæsar’s niece), was born in 63 B.C. He was the first and greatest of the Roman emperors, in his way perhaps fully as great as his adoptive father, Julius Cæsar. The Octavian family came originally from Velitræ, in the country of the Volsci; and the branch to which Augustus belonged was rich and honorable. His father had risen to the rank of senator and prætor, but died in the prime of life, when Augustus was only four years old. Augustus was carefully educated in Rome under the guardianship of his mother and his step-father; and his talents recommended him to his great-uncle, Julius Cæsar, who adopted him as his son and heir. At the time of Cæsar’s assassination (44 B.C.), Augustus was a student under the celebrated orator Apollodorus, at Apollonia in Illyricum, whither, however, he had been sent chiefly to gain practical instruction in military affairs. He returned to Italy, and now first learning that he was his uncle’s heir, assumed the name of Julius Cæsar Octavianus. The soldiers at Brundusium saluted him as Cæsar, but he declined their offers, and entered Rome almost alone. The city was at this time divided between the republicans and the friends of Mark Antony, but the latter, by adroit manœuvres, had gained the ascendency, and enjoyed almost absolute power. At first, Augustus was haughtily treated by Antony, who refused to surrender Cæsar’s property; but after some fighting, in which Antony was worsted and forced to flee across the Alps, Augustus, who had made himself a favorite with the people and the army, obtained the consulship and carried out Cæsar’s will. He found an able advocate in Cicero, who at first had regarded him with contempt. To himself the great orator seemed to be laboring in behalf of the republic, whereas he really was only an instrument for raising Augustus to supreme power. When Antony returned from Gaul with Lepidus, Augustus threw off the republican mask, and joined them in establishing a triumvirate. He obtained Africa, Sardinia, and Sicily; Antony, Gaul; and Lepidus, Spain. Their power was soon made absolute by the...

Trajan

Trajan

Sep 19, 2012

On September 18, 53 AD, Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born at Italica near Seville. He would become the Emperor Trajan, the first roman emperor of non-Italian origin. His father had both a distinguished military career and civil career, commanding the Tenth Legion during the Jewish War in 67 and 68 AD, and serving as consul around 70 AD. Trajan followed in the footsteps of his father. He served as military tribune under his father in the 70s and became commander of the Seventh Legion by the late 80s. After marching to the aid of Domitian in early 89 he found favor with the Emperor and was selected as praetor in 85 AD and consul in 91 AD. When Nerva became emperor in 96 AD, Trajan was appointed governor of Upper Germany. A mutiny by the Praetorian Guard under Casperius Aelianus in October of 97 forced the ailing Nerva to adopt an heir. After some deliberation, and according to some, the non-passive activities of Trajan’s friends at Rome, Nerva adopted Trajan as his successor. When Nerva died on January 28, 98 AD, Trajan first secured his affairs on the Rhine and Danube frontiers and then returned to Rome. It was more than a year after he became emperor, in the late summer of 99 AD, when he arrived at Rome. The citizens showed up in large numbers to welcome him. He made his entrance modestly on foot, mingling with the commoners and embracing the senators along the way. Trajan clearly had the support of the senate as is evident from Pliny’s Panegyric, a speech of praise delivered to the senate on September 1, 100 AD. The expanded published version of the speech would have taken approximately six hours to deliver. Trajan excelled at warfare and was renowned for his military exploits. He was very popular with the troops, probably due to his willingness to endure hardship and danger along with those under his command. He was also recognized as a great builder. Trajan’s Forum, the largest of the imperial fora, was viewed as one of the architectural wonders of the world during his time. He also built Trajan’s market, the world’s first multi-level shopping mall;...

Justinian the Great

Justinian the Great

Sep 6, 2012

EMPEROR FROM 527-565 A.D. In the time of Clovis the country now called Bulgaria was inhabited by Goths. One day a poor shepherd boy, about sixteen years of age, left his mountain home in that country to go to the city of Constantinople, which was many miles away. The boy had no money to pay the expenses of the journey, but he was determined to go, even though he should have to walk every step of the road and live on fruits that he could gather by the way. He was a bright, clever boy who had spent his life hitherto in a village, but was now eager to go out into the world to seek his fortune. Some years before, this boy’s uncle, who was named Justin, had gone to Constantinople and joined the Roman army. He was so brave and so good a soldier that he soon came to be commander of the imperial guard which attended the emperor. The poor shepherd boy had heard of the success of his uncle, and this was the reason why he resolved to set off for the big city. So he started down the mountain and trudged along the valley in high hope, feeling certain that he would reach the end of his journey in safety. It was a difficult and dangerous journey, and it took him several weeks, for he had to go through dark forests and to cross rivers and high hills; but at last one afternoon in midsummer he walked through the main gate of Constantinople, proud and happy that he had accomplished his purpose. He had no trouble in finding his Uncle Justin; for everybody in Constantinople knew the commander of the emperor’s guards. And when the boy appeared at the great man’s house and told who he was, his uncle received him with much kindness. He took him into his own family, and gave him the best education that could be had in the city. As the boy was very talented and eager for knowledge he soon became an excellent scholar. He grew up a tall, good-looking man, with black eyes and curly hair, and he was always richly dressed....