Transitions of power were rarely smooth in ancient Rome.
Firstly, the Roman Republic operated on an electoral system so complicated that it makes the US Electoral College or British Parliament seem as sensible as they are logical. The Republic’s many voting comittees, assemblies and colleges, where different social classes carried varyingly weighted votes, opened the way for corruption and meant that a small group of rivalling families were able to monopolize power for most of the Republican period. Superficially, Rome was fairly democratic: politicians would canvas and conduct their business in the public eye in the Roman Forum. In reality, the big decisions were taken behind closed doors, over banquets and at social events.
Secondly, the Roman army – the vehicle through which ambitious generals secured control over Rome – found itself increasingly loyal to individuals rather than the State. Why? Because it was individual generals and politicians (they were one and the same in Rome) that guaranteed their veterans their pensions – normally in the form of land. And as the Roman Empire’s territory expanded, and its coffers grew fuller, so too did the stakes among those vying for its control.
The period from the end of the Repblic and beginning of the Empire (the turn of the 1st century BC – AD) furnished some paricularly violent transitions of power. Take the case of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.
The Death of Caesar; the Rise of Augustus
Augustus’ propulsion into political life came in the wake of the assassination of his adopted father, Julius Caesar, in 44 BC.
Caesar’s body was not yet cold on the marble floor of Pompey’s Senate House when his assassins started claiming they had acted for the good of the Republic. Eliminating a dictator who threatened to transform the Roman Republic into a Roman autocracy.
Their was some truth to their claim, of course, but in reality Caesar’s senatorial assassins had murdered Caesar to secure their own positions of power. The people saw through this. Caesar had been immensley popular, and his right-hand man, Mark Antony, played on his popularity to stoke public sentiment against his assassins.
His assassins were forced to flee the city and later take up arms against his allies.
Augustus would eventually emerge as Rome’s sole ruler. But it took a bloody civil war and a brutal campaign, in which he and his allies posted lists of their enemies names in the Roman Forum and quite literally paid for their heads to be delivered to them on spikes, before Rome returned to any semblance of stable leadership.
The accession of Augustus, the first Julio-Claudian emperor, offers an example of a violent transition of power – in the form of a painful and protacted regime change and the estabilshment of an autocracy in place of a faltering democracy. But just as power can linger, so too can it simply vanish. As in the case of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians.
The Accession of Nero: a new Golden Age
Nero’s accession in 54 AD had been heralded as a Golden Age for Rome – the first since Augustus came to power, more than 80 years earlier. Nero was just 16 when he inherited the throne from Claudius. He was full of promise, surrounded by wonderful advisors including his tutor, the stoic philosopher Seneca, and the stalwart head of the Praetorian Guard, Burrus.
It was not just Seneca and Burrus reining Nero in. The emperor had his mother, Agrippina, to keep him in check, restraining his teenage urges while she and her son’s counsel got on with the business of ruling the Roman Empire.
For a time, they managed. Nero was kept as a figurehead and left to indulge his passions of singing and chariot-racing while his mother and his advisors exercised real power at court. But teenagers can be petulant, as as the de facto ruler of the Roman world Nero soon learned that when push came to shove, as emperor he could always get his way.
Eventually Nero decided to do away with his mother for good. After failing to drown her in a lake on a ship rigged to collapse, he had her stabbed to death at Misenum. Burrus and Seneca, once complicit in her death, would go on to share her fate, and by the 60s Nero’s reign had descended into a regime of terror.
Problematically for Nero, while the people may have found his performances on stage and at the races entertaining, the culturally conservative Roman aristoracy did not. A series of domestic disasters (the Great Fire of Rome and a senatorial conspiracy) and foreign policy blunders (the Boudica Revolt and Jewish War) marked Nero’s card among would-be rivals to the throne. Then came the final straw – a punitive tax policy levied on the provinces in 68 AD.
Nero’s fall and the Illusion of Power
One of the governors of Gaul, Julius Vindex, revolted, calling on the Spanish governor, Galba, to join him. Vindex was quickly defeated in battle, committing suicide soon after, but Galba’s revolt gained momentum. Nero had the Senate declare Galba an enemy of the state, but this did nothing to detract from the support.
Nero soon found that the tide of popular opinion had turned against him. Support quickly ebbed away from the emperor as it became clear that Galba represented Rome’s future while Nero provided an unwelcome reminder of its past. Before long the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state, and the emperor was left scrambling.
The ancient biographer Suetonius provides a beautifully vivid description of how Nero reacted to his sudden abbandonment by the Senate and People of Rome, and his half-baked plans to avoid another one of Rome’s transitions of power:
“He turned over various plans in his mind: whether to go as a suppliant to the Parthians or Galba, or to appear to the people on the rostra, dressed in black, and beg as pathetically as he could for pardon for his past offences; and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt. Afterwards a speech composed for this purpose was found in his writing desk; but it is thought that he did not dare to deliver it for fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.“
The passage captures Nero’s sheer panic, and his desparation to cling on to vestige of power (even as Prefect of Egypt, if not as emperor). But it is this next passage that packs the hardest punch: showing how, once the illusion of power has been shattered, not even former friends and followers can be relied on:
“Having therefore put off further consideration to the following day, he awoke about midnight and finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends. Since no reply came back from anyone, he went himself to their room with a few followers. But finding that all the doors were closed and that no one replied to him, he returned to his own chamber, from which now the very caretakers had fled, taking with them even the bed-clothing and the box of poison. Then he at once called for the gladiator Spiculus or any other adept at whose hand he might find death, and when no one appeared, he cried “Have I then neither friend nor foe?”
Before the day was out, Nero lay dead. Hiding out in his freedman’s villa just outside the city, and fearing he would be captured at any moment and made to face a public execution, he lamented what an amazing visionary the world was about to lose before driving a dagger into his own neck.
The reaction to his death was mixed. Many celebrated in Rome’s streets, trashing his statues and erasing his portraiture. Others laid wreaths at his tomb or continued to sow confusion by issuing decrees in his name. Most curiously of all, the ancient authors have left us accoutns of ‘false Neros’ – men who pretended to be the former emperor, and ventured East to Parthia to earn fortunes from his name.
Galba didn’t fare much better. Nor did the other two emperors who briefly occupied the throne between 68-9 AD (a period known as the Year of the Four Emperors). After a year of brutal civil war, it was another aristocrat, Flavius Vespasian, who was the last man left stanting. We know him best today as the man who funded the Colosseum.
Politics may have become less violent in recent years, but it is no less brutal. Power rests only with those who are perceived to possess it, and once its illusion is shattered, and the pomp and ceremony stripped away, those who lose are left with nothing but their reputations at the hands of those who write the history.
Written by Alexander Meddings