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Emperors of Rome

Emperors of Rome

Professor Garrett G. Fagan Ph.D.
The Pennsylvania State University
Course No.  3410
Course No.  3410
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

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.

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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, Claudiushave 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?

Presented by noted Roman historian Garrett G. Fagan, whose other Teaching Company courses, The History of Rome and Great Battles of the Ancient World, have brought antiquity vividly to life for spellbound listeners, these 36 lectures show that there is no end of gripping stories. More than 50 legitimate emperors ruled Rome from the time of Augustus at the turn of the 1st century to the reign of Constantine in the 4th century, which marked the transition to the Middle Ages.

What sort of men were the emperors (and they were all men)? What background and training, if any, prepared them for their awesome responsibilities? What depravities did they display? And what achievements can they claim: laws passed, monuments built, lands and peoples conquered? Some of the most noteworthy emperors include:

  • 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.

You will cover scores of other Roman rulers, some of whom lasted only a few weeks before they were done in by rivals for a position that conferred virtual divinity in this life—although the chances that the life would be a long one were not good.

Sleuthing the Past

Throughout the course, Professor Fagan emphasizes the detective work needed to read the ancient sources critically. Roman history is an amalgam of eyewitness reports, later compilations, archaeological remains, and inscriptions on monuments and coins. Contemporary accounts, when available, are not necessarily to be trusted, since the emperors' greatest political rivals were usually members of the Senate, and they were the ones most likely to be writing history. Therefore scathing reports on imperial conduct have to be read with caution.

One result is that some of our most indelible impressions about Roman imperial history may be wrong. Was Nero really a frivolous fool for devoting himself to performing on stage? So the ancient sources would have it. However, in Lecture 14 you learn how a modern historian makes an intriguing case that Nero was a shrewd master of spin, choosing his stage roles to convey exculpatory messages to the Roman people.

Similarly, did Livia Drusilla really poison or otherwise dispose of all the princes that stood in the way of her son Tiberius's succession to the emperorship after Augustus? The ancient historian Tacitus certainly gives this impression, which is chillingly conveyed by the actress Siân Phillips in the PBS adaptation of Robert Graves's novel I, Claudius. But Professor Fagan suggests that the case against Livia is weak and can be traced to her particular circumstances as well as to broader cultural prejudices against women in her position.

From Princeps to Dominus

Livia's prominence illustrates another characteristic of the Roman Empire: Aristocratic women often played a powerful role in dynastic politics. This is one of the fascinating background topics that Professor Fagan investigates to show what life was like not just for the emperor but also for those in his immediate circle and for his subjects.

In Lectures 27–31 you take a break from the chronological narrative to examine the emperors' relationships to different parts of Roman society: the city of Rome itself, the provinces of the empire, the elite, the people, and the army. For example, you learn that games and spectacles were one of the few places where ordinary citizens saw the emperor in person, and they would take advantage of this audience to organize demonstrations of their political views. Despite occasional signs of unrest, unpopularity was something emperors could live with. Not a single emperor in recorded Roman history was ousted by popular revolution.

One of the most intriguing questions about the emperorship is why it endured for so long. As you witness the reigns of the successive rulers unfold, you will see how the office evolved with the political forces that sustained it, becoming more and more tightly bound to the military. Each step toward despotism was taken with a view toward expedience. But when that step became the new normal, it paved the way for the next step, and so on, until Rome had moved from Augustus, who styled himself the princeps, or "first citizen," to Diocletian and Constantine, who ruled as the domini—lords over slaves.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    The Shape of Roman Imperial History
    After outlining the plan of the course and defining Roman imperial history, Professor Fagan will survey the types of ancient sources that shed light on Rome's emperors. These include literary works, official inscriptions, physical remains of structures erected by emperors, and coins stamped with imperial messages. x
  • 2
    The Roman Republic
    Before there were emperors, there was the Roman Republic, founded in 509 B.C. after a period of autocratic rule by kings. This lecture investigates the political character of the republic. As the 2nd century B.C. drew to a close, its institutions were under increasing stress from Rome's expanding empire. x
  • 3
    Caesar and the Suicide of the Republic
    Starting in 133 B.C. the Roman Re­pub­lic began to disintegrate, sowing the seeds of imperial rule. Although the great general and politician Julius Caesar was not an emperor, he did more than anyone in this period to create the conditions that led to the reintroduction of monarchy to Rome. x
  • 4
    The First Emperor—Augustus
    The importance of Augustus to Roman and European history cannot be overstated. This lecture explores Augustus's career, from avenging revolutionary to senior statesman, and briefly surveys the main thrust of his domestic policies and the broad shape of culture in the Augustan Age. x
  • 5
    The Powers of Augustus
    This lecture surveys the series of constitutional settlements that saw Augustus established as a super-magistrate, simultaneously part of and above the organs of state—a system termed the Principate. You will also look beyond the legal frontage of the Principate and uncover the harsh realities of imperial rule. x
  • 6
    Succession Woes
    The nature of the Principate was a mix of authoritarian and republican practices; so it was difficult for Augustus to secure the succession legally. The succession problem proved a destabilizing influence during his reign and was to remain so for his successors for centuries to come. x
  • 7
    Livia Drusilla, Empress of Rome
    Augustus's wife, Livia Drusilla, was easily the most powerful woman in Roman history to date. You will examine the roles of aristocratic women in the republic and under the empire. The rumor that Livia arranged the deaths of a long string of rivals to ensure her son Tiberius's succession is probably exaggerated. x
  • 8
    The Early Years of Tiberius
    On the death of Augustus in A.D. 14, Tiberius succeeded to the emperorship with the understanding that his popular nephew, Germanicus, would be his heir. Five years later Germanicus died under mysterious circumstances. A newly discovered inscription in Spain sheds intriguing light on these events. x
  • 9
    The Would-Be Emperor—Sejanus
    In this lecture, you meet one of the most odious figures in Roman history: Sejanus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus used his influence with Tiberius, a few well-planned murders, and a canny marriage alliance to try to become emperor. His demise offers lessons in the perils of court politics. x
  • 10
    The Mad Emperor? Caligula
    The ancient sources tend to portray Caligula as deranged. But was he really insane? You will examine different modern approaches to this issue, focusing on two famous incidents when Caligula apparently acted erratically. An ancient eyewitness gives a sense of what it was like to be in the emperor's presence. x
  • 11
    Killing Caligula, Finding Claudius
    This lecture covers a little over 24 hours of the year A.D. 41, when a ruinous pattern was established in the imperial succession. With the murder of Caligula, the Senate dithered while the Praetorian Guard, eager to preserve its power, pushed forward a successor—in this case Caligula's reviled uncle, Claudius. x
  • 12
    The Odd Couple—Claudius and Messalina
    Claudius's reign was surprisingly successful. He embarked on the first major war of expansion since Augustus by adding Britain to the empire and was a conscientious ruler. Even so, he was manipulated by powerful subordinates, notably his third wife, Messalina, who concocted a bizarre plot against him. x
  • 13
    Power and Poison—Agrippina and Claudius
    You will study a woman who could be the most prominent female dynastic figure in Roman history: Agrippina the Younger, sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius, and mother of Nero—a pedigree that speaks for itself. Agrippina's political conduct was brazen to a degree heretofore unthinkable. x
  • 14
    Artist and Assassin—Nero
    Agrippina reportedly poisoned Claudius and then orchestrated Nero's accession. As emperor, Nero showed little interest in rule and far more in writing poetry and other diversions. This lecture surveys these impulses and discusses modern theories about the meaning of his "antics," which included matricide. x
  • 15
    The Trouble with Christians
    In the summer of 64, Rome burned. As suspicion fell on Nero, he blamed the Christians, starting the long history of Rome's persecution of this sect. You will consider the possible causes of the fire and discuss the rebuilding of the city, notably Nero's pet urban renewal project: his opulent Golden House. x
  • 16
    Dynasty's End—The Fall of Nero
    Nero's final years were increasingly disengaged from reality. Finally, the legions in Gaul and Spain turned against him. Abandoned by his armies and the Senate, he committed suicide in 68. His earlier murders of all plausible heirs in his family ensured that the Julio-Claudian dynasty perished with him. x
  • 17
    The Long Year, A.D. 69
    Nero's death ushered in the Year of Four Emperors—a bloody struggle among four commanders who successively held the top job. Left standing at the end was Vespasian, fresh from suppressing the Jewish Revolt. These events confirmed the principle that emperors depended on the army for their position. x
  • 18
    The First Flavian—Vespasian
    Vespasian started the first dynasty of emperors who had no family connection to Julius Caesar or Augustus. This lecture examines his rise and the "Law Concerning Vespasian's Power," apparently the first attempt to define an emperor's authority. Vespasian also built Rome's most famous landmark: the Colosseum. x
  • 19
    The Last Flavians—Titus and Domitian
    Shortly after Vespasian's son Titus be­came emperor in 79, Mt. Vesuvius erupt­ed, killing tens of thousands in a grim omen for the new ruler. He led an effective relief effort but died prematurely two years later. He was succeeded by his autocratic brother, Domitian, who descended into paranoia. x
  • 20
    Pax Augusta—Nerva and Trajan
    The murder of Domitian terminated the Flavian dynasty. His successor, Nerva, began a new practice: Emperors adopted able army commanders as their heirs. With Nerva's adoption of Trajan came the period of the Roman Empire's greatest stability under the Antonine (or Adoptive) dynasty. x
  • 21
    Trajan in Rome and in the East
    Trajan had a successful reign that added new territory to the empire as well as magnificent new public works to the capital. You will also examine the remarkable correspondence between Trajan and his provincial envoy, Pliny the Younger, who wrote for advice on handling recalcitrant Christians, among other problems. x
  • 22
    The Eccentric Emperor—Hadrian
    Trajan's successor, Hadrian, set about a massive push at consolidation: Trajan's new eastern provinces were abandoned and the frontiers were fortified, most notably with Hadrian's Wall in England. Hadrian was wide-ranging in his talents and unconventional in his personal life. x
  • 23
    Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus
    The reigns of Antoninus Pius and his successor, Marcus Aurelius, represent the high point of Roman power, peace, and prosperity. In the course of Marcus's reign, however, signs of trouble became evident that would intensify. Marcus is especially known for his philosophic work, Meditations. x
  • 24
    Marcus in the North and Commodus
    In his last years, Marcus was constantly on the threatened northern frontier with his legions. He succumbed to the rigors of camp life in 180 and was succeeded by his son Commodus, who proved a disaster in the mold of Caligula and Nero. Commodus was assassinated on the last day of 192. x
  • 25
    Civil War and Septimius Severus
    Commodus's death left a vacuum temporarily filled by the aging senator Pertinax. He was soon assassinated by his own guard, who then auctioned off the empire to the highest bidder. The winner only lasted 10 weeks before Septimius Severus took control, initiating a naked military autocracy. x
  • 26
    Caracalla and the Severan Dynasty
    Severus set the tone for the rest of imperial history. From now on, the emperor would be a military man, occupied with keeping external enemies at bay and staving off internal threats. The Severan dynasty included, among others, the brutal Caracalla and the outlandish Elagabalus—along with some remarkable female relatives. x
  • 27
    Emperor and City
    The first of five lectures on themes relating to the emperors examines their lavish building projects in Rome, such as the complex of public squares and huge bathhouses. You will also examine the political aspects of such projects, as well as their social and economic implications. x
  • 28
    Emperor and Empire
    Next Professor Fagan considers the emperor's position relative to the wider empire. How could an empire as vast and diverse as Rome's survive the mismanagement of a Caligula or a Nero? The secret lay in the unique, decentralized administrative structures the Romans employed in running their realm. x
  • 29
    Emperor and Elite
    The Roman elite was obsessed with the struggle for rank, and the emperor determined the winners by the offices he dispensed. You will focus on the senators and the equestrians, learning how the former had to adapt to diminished roles under the Principate, while the latter enjoyed a greatly enhanced public profile. x
  • 30
    Emperor and People
    The emperor served as the benefactor and patron of the common people. This lecture examines that obligation, from the provision of grain, games, and other "comforts" to the means used by the people to communicate with the emperor. x
  • 31
    Emperor and Soldier
    No relationship was more important to Roman rulers than the one with their troops. Emperors used strategies to ensure loyalty, from oaths of allegiance to bribes. These measures are surveyed in detail, as are the dispositions of the troops in the empire and the different classes of soldiers. x
  • 32
    Chaos
    With the collapse of the Severan dynasty in 235, civil war raged almost continuously for nearly 50 years as generals fought for dominance. External enemies took advantage of the chaos to raid and plunder the empire. In this lecture, you will look at several of the emperors of this turbulent era. x
  • 33
    Aurelian, Diocletian, and the Tetrarchy
    In 268 the Roman Empire, battered from without and divided within, was on its last legs. But from the mountains of Illyria in the northern Balkans stormed a series of militarily aggressive and highly competent general-emperors who, in a few years, had turned the situation around. x
  • 34
    Constantine—Rise to Power
    This lecture surveys the rise to sole rulership of an emperor who would transform the empire and change the course of history: Constantine. Despite being passed over by Diocletian's tetrarchic system, the young Constantine accepted his army's imperial acclamation and began battling his rivals. x
  • 35
    The Christian Emperor—Constantine
    Under Constantine, Christianity changed from an outsider's religion to a state-aligned cult, a transition that had seismic repercussions. Here, you will examine his conversion, his impact on the church, his reforms, and founding Constantinople in 324. x
  • 36
    Reflections on the Emperors of Rome
    The ancients were inconsistent in labeling emperors as good or bad; for them, an element of spin was often involved. You and Professor Fagan will embark on your own diagnosis and uncover fundamental truths about power, legitimacy, and empire. This course concludes by considering the theme of emperors and tyranny. x

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Garrett G. Fagan
Ph.D. Garrett G. Fagan
The Pennsylvania State University
Dr. Garrett G. Fagan is Professor of Ancient History at The Pennsylvania State University, where he has taught since 1996. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and educated at Trinity College. He earned his Ph.D. from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, and has held teaching positions at McMaster University, York University (Canada), and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Davidson College. In all of these institutions, students have given very high ratings to his courses on the classical world. He has also given many public lectures to audiences of all ages. Professor Fagan has an extensive research record in Roman history and has held a prestigious Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship at the University of Cologne, Germany. He has published numerous articles in international journals, and his first monograph, Bathing in Public in the Roman World, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1999. He has also edited a volume from Routledge on the phenomenon of pseudoarchaeology (2005). His current research project is on spectatorship at the Roman arena, and he is also working on a book on ancient warfare.
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