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     The imperial clan
     The family of Augustus
     The family of Germanicus
     Claudius and Nero

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The imperial clan

The death of Augustus Caesar in AD 14, after an effective reign of nearly half a century, brings to an end a period of personal rule unprecedented in Roman history. A family dynasty is the natural sequel, but there are complications. Augustus has no son. There are no established rules for succession in a society which still professes republican ideals. The selection is likely to be made on two counts - the personal choice of the ruling emperor, and struggles between the candidates.

This is a recipe for chaos within the imperial family. Rome watches in fascination, while rumour makes the most of every hint of foul play.


Likely candidates can only come from the inner circle of Augustus's family. This limits the field to the descendants of three people - himself, his wife Livia Drusilla, and his sister Octavia.

Since each of them marries twice or more (in a society where death often comes early and divorce is easy), family relationships are complex and the candidates are numerous.


The family of Augustus: 40 BC - AD 14

The story begins in 40 BC when the 23-year-old Augustus (not yet known by this name) marries Scribonia. Their daughter, Julia, is born in 39. In 38 Augustus falls in love with Livia. But she is already married, to Tiberius Claudius Nero by whom she has a 3-year-old son, Tiberius. She is pregnant with her husband's second child when Augustus forces them to divorce, divorces his own wife, and marries Livia.

It proves a happy marriage, lasting the fifty-two years till Augustus's death, but there are no children. The only children in the imperial palace are Augustus's daughter by his previous marriage, Julia, and two stepsons, Tiberius and Nero Drusus.


The emperor's first idea for establishing a dynasty is to arrange a marriage in 25 BC between his only two close relations in the next generation - his daughter Julia and his nephew, Marcellus (son of his sister, Octavia). This marks Marcellus out as the heir. But he dies two years later.

Julia, who has had no child by Marcellus (she is only sixteen when he dies), is next married to Agrippa, a soldier who has long been the emperor's most trusted supporter. They have two sons, Gaius and Lucius, born in 20 and 17 BC. The boys are adopted by the emperor. The intention now, if Augustus dies, is that Agrippa should rule until one of these grandsons is of an age to take control. But Agrippa dies in 12 BC.


Wishing to declare an unequivocal successor, Augustus now turns to the elder of Livia's sons, Tiberius. Like Agrippa, he is no blood relation. This problem is solved in the same manner. The young man must marry Julia. Tiberius is already happily married, to Agrippa's daughter; he is ordered to divorce his wife and marry her stepmother.

Julia has had a total of five children by Agrippa (the two sons adopted by the emperor, two daughters, and another posthumous son, Agrippa Posthumus). She now has one son by Tiberius, but the child dies in infancy.


By 6 BC it is evident that Tiberius is being set aside. Julia refuses to live with him, and her eldest son Gaius (at the age of fourteen) is given a nominal high appointment as consul. Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons and adopted sons of the emperor, are now clearly the family members in line for the succession. But they die young, Lucius Caesar in AD 2 and then Gaius in AD 4.

Augustus, now aged sixty-seven, turns again to Tiberius, adopting him formally as his son and successor. To keep the inheritance within his own family he forces Tiberius to adopt, on the same terms, the 19-year-old Germanicus. The young man is grandson both of Augustus's wife Livia and of his sister Octavia. He is also the nephew of Tiberius.


The family of Germanicus: AD 14-41

When Augustus dies, in AD 14, Tiberius succeeds without opposition. One of his first acts is to kill his stepson Agrippa Posthumus, now in his mid-twenties. As the only surviving grandson of Augustus, he is a natural rival. But he is reputed to be oafish and violent, and he has never had the affection of his grandfather - on whose order he has been banished to a small island off Elba, where he is now murdered.

Germanicus, the official heir, has been married since about AD 5 to Agrippina, granddaughter of Augustus. The couple have a dynastic glamour which Tiberius himself lacks. It is lacked even more by his own son Drusus, the child of his first marriage.


There is potential here for jealousy and conflict. The inevitable rumours of poison begin to circulate when Germanicus suddenly dies (almost certainly of natural causes) when campaigning in Syria in AD 19. Four years later Tiberius's son Drusus also dies. The likelihood of succession returns to the family of Germanicus.

Tiberius, now living in isolation in Capri, is a man prone to suspicion. An ambitious commander of the Praetorian guard, Sejanus, convinces the emperor that Agrippina, the widow of Germanicus, is plotting against him. She and her two elder sons, Nero and Drusus, are arrested in AD 29-30. Within four years all three have died in prison.


This leaves only one living male descendant of Augustus. Known as Caligula, he is the younger brother of the murdered Nero and Drusus. On the death of Tiberius in AD 37, Caligula inherits without disturbance. The disturbance comes later, in reaction to his own feckless self-indulgence. When he is murdered, in 41, there is only one possible successor within the imperial family. He is Claudius, the younger brother of Germanicus.

Claudius is eccentric, and physically handicapped, but he proves a careful and rather severe ruler. In his reign the family melodrama is provided by his womenfolk.


The wives of Claudius: AD 41-59

When he inherits the throne in AD 41, Claudius is already married to his third wife, Messalina. She raises to new heights the scandalous reputation of the imperial palace, reputedly indulging in a succession of affairs with the emperor's secretarial staff and arranging for the death of the few who resist her advances. By AD 48, when she is only twenty-six, the evidence against her is sufficient for Claudius to put her to death. She has given him two children, Octavia and Britannicus.

In 49 Claudius marries his niece, Agrippina. It is she who sets in motion the final scenes of this long family melodrama. She has ambitions for her son by a previous marriage, Nero.


Nero is only three years older than Claudius's son Britannicus, but in the first year of her marriage Agrippina persuades the emperor to adopt her son as his heir. He also marries the boy to his daughter Octavia. On Claudius's death in 54 (poisoned by Agrippina, it is strongly rumoured), Agrippina successfully effects the transition. The 16-year-old Nero becomes emperor.

He keeps up the family traditions. He poisons Britannicus in 55, murders his mother in 59 and executes his wife Octavia in 62. Nero's own suicide in 68, after losing control of the government, brings to an end Rome's first and most sensational dynasty.


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