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Adopted by Julius Caesar,
Augustus (c.62 BC – 14 AD /
Reigned 31 BC – 14 AD) had to
fight for his throne. His long
rule saw a huge expansion in
the Roman Empire and the
beginnings of a dynasty that,
over the next century, would
transform Rome, for better and
The man who would become one of Rome’s greatest leaders had an
unpromising start in life. Augustus was a sickly child in a family with
few connections.
His father died when Augustus was four. His prospects were bleak:
Rome was dangerous, engulfed by civil war between power-hungry
groups. One of these was led by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar.
A bit of luck
Then Augustus got a lucky break. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar won the civil
war and was named dictator of Rome. To secure his position, he
needed someone to hand down the throne to. With no son of his own,
he adopted Augustus.
This was a fantastic opportunity for a young man from nowhere.
Almost at once, however, Julius Caesar was dead – murdered by his
own Senators. Augustus was just 19, but immediately threw himself
into the backstabbing world of Roman politics.
Local hero
In Rome, Augustus became a hero. He became Rome’s first Emperor,
promising to restore peace and security.
During his reign, Augustus achieved a lot. He expanded the empire,
adding Egypt, northern Spain and large parts of central Europe before
invading Germany.
Augustus had ended 100 years of civil war in Rome and achieved
peace and prosperity. A long era of peace began with Augustus and
lasted for 200 years. It was called the Pax Romana or “Roman
What Did Augustus Achieve?
Upon becoming emperor in 27 B.C., Augustus set out to make the
empire strong and safe. To provide security, he built a permanent,
professional army of about 150,000 men— all Roman citizens.
Augustus’s army conquered new territories and added Egypt, Spain
and large parts of central Europe to the Roman Empire. Meanwhile,
Augustus rebuilt Rome with stately palaces, fountains, and splendid
public buildings. “I found Rome a city of brick,” he boasted, “and left it
a city of marble.”
Augustus devoted much of his energy to improving Rome’s
government. During his reign, more than 50 million people lived in the
Roman Empire. To rule this huge population, Augustus appointed a
proconsul, or governor, for each of Rome’s provinces. These new
officials replaced the politicians who had been chosen by the Senate.
Augustus often traveled to the provinces to see how the governors
were doing.
After ruling for almost 40 years, Augustus died in A.D. 14. No law
stated how the next emperor was to be chosen. Augustus, however,
had trained a relative, Tiberius, to follow him. The next three
emperors—Caligula, Claudius, and Nero
roh)—also came from Augustus’s family. Unfortunately, they were not
all fit to lead.
Seen as a welcome breath of fresh air when
he took the throne, Caligula’s (12 – 41 AD /
Reigned 37 – 41 AD) strangeness soon
became terrifying and he was murdered after
just five years in power.
As the youngest son of a war hero, Caligula had grown up around
soldiers. When his uncle Tiberius died at the age of 70, Caligula was
next in line to be Emperor of Rome.
High hopes
As a child, Caligula had suffered enormously. His mother had been
kicked out of Rome and his two elder brothers executed on weak
Many hoped Caligula would breathe new life into Rome. At first
Caligula lived up to the expectations. He brought back people who
had been wrongly kicked out of Rome by the old emperor and burned
the records of unfair secret trials.
Mad or bad?
Seven months after taking power, however, Caligula fell ill. Although
he recovered, he began to act very strangely. Was he mad or just
pretending? Some believe that he suffered from epilepsy, but
historians are divided.
Dressed in silk robes and covered in jewels, Caligula pretended he was
a god. He forced senators to grovel and kiss his feet
Dangerous to know
Then he became more violent. He held many unfair trials and oversaw
many people murdered.
At other times, his cruelty was more random. In one instance, he was
about to sacrifice an animal as a sacred offering to the gods. He raised
his mallet to kill the animal, brought it down hard, and turned and
struck a priest nearby at the last minute.
The situation gets worse
All this time, Caligula was spending vast quantities of money. His
extravagance soon emptied Rome’s treasury, which Tiberius had
greatly increased. Still spending, but now short of cash, he began
blackmailing leading Roman families and confiscating their estates.
In 40 AD, he led an army north into Gaul, robbing its people before
marching to the shore to invade Britain. Just as the army was about to
launch its attack, he ordered them to stop and gather seashells. He
also named his favorite horse as consul of the Senate.
A solution is found
His behavior was making Caligula seriously unpopular among Rome’s
elite. Plots against his life soon became commonplace. In 41 AD, he
was murdered by his closest advisors.
The black sheep
Nobody expected Claudius to become emperor. Although he was the
only surviving heir of Augustus, Claudius was left disfigured by a
serious illness when he was very young. Claudius was also clumsy and
was the butt of his family’s jokes. When he fell asleep after dinner,
guests pelted him with food and put slippers on his hands so that he’d
rub his eyes with his shoes when he woke up.
Caligula’s murder in 41 AD changed everything for Claudius.
Unexpectedly, the family fool had become emperor. Claudius was
discovered trembling in the palace by one of his own soldiers, he was
clearly afraid of the job.
Surprisingly popular
Claudius worked hard at his job, starting work just after midnight
every day. It began to pay off: he made major improvements to
Rome’s judicial system, passed laws protecting sick slaves, extended
citizenship and increased women's privileges.
He also treated his people with unusual respect, apologizing to visiting
elders when there were not enough chairs.
Conquering the Brits
Claudius had some real successes. Britain had resisted Roman rule for
over a century, but was conquered by Claudius. He had succeeded
where Caesar had failed. This was the most important addition to the
empire since the time of Augustus.
Trouble and strife
Even this success, however, was not enough to protect him from
political danger. Here, his worst enemies would turn out to be his own
wives. Desperate to make her son emperor, Cladius’ second wife
plotted to have her husband poisoned.