How Rome Came to Be Ruled by Emperors

30.11.2018 |

Episode #1 of the course The mad world of the Roman emperors by James Wareing


Welcome to the course about the Roman emperors and how they ruled Rome despite their murderous and insane tendencies. My name is James Wareing, a classics graduate from the University of Exeter, and over the next ten lessons, I shall guide you through the rise and success of the Roman Empire under its first emperors, recounting the more wild stories along the way.


Rome before the Emperors

Firstly, we need to have context for what led to Rome being ruled by emperors. Before it had emperors, Rome was a republic and had been since 509 BC. It was not quite a democracy how we would understand it today, though. Instead it was more of an oligarchy, with the power concentrated into the hands of a few established families. The senate was the main governing body, made up of around 300 senators, through which constitutional and administrative issues were passed. Every year, the citizens of Rome would elect two consuls to be the chairmen of the senate. They had great powers but were limited to a term of one year and could not serve again for ten years.


Clash of the Titans

However, as men began to be given vast armies to either defend Rome or conquer new lands, the balance of power began to shift. A key point of change was the battle between Pompey and Caesar, both incredibly ambitious and powerful men. They governed Rome in a triumvirate with Crassus from 60 BC until he died in 53 BC, leaving Pompey and Caesar. This sparked a battle between the two, as both saw the chance to seize Rome for themselves. As a check to the power of generals with their army, they were ordered to disband their armies upon crossing the river Rubicon in Northern Italy. However, Caesar disobeyed this command, signaling his intent and leading to an inevitable civil war.

Pompey was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, leaving Rome to the sole command of Julius Caesar, who became, for all intents and purposes, the first emperor of Rome (although he is not officially recognized as such). His command over Rome was to last four years before he was famously stabbed to death by a group of senators who wanted to restore liberty to Rome.


Augustus Makes His Move

What the senators got instead was another civil war. There was a second triumvirate ruling Rome, comprised of Octavian (later to be Augustus), Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Mark Antony, against the will of the senate, was in a relationship with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, despite orders of the senate for him to marry Octavian’s sister (Octavia). In 37 BC, Lepidus was cast out of the triumvirate, once more leaving two men at the top of Roman society. When Antony divorced Octavia, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra. This war culminated in a naval battle at Actium, where Octavian was victorious and Cleopatra and Mark Antony were driven to suicide.


The Last Man Standing

Finally, Rome reached the point toward which it had been trending for the last century and was left with one man in command. Octavian changed his name to the one many know him as now, Augustus (meaning, “the one blessed by the gods”), and ruled until his death in AD 14. To secure the support of his army, he paid them handsomely with the spoils taken from Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and he carefully guised the extent of his power to placate the senate. The senate subsequently decreased in power, and the previously influential position of consul became largely ceremonial. The Emperor of Rome was now very much in charge, and the era of the Roman Republic was over.

In tomorrow’s lesson, we shall learn about the first Emperor Augustus and if he restored stability and peace to Rome.


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Recommended book

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Simon Baker


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