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Fall of the Julio Claudians

Fall of the Julio-Claudians

Towards the end of Nero's tumultuous reign (AD 65 - 68) things continued to spiral out of control. His excesses in Greece, performing as a singer and as an athlete in the Olympic games, were an embarrassment to Roman sensibilities, but Nero persisted, seemingly oblivious. He was not, however, completely detached from the government of the state, but daily governance was left to his entourage leaving his freedman Helius in charge at Rome. A major revolt in Judaea (AD 66) required imperial intervention in the form of Cestius Gallus, and Nero wisely left the matter (which would last in a semi continuous state well into the reign of Vespasian) to his Legate. But conspiracies along with paranoia ruled the day. The popular general Corbula (of Parthian and Armenian fame) was summoned to Greece and ordered to commit suicide for his alleged involvement in a conspiratorial plot. By AD 67, sentiment in Rome and among the provinces, especially the legions and their now often targeted commanders, was getting dangerously anti-Nero and Helius traveled to Greece to bring Nero home.

Rather than attempt to ease Roman concerns, Nero arrived in Rome at the head of a strange triumphal procession. Rather than enter in a military triumph, which was certainly undeserved, Nero entered in the manner of a champion athlete, fresh from his Olympic successes. His behavior openly mocked Roman tradition and culture, especially amongst the aristocracy. Nero marched into the city ahead of a procession of artists and athletes, including trophies won at the games, rather than traditional compliments of soldiers and military spoils, and ended his procession at the temple of Apollo (the patron of art) rather than that of Jupiter (the traditional last stop in a Roman triumph). The masses witnessing this oddity in full uncensored view probably thought that Nero had gone completely mad, and even the legions, which since the time of Augustus had grown into loyal peace keeping machines, were beginning to waver under Nero's odd leadership.

In Gaul, the governor Julius Vindex began openly soliciting a revolt from amongst his fellow governors, but reaction was mild at best. Hindering his cause was the fact that as governor of Lugdunensis he maintained no authority over any imperial troops. However, he began recruiting for his rebellion and by March of AD 68, Vindex made it official. A month later, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, P. Sulpicius Galba joined the revolt, which soon also gained the support of the governor of Lusitania, M. Salvius Otho (ironically Nero's old friend who gave his wife Poppaea to the emperor). Not long after, L. Clodius Macer, the governor of Africa joined the revolt as well. Despite his eccentricities, and the obvious growing danger Nero reacted swiftly to this new challenge, having previously raised a new legion (Legio I Italica) and ordering the formation of another from naval personnel at Misenum (Legio I Adiutrix). Additionally, troops were called in from Britain, Illyria and Germania, where Nero's men did remain loyal.

Before Nero could bring his new forces to bear against this growing rebellion, one of his governors, L. Verginius Rufus of Germania Superior, took matters into his own hands. He marched his regular legions from the Rhine region against Vindex and his fresh Gallic recruits, and crushed him at Vesontio. Vindex survived the battle but committed suicide in disgrace. In one quick thrust, Nero's problems may have faded away, but this was not to be the case. The army had lost confidence in their Emperor and hailed Rufus as imperator in the field, but Rufus refused the honor, likely fearing a large and imminent civil war on the horizon. In northern Italy too, Petronius Turpilianus, the commander of Nero's troops there, was rumored to be wavering between support for Nero and the revolt. With this news Nero was justifiably panicked and decided to escape Rome to Egypt. This decision not only effectively removed Nero as head of the Roman state but caused the Praetorians to lose faith and loyalty as well. Their prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus, persuaded the Praetorians to declare loyalty to Galba in Hispania, and the writing was on the wall for Nero.

As Nero fled the city, taking refuge in a freedman's villa outside Rome, the Senate declared him a public enemy. Rather than risk being humiliated and flogged to death at the hands of the Senate, Nero decided the cause was lost. On June 9, AD 68, at the age of 32 Nero drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary. With the death of Nero, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end after over a century of supreme power (including Caesar). The line quite simply no longer existed as family members had been routinely purged with each new reign. And thus, what began with the great conqueror Julius Caesar, was continued by the ultimate politician in Augustus, slowly came to an end with the eccentric Nero. According to Suetonius, Nero's parting words, as the empire fell into a state of civil war that would eventually become known as the Year of the Four Emperors, were "What a great artist dies in me" (qualis artifex pereo).

Did you know?

If dated from the Dictatorship of Julius Caesar (about 48 BC) until the death of Nero (AD 68) the Julio-Claudian dynasty lasted a remarkable (though interrupted before Octavian's ascension as Augustus) 116 years.


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Fall of the Julio-Claudians - Related Topic: Roman Emperors


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