Before too long, civil war between Caesar and Pompey seemed increasingly likely. In 49 BC Pompey was put in command of the army in Italy and Caesar called upon to disband his forces in Gaul or to be outlawed. Caesar, knowing he had a good degree of popular support, elected to march on Rome. Pompey and his forces moved to Greece, where they were defeated in 48 BC. In the following two years Caesar campaigned against opponents in Spain and North Africa. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated and in 46 BC Caesar become dictator.
He launched a series of reforms, overhauling the calendar and the Senate. Of his extensive building programme, the Curia (Senate House) and the Basilica Giulia remain. Initially declared dictator for one year, Caesar had this extended to 10 years and then in 44 BC, was proclaimed dictator for life.
The accumulation of power alienated even those political allies including his friends and protégés) who had initially supported him and Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (15 March( in 44 BC.
The liberators, as Caesar's assassins called themselves, found they had severely underestimated Caesar's popularity. The people regarded the dead dictator as a new god. Caesar's lieutenant, Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius), took command of the city, aided by troops under the command of Lepidus. Caesar's will had declared the adoption of his 18-year-old great-nephew, Octavian, as his son and heir. Octavian, then studying in Greece, returned to Rome to claim his inheritance. Now calling himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian), the young man first sided with the Liberators against Antony then switched sides and fought with Antony at Philippi when Brutus and Cassius were defeated.
Lepidus was quickly frozen out of the Second Triumvirate and the Roman world divided in two., with the new Caesar raising troops in the western half while Antony administered the wealthy provinces and elient kingdoms of the east. Although initially amicable - Antony married Octavian' sister - the situation deteriorated into another civil war, with Octavian making brilliant propagandistic use of Antony's affair with Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt.
Octavian's general Marcus Agrippa defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a navel clash off the coast of Actium in 31 BC and the couple committed suicide in Alexandria the following year.
Octavian was left as sole ruler of the Roman world but, remembering Caesar's fate, trod carefully. In 27 BC he officially surrendered his extraordinary powers to the Senate, which promptly gave most of them back. Four years later his position was regularised again, with the Senate voting him the unique title of Augustus (Your Eminence). By 19 BC with all-important control of the army in his hands, Augustus had cemented his position as virtual emperor of all Rome and its possessions.
The new era of political stability that followed allowed the arts to flourish. Augustus was exceptionally lucky in having as his contemporaries the poets Virgil, Horace and Ovid, as well as the historian Livy. He also encouraged the visual arts, restoring existing buildings and constructing many new ones. Augustus dedicated the Teatro di Marcello (Marcellus Theatre) in honour of his nephew, Marcellus and commissioned the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) explicitly to commemorate his own achievement. During his reign the Pantheon was also raised. He boasted in his memoirs that he "found Rome in brick and left it in marble".
Augustus succeeded because, instead of trying to reinvent the political system, he simply made room for himself at the top. He never called himself king or emperor, but rather princepes (the leading man). The Republic, although its institutions lost some of their effective power, continued as usual. Augustus died aged 75 after 40 years in the commander's seat.
The reign of his successor Tiberius (AD 14-37) proved stable and the smoothness of his succession helped enshrine the Principate instituted by Augustus. The Republic, even in name began to slip out of usage.
Gaius Caligula ( AD 37-45) had little time for the political niceties that the Senate expected; his increasingly extravagant and bizzare behaviour led to his assassination by an officer of the Praetorian Guard, the imperial bodyguard.
A return to a truly republican form of government was contemplated, but the Praetorians, with an eye on job security and handsomely rewarded for their support, declared Claudius, Gaius's uncle, emperor. The unprepossessing Claudius, much to the surprise of those around him, proved to be a conscientious ruler. He extended the port at Ostia and built a new aqueduct, the Aqua Claudia, to service the growing population of Rome. He also strengthened the Romans' hold on Britain, first invaded by Caesar. Something of an intellectual, he understood and wrote on the Etruscan language - invaluable learning which only its renown survived its author.
Probably poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, Claudius died in AD 58 and was succeeded by Nero, Agrippina's 17-year-old son by a previous marriage. Nero gradually showed his preference for Gaius Caligula's style of government. In the ultimate act of youthful rebellion, he had his mother assassinated, then began to impose his passion for all things Greek on an increasingly resentful Roman aristocracy. With revolt spreading among the provincial governors, who commanded armies, the Senate declared Nero a public enemy in AD 68 and he committed suicide while on the run. In the Year of the Four Emperors that followed, Galba, Otho and Veitellious came and went in quick succession.
Stability was restored when Vespasian, who had been sent to Judaea to crush the Great Rebellion of AD 66, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. The Senate, unwilling to oppose the will of the troops, sanctioned their choice. A practical man, Vespasian (AD 69-79) made a point of rebuilding the temple of the Capitoline Hill and constructing a huge amphitheatre in the grounds of Nero's Domus Arena. He also rededicated the enormous statue in front of the Coliseum (originally of Nero and destined for Nero's entrance hall) to Apollo, the sun god. As a parallel to Augustus' Ara Pacis, Vespasian celebrated the return of normality by building the Forum of Peace.
The brief reign of his successor, Titus (AD 79-81), is chiefly remembered for the catastrophic eruption of Mt Vesuvius. He did find time to construct public baths, as well as Arco di Tito (Titus' Arch) which commemorates him as the captor of Jerusalem.
Domitian, Titus' younger brother, built the Forum Transitorio (for which his successor, Nerva, took the credit and the name, calling it Nerva Forum) and greatly extended the palace complex on the Palatine Hill (he had the corridors lined with highly polished stone to allow him to detect lurking assassins). This paranoia was justified, for he was murdered in a palace plot in AD 96.
Although written records of the first two centuries AD are poor, it is clear that in this period the enlightened rule (with one or two exceptions) of a series of capable emperors brought about an unprecedented (and, it can fairly safely be asserted, never repeated) degree of prosperity and security to the entire Mediterranean. The Empire reached its maximum extent and was, in the main, wisely administered.
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