The early Roman emperors, quickly

I always wanted to be know about these guys, and now I do (thanks especially to The History of Rome podcast). Here’s my summary of the early emperors of Rome, those wacky Julio-Claudians, from Julius to Nero:

The Tusculum portrait, perhaps the only surviving sculpture of Caesar made during his lifetime. Archaeological Museum, Turin, Italy.

Julius: Ruthlessly, competently power-played to become a king in all but name and for mostly the right reasons. He was earnest and ruthless about fixing a hopelessly broken Roman republic and got off to a pretty good start, but wasn’t really able to get all that much done before being assassinated by a bunch of senators (read: the aristocracy) who were really just protecting their old boys club. Fascinatingly, Caesar’s assassins had absolutely no succession plan.

Augustus: The first true Roman emperor. After a rocky start semi-inheriting Rome from his uncle Julius, he slowly but steadily seized absolute power — seriously, all of it — for mostly the right reasons and without being too much of a dick about it. For decades, he earnestly carried on what Caesar had earnestly started: making Rome more awesome. Augustus was the only emperor who had a more or less successful career that wasn’t terminated early.

Tiberius: An old general who really didn’t want the job, and literally the last person Augustus wanted to pass it on to. He made the right noises for a while, tried to be as decent as Augustus, but in the end turned out to be super paranoid and a total perv. Purges and awfulness ensued. In the end he was basically a creepy serial killer with power, who hid out on an island getting sweet young things delivered to him for torment and murder.

Can’t get any worse that that, right? Oh, you just wait!

Caligula: The promising young prince who quickly turned out to be a power-mad nutter. He perpetrated some of history’s first really extravagant abuses of power and wealth (no one had ever had so much to abuse). He was responsible for a litany of almost unbelievable feats of costly absurdity, cowardice, and petulant malice. Example: he really believed he was a god, and had the Roman legions attack “Poseidon” (AKA the ocean). And of course there was much, much more paranoid purging until someone finally stuck a knife in him after only four years.

Claudius: Caligula’s uncle, the strangest of the lot, and an easy favourite: a stuttering underdog that almost everyone had always assumed was an idiot, which is probably how he survived all the purges. During Caligula’s bloody reign, he had been the court fool in all but name, and was put in power after Caligula’s death because he seemed easy to control. Weirdly, he then turned out to be rather good at emperoring, and even more sincere than Caesar and Augustus. He — and/or his team of Greek freedmen administrators — got the new empire back on track in a lot of ways.

Nero: Teen emperor! Basically Caligula all over again, with less actual mental illness and more of just being the ultimate spoiled, cruel brat. Think Joffrey Baratheon, but without an incredibly tough grandpa keeping him under control. Best known for (allegedly) fiddling while Rome burned, and then (definitely) blaming the Christians for the disaster and burning a lot of them.

And then the story of Rome’s emperors gets really messy, long, and relatively forgettable for the non-historian. After a crazy year of civil war and musical emperor chairs, The Year of Four Emperors, the Roman Empire finally got into it’s proper golden age: first with three non-awful Flavians, and then the Five Good Emperors (Trajan and Hadrian most notably).

But after that, sheesh: it’s a century and dozens more emperors before the next memorable one, Diocletian, the empire splitter.