Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Augustus: family and succession

For this post, I am particularly indebted to Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus, 2nd edn (Blackwell, 2007)

It is misleading to think of Augustus as an ‘emperor’ who was free to leave the succession to a member of his family. He owed his power to the various offices given him by the Senate and People, from his immense private fortune and from the number of clients who owed everything to his patronage. It was important to Augusts that he preserved the appearance of republican rule and that the succession should be chosen not by him but by the Senate and People.  In wishing the position he had achieved to be passed down to his family, he could claim to be simply following republican precedent.

Julia Augusta
'Julia the elder'

It was a problem for Augustus that he had no son to whom he could pass on his powers in a way that contemporaries would have thought natural. His only child was his daughter, Julia, born to his second wife, Scribonia, in 39 BC. On the day of her birth Octavian (as he then was) divorced Scribonia and married Livia Drusilla, a member of the gens Claudia, an old political family. Livia had been married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, she was the mother of a four-year-old son, Tiberius, and was pregnant at the time of her second marriage. This meant that Octavian had to obtain permission from the college of pontifices. The ceremony took place on 17 January 38 BC, and was the cause of much gossip. Three months after the marriage she gave birth to her second son, Drusus.

Marcellus, Augustus's
nephew and for a time
his heir
 Augustus’ marriage to Livia was childless, so the priority was to find an appropriate husband for Julia. In 25 BC, at the age of 14, she married her 17-year-old cousin, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the son of his sister Octavia, and it was assumed that Marcellus was being groomed for the succession. However, Marcellus died suddenly in 23 BC. Augustus himself was seriously ill in the same year and this might have made him consider the succession as a matter of even greater urgency. In 21 BC his right-hand man M. Vipsanius Agrippa was made to divorce his wife and marry Julia, who was 25 years his junior. He was given his own imperium as a proconsul and in 18 BC he was granted the powers of a tribune of the plebs as well, which gave him a legal status similar to that of Augustus himself, marking him out as the obvious heir. Julia bore him five children, including two sons, Gaius and Lucius, in 20 and 17 BC and after the second was born the two of them were adopted in a public ceremony: his grandsons became his sons.

The Ara Pacis

On 4 July 13 BC the Senate commissioned the dedication of the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Augustuan Peace on the Campus Martius to honour the return of Augustus to Rome after his campaigns in Spain and Gaul. The altar was a monument to Augustus and his family. It was reassembled in 1938 and the present altar is a modern reconstruction.

The Ara Pacis
Manfred Heyde
Licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons

The succession crisis

The dream of a tidy succession was shattered when Agrippa died in 12 BC, when his two young sons were still minors. This might not have been bad news for Livia, who saw it as a chance to advance her own son, Tiberius. Though he was very attached to his wife, Vipsania, the daughter of Agrippa, he was made to divorce her and marry Julia. The marriage seems to have been unhappy from the start and by the time Augustus granted Tiberius tribunician powers, it had completely broken down. He went to live on the island of Rhodes and gossip about Julia’s private life spread around Rome.

Meanwhile Gaius and Lucius were advancing into public life. In 6 BC Augustus sponsored games in their names as an occasion for officially presenting them to the people. In 5 BC Gaius came of age and put on the toga virilis and the Senate designated him to become consul in five years time, when he would be only 20. The youth of the equestrian order elected him their leader, the princeps iuventutis.  When Lucius reached his majority in 2 BC, he received the same rights as his brother. In the provinces, too, it was taken for granted that they were Augustus’ heirs. In 1 BC Gaius was despatched to the East to learn more about the region, to negotiate with the Parthians, and to install a client king on Armenia. In AD 1 he assumed control of Syria. 

Gaius Caesar

Lucius Caesar
But by this time, the first of a series of disasters had struck the family. In 2 BC, Julia was arrested for treason and for adultery with an unspecified number of men. This was doubly embarrassing for Augustus as he had been passing legislation to promote family life and moral values. Julia may have been part of an aristocratic clique designed to remove Tiberius, or she might have been the victim of a coup. Reluctant to execute her, Augustus made Tiberius divorce her, and exiled her to the island of Pandateria, where she was forbidden to see any men or drink wine. (Five years later she was transferred to the mainland, but with the accession of Tiberius in AD 14 she was confined in harsh conditions and died shortly afterwards.)

In AD 2 Lucius died suddenly in Massilia (Marseille). In AD 4 Gaius died in Lycia (southern Turkey). Both young men were buried in Augustus’ museum in the Field of Mars, and with them died his hopes of seeing his descendants inherit his office. The way was now open for Livia’s sons. Augustus seems to have favoured Drusus’ son Germanicus, who was a blood relation, being the son of his niece, Antonia, and a reluctant Tiberius was forced to adopt him as his son in AD 4. Augustus then adopted Tiberius, making his stepson and former son-in-law his son.

Tiberius 42 BC- 37 AD
Augustus's successor,
a man with many inner demons

The disaster of the Teutoburg Forest

In AD 9 the Roman army experienced its greatest defeat since the wars with Hannibal when an alliance of three Germanic tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburg ForestDespite several subsequent campaigns, the Romans never again attempted to conquer the area east of the Rhine.

According to the historian Suetonius, when he heard of the disaster Augustus 
'left his hair and beard untrimmed for moths; he would often beat his head on a door, shouting "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!" and always kept the anniversary as a day of deep mourning.'

Tiberius succeeds Augustus

In AD 13 Tiberius received an imperium equal to Augustus’ own, which empowered him to act in every province where he commanded troops. In his will of the same year, Augustus named him as his heir. He had secured the succession, though Tiberius had never been his first choice. In spite of the gossip of the historians, there is no evidence that Livia had engineered the deaths that made possible her son's accession.