After defeating Pompey and his allies at Pharsalus in Greece, and victories over other opponents in Egypt ad Spain, Caesar returned to Rome where he was appointed `dictator perpetuus’ (supreme ruler for life). His measures included reform of the calendar with the introduction of leap years and the month Quintilis was subsequently renamed `Iulius’ (July) after him. In 44 B.C. he was assassinated by a group of senators who wished to restore the republican system.
After the assassination, his lieutenant Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) pretended to be willing to co-operate with Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators but then in his speech at Caesar’s funeral incited the crowd to turn against them. Antony then combined with Lepidus, another former lieutenant of Caesar’s, and with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, to form the Second Triumvirate and fight a renewed civil war against Brutus and Cassius’s forces.
Since many of the conspirators against Caesar had been former Republicans pardoned by him, Antony and Octavian were ruthless against their own opponents, ordering the killing of many of them, including the leading lawyer and politician Cicero.
The decisive battle was fought in Greece, at Philippi, where Brutus (shown here) and Cassius committed suicide after the defeat of their forces. The struggle is dramatised in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; although Caesar’s death occurs early in the play, his ghost dominates subsequent events.
The victors soon fell out and there was a renewed battle for supremacy between Octavian and Marcus Antonius, who, like Julius Caesar before him, had become the lover as well as political ally of Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Egypt.
Once again the destiny of Rome was decided by a battle in Greece. After Octavian’s victory in the naval battle of Actium, which his propaganda presented as a struggle between West and East rather than the final engagement in Rome’s civil wars, he edged Lepidus out of power to emerge in sole command of the roman state..
In 27 B.C., Octavian laid down his formal powers over the Roman state and staged a theoretical restoration of the Republic, with himself merely the first citizen (princeps). In fact, he and his successors continued to exercise full control of affairs. He assumed the name Augustus and the eighth month of the year (formerly known as Sextilis) was named after him.
Tiberius’s reign (14 to 37 A.D.) covered most of the lifetime of Jesus Christ, who was crucified around 31 A.D. Although he was a competent administrator, he was unpopular among the senatorial elite for the encouragement of a system of informers and for action against real or imagined opponents..
Caligula (`little boots’), emperor from 37 to 41 A.D., was initially popular but became insane and committed acts of great cruelty until his murder by the praretorian guards. His real name was Gaius but he is better known by the nickname given him by his father’s troops because as a child he used to appear among them in a miniature military uniform
The reign of Claudius ( 41–54) saw the annexation of Britain as a province, a step mainly intended to strengthen Claudius’s own position after he had been placed on the throne by troops who had murdered the emperor Caligula. Claudius was a scholarly and cautious ruler, but he had a cruel streak and even had his wife, Messalina, executed. At the same time, his reign was marked by stability and good government in the provinces, and successful management of tributary kingdoms.
Nero, emperor from 54-68, was rumoured to have played a musical instrument while much of Rome was destroyed by a great fire in 64. Many believed that he was himself responsible from the disaster, which enabled him to create an enormous new palace on a site cleared by the blaze. He himself blamed the Christians and launched the first large-scale persecution of the new sect. The phrase `fiddling while Rome burns’ is now used of anyone who wastes time on trivial matters whilst a disaster unfolds.
In 79 A.D. Vesuvius, the long-dormant volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples, erupted, overwhelming the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum but preserving their ruins to be excavated from the 18th century onwards. As the bodies of those who died decayed, they left hollows within the cooling lava which archaeologists have filled with plaster to produce a perfect replica of the shape they assumed when killed instantaneously by the intense heat.
Trajan (emperor from 98 to 117) extended the empire northwards and eastwards, bringing it to its maximum size. Trajan’s Column in Rome commemorates his conquest of Dacia, roughly corresponding to modern Romania
Hadrian, emperor from 117 to 138, abandoned much of the territory conquered by Trajan and concentrated on strengthening the frontiers, including the construction of `Hadrian’s Wall’ in Britain. He had also to put down a major uprising in Palestine after his decision to build a temple of Jupiter on the site of Jerusalem where the Jewish temple had once stood.
Diocletian, emperor from 284 till his abdication in 305, stabilised the empire after the crises of the 3rd century, establishing the `tetrarchy’, with two co-emperors known as `Augusti’ and two junior assistants (and probable successors) styled `Caesars’. He increased taxation, attempted to control inflation and also in 303 instituted the last, and the most severe attempt by the Roman government to wipe out Christianity .
Constantine, emperor from 306 to 337, is best known for proclaiming official toleration of Christianity and finally accepting baptism himself shortly before his death. He was proclaimed `Augustus’ (i.e. co-emperor) by his own troops at Eboracum (York) in Britain when his father, who had held that position, died there in 306. This statue outside York Minster commemorates the event. Constantine expanded the city of Byzantium (later known as Constantinople), making it the capital of the eastern half of the empire.
By the end of the 4th century the Roman heartland was under pressure from Germanic tribes, who were themselves fleeing the onslaught of the Huns from central Asia. The `eternal city’ was captured by the Visigoths in 410 A.D., the same year that the last Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain. The eastern half of the Empire, however, administered from Constantinople (Istanbul), survived for another thousand years, finally to fall to the Turks in 1453.