Julio-Claudian dynasty

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Roman imperial dynasties
Julio-Claudian dynasty
The statue known as the Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century
Augustus 27 BC14 AD
Tiberius 1437 AD
Caligula 3741 AD
Claudius 4154 AD
Nero 5468 AD
Gens Julia
Gens Claudia
Julio-Claudian family tree
Category:Julio-Claudian dynasty
Preceded by
Roman Republic
Followed by
Year of the Four Emperors

The Julio-Claudian dynasty normally refers to the first five Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero,[1] or the family to which they belonged; they ruled the Roman Empire from its formation, in the second half of the 1st century (44/31/27) BC, until AD 68, when the last of the line, Nero, committed suicide.[2]

None of the Julio-Claudians were succeeded by his son; only one of them had a legitimate son survive him. The ancient historians who dealt with this period - chiefly Suetonius (c. 69 – after 122 AD) and Tacitus (c. 56 – after 117) - express the point of view of the Roman senatorial aristocracy, and portray the Emperors in generally negative terms, whether from preference for the Roman Republic or from love of a good scandalous story.

Tacitus wrote of the historiography of the Julio-Claudian emperors:

But the successes and reverses of the old Roman people have been recorded by famous historians; and fine intellects were not wanting to describe the times of Augustus, till growing sycophancy scared them away. The histories of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred.[3]


Julius and Claudius were two Roman family names; in classical Latin, they came second. Roman family names were inherited from father to son, but a Roman aristocrat could – either during his life or in his will – adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. In accordance with Roman naming conventions, the adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. A famous example of this custom is Julius Caesar's adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius.

Augustus, as Caesar's adopted son and heir, discarded the family name of his natural father and initially renamed himself "Gaius Julius Caesar" after his adoptive father. It was also customary for the adopted son to acknowledge his original family by adding an extra name at the end of his new name. As such, Augustus' adopted name would have been "Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus." However, there is no evidence that he ever used the name Octavianus.

Following Augustus' ascension as the first emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, his family became a de facto royal house, known in historiography as the "Julio-Claudian dynasty." For various reasons, the Julio-Claudians followed in the example of Julius Caesar and Augustus by utilizing adoption as a tool for dynastic succession. The next four emperors were closely related through a combination of blood relation, marriage and adoption.

Tiberius, a Claudian by birth, became Augustus' stepson after the latter's marriage to Livia, who divorced Tiberius' natural father in the process. Tiberius' connection to the Julian side of the Imperial family grew closer when he married Augustus' only daughter, Julia the Elder. He ultimately succeeded Augustus as emperor in AD 14 after becoming his stepfather's adopted son and heir.

Caligula was born into the Julian and Claudian branches of the Imperial family, thereby making him the first actual "Julio-Claudian" emperor. His father, Germanicus, was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia Minor, the son of Livia and the daughter of Octavia Minor respectively. Germanicus was also a great-nephew of Augustus on his mother's side. His wife, Agrippina the Elder, was a granddaughter of Augustus. Through Agrippina, Germanicus' children – including Caligula – were Augustus' great-grandchildren. When Augustus adopted Tiberius, the latter was required to adopt his brother's eldest son as well, thus allowing Germanicus' side of the Imperial family to inherit the Julius nomen.

Claudius, the younger brother of Germanicus, was a Claudian on the side of his father, Nero Claudius Drusus. However, he was also related to the Julian branch of the Imperial family through his mother, Antonia Minor. As a son of Antonia, Claudius was a great-nephew of Augustus. Moreover, he was also Augustus' step-grandson due to the fact that his father was a stepson of Augustus. Unlike Tiberius and Germanicus, both of whom were born as Claudians and became adopted Julians, Claudius was not adopted into the Julian family. Upon becoming emperor, however, he added the Julian-affiliated cognomen Caesar to his full name.

Nero was a great-great-grandson of Augustus and Livia through his mother, Agrippina the Younger. The younger Agrippina was a daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, as well as Caligula's sister. Through his mother, Nero was related by blood to the Julian and Claudian branches of the Imperial family. However, he was born into the Domitii Ahenobarbi on his father's side. Nero became a Claudian in name as a result of Agrippina's marriage to her uncle, Claudius, who ultimately adopted her son as his own. He succeeded Claudius in AD 54, becoming the last direct descendant of Augustus to rule the Roman Empire. Within a year of Nero's suicide in AD 68, the Julio-Claudian dynasty was succeeded by the Flavian emperors following a brief civil war over the vacant Imperial throne.

Rise and fall of the Julio-Claudians[edit]

This marble statue of a youth on horseback is believed to represent a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty


Lacking any male child and heir Augustus married his only daughter Julia to his nephew Marcus Claudius Marcellus. However, Marcellus died of food poisoning in 23 BC. Augustus then married his widowed daughter to his loyal friend, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. This marriage produced five children, three sons and two daughters: Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, Julia the Younger, Agrippina the Elder, and Agrippa Postumus.

Gaius and Lucius, the first two children of Julia and Agrippa, were adopted by Augustus and became heirs to the throne; however, Augustus also showed great favor toward his wife Livia's two children from her first marriage: Drusus and Tiberius. They were successful military leaders who had fought against the barbarian Germanic tribes.

Agrippa died in 12 BC, and Tiberius was ordered by Augustus to divorce his wife Vipsania Agrippina and marry his stepsister, the twice-widowed Julia. Drusus, the brother of Tiberius, died in 9 BC after falling from a horse. Tiberius shared in Augustus' tribune powers, but shortly thereafter, in 6 BC, he went into voluntary exile in Rhodes. After the early deaths of both Lucius (AD 2) and Gaius (AD 4), Augustus was forced to recognize Tiberius as the next Roman emperor. Augustus banished his grandson Postumus Agrippa to the small island of Planasia (around AD 6 or 7), and Tiberius was recalled to Rome and officially adopted by Augustus.


On 19 August AD 14, Augustus died. Tiberius had already been established as Princeps in all but name, and his position as heir was confirmed in Augustus' will.[citation needed]

Despite his difficult relationship with the Senate, Tiberius's first years were generally good. He stayed true to Augustus’s plans for the succession and favored his adopted son Germanicus over his natural son, Drusus, as did the Roman populace. On Tiberius' request, Germanicus was granted proconsular power and assumed command in the prime military zone of Germania, where he suppressed the mutiny there and led the formerly restless legions on campaigns against Germanic tribes from AD 14 to 16. Germanicus died at Syria in AD 19 and, on his deathbed, accused the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, of murdering him at Tiberius’s orders. With Germanicus dead, Tiberius began elevating his own son Drusus to replace him as the Imperial successor. By this time Tiberius had left more of the day-to-day running of the Empire to Lucius Aelius Sejanus.[citation needed]

Sejanus created an atmosphere of fear in Rome, controlling a network of informers and spies whose incentive to accuse others of treason was a share in the accused's property after their conviction and death. Treason trials became commonplace; few members of the Roman aristocracy were safe. The trials played up to Tiberius' growing paranoia, which made him more reliant on Sejanus, as well as allowing Sejanus to eliminate potential rivals.[citation needed]

Tiberius, perhaps sensitive to this ambition, rejected Sejanus's initial proposal to marry Livilla in AD 25, but later had withdrawn his objections so that, in AD 30, Sejanus was betrothed to Livilla's daughter, Tiberius' granddaughter. Sejanus' family connection to the Imperial house was now imminent, and in AD 31 Sejanus held the Consulship with the emperor as his colleague, an honor Tiberius reserved only for heirs to the throne. When he was summoned to a meeting of the Senate later that year on 18 October AD 31. he probably expected to receive a share of the tribunician power. Instead, however, Tiberius' letter to the Senate, completely unexpectedly, requested the destruction of Sejanus and his faction. A purge followed, in which Sejanus and his most prominent supporters were killed.[citation needed]

Rome's second Emperor died at the port town of Misenum on 16 March AD 37, at the age of seventy-eight, having reigned for 23 years. Suetonius writes that the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard Naevius Sutorius Macro smothered Tiberius with a pillow to hasten Caligula's accession. According to Suetonius, he was known for his cruelty and debauchery through his perversion on the island of Capri where he forced young boys and girls into orgies. On one account when one of the boys complained, Tiberius had his legs broken. Suetonius' claims, however, have to be taken with a degree of skepticism, due to bitterness from the reign of previous emperors that usually accompanies the coming of a new leader.[clarification needed][citation needed]


Although Augustus's succession plans were all but ruined due to the deaths of more than several family members, including many of his own descendants, in the end Tiberius remained faithful to his predecessor's wishes that the next emperor would hail from the Julian side of the Imperial family. Thus, Tiberius was succeeded by Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the sole-remaining son of his adopted son Germanicus. The new emperor not only belonged to both the Julian and Claudian sides of the Imperial family, but was also a direct descendant of Augustus Caesar through his mother Agrippina the Elder. More commonly remembered in history by his childhood nickname Caligula, he was the third Roman Emperor ruling from AD 37 to 41.

When Tiberius died on 16 March AD 37, Caligula was well positioned to assume power, despite the obstacle of Tiberius’s will, which named him and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus as joint heirs. Caligula ordered Gemellus killed within his first year in power. Backed by Naevius Sutorius Macro, Caligula asserted himself as sole princeps.

There were several unsuccessful attempts made on Caligula's life. The successful conspiracy that ended Caligula's life was hatched by the disgruntled Praetorian Guard with backing by the Senate. The historian Josephus claims that the conspirators wished to restore the Republic while the historian Suetonius claims their motivations were mostly personal. On 24 January 41, the praetorian tribune Cassius Chaerea and his men stopped Caligula alone in an underground passage leading to a theater. They stabbed him to death. Together with another tribune, Cornelius Sabinus, he killed Caligula's wife Caesonia and their infant daughter Julia Drusilla on the same day.


After Caligula’s death, the senate attempted and failed to restore the Republic. Claudius, Caligula's uncle, became emperor by the instigation of the Praetorian Guards.[citation needed]

Despite his lack of political experience, Claudius proved to be an able administrator and a great builder of public works. His reign saw an expansion of the empire, including the invasion of Britain in 43 AD. He took a personal interest in the law, presided at public trials, and issued up to twenty edicts a day; however, he was seen as vulnerable throughout his rule, particularly by the nobility. Claudius was constantly forced to shore up his position—resulting in the deaths of many senators. Claudius also suffered tragic setbacks in his personal life. He married four times (to, in order, Plautia Urgulanilla, Aelia Paetina, Valeria Messalina, and finally Agrippina the Younger) and is referenced by Suetonius as being easily manipulated. This is particularly evident during his marriage to Agrippina the Younger, his niece.[citation needed]

Claudius' reign also included several attempts on his life. In order to gain political support, he married Agrippina and adopted his great-nephew Nero.[citation needed]

With his adoption on 25 February 50 AD, Nero became heir to the throne. Claudius died on 13 October 54 AD, and Nero became emperor. A number of ancient historians accuse Agrippina of poisoning Claudius, but details on these private events vary widely.[citation needed]


Nero became emperor in AD 54 at seventeen, the youngest emperor yet. Like his uncle Caligula before him, Nero was also a direct descendant of Augustus Caesar, a fact which made his ascension to the throne much easier and smoother than it had been for Tiberius or Claudius. Ancient historians describe Nero's early reign as being strongly influenced by his mother Agrippina, his tutor Seneca, and the Praetorian Prefect Burrus, especially in the first year. In AD 55, Nero began taking on a more active role as an administrator. He was consul four times between AD 55 and 60. Nero consolidated power over time through the execution and banishment of his rivals and slowly usurped authority from the Senate.

In AD 64 Rome burned. Nero enacted a public relief effort as well as large reconstruction projects. To fund this, the provinces were heavily taxed following the fire.

By AD 65, senators complained that they had no power left and this led to the Pisonian conspiracy. The conspiracy failed and its members were executed. Vacancies after the conspiracy allowed Nymphidius Sabinus to rise in the Praetorian Guard.

In late AD 67 or early 68, Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis in Gaul, rebelled against the tax policies of Nero. Lucius Virginius Rufus, the governor of superior Germany was sent to put down the rebellion. To gain support, Vindex called on Galba, the governor of Hispania Citerior in Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula, comprising modern Spain and Portugal), to become emperor. Virginius Rufus defeated Vindex's forces and Vindex committed suicide. Galba was declared a public enemy and his legion was confined in the city of Clunia.

Nero had regained the control of the empire militarily, but this opportunity was used by his enemies in Rome. The Praetorian Guard was bribed to betray Nero by Nymphidius Sabinus, who desired to become emperor himself.

Nero reportedly committed suicide with the help of his scribe Epaphroditos. The Senate, who were trying to preserve the dynastic bloodline by saving Nero's life were additionally reluctant to let someone who was not of the family to become emperor had no choice but to declare him a public enemy posthumously with Galba marching on the city so as Nero had committed suicide because of the decree. With his death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end. Chaos ensued in the Year of the Four Emperors.

Survival after the fall of Nero[edit]

Rubellia Bassa, Tiberius' great-granddaughter via his granddaughter Julia, was the only member of the dynasty to survive past its fall. However, she had children, and her last known descendant was Sergius Octavius Laenas Pontianus, consul in 131, who lived during the reign of Hadrian. After that, the line falls into the realm of mythology, where various medieval royal families have claimed some sort of descent.

Relationships between the rulers[edit]

The great-uncle /great-nephew blood relationship and/or adopted son relationship was commonly found between the rulers of Julio-Claudian dynasty.

  1. Augustus was the great-nephew and posthumously adopted son of Julius Caesar.
  2. Caligula was the great-nephew and grandson (via the adoption of Germanicus) of Tiberius.
  3. Claudius was the great-nephew of Augustus, as well as the nephew of Tiberius (and the only one of the five rulers to not be adopted).
  4. Nero was the great-nephew and adopted son of Claudius.

The other recurring relationship between emperor and successor is that of stepfather/stepson, a relationship not by blood but by marriage:

  1. Tiberius was Augustus's stepson due to the latter's marriage to Livia Drusilla. Tiberius and Drusus were the sons of Livia through her previous marriage to Tiberius Claudius Nero.
  2. Nero became the stepson of his great-uncle Claudius when the emperor married his niece Agrippina the Younger.

The uncle/nephew relationship also is prominent:

  1. Tiberius, the older brother of Drusus, was Claudius's paternal uncle.
  2. Claudius, the younger brother of Germanicus, was Caligula's paternal uncle.
  3. Caligula, the older brother of Agrippina the Younger, was Nero's maternal uncle.

No Julio-Claudian emperor was a blood descendant of his immediate predecessor. Although Tiberius and Claudius had potential heirs (Tiberius Gemellus and Britannicus, respectively) available for the succession, both were, in turn, ultimately succeeded by their great-nephews Caligula and Nero, respectively.

The fact that ordinary father-son (or grandfather-grandson) succession did not occur has contributed to the image of the Julio-Claudian court presented in Robert Graves's I, Claudius, a dangerous world where scheming family members were all too ready to murder the direct heirs so as to bring themselves, their own immediate families, or their lovers closer to the succession.

Dynastic timeline[edit]

Nero Claudius Caligula Tiberius Augustus

  1. Augustus (27 BC–AD 14)
  2. Tiberius (14–37)
  3. Caligula (37–41)
  4. Claudius (41–54)
  5. Nero (54–68)

Family tree[edit]

See also Julio-Claudian family tree.


  1. ^ Brill's New Pauly, "Julio-Claudian emperors"
  2. ^ There is some variation in usage; in strictly chronological contexts, it can be useful to distinguish between the long reign of Augustus and his Julio-Claudian, or Claudian, successors, the four of whom together reigned about as long as Augustus himself.
  3. ^ Tacitus, Annals I.1

Further reading[edit]

  • Matyszak, Philip. The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome's First Dynasty, London: Thames & Hudson, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-500-25128-2)
  • Anthony Kamm, The Romans an Introduction
  • Suetonius, The Lives of the twelve Caesars http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-index.html
  • Anthony A. Barrett, Agrippina : sex, power, and politics in the early Empire
  • Lecture and notes from CLCV 1003A (Classical Roman Civilization); Carleton University
  • Wood, Susan, The Incredible, Vanishing Wives of Nero http://www.portraitsofcaligula.com/3/miscellaneous1.htm
  • Holztrattner, Franz, Poppaea Neronis Potens: Studien zu Poppaea Sabina, Berger & Söhne: Graz-Horn, 1995
  • N.A. Octavia, tragedy preserved with the writings of Seneca
  • Tacitus, Annals
  • Robert Graves, I, Claudius
  • Robert Graves, Claudius the God

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Roman Republic
Julio-Claudian dynasty
30 BC –AD 69
Succeeded by
Flavian dynasty