The Succession of Imperial Power under the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (30 BC – AD 68)

by Paweł Sawiński (Author)
©2018 Monographs 298 Pages


This book focuses on the problem of succession of the imperial power under the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In the first part of the work, the author analyses the succession policy of the princeps from the first imperial dynasty. On the basis of numerous literary texts, numismatic and epigraphic sources, he tries to establish which roles separate members of the imperial family played in the dynastic plans of Augustus and his successors. The second part of the book concentrates on the mechanisms of taking over the imperial power during the reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Among other things, the author tries to find out which factors played a decisive role in electing next princeps from the dynasty and, what is more, what the model of appointing a new emperor looked like.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Terminological and Editorial Notes
  • Part One The Succession Policies of the Julio-Claudian Emperors
  • 1 Augustus
  • 1.1 Marcus Claudius Marcellus: the First Prospective Successor?
  • 1.2 Marcus Agrippa: Augustus’ collega imperii or Successor?
  • 1.3 Tiberius, Drusus the Elder and the Problem of Succession from 12 to 6 bc
  • 1.4 Gaius and Lucius Caesar as Intended Successors
  • 1.4.1 Adoption
  • 1.4.2 Cursus honorum, Public Presentation and Honorifics
  • 1.4.3 Posthumous Honours
  • 1.5 The Adoptions of ad 4: the Origins of the New Order of Succession
  • 1.5.1 Tiberius’ adrogatio and Grant of Imperial Prerogatives
  • 1.5.2 The Adoption of Germanicus
  • 1.5.3 The Adoption and abdicatio of Agrippa Postumus
  • 1.5.4 Ara Providentiae Augustae
  • 1.5.5 Tiberius as Augustus’ Successor and collega imperii
  • 2 Tiberius
  • 2.1 Germanicus and Drusus the Younger as Candidates to Succession
  • 2.1.1 Public Presentation and Honorifics
  • 2.1.2 Posthumous Honours
  • 2.2 Germanicus’ Sons as Potential Successors
  • 2.3 Sejanus: Co-regent or Potential Successor?
  • 2.4 Gaius Caligula or Tiberius Gemellus? The Problem of the Succession During the Final Years of Tiberius’ Rule
  • 2.5 Tiberius’ Last Will and the Issue of “Doppelprinzipat”
  • 3 Caligula
  • 3.1 Tiberius Gemellus as Caligula’s Intended Successor?
  • 3.2 Julia Drusilla and Marcus Lepidus in the Princeps’ Succession Plans
  • 4 Claudius
  • 4.1 Britannicus as the Primary Successor
  • 4.2 Gnaeus Pompeius and Lucius Silanus: the Emperor’s Sons-in-law as Possible Successors?
  • 4.3 Britannicus or Nero? The Problem of Succession During the Final Years of Claudius’ Rule
  • 5 Nero
  • Conclusions
  • Part Two “The princeps is dead, long live the princeps”: the New Emperors Taking Over
  • 6 Tiberius’ Accession
  • 6.1 Augustus’ Death and Last Will
  • 6.2 Recusatio imperii: Tiberius’ Unwillingness to Become Princeps
  • 6.3 Tiberius’ Official Titulature after Accession
  • 6.4 Primum facinus novi principatus: the Murder of Agrippa Postumus
  • 7 Caligula’s Accession
  • 7.1 Tiberius’ Death and Caligula’s First Actions Intended to Secure the Succession
  • 7.2 Granting Caligula Imperial Prerogatives
  • 7.3 Caligula and the recusatio imperii
  • 8 Proclaiming Claudius the Next Princeps
  • 8.1 The Position of the Senate Regarding the Appointment of Caligula’s Successor
  • 8.2 Claudius Hailed Emperor by the Praetorian Guard: an Accident, or a Planned Scenario?
  • 8.3 The Problem of Legitimizing Claudius’ Succession
  • 9 Nero’s Succession
  • 9.1 Claudius’ Death and Will
  • 9.2 The Successive Stages of Nero’s Rise to the Purple
  • 9.3 Eliminating Potential Rivals in the Struggle for Imperial Power
  • Conclusions
  • In Closing
  • Appendix: The dies principatus of the Julio-Claudian Emperors
  • List of Figures
  • Bibliography
  • Sources
  • Literature
  • Index


The succession of imperial power makes for one of the most riveting aspects of the history of the Roman Empire. This is largely due to the specificity of the principate, a de facto monarchy officially perceived as a continuation and “restoration” of the Republic1. The position of the princeps was never inheritable nor were there any legal documents in existence regulating succession. These features fundamentally distinguish the principate from most mediaeval or modern monarchies known to us. Even so, a distinct majority of Roman emperors pursued dynastic policies, undertaking various measures intended to prepare and ensure the succession of their chosen heir. Furthermore, from the times of Augustus onward, a clear tendency of attempting to pass on the purple within one’s family can be observed, thus confirming a dynastic rule.

This dissertation focuses on the succession of imperial power under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, thus encompassing the period from 30 BC to AD 68. There are two reasons why I limit my analysis to the first imperial dynasty. First, the enormous size of the subject matter dissuaded me from my original intention of discussing the problem as it unfolded throughout the principate. Second, after Nero’s death certain new trends appeared with regard to the procedure for appointing the new princeps: to counteract the dynastic principle there was a rising demand for the best to be chosen, with the candidate’s qualifications and merits being decisive rather than his family connections, whereas the Year of the Four Emperors demonstrated it was possible to be made princeps away from Rome and by the legions as well as by the Praetorian Guard and the Senate. Both these tendencies would make themselves known in the future, as successive emperors came into power, and until the end of the principate.

The book has been divided into two parts, with the discussion organized chronologically and thematically. In the five chapters of Part One, I mostly investigate the mechanisms of the succession policies of the Julio-Claudian emperors, where by succession policy I mean primarily those deliberate actions of the princeps ←11 | 12→aimed at determining political succession and ensuring that his chosen successor would assume power smoothly. Under that term I also include any actions of the incumbent emperor taken with a view to increasing the popularity of his anticipated successors, intended to secure them the support of various circles of Roman society, particularly the army and the plebs, as well as dynastic murders used by any current princeps to eliminate potential rivals in the struggle for the throne or to pave the road to succession for his envisioned successor. In Part One, I concentrate on determining the roles played by certain members of the imperial family in the succession plans of the rulers from the first dynasty. I also look into the cursus honorum, the public presentation and honours of the intended successors, which made it possible to establish the hierarchy within the ruling family, and into dynastic adoption and marriages, both of which were important parts of the succession policies of Augustus and his successors.

In Part Two of the book, comprising four chapters, I analyse the various stages of the accessions of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. I also try to determine who decided the appointment of the new ruler in situations where the previous emperor had not, and what the Julio-Claudian model of the investiture of a new princeps was. My discussion is completed by the Appendix, where I attempt to discern how the various rulers in the first imperial dynasty dated the beginning of their reign (or the dies principatus).

The rule of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the succession policies of its emperors both enjoy fairly solid documentation in the source material. Of course that does not mean we are able to find the answers to all the questions asked in this book in the sources; in many respects we are still forced to settle for mere guesses—some likely, others less so.

The first group of sources is made up from the accounts of ancient historians. Here, I only mention those which were the most vital for my work. To follow the chronological order, I shall begin with the Historia Romana by Velleius Paterculus, an author active under Augustus and Tiberius. In book two of his work, Paterculus recounts, among other things, the events of Augustus’ principate and the most salient aspects of Tiberius’ reign. While he witnessed many of the things he wrote about, we need to approach his text with great caution, as many of his passages are a kind of a panegyric in Tiberius’ honour. Moreover, before Tiberius’ adoption, Paterculus’ narrative frequently exaggerates his actual standing within the domus Augusta.

The next sources to be listed must be Bellum Iudaicum and Antiquitates Iudaicae by Flavius Josephus, active under the Flavii. Those two works, books 2 and 19, respectively, contain the most extensive account of the stormy events surrounding Caligula’s assassination and Claudius’ rise to power. ←12 | 13→

Another ancient source to take into account is Tacitus’ Annales, dated to the end of Trajan’s or the beginning of Hadrian’s reign. In there, we find a brief summary of Augustus’ principate, a comprehensive account of Tiberius’ rule (in books 1–6) and a description of the closing part of Claudius’ principate as well as all of Nero’s, excluding the last two years (in books 11–16). Unfortunately, books 7–10, which dealt with the reign of Caligula and the first part of Claudius’, are not extant, and book 5 is only preserved in part, meaning that some years are missing from the account of Tiberius’ principate as well. And while the author states sine ira et studio to be his guiding principle, he fails to remain objective: in his descriptions of Tiberius, Agrippina the Younger and Nero there are echoes of the literary tradition hostile to them, which clearly influenced him. However, such reservations aside, Tacitus’ work is undoubtedly one of the most significant and valuable sources on the first imperial dynasty.

Another key text is De vita Caesarum by Suetonius, who was active during the reign of Hadrian. The book contains biographies of all the principes in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and while it is often anecdotal and gossipy, it does provide much valuable information on the succession policies of Augustus and his successors.

Finally, I must not omit Historia Romana by Cassius Dio, a historian active at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This book is a monumental history of Rome—from its origins until Severus Alexander, or to be precise, until AD 229. For my purposes, books 51–63 are crucial, as they detail the rule of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Unfortunately, some passages of those books (especially those on Claudius and Nero) have only come down to us in epitomes made by the Byzantine authors Xiphilinos and Zonaras, and in mediaeval excerpts. Despite this reservation, and the considerable time gap separating Cassius Dio from the events he wrote about, his work is no doubt next to that of Tacitus, the most extensive and important historical text for researching the first imperial dynasty.

The other type of sources, and of particular importance to the problem discussed in this book, are the epigraphic ones. Of those, the first that ought to be listed are the two inscriptions from Pisa containing the texts of the honorific decrees passed by the authorities of that Italian town for Gaius and Lucius Caesar, Augustus’ grandsons and adoptive sons2, which make it possible to see the Pisans’ reaction to the death of the princeps’ intended successors and provide detailed information on their posthumous honours. ←13 | 14→

Then there are three monumental inscriptions worthy of particular notice: the Tabula Hebana, the Tabula Siarensis and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone patre. The first two contain the Senate decrees passed after Germanicus’ death and are an invaluable source of information on his posthumous honours, but there is the problem of the Tabula Siarensis being incomplete in places, forcing us to resort to reconstruction; the third inscription contains the text of the senatus consultum passed in connection with the trial of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who was charged with contributing to Germanicus’ death, and supplies important information on the relations between the ruling dynasty, the Senate, the equestrian order, the plebs and the army3.

It is also worth mentioning the inscriptions from Aritium (in Hispania Lusitania) and Assos (in Asia province), which contain the text of the oath the people of those two towns swore to Caligula after he was made princeps, and make for an important source of information on the mood among the inhabitants of the provinces regarding Germanicus’ son’s rise to imperial power.

Finally, the Acta Fratrum Arvalium (abbreviated hereafter to AFA) prove invaluable, as they make it possible to reconstruct the various stages of Caligula’s and Nero’s imperial accessions4.

The third category of sources I have used in writing this book comprises coins, the so-called official series being the most important5. Those include the coins struck in the imperial mint located in Lugdunum until Caligula’s time and later in Rome, as well as those produced in the mint administered by the Senate, also in Rome. Scholars hotly dispute the degree to which their legends and iconography reflected the intentions of the incumbent princeps, and whether coins were a medium of official propaganda6. Personally, I fully agree with Carlos Noreña, who asserted that “Each coin minted at Rome was an official document and as such represented an official expression of the emperor and his regime.”7 Thus the official coin series is fundamental to examining the succession policies ←14 | 15→of the various principes. Provincial coins also hold considerable significance8. Their message usually correlates with that of imperial coins, which demonstrates that the inhabitants of the provinces were familiar with the current hierarchies within the imperial family and the current succession order, as they knew quite well whom and how to honour.

Lastly, iconographic sources need to be mentioned. My analysis includes, without being limited to, the famous relief sculptures of the Ara Pacis, the Boscoreale skyphoi, the gemma Augustea and a number of phalerae depicting members of the imperial family. Still, it ought to be emphasized that any discussion based on this category of sources may only be hypothetical. There are two major reasons for this. First, it is impossible to be certain which members of the reigning dynasty are depicted on those relics; and second, they cannot be dated accurately.

Imperial succession under the Julio-Claudian dynasty has not received treatment to date in the form of a comprehensive monograph9. Not that the questions I raise in this book have not been investigated in scholarship before. Since the literature which to varying degrees deals with the topics I discuss here is immense, I shall limit myself to listing the most crucial titles. First of all, there is Alexander Mlasowsky’s extensive paper10 analysing certain selected aspects of the succession-related propaganda of all the Julio-Claudian emperors. However, his perspective is largely that of numismatic and iconographic sources, with less attention paid to literature and inscriptions. Nor is it possible to accept all his findings. Then one must remember the publications about selected aspects of the succession policies of the rulers from the first imperial dynasty, most of them focusing on Augustus. They include especially the work of Barbara Levick, Peter ←15 | 16→Sattler, John H. Corbett, Glen Bowersock, Mark D. Fullerton, Hartwin Brandt, Frédéric Hurlet, Andrew Pettinger, Tom Stevenson and Robin Seager11. Other works worthy of mention are the monographs by Maria H. Dettenhofer and Beth Severy, both insightful accounts of the building of a dynasty by the first princeps and of the domus Augusta forming as the new ruling elite12. Tiberius’ succession policy, however, has attracted scholarly attention to a lesser degree, featuring mostly in the works of Fernand de Visscher, Eckhard Meise and Paul Schrömbges13. Then there is a similar trend for Caligula and Claudius; of the works dealing with their dynastic policies, one needs to mention those by Edoardo Bianchi and Josiah Osgood14.

Other than those, publications important to the problems investigated in this book include any that deal with the issues of appointing successors, transferring the imperial power and investing the new emperor under the principate, especially those by Jean Béranger, Léon Lesuisse, Dieter Timpe, Blanche Parsi and John Scheid15.

The aspects of the Julio-Claudian reign of interest to me are also extensively discussed in the biographies of the several principes and other members of the dynasty, most of them centring on Augustus, of course. Those by Dietmar Kienast, Jochen Bleicken, Werner Eck and Barbara Levick are particularly noteworthy16, and Levick has biographies of Tiberius and Claudius as well17. Of Caligula’s biographies, those by Anthony Barrett and Alois Winterling deserve mention18, and when it comes to Nero, there is Miriam Griffin’s book19. Biographies of individual members of the imperial family worth listing include the work of Meyer Reinhold and Jean M. Roddaz on Agrippa, Bruno Gallotta’s on Germanicus and Anthony Barrett’s on Agrippina the Younger20. ←16 | 17→

Terminological and Editorial Notes

In this book, I make use of terms such as monarchy, dynasty, co-regent or the throne, which some might consider anachronistic when applied to the Julio-Claudian period. That is because I believe the principate to have been a de facto monarchy, and in my view these terms aptly reflect the historical realities described. Furthermore, the terminology is in widespread use in scholarly literature on the subject.

All the abbreviations of the names of ancient authors and the titles of their works are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

The abbreviated titles of journals, publication series, catalogues of coins and inscriptions follow the convention used by L’Année Philologique.

1Many books have been written on the essence of the principate as a system of government, as well as on the position of the princeps within the new political regime. The most significant works on the subject include Hammond 1933; Von Premerstein 1937; Béranger 1953; id. 1959, 151–170; Kunkel 1961, 353–370; Alföldi 1970; Castritius 1982; Badian 1982, 18–41; Wallace-Hadrill 1982, 32–48; Eder 1990, 71–122; Linderski 1990, 42–53; Lacey 1996; Welwei 2004, 217–229; Gruen 2005, 33–51; and Veyne 2008, 9–73.

2For the most important editions of the Pisan inscriptions, see especially Rowe 2002, 119–123; and Lott 2012, 57–77.

3These three inscriptions have had many editions, of which the most important ones include: Crawford 1996; Eck, Caballos, Fernandéz 1996; Sànchez–Gutiérrez 1999; and Lott 2012.

4For the standard edition, see Scheid 1998.

5I primarily make use of the classical corpus of official coins that is The Roman Imperial Coinage, I2: From 31 BC to AD 69, ed. C. H. V. Sutherland, London 1984.

6See, among others, Grant 1952, 79–85; Jones 1956, 13–33; Sutherland 1959, 46–55; Göbl 1978; Crawford 1983, 47–64.

7Noreña 2001, 147.

8The standard edition of provincial coins minted under the Julio-Claudian dynasty is Roman Provincial Coinage, I: From the Death of Caesar to the Death of Vitellius (44 BC–AD 69), eds. A. Burnett, M. Amandry, P. P. Ripollès, London 1992.

9Although there is Blanche Parsi’s book (1963); still, this mostly deals with the legal aspects of designating and investing the new princeps in the first two centuries of the Empire, and the author devotes only very little attention to succession policies during the principate. Then we have The Julio-Claudian Succession. Reality and Perception of ‘Augustan Model’ (ed. A. G. G. Gibson), Leiden–Boston 2013, a collection of articles published by the prestigious Brill, but it is not exhaustive; the articles collected there touch on only some of the issues I discuss here. This is also the right place to mention M. Hammond’s paper (1956); still, this only looks into the succession of imperial power in the period from Nero’s death until Severus Alexander, and devotes only a few introductory pages to Julio-Claudian times.

10Mlasowsky 1996, 249–388.

11Levick 1966, 227–244; Sattler 1969, 486–530; Corbett 1974, 87–97; Bowersock 1984, 169–188; Fullerton 1985, 473–483; Brandt 1995, 1–17; Hurlet 1997 (passim); Pettinger 2012 (passim); Stevenson 2013, 118–139; Seager 2013, 41–57.

12Dettenhoffer 2000; Severy 2003.

13De Visscher 1964, 54–65; Meise 1966, 7–21; Schrömbges 1986 (passim).

14Bianchi 2006, 597–630; Osgood 2011.

15Béranger 1939 (1973), 137–152; Lesuisse 1961a, 415–428; id. 1962, 32–50; Timpe 1962; Parsi 1963; Scheid 1992, 221–237.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Imperial family Dynastic policy Succession policy Emperor Heir
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 298 pp., 15 fig. col., 14 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Paweł Sawiński (Author)

Paweł Sawiński is Associate Professor at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań, Poland. His scholarly articles and books deal with various aspects of the history of ancient Rome.


Title: The Succession of Imperial Power under the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (30 BC – AD 68)