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The Crisis of Succession

Succession Planning from 23 – 12

Issues of succession emerged in 23 BC when Augustus was gravely ill. The choice was between the experienced Marcus Agrippa and Augustus’s nephew Claudius Marcellus. Augustus chose Agrippa, it seems. We cannot know whether a clash between two potential successors in 23 BC is any more than the fevered imaginative interpretations of later writers, working with the expectation that a relative would always succeed when one is available.

But it seems evident from the politics surrounding the crisis that year that two notions of political authority and legitimacy were in competition. The one was dynastic and regal and it was that which underpinned Claudius Marcellus’ claim for authority. The other was based on the experience and status of the individual. It was that which underpinned Agrippa’s claim.

The death of Marcellus ended any competition, real or imagined. But the public demonstrations of mourning and the ceremonies around the interment of Marcellus’ ashes in the Mausoleum of Augustus, and the honours granted to the late youth show  a markedly monarchic political culture.

It was in 21, perhaps two years after Marcellus’ death that Augustus turned to his closest associate, Agrippa (Dio, 54.6) as the new husband for Julia. Agrippa was the obvious and experienced choice. His marriage to Augustus’ only daughter consolidated his position and marked him yet more obviously as Augustus’ heir and gave the family more solidity. It now had two leading men on whom it could rely.

The marriage proved fruitful. Agrippa and Julia had Gaius Caesar (20 BC), Julia (19 BC), Lucius (17 BC), Agrippina (14 BC), and Agrippa (12 BC). Augustus adopted Gaius and Lucius and, to judge by her name, Julia. By so doing, he marked the boys as his heirs.

Agrippa died in 12 BC. Augustus lost his closest associate. He had been his leading general for three decades. He was also at the centre of the dynasty. His death raised some of the same issues that had followed from the death of Marcellus. But rather than a paucity of heirs, there was now potentially a surplus.

Tiberius by Augustus’ Side

Gaius and Lucius were evidently too young to take a responsible political position. For the immediate needs of the dynasty, Augustus needed a powerful adult male deputy.

He turned to the sons of his wife Livia. Tiberius, who was born in 42 BC, and (Nero Claudius) Drusus who had been born born in 38 BC, just before their mother married Augustus. These two had been  given major military roles in the Augustan expansion in the West.

Tiberius was married to Julia in 11 BC (Dio, 54.35).  Two years later, Drusus died from an illness he contracted while on campaign (Dio, 55.1-2).

In 6 BC, Augustus took the next logical step in the elevation of Tiberius and granted him  tribunician power (Dio, 55.9).  He was 35, Rome’s most experienced general after Augustus, married the emperor’s daughter, and without doubt the second man of state.

Tiberius Rejects Augustus

Soon after being raised to tribunician power, Tiberius claimed to be weary of honours, and desirous of rest and requested leave (Suetonius, Tiberius 10). The word Suetonius uses could refer to a soldier asking for leave of absence from his unit.

Augustus refused. Livia interceded with Tiberius. This might seem to us a private matter, which one might expect to be resolved behind closed doors within the family. But the Augustan system did not work like that. This was a public family. Augustus complained in the senate, making obvious his view that Tiberius was refusing to do his duty. Tiberius responded by going on hunger strike. Augustus relented. Tiberius left for Ostia, boarded a boat for Rhodes, and went into a self-imposed exile.

He was not stripped of his powers and he was never formally exiled.

For three decades, the Augustan family had been a tight-knit group of political operatives, working closely together.

So what happened? Later, Tiberius later said that he was shocked by his wife Julia’s adulteries. But that feels like a story told after Julia’s fall. It is more tempting to relate the events to the rise of Gaius and Lucius.

Gaius has presided over celebrations for the return of Augustus to the city in 7 BC. Both Gaius and Lucius (and young Agrippa) had been at the centre of funeral games held for Agrippa in the same year (Dio, 55.8). Then, in 6 BC the people elected Gaius consul, an election Augustus disallowed. He was, however, honoured with a priesthood and allowed to attend meetings of the senate. He was 14 and already a favourite of the people (Dio, 55.9).

Gaius and Lucius were not of an age to threaten Tiberius and Tiberius himself had just been given tribunician power. Popular support for the two boys was one thing; giving them political power was another.

  • Did Tiberius see a moment in the future when he would be replaced by his wife’s boys?
  • Had Augustus made clear his intention that his grandsons would succeed to his position?
  • Was their rivalry between the boys and their step-father?
  • What role did the women take, Livia and Julia?
  • Was Tiberius’s fatigue simply anger that he was working and fighting to be rewarded by a subsidiary role in the imperial hierarchy behind those boys?
  • Why would Tiberius take second place to anyone?

The rapid elevation of Gaius suggests that some saw him and Lucius as the natural heirs. Gaius and Lucius had no offices, no experience, no personal moral authority, none of the criteria for holding the imperial position that we identified above, yet they were still the preferred successors. It was a profoundly monarchic sentiment and continued the tension that we see throughout around issues of succession.

The circumstances of the imperial court meant that there was a close relationship between the personal and the political. Sexual relations, familial relations, political relations, honour, ambition, jealousy all were mixed together. Whatever the nature of the clash within the imperial family, the crisis of 6 BC left Augustus without an adult male deputy for the first time since 23 BC and the future of the regime was thrown into doubt.


Augustus              Conquest in the West                   Livia              Issues of Succession           Dynastic Manoeuvres       Julia’s Boys and the Imperial Succession








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