After Julius Caesar died, five of his relatives followed him as leaders of Rome. Octavian was the first, who adopted the title of Emperor and brought an end to the Roman Republic. He was given the title Augustus. After Augustus came Tiberius, then Gaius (called Caligula for the little army boots he wore as a boy), then Claudius, and then Nero. None of them inherited their position from their father; the succession of the early emperors was far more complicated. But all of them gained power over the Roman Empire and ruled much of the known world from the city of Rome.
Augustus ruled as Emperor for more than forty years. His designated heir, Tiberius, ruled more than twenty years. Between them, they accustomed the Roman people to Imperial government, centered upon a single person. Gaius Caligula was far less competent. He saw that his predecessors, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, were being honored as Roman gods, and he demanded the honor and worship of a god while he was still alive. After four years of expensive and chaotic rule, he was assassinated. The Senate appeared ready to restore the Republic, but soldiers found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace and declared him Emperor. Claudius ruled the Empire about a dozen years, and his heir—Nero—was even worse than Caligula. Nero focused the power and wealth of the Empire upon himself. He accused wealthy people of treason so he could execute them and claim their families’ money for his expenses. He also sought honor as a god. Before he could be assassinated, though, he killed himself—the last Caesar to be related to Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.
By this time, the family name of Caesar had become a title, and it was sought by several generals of the Roman army. After a period of competing Caesars, accompanied by wars and assassinations, the general Vespasian was able to gain and keep power over the Empire as Caesar. After he died, his sons—first Titus, then Domitian—held power. After Domitian died, another period of chaos followed. In the next century, a line of several emperors managed to maintain a stable government. One feature of their rule was that each adopted a capable man to be son and heir, training him to follow them as Caesar. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius broke this pattern, making his own son Commodus his heir. Commodus was a disappointment, and once again the empire was thrown into turmoil, as various generals battled one another for power. Always, even from the time of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, control of the army was necessary for control of the Empire. Rome never had a Caesar who was not experienced in military matters and supported by the Roman army.
Three hundred years after Octavian Caesar Augustus became Emperor, a general named Diocletian gained power over the Empire. Diocletian could see that maintaining control of the entire empire was difficult because of its size and the many challenges it faced in different places. He began a system that had four leaders—two called Augustus and two called Caesar, one pair in the east and another in the west. This system held for a while. Then Constantine rose to power. Constantine did three things that changed the course of history. First, he called upon Jesus Christ to help him in battle, promising to become a Christian if he won. Constantine won, gained control of the Empire, and announced that he was a Christian. (He delayed baptism until he was on his deathbed, but this does not mean that he was lacking Christian faith. Many Christians delayed baptism as long as they could, fearing that baptism removed only previous sins and would not bring forgiveness for sins that were committed after one was baptized.) Constantine also built a new capital city for the Empire. Near a town called Byzantium, in the land that is now called Turkey, Constantine built a new city, naming it Constantinople. He moved his government to this new city, leaving the original city of Rome under a leader who answered to his authority as Emperor. (The third major accomplishment of Constantine was to assemble a church meeting to clarify the identity of Jesus Christ—something I will describe in more detail in another post.)
The eventual result of Constantine’s public avowal of Christian faith was to make Christianity legal and respectable in the Empire. Due to persecution, Christians had often hid from the government; now they could build large houses of worship and could reclaim sites where important events (like the birth and the resurrection of Jesus) had happened. The eventual result of Constantine’s new capital city was a new name for the Empire. Not immediately, but eventually, the land ruled from Constantinople would be called the Byzantine Empire. The early kingdom of Rome lasted a century or two. The Republic lasted almost five hundred years. From Caesar Augustus to Constantine was another three hundred and some years. From Constantine to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was another eleven centuries. The entire history of Roman power, then, lasted more than two thousand years, but more than half of it was ruled from outside of Rome, from Constantinople.
But the emergence and triumph of Christianity outweighs the accomplishments and consequences of all of the Caesars combined. J.