The Julio-Claudian Dynasty refers to the first five Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They ruled the Roman Empire from 27 BC to AD 68, when the last of the line, Nero, committed suicide. These five rulers were linked through marriage and adoption into the familial gens Julia and gens Claudia. Julius Caesar is sometimes inaccurately seen as its founder, although he was not an emperor and had no Claudian connections; Augustus is the more widely accepted founder.

The reigns of the first five emperors were remarkably similar. All came to power through indirect or adopted relations. All came to power after a murder or rumoured murder of their predecessor (it is highly debatable whether Augustus, Tiberius or Claudius were truly murdered). Each expanded the territory of the Roman Empire and initiated massive construction projects. All were very popular with the common people, but resented by the senatorial class. Roman politicians constantly conspired to kill them, to replace them or to restore the Republic. These emperors responded by executing or banishing anyone that challenged their power. Ancient historians of the senatorial class describe the Julio-Claudians as self-aggrandizing, mad, sexually perverse and tyrannical.

Tacitus wrote this of the Julio-Claudian Emperors and history:

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.[1]

Dynastic relations

Julio-Claudian Family Tree

This dynasty is known as the Julio-Claudians because its members were drawn from two of the patrician gentes of Ancient Rome, the Julii and the Claudii. Its founder, Augustus, was a Julian by blood through his maternal grandmother, Julia Caesaris. He would become a Julian in name (Gaius Julius Caesar "Octavianus") through his adoption by his great-uncle, Gaius Julius Caesar.

Tiberius was born a Claudian but, like Augustus before him, became a Julian upon his adoption.

Caligula, however, had both Julian and Claudian ancestry being a Julio-Claudian, and was also a direct blood great-grandson of Augustus.

Claudius was a Claudian, though like his great-uncle Augustus Caesar, he was also descended from the Julian family through his maternal grandmother Octavia Minor—sister of Augustus—whose own maternal grandmother was Julia, Caesar's sister.

Like Caligula before him, Nero also shared Julian and Claudian ancestry. Nero, again like Caligula, was a descendant of Augustus, a great-great-grandson.

Rise and fall of the Julio-Claudians

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 natural 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, Vipsania Julia, Agrippina, and Postumus Agrippa.

Gaius and Lucius, the first two children of Julia and Agrippa, were adopted by Augustus and became heirs to the throne; although, Augustus also showed great favor towards Livia's children from her first marriage, Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus and his brother Tiberius Claudius Nero. 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 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 (2 AD) and Gaius (4 AD), Augustus was forced to recognize Tiberius as the next Roman emperor. Augustus banished Postumus Agrippa to the small island of Planasia (around 6 or 7 AD), and Tiberius was recalled to Rome and officially adopted by Augustus.


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

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's 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 14 to 16 AD. Germanicus died at Syria in 19 AD 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.

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 paronoia, which made him more reliant on Sejanus, as well as allowing Sejanus to eliminate potential rivals.

Tiberius, perhaps sensitive to this ambition, rejected Sejanus's initial proposal to marry Livilla in 25 AD, but later had withdrawn his objections so that, in 30 AD, Sejanus was betrothed to Livilla's daughter, Tiberius' granddaughter. Sejanus’ family connection to the Imperial house was now imminent, and in 31 AD 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 on 18 October in that year 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.

Rome’s second Emperor died at the port town of Misenum on March 16, 37 AD, at the age of seventy-eight in a reign of 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 into sexual pleasure and orgies. On one account when one of the boys complained, Tiberius broke his legs. However Suetonius' claims have to be taken with a degree of scepticism.


The death of Tiberius, another tragedy for the Julio-Cladian Dynasty, precipitated the accession of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who was born on August 31, 12. Most commonly known as Caligula, he was the third Roman Emperor ruling from 37 to 41.

When Tiberius died on March 16, 37, Caligula was in a perfect position 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 a matter of months. Backed by Naevius Sutorius Macro, Caligula asserted his dominance.

There were several unsuccessful attempts made at Caligula's life. The successful conspiracy that ended Caligula's life was hatched among the officers of the Praetorian Guard. The historian Josephus claims that the conspirators wished to restore the Republic while the historian Suetonius claims their motivations were purely personal. On January 24, 41, the praetorian tribune Cassius Chaerea and other guardsmen caught Caligula alone in a secluded palace corridor and cut him down. Together with another aggrieved tribune, Cornelius Sabinus, he also killed Caligula's wife Caesonia and their infant daughter, Julia Drusilla by smashing her head against a wall.


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.

Claudius' reign also included several attempts at his life. In order to gain political support, he married Agrippina the Younger and adopted her son Nero.

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


Nero became emperor in 54 at seventeen, the youngest Emperor yet. 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 55, Nero began taking on a more active role as an administrator. He was consul four times between 55 and 60. Nero consolidated power over time through the execution and banishment of his rivals and slowly usurped authority from the Senate.

In 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 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 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. By June of 68 the senate voted Galba the emperor and decared Nero a public enemy. 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. With his death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end. Chaos ensued in the Year of the four emperors.


It is interesting how commonly the blood relationship of great-uncle /great-nephew is found between the rulers of Julio-Claudian dynasty.

  1. Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar (and his adopted son).
  2. Caligula was the great-nephew of Tiberius (and his adopted son).
  3. Claudius was the great-nephew of Augustus.
  4. Nero was the great-nephew of Claudius (and his adopted son).

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.
  2. Nero, as well as being Claudius' great-nephew, was also his stepson (his mother Agrippina being Claudius' niece, and also Claudius' fourth wife).

The uncle/nephew relationship also is prominent: Tiberius was Claudius' uncle, and Claudius was Caligula's uncle.

No Julio-Claudian emperor was a blood descendent of his immediate predecessor. Both Tiberius and Claudius had male direct descendants (Tiberius' grandson Tiberius Gemellus, Claudius' son Britannicus) available for the succession, but their great-nephews were preferred.

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' I, Claudius, a dangerous world where scheming family members were all too ready to murder the obvious, direct heirs so as to bring themselves, their own immediate families, or their lovers closer to the succession.

Emperors of the dynasty

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


  1. ^ Tacitus Annals I.1

Further reading

See also

Template:Roman history epochs

Preceded byRoman Republic Julio-Claudian Dynasty 30BC –69 AD Succeeded byFlavian Dynasty