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A struggle for succession: Ancients Today

The Roman Empire was established in January of 27 B.C., when the senate awarded the warlord Octavian — who had triumphed in two civil wars — a broad range of powers. 

They also awarded him the name Augustus (meaning “sacred” or “revered”), by which he is better known. Augustus faced many challenges during his long reign as emperor (27 B.C. to A.D. 14), not the least of which was maintaining heirs to the throne.

The struggle for succession became one of Augustus’ chief sources of anxiety. In all, seven members of the ruling Julio-Claudian family were candidates for the succession under Augustus, with all but one dying before they had the chance to rule. In some cases their deaths were suspicious.

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When Augustus died in A.D. 14, he was succeed by his eldest stepson, Tiberius, who thus became the second emperor of Rome. Ironically, of all Augustus’ heirs, Tiberius seems to have been the one to which Augustus was most strongly opposed.

The first of the unfortunate candidates to fall was Augustus’ 19-year-old nephew and son-in-law Marcellus, who died of illness in 23 B.C. He was young and untested, and his record of coinage is scant. The next candidate, however, was a man of great importance — the general Marcus Agrippa.

Marcus Agrippa

With Marcellus’ death, Augustus turned to his childhood friend and chief military adviser, Agrippa. Both Augustus and Agrippa were about 40 years old when Marcellus died. Agrippa’s “advanced age” was a strike against him, as was his humble birth — yet no one in Augustus’ family was of sufficient age and experience to take his place.

Bonds were tightened in 21 B.C. when Agrippa married Augustus’ only daughter, Julia, who had been married to the previous heir, Marcellus. Agrippa and his young bride had five children and he remained heir to the throne until his natural death in 12 B.C.

Agrippa was honored with precious metal coinages in 38 B.C. and in 13 or 12 B.C., and with two immense base metal issues. The first of these was issued at Nemausus in Gaul from 27 to 3 B.C.; these familiar coins portray Augustus and Agrippa and a chained crocodile. Next were copper asses struck by Agrippa’s grandson, the Emperor Caligula (A.D. 37 to 41), though perhaps by all four emperors from Tiberius (14 to 37) through Nero (54 to 68).

Nero Claudius Drusus

When Augustus married his second wife, Livia, in 38 B.C., she already had a 4-year-old son (the future Emperor Tiberius) and she was pregnant with a second son, who would be named Nero Claudius Drusus. Augustus apparently never liked Tiberius, but doted on his youngest stepson, whom he cherished as a possible heir to the throne.

The young man was honored with a marriage to Antonia, the wealthy daughter of Marc Antony, and with important military commands. His bright future, however, was cut short in 9 B.C., when he died from wounds acquired in a fall from a horse.

All coins honoring Nero Claudius Drusus were produced at least a half century after his death — mostly by his youngest son, Claudius, who reigned as emperor from A.D. 41 to 54. These included gold aurei, silver denarii and brass sestertii. A few “restoration” coins were also struck by the Emperor Titus (A.D. 79 to 81), but they are rare.

Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar

When Nero Claudius Drusus died, Augustus was once again in a lurch. Despite his vulnerability, his dislike for Tiberius — then 30 years old, an adopted son, and a trustworthy general — was so great that he preferred to wait for his eldest grandsons to mature. Though only 8 and 5 years old at the time, they were the two eldest sons of Agrippa, and were blood relatives of the emperor.

The boys survived into early manhood, during which time they were groomed for the throne. But tragedy struck when both died in short order. The first to fall was the younger of the two, Lucius Caesar, who died in A.D. 2 while traveling to Spain to further his military training. It was rumored that his death had been engineered by Livia, who wanted to clear the path for her son, Tiberius.

At the time of Lucius’ death, the elder brother, 22-year-old Gaius Caesar, was at the other end of the Mediterranean, helping wage war against the Parthians. In the meantime, he had been showered with honors: marriage to Livia’s granddaughter, Livilla, and being named Consul at an unprecedentedly young age. Despite his promise, Gaius Caesar died in A.D. 4 while in the East, reportedly of wounds received on the battlefield against the Parthians.

These two grandsons of Augustus were honored with precious metal Imperial coins and base metal issues struck in the provinces. Their most familiar appearance is as two standing figures on gold aurei and silver denarii of Augustus, but there are some portrait bronzes from the provinces.

Only two family members of sufficient age remained: the emperor’s youngest grandson, Agrippa Postumus (named so because he was born a few weeks after his father, Agrippa, died), and Tiberius. Both were jointly adopted as heirs in A.D. 4.

Agrippa Postumus

It is difficult to assess this young heir, a tragic figure who is maligned in the ancient sources. Are their accounts biased, or was he truly stubborn, rebellious, unqualified and depraved? 

Whether his downfall was earned or engineered, Agrippa Postumus was forced to leave Rome in A.D. 6, and in the following year was sent into perpetual exile on a small island. Upon Augustus’ death, the young man was executed, thus leaving no clear option to Tiberius.

The only coins known for Agrippa Postumus are portrait bronzes from the city of Corinth in central Greece. These exceedingly rare coins seldom come to market and usually are quite worn or corroded. Even so, they command much attention from those who are anxious to complete their list of early imperial figures.

In the next installment of Ancients Today we’ll examine the equally tragic problems faced by Tiberius, who also had to formulate a variety of plans for the succession.  


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