Succession at the start of the Roman Empire: Ancients Today

Seven family members in line to replace Octavian
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 03/18/16
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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

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