The Roman Empire in the First Century Episode 2 Years of Trial

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Two thousand years ago, at the dawn of the first century, the world was ruled by Rome. Using the experiences, memories and writings of the people who lived through this remarkable age, The Roman Empire in the First Century A.D. brings to life the greatest empire the world has ever known. The program uses diaries, poems, private letters and public records to tell the stories of emperors and slaves, poets and plebeians who built the most sophisticated society the world had ever seen.
Episode 1 Order from Chaos – Millions of people played important parts in the remarkable history of Rome in the first century A.D. Head and shoulders above everyone else stands Augustus. Born to an unremarkable family, Augustus got a lucky break when his great uncle, Julius Caesar, adopted him. When Caesar was murdered shortly afterwards, Augustus threw himself into the murderous mix of Roman politics. Allying himself with Mark Antony, they killed their enemies and divided the empire between them. Augustus took Rome and Antony took Egypt, where he met Cleopatra. This made him a threat. Augustus was not prepared to take any chances and attacked first. His army destroyed most of the Egyptian fleet and Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves shortly afterwards. Returning home, Augustus was a hero and soon became Rome’s first emperor. Abroad, he expanded the empire enormously, while domestically he played the politics carefully, using popular acclaim to reinforce his power. Augustus was a complex man brutal but compassionate, and austere but popular. In public, he was a religious and moral conservative, projecting himself as a pious man. In private, his daughter, Julia, was having a string of affairs. Above all, though, Augustus was determined. When Julia’s behavior became a scandal, he banished her from Rome for life. Shortly afterwards, the famous poet Ovid published some indecent poetry he, too, was banished for life. Against all odds, Augustus ruled as Emperor for over 40 years, surviving plots, rebellions and mutinies. When he died, he was declared to be a god. His rule created the image of Imperial Rome that lasts to this day. He was the Emperor by which his heirs would be judged.
Episode 2 Years of Trial – In 14 AD, Augustus died and the empire stood at a crossroads. Would Rome continue on course or return to chaos? Much depended on his successor, Tiberius. He knew he had not been Augustus’ first choice as heir, and his position was insecure. He and the Senate did not get along they disliked his moodiness and unpredictability, and he resented their plotting. He looked for help elsewhere and chose Sejanus. Sejanus realized this was the chance of a lifetime. He launched a widespread purge, arresting and executing many rivals. The only man who could stop this, Tiberius, had retreated to the island of Capri. Just when Sejanus seemed unstoppable, everything changed. Tiberius told the Senate that Sejanus was condemned. Sejanus was arrested and executed. The only surviving heir to the throne was now Caligula. At first, the Emperor Caligula did well. But his behavior soon became strange. He seduced the wives of his guests and murdered people at random. Before long, he too was dead, murdered by his closest advisors. He was followed by his uncle, Claudius. Disfigured by illness when he was just a child, Claudius had spent his life as the butt of jokes. To everyone’s surprise, he worked hard and did well. He passed laws protecting sick slaves, increased women’s privileges and opened the Senate to new talent. Abroad, he conquered Britain, something that not even Julius Caesar had managed to do. His weakness was his promiscuous wife, Messalina. When she began an affair with a nobleman, it was widely seen as a coup in the making. Claudius ordered her lover to be killed and Messalina was murdered soon afterwards. When he heard, Claudius didn’t blink, instead, he asked for more wine. This period also witnessed major change in other parts of the empire. In Egypt, attacks on the Jews forced Philo, a Jewish leader, to travel to Rome and ask for help, without success. In Judaea, a charismatic leader named Jesus challenged the religious and political establishment. The local furor barely touched Rome, but the legacy of Jesus would one day engulf the entire empire.
Episode 3 Winds of Change – Claudius was Rome’s unlikely emperor. Despite his much ridiculed appearance, he had become a good ruler, passing visionary laws and conquering Britain. After the murder of his wife, Messalina, Claudius remarried, this time to his niece, Agrippina. Eager for power, she wasted no time removing her rivals and even convinced Claudius to make her own son, Nero, his heir. The only obstacle left now was Claudius himself. Agrippina poisoned his food and immediately announced Nero as emperor. Nero was young and was guided by his mother and his tutor, the philosopher Seneca. This did not last long soon, Nero wanted to rule himself. Seneca used subtlety to control his student but Agrippina was much more heavy handed. Before long, Nero was sick of his mother’s interference and decided to kill her. When his original plot failed, he sent soldiers to finish the job. The murder scandalized Rome. Things got worse. In Britain, the tribal queen, Boudicca, mounted a huge rebellion, burning towns and killing thousands before finally being defeated. In Judaea, decades of oppression and a foolish governor combined into a massive revolt that would take years to put down. In Rome, a huge fire destroyed much of the city. Nero opened up public buildings to house the homeless, but rumors that he had been singing and dancing while Rome burned turned public opinion against him. He looked for a scapegoat and found one in the Christians. Jesus had died 30 years earlier, but energetic missionaries, such as Paul, had spread his message across the empire. Rome had relatively few Christians and they were not widely trusted. Nero rounded them up and executed them brutally, throwing some to the lions, burning others and crucifying many more. As Nero’s reign descended into terror, Seneca found himself seriously compromising his deep seated principles. Time and again, he asked Nero for permission to retire, but was always denied. Eventually he pretended to be ill and was released from service. It would be a short retirement. After he discovered a plot, Nero began a brutal purge in which many were killed or, like Seneca, were forced to commit suicide. After the Senate declared him a “public enemy”, Nero escaped to the country and killed himself. The Augustan dynasty was dead and, with no heir, civil war loomed.
Episode 4 Years of Eruption – Nero’s death in 68 AD ended the Augustan dynasty and left Rome without a ruler. The empire descended into civil war as generals fought each other for the throne. Vespasian was one of Rome’s top generals and was fighting Jewish rebels in Judaea. But he realized that he had as much claim to the throne as any other general. Encouraged by his soldiers, he suspended the war and marched on Rome. Rome became a battlefield in which around 50,000 people were killed. At the end, Vespasian was emperor. But he lacked authority. He knew he needed a foreign victory to secure his throne. He turned his attention back to Judaea. By 70 AD, the last Jewish rebels had retreated to the walled city of Jerusalem. After a long siege, the walls crumbled and the rebels fled to the temple. The Romans burned it to the ground, killing everyone inside. Back in Rome, this great victory brought in a new age of confidence and optimism. Vespasian also started a massive building program. This included early work on what would become the Coliseum a huge amphitheater for games and gladiators, the movie stars of ancient Rome. In 79 AD, the Romans suffered a double blow Vespasian died and Pompeii was swallowed up by the ash and mud of Mount Vesuvius. A witness to both these events was Pliny the Younger. His uncle commanded the fleet around Naples and died at Pompeii, a victim of his own curiosity. Pliny the Younger became a senior adviser to Vespasian’s second son, Domitian. It was a difficult balance, because Pliny was an honorable man and Domitian was a tyrant in the worst traditions of Caligula and Nero. Like them, Domitian’s rule was cut short. He was murdered by a group that included his own wife. Rome was again in the hands of the generals. This time they chose not to fight, but rather to work together and choose a new emperor. They chose Trajan, a Spanish born Senator and general. It was a bold move, but very successful. With trusted advisers, such as Pliny the Younger, Trajan expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest size and launched public works, tax relief and a child welfare program. His reign turned the Roman Empire into a multicultural global society that’s still relevant today, 2,000 years later.