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The Agrippan Principate


In the year that we now refer to as 12 BCE, the then emperor, C. Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, suddenly died, apparently of natural causes (no ancient writer maintains otherwise and, if there had been any rumor to the contrary we may be sure that they would have made much of it).  As the “emperorship” was not a legal or formal position, it was of course incapable of being bestowed or inherited as such.  However, the Roman “Republic” was incapable of doing without an autocrat at its head.  In the previous fifteen years, Octavian had worked to establish a “pool” of possible successors.  Only one of them, though, was a realistic candidate at this juncture:  Octavian’s son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63BCE-3CE), who did in fact become the second Roman Emperor.

Agrippa was of humble origin, and almost the exact coeval of Octavian.  His earlier career as Octavian’s right-hand man and military commander need not be recounted here.  He had, however, done such great services to Octavian, and been given such high honors by him in return, that Maecenas, Octavian’s other top advisor and Agrippa’s chief rival, had said that Octavian no longer had any choice but to make Agrippa his son-in-law or a corpse.  Octavian chose the former course of action, and 21 BCE married his only child, Julia, to Agrippa.  The marriage was generally an auspicious one (although what Julia thought of being married to a man the same age as her father is not recorded).  They had five children; additionally, Agrippa had two daughters by earlier marriages.

Octavian did not hesitate to appropriate Agrippa’s two eldest sons, Gaius (20-1BCE) and Lucius (17BCE-1CE) as his own; he undoubtedly would have done so with the third, Marcus (b. and d. 12BCE), had not the latter been born after Octavian’s death, and had he lived for any significant length of time.  However, Gaius and Lucius Caesar (so-called due to their formal adoption by Octavian) were mere children at the time of Octavian’s death, too young to wield actual power.  Suggestions by modern historians that Octavian intended Agrippa to act a regent until Gaius and/or Lucius came of age have no foundation in any of Octavian’s surviving writings, nor any precedent in Roman practice; in so cunning a politician as Octavian, who was careful not to seem to be introducing new precedents, the latter would have been paramount.

Some historians have pointed to Octavian’s two stepsons, originally Tiberius Claudius Nero (42-1BCE) and Drusus Claudius Nero (39BCE-29CE), as Octavian’s intended successors.  However, Octavian never formally adopted them or referred to them as “my sons”; it must be concluded that, despite the honors and offices, nominal and actual, given to them, and the quasi-dynastic marriages that they made (Tiberius to Vipsanius’ daughter and Octavian’s grand-niece Vipsania Marcella, Drusus to Octavian’s niece Antonia Minor), Octavian considered them only a prudent and providential back-up to a preferred Julio-Vipsanian line of succession.

Although Agrippa possessed a full share of imperium (military command) and potestas tribunicia (tribunician power) at Octavian’s death, he nonetheless had himself confirmed in them by the Senate.  In this, he was merely keeping to Octavian’s fiction that he was the servant, not the master, of the state.  However, the complacency with which he accepted the formal grants of the Senate was not well-received by the senators, nor was his opinion of them high; Florian records him as saying, “These are only fit to serve, not rule”.

Agrippa was principally a military man, not a politician; in the latter sphere, he took Octavian as his model.  It is in this light that we should see his legal adoption of Tiberius and Drusus in 9 BCE; the death of his friend and patron Octavian would have made it painfully obvious that he needed to establish a clear line of succession, with candidates who were not disqualified from the exercise of actual power by their tender ages.  The early deaths of his sons showed the wisdom of this policy, although of course Agrippa was not acting with any foreknowledge.

The military energies of the Empire were divided in Agrippa’s reign.  A series of rebellions in northeastern Spain occupied Agrippa’s personal attention from 11 BCE until the end of his life, but he was able to depute his “sons”, Tiberius and Drusus, to carry on warfare on the upper Danube (Pannonia) and beyond the Rhine (the North Sea coast of Germany), respectively.  A departure was seen in his organization (confirmed by a lex Antonia in 10 BCE) of limites, formal military border districts:  the limes Germanicus (the conquests of Drusus) and the limites of eastern and southern Germany, as Roman authority was pushed into these areas by Tiberius and Drusus.  The limes Julianus (in the northeast of the old “Cisalpine Gaul”) and the limes Iberanus seem to depart from this pattern, but they were in regions that could reasonably held to be under military threat from barbarian invaders or from rebels.

Octavian had been “chosen” pontifex maximus after the death of M. Aemilius Lepidus, although he only held this position himself for a few months.  Agrippa uncharacteristically refused this office, allowing Q. Cassius Leo to be named; however, Leo proved to be only its nominal occupant, with all appointments and substantive questions being decided by Agrippa.  In this, he appears to have undertaken to apply an Octavianic principle that formal offices should, to the extent expedient, be held by others, whilst he himself exercised auctoritas in their actual function.  This was probably the right decision for the time, although the division of nominal from actual authority would have dire consequences in the future.

Agrippa continued the Octavianic practice of appointing legati as provincial governors and legionary commanders where he was legally proconsul, but also instituted the dispatch of senators as spectores.  Ostensibly, they were to keep watch on his appointees; indeed, the spectores were generally men of praetorian rank, and given imperium maius by the Senate in their (restricted) territories, but Agrippa seems also to have used this device to get senators he deemed of slightly dubious loyalties out of Rome.  An exception to the system of “imperial” and “senatorial” provinces was, as previously mentioned, the erection of the limites.  These were governed by praetores, technically elected directly by the comitia (citizen assembly) rather than appointed by Agrippa or the Senate.  However, the office of praetor limitis was, in fact, generally restricted to Agrippa and his extended family.

Although Agrippa and Maecenas were not on good terms, the former largely ignored the latter; on his side, Maecenas tacitly recognized the supremacy of Agrippa, and stayed out of political affairs for the few years until his own death in 8 BCE.  His patronage of literature, together with that of Messala Corvinus, formed the basis of what is often called the “Palatine School” of early Imperial poetry, although no formal organization existed.

The deaths of Agrippa’s own sons, together with the early death of Tiberius, again meant that at the time of his own death there was only one realistic successor:  his adopted son Drusus, formerly Drusus Claudius Nero, by his adoption Drusus Vipsanius Agrippa Claudianus.  He had been awarded the title Germanicus by the Senate in 8 BCE, and is generally known by that name.

Germanicus was a genuinely pious man, a would-be reformer who, although eminently successful as a general, was ineffectual as an administrator.  Some have held that his brother, M. Vipsanius Agrippa Claudianus (nee Ti. Claudius Nero) was a superior administrator; ancient writers even praised him as one who would have restored the Republic had he lived…although this is a topos said of every imperial prince who did not attain power.

Germanicus had three sons by Antonia:  Drusus (19BCE-44CE), Tiberius (10BCE-27CE), and Lucius (5BCE-65CE).  After Antonia’s death in 6CE, he remarried to Claudia Pulchra (a grand-niece of Octavian) and had an additional son, Ti. Vispanius Calvus (9-63CE), as well as a daughter, Vipsania Claudiana.

Germanicus had seen the unstable succession arrangements of Octavian and Agrippa repeatedly thwarted by the deaths of their intended heirs, and wished to more firmly establish his own successors.  To that end, in 6CE he had his eldest son Drusus granted imperium and potestas tribunicia, clearly marking him out as the designated heir, although he also allowed Drusus Vipsanius Castor, the son of Tiberius (13BCE-7CE) to be elected praetor of the limes Julianus.  In 27, he named Tiberius Calvus as his legatus in Germania Inferior; Lucius (also generally called “Germanicus”) was “elected” praetor of the various German limites.

The great German rebellion of 9-17 CE (in OTL, the rising of Arminius, which definitely limited Roman power to the area west of the Rhine) only served to redouble the determination of Germanicus to hold on the area which had given him his title.  Germanicus repeated his earlier campaigns; Drusus had hard going from Pannonia through the Hercynian Forest (of southern Germany), but eventually linked up with his father, effectuating the conquest of Germany.  The war was extremely expensive for Rome; eleven legions had been involved, and, although casualty estimates of this period are generally not to be trusted, Roman legionary deaths may well have been in the range of 15,000-20,000.  But, though costly, the war was a victorious one for Rome; the cost to the German tribes was far higher.  Germany definitely became a Roman province (two, actually; the area roughly coterminous with OTL’s eastern Netherlands, Hanover, and Jutland was organized as Germania Marina; the rest of the area between the Rhine, the Elbe, and the Danube, not grouped into limites, was organized as Germania Magna); much of the population was killed or enslaved, and the whole was heavily settled with veterans and other colonists (mostly voluntary).  Indeed, Germania Magna and the limites to the east served as the Empire’s Lebensraum for two generations.

(This, of course, has far-reaching consequences for future history; the effects are not immediately obvious, however.  As far as contemporaries are concerned, one set of frontiers has merely been exchanged for another).

John W. Braue, III



"Be not as those who serve in hopes of a reward, but rather as those who serve whether or no there be a reward." - Antigonos of Sokho

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