Was Sobriety The Secret Power Behind The Most Talented Members Of The Julio-Claudian Dynasty?

 

The two most lauded members of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty have to be Julius Caesar (c. 100-44 BCE), the conqueror who brought his family to power, and Augustus (c. 63 BCE-14 CE), the cunning political genius who completed Caesar’s war effort and carved out a place for an emperor in the monarch-hating culture of the Romans. After Caesar and Augustus, the Julio-Claudian Dynasty continued to rule Rome until the year 68, when the assassination of Nero ended the dynasty.

The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), wrote about the six members of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty in his work, The Twelve Caesars. Whereas most other ancient historians wrote about the wars and political maneuvers of the emperors, Suetonius filled most of his pages with personality evaluations, physical descriptions, and especially the behavior of his subjects in social settings. In particular, one of the topics Suetonius frequently chose to comment on was the eating and drinking habits of the people featured in his text. In scanning Suetonius’ commentary on the liquid intake of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, an interesting trait seemed to have separated Julius Caesar and Augustus from their more lackluster successors—sobriety.

As stated by the historian Tacitus (c. 56-117+), extravagant feasting had “reached fantastic heights during the century between Actium and the disturbances which brought Galba to the throne,” denoting the years between 31 BCE and 68 CE (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book III). This extravagance in food and drink was much more prominent in the latter emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The final four emperors of the dynasty were all described by Suetonius as having been heavy drinkers. Nero (r. 54-68), whose assassination ended Julio-Claudian power, was described as an extravagant drinker, especially of wine (The Twelve Caesars, Nero, 51). Of Nero’s predecessor, Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54), Suetonius reported that ample stories existed about his “drunkenness and love of gambling,” spanning before and after he became the ruler of Rome (The Twelve Caesars, Divus Claudius, 5 and 33). Claudius was preceded by Caligula (r. 37-41), whose wild and luxurious appetites were of legendary proportions. Even the reclusive Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37) was reportedly an incredibly heavy drinker. Of Tiberius, Suetonius wrote, “Even as a young officer, he was such a hard drinker that his name, Tiberius Claudius Nero, was displaced by the nickname ‘Biberius Caldius Mero,’” which was a drink-inspired play on words that possibly indicated that he liked to drink unmixed hot wine (The Twelve Caesars, Tiberius, 42).

The habits of Augustus and Julius Caesar, however, were very different than their successors. On Augustus, Suetonius wrote, “Augustus was also a habitually abstemious drinker…In later life his limit was a pint; if he ever exceeded this he would deliberately vomit” (The Twelve Caesars, Divus Augustus, 77). As for the founder of the dynasty, Julius Caesar himself, Suetonius similarly described the dictator’s attitude toward food and drink as extremely reserved. The Twelve Caesar’s even contained a quote supposedly attributed to Caesar’s enemy, Cato the Younger, which read, “Caesar was the only sober man who ever tried to overturn the republic” (Divus Julius, 53).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Roman feast painted by Roberto Bompiani (1821–1908), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

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