February 21, 2016, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD 4, Gaius (Julius) Caesar died in the province of Lycia, aged 23 or 24.
Text by Harry Tanton
Image by Mint Imperials
Gaius was the eldest son of Augustus’ close friend and loyal ally, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and the emperor’s only daughter, Julia the Elder. He was born in Rome in 20 BC. Lacking a biological male heir, in 17 BC when Gaius was only three years old, Augustus adopted both Gaius and Lucius (Gaius’ younger brother who was born that year) as his heirs.
Augustus had long since cemented his position as sole ruler of Rome, and as the adopted sons of the emperor, Gaius and Lucius found themselves awarded various honours such as priesthoods, admission to meetings of the senate, and most startlingly of all designation as consuls in their respective twentieth years.
This honour was bestowed upon them following agitation by the people of Rome to have Gaius made consul immediately. In due course Gaius became consul in AD 1 aged nineteen; the same age Augustus had been when he first occupied the office in 43 BC.
They acquired the title of principes iuventutis (‘heads of the youth’), an honour that established them as ceremonial heads of the equestrian orders in Rome. They also received temples and statues erected in their honour throughout the provinces. Augustus’ objective in awarding (or allowing the award) of so many honours was to introduce the two young men rapidly into public life and prepare them to succeed to his position.
Not everything, however, went to plan: Cassius Dio tells us that the flattery and honours the boys received from all quarters encouraged a certain arrogance and insolence; they were also more inclined to luxurious living than their father would have liked.
In 1 BC tensions with the Parthians developed over who should exercise control over Armenia (then under Roman influence). Augustus sent Gaius to the east where in AD 1 he settled a peace treaty with the Parthian king, Phraates V, who was reluctant to engage in a war with the Romans, and renounced any claims over Armenia.
This was a public relations victory for Augustus, and will surely have burnished Gaius’ own reputation still further. The emperor must have assumed that the future of his regime was secure and that his successors would be able to handle the strains of empire.
However, a year later in AD 2 Augustus’ hopes were threatened by the sudden death of Gaius’ younger brother Lucius in Massilia (modern Marseille) in Gaul. He was only eighteen years old. The emperor, however, still had Gaius.
But then, two years later in AD 4, Gaius was still in the East dealing with a revolt of the Armenians, who objected to the puppet king placed over them by the Romans. In campaigning against the rebels Gaius was wounded; the young man fell ill and steadily grew worse. He attempted to journey back to Rome but died at Limyra in the province of Lycia, on 21 February.
With the death of both his heirs, Augustus was reluctantly forced to call Tiberius, who had exiled himself on Rhodes, back to Rome. There Augustus adopted him as his heir and successor.
Though the deaths of the two brothers seem at first innocuous it has been claimed, most notably by Tacitus, that foul play was involved; he suggests that Tiberius’ mother and Augustus’ wife, Livia, plotted against the two boys so that her son would be first in line to succeed Augustus.
Whatever the case may be, any fears Augustus may have had about the security of his dynasty were alleviated by the adoption and eventual accession of Tiberius; the Julio-Claudian dynasty would go on to reign over Rome until the death of Nero in AD 68.