This week sees the end of July and the beginning of August. In that short period, we have the two months honoring Roman leaders.
You notice I didn’t say “emperors,” because Julius Caesar, from whom we get the word July, was a dictator. It wasn’t until about 17 years after his famous assassination (“Et tu, Brute?”) that the first emperor was named: Augustus, from whom August derives.
Julius was born in the fifth month of the Roman calendar, so after his death (on the ides of March, you’ll recall) the month of Quintilis (fifth) was renamed.
Gaius Julius Octavius defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in a key battle in 31 B.C., ending the Roman Republic and creating the empire. Octavius was given the title Augustus, and the month of Sextilis (sixth) was renamed in his honor.
Octavius died of natural causes, but many of his successors didn’t have such rosy endings. I was flipping through a history book the other day and found a list of how the early emperors died. It shows us that our lives aren’t so hard after all. Listen up.
Tiberius, the emperor during the Crucifixion, was “possibly assassinated,” the book said. He was followed by the infamous Caligula, star of orgy and film: assassinated. Claudius: poisoned. Nero, who would have fiddled while Rome burned had the fiddle been invented: suicide after being declared a public enemy by the Senate.
Galba fell in a coup led by Otho, who picked up the emperor’s reins. Otho killed himself after losing a battle to Vitellius, his successor. Vitellius was rubbed out by the troops of Vespasian who – you guessed it – succeeded him, and, through a fluke of history, died of natural causes.
By the way, these last four emperors dropped like flies, all coming and going in the year 69.
The lucky Vespasian was followed by his son, Titus, who was not so lucky; he died of plague after ruling for only two years. His successor, Domitian, was assassinated, but then came a string of four emperors who died without their boots on.
Lucius Verus upset that apple cart, coming down with his own case of plague, but his co-emperor, Marcus Aurelius – known to us as a philosopher and writer – died of natural causes. After him was Commodus, who was assassinated (possibly because of his unfortunate name); Pertinax, slain (because he sounded like a painkiller?); and the wild-and-crazy Didius Julianus, who became emperor by winning an auction and then was ordered executed by the Senate. (In those days, it seems, the Senate actually got work done.)
Like sands through the hourglass, more emperors fell until history finally caught up with them with something we know of as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
The Caesars lived beyond their years, giving name to other rulers: czar, tsar and kaiser – and, of course, a couple of months.