Selecting a New Leader: Transitions of Power Through Adoption in Imperial Rome


This case encourages students to contemplate the circumstances and the community expectations for a transition of power. Through two ancient episodes of adoption which were used to transfer power, we will explore how the same kind of choice can produce different results. Although the practice of adoption could seem unusual in a hereditary system, several Roman emperors opted for this method of transitioning power. Students will analyze how emperors Galba and Nerva both went about this process and how only one of them was successful. The success of adoption in this context depends on a series of factors. To whom does the leader transfer power? What is the relation of the adopted heir with various sectors from that community? What fundamental aspects should be considered when choosing a successor? Students will consider what guides the decisions of each emperor and evaluate the main reasons for a successful or uneventful transition of power.

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