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Although most rulers of ancient Rome were not emperors, the term Roman emperors has become the accepted name for the various kings, first citizens and variously-titled autocrats who ran the place from Julius Caesar onwards. The term "emperor" derives from the Latin imperator and from the Roman emperor's role as Rome's supreme military commander (even if in the actual campaigns, field commands were often delegated to particular generals). The history of the Roman Empire is often divided into the early Principate, when the emperor was expected to be the first among equals ("primus inter pares") and the later Dominate (when emperors were not even expected to keep up republican appearances).
The individual Roman emperors were a varied lot, ranging from the wise and thoughtful (Marcus Aurelius) to the cruel but competent (Augustus, Diocletian, Justinian) to the insane and tyrannical (pretty much everyone else). It is difficult to judge exactly how bad a given emperor may or may not have been.[notes 1] Most died as a result of assassination, and there is considerable motivation to make the ruler look as bad as possible post-mortem. Furthermore in ancient Rome only three general patterns were accepted for biographies: Either the shining hero through and through, the vile tyrant through and through or someone who initially showed promise but then degenerated. Nero and Caligula interestingly are both described as the latter by all available sources. Because of this, ancient sources must be read with a skeptical eye. The emperors replaced the Roman republic with an ad hoc system of government by decree, using and abusing religion, the army and the Senate to maintain and extend their power.
- 1 List of emperors
- 2 External links
- 3 Notes
- 4 References
List of emperors
Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BCE - 44 BCE) was a Roman conqueror who extended the borders of the Roman Republic across much of Western Europe. However, the Senate feared him and tried to restrict his growing power. Caesar initiated a civil war and quickly took possession of Rome and the surrounding Italian countryside while the anti-Caesar faction of the Senate fled to Greece with Pompey. The remaining Senators appointed Caesar dictator-for-life. The civil war sputtered on while Caesar took a side trip to Egypt and hooked up with Cleopatra, but eventually Caesar won. Magnanimous in victory, Caesar pardoned and restored his former enemies to the Senate, but they paid him back with a bold and public assassination in the Senate chamber the following March 15. There were so many conspirators, they actually injured each other. A myth about Caesar was that he was a great military strategist. In fact, he was more of a political leader, often delegating the field work to his lieutenants and taking advantage of openings given by his men. Courage and charisma were some of his most important tools on the battlefield; he was a genuinely great warrior, who often raised his soldiers' morale by fighting on the front lines alongside his men.
During the games held eleven days after the Ides of March to honor Julius Caesar a bright comet appeared in the sky and Octavian said this was "proof" his father was made into a god. This superstition was instrumental in helping Octavian sway Caesar's legions to his side. Later, many emperors were deified following their deaths, leading to the institution of the "imperial cult."
Julius Caesar laid down the original blueprint for using social and political chaos to overthrow a democratic republic and install authoritarian rule. As dictators went, Caesar wasn't all bad. He initiated a series of social reforms including a new calendar and regulating the number of grain "welfare" recipients. He tried but failed to obtain land in Italy for his legion veterans to retire on, leaving it for his successor. Caesar was not actually the first Roman Emperor, but he cleared the way for his adopted son Octavian to lay the Republic on the ash heap of history as "First Citizen" of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar.
- Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered") - after the conquest of Gaul.
- Alea iacta est ("the die is cast") - after crossing the Rubicon.
- "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got in in for me!" - in Carry on Cleo.
Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE)
Tiberius (14-37 CE)
Cruel and perverted. He paid young boys to swim in his pool and bite him.
To be fair, his 23-year reign wasn't actually that bad. The first two-thirds or so of his reign went remarkably well, considering he was the first emperor after Augustus, and it wasn't totally certain how things would proceed — surprisingly, there was no civil war, as had been typical in the past. He was able to consolidate the empire, and rather than continue slaughtering people and conquering neighboring lands, chose instead to fortify the borders and work on developing the economy. When he died, he even left the imperial treasury with a massive surplus (which his successor made quickly disappear...). However, the good times were not to last.
First, he hated politics and tended to be very reserved, even seclusive, which are not desirable traits in an all-powerful leader. Second, his son and heir Drusus died mysteriously, after which Tiberius had had enough of politics and just... went away. Tiberius largely left rule of the empire in the hands of his close friend Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor's elite bodyguards) while he cavorted on his own personal island resort. Sejanus then began a big plot to betray the emperor and usurp the throne. Details are sketchy, but we do know that the plot failed and Sejanus was executed. Tiberius, having just executed his close friend and advisor, reportedly became paranoid for the last few years of his reign and had many show trials that led to the executions of powerful Roman citizens. Tiberius died at the tender age of 78, six years after the execution of Sejanus.
Compounding the situation is that few written accounts survive the period. Notably, the senator and historian Tacitus who lived a generation after Tiberius composed a history of his reign and those of his two successors and the turmoil following their reigns. Being a senator under Caligula and Nero who did away with much of the remaining window dressing of Augustus about the emperor merely being the "first citizen" and instead behaving as the monarchs/dictators they were in practice without any of the flattering of the senatotial class, Tacitus had a particular disdain of emperors both as persons and as an office. In a similar vein, Suetonius, a bureaucrat and historian who wrote after Tacitus, focused mainly on the sensational, hedonistic stuff, contrasting Tiberius with his ideal of an emperor, Augustus.[notes 2]
Cruel, perverted, egotistical and insane. Reported to have had relations with all of his sisters with Julia Drusilla being the one he actually married Would beat people with more hair than him, which was pretty much everyone without alopecia universalis. Thought he was a god. Is particularly famous for making his horse a senator, or at least threatening to do so (which may have been less an act of mind-melting insanity and more of a giant middle finger to the senate, whose members thought rather highly of themselves). He led an army to the English channel, stopping at the coast to declare war on the sea-god Neptune, and made his soldiers collect seashells as war booty. The last straw came when he ordered that a golden statue of himself be constructed in the Jerusalem Temple. He was finally assassinated by his own bodyguards.
Was considered a halfwit because he limped and stammered (ah, those tolerant Romans), which was probably why Caligula didn't have him killed, but Claudius became emperor anyway. Claimed to exaggerate his disability to survive Caligula's reign. Tough but fair. Mostly. Responsible for construction of the port at Ostia. Picked up where Caligula left off and actually conquered Britain. Had many wives, but only had one of them executed. Was probably poisoned by his last empress, so that her son Nero could take over.
Caligula's nephew, also cruel, perverted, egotistical and insane; in short, a chip off the old block. Participated in the Olympic Games, and won the chariot race even though he was the only competitor to fall off his chariot. Supposedly played the lyre while Rome burned. He is accused of blaming Christians for the fire and persecuting them afterwards, although there is little or no actual evidence that he did so. While Tacitus does mention that Nero persecuted the "Chrestians" for the fire as a scapegoat to avoid blame, Suetonis also says Nero punished Christains because they were "given to a new and mischievous superstition", while also not connecting them to the fire. Nero is claimed to have fed Christians to lions (unlikely, as the Colosseum wasn't even built yet), and to have used crucified Christians covered in pitch as lamps in his garden (after setting them on fire), which is colorful but possibly not true. The debate as to what role Nero did play in the persecution of early Christians is pretty big, but given a lack of contemporary sources from the period of Nero's reign, it's....problematic, to say the least. But, given some of his other actions, such as killing his wife so he could marry another woman, it's not hard to guess he was capable of some serious ruthlessness.
He had his mother stabbed after a bizarre attempt at killing her, involving a death boat. Literally, a death boat. He had a henchman build "a collapsible boat" which would then be shipwrecked. Failed. While Nero was by no means a good ruler, we have to acknowledge that he did manage to piss off the two groups of people whose written works are most likely to have survived to the present day: Christians and the old senatorial elite. It is entirely possible that other groups had a more favorable view of him but either never got around to writing the biography of him they were planning or they did write something and it was simply lost over time. One indication of Nero's popularity outside the senatorial/Christian groups of history writers is the fact that several impostors claiming to be Nero popped up after his death. If Nero was the universally reviled monster of our written sources, it's hard to see why anyone would want to impersonate him or how doing so would help them gain control of the Roman Empire. But there is a possible reason, as he often made laws that pleased the lower classes, which is probably why he was so popular with them (and unpopular with the upper classes). It's very possible and likely that this was what he wanted, and he was criticized for being obsessed with it. It seems he started off okay, but the later part of his rule is where he started to go a bit....downhill. And while he actually did do a lot to help Rome after it burned, his efforts greatly drained the State's budget. The projects were so massive that Rome didn't have the money needed. So, Nero devalued Roman currency for the first time in the Empire's history. Oh, and remember how he played a big part in rebuilding Rome after the fire? He had a 30-meter-tall statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero, constructed out of bronze. Most historians agree that the name for the Colosseum was derived from it. So, while Nero was popular with the lower classes, the Senate disliked him for being very excessive.
After the Julio-Claudians
After Nero, there were a whole load of minor emperors[notes 3], some reigning for mere months. Vespasian (69-79) imposed a urine tax[notes 4], which was surely taking the piss.[notes 5] He and his son Titus also presided over building the Colosseum as well as the destruction the Great Temple of Jerusalem, causing the Jewish exile, the ramifications of which are still a major issue, nearly 2,000 years later. Domitian was a cruel paranoiac who ordered mass arrests of anyone suspected of treason and liked to stab flies with his pen.
The Five Good Emperors
After all those others, the Romans were entitled to a big break. And they got it in the form of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, named "The Five Good Emperors" by Niccolo Machiavelli who surprisingly disliked tyrants.
- Nerva (96-98) Decriminalised treason and released political prisoners arrested under Domitian.
- Trajan (98-117) extended the empire to its largest.
- Hadrian (117-138) was famous for his wall across Britain.
- Antoninus Pius (138-163) brought about legal reform, banned execution of children under the age of fourteen and introduced various human rights based policies to Rome.
- Marcus Aurelius (161-180) wrote Meditations, regarded as a classic work on Stoicism.
Then things went downhill again. Commodus (177-192) was co-emperor with his father for three years; he's the one in Gladiator although, unlike in the film, he was never in danger of not being the heir, nor did he murder his father. He believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules and liked to dress up as him and sprinkle gold dust in his hair. Fought in the Colosseum against
Russell Crowe trained gladiators and won, though making them fight with wooden swords while he used metal ones may have helped. Had people fed to the lions for booing him and had a servant burned to death for making his bath too cold. Renamed Rome, the Empire, the entire Praetorian Guard and various streets after himself which made life really confusing.[notes 6] Devalued Roman coinage whilst raising taxes. Mass poverty raged throughout Rome as a result. He was finally strangled to death in his bath by his wrestling partner, Narcissus, but during his reign, he's credited with single-handedly ending the Pax Romana (or Pax Commodiana as it was known during his time). Years later and the only thing named after him is the commode. The Romans had had vicious emperors (Caligula, Nero) and idiot emperors (Vespasian) but until Commodus came along, they'd never had a vicious idiot before.
Several Severans, a crisis, and Diocles
Commodus's murder started the "Year of Five Emperors"- if you guessed four of these emperors were murdered, then you've been paying attention. In the end, a general named Septimius Severus took control. Not a particularly good ruler, he was a pretty good general and won lots of wars, so at least there's that. When he died, his sons took control, thus beginning the "Severan Dynasty".
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better-known as Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus), who tried to "out Caligula" Caligula, was a member of this dynasty. He was a not particularly sweet transvestite who became emperor at the age of fourteen and believed himself to be divinely androgynous- he even took the name Elagabalus since it was the name of an obscure sun god because, well, he believed he was a sun god. He was only known as Elagabalus after his death however. He was quite notorious for catapulting venomous snakes at his own people. If you won a lottery prize, he gave you boxes containing bees, dead dogs and flies. House guests were presented with rock hard bread when they were invited over to dinner in his palace and the fun didn't stop there. They'd find a lion in their bedroom. He used children's entrails to read the future. He also tried to have a sex change before Bruce Jenner made it cool. Elagabalus was finally assassinated at the age of eighteen by (who else?) the Praetorians when he turned the palace into a brothel (with himself as the prostitute), though Caligula did that first and got away with it at the time (although Caligula wasn't the prostitute).
Elagabalus's successor, his popular cousin Alexander, had a surprisingly pleasant reign, but in typical Roman fashion, was murdered- his soldiers attacked him for trying to negotiate with some German tribes rather than start a new war against them. His death ushered in a chaotic period known as the "Crisis of the Third Century". The Crisis was roughly fifty years of civil war and slaughtered emperors and emperor-wannabes. Huge chunks of the empire broke away and became their own independent empires, while German tribes invaded and ran wild. The emperors during this period were usually generals with little political experience, frequently commoners who had risen through the ranks. Later in the Crisis, some of these general-emperors were able to retake the breakaway empires, slowly piecing the empire back together, and then a guy named Diocles took power. Renaming himself Diocletian, he brought an end to the old ways- no longer was the Roman Emperor technically answerable to the Senate, he had officially become a despot with absolute power. The old Principate (from the Latin term Princeps Civitatis or "First Citizen") gave way to the Dominate (from the word for "lord"). Diocletian also experimented with splitting up the empire into smaller, more manageable chunks but with himself still ultimately in charge. Eventually Diocletian got old and sick, and became the first emperor to retire[notes 7]- that's right! Not all emperors were killed!
And the rest...
A succession of minor figures follows until we get to Constantine I (306-337), called Constantine the Great by many. He legalized Christianity, convened the Council of Nicaea, and had his wife and son executed, as he thought they were being sexually active with each other. After him came more minor emperors as well as Julian[notes 8], who tried to push Rome back to paganism (care to guess how his efforts were rewarded?). Theodosius I (379-395) made Christianity the state religion. After Theodosius, the empire violently and permanently (having already been sectioned off prior to Constantine) split in half, with the West soon falling to repeated invasions while the East continued on.
There were a few bright spots- Eastern Emperor Justinian tried to reconquer the Western Empire but, aside from retaking Italy[notes 9] and parts of North Africa, mostly failed; and he rewrote Roman laws, which provided the groundwork for most of modern Europe's laws. He also reigned through one of the worst plagues in human history, as well as huge riots caused by unruly sports fans. His wife and co-regnant, Theodora, was one of the more interesting figures from antiquity. Heraclius switched the official language from Latin to Greek, since almost everyone was speaking Greek anyway, and he finally defeated Rome's old enemy Persia- just in time for followers of the brand new religion called Islam to come along and conquer the Middle East. The Eastern Empire then more or less limped along[notes 10] (the old fads of civil wars and murdered emperors never went out of style) until 1453 when it fell to the Ottoman Turks, finally bringing an end to the ancient Roman Empire.
- De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and Their Families -- An excellent resource on the history of the Roman emperors.
- A complicating factor is that failing to suck up to the senatorial class, who wrote our extant histories of the era, could give you a particularly nasty epitaph. Nero is at least partly a case of this; worse still, he mingled with the common citizens, the cad. Despite his bad rep, however, there were still impersonators who claimed to be him after his death, and who would try to get into power by claiming to be a universally hated tyrant?
- A pretty common theme in Roman historiography, btw.
- The year 69 was known as "the year of four emperors" in Rome
- Famously claiming "pecunia non olet" - money does not stink; upon doing so
- We're sorry, alright!
- Shows you were Turkmenbashi got his ideas, though.
- In Spalatum (Split), modern day Croatia of all places
- Often called Julian Apostate by Christian apologists
- And completely ravaging the peninsula through a long war against the Ostrogoths who were a slightly different type of Christian from himself - proving once and for all that Christianity is a religion of peace
- In surprising strength until the early 13th century when it was sacked in a crusade by a slightly different branch of Christianity - proving once and for all... you know the drill
- Caligula (AD 12 - 41) BBC History
- Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, The Life of Nero, 34
- Practical Lessons in Stoic Philosophy from Marcus Aurelius: an overview of Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Meditations.