Modern films and books often portray ancient Roman emperors as bloodthirsty tyrants only concerned with preserving their own power. But how true is this portrayal? While it is certainly possible to identify many great things that the Roman emperors have done, for many, their reputations as bloody tyrants seem to be well-deserved. Evidence that absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Let’s take a look at 7 of the worst, bloodiest, most violent Roman emperors from history.
Successor to the first Roman emperor Augustus, Tiberius followed his stepfather to power and ruled from AD 17-37. His path to power was cleared by the untimely deaths of Augustus’ grandsons Gaius and Lucius. While Tiberius was a gifted military commander, he was also highly suspicious of everyone, including his own family. Crippled by paranoia, he instructed the head of his personal Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, to deal with the problem, resulting in a reign of terror. Tiberius eventually lost his faith in Sejanus and was convinced that Sejanus wanted to take power for himself, and had him executed too.
Following this bloodbath, Tiberius continued to be highly suspicious and retreated to the Island of Capri for isolation and protection. From his sanctuary he revived the practice of informing on others for acts of treason, and killing anyone suspected. While living on Capri, Tiberius is also described as acting as a depraved sexual predator praying on young men. He disposed of anyone who displeased him by throwing them off a cliff.
Unlike all the other emperors on this list, Tiberius died of natural causes.
As one of his few surviving family members, Gaius Caligula succeeded Tiberius to power in AD 37 and reigned until his assassination in AD 41. Many had great hopes for Caligula when he came to power after the suspicious Tiberius. However, following a serious illness, be developed his predecessor’s paranoia and began to behave erratically. This may have included entering into an incestuous relationship with his sister, perhaps seeing her as one of the few people he could trust. When she died, he had her declared a goddess, and also asked the Romans to make sacrifices to him as a living god.
Caligula took great delight in humiliating Rome’s ruling elite, the Senate. Among other things, he mocked the value of their position in society by appointing his horse consul, the most coveted post for a Roman senator. He also offended the army by asking them to engage in ludicrous activity, such as collecting sea shells.
Caligula’s downfall was childishly taunting the head of his personal Praetorian Guard, who then arranged for him to be assassinated. Apparently when the assassins came he complained that he was a god, and therefore could not be killed.
Although still an adolescent when he came to power in AD 54, Nero’s reign began with blood as he, or his mother, assassinated his half brother Britannicus in order to eliminate any threat he might pose to Nero’s power. Nero later killed his wife Octavia in order to marry another woman, Poppaea, who he also later killed. Nero even killed his own mother, despite her own murderous support of him early in his reign.
It is claimed that Nero started the devastating great fire of Roman in AD 64, which led to many deaths. While this is probably not true, it seems he nevertheless callously played his fiddle while he watched the city burn, showing no concern for his subjects. After the fire, rather than focussing on rebuilding important infrastructure, Nero took possession of large portions of land to build himself a golden house, which he probably intended to be his temple as a god on earth.
Nero was overthrown by an army revolt in AD 68, which led to a year-long civil war.
The youngest son of Vespasian, the man who emerged victorious from the civil war that followed Nero’s death, Domitian was said to be suspicious and paranoid even before he came to power in AD 81. It is said that his father, as well as his brother and predecessor Titus, did everything that they could to keep him out of public office as he was deemed too ambitious and immature.
Contemporary historians implicate Domitian in the deaths of both his father and brother, though with little evidence. These authors probably had a dislike for Domitian as he was an extremely autocratic ruler who diminished the power of the Senate, which he deeply distrusted. Things became particularly bad after Domitian identified a conspiracy against him and consequently executed many leading citizens, including 12 ex-consuls and two of his own cousins.
Like Caligula and Nero, Domitian considered himself borderline divine. As well as having his father and brother defied, as was the custom for many deceased emperors, Domitian also had his sister and infant son deified after their deaths.
Domitian was killed in AD 96 in a conspiracy led by his wife and court officials.
Following the death of Domitian, Rome seems to have gone through a period of prosperity. His five successors are known as the five good emperors. They are also notable in that unlike their predecessors, they were not a blood dynasty, but a series of generals that adopted other successful generals in order to enable them to succeed them to power. This ended when the last of the five good emperors, Marcus Aurelius, passed power to his biological son Commodus, of Gladiator fame.
Commodus ruled from AD 180-192 and was indeed a keen fan of the gladiator contests and is believed to have fought in the arena himself dressed as Hercules, likening himself to the demi-god.
Commodus was extremely vain and pleasure-seeking, and almost bankrupted the empire with his excesses. He then sought to replenish the Roman treasury by accusing wealthy Romans of plotting against them, executing them, confiscating their property and acquiring their wealth for the state.
Like a number of his predecessors, it seems that Commodus’ main problem was offending his personal Praetorian Guard. The leader of his personal guard arranged for a professional athlete to strangle him while in the bath.
Caracalla ruled from AD 211-217, initially in combination with his younger brother Geta. But Caracalla soon had Geta murdered so that he could rule on his own. He also killed all of Geta’s supporters and anyone he suspected of not supporting his rule.
Caracalla is actually the Roman emperor who extended Roman citizenship to all free men living within the Roman empire. Far from being altruistic, he probably did this in order to increase taxes to raise funds for his own lavish spending.
Caracalla was a successful military leader, but also infamously brutal and he was eventually killed by an uprising of army officers working with his personal Praetorian Guard, again. After his death, the chief of his personal guard set himself up as emperor.
A relative of Caracalla, Elagabalus expelled the upstart guard in AD 218 and ruled until AD 222. At the age of just 14, he was not ready for his position of power, and used his power to indulge his every whim.
He got his name because he tried to introduce the cult of the Syrian deity Elah-Gabal into Rome, even having himself circumcised to show his devotion to the cult. This was not the only thing that Elagabalus did to deliberately offend Roman religious morals. He also married the chief vestal virgin, who was supposed to be a virgin and executed if she was not, and set up a conical black stone to himself as the god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.
Elagabalus went through many wives and publicly took many lovers including men and people we would now recognise as transgender. Elagabalus may himself have been transgender and often dressed as a woman and offered huge sums of money to any doctor who could make him a woman for real. He was eventually killed in a conspiracy led by his own grandmother.