Depending on how you define it, there were somewhere between 70 to 100 Roman emperors between the ascension of Augustus to the fall of the western empire in 476. A period of about 500 years.
Some of them managed to be just and competent rulers who ruled for extended periods of peace and prosperity.
Learn more about the worst Roman emperors who ran the gamut from insane to incompetent, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When Augustus became the first Roman emperor there was no formal position with that title. As he served for over forty years, he was known as the “Princeps”, which just meant the first citizen.
The position of emperor was a series of personal powers and titles that Augustus was granted which he then passed along to his successors. After a while, all of these powers basically gave the emperor total unchecked control over the empire.
Some emperors used this power wisely. Augustus, despite being the wealthiest man in the world at the time (I mean he personally owned Egypt) always made sure to appear to live modestly.
Some emperors were pragmatic about not overextending the empire by setting its borders and eschewing further conquest. They didn’t debase their currency, and they were responsible for the 200-hundred-year Pax Romana.
However, in the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
A Roman Emperor had absolute power, and not surprisingly, many Roman Emperors were absolutely corrupt.
The Emperor was not an elected position. The position was usually inherited or taken by physical force. As a result, some of the people who became emperors were totally unfit for the job. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were totally unfit for any job.
So, what I’ll be doing is providing a list of the emperors who are generally considered to be the worst of the lot. There is obviously a subjective element to this, and someone else could bring up some emperor not on the list who was pretty bad, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
However, if you look at any list of the worst emperors, it is almost always usual suspects.
So, without further ado, here are the worst of the Roman emperors, in chronological order.
The first on my list is the second emperor, Tiberius.
Augustus wanted to give the empire to one of his male heirs. He went through a series of male relatives who all died. He finally had to settle on his stepson and the son of his wife Liva.
Tiberius didn’t particularly want the job. He was actually a really good general, but he felt slighted by Augustus and accepted it reluctantly.
The first years of his reign actually went pretty well. However, after the death of his son and nephew, 12 years into his rule, he retreated to his palace on the island of Capri.
His palace was basically a pleasure palace where he indulged in every sort of activity that horrified upright Romans, and can’t be mentioned on a family-friendly podcast.
His right-hand man, Sejanus, basically ran a reign of terror in Rome in the name of Tiberius. Sejanus was eventually stopped, which I detailed in a previous episode, but it didn’t change the fact that Tiberius was very unpopular.
He died at the age of 77 after ruling for 22 years. The fact that he came to power late in life, ruled for so long, and died naturally, maybe, at an advanced age is something we aren’t going to see again on this list.
His debauchery was raised to the next level by his successor, his nephew Caligula.
Caligula came to power at the age of 25, 30 years younger than Tiberius was. He had little experience ruling, nor did he have any political or military background. Also, there were rumors that Caligula had Tiberius suffocated with a pillow
Tiberius actually bequeathed power to Caligula and his grandson Gemellus, who was only 17 or 18 when Tiberius died.
Caligula quickly killed Gemellus to get him out of the way.
Caligula was initially well-liked simply because he wasn’t Tiberius, but he quickly showed his own breed of insanity.
He would abuse and flex his power in ways that horrified Romans. He would sleep with the wives of senators and openly flaunt it in front of them.
He created statues of himself which he put in Roman temples and encouraged people to worship him.
He supposedly had a section of the audience at games he was attending thrown to wild animals because he was bored.
He was accused of incest with all three of his sisters.
He tried to attack Britain and failed, so instead collected seashells and brought them back as a treasure for his triumph in Rome.
He tried to get his favorite horse appointed as consul.
He created two enormous pleasure boats on Lake Nermi at a tremendous cost to the treasury, and also built a pontoon bridge across the Gulf of Baiae near Naples just to spite a soothsayer who said he would be as likely to be emperor as to ride a horse across the Gulf of Baiae.
After five years as emperor, he was murdered by his own guards. Spoiler alert: this is not the last time an emperor mentioned on this episode will get murdered.
Caligula was replaced by his uncle Claudius, who surprised everyone by being a great emperor. However, when he died, he was replaced by his stepson, Nero.
Odds are you’ve heard of Nero.
Nero, like so many of the emperors on this list, came to power at a very young age. He was 16 when ascended to power. It was mostly due to the workings of his mother behind the scenes who marry Claudius, and who according to some, poisoned him.
The list of things which Nero is accused of includes killing his mother, killing his brother, and killing his pregnant wife by kicking her to death.
He thought himself to be a great singer and actor and would often perform and force senators to attend. If they fell asleep or failed to applaud enthusiastically, they could be executed. Also, in Roman society, actors were considered near the bottom of society.
He competed at the Olympic Games in Greece and made everyone lose to him in every event.
When Rome burned, he used the new religious sect known as the Christians as scapegoats, ushering in the first Chrisitan persecution in Rome. He would find novel ways of killing them including using them as human torches to light his garden.
He cleared out an enormous part of Rome after the fire to build what was probably the biggest palace in the ancient world. He emptied the Roman treasury to build it.
He scandalized the Roman elite by marrying another man who was a freed slave, with him dressing as the bride, and then later marrying a eunuch.
Eventually, the senate and the elite turned on him, but he killed himself before they could.
The death of Nero ushered in the year of Four Emperors, which I address in a previous episode. I will make note of Emperor Vitellius who was emperor for about 9 months.
If other emperors were guilty of greed, lust, and wrath, Vitellius was guilty of gluttony. He spent most of his short time in power attending multiple feasts a day. At one, there were supposedly two thousand fish and seven thousand birds served.
He was eventually dragged through the streets of Rome and murdered by a mob of Romans.
The next one on the bad emperor list was Domitian.
Domitian was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, both of whom were emperors before him.
Domitian served for a lengthy 15 years. His reign started out fine, but eventually, he became consumed with paranoia. He saw conspiracies everywhere, which, oddly enough, encourages actual conspiracies.
He executed 15 former consuls, He executed wealthy people to take their property. He had one of the Vestal Virgins buried alive. He persecuted philosophers, Christians, and Jews to promote Roman paganism.
He killed family members. In addition to killing his cousin, he supposedly impregnated his niece, forced her to have an abortion where she died, then deified her after she was dead.
He had people in the imperial court executed and that was what eventually did him in. His own family was so scared of him that he was assassinated in a plot that may have involved his own wife.
Domitian’s death began a period known as the Five Good Emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Each emperor adopted the man who was to succeed him, and the system worked well. Until Marcus Aurelius tapped his actual son Commodus to become emperor.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Gladiator, that was Commodus. The British historian Edward Gibbon marked the start of the fall of the Roman Empire with Commodus.
Commodus came to power at the of 19, which is never a good sign.
Whereas Nero likened himself to be an actor, Commodus saw himself as a gladiator. He would literally fight in the colosseum as a gladiator. Supposedly, he once killed 100 lions in the colosseum in a single day.
He saw himself as the reincarnation of Hercules, and actually renamed himself that. He declared himself a living god.
He actually didn’t take much interest in the affairs of running the empire, so he left it to his freedmen who sold favors and ushered in an era of extreme corruption.
According to the Roman historian, Cassius Dio Commodus turned Rome “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.
His mistress tried to poison him, but when that failed, he was strangled by his wrestling partner.
This led to the year of Five Emperors which ushered in a new period of instability.
Septimus Severus eventually brought stability to the empire, but his son was the next contender for the prize of the worst emperor: Caracalla.
Caracalla was appointed a full emperor alongside his father at the age of 10. His brother Geta was also appointed co-emperor when their father died in 211.
Caracalla hated his brother and had Geta murdered by his Praetorian Guards, where he died in his mother’s arms. He ordered the destruction of all images and the name of his brother throughout the empire.
After that, he killed anyone who supported or was friends with Geta.
He left Rome soon after to tour the provinces. When he heard that he had been mocked over the murder of Geta in Alexandria, he had the city leaders decapitated and massacred about 20,000 Alexandrians.
Caracalla was murdered in southern Turkey while urinating on the side of the road by a Roman centurion who was upset about not getting a promotion.
It would only take a year for the next entrant in the worst emperor contest to come forward, and this was a really strong contender: Elagabalus.
Elagabalus was, surprise, only 14 when he came to power. He got the throne via political maneuverings by his mother.
His name comes from the fact that was a follower of the Syrian sun god, Elagabal. In fact, he tried to get Elagabal to become the primary god in the Roman pantheon.
Messing with religion like this drove the Romans crazy. He married one of the Vestal Virgins, which was a massive affront to Roman sensibility. He had a total of five wives in his very short life.
Rumors held that he practiced human sacrifice to his sun god.
He once held a banquet where he dumped so many flower petals on his guests that some of them suffocated and died.
He would supposedly go out at night and prostitute himself in taverns and brothels.
Eventually, the Praetorian guard had enough of it and killed him and his mother. Their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into the Tiber.
There were many emperors who would also qualify as bad, but most of them were just incompetent or ineffectual. Some emperors like Diocletian were arguably very successful emperors, who implemented policies that made the empire much worse.
If there is anything we can get from the worst Roman emperors is that it is probably a bad idea to grant a teenager absolute control over one of the most powerful empires on Earth.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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