The long-lasting legacy of Imperial Rome is well-deserved. The art, the architecture, the military achievements, the trade routes and, of course, the barbaric sports have all withstood the test of time.
And then there were the Roman Emperors.
From decadent teenagers and incapable megalomaniacs to remarkable military leaders and shrewd administrators, the Roman Empire witnessed all sorts of emperors between 27 BC and 410 AD.
Below is a list of every Roman Emperor – from Augustus to the Sack of Rome.
Augustus (27 BC – 19 August 14 AD)
Formerly ‘Octavian’, Augustus was the first Roman emperor. He made the army a formal constitution, created the Praetorian Guard, the Urban Cohorts and the Vigiles, and oversaw a great building project in Rome.
Despite his conservative nature, Augustus’ reign witnessed a series of expansionist wars that resulted in the Roman Empire doubling in size (overshadowed by the Teutoburg Forest disaster of 9 AD). He also had plans for an invasion of Britain, though they did not materialise.
During Augustus’ reign a ruler cult gathered strength, and he was considered whilst alive to be something between god and man; after his death he became more closely associated with the gods.
Tiberius (18 September 14 – 16 March 37)
Augustus was succeeded by his adopted stepson Tiberius, who ensured the integrity of the empire was maintained throughout his rule.
He rebuilt Rome’s military strength along the Rhine frontier to ensure the river fortifications held in the wake of the Teutoburg Forest disaster.
For the last 10 years of his reign, Tiberius retired from Rome to Capri island off the Bay of Naples. This blackened his reputation back in Rome, but elsewhere in the empire this retreat from the capital actually improved his standing. Provincials viewed him as a philosopher king, more learned and more knowledgeable in the relationship of the gods to men than anyone else in the world.
Caligula (16 March 37 – 24 January 41)
Officially Gaius Julius Caesar, Caligula was the son of the famous Roman general Germanicus. He greatly resented the old traditions of the Republic and sought to destroy the reputation of the senatorial class. Ruthless and cruel, he humiliated the senators, much to the delight of the Roman people.
The story goes that he even once made Incitatus, his horse, a consul – to spite the senators and to emphasise his supreme authority. He was assassinated by a senatorial / Praetorian prefect – led conspiracy.
Claudius (24 January 41 – 13 October 54)
Claudius, grandson of Mark Antony, succeeded Caligula following the latter’s assassination. The Praetorian Guard played a key part in the succession and Claudius was sure to reward them with a large donative.
It was during Claudius’ reign that the Romans invaded Britain and established a permanent presence, at least over the southeast.
Nero (13 October 54 – 9 June 68)
Although the first five years of his reign proved positive, like Caligula before him, Nero became disillusioned with the aristocracy and the overarching influence of certain figures when he became his own man.
Most notable among these figures was Agrippina, his mother. Nero ordered her execution on 23 March 59 AD and many view this as a significant turning point. From then on the emperor’s reign became more and more infamous.
Several of Nero’s most infamous acts include the persecution of Christians, the murdering of senators (including forcing his former tutor Seneca to commit suicide) and his participation in theatrical performances. Nero was a hellenophile (lover of Greek culture), and aligned himself more as a Hellenistic king than a virtuous Roman emperor – much to the senators’ displeasure.
It is unlikely he played the lyre when Rome burned and actually played an active role in helping the refugees – something that would certainly help explain Nero’s great and enduring popularity amongst the ordinary people of the empire .
Nero committed suicide on 9 June 68, after discovering the Senate had condemned him to death as a public enemy. He was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Galba (June 68 – 15 February 69)
In 68, Galba was the governor of Spain. He was encouraged to become emperor in 68, particularly by Vindex, a governor in Gaul, and Otho, the governor of Lusitania. He was proclaimed emperor by the Senate just before Nero committed suicide.
Galba returned to Rome, but soon grew unpopular after he refused to pay the Praetorians.
He was murdered on 15 February 69 in the Roman Forum after Otho, his former friend-turned-foe, bribed a party of Praetorians to murder him.
Otho (15 February – 16 April 69)
With the Praetorians’ backing, Otho succeeded Galba as emperor, killing his former ally’s official heir in the process.
He was soon challenged by Aulus Vitellius, the governor of the province of Germania Inferior, for the title of emperor. Otho’s forces were defeated at the First Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April 69, and the emperor committed suicide two days later.
Vitellius (16 April – 20 December 69)
Aulus Vitellius was the governor of Germania Inferior in early 69. With his Rhine legions he marched down to Italy, defeated Otho, and was proclaimed emperor on 16 April.
During his brief reign, Vitellius greatly increased the size of his Praetorian Guard, expanding it to 16 cohorts – each 1,000 men strong.
His forces were defeated by those of Vespasian at the Second Battle of Bedriacum on 24 October. After Vitellius was prevented from abdicating his power another battle occurred outside the gates of Rome itself.
Vitellius was defeated, dragged out of the Imperial Palace and killed by Vespasian’s soldiers.
Vespasian (21 December 69 – 23 June 79)
First of the Flavian emperors, he restored a sense of stability following the Year of the 4 Emperors. Significant events during his reign included Titus’ successful (and bloody) Siege of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada. Construction of the Colosseum also commenced during his reign.
Vespasian’s final words (supposedly) were:
“Vae, puto deus fio.” (“Dear me, I think I’m becoming a god”)
Titus (24 June 79 – 13 September 81)
The eldest son of Vespasian and the suppressor of the First Jewish Revolt. Best remembered today for the arch constructed in his honour by his successor Domitian. The arch still stands today in the Rome’s Forum, depicting his triumphant Roman army seizing the spoils from the Second Temple of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most infamous event to occur during Titus’ brief reign was the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, Herculaneum and several other settlements around the Bay of Naples, either on 24 August or during mid-October 79.
Domitian (14 September 81 – 18 September 96)
The younger brother of Titus; the younger son of Vespasian. He may have had a hand in Titus’ early death; famous for being paranoid against assassination attempts and recalling generals who had gained too much success.
Like Caligula and Nero, Domitian soon came at odds with the Senate, curtailing almost all their power as he sought to become an absolute emperor. Successfully repulsed Dacian invasion of Moesia, but a disastrous invasion of Dacia followed.
Construction of the Colosseum, initiated under Vespasian, was completed near the end of Domitian’s reign in 96. He was murdered by his own courtiers on 18 September 96 – much to the delight of the senators, though it also encouraged the wrath of the Praetorian Guard. He was the last of the Flavian dynasty.
Nerva (18 September 96 – 28 January 98)
Nerva was 60 years old when the senate recognised him as Domitian’s successor on 18 September 96. He had held positions under the Julio-Claudian and Flavian emperors.
In 97 the Praetorian Guard revolted against Nerva’s authority, instigated by their Prefect Casperius Aelianus. They demanded the handing over of Domitian’s assassins. Nerva proved powerless to stop Aelianus, highlighting the weakness of his position. He handed over the assassins and officially adopted Trajan, the soldier-governor of Germania Superior, soon after.
Some have suggested Trajan conspired with Aelianus to instigate the revolt, so as to be named Nerva’s successor.
He died in early 98 and is regarded as the first of the ‘Five Good Emperors.’
Trajan (28 January 98 – 9 August 117)
Marcus Ulpius Trajanus was the most successful military man in Roman history, expanding the Empire to its greatest extent. He won several remarkable military campaigns – against the Dacians and Parthians – and by the time of his death, his empire stretched from the Persian Gulf, to northern Britain.
Although perhaps initiated under Nerva, it was Trajan who formalised the alimenta welfare programme. He also oversaw the construction of several, monumental building projects in Rome: his namesake Column and Forum most notably.
The bridge Trajan had his architect build across the Danube during his Dacian Campaign remained for 1,000 years the longest arched bridge in the world.
Hadrian (11 August 117 – 10 July 138)
Trajan died childless and was succeeded by Hadrian, Trajan’s (unofficial) successor. He spent more time outside Rome than in the capital during his reign. He visited the outposts of the Empire and prioritised solidifying the frontiers. He is best remembered in Britain today for the construction of his namesake wall.
A renowned Hellenophile, Hadrian spent a large amount of his reign in the eastern Mediterranean. He erected several monumental structures in prime Hellenic cities such as Athens and also visited the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria.
His Hellenistic outlook clashed with Jewish practices, leading to the outbreak of the Third Jewish Revolt, which Hadrian brutally suppressed.
Antoninus Pius (10 July 138 – 7 March 161)
Antoninus Pius was officially adopted by Hadrian 5 months before the latter’s death, but on the condition that he in turn adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Antoninus’ reign was one of relative peace and stability, with the emperor never leaving the safety of central Italy.
It was during Antoninus’ rule that his generals extended the Roman frontier in Britain further north, erecting a turf and timber wall that stretched from the Clyde to the Forth. It was called the Antonine Wall.
Marcus Aurelius (9 March 161 – 17 March 180)
Marcus Aurelius succeeded Antoninus Pius and co-ruled the Roman Empire with Lucius Verus. He ruled alone following Lucius Verus’ death in 169. He faced his greatest military test against the Marcomanni tribe and their Germanic allies. Depictions of battles from this war are visible on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, Italy.
Despite constant military and political troubles, Marcus’ competent administration reacted well to crises like the flooding of the Tiber in 162. He reformed the currency intelligently in response to changing economic circumstances and picked his advisers well. He was praised for his mastery of the law and his fairness.
Marcus Aurelius was known as ‘the philosopher’ and was particularly influenced by Stoicism. His book on guidance and self-improvement, called ‘Meditations’, is still widely read today.
The historian of his reign, Cassius Dio, wrote that his death marked a descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.” The last of the 5 Good Emperors.
Lucius Verus (9 March 161 – 23 January 169)
Co-ruled the Roman Empire alongside Marcus Aurelius for nine years. Lucius Verus was younger and more decadent than his co-emperor. His greater military experience meant it was Verus who was sent east with an army to defeat the Parthians.
Verus’ generals won the campaign for him, though the emperor blackened his reputation by sacking the still largely Hellenistic city of Seleukeia on the Tigris.
He returned to Rome with his victorious army and received a triumph alongside Marcus Aurelius, but his men also brought back a plague, known as the Antonine Plague (believed to be smallpox). Lucius succumbed to the plague in 169.
Commodus (177 – 31 December 192)
The son of Marcus Aurelius who failed to live up to his father’s virtuous reputation. He initially ruled as co-emperor alongside his father for three years and afterwards ruled alone. His rule is defined by paranoia, decadence and megalomania; he is considered one of Rome’s worst emperors.
He believed he was Hercules reincarnated, depicting himself as such in sculpture, dressing as the hero and ordering people to call him Hercules; he fought as a gladiator and usually armed himself with a club to mimic his hero Heracles (his opponents stretched from crippled soldiers to exotic beasts which shocked the Roman public); he also renamed Rome following a great fire, calling it Colonia Commodiana.
It is no surprise that Commodus was later murdered – choked to death by his fitness coach.
Pertinax (1 January – 28 March 193)
Pertinax was proclaimed emperor by the Senate in the early morning of 1 January 193, having gained the support of the Praetorian Guard by offering them a large donative. Although he managed to pay the Guard this donative, he failed to win their complete trust.
The men had grown use to the luxuries showered on them by Commodus and were averse to Pertinax’s attempts to reduce their extravagances and restore integrity.
Some of the Praetorians were angered by this swift, radical change and on 28 March, they stormed the Palace and killed the Emperor.
With no clear successor, civil war ensued.
Didius Julianus (28 March – 2 June 193)
The Praetorians proclaimed Didius Julianus emperor at their camp on the same day of Pertinax’s death, after the statesman had offered the soldiers 25,000 sesterces each for their loyalty.
Despite the popular conception, Didius did not win the throne because he simply ‘outbid’ Sulpicianus, another statesman who similarly desired the throne and had offered each Praetorian 20,000 sesterces.
Rather, Sulpicianus was Pertinax’s father-in-law and it is likely the Praetorians had feared retribution if they had picked a man related to the emperor they had just murdered.
Didius’ reign was highly-contested; once news of Pertinax’s murder reached generals and governors in the provinces, three others assumed the royal purple. Didius was deserted of allies and killed on 2 June, after one of his rivals, Septimius Severus, arrived in Italy with an army.
Pescennius Niger (April 93 – April 94)
The governor of Syria at the time of Pertinax’s murder, he was proclaimed emperor by his troops after they received word of Didius’ accession.
Despite controlling a large number of legions and the vital province of Egypt (the main source of Rome’s grain supply), Severus defeated Niger in a series of battles, culminating in the decisive Battle of Issus on 31 March 194.
He was killed within the next month.
Clodius Albinus (93 – 19 February 197)
Clodius Albinus was the Governor of Britain at the time of Pertinax’s assassination and may have played a covert role in the plot to assassinate Commodus through his friends in the senate (it was said that Commodus, due to the Albinus’ renowned reputation, had ordered him be his successor).
As Governor of Britain, Albinus had three legions at his disposal and was acclaimed emperor. He formed an alliance with Severus in 193, becoming his Caesar (successor), leaving the latter free to fight Niger in the east.
In 196 however Severus, in his attempts to start a Severan dynasty, betrayed the agreement with Albinus and attempted to have his Caesar assassinated. Albinus survived and Severus declared him a political enemy of the state.
Albinus mustered his legions and sailed to Gaul with most of the British garrison. He faced Severus for the decisive battle at Lugdunum on 19 February 197. Although more recently debated by scholars, 300,000 Romans are said to have participated at this battle (150,000 on either side), making it the biggest in Roman history.
Albinus narrowly lost the battle, and his life. He was the greatest challenge Severus ever faced to his rule.
Septimius Severus (14 April 193 – 4 February 211)
Septimius Severus originally hailed from Lepcis Magna in North Africa. At the time of Pertinax’s assassination, Severus was the governor of Pannonia Superior and was proclaimed emperor by the Pannonian legions (stationed in modern day Bosnia) soon after.
Severus quickly seized Rome, reformed the Praetorian Guard and made an alliance with Albinus, before he marched east and crushed Niger’s forces in Anatolia. He then turned on Albinus, defeating him at Lugdunum in February 197.
Severus went on to launch military conquests at the limits of his empire: in the Near East against the Parthians, in Africa and in northern Britain.
The largest campaigning force ever to fight in Britain was led by Severus into Scotland in 209 and 210 BC. It numbered 50,000 men, as well as 7,000 sailors and marines from the regional fleet Classis Britannica.
He died in York on 4 February 211.
Caracalla (209 – 8 April 217)
Eldest son of Severus. Initially ruled as co-emperor, first with his father Severus and then with his hated younger brother Geta. He had Geta murdered in December 211, and his face removed from all public images.
Caracalla was one of Rome’s worst emperors. He was a megalomaniac; he believed he was Alexander the Great reborn; he called himself the Great Alexander and equipped some of his soldiers with Alexander-era weapons – arming them with pikes and naming them Alexander’s phalanx. It is not surprising that Caracalla was murdered soon after.
Geta (4 February 211 – 26 December 211)
Son of Septimius Severus; younger brother of Caracalla. Ruled with Caracalla for less than a year before his elder brother had him executed. Caracalla then had Geta’s face removed from all public images – damnatio memoriae.
Macrinus (11 April 217 – June 218)
Praetorian Prefect of Caracalla who supposedly ordered the emperor’s assassination near the ancient town of Carrhae. He assumed the title of emperor as Caracalla had no clear successor.
Discontent quickly spread in the army regarding Macrinus’ rule however. His reign was challenged; Macrinus was defeated in battle, forced to flee, captured and beheaded.
He never set foot in Rome.
Elagabalus (16 May 218 – 11 March 222)
The man chosen by the army to replace Macrinus was Varius Avitus Bassianus, better known as Elagabalus.
He proposed radical and highly-unpopular religious reform upon returning to Rome, when he planned to replace the chief traditional Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal, the Syrian sun god. He then (briefly) married a Vestal Virgin, and proceeded to show no interest in managing the empire.
He became the epitome of decadence and proved highly unpopular. Arguably, he was THE worst Roman Emperor.
He and his controlling mother were executed at the Castra Praetoria on 11 March 222 – their beheaded bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and deposited in the Tiber.
Severus Alexander (11 or 13 March 222 – 18 March 235)
Cousin of Elagabulus. When Severus was proclaimed the new imperial ruler, he was just 13 years old. During his teenage years Julia Mamaea, Alexander’s mother, effectively ruled.
Both Alexander and his mother proved inept at conducting military campaigns at a time when the empire was under threat in both Europe and the Near East. In the end, the army sought a new emperor who had proven himself in war.
Alexander was assassinated by his own soldiers at Mainz on either 18 or 19 March 235, along with his mother.
His assassination marked the end of the Severan dynasty.
Maximinus Thrax (March 235 – May 238)
Hailing from a lowly family in Thrace, Maximinus Thrax had risen through the ranks of the Roman military. By 235, he was a high-standing general within Alexander Severus’ army and was the commander who the army turned to when they lost faith in the young emperor.
He lacked support in the Senate due to his ‘barbarian’ roots, but he had the support of the army. He won a couple of victories in Germania but little else.
The Patrician Senate soon threw their support behind several other imperial candidates and declared Maximinus an enemy of the state in 238. He was killed by his Praetorian Guard, after he suffered a series of setbacks besieging the city of Aquileia.
He never set foot in Rome and was the first of the Barracks / Soldier Emperors.
Gordian I and II (22 March 238 – 12 April 238)
Gordian I was the elderly provincial governor of Africa during Maximinus’ reign. An uprising against corrupt tax officials forced him to assume the purple, along with his son, and they soon received the official backing of the senate.
The neighbouring governor of Numidia, however, was an ally of Maximinus. He marched on Carthage and defeated the militia, killing Gordian II in the process.
When Gordian I learned of his son’s death in battle, he hanged himself.
They had ruled just 22 days.
Pupienus and Balbinus (22 April – 29 July 238)
After the demise of the Gordian co-emperors, the Senate elected two of its own members to the throne: Pupienus Maximus and Balbinus.
Pupienus marched north and oversaw the defeat and death of Maximinus outside Aquileia. He then returned to Rome, which was in a state of anarchy.
The Emperors were soon seized by members of the Praetorian Guard, stripped, dragged through the streets, tortured and killed.
Gordian III (29 July 238 – 25 February 244)
The grandson of the elderly Gordian I. He was appointed Caesar (successor) during the brief reign of Pupienus and Balbinus. He ruled from 239 – 244, largely as a figurehead controlled by his advisers, particularly the head of the Praetorian Guard, Timesitheus, who was also his father in law.
Gordian III died of unknown causes while campaigning in the Middle East.
Philip the Arab (244 – 249)
Succeeded the successful Timesitheus as Gordian III’s Praetorian Prefect in early 244. He may have had a role in Gordian III’s death, though this is debated.
Upon his return to Europe, Philip won victories against the Dacian Carpi tribe and the Germans and over the next 5 years several challenges to his rule were suppressed. In 249 however, his successful general Quintus Decius Valerinus defeated a Gothic rebellion and was pronounced emperor by his troops.
Philip was defeated and killed by Decius’ army in late 249.
Philip II (237 – 249)
Son and heir of Philip the Arab. Murdered by the Praetorian Guard in 249, when word reached the capital of his father’s death against Decius. He was only 11 years old.
Decius (249 – June 251)
After the deaths of Philip the Arab and his son, Decius ruled as emperor for two years. He spent most of his reign fighting the Goths, who had returned following his victory over them barely two years earlier.
Decius’ second campaign against the Goths did not prove as successful. He and his legions were soundly defeated at the Battle of Abritus. Decius died during the battle and was the first Roman Emperor to be killed by a foreign invader.
Decius persecuted Christians during his brief reign.
Herennius Etruscus (251)
Son and co-emperor alongside Decius during 251. He was killed at the Battle of Abritus, alongside his father.
Trebonianus Gallus (July 251 – 253)
Chosen as emperor following the death of Decius and Herennius Etruscus at Abritus. His reign was plagued by invasions from Visigoth and Sassanian forces.
Defeated by the imperial challenger Aemilianus at the Battle of Interamna Nahars in 253 and was murdered by his own men soon after.
Hostilian (July – November 251)
Youngest son of the Emperor Decius. He was made co-emperor alongside Trebonianus Gallus in 251, following Decius’ death at the Abritus, but died from plague in November 251.
Volusianus (November 251 – 253)
The son of Trebonianus Gallus. Becomes co-emperor alongside his father following the death of Hostilian. He was killed, along with his father, by their own troops after Aemilianus defeated them at the Battle of Interamna Nahars.
In 253 Aemilianus commanded a large Roman army in Asia Minor. He won a resounding victory against the invading Goths and his troops subsequently crowned him emperor. He marched on Rome, defeated Trebonianus Gallus and Volusanius in battle and assumed the royal title.
He was killed by his own soldiers barely three months after becoming emperor after they discovered that a large army, commanded by the Rhine governor Valerian, was marching south to challenge Aemilianus’ rule.
Valerian (253 – 260)
Experienced commander and patrician, Valerian succeeded Aemilianus as emperor. He spent very little time in Rome, prioritising the need to combat the rising power of the Sasanian king Shapur I in the east.
He became the first and only Roman emperor to be captured and taken prisoner in battle, when he was defeated by Shapur at the Battle of Edessa in 260. Some claimed Valerian was then humiliated by his captors, being used as a human footstool by Shapur whenever he mounted his horse.
Gallienus (253 – 268)
Son of Valerian and co-emperor alongside his father between 253 and 260. He won a series of military victories in the north and east, (perhaps) culminating in a decisive victory over the Goths at Naissus in 268 (there is debate whether it was Gallienus or his successor Claudius who achieved this victory).
Gallienus made reforms to the army, especially among the cavalry to make his forces more effective against the Sasanians. He also proved more tolerant to Christians than his father.
He was assassinated by senior officers in his army while besieging the force of a would-be-usurper at Mediolanum.
The son of Gallienus. Between 258 and 260 Gallienus had named him his official successor. In 260 Saloninus was residing in Colonia Agrippina when Postumus, the governor of Upper and Lower Germany, revolted and laid siege to the city.
Saloninus was declared co-emperor during the siege in the vain hope this would deter the besieging soldiers from continuing their military action. It didn’t work. The city succumbed to Postumus’ forces and Saloninus was executed.
Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ (268 – 270)
Gallienus’ assassination in 268 brought Claudius to the throne. Claudius had served as the commander of Gallienus’ reformed, elite cavalry wing.
He won a decisive victory against the Goths at the Battle of Naissus in 268, although some argue this was achieved by the Emperor Gallienus the previous year. He went on to gain another decisive victory a few months later, in late 268, at the Battle of Lake Benacus.
Claudius had hoped to now start reuniting his divided empire by reducing the Gallic Empire in the west and the Palmyrene Empire in the east to his will. He succumbed to plague, however, in early 270.
Brother of Claudius II. Reigned for only a few months in 270. He was either murdered by his soldiers or forced to commit suicide.
Aurelian (270 – 275)
It had been the aim of Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ to reunite the divided Roman Empire, but it was Aurelian who saw this through.
First he threw barbarians from Italy and then Roman territory. He defeated the Goths in the Balkans and wisely decided to step back from defending Dacia.
Boosted by these victories he overthrew the Palmyrene Empire, which had grown from captured Roman provinces in North Africa and the Middle East, important sources of grain for Rome. Next were the Gauls in the west, completing a complete reunification of the Empire and earning Aurelian the title, “Restorer of the World.”