10 Facts About the Roman Emperors

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

16 Aug 2018

During their time, the emperors of Ancient Rome were the most powerful people in the known world and have come to epitomise the power of the Roman Empire. Augustus, Caligula, Nero and Commodus are all emperors who have become immortalised and had their stories told in various films and television series – with some portrayed as great role models and others as terrible despots.

Here are 10 facts about the Roman emperors.

1. Augustus was the first Roman emperor

augustus caesar

A bronze statue of Emperor Augustus in Rome. Credit: Alexander Z / Commons

Augustus reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Roman emperors. He embarked on a great building programme in Rome and famously claimed on his deathbed that he had found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.

2. Emperors had an elite unit of soldiers called the Praetorian Guard

The soldiers’ main duty was to protect the emperor and his family. Yet they also served various other roles such as policing events, fighting fires and quelling peacetime disturbances in Italy.

The Praetorian Guard also played a large political role, serving as “emperor makers” on various occasions. They were key, for instance, in the succession of Claudius in 41, following the assassination of Caligula. Claudius was sure to reward them with a large donative.

At other times too, Praetorian Prefects (who started out as commanders of the Guard before their role increasingly evolved into a political and then administrative one) and sometimes parts of the Guard itself were involved in plots against the emperor – some of which succeeded.

3. 69 AD became known as the “Year of the Four Emperors”

The year that followed Nero’s suicide in 68 was marked by a vicious struggle for power. Nero was succeeded by the Emperor Galba, but he was soon overthrown by his former deputy Otho.

Otho, in turn, soon met his end after his force was defeated in battle by Vitellius, the commander of the Rhine legions. Finally, Vitellius was himself defeated by Vespasian.

4. The empire was at its largest extent under the Emperor Trajan in 117

It stretched from northern Britain in the north-west to the Persian Gulf in the east. Many of the lands that Trajan gained in the east were quickly ceded by his successor, Hadrian, however, after he realised that the empire was overstretched.

5. Hadrian spent more time travelling throughout his empire than he did in Rome during his reign

An overtly gay philosopher, poet and flautist, Emperor Hadrian was also a brilliant military strategist and ruthless commander of his legions. Find out more in the documentary Hadrian on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

We remember Hadrian most vividly for the great wall he constructed as a Roman frontier in northern England. But this was not the only frontier he was interested in; during his reign he traversed the entire breadth of his empire in a desire to manage and improve its borders.

He also spent a great deal of time touring the marvels of his empire. This included visiting and sponsoring great building projects in Athens as well as sailing on the Nile and visiting Alexander the Great’s splendid tomb in Alexandria. He is remembered as the travelling emperor.

6. The biggest battle in Roman history was fought between an emperor and a challenger to his throne

The Battle of Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons) was fought in 197 AD between the Emperor Septimius Severus and Clodius Albinus, the governor of Roman Britain and a challenger to the Imperial throne.

An estimated 300,000 Romans are said to have participated at this battle – three-quarters of the total number of Roman soldiers in the Empire at that time. The battle was evenly matched, with 150,000 men on either side. In the end, Severus emerged victorious – but only just!

7. The largest campaigning force ever to fight in Britain was led by Severus into Scotland in 209 and 210 BC

Archaeologist and historian Simon Elliott discusses his book Sea Eagles of Empire: The Classis Britannica and the Battles for Britain on this episode of the History Hit podcast. Listen Now

The force numbered 50,000 men, as well as 7,000 sailors and marines from the regional fleet Classis Britannica.

8. The Emperor Caracalla was obsessed with Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus River, 334 BC.

Although many Roman emperors saw Alexander the Great as a man to admire and emulate, Caracalla took things to a whole new level. The emperor believed he was a reincarnation of Alexander, calling himself the “Great Alexander”.

He even equipped levied Macedonian troops akin to Alexander’s infantrymen – arming them with deadly sarissae (a four to six-metre-long pike) and naming them “Alexander’s phalanx”. It is perhaps not surprising that Caracalla was murdered soon after.

9. The so-called “Crisis of the Third Century” was the period in which barracks emperors ruled

Throughout the turmoil that gripped the Roman Empire throughout much of the 3rd century, many soldiers of low birth managed to rise through the ranks and become emperors with the support of the army and the Praetorian Guard.

There were approximately 14 barracks emperors in 33 years, producing an average reign of a little over two years apiece. The most famous of these soldier emperors include the first barracks emperor, Maximinus Thrax, and Aurelian.

10. Emperor Honorius banned gladiatorial games at the start of the 5th century

sack of rome alaric

Honorius as a young emperor.

It is said that Honorius, a devout Christian, made this decision after witnessing the death of Saint Telemachus as he was trying to break up one of these fights. Some sources suggest that gladiator fights still occasionally took place after Honorius, though they soon died out with the rise of Christianity.