10 Ways to Upset a Roman Emperor | History Hit

10 Ways to Upset a Roman Emperor

L. J. Trafford

01 Jun 2023
Marble portrait head of the Emperor Constantine I, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image Credit: History Hit

Ancient Rome could be a dangerous place, what with the lack of antibiotics, planning regulations and any meaningful attempt at policing a city of one million inhabitants. But there is one danger that you really want to avoid at all costs if you truly value your life, and that is upsetting the emperor.

One of the bonuses of unlimited power is being able to easily rid yourself of people who annoy, irritate or upset you. Emperors were not shy in utilising this power and often for very good reasons, for to be an emperor was to face daily threats and plots to your life.

However, there were also people who found themselves on the wrong side of the emperor for more eccentric reasons. So here are 10 ways to upset an emperor.

1. Being related to him

Roman history is awash with stories of emperors bumping off their relatives. Sometimes for sound reasons, such as they were plotting against them, sometimes not.

Nero was one emperor who removed a great many of his relatives including his stepbrother (and potentially better claimant to the throne) Britannicus who he had killed during an imperial banquet, which we have to assume also killed the atmosphere.

More shamefully he also ordered the death of his mother, Agrippina because she nagged him too much. Agrippina, however, proved harder to kill than Britannicus. Three failed poisonings and one failed collapsible boat scheme later, Nero had her stabbed to death.

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2. Being related to an emperor who was emperor twelve years before the current emperor was emperor

Otho had been emperor for only three months during the tumultuous year of the four emperors, 69 CE. He hadn’t had the time to make much of an impact on Rome and he was generally forgotten, except by his nephew, Salvius who remembered him on his birthday each year.

A simple act that twelve years and three emperors after Otho’s death Emperor Domitian suddenly decided was upsetting and had Salvius executed.

3. Being too nice about a man who killed an emperor

Being a Roman emperor is a dangerous job. A recent study concluded that you had a whopping 62% chance of having a violent death. So, it is not surprising that emperors tend to be on the touchy side when the conversation turns to assassination and those who perpetrate it.

The historian Cordus should have thought about this when writing his history of Rome. Writing about the assassination of Julius Caesar, Cordus praised the dagger wielding Brutus and described Cassius as ‘the last of the Romans’.

The Emperor Tiberius was not amused. Cordus starved himself to death and all copies of his historical work were collected up and destroyed.

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4. Being related to a man who killed an emperor even though that man has been dead for a hundred years

As the saying goes, you can’t choose your family. Which was unfortunate for one Cassius Longinus who was executed by Nero for the crime of being a descendent of the Cassius that killed Julius Caesar. Innocent though he was, it was a poor interior décor choice of Longinus to include a statue of the Caesar snuffing Cassius with the inscription ‘Leader of the Cause’ amongst the busts of his ancestors.

5. Having an affair with his wife

This bleeding obvious rule for self-preservation is not always so easy to adhere to. Such as in the sorry case of the actor, Mnester who found himself fancied rotten by the Empress Messalina. Resistance was deemed futile when Messalina persuaded her husband, Claudius to compel Mnester to do whatever she ordered. Naturally she didn’t spell out that those orders might be.

Poor Mnester had no choice but to comply with the empress’ sexual demands, and this led to his execution, alongside a long list of Messalina’s other lovers when Claudius discovered his wife’s rampant lack of fidelity.

Bust of the Emperor Claudius. Image credit: George E. Koronaios / CC

6. Not having an affair with his wife

Also executed during the general wash up after Messalina’s downfall was Sextus Traulus Montanus who hadn’t slept with the empress.

Hearing that he was on the good-looking side, Messalina had summoned Montanus to her bedchamber. Only when he arrived Messalina decided she didn’t fancy him at all and sent him back again.

A very upset Claudius wasn’t accepting innocence as a defence and Montanus was executed alongside those who had enjoyed the pleasures of the emperor’s wife.

7. Looking a bit like someone who had an affair with his wife

If you think Montanus got a rough deal, then spare a thought for the hapless young actor that the Emperor Domitian had executed. His crime? He looked a bit like the actor, Paris who’d had an affair with Domitian’s wife, Domitia.

8. Making a joke 15 years ago

Everybody loves a good gag and the Romans were no different but a simple joke by Aelius Lamia had devastating consequences for him. He was the first husband of Domitian’s wife, Domitia, who found himself very much ditched for the better prospect. Not that this particularly bothered Lamia, for when someone suggested he marry again, he quipped amiably “Why are you looking for a wife too?”

Fifteen years later Domitian, after presumably thinking about it every single day since, decided he was offended and had Lamia executed.

9. Owning a splendid purple cloak

The emperor is number one and you’d do well to remember that. Be extremely careful not to outshine him in any way, like by owning a purple cloak that is quite nice. As one Ptolemy found to his cost when he wore his new purchase to the theatre and caused a bit of a wow – a wow that the Emperor Caligula found so upsetting he had Ptolemy executed for it.

10. Being mean about his favourite chariot team

Chariot racing attracted fanatical fans, including the emperor Vitellius, who used his ultimate power to execute those who trash talked his favourite team the Blues.

L.J. Trafford studied Ancient History at the University of Reading and is a regular contributor to The History Girls blog. How to Survive in Ancient Rome is her first book for Pen & Sword.

L. J. Trafford