The term “Roman Emperor” is a modern one. There was no job description, no selection process and no agreed title for the men who ruled Imperial Rome. Emperors could be elevated with high political, legal and eventually religious offices, but control of the army and the senate was what really mattered.
Julius Caesar, the last republican ruler, and Gaius Octavius or Augustus, the first emperor, threw a long shadow over the office. The adoption of either of their names might signal a man’s rise to ultimate power.
With the imperial throne a passport to enormous power and wealth and little to stop the strongest from seizing it or the weakest being propelled into it, it’s no wonder Rome has some spectacularly bad emperors.
1. Caligula: 37 – 41 AD
Selected as emperor by his great uncle Tiberius, Caligula may have ordered his benefactor’s suffocation.
His accession was popular, but after seven months an illness seemed to turn “Little Boots” into a monster. He killed at whim and financed himself with legalised looting.
He built a two-mile pontoon bridge just so he could ride his horse across the Bay of Baiae in defiance of a prophesy. The horse, Incitatus, lived in a marble stable, and Caligula may have made him a consul.
From AD 40 he started to present himself as a god, while his palace was described as a brothel, among the alleged whores his own sisters.
The last straw, after famine and bankruptcy, was a planned move to Egypt to live as a sun god. This triggered his murder in January 41 AD.
2. Nero: 54 – 68 AD
As with all emperors, the horror stories may be the work of his enemies, but Nero has many to his name.
He killed his mother so that he could remarry, by divorcing and then executing his first wife. His second wife he kicked to death. His third marriage was to a freed slave, whom he had castrated, calling him by his second wife’s name.
Personal power was won with indiscriminate execution of enemies and critics, massive tax cuts and huge public entertainments.
When he ordered his secretary to kill him, mistakenly believing the senate’s assassins were on their way, the loudest mourning came from the theatre and the arena.
3. Commodus: 180 – 192 AD
The nicest thing said of Commodus was that he was not wicked, but so stupid that he allowed wicked friends to take control of his reign.
He wasn’t short of ego though. He portrayed himself as Hercules, the mythical Greek hero, in countless statues.
His love of the games was such that he fought in them himself, becoming a ridiculous spectacle as he slaughtered ostriches, elephants and giraffes, and defeated human opponents who dared not beat him. He charged the state a massive fee for each appearance.
In 192 AD he renamed Rome Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. The months of the year, the legions, the fleet, the senate, the imperial palace, and the citizens of Rome themselves were all named after him.
When he was assassinated the following year, by his wrestling partner, the names were all changed back.
4. Caracalla: 198 – 217 AD
Ascending to power alongside his brother, Caracalla decided he couldn’t share and had his sibling rival killed, his followers slaughtered and his memory officially erased from history by the Senate.
In power, the man Gibbon (the great historian of the Roman Empire) called “the common enemy of mankind”, spent little time in Rome, choosing instead to ape his hero, Alexander the Great, with conquests in Africa and the Middle East.
He reintroduced Alexander’s by-now obsolete military tactics and persecuted philosophical followers of Aristotle, who legend had it had killed his hero.
A theatrical satire of his excesses staged in Alexandria got under his skin. He took his army to the city and slaughtered the leading citizens before letting his troops off the leash for days of looting that left 20,000 dead.
He was assassinated by a soldier whose brother’s death he had ordered.
5. Maximinus Thrax: 235 to 238 AD
Maximinus exhausted his empire with war. Finally, his troops turned on him. His rule is seen as the start of the great “Military Anarchy” of the third century.
After defeating German tribes at terrible cost, Maximinus went on to fight the Dacians and the Sarmatians simultaneously.
He cared only for the army, whose favour he won by doubling their pay at terrible cost to Rome’s economy.
Because his predecessor had favoured Christians, Maximinus had all church leaders killed.
When the senate backed a revolt against him, he sought to bring his constant war home to Rome. His enemies stood up to him and the siege was the final straw for his troops who killed him, his son, and advisers and took their heads into the city on poles.