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Roman soldiers and their general.

Ruthless Rulers Did Dark Deeds Right From the Founding of Rome


According to history, the city of Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC. From then till the end of the 6 th century BC, Rome was ruled by kings after which it was transformed into a republic. In 27 BC the Roman Republic became an empire under the emperor Augustus. When the Roman Empire was divided into the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, Rome retained its position as the capital of the former until its fall, which is conventionally dated to 476 AD. Beneath the glorious façade of Rome’s history, however, is a much darker side that is less spoken of.

The earliest part of Rome’s history involved such unsavory incidents as an attempted infanticide, possible fratricide, and the mass abduction of young women from the surrounding cities. In Rome’s foundation myth, the twins Remus and Romulus were left to die on the banks of the Tiber River by their maternal uncle, Amulius, the king of Alba Longa. They were, however, rescued by Tiberinus the river god and given to a she-wolf to suckle. When Remus and Romulus grew up, they decided to establish a city. The twins, however, began to quarrel about the spot where the new city should be built and as a consequence Remus was killed, either by Romulus or by his followers. As if a precedent had been set, Rome’s history is littered with such happenings.

Romulus and Remus by Rubens Detail at the Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Romulus and Remus by Rubens Detail at the Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Roman Infanticide

With such a story for the birth of the empire, the act of infanticide of unwanted babies seems to have been tolerated, if not acceptable in ancient Rome, with examples of mass infant burials being discovered in many locations of the Empire including Hambleden in England and Ashkelon in Israel. There is also the account of the Roman sited King Herod’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ in the New Testament nativity story when all male offspring were to be slain, this event might indicate that such a practice was not unheard of at the time.

The Massacre of the Innocents. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / Public Domain)

The Massacre of the Innocents . (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / Public Domain)

Mass Abduction and Rape

Yet another appalling episode in Rome’s early history is an incident known as the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’. Although Rome grew strong under Romulus it faced a serious problem – there was a shortage of women for the creation of the next generation of Romans. Although Romulus tried to form alliances and obtain marriage rights from the neighboring tribes, his endeavors were unsuccessful. As a result, he resorted to trickery. Romulus invited the neighboring tribes to attend the festival of Consuelia, during which the women of a tribe known as the Sabines were abducted by the Romans. War ensued between the two peoples, though the story has a happy ending, i.e. the Romans and Sabines ended up being allies, thanks to the intervention of the Sabine women.

Rape of the Sabine Women. (Soerfm / Public Domain)

Rape of the Sabine Women. (Soerfm / Public Domain)

The Roman Kingdom had seven kings, all of whom were considered good, save the last one, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. When he was overthrown in 509 BC, Rome became a republic. Monarchs once again ruled Rome, this time emperors, from 27 BC when the Roman Empire was established by Augustus, until 476 AD the conventional date for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. While some of these emperors are remembered for their benevolence, others gained infamy thanks to their acts of tyranny.

Tyranny of Nero

One of the most infamous Roman emperors was Nero, who reigned from 54 AD to 68 AD. Like Romulus, Nero committed fratricide, killing his adoptive brother Britannicus by poison. According to the ancient writer Suetonius, Nero’s motive for murdering his brother was “not less from jealousy of his voice (for it was more agreeable than his own) than from fear that he might sometime win a higher place than himself in the people's regard because of the memory of his father.” Suetonius also reports that Nero was rumored to have committed incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, whenever they rode in a litter together, and this was “betrayed by the stains on his clothing.” Nevertheless, Agrippina was executed by her own son in 59 AD.

Sculpture of Agrippina crowning her young son Nero. (Carlos Delgado / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Sculpture of Agrippina crowning her young son Nero. (Carlos Delgado / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Nero perpetrated many more abominable acts before his death in 68 AD. Nevertheless, it was believed for some time that Nero had not committed suicide, as reported, but had fled to the East whence he would return to reclaim his throne. The popularity of this belief, known as the ‘Nero Redivivus Legend’, is evident in the fact three pretenders were recorded to have emerged, each claiming that they were Nero. The first of these ‘false Neros’ appeared in the year after Nero’s death, the second during the reign of Titus, and the third during the reign of Domitian. None of them, however, succeeded in gaining power and as the years passed the legend began to lose its power. Nevertheless, considering the hatred that the early Christians had for Nero, the legend of his return was transformed, and the emperor was perceived by some to be the anti-Christ who was to appear in the end times.

The Eccentricities of Elagabalus

Yet another infamous emperor, though perhaps less well-known than Nero, was Elagabalus (known also as Heliogabalus) who ruled from 218 AD to 222 AD. The ‘crimes’ of Elagabalus may be said to be of a different nature from that of Nero based on the ancient accounts. These sources claim that the emperor indulged in such activities as smearing cosmetics on his face, dressing and behaving as a prostitute, and even requesting his physicians find a way to give him a vagina, all of which highlight the emperor’s effeminacy and what was deemed at the time sexual perversity. Although the modern world has more understanding of these types of behavior, such actions were deemed highly unsuitable for a Roman emperor. For these and other depravities, especially his disrespect for traditional Roman religion, members of his Praetorian Guard assassinated Elagabalus.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema. Roman diners being swamped by drifts of pink rose petals falling from a false ceiling above. The youthful Roman emperor Elagabalus, wearing a golden silk robe and tiara, watches the spectacle from a platform behind them. (Jan Arkesteijn / Public Domain)

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema. Roman diners being swamped by drifts of pink rose petals falling from a false ceiling above. The youthful Roman emperor Elagabalus, wearing a golden silk robe and tiara, watches the spectacle from a platform behind them. (Jan Arkesteijn / Public Domain)

Top image: Roman soldiers and their general. Source: vukkostic / Adobe.

By Wu Mingren


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Ravenna was the capital of west Rome when Rome fell. If you study the history a little more closly it looks to me like a conspiracy between Constantin and Alaric to sack Rome. It was the richest city on earth at the time.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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