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Worst Roman emperors of the Roman Empire. Source: Public Domain, Public Domain, Egisto Sani/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Public Domain

The 8 Worst Roman Emperors and Their Dastardly Deeds

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The history of the Roman Empire is filled with tales of grandeur, conquests, and the rise and fall of mighty rulers. From a small city-state, it rose in power, became a kingdom, a republic, and ultimately the world’s largest empire. And to keep such an empire alive, it had to have powerful leaders. However, amongst that multitude of emperors, there are those whose reigns were marred by cruelty, incompetence, and great tyranny. This list delves into the lives of eight of the most notorious Roman emperors, highlighting the characteristics and actions that earned them infamy. Are they justly considered bad?

1. Nero (reigned 54 to 68 AD):

Nero's reign is synonymous with extravagance, debauchery, and tyranny. He infamously indulged in lavish parties while Rome burned in the Great Fire of 64 AD, allegedly playing the lyre and singing. His persecution of Christians, including the brutal executions of figures like Saint Peter and Saint Paul, further tarnished his legacy. Nero's arbitrary executions extended beyond religious persecution, targeting senators and members of the aristocracy whom he viewed as threats to his power. His mismanagement of the economy and extravagant spending led to widespread discontent among the populace. He is also remembered for matricide, having killed his mother in 59 AD, as well as ordering the execution of his first wife, Claudia Octavia. Ultimately, facing rebellion and condemnation from the Senate, Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, marking the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Many have proposed that he was not entirely sane. In his final moments, struggling to take his own life, he muttered:  Qualis artifex pereo ("What an artist the world is losing!").

The remorse of the Emperor Nero after the murder of his mother (Public Domain)

The remorse of the Emperor Nero after the murder of his mother (Public Domain)

2. Caligula (reigned 37 to 41 AD):

Madness and cruelty were the marks of Caligula’s rule, plunging the Roman Empire into a period of terror and instability. Born Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, he earned the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little boot") during his childhood among the legions, a time that foreshadowed his later obsession with military glory. However, his ascent to power quickly revealed a dark and tyrannical side. Caligula proclaimed himself a living god, demanding excessive worship from his subjects and exhibiting megalomaniacal tendencies that surpassed even those of his predecessors. His reign was also punctuated by episodes of wanton cruelty and capriciousness. He engaged in incestuous relationships with his sisters, defiled sacred temples, and engaged in orgies of violence and debauchery. His arbitrary executions and sadistic punishments, often carried out for the slightest perceived slights or whims, instilled a pervasive atmosphere of fear and paranoia throughout the empire.

Furthermore, Caligula's extravagant spending, including ambitious building projects and lavish spectacles, drained the imperial treasury at a great pace, exacerbating economic hardships for ordinary citizens. His erratic behavior extended to matters of state, where he displayed a profound lack of interest or competence, leaving governance in the hands of corrupt and sycophantic advisors. Ultimately, Caligula's despotic rule came to an end when he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard in 41 AD, marking a brief respite from the madness that had gripped Rome during his reign.

Caligula lies dead in the foreground after having already been executed, while his wife and daughter are murdered beside him. (Public Domain)

Caligula lies dead in the foreground after having already been executed, while his wife and daughter are murdered beside him. (Public Domain)

3. Commodus (reigned 177 to 192 AD):

Commodus, the son of the revered Marcus Aurelius, inherited a stable and prosperous empire upon his ascension to the throne. However, rather than following in his father's footsteps as a philosopher-king, Commodus descended into a spiral of hedonism, narcissism, and cruelty that brought the Roman Empire to the brink of collapse. His obsession with gladiatorial combat was unparalleled in Roman history. Commodus relished participating in the games himself, often slaughtering defenseless opponents in the arena to feed his insatiable thirst for blood and adulation. His grotesque displays of violence and disregard for human life shocked even the most jaded spectators, tarnishing the dignity and prestige of the imperial office.

The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield. (Public Domain)

The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield. (Public Domain)

Commodus's reign was marked by a series of disastrous policies that drained the empire's resources and undermined its stability. His reckless spending on lavish entertainments and extravagant monuments depleted the treasury, while his neglect of matters of state left the administration in disarray. Corruption and cronyism flourished under his rule, as officials vied for favor and influence with the increasingly erratic emperor. Furthermore, Commodus's megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur led him to declare himself the reincarnation of Hercules, further alienating him from the Senate and the aristocracy. His persecution of perceived enemies and dissenters only fueled resentment and opposition, hastening the empire's decline.

In the end, Commodus's reign of excess and incompetence came to a fittingly ignominious end when he was strangled to death by a wrestler hired by his own advisors in 192 AD. His death marked the end of the Pax Romana, plunging Rome into a period of chaos and instability from which it would never fully recover.

4. Domitian (reigned 81 to 96 AD):

Domitian was a ruler who was characterized by paranoia, repression, and cruelty. He executed perceived rivals and imposed heavy taxes to fund his lavish building projects and military campaigns. His autocratic tendencies and disdain for the Senate led to widespread discontent and eventually his assassination. Domitian's autocratic rule alienated the Senate and aristocracy, leading to numerous conspiracies against his life. He employed a network of informers and spies to root out dissent, resulting in widespread fear and paranoia among the populace.

Domitian was recorded by the establishment as a blood-thirsty tyrant. Emperor Domitian by Domenico Fetti circa 1610. (Public Domain)

Domitian was recorded by the establishment as a blood-thirsty tyrant. Emperor Domitian by Domenico Fetti circa 1610. (Public Domain)

Domitian's oppressive policies extended to the provinces, where he imposed heavy taxes and harsh punishments on perceived rebels. His extravagant spending on public works, such as the Domus Aurea, drained the empire's resources and exacerbated economic hardships. Ultimately, Domitian's reign came to a violent end in 96 AD when he was assassinated by members of his own court, marking the end of the Flavian dynasty.

5. Caracalla (reigned 198 to 217 AD):

Caracalla's reign was marked by brutality and instability. He initiated a massacre of his political enemies, including his own brother, Geta, and imposed heavy taxes to finance his military campaigns. His erratic behavior and harsh policies sowed discord within the empire. His rule was also marred by a series of brutal purges, including the massacre of his own family members and political rivals.

Caracalla and a blank space where Geta once was represented. (Egisto Sani/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Caracalla and a blank space where Geta once was represented. (Egisto Sani/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

He ruled with an iron fist, crushing dissent and rebellion with ruthless efficiency. Caracalla's military campaigns, including his invasion of Parthia, drained the empire's coffers and strained its resources. His decision to grant Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire was motivated by financial gain rather than altruism, as it allowed him to collect additional taxes from a broader tax base. Caracalla's despotic rule and extravagance alienated the Senate and aristocracy, leading to numerous conspiracies against his life. His assassination in 217 AD marked the end of the Severan dynasty and plunged Rome into a period of civil war and instability.

6. Elagabalus (reigned 218 to 222 AD):

Elagabalus was yet another in a list of Roman emperors who were on the brink of insanity. He attempted to impose the worship of the Syrian sun god, Elagabalus, as the chief deity of Rome, alienating the traditional Roman religious establishment. His scandalous personal life and disregard for Roman customs further undermined his rule. Elagabalus's reign was marked by a series of scandalous acts, including his marriage to a Vestal Virgin and his adoption of feminine dress and mannerisms. He lavished extravagant gifts and honors on his favorite companions, while neglecting the affairs of state.

Elagabalus leading a chariot drawn by sixteen white horses.  (Public domain)

Elagabalus leading a chariot drawn by sixteen white horses.  (Public domain)

Elagabalus's attempts to impose the worship of his patron god, Elagabalus, as the chief deity of Rome met with widespread opposition from the traditional Roman religious establishment. His erratic behavior and disregard for Roman customs alienated the Senate and aristocracy, leading to numerous conspiracies against his life. Elagabalus's reign came to a violent end in 222 AD when he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard, marking the definitive end of the Severan dynasty.

7. Vitellius (reigned 69 AD):

Vitellius's reign was brief, but was nevertheless marked by incompetence, excess, and brutality. He rose to power through military support but quickly proved incapable of governing effectively. His gluttonous lifestyle and inability to address the empire's pressing issues, such as famine and rebellion, led to his swift downfall.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome by the populace. Georges Rochegrosse (1883). (Public Domain)

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome by the populace. Georges Rochegrosse (1883). (Public Domain)

Vitellius's reign was noted for a series of disastrous policies, including the looting of the imperial treasury to fund lavish banquets and entertainment. He surrounded himself with corrupt and incompetent advisors, further undermining his rule. His incompetence quickly eroded the support for his regime among the populace and the military. His brutal suppression of dissent and opposition only fueled further resentment and resistance. Vitellius's reign came to an ignominious end in 69 AD when he was overthrown and executed by forces loyal to Vespasian, marking the end of the Year of the Four Emperors.

8. Maxentius (reigned 306 to 312 AD):

Maxentius's rule was greatly troubled by tyranny, instability, and his own incompetence. He seized power through intrigue and violence but failed to win the support of key factions within the empire. Maxentius enacted oppressive policies and showed inability to confront external threats, such as Constantine the Great, ultimately leading to his defeat at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

Battle scene of the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine's soldiers fighting Maxentius' soldiers. Dead bodies lie on the ground. Soldiers on horseback drown in the river.  (Public Domain)

Battle scene of the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine's soldiers fighting Maxentius' soldiers. Dead bodies lie on the ground. Soldiers on horseback drown in the river.  (Public Domain)

Maxentius's reign was marked by a series of brutal purges and executions, as he sought to eliminate potential rivals and consolidate his power. He ruled with an iron fist, crushing dissent and rebellion with ruthless efficiency. Maxentius's inability to win the support of key factions within the empire, including the Senate and aristocracy, eroded his legitimacy and undermined his authority. His oppressive policies and mismanagement of the economy fueled resentment and opposition among the populace. Maxentius's reign came to a violent end in 312 AD when he was defeated at the Battle of Milvian Bridge by forces loyal to Constantine the Great, marking the end of the Tetrarchic Wars. Maxentius attempted to flee the battle, but fell into the river and drowned. His body was discovered, and paraded through the city triumphantly. His entire family was promptly executed.

The Emperors Who Couldn’t Cut It

These eight Roman emperors exemplify the dark side of imperial power, with their reigns fueled by cruelty, incompetence, and tyranny. Their actions contributed to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, leaving a legacy of infamy that echoes through the annals of history. It is also proof that not everyone was cut out to sit on the throne of one of the world’s greatest empires. This was a task that required great discipline, cunning, and decisiveness, and there was no room for unstable minds that were greedy and self-centered.

Ultimately, the reigns of these emperors teach us one thing - they all ended in blood and chaos, and that is the great price they all had to pay.

Top image: Worst Roman emperors of the Roman Empire. Source: Public DomainPublic Domain, Egisto Sani/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0Public Domain

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Kerrigan, M. 2016.  The Untold History of the Roman Emperors. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC.
Lenski, N. 2006.  The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Cambridge University Press.
Strauss, B. 2020.  Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. Simon and Schuster.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Although this is a matter of opinion, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known by his nickname, Elagabalus, had a short reign but was notorious for sex scandals and religious controversy. Check the list above for other contenders for this moniker!

Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, and Caracalla. They are the most terrible of the Roman emperors, known as tyrants, madmen, killers, blasphemers, and perverts.

Due to hereditary rule. For most of this period, emperors were not chosen on the basis of their ability or honesty, but simply because they were born in the right family. For every great leader, such as Augustus, there was a tyrant like Caligula.

Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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