Stats Geeks Reveal Shocking Trend in Mortality of Roman Emperors
A new study has revealed a fascinating insight into the pattern of violent deaths of Roman emperors. Researchers have been able to create a statistical model of the life expectancy of the rulers of Rome. They were most at risk in the first year of their reign but gradually their chances of escaping a violent death increased after that. Therefore, the research also showed that emperors only had a limited lifespan.
The study was undertaken by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, US. The lead researcher was Dr. Joseph Saleh, who is a qualified aerospace engineer. A statistical technique widely used in engineering was utilized to model the life expectancies of the Roman emperors.
Who Said Being an Emperor Was Easy?
The researchers analyzed the time of death of all Roman emperors who reigned during a period of four centuries, and who died violently. Only those who were undisputed rulers of the Roman Empire were included in the study, and not usurpers who may have seized control of a part of the sprawling realm and declared themselves emperor.
The data on the deaths of Roman emperors was obtained from the De Imperatoribus Romanis, an online encyclopedia.
In movies and books, Roman emperors are shown as all-powerful rulers of a vast domain or as tyrants, such as Nero. Many are shown as debauched and decadent. However, now the research shows us, they were also very likely to meet a sudden and violent death.
Statue of Roman Emperor Nero in Anzio, Italy. Nero reigned for 13 years and eight months.
Violent Deaths of Roman Emperors
The primary sources “show that of 69 rulers of the unified Roman Empire, 43 (62%) suffered violent deaths either by assassination, suicide or during combat,” according to Phys.org. In the records, the deaths of Roman emperors who met a violent death, such as Caracalla, Domitian or Caligula are shown as resulting from random events or caused by specific factors. There is no effort to identify any pattern for all the violent deaths of the paramount leaders of the Roman world.
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In AD 41, the debauched Roman Emperor Caligula was murdered. Gratus, a member of the Praetorian, draws a curtain aside to reveal the terrified Claudius who is hailed as emperor on the spot. (Lawrence Alma Tadema / Public domain). Caligula reigned for around 4 years.
In their study, the Georgia Tech team used the documentary evidence, such as the ascension of a ruler to the Empire and the year of his death. They calculated how many years he ruled before his untimely demise. Then they established how likely the rulers were to die after they became emperors and they found a regular set pattern. The researchers examined all those emperors who died violently from the first Emperor Augustus to the last ruler of the united Empire, Theodosius.
The Risky First Year
These researchers used statistical models that are often used to measure the reliability of components in engineering. The Daily Mail quotes Dr. Saleh as stating that “in engineering, the reliability of a component or process is defined as the probability that it is still operational at a given time.” The statistical model allowed the team to determine when a Roman emperor would cease to be operational and specifically when they were dying. Saleh and his team found that despite the unpredictable factors such as war and conspiracies, which bedeviled the Empire, the duration of their reign could be compared to the reliability of engineering parts.
L, Gallienus (Berlin), R, Caligula (Paris) (Images: Joseph Saleh/Georgia Institute of Technology)
According to the study, Roman emperors “faced a high risk of violent death in their first year of rule, but the risk slowly declined over the next seven years.” An emperor was most likely to be murdered or die in battle in his first year because he could not meet the demand of imperial rule. Dr. Saleh stated that “in engineering, a component would fail early, often as a result of a failure to function as intended,” according to The Daily Mail. Likewise, many emperors failed early because they did not function as expected.
Depiction of a Roman army before battle. (vukkostic / Adobe stock)
The study also found that an emperor who managed to avoid death in battle or assassination until the seventh year of his reign, had a good prospect of ruling for another five years. This was the case with the emperors Claudius and Trajan. After that time the likelihood that they would suffer a violent death increased again, most likely because they could not manage new military and political demands. The Palgrave Journal reports that the team found the emperor's death rate resembled the “failure rate displayed in bathtub curve, similar to that of a host of mechanical engineering items and electronic components.”
The study’s findings broken down by centuries, found a link between periods of war and unrest, such as the third century, and high death rates among emperors. However, even during the zenith of the Roman Empire, its rulers suffered many violent deaths. The researchers also found that the ambitions of generals and others, meant that life for the rulers of the Empire was often short. However, despite the apparent randomness, the “results imply the existence of systemic factors and some level of determinism,” according to The Palgrave Journal.
The researchers believe that they have shown that being a Roman emperor was very risky, even during periods of peace and stability. There was a systematic weakness in the imperial system that meant that the emperors were at high risk of dying violently. The team acknowledged some limitations to their work but believe that statistical modeling can provide new historical insights. Their study has been published in the online journal Palgrave Communications.
Top image: Depiction of one of the deaths of Roman emperors. In this case Roman senators murder Emperor Julius Caesar during a senate meeting. He served as emperor for just over 4 years. Source: Emilio Ereza / Adobe stock
By Ed Whelan