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The assassination of Julius Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan (1836-1908).	Source: Public Domain

Study Proves Statistical Probability of Violent Death for Roman Emperors

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In December 2019 Ancient Origins reported that Dr. Joseph Saleh, an aerospace engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States, had published a study in the online journal Nature about the lifespans of the many Roman emperors. According to Phys.org, the 2019 study showed that “of the 69 rulers of the unified Roman Empire, 43 (62%) suffered violent deaths either by assassination, suicide or during combat.”

Now, a new study has upped these figures showing only “one in four” Roman emperors died from sickness or old age. That means 75% died from unnatural causes including violent deaths on the battlefield or palace plots. Furthermore, the natural 80/20 ratio which appears in economics, sports and life in general was found to more or less underlie the statistics of these violent deaths, meaning that three in four Roman rulers met an extremely bitter end.

The new study has worked out that 75% of Roman emperors died from unnatural causes. Woodcut depicting the assassination of Julius Caesar. (kladcat / CC BY 2.0)

The new study has worked out that 75% of Roman emperors died from unnatural causes. Woodcut depicting the assassination of Julius Caesar. (kladcat / CC BY 2.0 )

Working Out Fateful Formulas for Roman Emperors

Francisco Rodrigues is a professor and data scientist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, ICMC-USP, and he was the lead investigator of a new study published in  Royal Society Open Science . The researcher told Agência FAPESP that while most of us know the story of Julius Caesar , who was stabbed 23 times by 40 conspirators aged only 55 on the Ides of March in 44 BC, he was only one in a long line of ill fated Roman emperors. “75 percent of the 69 men who ruled the Roman Empire from 63 BC to 395 AD died from violent deaths,” concluded professor Rodrigues in the study.

The new data was revealed by a Power Law , which in the simplest terms is a distribution of probabilities within a complex system. According to Rodrigues, the famous “Pareto Principal” was observed in the longevity pattern of the Roman emperors . Better known as “the 80/20 rule,” the existence of the Pareto Principle here means there was about an 80 percent mathematical probability that Roman emperors would meet violent deaths . Thus, only one in four would end their lives of natural causes.

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public domain)

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme. ( Public domain )

The Pareto Principal in Everyday Life

Let’s take this Power Law, or Pareto Principal, into everyday terms. In sport, Speed Endurance say 20% of exercises and training habits have 80% of the impact on our bodies. In computing, even as far back as 2002, CRN News informed that within the emerging IT industry “80 percent of all end users generally use only 20 percent of a software application's features.” Now, this 80-20 Pareto Principal has been found in the violent death statistics of the 69 emperors of the Roman Empire .

The new study shows that from the first emperor Augustus, who died in 14 AD, all the way through to  Theodosius who died in 395 AD, rulers only stood a “24.8 percent chance of living long enough to die from natural causes.” This means that Roman emperors faced a 75.2 percent chance of being brutalized to death in some horrific manner. The scientists rounded this result up by 4.8 percent to get to the publicized Pareto Principal of 80 percent.

The Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius was beheaded and his head paraded around Rome. (Public domain)

The Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius was beheaded and his head paraded around Rome. ( Public domain )

Another 1,000 Years of Roman Disloyalty and Assassinations

You would think that over time the Romans would have calmed down at least a little, being civilized and whatnot, but the new paper shows there was little change in the violence during the next millennium. Dr. Rodrigues explains that the Eastern Roman Empire extended on until 1453 AD, and that when the deaths of all 175 Roman emperors are considered, there was still a “70 percent chance” of them being assassinated. Another interesting observation presented in the new paper is that the riskiest time was when the new emperors were “taking the throne,” highlighted Rodrigues in Agência FAPESP.

The reason given for the crowning ceremony being so risky is that the young rulers lacked political expertise, and as such they were extremely vulnerable. And if a new Roman emperor was lucky enough to have survived their fledgling years and made it out of the nest, they would on average only reign for about 13 years before the risk of meeting a violent end increased significantly once again. This result maybe reflects “patience running out in the minds of their ambitious, occasionally murderous allies, if not their outright enemies,” concludes Science Alert .

Top image: The assassination of Julius Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan (1836-1908). Source: Public Domain

By Ashley Cowie

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