The Roman Empire began after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. Prior to the empire, the Roman Republic dominated Western Civilization since 509 B.C. During the reign of the Republic, Rome expanded to govern most of the Mediterranean. Once Caesar was murdered, the Senate turned over a great deal of power to his heir, Octavian. Octavian, renamed Augustus, became the very first Roman Emperor, beginning the time of the Roman Empire.
Roman Emperors were Monarch rulers. Their subjects regarded them as Kings, often with a great amount of honor and power. This can be seen in their heroic artistic depictions. Emperors needed control of the Roman army and the Senate to rule and they would receive this through benevolence or fear.
Let’s take a moment to look at a few of the most influential Roman Emperors.
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Augustus belongs at the top of this list, given his position as the first emperor and his success. Ruling from 27 B.C-14 A.D., Augustus was not just the founder of the Empire, but also the emperor with the longest reign.
After defeating Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus worked with the Roman Senate to create a new constitution for the Empire. Under his rule, the Empire enjoyed a period of relative peace that is now known as the Pax Romana. Though there were some battles at various borders and a Civil War directly after Augustus took the throne, the empire at large was free of any massive wars for his entire time.
Augustus worked to increase the quality of the citizen’s life and built new roads, aqueducts and buildings to do so.
On the hand, Justinian was the very last Roman Emperor, ruling from 482 A.D. to the end of the empire in November, 565 A.D. By this time, the Western Empire had already fallen. He ruled the Eastern portion, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire.
Though the empire was fading, Justinian did his best to continue Rome’s greatness in the East. He even fought to regain control of the lost Western Empire. This last revival effort places him as the final Roman Emperor.
During this time he oversaw the construction of great buildings in Constantinople, most notable the Church of Hagia Sophia. Justinian also created a unified code of law, dubbed the Justinian Code, which has become the basis of all Western systems of law since then.
Fortunately, Caligula reigned only from 37-41 A.D. but his time has made a permanent mark on Roman history. Though he actually began his reign as a promising emperor, an illness drove him to paranoia and insanity. Caligula is known for his absurd actions such as declaring war on the sea, proclaiming himself as a God, and a probable incest relationship with his sister, Julia Drusilla.
Caligula particularly loved to minimize the Senate’s power and importance, saying that he could name anyone, even a horse, as a consul. He would also call treason trials just to rid himself of any enemies but this did not ultimately save him. Cassius Chaerea, a member of the Praetorian Guard, assassinated Caligula. Caligula was, unsurprisingly, not the immortal God that he claimed to be.
Though not one of Rome’s favorite emperors, Caligula was influential as an example of what rulers should not be or do.
Constantine the Great
Constantine’s rule from February 272- May 337 A.D. successfully reunited the empire under a single emperor. He also defeated the Franks, the Alemanni, the Goths and the Sarmatians. He was responsible for monumental, propaganda style works of art that depicted him as a larger than life, powerful ruler.
He created his own capital, Constantinople, which would become the capital of the Byzantine Empire. This is why he is often regarded as the founder of Byzantium.
Constantine also understood the importance of Christian support. He was the first emperor to adopt the Christian faith and subsequently sanctioned the construction of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christiandom’s most important locations.
Vespasian ruled from 69-79 A.D. and founded the Flavian Dynasty. This dynasty would rule the entire empire for almost three decades.
Vespasian was a vastly different ruler than his unhinged predecessors, Nero and Caligula. He brought balance back to Rome during his reign and proved himself to be a competent military general as well.
He also spent a good deal of money on public works that worked to beautify Rome. He began the construction of many bath houses, the Temple of Peace and most notable, the Colosseum. Unfortunately, the Colosseum was not finished during his lifetime.
Hadrian was emperor from 117-138 A.D. Unlike some emperors who forever sat in their perfect palaces, Hadrian tried to connect with the people under his rule. He made a point to visit almost every province that was part of Rome.
Hadrian wanted to be involved with his military as well. He was known for sleeping and eating alongside his armies and even raised false alarms to keep them alert. This being said, his reign was not marked by many battles or conflicts besides the 2nd Roman-Jewish War, which he handled well.
Throughout his rule he also worked to bring back Greek Architecture and style. He rebuilt the Pantheon and funded the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma. He is most known for his namesake, Hadrian’s Wall. This became the Northern border marker for the Roman Empire.
Marcus Aurelius’s power spanned from April 121- March 17, 180 A.D. He was considered the last of Rome’s “five good” During this time, Marcus Aurelius defeated the Parthian Empire in the east and also succeeded in battles against the Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmatians in the Marcomannic Wars in central Europe. This was all when the Germanic Tribes were becoming a true threat to the Roman Empire.
Besides suppressing troubling military issues, Marcus Aurelius was also a philosopher and a writer. He is known for writing Meditations which is still considered a literary masterpiece to this day. It discusses the philosophy of service and duty, something paramount to the role of a good emperor.
The Good & The Bad
To this day there is a mystique surrounding the idea of Roman Emperors. Movies are made depicting everything from their powerful military achievements to their opulence and insanity. People remain fascinated with the lifestyles of these leaders who are some of the most powerful figures in Western Civilization.
This being said, they were not all good nor bad and each left their own mark. Their leadership influenced the course of the empire as well as how government and civilizations rule henceforth.