4 Common Misconceptions About “Mad” Roman Emperors

Acts of a madman or misjudged decisions? Sheer cruelty or hostile propaganda? The truth is somewhere in between. Here are the top four misconceptions about the so-called “mad” Roman emperors.

Nov 28, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
alma tadema death caligula orgy capri commodus
Orgy on Capri in the Time of Tiberius, by Henryk Siemiradzki; with A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, (depiction of Claudius), by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema,

 

Mad, bad, and bloodthirsty. These are but a few epithets attributed to the men who are traditionally considered the “worst” Roman emperors. Ironically, these miscreants are among the best-known Roman rulers, for all the wrong reasons. The list of their misdeeds is vast — from flinging people off cliffs, to naming a horse a consul, to playing an instrument while Rome burned. Take your pick, choose a crime, and there is plenty of evidence that a member of this notorious group committed it.

 

Yet, while the sources abound in juicy details describing various horrors and numerous perversities, these stories do not stand up to closer scrutiny. This is not surprising. Most of these accounts were written by authors hostile to these maligned Roman emperors. These men had a clear agenda, and often enjoyed the support of the new regime, who profited from defaming  their predecessors. That is not to say that these “mad” Roman emperors were competent rulers. In most cases, they were arrogant men, unsuited to rule, determined to reign as autocrats. Yet, it would be wrong to paint them as epic villains. Here are some of the most salacious stories presented in a different, more nuanced, and complex light.

 

1. The Island of the Mad Roman Emperor

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Orgy on Capri in the Time of Tiberius, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1881, private collection, via Sotheby’s

 

Capri is an island located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, near the south of Italy. It is a beautiful place, a fact recognized by the Romans who turned Capri into an island resort. Unfortunately, it was also the place where the second Roman emperor, Tiberius, withdrew from the public, mid-reign. According to the sources, during Tiberius’ stay, Capri became the dark heart of the Empire.

 

The sources depict Tiberius as a paranoid and cruel man who ordered the death of his heir Germanicus and allowed rampant corruption while doing nothing to rein in the power-hungry Praetorian Guard. Yet, it was at Capri that Tiberius’ depraved reign reached its apex (or its nadir).

 

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According to the historian Suetonius, the island was a place of horrors, where Tiberius tortured and executed both his enemies and the innocent people who provoked the emperor’s ire. They were thrown off the island’s high cliffs, while Tiberius watched their demise. Boatmen with clubs and fishhooks would finish off those who somehow survived the deadly fall. They would be lucky ones, as many were tortured before their execution. One such tale concerns a fisherman who dared to bypass the paranoid emperor’s security to present him with a gift — a large fish. Instead of a reward, the emperor’s guards seized the unlucky man, scrubbing the trespasser’s face and body with the same fish!

 

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Detail of the bronze statue of emperor Tiberius, 37 CE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, via the J Paul Getty Museum

 

This tale and similar stories paint Tiberius as a ghoulish figure of dread; an embittered, paranoid, and murderous man who delighted in the suffering of the others. Yet, we should not forget that our primary source — Suetonius — was a senator who had a strong dislike of the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Augustus’ establishment of the Roman Empire caught the senators off-guard, and they had a hard time accommodating this new style of government. Further, Suetonius was writing in the late 1st century CE, and the long-dead Tiberius could not defend himself. Suetonius will be a recurring figure in our story, with his clear agenda against the autocratic Julio-Claudian rulers, and his praise of the newer Flavian regime. His tales are often nothing more than rumors — gossip stories similar to modern-day tabloids.

 

Instead of a monster, Tiberius was an interesting and complex figure. A celebrated military commander, Tiberius never wanted to rule as emperor. Nor was he Augustus’ first choice. Tiberius was the last man standing, the only male representative of Augustus’ family who outlived the first Roman emperor. To become an emperor, Tiberius had to divorce his beloved wife and marry Julia, Augustus’ only child and widow of his closest friend Marcus Agrippa. The marriage was an unhappy one, as Julia disliked her new husband. Abandoned by his family, Tiberius turned to his friend, the Praetorian prefect Sejanus. What he got instead was betrayal. Sejanus exploited the emperor’s trust to get rid of his enemies and rivals, including Tiberius’ only son.

 

Tiberius executed Sejanus for his transgressions, but he was never the same man afterward. Deeply paranoid, he spent the rest of his reign in seclusion on Capri. The emperor saw enemies everywhere, and some of the people (both guilty and innocent) probably met their end on the island.

 

2. The Horse That Was (Not) Made a Consul

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Statue of a youth on horseback (probably representing emperor Caligula), early 1st century CE, via the British Museum

 

While the first years of Gaius Caesar’s reign were promising, it did not take long for Emperor Caligula to show his true colors. Suetonius’ accounts are full of tales of cruelty and depravity, from the boy emperor’s incestuous relationship with his sisters to his silly war with Neptune — the god of the sea. Caligula’s court is described as a den of debauchery, abounding in all sorts of perversities, while the man at the center of it all claimed to be a deity. Caligula’s transgressions are too numerous to count, establishing him as the very model of a mad Roman emperor. One of the most interesting and enduring tales about Caligula is the story of Incitatus, the emperor’s favorite horse, who almost became a consul.

 

According to Suetonius (the source for most gossip about Caligula’s depravity and brutality), the emperor had such a fondness for his beloved stallion that he gave Incitatus his own house, complete with a marble stall, and an ivory manger. Another historian, Cassius Dio, wrote that servants fed the animal oats mixed with gold flakes. This level of pampering might seem excessive to some. Very probably, as with most negative reports about Caligula, it was just a rumor. However, we should not forget that the youth of Rome loved horses and horse racing. Further, Caligula was the emperor, so he could provide his prize steed the best possible treatment.

 

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A Roman Emperor: 41 AD, (depiction of Claudius), by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871, via the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

 

But the story gets even more interesting. According to the sources, Caligula loved Incitatus so much that he decided to award him the consulship — one of the highest public offices in the Empire. Unsurprisingly, such an act shocked the senators. It is tempting to believe the story of the equine consul, which solidified Caligula’s reputation as a madman, but the reality behind it is more complex. The first decades of the Roman Empire were a period of struggle between the emperor and the traditional power holders — the Senatorial aristocracy. While the reclusive Tiberius had refused most imperial honors, young Caligula readily embraced the emperor’s role. His determination to rule as an absolutist autocrat brought him into collision with the Roman Senate and eventually resulted in Caligula’s demise.

 

It is not a secret that Caligula loathed the Senate, whom he saw as an obstacle to his absolute rule and a potential threat to his life. Thus, the story of Rome’s first equine official could just have been one of Caligula’s many stunts. It was a deliberate attempt to humiliate the emperor’s opponents, a prank to show the senators how meaningless their job was since even a horse could do it better! Or it could have been just a rumor, a fabricated sensational tale that played its part in turning the young, stubborn, and arrogant man into an epic villain. Yet, the Senate ultimately failed. They removed their worst enemy, but instead of ending one-man rule, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Caligula’s uncle Claudius as the new emperor. The Roman Empire was here to stay.

 

3. Fiddling While Rome Burns

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Nero Walks on Rome’s Cinders, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, ca. 1861, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

 

The last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty is considered one of the most notorious rulers in Roman and world history. Mother/wife-killer, pervert, monster, and anti-Christ; Nero was undoubtedly a man that people loved to hate. Ancient sources are vehemently hostile to the young ruler, calling Nero the destroyer of Rome. Indeed, Nero was blamed for presiding over one of the worst calamities that ever struck the imperial capital — the Great Fire of Rome. To make matters worse, the emperor infamously fiddled while the great city fell to ashes. This scene alone is sufficient to reserve Nero’s reputation as one of the worst Roman emperors.

 

However, Nero’s role in Rome’s calamity was way more complex than most people know. To start with, Nero did not actually fiddle while Rome burned (the fiddle had not been invented yet), nor did he play the lyre. In fact, Nero did not set Rome ablaze. When the fire broke out at the Circus Maximus on July 18th, 64 CE, Nero was resting in his imperial villa, 50 km from Rome. When the emperor was notified of the unfolding disaster, he actually acted prudently. Nero immediately hurried back to the capital, where he personally led the rescue efforts and assisted the victims.

 

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Head of Nero, from a larger than life statue, after 64 CE, Glyptothek, Munich, via ancientrome.ru

 

Tacitus wrote that Nero opened the Campus Martius and its lavish gardens to the homeless, constructed temporary lodgings, and secured food for the people at low prices. But Nero did not stop there. He had buildings torn down to help stop the advance of the fire, and after the blaze had subsided, he instituted stricter building codes to prevent a similar disaster in the near future. So where did the myth about the fiddle come from?

 

Soon after the fire, Nero embarked on an ambitious building program for his new grand palace, the Domus Aurea, causing many to question if he had ordered the fire in the first place. Nero’s extravagant plans further bolstered his opposition. Like his uncle Caligula, Nero’s intention to rule alone led to open confrontation with the Senate. Hostilities were further magnified by Nero’s personal participation in theatrical performances and sports events, deemed by the educated elites as inappropriate and un-Roman for someone who ruled the Empire. Like Caligula, Nero’s challenge to the Senate backfired, ending in his violent and premature death. Unsurprisingly, his name was tarnished for posterity by authors friendly to the new regime. Yet, Nero’s legacy persisted, with Rome slowly but steadily moving towards absolutist rule.

 

4. The Roman Emperor Who Wanted to Be a Gladiator

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Bust of emperor Commodus as Hercules, 180-193 CE, via Musei Capitolini, Rome

 

Among the “mad” Roman emperors, one of the most well-known is Commodus, immortalized in two Hollywood epics: “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Gladiator”. Commodus, however, is famous for all the wrong reasons. After he inherited the Empire from his competent father, Marcus Aurelius, the new ruler abandoned the war against the Germanic barbarians, denying Rome its hard-fought victory. Instead of following his brave father’s example, Commodus returned to the capital, where he spent the rest of his reign bankrupting the treasury, by spending large sums on lavish events, including gladiatorial games.

 

The bloody arena sport was Commodus’ favorite pastime, and the emperor personally participated in deadly fights. However, the act of fighting in the arena angered the Senate. It was unbecoming for the emperor to fight against slaves and criminals. What’s worse, the sources blamed Commodus for competing against weak fighters who were sick or maimed. It did not help that Commodus charged Rome exorbitantly for his arena appearances. To add insult to injury, Commodus often dressed in animal skins like Hercules, claiming to be a living god. Such acts brought the emperor a large number of enemies, leading to his assassination in 192 CE.

 

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The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators (detail), by Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1870s, via the Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfolk

 

While these accusations are indeed severe, once again, we should consider the whole picture. Like most of the “mad” emperors, Commodus was in open conflict with the Senate. Although the senators detested the emperor’s participation in gladiatorial combat, they had no choice but to watch. Commodus was, after all, their superior. On the other hand, Commodus was beloved by the people, who appreciated his down-to-earth approach. The fights in the arena could have been the emperor’s deliberate attempt to gain popular support. His identification with Hercules could also have been part of the emperor’s legitimization strategy, following the precedent established by the Hellenistic god-kings. Commodus was not the first emperor who was obsessed with the East. A century earlier, Emperor Caligula too, proclaimed himself a living deity.

 

As in the case of his maligned predecessor, Commodus’ confrontation with the Senate backfired, resulting in his untimely death. In the chaos of the civil war that followed, the emperor’s reputation only worsened, with Commodus being blamed for the disaster. Yet, Commodus was no monster. Nor was he a crazy or cruel ruler. Unquestionably, he was not a good choice for emperor, showing the faults of the “succession by blood” strategy. Ruling the Roman Empire was a heavy burden and responsibility, and not everyone could rise to the task. It did not help that Commodus personally engaged in gladiatorial fights. Or that he claimed to be (and behaved like) a living god. While the people and the army approved of him, the elites were furious. This led to only one possible outcome — Commodus’ death and defamation. The young man unsuited to rule became the monster, and his (fabricated) infamy has persisted to this today.



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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.