Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Geta, and Caracalla — these names evoke immense power and great fear. They are the most terrible of the Roman emperors, known as tyrants, madmen, killers, blasphemers, and perverts. All six brought the mighty Roman Empire to the brink of destruction, and their assassinations restored the state’s fortunes. We cannot deny these emperors’ transgressions, nor can we justify all their actions.
Supporting a black-and-white concept is easy, but reality, as always, is complex. Most of these leaders were competent administrators who played an important role in strengthening the Empire. Some of their shocking crimes were the result of complex power struggles with the elite, which the emperors lost. The violent deaths that followed, as well as the process of damnatio memoriae, tarnished the names and deeds of these hapless emperors, whose infamy has continued to persist through the generations. But nowadays the lives of each notorious Roman emperor have come up for re-examination, giving us a more nuanced perspective on their reigns.
6. Caligula – The First Autocrat Roman Emperor
Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula, is the poster boy for depraved, cruel incompetence. His early reign hinted at a promising future for a young, ambitious, and popular ruler. But after a severe bout of illness, Caligula’s behavior abruptly changed. The benevolent emperor turned into a deeply paranoid man who terrorized his subjects. He enjoyed all sorts of perversities, including public sex with one (or all) of his sisters. He was also the man who proclaimed his horse a consul, who tried (and failed) to wage war against the sea, and who likened himself to a god. Thus, when Caligula was killed by his own bodyguard, Rome let out a sigh of relief. Or so we are told by the sources.
But the sources were written by authors who had grudges against the boy-emperor. Not only were they senators, they were members of the elite, opposing Caligula at every turn. Successive rulers employed historians, who, to legitimize their own dynasty, slandered the previous one—the Julio-Claudians. Caligula was an ideal target.
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When Caligula took the diadem, Imperial Rome was still a novelty. Unlike his grandfather Augustus, who ruled in cooperation with the Senate, Caligula wanted to break with tradition and rule alone. The boy emperor delighted in humiliating the Senate, never missing an opportunity to show them that they depended on his will. Thus, the story of Incitatus, a horse that (never) became consul, came to life.
Drawing inspiration from the Hellenistic East, Caligula was determined to make Rome an absolute monarchy. His close relationship with his sisters (including possible incest) and his claim of godhood emulated the lifestyle of many Hellenistic god-kings, especially the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. But the opposition was too strong. We all know the ending. Death, and damnation for the brash, narcissistic, spoiled boy-emperor who dared to venture too far.
5. Nero – The Unwilling Roman Emperor
Nero is another Roman Emperor everyone loves to hate. There is plenty of evidence suggesting the man was criminally insane. Nero was responsible for the death of his stepbrother Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, and his two wives. According to the sources, his second wife, Poppea Sabina, had a particularly tragic fate. In one of his bouts of rage, Nero kicked Poppea in the belly, causing her death. But his most infamous act is undoubtedly the emperor’s blissful behavior while Rome burned.
Ancient historians blamed Nero for profiting from others’ misfortunes and using the devastated area for his megalomaniac building projects. To divert unwanted attention from himself, the mad emperor blamed Christians for the fire, starting the first persecutions. The end of Nero’s life was fitting for a tyrant. Confronted with a revolt and abandoned by all, Nero committed suicide.
Once again, the sources paint a horrific picture of a depraved, cruel, and insane ruler. They present Nero as a madman, the epitome of evil, with Christians even calling Nero the Antichrist. Although, once again, the reality was far more complex than it seems. Nero, like Caligula before him, was a controversial man and a victim of his successors’ propaganda.
Nero was an unwilling emperor, placed on the throne by his mother to fulfill her ambitions. He was not even 17 years old when he took the purple. The boy-emperor loved the arts and sports and found an outlet in theater plays and sports events, including chariot racing. Such behavior made him popular among the common folk. However, it was considered undignified (and effeminate) by the elite, who despised the emperor.
While Nero was responsible for the death of both Britannicus and his mother, Agrippina, the elimination of rivals was not an uncommon practice at the imperial court. It is possible that Agrippina was involved in a plot against her son. It is also possible that Poppea Sabina may have played a role in Agrippina’s demise, as well as the death of Nero’s first wife, Octavia. However, Poppea’s own death was probably the result of a miscarriage, not Nero’s alleged madness.
Nero’s most egregious crime—the Great Fire of Rome—was also not his doing. Instead, the emperor did everything he could to help the victims and he introduced a series of laws to prevent further disasters. Nero was indeed responsible for the persecution of Christians because they were an unpopular sect and an easy target. However, Nero’s megaproject, his lavish Domus Aurea, was intended to be a place for all citizens of Rome. Ultimately, his construction efforts emptied Rome’s coffers, and the continuous conflict between the emperor and the Senate led to Nero’s downfall.
4. Domitian – The Ruthless Administrator
Domitian was the younger son of Vespasian, the victor in the bloody civil war caused by Nero’s demise. He was not the first choice to be Vespasian’s heir. His brother Titus took the purple after their father died. Domitian’s first crime was his alleged involvement in his brother’s death and more would follow.
According to the sources, Domitian was a deeply paranoid ruler, a cruel and ruthless autocrat. He purged the Senate, sent many philosophers into exile, and arranged the murder of a Vestal Virgin. The latter was a callous act, since the unfortunate woman was buried alive in a specially constructed tomb. But Domitian’s depravity did not stop there. The emperor impregnated his niece, only to insist on her abortion. When she died, as a result, he deified her. Domitian also broke social norms by calling himself a living god. Yet, his godhood did not save him from assassination in a palace coup organized by his family and servants.
Domitian’s crimes, and his violent end, echo the fates of all previous “mad emperors”. Both the fall of Nero and Domitian put an end to a dynasty, leaving the deceased ruler at the mercy of his successors. These reviled emperors became ideal scapegoats for propaganda that supported and legitimized the new dynasty.
It cannot be denied that Domitian was a ruthless ruler. During his father’s and brother’s reign, Domitian’s role was purely ceremonial. The future emperor probably never received a court education. His martial abilities, however, made Domitian popular with the army. His harsh temper and a lack of diplomacy made Domitian an authoritarian, while his paranoia (partly justified) resulted in a bloody confrontation with the Senate.
Despite all his transgressions, Domitian was a good administrator and a competent ruler. He was the first Roman emperor who spent most of his reign out of the capital, touring the provinces of the gradually growing Empire. This ruling style further diminished the Senate’s influence and increased the emperor’s power.
While senators hated Domitian, his policies, reforms, and ambitious building program (both in Rome and in the provinces) strengthened the Empire. This allowed for a long period of peace and stability. Following Domitian’s death, the Senate rejoiced. But the army did not. Their dissatisfaction with the emperor’s assassins going unpunished led to a revolt of the Praetorian Guard, forcing Domitian’s successor Nerva to punish the culprits.
3. Commodus – God and Gladiator
Immortalized in two Hollywood classics (The Fall of the Roman Empire and Gladiator), Commodus is easily remembered as one of the worst Roman emperors. His movie depictions match the sources. They paint a picture of an insane and cruel emperor, a spoilt and indulgent man who fashioned himself as an omnipotent gladiator, living god, and autocrat. In short, Commodus was the complete opposite of his father—the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Following the death of his father, Commodus abandoned a military campaign on the cusp of victory. He returned to Rome, bankrupting the treasury, splurging on lavish gladiatorial games that he personally participated in, and charging exorbitantly for his arena appearances. Commodus was a sexually promiscuous man who had an army of concubines, including men. His assassination came as a relief, saving the Empire from disaster.
By now, it is clear that the sources written decades or centuries after the demise of the “mad emperors” had a clear agenda. Commodus’ death put an end to another dynasty, plunging the Empire into yet another period of chaos. This made it easy for his detractors to slander the deceased ruler. A careful analysis, however, gives us a more nuanced image of this controversial Roman emperor.
The sources blamed Commodus for abandoning a military campaign, squandering his father’s efforts. Yet, upon closer examination, we can see that Commodus’ peace treaty with the barbarians stabilized and consolidated the Danubian frontier. The emperor followed Hadrian’s design, wary of extending Roman territory into a wild and economically unprofitable area. Interestingly, Commodus’ reign, unlike his father’s, was relatively peaceful. The accusation of bankrupting Rome’s treasury is also questionable since the Empire was recovering from decades of war and a devastating plague that had crippled its economy. The criticism of the emperor’s withdrawal to Rome and abandonment of the provinces is also difficult to maintain. Several former Roman emperors (most notably Augustus and Antoninus Pius) had governed the Empire from the capital.
What may have horrified the senators (being forced to watch Commodus’ gladiatorial combat) entertained the common people, who appreciated his down-to-earth approach. Was this the emperor’s act to gain popular support, or was it a display of his absolutist power to the Senate? It is hard to say. Commodus’ identification with the divine Hercules (he even often dressed as Hercules) could also have been part of the emperor’s legitimization strategy, following the Hellenistic god-kings. In the end, Commodus’ attempt to become an absolutist ruler failed. The emperor was strangled by a professional athlete hired by his enemies.
2. Caracalla – The Soldier Emperor
Caracalla was one of the two sons of Septimius Severus, a highly able and effective Roman emperor, who emerged as the winner of the bloody civil war that followed Commodus’ death. “Caracalla” was a nickname, derived from the Gallic hooded tunic that he habitually wore and made fashionable.
The list of Caracalla’s transgressions began with the death of his brother Geta, whose murder was probably ordered by the emperor himself. Caracalla also persecuted and executed Geta’s supporters. Upon hearing of a satire that mocked his brother’s death, and his justification of the incident, Caracalla traveled to Alexandria (the origin of the play), slaughtered its leading citizens, and allowed his troops to plunder and ravage the town for several days. In the end, Caracalla was killed by his soldiers—an ironic ending, considering the emperor’s devotion to his army.
The sources depict Caracalla as a cruel tyrant and a savage ruler. This bias is understandable as accounts were written by the senatorial elite who disliked Caracalla’s favoritism of the military. Interestingly, Caracalla’s successor, Macrinus, was the first Roman emperor who came from a less distinguished background, not being a senator. More importantly, the new ruler did not subject Caracalla to a damnatio memoriae, due to the late emperor’s popularity with the army.
While the Senate disliked Caracalla’s pandering to the Roman military, the emperor only followed the advice his father gave him on his deathbed: “enrich the soldiers and forget everyone else.” Caracalla was aware of the importance of the army’s support. With this in mind, the emperor raised the soldiers’ annual salary and increased their status, spending most of his reign in military camps or on campaign. In fact, Caracalla never returned to Rome. Such a policy, paired with his ambitious construction projects in the capital, most notably the gigantic Baths of Caracalla, depleted the imperial treasury, causing the emperor to search for a new source of income.
The famous Edict of Caracalla of 212 CE, which bestowed Roman citizenship upon all people of the Empire, increased the taxpayer base, and brought much-needed funds into the treasury. Although successful as an emperor and general, Caracalla’s ruthlessness caused discontent among his officers, resulting in a plot and the emperor’s violent death. Caracalla’s attention to the military, and his role as a soldier-emperor, was harshly criticized by the sources, and it would become a trend in the tumultuous third century.
1. Elagabalus – The Spoiled Child That Became a Roman Emperor
One of the most eccentric Roman emperors, Elagabalus, took the diadem at the tender age of 14, kicking off a reign that would become known for sex scandals, all kinds of depravity, and religious controversy. The sources did not spare the boy-emperor. His very nickname came from his role as chief priest to the cult of the oriental god Elah-Gabal, which the emperor tried to introduce into the Roman pantheon, elevating him to a principal deity. It goes without a saying that such an attempt caused universal dismay, from the military to the Senate. To make matters worse, Elagabalus erected a conical black stone—a symbol of his sun god—on the Palatine Hill, the most ancient and sacred place in Rome.
Elagabalus did not stop there. During his brief reign, the Roman emperor was married to five different women, including the chief Vestal Virgin, for which, under normal circumstances, she should have been put to death. The sources mention the intemperate youth prostituting himself and taking on countless lovers of both sexes. He even opened the imperial baths to the public to enjoy the spectacle of watching others bathe. The emperor’s incompetence led to an economic and political crisis, while his lovers took control of the government. In the end, Elagabalus’ debauchery was stopped by the Praetorian Guard, employed by his own grandmother to murder the 18-year-old ruler.
It is hard to justify Elagabalus’ actions. However, it should not be forgotten that Elagabalus was practically a child, a spoiled young man wholly unprepared to rule. Further, it is likely that most of his sex scandals were invented by authors writing after the emperor’s death. The main bone of contention for the senatorial elite was Elagabalus’ religious policy, which broke away from Roman tradition and the law. Ironically, Elagabalus would have his final victory, as his deity would be brought to Rome in the form of Sol Invictus, by emperor Aurelian, half a century after the boy-emperor’s death.