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Roman Emperors: The 16 Notorious Leaders That Defined Ancient Rome

Whether brutal tyrants, wasteful scoundrels or benevolent leaders, we examine the most memorable and influential Roman Emperors who shaped the Empire over its vast 500 year legacy.

The Augustus of Primaporta, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.
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The Augustus of Primaporta, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

Ancient Rome’s epic, 500-year reign remains one of the most fascinating periods in human history. From the 8th century BC until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. It expanded into an enormous capital that ruled more than 45 million people across Europe, Africa and Asia with a variety of Roman Emperors throughout the years.

Over 140 Roman Emperors led this expansion, larger than life characters whose bloody battles and gruesome tales have now become things of legends. Let’s take a look at our list of Roman Emperors, the most Influential and notorious leaders who led the iconic Roman empire through the ages.

Augustus: The First Roman Emperor

Portrait of Emperor Augustus, Marble Bust, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
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Portrait of Emperor Augustus, Marble Bust, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus Caesar, was the first Emperor to rule Ancient Rome, from 27 BC – 14 AD. After winning a deadly battle against Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus became a benevolent leader, ushering in a period of stability known as the Pax Romana, which he maintained through strict, military control. As well as claiming land in Europe and Asia Minor, Augustus expanded roads, built aqueducts and commissioned architecture and sculpture. He even named a month after himself – changing Sextilis, the sixth month, to August!

 


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Tiberius: The Reluctant Leader

Roman Emperor Tiberius, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.
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Roman Emperor Tiberius, courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.

Notorious Emperor Tiberius was the successor to Augustus, leading Rome from 14 – 37 AD. Miserable and paranoid, he was pushed into the role of Emperor reluctantly, along with an unhappy marriage. Early in his reign he became known for his talents as a military commander and diligent administrator. But in later years he became a harsh dictator, mistreating and murdering many of his Senators. Retreating to the island of Capri for semi-retirement, some say he lived a strange, reclusive life of sexual debauchery, although others believe this was rumor-mongering spread by enemies.

Caligula: The Tyrant

Roman Emperor Caligula photographed by Fernando Barozza, Fine Art America.
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Roman Emperor Caligula photographed by Fernando Barozza, Fine Art America.

A tyrannical Emperor, Caligula will be forever remembered for his life of indulgence and excess. He only reigned for four years, from 37 – 41 AD, before he was brutally assassinated, but by then he had left behind enough stories to fill a history book. Believing he had extraordinary powers, he likened himself to a god, rampaging across Rome committing murder, adultery and other acts of barbarism. Self-indulgent and ludicrous antics included building a 3-mile-long floating bridge across the modern bay of Naples just so he could ride his horse across it, beheading statues and replacing their heads with his own bust, and even naming his own horse as a consulate.

Claudius: The Unexpected Hero

Portrait of the Emperor Claudius in corona quercea, detail, 25—49 CE.
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Portrait of the Emperor Claudius in corona quercea, detail, 25—49 CE.

Claudius had a series of physical ailments from birth including spastic paralysis and epilepsy, which led many to believe he could not become Emperor. His family kept him hidden away, but in seclusion Claudius became a remarkable scholar, lending his knowledge of history and government which would make him an excellent leader between 41 – 54 AD. As Emperor, he took everyone by surprise with his ingenuity, particularly when he successfully led one of the most important military invasions of the 1st century: the conquest of Britain. Honored with a triumphal arch on the Via Flaminia on his return, his place in history was cemented.

 


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Nero: The Colossus

Bust of Nero, The Art Archive/Corbis.
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Bust of Nero, The Art Archive/Corbis.

Starting out as an emperor when he was just 17, Nero supported the arts, commissioned a series of magnificent buildings and lowered tax rates. He even ordered public games to be held every five years. But things quickly turned sour, and he began executing anyone who dared to disagree with him, even his own mother. When much of Rome burned down, some speculated that he started the fire, particularly when he had a new, 100-acre palace erected in its place, with a 100-foot statue of himself in the centre, called the Colossus of Nero.

Vespasian: New Morality

Vespasian bust from 80 AD, in the National Archaeological Museum Naples, from the Farnese Collection.
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Vespasian bust from 80 AD, in the National Archaeological Museum Naples, from the Farnese Collection.

A leader in the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian ruled the Roman Empire from 69 – 79 AD. He worked hard to restore Rome’s former glory after Nero’s wasteful reign, bringing back discipline and higher taxes. A moral man who led a simple life, he invested finances into improving public life, creating better roads and public spaces, and leading the construction of prominent buildings, including bathhouses, the Temple of Peace and most famously, The Colosseum.

Trajan: Expanding the Empire

Trajan depicted wearing armour typically used in triumphal parades.
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Trajan depicted wearing armour typically used in triumphal parades.

Ruling from 98 – 117 AD, Emperor Trajan had a significant impact on Rome’s landmass, vastly expanding its’ boundaries into the eastern areas of Dacia, Arabia and Armenia. By the time of his death, Rome’s empire was significantly larger than it had ever been before. He also organized a substantial building program, leaving a series of landmarks under his name including Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column.

 


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Hadrian: A Man of the People

Head of a colossal marble statue of Hadrian, found at the Sagalassos Roman Baths complex in 2007, now exhibited at the Burdur Museum.
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Head of a colossal marble statue of Hadrian, found at the Sagalassos Roman Baths complex in 2007, now exhibited at the Burdur Museum.

Hadrian’s rule from 117 – 138 AD was marked by a period of stability and peace. Known as the “people’s king”, he visited every province of Rome in a bid to connect with the public. He even traveled and ate with his military troops. An astute negotiator, he suppressed the Jewish Revolt of 130 – 136 AD, and withdrew army troops from many sites of conflict, including Iraq. He will be forever remembered for building Hadrian’s Wall, a boundary marking the Roman Empire across Northern England, but he also led the building of The Pantheon and the Temple of Venus and Roma.

Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher

Marble bust of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in a fringed cloak in The British Museum, London.
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Marble bust of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in a fringed cloak in The British Museum, London.

Led by the ‘Platonic King’ concept from Plato’s Republic text, Marcus Aurelius believed a true leader should place his own needs before those of his people. Though he was forced to defend Roman territory in the Marcomannic Wars, he was essentially a peaceful man, and he lived out the Stoic Philosophy. In his later years, he composed a series of essays titled Meditations, which outlined lessons on how to be wise and honorable. He is known today as the last of the “Five Good Emperors.”

Commodus: The Cruel Gladiator

Commodus dressed as the hero of Greek mythology Hercules, 190-2 AD. The Capitoline Museums, Rome.
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Commodus dressed as the hero of Greek mythology Hercules, 190-2 AD. The Capitoline Museums, Rome.

In sharp contrast with his peaceful father Marcus Aurelius, Commodus has gone down in history as Rome’s cruelest Emperor. Spoilt and indulgent, he fashioned himself as an omnipotent Gladiator who enjoyed killing for sport, styling himself on Hercules by wearing a lion skin. But he deliberately chose battles with competitors who were weak and defenseless, knowing he would win. Such was his arrogance that he even changed his name to Hercules, and tried to have himself named as a living god. His reckless behavior led Rome into financial ruin and civil war, sparking a chain reaction that eventually collapsed the entire Empire.

Septimius Severus: The Army Man

Septimius Severus, 200 AD, Vienna, Museum of Art History.
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Septimius Severus, 200 AD, Vienna, Museum of Art History.

Founder of the Severan Dynasty, Septimius Severus reigned from 193 – 211 AD. An accomplished general of African descent, Septimius transformed the Roman military. He enlisted a larger army by offering soldiers higher wages and the right to marry. With a bigger army, he was able to expand the Roman Empire, which reached an astonishing 5 million square kilometers, the largest it had ever been. He also built the Triumphal Arch in the Roman Forum and the Septizodium in Rome.

 


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Caracalla: Cruel and Merciless

Emperor Caracalla, 212–217 AD, The Met Museum.
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Emperor Caracalla, 212–217 AD, The Met Museum.

Eldest son of Septimius Severus, Caracalla was a cruel and unforgiving leader. Both he and his younger brother inherited the throne together, but after a bitter dispute, Caracalla had his brother killed in front of their mother and removed all trace of his memory from coins, paintings and other memorabilia. He led Rome from 198 – 217 AD, famously granting all free people in the Roman Empire a Roman citizenship, which some believe was a callous move to collect more taxes. Modelling himself on Alexander the Great, he tried to win a war against the Parthians, but lost his life in the process.

Maximinus Thrax: Brute Force

Bust of Maximinus Thrax.
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Bust of Maximinus Thrax.

Maximinus is remembered as one of the largest and strongest Roman Emperors of all time: legend has it he was a whopping 8.5 feet tall. As a young man, his enormous size and strength gave him an advantage in the Roman army, and he quickly rose the ranks, eventually becoming Roman Emperor in 235 AD. The Roman Senate was said to despise his brutish barbarism but were too scared to challenge him. But thanks to his brute force, an ongoing feud with Germanic tribes was finally won, earning him the grand title of Germanicus Maximus.

Valerian: Prisoner and Slave

The surrender of the emperor Valerian to the Persian King Shapur I, rock relief, 260 AD, in the province of Fārs, Iran.
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The surrender of the emperor Valerian to the Persian King Shapur I, rock relief, 260 AD, in the province of Fārs, Iran.

Emperor Valerian ruled Rome from 253 – 260 AD, during the Crisis of the Third Century. Foreign invasion threatened the security of Rome and Valerian shared the throne with his son Gallienus in a bid to gain control, taking the east side on himself and leaving the west in the charge of his son. He made history as the first Emperor to be taken prisoner when Persian King Shapur captured him after the Battle of Edessa. Forced into slavery, he experienced a tremendous fall from grace, serving as Shapur’s human footstool. He died a horrible death after being forced to swallow liquid gold.

Gallienus: The Thirty Tyrants

Portrait bust of Emperor Gallienus, 3rd century AD, from the Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne.
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Portrait bust of Emperor Gallienus, 3rd century AD, from the Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne.

Gallienus took sole charge of the throne following his father’s horrible death. But he was seen as a weak, timid leader, who struggled to protect Rome from a series of invasions on all sides: Greece was attacked by the Goths, who burned down the city, while Sapur, King of the Persians claimed Syria and Asia. Roman people formed an uprising to topple Gallienus from the throne, while a string of successors tried to take his place, known as The Thirty Tyrants. But before his suspicious death, he found his strength, repelling a further invasion from the Goths and defeating the Alamanni.

 


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Constantine the Great: The Christian

Portrait of Constantine the Great, from the Basilica Nova, Rome.
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Portrait of Constantine the Great, from the Basilica Nova, Rome.

Ruling Rome from 306 – 337 AD, Constantine the Great made dramatic changes that would forever alter the course of its’ history. He fought the previous tetrarchy that put four leaders in charge of the huge and unwieldy landmass, seizing sole control for himself. In an unexpected turn of events, a visionary experience led him to accept Christianity as the dominant religion for Roman society. And perhaps most significantly, he formed a new, imperial capital led by Christianity in Constantinople, named after himself, a move that would eventually split apart the Roman Empire.

The End of The Empire

Following its’ division into East and West factions, the last Emperor to rule the Western strand of the Roman Empire was Romulus Augustus, who ruled for only 10 months in 476 AD. His deposition is now seen as the fall of Ancient Rome, and the beginning of the Middle Ages in the West. In the East, the Byzantine Empire, centered around Constantinople, continued to thrive for another 1,000 years, creating a rich history of art and culture.

UK Museum Asked to Return a 15th-Century Bronze Idol
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Gentile da Fabriano in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, via The National Gallery
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