History Of The Roman Emperors: The Good, The Bad, And The Mad

Are you fascinated with Ancient Rome? I know I am! For your reading pleasure, I have here a short history of the Roman emperors.

My list of emperors includes 92 names in chronological order. I give you some fun facts and mini-biographies on every Roman emperor.

statue of Emperor Augustus int he Forum of Augustus
statue of Emperor Augustus in the Forum of Augustus

The Roman Empire was one the most powerful empires to ever exist. It dominated the Mediterranean world for centuries.

The Roman emperors who wielded power led bizarre, privileged, and dangerous lives. Their stories provide some of the juiciest, and most interesting, tales in recorded history.

Some of the most famous Roman emperors are household names and changed the course of history. Others were perverted, megalomaniacal, or cartoonishly crazy. By modern standards, some of their crimes were breathtaking — matricide, fratricide, pederasty.

Pinterest pin for history of the Roman emperors
Pinterest pin for history of Roman emperors

Overview of the Roman Emperors

The Roman Empire had no fixed law of primogeniture, a system where all property and titles are handed down to the first born. The Roman emperors rose to power by various means: conquest, blood succession, political expertise, or with the support of the military.

Once on the throne, there was no easy exit. Emperors had no term limits or pension plans. It was a job for life. You died in office.

There were “Good Emperors” and “Bad Emperors.” But every emperor did things that we would consider abhorrent.

The bad emperors were typically teenagers. They were trust fund babies who were spoiled, unaccomplished, and demanded that people worship them.

Good emperors exercised restraint and refused divine honors. They worried about administration, justice, the welfare of Romans, and the expansion and protection of Roman territory. They were often deified after they died.

bust of Caligula, one of Rome's worst emperors
bust of Caligula, one of Rome’s worst emperors

Why are there so many outrageous stories about the Roman emperors? One reason is that Rome was a violent place. Murder, plotting, poisoning, slander, rape, and conspiracy were typical daily occurrences.

The bloodthirsty Romans liked gladiatorial game, beast hunts, and public executions. Violence was entertainment in Ancient Rome.

Another reason for the outlandish tales is that Roman historians were often biased. Historians distorted the truth, or didn’t really know what was true because they weren’t writing about contemporaneous events.

Roman historians were more akin to literary figures. They wanted to put the “story” into history. What often passed as ancient history was rhetorical artistry, amplified hearsay, or even gross distortions.

a  rare surviving likeness of Emperor Nero in the Palantine Museum
a rare surviving likeness of Emperor Nero in the Palantine Museum

Historians’ works were politically motivated as well. Winners write history. So to legitimize their own dynasties, historians slandered the previous one, usually with tales of vile sexual misdeeds.

Rome had an avid cancel culture too. If an emperor was unpopular or wicked — like Nero, Caligula, Domitian, or Commodus — he was “erased” or censured. The senate would issue a Damnatio Memoriae, which condemned the memory of a person.

If an emperor were damned, the Senate would destroy all images of the emperor. Statues were destroyed or their heads removed or re-carved.

Names were erased from texts and inscriptions. Coins were recalled or faces scratched out. Even an emperor’s laws could be rescinded.

relief from the Palazzo Cancellaria, in which Domitian was reworked to appear like Nerva after Domitian was damned
relief from Rome’s Palazzo Cancellaria, in which Domitian was reworked to appear like Nerva after Domitian was damned

No matter how great an emperor was, he could not survive in Ancient Rome alone.

History shows that three other constituencies helped determine an emperor’s success: the Senate, the Praetorian Guard, and the military. If they lost one of those branches, they were vulnerable.

The Praetorian Guard was the personal bodyguard of the emperor, an institution created by Augustus. For centuries, the guard was often involved in the selection and assassination of emperors.

For all the power of the Roman emperors, they had a dismal survival rate. Being emperor was a deadly and messy business. There were fraught with constant power grabs and in-fighting.

Only about 30% died of natural causes. Everyone else died of assassination, warfare, or forced “suicide.” 

Roughly 30% to 40% of emperors were murdered, most commonly by their own soldiers or the Praetorian Guard.

Bust of Augustus in the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome
Bust of Augustus in the Ara Pacis Museum

In the last centuries of the Roman Empire, power was divided between the east and the west. Sometimes, one emperor governed both. But, later, power was often divided and emperors ruled jointly, governing their separate geographical territories.

After Constantine, the eastern empire was the stronger one. The west lapsed into chaos and violence in 455 and fell in 476.

The Eastern Roman empire, called the Byzantine Empire, hung on for centuries until it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.

History And Facts About The Roman Emperors

It’s hard to say precisely how many Roman emperors there were in total. It’s generally agreed that there were somewhere between 85-100. Many overlapped or ruled jointly, especially in the 3rd and 4th century A.D.

Here are the most fascinating facts, stories, and character sketches of Rome’s 92 emperors. My list is chronological, separated by the various dynasties and major time periods of Ancient Rome.

1st century Augustus of Prima Porta in the Vatican Museums
1st century Augustus of Prima Porta in the Vatican Museums

The Julio-Claudian Dynasty

The Julio-Claudian dynasty is the most well known set of emperors, probably because they descended from the most famous Roman of all, Julius Caesar. During this time, Rome was at the height of its wealth and power.

It was a golden age of Rome. But the dynasty was also noted for extravagance and some peculiar behavior.

1. Augustus the Peace Maker, 31 B.C.-14 A.D.

Augustus was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar and Rome’s first emperor. He rose to power as Octavian, avenging Caesar’s murder and vanquishing every rival.

Augustus is viewed as the greatest Roman emperor, ruling peacefully for 40 years. But, early on, he was ruthless and brutal.

ruins of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill
ruins of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill

Augustus took advantage of a fragile Rome to seize power via bloody battles and proscriptions. He vanquished Mark Antony, drove Antony and Cleopatra to suicide, and killed Caesar’s possible son Caesarian.

On the upside, Augustus later reinvented himself as a responsible statesman. He focused on the rule of law, after decades of civil war. Augustus was a superb administrator and builder, who ushered in a new era of peace called the Pax Romana.

To promote this reputation, Augustus used imagery as propaganda. He commissioned thousands of statues conflating himself with Apollo.

When Augustus died, he rightly claimed to have “found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.” Every emperor after Augustus took the name Caesar and Caesar Augustus in their official titles.

bust of Tiberius
bust of Tiberius

2. Tiberius the Soldier, 14-37

Like Caesar, Augustus had no male heir. All his blood heirs suffered sad fates. When he died, power was transferred to his stepson Tiberius.

Tiberius came to power after a succession of Augustus’ other heirs died under mysterious circumstances. He was a star-studded general, but a gloomy and paranoid emperor. Tiberius continued Augustus’ policies and stayed away from expensive wars.

When he grew weary of government, Tiberius ruled Rome from his villa in Capri, where he may have lived like a dirty old man.

Rumors claimed he kept a harem of young boys and girls. The story goes that when he got bored of them, he tossed them over the cliff.

Despite this negative image, Tiberius left the Roman treasury well stocked.

bust of Caligula
bust of Caligula

3. Caligula the Cruel, 37-41

Caligula was one of Rome’s mad, tyrannical emperors, who ascended the throne in his early 20s. He may have learned some bad behavior from his uncle Tiberius.

Caligula’s reign began well. He was initially popular and sponsored chariot races and spectacles for the masses.

But in late 37, Caligula fell ill and his insane antics began. He believed himself to be a living god and insisted people acknowledge his divinity. He allegedly had sex with his sisters, murdered people at whim, and wanted to make his beloved horse a consul.

Caligula has been variously diagnosed with epilepsy, schizophrenia, and chronic alcoholism. He may have had a neuropsychiatric illness that left him unhinged.

He also drained the coffers of Rome. The Praetorian Guard assassinated him in in 41 A.D. at just age 28. What’s surprising is not that someone murdered him, but that it took so long.

statue of Emperor Claudius in the Round Hall of the Vatican Museums
statue of Emperor Claudius in the Round Hall of the Vatican Museums

4. Claudius the Historian, 41-54

Claudius was made famous by Robert Graves book and the TV series I Claudius. Claudius was a stammering, limping, and uncouth emperor.

These traits allowed him to survive palace intrigues and caused people to underestimate him. Upon Caligula’s death, the imperial bodyguard declared him emperor and the troops backed his claim to the throne.

And then something amazing happened. Claudius turned out to be an accomplished historian and fairly good emperor.

He centralized the government and expanded the civil service. Claudius was responsible for a vast range of public works, including aqueducts. He enriched the empire and added to its social and military glory.

But he was unlucky in love. Claudius divorced his first two wives and his third wife cheated continually on him. There were rumors that Claudius’s fourth wife Agrippina poisoned him with mushrooms.

Given the speed with which she suppressed his will and promoted her own son Nero to emperor, this may well be true.

bust of Nero
bust of Nero

5. Nero the Entertainer, 54-68

Nero was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great uncle Claudius and become his heir and successor.

Nero is Rome’s most maligned emperor, frequently described as one of history’s greatest villains and a vicious megalomaniac.

But there’s not much historic evidence to support his lurid rap sheet — which included killing his mother, stepbrother, and wives and “fiddling” while Rome burned in the Great Fire of 64.

Nero’s problem was his extravagance. He was a party boy who built the Golden House, hosted opulent banquets, and emptied the treasury.

READ: Guide To Domus Aurea

the ruins of the Octagonal Room of Domus Aurea
the ruins of the Octagonal Room in Nero’s Golden House

Even worse, Nero was more interested in the performing arts than affairs of state. However, showbiz was considered an unseemly and embarrassing pursuit for an emperor.

There were conspiracies to kill Nero. When he uncovered them, he began treason trials of the elite aristocracy.

When he lost the support of the army, Nero was sentenced to death, damned, and driven to suicide at age 30. His last words were “what an artist dies in me.”

The Flavian Dynasty

The Flavian dynasty came to power after the civil war of 69 called the Year of the Four Emperors. The Flavians initiated economic and cultural reforms, including building the Colosseum.

6. Galba, 68-69

Galba was the first contestant in the succession battle after Nero’s suicide. He was the first Roman emperor to be raised to power and brought down by the army.

Galba was a senior citizen at age 70. He was also a hunchback, a trait that was mocked by he non-PC Roman citizens.

bust of Galba
bust of Galba

Galba was a martinet and humorless stiff. His taciturn demeanor irritated everyone.

Galba executed Nero’s troops and many Roman citizens. In his short 7 month reign, his troops grew to despise him.

7. Otho, 69

Otho was a libertine cohort of Nero. Otho had hoped to be adopted by Galba. But Galba would have nothing to do with Nero’s drinking buddy.

When Galba refused, Otho assassinated him. At first, Otho surprised everyone by being a decent and moderate Roman emperor. But, then, Otho promptly found himself fighting a civil war with little military ability.

He committed suicide. Some historians believed Otho had done so to save Rome from another civil war.

portrait of Vespasian received from a statue of Nero after he was damned -- Cleveland Museum of Art
portrait of Vespasian recarved from a statue of Nero after he was damned — Cleveland Museum of Art

8. Vitellius, 69

Vitellius was no better than Otho. He was the last of Nero’s three short-lived successors.

Vitellius was a cowardly, glutinous alcoholic with a paunch. But he was beloved by his subordinates, whom he welcomed to his table.

Vitellius’ reign lasted only eight months. He was defeated by Vespasian, whose army stabbed Vitellius to death and declared Vespasian emperor.

9. Vespasian, 69-79

Vespasian was the last man standing after the civil war. He brought peace back to Rome and put an end to what was known as the “Year of Four Emperors.”

In contrast to Nero and his adherents, Vespasian tried to behave a model citizen. It was an intentional affectation, to carefully mark a boundary between himself and the excesses attributed to Nero.

Vespasian was chaste, sober, courageous, hard working, and wise. He funded a public building program.

Vespasian began building the Colosseum to provide entertainment for the masses. He ruled for almost ten years. Then, he fell ill and died in 79 A.D. 

the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum
the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum

10. Titus, 79-81

Titus was Vespasian’s son and heir. He was the infamous emperor who sacked Jerusalem.

Titus destroyed the Jew’s sacred temple, leaving only what is now called the “wailing wall.” It was business as usual back then.

As a victorious general, Titus accrued honorifics and built a triumphal arch. He even crowned himself with a diadem, a jeweled crown.

But then Titus died of an incurable disease barely two years into his reign, possibly poisoned by his successor and brother Domitian.

bust of Domitian in Florence's Uffizi Gallery
bust of Domitian in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery

11. Domitian, 81-96

Domitian was the second son of Vespasian and Titus’ younger brother. His father described him as his “one mistake.” Domitian was one of the worst of Roman emperors — greedy, ruthless, and a sex addict.

At first, he was a competent ruler, studying Augustus’ policies. But he quickly became drunk on power, even banning free speech.

Domitian’s one accomplishment was building a palace for himself on Palatine Hill. I guess he also carried on the family tradition of building grand entertainment facilities, adding the Circus Maximus and the Stadium of Domitian in Piazza Navona.

But Domitian failed to manage the egos and perceptions of people around him. Eventually, Domitian was stabbed to death in a palace conspiracy and his memory damned.

After his death, the power was back in the hands of the senate. They could have gone back to the republic, but they were gun shy.

Domitian's Palace on Palatine Hill
Domitian’s Palace on Palatine Hill

The Adoptive and Antonine Emperors

The Antonine dynasty ruled during the zenith of Rome’s power. The Rome Empire was at the height of its prosperity and territory.

The dynasty was notable for allowing the emperor to hand-pick his successor, not just default to a biological heir. The emperor’s choice would be adopted as a son and heir.

Beginning with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, Rome was ruled by the “Five Good Emperors.”

12. Nerva, 96-98

After the death of Domitian, Nerva was proclaimed emperor. Chosen by the senate, Nerva was the first of the “Five Good Emperors.” He brought stability and enacted some social and financial reforms.

A bachelor, Nerva was the first emperor to adopt a “best man” as heir, rather than a biological relative. Nerva selected Trajan, the most dashing and distinguished soldier of the day.

ruins of Trajan's Market
ruins of Trajan’s Market

13. Trajan the General, 98-117

Trajan was one of Rome’s best emperors, a master general and builder. He sought to exceed Julius Caesar in conquests. He did, the Roman Empire was at its largest under Trajan. Between wars, he was an able administrator.

With his favorite architect Apollodorus, Trajan built a magnificent public forum, Trajan’s Column, and the Trajan’s Market. The market is considered the world’s first shopping mall.

READ: Guide To Roman Ruins

In battle, he achieved a huge victory against the Parthians. But on the way home, he suffered a stroke. His wife claimed that, on his death bed, he announced the adoption of Hadrian as his heir.

14. Hadrian the Builder, 117-38

After a distinguished military career, Hadrian succeeded Trajan in 117. Hadrian was the total package — expert administrator, shrewd politician, and pragmatic military strategist.

bust of Hadrian at the National Museum of Rome
bust of Hadrian at the National Museum of Rome

Hadrian was enamored with architecture, a prolific public builder, and enamored with all things Greek. He was even nicknamed “the little Greek.” Hadrian built the remarkable Pantheon, the Temple of Venus in the Roman ForumCastle Sant’ Angelo, Hadrian’s Wall, and his grand Villa in Tivoli.

Hadrian was both genial and prone to violent outbursts. He was also gay and tried to deify his lover Antoninus when he drowned under suspicious circumstances. Hadrian died, most likely of heart failure, at age 62.

When he came to picking a successor, Hadrian selected and adopted an experienced and well respected aristocrat named Antoninus.

15. Antoninus Pius the Handsome, 138-61

Antoninus was a dashing and peace loving emperor. He carried on Hadrian’s policies. And he reformed the law courts, in an attempt at making justice “fair.”

Pius’ reign was peaceful. It lasted 23 years, with no rebellions or military operations — an unprecedented feat in the history of the Roman Empire.

equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius

16. Marcus Aurelius the Stoic, 161-80

The “philosopher-king” Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome’s most exemplary and intellectual leaders. His rule covered almost 20 years. He was the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” 

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher and famous for writing the book Meditations. He pursued an expansionist policy, had a deep interest in the law like Pius, and treated the Senate well.

Aurelius also helped destroy the Parthian empire, whose territory covered what is now Iran, Iraq, and most of Afghanistan. And he fought off the Germanic tribes trying to invade northern Italy.

bust of Marcus Aurelius
bust of Marcus Aurelius

His big mistake? Marcus Aurelius gradually brought forward his son Commodus as emperor. He was severely criticized for the reversion to the hereditary doctrine of succession.

17. Lucius Verus, 161-69

But before Commodus, there was Lucius Verus. He ruled jointly with Aurelius for approximately ten years, creating a precedent that would be followed in the later years of the empire. But he didn’t have equal authority.

Verus was a handsome man, who sprinkled gold dust on his blond hair. He was the first emperor to grow a long beard, after Hadrian had popularized the fashion of short curly beards. He died of a stroke coming home from battle.

Commodus as Hercules, in Rome's Capitoline Museums
Commodus as Hercules, in Rome’s Capitoline Museums

18. Commodus the Hercules, 180-92

Commodus was the eldest son of Marcus Aurelius. He was the first man in nearly a century to succeed his father on the throne. Commodus embodied the succession pattern of a bad emperor following a good emperor.

He was a truly nasty man and not terribly bright. Commodus allegedly kept a harem of 600 concubines and enjoyed drinking and gambling. If anything the movie Gladiator undersold how awful he was.

Commodus believed he was the reincarnated demi-god Hercules and gave himself a ridiculous 12 part name. He eschewed Roman imperial attired for lion skins and clubs. Often, Commodus would beat citizens to death with his club. 

Commodus also liked to play gladiator, appearing in the arena over 700 times to the extreme embarrassment of the senate. Not surprisingly, Commodus was murdered and his memory damned.

Triumphal Arch of Severus Septimus
Triumphal Arch of Severus Septimus in the Roman Forum

The House of Serverus

After Commodus, the Antonine dynasty came to an end. It was followed by another civil war, this one dubbed the Year of the Five Emperors. The Severan emperors came out on top, but had fairly short and insignificant reigns.

19. Pertinax the Miser, 193

Pertinax was the son of a freed slave and a famous legionary commander. He likely knew of the assassination plot against Commodus. He was raised to emperor by the Praetorian Guard.

Pertinax only lasted three months. He tried to enforce stringent economic measures. They weren’t popular and he was murdered off by the guard, a now increasingly common way of disposing of emperors.

20. Didius Jullianus, 193

Didius Jullianus was the highest bidder in an auction for the support of the Praetorian Guard. He lasted only two months and was murdered. The only thing of real note in his reign is that, unlike many emperors, he loved the Senate.

Julia Domna, Septimius Severus and their sons Geta (damned) and Caracalla
Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, and their sons Geta (damned) and Caracalla — in the Altes Museum in Berlin

21. Septimus Severus the African, 193-211

Septimus Severus was the first African emperor. He was the victor in the empire’s second civil war. Though he was a hard military man, he enjoyed his purple silks and jewels.

Severus fought wars from Scotland to Syria in search of imperial stability. He promised a return to Senatorial politics after the megalomania of Commodus.

Severus was also a prodigious builder. He built a massive triumphal arch in the Roman Forum to celebrate his eastern military victories over the Parthians.

Triumphal Arch of Severus Septimus
Triumphal Arch of Severus Septimus

But his harsh discipline and parsimonious approach to bonuses, ran fall afoul of the financial interests of the Praetorian Guard. They eventually murdered the emperor off.

22. Pescennius Niger, 193-95

Niger was from Syria, promoted there by the strangler who had killed Commodus. Not much is known about Niger. He was another ill-fated contestant of the civil war.

23. Clodius Albinus, 195-97

Albinus hailed from Gaul. He was the last contestant in the civil wars. In the largest battle ever fought by Roman forces, Severus defeated Albinus and emerged from the bloody conflict as the master of the Empire.

bust of Caracalla
bust of Caracalla

24. Caracalla the Great Alexander, 211-17

Caracalla was the heir of Septimius Severus. A devoted narcissist, Caracalla believed he was a reincarnation of Alexander the Great. He wore a non-Roman flowing long coat and wig of golden hair.

Caracalla was the last emperor who cared about building things. To try to win the adoration of the citizens, he built the massive Baths of Caracalla, one of the greatest remaining ruins of Ancient Rome.

But Caracalla had a taste for bloodthirsty sports. He slaughtered his own people and vestal virgins. One of his Praetorian guards, Macrinus, finished Caracalla off with the usual stabbing.

25. Geta, 211

Geta was the youngest son of Septimius Severus. For a brief time, he was a co-emperor with his brother Caracalla.

But he was quickly murdered off by the hot-tempered Caracalla and his memory damned. It became a capital offense to even speak the name of the younger co-emperor.

26. Macrinus, 217-18

Macrinus took over after Caracalla, whose murder he connived at. He was likely awarded the purple because the Senate hated Caracalla.

Thought the Senate accepted him, the army did not. Macrinus had fought an inconclusive battle with the Parthians. Then, he agreed to an unfavorable peace and dolled out pay cuts to the soldiers. He fled Italy, but was captured and executed.  

bust of Elagabalus in Rome’s Capitoline Museums

27. Elagabalus, 218-22

Elagabalus inherited the title of emperor at the immature age 14, always a sign of danger to come. Elagabalus was just a teenager and may have been transgender. His/her reign was marred by legendary excesses, sex scandals, and cruel atrocities.

Elagabalus was famous for ordering color-coded meals, entirely blue or black. He famously watched while his guests almost suffocated when rose petals fell from the ceiling. The emperor also stirred up religious controversy by worshipping only a single sun god and marrying a sacred vestal virgin.

Like so many other emperors, he was supplanted and liquidated. Elagabalus was murdered and dragged through the streets of Rome.

28. Severus Alexander, 222-35

Severus Alexander was brought to power by the scheming king-maker, Elagabalus’ grandmother. Lacking martial skills, his was a weak rule. After losses in Mesopotamia and Germany, his army was peeved.

Early in 235, rebellious Roman troops murdered Severus Alexander. Civil strife engulfed the empire for the next 50 years. One emperor succeeded another in swift succession.

bust of Maximinus I in the Capitoline Museums
bust of Maximinus I in the Capitoline Museums

The Age of Crisis

Then began a reign of mostly undistinguished, very temporary emperors. It was a period known as the Crisis of the Third Century. 238 became known as the Year of the Six Emperors.

There were usurping breakaway emperors, who nearly caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. Barbarians took advantage of the anarchy to plunder the provinces.

29. Maximinus I, 235-38

Maximinus was the first solider to rise through the ranks to become emperor. With a frightening visage, he spent most of his career fighting in Germany.

But, in a familiar refrain, the army lost confidence in him and murdered Maximinus and his son. 

30-31. Gordian I & II, 238

Gordian I was a Roman emperor for 21 days with his son Gordian II in 238. Gordian II was killed in battle. Gordian I committed suicide.

32. Balbinus, 238

Balbinus is known to have received the exceptional honor of a second consulship, which he shared with the Caracalla in 213. Thus, we know he was an an important man politically. No emperor would share a consulship with a nobody.

But he only lasted 3 months and was damned.

bust of Pupienus
bust of Pupienus

33. Pupienus, 238

Pupienus was an elderly senator and co-emperor with Balbinus. The two emperors quarreled. On the 99th day of their reign, they were killed by the imperial guard and the Senate condemned their memories.

34. Gordian III, 238-44

The Praetorian Guard elevated Gordian III as the sixth emperor of 238. He lasted a bit longer than his predecessors. He was the youngest emperor ever, at the age of 13. But Gordian III was also murdered by his troops, possibly on the instigation of his successor Philip the Arab.

35. Philip I the Arab, 244-49

Philip I was a friend of Gordian III. But his reign was dogged by rumors that he killed Gordian III. To mitigate the gossip, Philip subsequently deified him.

Philip was the first Arab to occupy the throne, though at this point one might wonder why anyone wanted to be emperor. When trouble broke out in the eastern provinces, he became the first emperor to ask if he could step down voluntarily.

36. Trajanus Decius, 249-51

Decius was a “reluctant usurper” of Philip, or at least that’s the way he wanted historians to report it. Decius was notable for being the first emperor to start systematically persecuting Christians. He fell in battle against against the Goths.

bust of Trajanus Decius in the Capitoline Museums
bust of Trajanus Decius in the Capitoline Museums

37. Trebonianus Gallus, 251-52

In the catastrophe of Decius’ death, Trebonius Gallus was proclaimed emperor by the troops. His reign was disastrous. There were continual outbreaks of pestilence, military threats, and more Christian persecutions.

38. Aemillian, 253

After many Roman setbacks on the battlefield, Aemillian was declared emperor after a rare unexpected victory over the Goths. But before he could do anything, he was murdered by his soldiers, who preferred Valerian.

39. Valerian, 253-60

Valerian vigorously renewed Decius’ persecution of Christians. Trying to repel the Persian invasion, he was ignominiously captured by the Persian King Shapur I and forced into slavery.

Valerian died when Shapur forced him to swallow molten gold. To have this happened to a Roman Emperor was the nadir of Roman disgrace.

Valerian was at least honorable. He tried valiantly to preserve the ideals of the Roman Empire. Ultimately, he couldn’t save himself or the regime he served.

bust of Gallienus in the Capitoline Museums
bust of Gallienus in the Capitoline Museums

40. Gallienus the Renaissance Man, 253-68

Gallienus served jointly with his father Valerian. He spent his early career fighting the Germans and succeeded in pushing them back to some degree.

Gallienus broke seven centuries of tradition by transferring the command of the armies from the senators to professional officers. He also introduced cavalry to Rome’s military. But the army wasn’t loyal and disliked Gallienus’ intellectual pursuits. So Gallienus was assassinated in 268.

41. Postumus, 260-68

Postumus was Gallienus’ general. But a treacherous one. His troops declared Postumus emperor in 260 when Gallienus was wounded from fighting. He set up a parallel Roman senate, in a sort of unofficial breakaway Roman Empire.

Gallienus attempted to eliminate Postumus’ secessionist government, but failed. The pretender was then left alone with his pretensions.

Claudius the Gothicus at the Palatine Museum on Palatine Hill
Claudius the Gothicus at the Palatine Museum

Military Recovery

After decades of anarchy and treachery, Aurelian launched the military recovery of Rome. He expelled barbarians from Rome’s frontiers and reunited the empire, allowing the Roman Empire to survive another two centuries.

42. Claudius II the Gothicus, 268-70

Claudius II may have been in on the plot to kill Gallienus, though he later had him deified. He was a commander of unusual distinction. His most notable achievement was a victory over the Goths. He later marched against German tribes, but succumbed to plague during battle.

43. Quintillus, 270

Quintillus was Claudius’ brother. But his reign lasted only a few weeks. He was trumped and outmaneuvered by Aurelian. Deserted by his soldiers, he committed suicide.

coin depicting Roman Emperor Aurelian
coin depicting Roman Emperor Aurelian

44. Aurelian the Restorer, 270-75

The Senate was less than enthusiastic about Aurelian as the next in line. But Aurelian was a great emperor who, for a time, revived Rome when the empire was on the brink of collapse.

Nicknamed “hand on hilt,” Aurelian proved adept at stopping invasions and marauding tribes. Aurelian fought off the Vandals, the Germans, and recovered Rome’s eastern provinces. He stabilized and united the Roman Empire.

Aurelian was also an uncompromising administrator, upgrading the city’s defenses. By increasing the distribution of free food in Rome, he did more for the plebeians than almost any other emperor. 

For his many victories, Aurelian went by the titles “most glorious” and “most victorious.” To underscore the authority of imperial rule and command the respect of the people, he took to wearing a diadem and cloth of gold.

Unfortunately, for Aurelian and all of Rome, not even an exalted leader was safe from plots. Despite 5 years of splendid rule, he was struck down by a Praetorian officer. Now, he’s considered one of the most underrated Roman emperors and one of history’s “what ifs.”

READ: Guide to the Aurelian Walls

the Emperor Aurelian
the Emperor Aurelian

45. Tacitus, 276

Tacitus was a military emperor, like those before and after him. Though he pretended it was the result of senatorial influence. And he asked the senate to deify Aurelian.

Tacitus was a somewhat elderly and wealthy senator who had served twice as consul. He was always at war. It’s unclear whether he was murdered or contracted a deadly disease.

46. Florian, 276

Tacticus’ half brother Florian took over upon his death. He ruled for three months before being killed by his soldiers.

47. Probus, 276-82

Probus’ troops proclaimed him emperor after ousting Florian. Probus spent his early years repelling German invasions. He celebrated a great triumph.

Probus had indicated his intent to embrace peace, suggesting that the army would not be needed much longer. He was also a strict disciplinarian. Looking for a more marital boss, the army killed him off.

map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent

48. Carus, 282-83

Carus was the army’s substitute for Probus, and it’s likely he had a hand in the deed. He had some victories in Persia, but scarcely lasted more than a year before dying.

Carus may have been struck by lightening, died of an illness, or was offed by a schemer. He had two sons to inherit the throne, Carinus and Numerian.

49. Carinus, 283-85

Upon his father’s death, Carinus became emperor in the West and his brother Numerian became emperor in the East. Carinus was killed by his own troops during a battle against Diocletian, who would be the next emperor.

50. Numerian, 283-84

Numerian was the 50th Roman emperor. But the troops didn’t like him. He was too bookish and was a poet of considerable reputation.

Numerian died in a odd manner. While fleeing the Persians in 284 AD, Numerian passed away inside his private coach from an eye infection. No one noticed for days, until the stench of his corpse revealed the death.

main courtyard of Diocletian's Palace
main courtyard of Diocletian’s Palace in Split Croatia

The Tetrarchy and the House of Constantine

In the next century, Emperor Diocletian would secure the empire’s borderland and restructure the Roman government. Constantine the Great grew up in his court. He and his family would play a major role in the late Roman Empire for 70 years, introducing Christianity.

51. Diocletian the Persecutor, 284-305

From humble origins, Diocletian rose through the ranks of the military and became a cavalry commander. In 284 A.D., Diocletian succeeded Nuremian as emperor at age 39. In some ways, he was the most remarkable imperial emperor since Augustus.

He restored efficient government to an empire in near anarchy. In 293 A.D., he restructured the government by establishing a Tetrarchy, a system of rule in which four men shared power over the sprawling Roman Empire. He also reconstructed the military system.

Diocletian is best known, however, for the Diocletianic Persecution — the Roman Empire’s last, largest, and bloodiest persecution of Christians. To attempt to eradicate the pesky religion, Diocletian torched churches, burned scriptures, arrested clergy, and tortured and murdered Christians.

Diocletian was a rare emperor who wasn’t killed off. He became the first emperor to retire. He retreated to the opulent Diocletian’s Palace in Split Croatia, where he grew cabbages for the rest of his days.

Diocletian with his diadem
Diocletian with his diadem

52. Maximian, 286-305, 307-08

Maximian was a trusted officer and friend of Diocletian. The emperor made him caesar July 21, 285, and augustus April 1, 286. In theory, Maximian thus became co-emperor with Diocletian, but his role was always subordinate. 

On Diocletian’s part, it was a brilliant solution to the chronic issues of a sprawling empire.

53. Carausius, 286-93

Carausius was another breakaway emperor, this time in Britain. Maximian and Diocletian attempted to dislodge him. But then just gave up and let Carausius have at the war-like nationals that threatened Rome’s British territory.

Carausius was murdered by one of his ministers. Naturally, as a usurper, he was maligned by the imperial chroniclers. 

54. Constantius I, 305-06

Constantius was the father of Constantine the Great. He was part of Diocletian’s four man tetrarchy.

He was adopted by Maximian and briefly became emperor when Diocletian and Maximian retired/abdicated in 305. He died prematurely of natural causes.

bust of Constantius I
bust of Constantius I

55. Galerius, 305-11

If Constantius hadn’t conveniently died, Galerius would have supplanted him. Galerius had far superior forces.

Galerius was a ruthless ruler. He levied taxes on the urban population and continued persecuting Christians. Galerius contracted a painful illness and worried that it was the vengeance of the Christian God. He grudgingly reversed course, issued an edict of tolerance, and then died.

56. Severus II, 306-07

Severus ruled simultaneously with Galerius. Severus was emperor of the west. He was promoted after Constantius I died.

But a revolt broke out, led by Maxentius the son of Maximian. Severus took refuge in Ravenna. But eventually had to surrender to Maxentius and be executed.

57. Maxentius, 306-12

Maxentius was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard. Maxentius controlled Italy and Africa but not Spain, which was controlled by Constantine. 

Maxentius was killed by Constantine at the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Though Maxentius had built a massive temple in the Roman Forum, the Basilica Nova, it was repurposed and renamed by the conquering Constantine.

chunks of what was a massive 30 foot statue of Emperor Constantine in the the Palazzo dei Conservatori
chunk of what was a massive 30 foot statue of Emperor Constantine in the Capitoline Museums

58. Constantine the Great, 306-37

No history of the Roman emperors would be complete without Emperor Constantine. He came to power in 306 A.D. and was an ambitious and energetic ruler. In 316, Constantine defeated his western rival, Maxentius, becoming the sole emperor of both the east and west empire.

Constantine founded Constantinople, or New Rome. He named the city after himself and made it the central location of the Roman Empire. Constantinople is today the city of Istanbul.

Constantine abolished the Praetorian Guard. He was one of Rome’s outstanding imperial builder and military leaders. But Constantine is most known for converting the empire from paganism to Christianity.

Though charismatic, Constantine was also known for his ferocious temper and suspicious nature. In 326, he executed both his wife Faustia and eldest son Crispus.

Raphael and Workshop, Vision of the Cross, 1520-24 -- in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums
Raphael and Workshop, Vision of the Cross, 1520-24

The reason is a mystery. The only story passed down is that Faustia accused Crispus of rape, trying to get him out of the line of succession in favor of her own son. Her story was later revealed as false.

But Constantine had three other heirs to spare. He reestablished a dynastic succession, though it would only be secured through political murders after his death. His three sons squabbled over religion and were, after Constantine, disappointments.

Constantine’s decisions to found Constantinople, adopt Christianity, and effectively divorce the city of Rome had huge consequences for the empire. Rome itself was now of little political importance.

Constantine grew ill and died at age 65. After his death, there was constant infighting.

Raphael and Workshop, Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 1520-24
Raphael and Workshop, Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 1520-24

After Constantine, few emperors ruled the entire Roman Empire. It was simply too big and was under attack from every direction. Usually, there was an emperor of the Western Roman Empire ruling from Italy or Gaul and an emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire ruling from Constantinople.

59. Licinius, 308-24

Licinius was a joint emperor with Constantine until Constantine ousted him and took over sole command. Unlike Constantine, Licinius thought the union of the state and Christianity was a mistake.

60. Maximinius II, 310-13

Maximinus was another joint emperor. Like Diocletian, he was a fervent pagan and consistent persecutor of Christians. He was defeated in battle by Licinius, and offed himself.

61. Constantine II, 337-40

Constantine II was Constantine the Great’s second son. But he and Constantine’s other two sons were constantly fought. He was an unremarkable man. Constantine didn’t trust him to take over by himself.

bust of Constantius II

62. Constantius II, 337-61

At first, Constantius II, the third son of Constantine the Great, shared power with his brothers. But from 353-61, he was sole ruler.

Constantius II tried to create religious unity in the empire under Arian Christianity. Unlike Catholics, Arians didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. He passed laws against paganism, but his enforced unity was short-lived.

63. Constans I, 337-50

The fourth son of Constantine also shared power with his brothers. But they had religious differences. Constans was Catholic, not Arian.

Despite being an avid Catholic, the emperor was far from virtuous. Constans I was known as depraved, avaricious, and — not to be tolerated — contemptuous of soldiers. He was offed in a uprising by a former slave of Constantine the Great.

64. Maxentius, 350-53

Maxentius was the first slave to become an emperor. He was another of the usurping breakaway emperors. Maxentius assumed control of the western half of the empire. He didn’t last long and was vanquished by Constantius.

statue of Emperor Julian in the Louvre
statue of Emperor Julian in the Louvre

65. Julian the Apostate, 261-63

Julian was a nephew of Constantine the Great and the official heir of Constantius. He was both a scholar and military leader, who was proclaimed emperor by his troops.

Julian was a more prolific author than any other Roman emperor. It was the first time in centuries that an emperor was allowed to be cultured, not just war-like.

Unlike the rest of his family, Julian was an enemy of Christianity and converted to paganism in 361. He thus acquired the epithet “the Apostate.” Julian was injured in battle and didn’t survive, possibly stabbed by one of his own Christian soldiers.

66. Jovian, 363-64

Jovian was proclaimed emperor by his troops after Julian was killed. He repudiated his predecessor’s paganism. Jovian didn’t last long, dying of natural causes at just age 33.

bronze statue of Valentinian

The House of Valentinian

The House of Valentinian ruled for five generations and lasted nearly 100 years. The division of the empire into west and east became increasingly entrenched. The dynasty was constantly plagued by barbarian incursions, including the sack of Rome in 410.

67. Valentinian I the Moderate, 364-75

Valentinian is known as the last great Roman emperor of the West. Valentinian was the final emperor to conduct campaigns across both the Rhine and Danube rivers. Valentinian rebuilt and improved the fortifications along Rome’s frontiers, even building fortresses in enemy territory.

Valentinian was a steadfast type. On the issue of paganism versus Christianity, he was neutral. Valentinian launched a policy of universal toleration. He was chaste and kept a tight rein on the morality of the imperial court.

Valentinian intended to establish his own dynasty and it lasted for over 90 years. His descendants were both colorful and ill-fated.

bust of Emperor Valens
bust of Emperor Valens

68. Valens, 364-78

Valentinian appointed his brother Valens as emperor of the east. Valens was known as a greedy boorish man, never too busy to listen to an informant’s voice. As a rabid Arian, Valens also upended Valentinian’s religious tolerance policy and avidly persecuted Catholics.

Valens famously lost the Battle of Adrianopole. It was one of the greatest military defeats in the history of the Rome Empire. Valens died there, perishing at the hands of the Visigoths.

After Valens, the Roman emperors became increasingly incompetent.

69. Gratian, 376-83

Valentinian made his son, Gratian, a “junior emperor” at the age of 8. He became a full emperor at 16 upon the death of his father. But Gratian preferred the trappings of power to the tedium of being an administrator. He was assassinated by a usurper at just age 24.

70. Valentinian II, 376-92

Valentinian II joined his brother Gratian as emperor at the age of 4. His life as Emperor was merely that of a figurehead. He was used by those around him as a political pawn. At just 21, he was found dead in his palace, hanged, either by suicide or murder.

bust of Theodosius II
bust of Theodosius II

71. Theodosius the Great, 379-95

Theodosius was the last man to rule both the east and the west. He was a religious fanatic who vigorously oppressed both Arianism and Paganism. He eclipsed Valentinian II, who was little more than a figurehead.

He earned the title “the Great” because of his devout Catholicism and the fact that he made peace with the Goths. In his religious zeal, he destroyed the world’s greatest library in Alexandria. He was also a taxer, saying “no man” shall possess property exempt from taxation.

Theodosius didn’t really get along with his western colleague Gratian, but Gratian died soon enough. Theodosius was reputedly addicted to luxury and cut an elegant figure.

He died after an accidental fall from his horse. There was no clear heir to the throne, though Theodosius had apparently designated Marcian on his deathbed.

72. Magnus Maximus, 383-88

Maximus become co-emperor in the west in 384. Theodosius was unable to do anything to combat the rise of Maximus because he lacked the resources to defeat the enemy and secure his borders.

For his part, Maximus was a popular emperor. He was notorious for executing heretics. 

bust of Arcadius
bust of Arcadius

73. Arcadius, 395-408

Aracadius was the son and heir of Theodosius the Great. When Theodosius died, Arcadius took charge of the east and his brother Honorius took charge of the west. Up to this point in the Roman Empire, one of the two joint emperors had been regarded as dominant. But this wasn’t really the case anymore.

Arcadius was an ineffectual emperor, dominated by his prefect Rufinus and his wife Eudoxia. He died at age 31 of natural causes.

74. Honorius, 395-423

Like his brother Arcadius, Honorius was one of the weakest of the Roman emperors. When he did intervene in politics, his actions were usually disastrous. In 410, the Goth King Alaric sacked Rome. It was the first time Rome had been sacked in almost 800 years. 

Saint Augustine rose during his reign, writing his famous Confessions and The City of God.

75. Constantine III, 407-11

Constantine III was a Roman general, who declared himself emperor of the west and established himself in Gaul. He was proclaimed co-emperor by his troops. For awhile, Honorius recognized him until Constantine was murdered by Honorius’ troops.

John William Waterhouse, The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, 1883
John William Waterhouse, The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, 1883

76. Theodosius II the Younger, 408-50

Theodosius II was the son and heir of Arcadius. He was a gentle, scholarly, and easily dominated man.

He allowed his government to be run by a succession of relatives and ministers. Theodosius II had the longest reign of any Roman emperor, ruling solely for 42 years.

His most significant accomplishment was the compilation of the Theodosian Code of Laws, the legal code of the Roman Empire. It would become the basis for the Code of Justinian a century later. Theodosius died from injuries suffered during a hunting accident.

77. Constantius III, 421

A general under Honorius, Constantius III was briefly joint emperor of the west. Theodosius II refused to recognize him, meaning that the schism between the west and the east was further cemented.

a diadem bust of Theodosius II at the Louvre

78. Johannes, 423-25

Johannes was raised up by his troops. But Theodosius refused to recognize him either. His interruption of the dynastic rule of the Valentinians and Theodosians lasted only a year and a half before he was executed by eastern troops.

79. Valentinian III, 425-55

Valentinan III was the son of Constantius III. It’s unclear whether Valentinian ever did much. The first years of his reign, his mother Placidia acted as regent.

Valentinian III’s reign saw the incursion of Vandals and Huns and the slow dissolution of the western empire. The Vandals were led by the fierce Germanic leader Gaiseric. More than any single man, he contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

The Huns were led by Attila the Hun. For awhile, he was paid off to halt his incursions. Valentinian’s sister sought an engagement with Attila, but it was nixed by Valentinian.

Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore
Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore

In 1450, the Huns then invaded Gaul. This time, Attila was defeated, the only defeat of his career.

Valentinian spent the second half of his career in Rome, despite the fact that Ravenna was now the capital of the western empire. He was interested in architecture. Valentinian built the Basilica of Sant Maria Maggiore, one of Italy’s most beautiful churches.

Valentinian was assassinated in 455. His death was a disaster, ending the dynasty that gave the western empire stability. With the Valentinian dynasty gone, the end of the Roman Empire was near.

Fall of the West and Survival of the East

80. Marcian, 450-57

Marcian was the last ruler of the dynasty of the Emperor Theodosius I. He presided over the “golden age” of the eastern empire, while the western empire was enmeshed in chaos and violence.

Marcian had the support of both the senate and the armies. His reign was free of military crisis and he amassed great wealth. Marcian discontinued the unpopular policy of paying a tribute to Attila the Hun.

He died of natural causes after a five month illness in 57. His loyal subjects chanted “reign like Marcian.”

Fall of the Roman Empire in painting: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, The Consummation of Empire, 1835–36,
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, The Consummation of Empire, 1835–36

81. Petronius Maximus, 455

Petronius came to the throne in 455 and lasted only 70 days. He was not recognized as emperor by the eastern empire. He forced Valentinian III’s widow to marry him.

Not a good call. She appealed to the Vandal Gaiseric for help, who descended on Rome and plundered the city. Romans prepared to evacuate. On their way out, they killed Petronius.

82. Avitus, 455-56

When Petronius was murdered, Avitus was elevated to the throne in the west. He was accepted by Marcian, ruler of the east.

Avitus had a nasty habit of sleeping with senators’ wives and then mocking them. The Senate determined it was time to do away with Avitus. He died trying to escape to Gaul, struck down by either the plague or murder.

83. Leo I the Great, 457-74

Leo the Great ruled in the eastern empire for almost 20 years. His reign was marred by a humiliating defeat haded to him by Gaiseric and the Vandals. He was a religious martinet, legislating harshly against paganism.

bust of Marjorian
bust of Marjorian

84. Majorian, 457-61

After a decisive victory over the Visigoths, the Italian army acclaimed Marjorian emperor in 457 and he was accepted by the senate. The soldier-emperor briefly ruled the unraveling western empire during its twilight. He was recognized by Leo I in the east.

Though the west was weak, Marjorian briefly turned its fate around. He instituted reforms and stopped abuses in tax collection.

But he suffered a huge military defeat at the hands of the Vandals while trying to recover Carthage. When he returned to Italy, he was forced to abdicate and was executed.

85. Libius Severus, 461-65

Severus was brought to power by the kingmaker Ricimer, who had schemed to depose Marjorian. Severus was little but a figurehead, and was not recognized by Leo I’s eastern empire.

During his reign, the Vandals continued to invade Rome’s Mediterranean coasts. Ricimer allegedly poisoned Severus, ending his reign.

86. Anthemius, 467-72

For 2 months following Severus’ death, there was no emperor in Ravenna. The eastern emperor Leo I decided to appoint Anthemius, who married Ricimer’s daughter to cement an alliance.

Leo I wanted help in attacking the Vandals. But that expedition ended in the utter defeat of the Romans in 468. Meanwhile, the Visigoth king was aiming to annex all of Gaul.

Karl Briullov’s Sack of Rome

Anthemius was an unpopular emperor. He embraced Greek culture and was lenient on paganism. When he called Ricimer a barbarian, a breach ensued. Ricimer sacked Rome and beheaded Anthemius.

87. Olybrius, 472

The puppet king Olybrius was elevated by Ricimer, against the wishes of Leo I. Both died within the year.

88. Glycerius, 473-74

Glycerius came to power 4 months later. Leo I didn’t approve of him either. His short reign was dedicated to fighting off the Ostrogoths, who took over after the collapse of the Hun empire.

Leo sent Julius Nepos to take over. Glycerius surrendered without a struggle. But, rather than being executed, he became a bishop.

89. Julius Nepos, 474-5

Julius Nepos was the last legitimate emperor of the western empire. But he was defeated by the Visigoths and murdered by allies of Glycerius.

Alaric the Visigoth, artist unknown
Alaric the Visigoth, artist unknown, after the sack of Rome

90. Zeno, 474-75

Zeno was an eastern emperor. His reign was plagued by revolts and religious dissension. He was briefly deposed by the treacherous Basilicus, but then regained power. He was unpopular and thought to be a coward in battle.

91. Basiliscus, 475-76

Basilica was an usurping Roman emperor. He too suffered a huge defeat at the hands of the Vandals. When Zeno returned, Basiliscus was exiled and beheaded.

92. Romulus Augustulus, the Little Disgrace, 475-76

Romulus Augustulus was named after the two greatest Romans, Romulus and Augustus. But that didn’t save him. He became Rome’s final emperor in the west. He was a usurper and thus not a legitimate emperor.

Romulus was crowned at the age of 14. After just 10 months, he was deposed and captured by Odoacer, a soldier of germanic descent. The Western Roman Empire was no more.

His captors judged Romulus Augustus too young to be executed. Instead, he was given a castle and a pension in Italy, where he supposedly lived out the remainder of his days. As far as emperors go, that’s pretty good treatment.

mosaic of Justinian, the greatest emperor of the Byzantine Empire
mosaic of Justinian, the greatest emperor of the Byzantine Empire

After the western part of the Roman Empire fell, the eastern half continued to exist. It lived on as the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years. Therefore, the “fall of Rome” really refers only to the fall of the western half of the Empire.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my history of the emperors of Ancient Rome. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources.

If you’re interested in the Roman emperors, pin it for later.

Pinterest pin guide to the history of the Roman emperors
Pinterest pin for history of the Roman emperors

2 thoughts on “History Of The Roman Emperors: The Good, The Bad, And The Mad”

Leave a Comment