And some of the crimes that most shocked their contemporaries, like a penchant for performing in public, would not necessarily offend us so much today. Some emperors, like Nero or Domitian, have passed into history as models of erratic, paranoid tyrants; others, like Diocletian, were able administrators, providing good government unless you happened to be a Christian, in which case you were in great peril.
Even under the worst emperors Rome continued to function, but involvement in public life could become a decidedly dangerous business.
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- 1. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562 B.C.).
Tiberius was a gifted military commander and respected the authority of the senate. However, he had a gloomy and increasingly suspicious outlook that won him few friends and led him into a bitter dispute with Agrippina, the widow of his war hero nephew Germanicus. Fatally, Tiberius relied heavily on the ambitious and ruthless Aelius Sejanus, who instituted a reign of terror until Tiberius, learning that Sejanus planned to seize power himself, had him arrested and executed. Tiberius sank into morbid suspicion of everyone around him: he retreated to the island of Capri and revived the ancient accusation of maiestas treason and used it to sentence to death anyone he suspected.
Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus give us a picture of Tiberius living on Capri as a depraved sexual predator, which may owe more to colourful imagination than to fact, though he certainly made use of a sheer drop into the sea to dispose of anyone he took issue with. Tiberius was not a monster in the mould of some of his successors, but he certainly set the tone for what was to come. His reign actually began quite promisingly, but after a serious bout of illness he developed paranoia that led him into alarmingly erratic behaviour, possibly including incest with his sister, Julia Drusilla, whom he named as his heir.
As the son of Germanicus [a prominent general], Gaius was keen to establish his military credentials, though his campaign in Germany achieved little and his abortive invasion of Britain had to be turned into a battle with the sea god Neptune: he is said to have told his troops to attack the waves with their swords and gather seashells as booty.
2. Caligula, Emperor of Rome (A.D. 12-41)
Gaius declared himself a god and used his divine status to establish what was, in effect, an absolutist monarchy in Rome. In the end it was his rather childish taunting of Cassius Chaerea, a member of the Praetorian guard, which brought Gaius down. Chaerea arranged for his assassination at the Palatine Games. Nero is the Roman Emperor we all love to hate, and not without reason. He was actually a competent administrator, and he was aided by some very able men, including his tutor — the writer Seneca.
However, he was also unquestionably a murderer, starting with his step-brother Britannicus, with whom he had been supposed to share power, and progressing through his wife Octavia, whom he deserted for his lover, Poppeaea, and then had executed on a trumped-up charge of adultery.
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He then kicked Poppaea to death in a fit of anger while she was pregnant with his child. He undoubtedly persecuted Christians in large numbers, and his childish insistence on winning the laurels at the Olympic Games in Greece — whether or not he actually won, or indeed finished the race — brought the whole empire into disrepute. He was particularly suspicious of the senate and had a number of leading citizens executed for conspiracy against him, including 12 ex-consuls and two of his own cousins.
He turned against philosophers, sending many of them into exile, and he arranged the judicial murder of the chief vestal virgin, having her buried alive in a specially constructed tomb.
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Domitian was eventually brought down by a conspiracy arranged by his wife, Domitia, and was somewhat inexpertly stabbed by a palace servant. Commodus was indeed a passionate follower of gladiatorial combat, and himself fought in the arena, sometimes dressed as Hercules, for which he awarded himself divine honours, declaring that he was a Roman Hercules.
Vain and pleasure-seeking, Commodus virtually bankrupted the Roman treasury and he sought to fill it up again by having wealthy citizens executed for treason so he could confiscate their property.
Soon, people began plotting against him for real, including his own sister. The plots were foiled, however, and Commodus set about executing still more people, either because they were conspiring against him or because he thought they might do so in the future.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the son of the highly able and effective emperor Septimius Severus. Severus named his younger son, Geta, as co-heir with Caracalla, but the two quickly fell out and civil war seemed imminent until Caracalla averted this scenario by having Geta murdered.
He certainly turned the surplus he inherited from his father into a heavy deficit. Caracalla was a successful, if ruthless, military commander but he was assassinated by a group of ambitious army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who promptly proclaimed himself emperor. Elagabalus overthrew Macrinus and promptly embarked on an increasingly eccentric reign. From AD 40 he started to present himself as a god, while his palace was described as a brothel, among the alleged whores his own sisters. The last straw, after famine and bankruptcy, was a planned move to Egypt to live as a sun god.
This triggered his murder in January 41 AD.
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As with all emperors, the horror stories may be the work of his enemies, but Nero has many to his name. He killed his mother so that he could remarry, by divorcing and then executing his first wife. His second wife he kicked to death. Personal power was won with indiscriminate execution of enemies and critics, massive tax cuts and huge public entertainments. The deepening political divide in the U.
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The nicest thing said of Commodus was that he was not wicked, but so stupid that he allowed wicked friends to take control of his reign. He portrayed himself as Hercules, the mythical Greek hero, in countless statues.
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His love of the games was such that he fought in them himself, becoming a ridiculous spectacle as he slaughtered ostriches, elephants and giraffes, and defeated human opponents who dared not beat him. He charged the state a massive fee for each appearance. The months of the year, the legions, the fleet, the senate, the imperial palace, and the citizens of Rome themselves were all named after him. When he was assassinated the following year, by his wrestling partner, the names were all changed back. A theatrical satire of his excesses staged in Alexandria got under his skin.
He took his army to the city and slaughtered the leading citizens before letting his troops off the leash for days of looting that left 20, dead. Historian and archaeologist Simon Elliott answers the key questions surrounding one of history's most compelling figures - Julius Caesar. Maximinus exhausted his empire with war. Finally, his troops turned on him. After defeating German tribes at terrible cost, Maximinus went on to fight the Dacians and the Sarmatians simultaneously.
When the senate backed a revolt against him, he sought to bring his constant war home to Rome.
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