The Roman Empire was vast at its peak and its influence is still felt today in our forms of military, government, and society in general. Ruled over for a time by emperors, the Empire had periods of greatness and periods of decline. This list looks at ten of the emperors who have left their mark on history for being so dreadful.
The Apocalypse of Saint John is believed to have been written during Domitian’s reign at the end of the First Century. Domitian was a staunch advocate for the Roman gods and goddesses, the worship of whom had fallen out of practice by the time of his rise to power.
Eusebius of Caesarea, writing 300 years later, recounts that the first large-scale Christian and Jewish persecution began during Domitian’s reign. There is no non-Christian history of such activities, but Domitian is known to have been tyrannically opposed to all other religions other than Roman.
Like so many other emperors, Domitian dealt with dissent among his close advisors and friends by means of death. He executed a few too many prominent politicians and wealthy citizens, and the straw that broke the camel’s back was his murder of his secretary, Epaproditus.
A man named Stephanus, and several others, conspired to kill him, with Stephanus pretending to be wounded for several days, so he could conceal a dagger under his bandages. He approached Domitian in his bedroom, and stabbed him in the groin, whereupon the emperor was beset by several men, one of which was a fearsome gladiator, who all stabbed him to death.
There is no doubt that Christians and Jews were persecuted severely during Severus’s reign. He believed in a draconian interpretation of Roman law, which did not tolerate any religion but the Roman one. He did not seek out any particular religious culture, but simply persecuted all of the foreign ones.
Christians and Jews were the most common, and up to 1,000 to 3,000 were executed, after being given the option of cursing Jesus or Yahweh, or being beheaded or crucified. He had absolutely no respect of care for anyone except his army, since they were the ones who could rise up and depose him. He managed to stabilize the Empire through draconian fear, but this stability did not last long, once his son, #4, took the throne.
He was, by all accounts, a huge man, well over 6 feet tall, perhaps 7 feet or more. He has been blamed as causing the Crisis of the Third Century, largely due to his murders of several dozen of his closest friends, advisors, and benefactors. He did not trust anyone, and intended to make the people love him by conquest and expansion.
His first campaign was against the Alamanni people of Germania. They were absolutely no threat to Rome at this time, but Maximinus invaded them and conquered them, albeit at a terrible cost to his army. The people did not love him for this, but hated him. But he went right on invading Sarmatia and Dacia, modern-day Ukraine and Romania, respectively. These people had not instigated anything against Rome.
Meanwhile, a revolt began in North Africa, setting up two men as claimants to the Roman throne, Gordianus Sempronianus and his son. The Roman Senate supported them, and in response, Maximinus marched his army on Rome, but his troops had been fighting for so long that they were exhausted and sick. They were unable to enter the closed city gates, and many deserted. His Praetorian Guard had finally had enough and stabbed Maximinus in the back, then his son and advisors, beheaded them and put their heads on poles around the city walls, whereupon they were let in.
Diocletian reigned at the end of the Crisis of the Third Century, and though he significantly stabilized and improved the Empire’s military and economy, he will forever be remembered as the worst persecutor of Christians in history.
He issued several edicts in 303 removing all rights from Christians until they converted to the Roman religion. Of course, the Christians refused, and from 303 to 311, at least 3,000 were martyred. At first, those who refused were simply imprisoned, but it was not long before they were executed by both crucifixion and beheading. Christian churches were sought all over the Empire and burned to the ground, looted, and even Christian senators were stripped of their jobs, imprisoned and executed.
When the persecution did not seem to be working, as the Christians simply went into hiding and continued to spread their religion, Diocletian advocated their torturous and entertaining executions in the Circus Maximus and Colosseum, and this was the time when most Christians were thrown to the lions, much to the delight of the Roman citizens who worshiped Roman gods.
The murders did not truly stop until Constantine’s rise to absolute power in 324.
Tiberius was Emperor after Augustus, from 14 to 37, and did not care for the job. All he wanted was the luxury, and left the Senate to do all the ruling. The Senate despised him for this, and told the criticized him to the Roman populace, until he no longer trusted his safety in Rome and left for the island of Capri. He erected statues of his captain of the Guard, Lucius Sejanus, all over the city, and gave all the tasks of ruling to him. Tiberius more or less retired to Capri for the rest of his long life, only returning to Rome a few times.
While he lived on Capri, he had a huge villa built for him, Villa Jovis, the Villa of Jove (Jupiter), in which he indulged his pedophilia. He swam naked with and raped infants, toddlers and young boys. He did not otherwise physically harm them in any way, but even in his late seventies, sex with young children was one of his favorite pastimes.
Nero used the office of emperor to suit his desire for an opulent lifestyle, and had absolutely no care for the welfare of the people. He never trusted his mother, Agrippina, rightly so, and tried to kill her by having her ship sunk. This didn’t work, and he simply ordered her executed. He routinely executed anyone close to him, whom he did not trust, always under mysterious circumstances, because he feared the Praetorian Guard.
He managed to reign for 15 years in this way, killing anyone who dissented. He was accused of treason beginning in 62, and simply executed the accusers, several dozen of them. He loved to go to bars and whorehouses, not even disguising himself.
The Great Fire of Rome, in 64, has given rise to the legend that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. This is not true. He was away in Antium (Anzio), and returned to Rome to try to have the fire put out. He even paid for this out of his own pocket.
He did help out the survivors tremendously, letting them stay in the palace until homes were rebuilt, feeding them, etc. But the fire largely destroyed the city center, and Nero had a large part of this destruction rebuilt as his Domus Aurea. This was his gift to himself, a gigantic palatial garden complex of 100 to 300 acres, for which he heavily taxed the citizens throughout the Empire.
The city wanted a scapegoat, so Nero blamed the fire on the Christians, and they were terribly persecuted. He had many arrested, impaled, and burned to death as torches to light his gardens in the Domus Aurea. He is said to have breathed in the stench and laughed heartily, then turned to his lyre and sung his own songs.
The taxes irritated the populace sufficiently to begin revolts in various provinces, until by 68, Nero was no longer loved, but hated by all. His Guards deserted him in the palace, and he fled to a nearby villa, where a messenger appeared to tell him that the Senate had declared him a public enemy, whom they would beat to death. He had a grave dug, while he repeated, “What an artist dies within me!”
Then he stabbed a dagger into his throat and bled to death. It is believed by most scholars that Nero is the Great Beast whose number is six hundred and sixty six referred to in the last Biblical book The Apocalypse.
Caracalla was not insane. He was malicious and sadistic. From 211 to 217 he presided over an awe-inspiring spectacle of fearsome acts. He had his brother and co-emperor, Geta, and Geta’s wife, assassinated.
The citizens of Alexandria, Egypt ridiculed this crime with a public play, and when Caracalla got wind of it, he traveled with an army to Alexandria, invited the citizens into their city square, and slaughtered them, looting and burning the whole city. 20,000 died.
This was the sort of emperor he showed himself to be in almost every Roman province at that time, putting down all hints of rebellions, even where rebellions were not imminent. At the slightest whiff of discord, he ordered death. Wherever he went, his army killed, raped, and destroyed.
He was murdered by one of his Guardsmen, on April 8, 217, while urinating on the side of the road outside Carrhae. Caracalla had had the Guard’s brother executed on a false accusation.
Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s greatest rulers, and this only enhanced Commodus’s crimes in the public mind.
He adored the gladiatorial games, so much so that he personally entered many of them and fought alongside the gladiators, who were all criminals and slaves, etc. This severely offended the entire Empire, especially the Senate.
Commodus once ordered all the cripples, hunchbacks, and generally undesirables in the city to be rounded up, thrown into the arena, and forced to hack one another to death with meat cleavers.
He especially adored killing animals, and killed 100 lions in one day, to the spectators’ disgust. He killed three elephants singlehanded in the arena, beheaded an ostrich and laughed at the senators attending, brandishing the head and motioning that they were next. He speared a giraffe to death, an animal which the spectators did not see as fearsome at all.
The senators conspired to have him killed, and poisoned him, but he threw it up. They then sent in his favorite wrestler, a gladiator named Narcissus, who strangled him in his bath. His reign lasted 12 years, from 180 to 192.
It can be argued that Elagabalus’s assassination reign, from 218 to 222, began the Crisis of the 3rd Century, during which 50 years or so, Rome was ripped to pieces from the inside out by civil war after civil war, rampant anarchy, uprisings, economic hysteria and assaults from Germania and elsewhere.
Elagabalus took the throne at the ripe old age of 14, and immediately indulged his most sordid, depraved fantasies and desires. He was a man, yes, but wanted dearly to be a woman, and offered gargantuan sums of money to the physician who could turn him into one for real.
Until then, he enjoyed cross-dressing, and whored himself out to common men in whorehouses throughout Rome, wearing female disguises and facial makeup. He even solicited men in the Imperial Palace, standing completely naked in the doorway of his favorite bedroom and purring at every passerby, even his Praetorian Guards.
He confided to the head of the Guard that he would like to castrate himself, and asked what the most painful method would be, cutting, crushing, or cooking on open coals. He had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of affairs with men and women while he was married to a Vestal virgin, which was a serious outrage among Romans.
He installed El-Gabal, the Syrian sun god, as the chief god of Rome, surpassing Jupiter, and it is this sun god from which we derive the emperor’s nickname. He transferred all Roman sacred relics from their respective temples to a new temple he had built for El-Gabal, the Elagabalium, and named himself the high priest.
After 4 years of this, Rome erupted into riots as the praetorian citizens demanded his death or deposition. Elagabalus responded by walking right into the praetorian encampment and demanding the arrest and execution of everyone. Instead, everyone descended on him and his mother. He tried to hide in a large clothes chest, but they opened it and stabbed him to death. He and his mother were beheaded, and dragged throughout Rome. He was then flung into the Tiber and spat upon. He was 18 years old.
“Little Boots” took the throne on the death of his second cousin Tiberias, something of a great Uncle to him. Some say Caligula ordered the head of the Praetorian Guard to smother him with a pillow.
Upon his ascension, everyone in the Empire rejoiced. For the first seven months or so, he was loved by all. He paid handsome bonuses to the military, to get them on his side, and recalled many whom Augustus and Tiberias exiled.
But he became very sick in October of 37, and the disease has never been pinned down. Philo blames it on his extravagant lifestyle of too much food, wine, and sex. After the disease passed and Caligula made a full recovery, he had turned into one of the most evil men in human history. Some Jewish, Christian and Muslim historians of centuries afterward even considered that Caligula might have been possessed by a demon.
He has been accused of the most awesomely disgusting, insane, luridly depraved crimes against humanity and morality, and this lister is sorry to say that the accusations are all absolutely true.
He began ordering the murders of anyone who had ever crossed him, or even disagreed with him on mundane matters. He had a very good memory. He exiled his own wife, and proclaimed himself a god, dressing up as Apollo, Venus (a goddess), Mercury and Hercules. He demanded that everyone, from senators to Guards to guests and public crowds, refer to him as divine in his presence.
When he was a boy, a seer told him that he would never be emperor until he walked on water. So he built a pontoon bridge across the Bay of Naples, put on the breastplate of Alexander the Great, and paraded night and day across the Bay, throwing lavish sex orgies in the light of bonfires.
He attempted to instate his favorite horse, Incitatus (“Galloper”), as a priest and consul, and ordered a beautiful marble stable built for him, complete with chairs and couches on which Incitatus never sat.
Once, at the Circus Maximus, the games ran out of criminals, and the next event was the lions, his favorite. He ordered his Guards to drag the first five rows of spectators into the arena, which they did. These hundreds of people were all devoured for his amusement.
A citizen once insulted him to his face in a fit of rage, and Caligula responded by having him tied down, and beaten with heavy chains. He made this last for 3 months, having the man brought out from a dungeon and beaten, until Caligula and the whole crowds that gathered were too offended by the smell of the man’s gangrenous brain, whereupon he was beheaded.
Caligula’s favorite torture was sawing, which topped another list on this site. The sawblade filleted the spine and spinal cord from crotch down to chest, and the victim was unable to pass out due to excess blood to the brain.
He also relished chewing up the testicles of victims, without biting them off, while they were restrained upside down before him.
He had another insulter, and his entire family, publicly executed one after another in front of a crowd. The man and wife were first, followed by the oldest child and so on. The crowd became outraged and began to disperse, but many stayed in morbid fascination. The last of the family was a 12 year old girl, who was sobbing hysterically at what she had been forced to watch. A member of the crowd shouted that she was exempt from execution as a virgin. Caligula smiled and ordered the executioner to rape her, then strangle her, which he did.
He publicly had sex with his three sisters at banquets and games, sometimes on the table amid the food. He was finally murdered by the Praetorian Guard and some senators, leaving the Circus Maximus after the games. His body was left in the street to rot, and dogs finally ate it. He had ruled for 4 years.