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Top 10 Little-Known But Fascinating Roman Emperors
The Roman Empire was one of the greatest civilizations ever established. Lasting over 1,000 years, they dominated the ancient Mediterranean. Roman laws and culture have had a lasting impact on the world around us that is deeply felt even today.
The history of the empire was also well-documented compared to the Dark Ages that followed—but those histories do tend to focus on the earlier emperors. Yet some incredible stories came after them: the man who reunited a broken empire, the teenagers who ruled Rome, and the man who bought the imperial throne at auction. Here are ten fascinating stories of Roman emperors after the first 12 Caesars reigned.
Caracalla and his brother Geta provide a wonderful historical tale of sibling rivalry. They were the sons of Septimius, who founded the Severan dynasty. He urged them to cooperate and rule together, but the two despised each other. It is said that they even divided the imperial palace down the middle, with each brother occupying one half.
Caracalla, in one of the more despicable acts of history, called a truce between himself and Geta, with their mother to mediate and settle the dispute between the two. When Geta arrived, however, Caracalla had him murdered—in front of their own mother. The official story was that the “assassins” had intended to kill them both, but most people in Rome knew the truth behind Caracalla’s throne.
As you might expect from a man who had his brother killed in front of his mother, Caracalla was a harsh ruler. His father had given him dying advice: “Enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.” That’s exactly what he did. The soldiers were paid handsomely, but Caracalla’s enemies, including anyone who dared to criticize or mock him, faced terrible vengeance. He is remembered for extending citizenship to all the citizens of the empire (not just Italians), but this may have been done so that he could collect more taxes to pay the soldiers. He was so despised by his enemies that historian Edward Gibbon called him “The Common Enemy of Mankind.” His fearsome reputation may have led to his assassination and overthrow by . . .
Macrinus was the first Roman emperor to hold the office without having been a senator first. Although the Senate lost its power to the emperor when Augustus (the first emperor) took over, the wealthiest class were usually members of the Senate, and this included the generals and members of the royal dynasties who traditionally ruled Rome.
The most fascinating fact about Macrinus is how he ascended to the throne. As a prefect in the Praetorian Guard, one of his duties was to read the imperial mail for his predecessor, Caracalla. Caracalla was well-known as a paranoid, vengeful, and suspicious man. When Macrinus read in the imperial post a prophecy that the emperor would be murdered and deposed by his prefect, he was in a bind. When Caracalla heard of the prophecy, he would likely have Macrinus killed. Macrinus, fearing for his own life, felt that he had no alternative but to overthrow Caracalla. So he paid a gladiator to murder the emperor while he was urinating by the side of the road.
Macrinus managed to secure the loyalty of the army and the approval of the Senate after he declared himself emperor. But the good times weren’t to last, as you can see by the fact that he only reigned for a single year. The surviving members of Caracalla’s family plotted against him, and the new heir to the throne, Elagabalus, was also proclaimed emperor. As was often the way in the Crisis of the Third Century, when many imperial rulers were overthrown, they secured the loyalty of the troops by offering them more gold: Macrinus was hunted down and executed, and his head was sent to Elagabalus.
8 Alexander Severus
Alexander Severus was just 13 years old when he ascended to the throne. Just imagine how you would deal with that kind of responsibility at the age of 13; it’s a miracle his reign wasn’t a complete disaster. Most of that owed to the influence of his mother, Julia Mamea, who was the real power behind the throne for most of his reign.
Alexander reduced taxes, encouraged literature as well as the arts and sciences, and was religiously open-minded. Rome was still pagan at that time, worshipping Jupiter and the Roman pantheon, but Alexander allowed a synagogue to be built in Rome and even wanted to erect a Christian church as well.
Although he did well on the domestic front, there were plenty of foreign wars with Rome’s great Eastern enemy, the Parthians, and the Germanic tribes were constantly threatening to invade across the Rhine and Danube Rivers. Alexander was never too popular with the soldiers, who were insulted at the prospect of effectively being ruled by a woman and probably wanted a stronger leader, more willing to take them into battle. This would lead to Alexander’s assassination and overthrow by the next emperor on this list . . .
7 Maximinus Thrax
If Macrinus caused a stir by being the first non-Senatorial Roman emperor, the senators wouldn’t have liked Maximinus Thrax. Not only was he a commoner, but lots of people in the Senate viewed him as a barbarian. He began life as a common soldier, gradually being promoted up the ranks. The story goes that Emperor Alexander noticed that one of the soldiers was unusually strong and had him promoted until he was eventually put in charge of a legion. The ancient sources rather dubiously claim that he stood over 244 centimeters (8′) tall.
Alexander was a young and weak emperor, however, and the soldiers gradually grew to mistrust him for making payments to Rome’s enemies rather than crushing them outright. Soon enough, they murdered Alexander and his mother and acclaimed Maximinus the emperor. With the soldiers on Maximinus’s side, there was little the Senate could do at first about the indignity of having a barbarian ruling over them instead of fighting in the gladiatorial arena for their amusement.
Maximinus had overthrown the last member of the Severan dynasty, which had ruled Rome for many years, and had no legitimacy of his own, so it wasn’t long before he had to put down several revolts across the empire, with various provinces putting forward their own candidates to rule. The Senate backed one of these revolts. When it failed, they knew that Maximinus would have them all killed when he returned to Rome, so they elected some of their own members to rule. As Maximinus returned to crush the rebellion, his soldiers got bogged down besieging the city of Aquileia, and chafing under the harsh discipline of Maximinus, they assassinated him. As was so often the case for a ruler who took the throne by violence, his reign had a violent end.
Julian cuts a fascinating figure in Roman History; he was the last pagan emperor of Rome. The only issue for Julian was that the Roman Empire had been converted to Christianity 30 years before by the Christian emperor Constantine, and his sons had continued the tradition. Julian fought against the grain of history, trying to restore Rome to what he believed were its superior former religious values.
He was the last surviving relative and heir of Constantine’s last son, the brutal and ruthless Constantius II, who had fought civil wars against his brothers to claim the throne. Constantius never trusted Julian, likely suspecting that his religious beliefs were not truly Christian, but he had little choice other to make him his heir in order to continue the dynasty. As heir, Julian controlled the troops in Gaul (France), but Constantius grew jealous and ordered half of Julian’s army to be transferred to the East, where Constantius was fighting. The Gallic soldiers refused to go and proclaimed Julian emperor—and fortunately for Julian, Constantius died on the way toward fighting what would have been another civil war.
Once Julian had sole control of the empire, he gradually attempted to ban Christianity by revoking all of the privileges that the religion had before. He encouraged the pagan cults to return and made many other legal reforms. But he still needed to win the loyalty of the troops in the East and thought that best way to do this was by winning a great victory against the Parthians. Unfortunately for Julian, he rode valiantly into battle but forgot to wear his breastplate and was grievously wounded by a spear. He later died of his injuries.
It’s incredible to think what could have happened if Julian had lived. Would he have succeeded in converting the Roman Empire back to paganism and changing history? We can never know.
5 Majorian AD 457–461
Majorian took over the Western Roman Empire toward the end of its life. (Most historians agree that the empire officially ended in AD 476.) They had lost many of the territories that had once made Rome great; by the time Majorian came to rule, the Western Empire was essentially reduced to Italy, some territories in Gaul, and a strip of land in the Balkans. The Eastern Empire was beginning to drift away, with its own capital in Constantinople, and became less concerned with the affairs of the West.
Despite this, Majorian made the last truly concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire to its former glory. He fought military campaigns that reconquered much of Spain and Gaul and prepared a great fleet to retake the province of Africa from the the Vandals who had taken up residence there. Unfortunately, his fleet was destroyed in the harbor by fire ships used by the Vandals as well as some traitors within the Roman ranks.
Majorian had ruled with a Germanic general named Ricimer, who had campaigned with him in the past, but after the loss of the fleet, his partner in crime turned on him. Majorian suffered an undignified end for such a successful soldier: He was stripped of his imperial robes, tortured, and then executed by Ricimer. After his death, the Western Roman Empire continued to decline, quickly losing its remaining power and influence. Majorian was the last competent emperor of Rome—at least in the West.
4 Didius Julianus
Didius Julianus was only emperor of Rome for nine weeks, but he merits inclusion on this list because of the incredible story of his rise to power. This took place during a perilous time for Rome: AD 193 was the Year of the Five Emperors, so called because . . . there were five emperors that year. The man who came before Didius was Pertinax. He made the terrible mistake of underpaying the emperor’s elite military unit, the Praetorian Guard.
The Praetorians were enraged, rushed the palace, and murdered Pertinax. While they were all standing around wondering what happened next, one of them had a very smart idea: Why don’t they auction the throne to the highest bidder? Announcing to the public that the emperor was dead and that the man who would offer to pay the guards the most would be the new emperor, they waited for the bids to roll in.
According to ancient sources, Didius was reluctant to enter the bidding but was persuaded to by his wife. After several bids against another man, Sulpicianus, Didius emerged victorious and was proclaimed emperor by the jubilant guards—who were now being paid a lifetime’s salary for an ordinary soldier.
The guards may have backed Didius, but no one else recognized his legitimacy. After all, he had essentially tried to buy the throne from a military unit. The generals in the various provinces of Rome rose in revolt against Didius, and as it became clear that the bodyguards would be no match for the legions, he was assassinated. Severus took the throne next.
Elagabalus, like Caracalla, Geta, and Alexander, was another member of the Severan dynasty. He came to power aged just 14, after Macrinus was overthrown by the Severus family. History remembers Elagabalus for his eccentric religious beliefs and scandalous sexuality by the standards of the day. The ancient sources report that he dressed as a woman, married five times, had many male lovers, and even prostituted himself in the imperial palace. These may all have been rumors, but they were believed by many. It’s very likely that if he was alive today, he would be considered transgender. Rome tolerated homosexuality, but Elagabalus caused outrage in Roman high society.
There’s even a rumor, immortalized in a famous painting, that he had his lovers crushed to death with rose petals once he was finished with them. Alongside this, he was a high priest of the Sun god El-Gabal (aka Elagabalus) and changed his name to reflect his position. He forced the senators of Rome to worship this god in lengthy ceremonies.
Elagabalus was intended to be a puppet of his grandmother, who had schemed to put the Severan dynasty back in charge of Rome. But she evidently considered him to be a liability and arranged for him to be assassinated by the Praetorian Guard and replaced by Alexander, who was easier to control. Elagabalus was just 18 years old when he was killed.
Aurelian came to power at the height of the Crisis of the Third Century, which we mentioned earlier. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Roman Empire was on the verge of complete destruction when this occurred—yet it recovered and flourished for another century afterward. Aurelian is a major part of the reason why.
When he came to power, the empire had split into three. In the West, the Gallic Empire consisted of the island of Britain and the province of Gaul and had been run independently for years. In the East, the city of Palmyra under Queen Zenobia had taken many of the Eastern provinces from Rome. In the meantime, the remaining provinces faced invasion from Germanic hordes, including the Goths and the Alemanni, who threatened Italy.
Aurelian changed all that. In an astonishing five-year reign, he won military victory after military victory. He defeated the invading tribes and reorganized the Roman provinces so that they would be easier to defend. Then he went east and reconquered the old Roman territories in the Palmyrene Empire. By showing mercy to the provinces that he had defeated, he was able to win them back into the Roman fold. Nevertheless, the city of Palmyra was sacked, and its rulers were paraded in chains, as was the Roman tradition. When he returned to the West, the Gallic Empire essentially agreed to reunify with Rome without a fight, and Aurelian was given the title of restitutor orbis: the restorer of the world.
Despite this, Aurelian was murdered by conspiracy. He was a harsh man who punished easily. An imperial secretary, concerned that Aurelian would execute him, forged a document which supposedly listed the names of Aurelian’s enemies who were scheduled for execution. He showed this document to those “enemies,” and they conspired to murder Aurelian. When they realized that they had been deceived, it is said that they felt very ashamed. Interestingly, it seems that Aurelian’s widow may have ruled in her own right for a time before the new emperor was proclaimed.
Diocletian was perhaps one of the most successful emperors Rome ever had. After coming to power, he put the Crisis of the Third Century to bed by completely remodeling the Roman system. He established the Dominate, a new system of government in which the emperor’s word was law—he was almost to be worshipped as a god. He established a huge bureaucracy based on subdivisions of the provinces called dioceses, which are still used by churches today.
Deciding that the job of governing the empire was too much for one man to do alone, Diocletian divided it into four and had each district governed by a single emperor, a system called the Tetrarchy. This allowed each of the emperors to focus on their own province more effectively and deal with military threats along their borders. He reformed the currency and the army to deal with the instability that had led to so many emperors being overthrown and killed in the century before.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements Diocletian had was being able to die of natural causes. He was, in fact, the only emperor to voluntarily retire and abdicate the throne. He went to his palace, which is now the city of Split in Croatia, and farmed cabbages. When the emperors who came after tried to persuade him to come out of retirement to help them rule, he essentially told them, “If you could see the size of the cabbages I’m growing, you’d give up on the Empire, too.” When you consider that every other person on this list was assassinated, you might see why he preferred cabbage farming.
Thomas is a physics student at the University of Oxford. In his free time, he produces a podcast, Physical Attraction, which explains concepts in physics—one chat-up line at a time. Find him on Twitter @physicspod.
Read more about ancient Rome and its rulers on 10 Times The Praetorian Guard Changed The History Of Rome and Top 10 Worst Roman Emperors.