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    Question Who were the best and worst Roman emperors?

    Rome has a long and fascinating history. The Roman Empire would more accurately be described as the Principate (from 27 BCE to 284 CE) and the Dominate (from Diocletian's Tetrarchy). There were 71 emperors and co-regents from Augustus to Theodosius, who definitively split the empire in eastern and western halves in 395. Who in your opinion were the best and the worst emperors in terms of policy, achievements and long-term impact?

    The emperors that I consider the best, in chronological order as they are too difficult to rank, are:

    - Augustus: The founder of the empire, he ushered in an new era of peace (Pax Romana), which lasted two centuries until the reign of Marcus Aurelius. A talented politician and gifted administrator, he strengthen the economy and built many great monuments. He decentralised power and made the empire a truly cosmopolitan place with an international ruling class. He created Rome's first police force as well as the Praetorian Guard.

    - Vespasian: He was a soldier-statesman who brought back stability after the turmoils following Nero's suicide and avoided the collapse of the empire. He had good relations with the Senate and granted the rank of senator to many legionary commanders from the provinces. His most visible achievement today is the Colosseum (which was completed by his son Titus).

    - Titus: Son of Vespasian, he followed in his father's footsteps. He was loved by the Senate, the Army and the Roman people. After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Titus provided financial aid from his own pocket to the survivors.

    - Trajan: A general-emperor, he conquered Dacia and brought back the largest treasure of the Antiquity, which allowed him to build a new forum and market and the largest Thermae Rome had ever seen.

    - Hadrian: He stopped Trajan's expansionism just in time and started consolidating the borders of the empire. He travelled extensively all over the empire and opened new doors to provincial elites. A lover of Greek culture, Hadrian was also an architect and sculptor.

    - Antoninus Pius: A thrifty and considerate emperor who did all he could to improve the life of common people. His reign was the most peaceful of any emperor. Marcus Aurelius praised Antoninus in the Meditations, calling him a man who was devoted to the empire’s needs, energetic and hardworking, rational and reliable, modest, indifferent to honours and immune to flattery, tolerant and compassionate, and orderly but decisive.

    - Marcus Aurelius: A Stoic philosopher, Marcus was thoughtful, careful, open-minded, reasonable and dutiful. Although he disliked war, he successfully repelled all the barbarian invasions under his reign.

    - Gallienus: His reign came at the height of the Crisis of the Third Century, when repeated plagues depleted the population, weakened the economy and allowed the invasions in Central Europe by the Alammani and the Goths, and by the Sassanid Persians in the East, which in turn caused many local revolts - one leading to the independence of the Gallic Empire under Postumus. Despite all these troubles, Gallienus managed to repelled more Germanic invasions than almost any other emperor and quelled nine attempts of usurpers of overthrowing him. He was extremely courageous, personally led his armies and was seriously wounded in battle at least twice, both times preventing him to deal with Postumus and recover the secessionary western provinces. Nevertheless Postumus appear to have been an able and trustworthy ruler and he reached an agreement with Gallienus that he wouldn't try to attack Italy create a civil war, and kept his word. Gallienus was a highly cultured and decent emperor. He showed clemency toward his enemies, pardoning a general (Aureolus) who revolted against him, settling Alamanni tribes he had defeated within the empire, and usually doing all he could to preserve peace in the long-run and avoid unnecessary bloodshed. He established a new model of governance conferring more autonomy to some regions of the empire, such as Egypt and Palmyra. His relationship with Odaenathus, semi-independent king of Palmyra, was so good that he always supported Gallienus and even defeated usurper in the East for him. Odaenathus had stopped the Persian invasion, but chose to remain loyal to Gallienus and remain under Roman rule even though he could easily have proclaimed his independence. Gallienus was the first emperor who appointed all his military commanders based on their abilities rather than their civilian rank. He also created Rome's first heavy cavalry force to fight against the Persian horsemen and archers. His 15-year reign was the longest wholly comprised within the 3rd century. He was also the last emperor of Italian descent and the last to rule from Rome.

    - Probus: One of Aurelian's best generals, he followed in his footsteps, kept the army disciplined and defeated countless barbarian incursions, put down three rebellions, encouraged the spread of viticulture to Gaul and the Balkans, and drained swampland in Egypt to increase the cereal production in what was the breadbasket of the empire. He pushed his soldiers too hard though, forcing them to work on land reclamations when they weren't fighting, which eventually led to his murder by his own troops. Gibbon sees Probus as the last of the benevolent constitutional emperors of Rome.

    - Julian ("the Apostate"): He tried to salvage Roman culture and paganism from the persecutions started by his cousin Constantine. Julian was an intellectual, a Neoplatonist philosopher and was also intensely interested in literature and the visual arts. He was also an accomplished general who earned the admiration and respect of his soldiers and of the population. Julian managed to crush an army of Alamanni three times larger than his own in 357. He also defeated the Franks and allowed them to settle in Germania inferior as foederati (they would later became the Merovingians). Although he was a convinced pagan himself, upon becoming emperor he refrained from persecuting Christians in retaliation and restored the religious tolerance throughout the empire. His reign only lasted 18 months but was seen as a brief Renaissance in the decline of the Roman Empire. His friend and successor Jovian (himself a Christian) maintained his policy of religious tolerance. Julian purged the top-heavy and corrupted state bureaucracy, dismissing thousands of eunuchs and siperfluous officials. He did not seek to rule as an absolute autocrat like earlier emperors since Diocletian. His own philosophic notions led him to idealise the reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. He described the ideal ruler as being essentially primus inter pares ("first among equals"), operating under the same laws as his subjects, as opposed to the royal court established by Constantine. As such, Julian was frequently active in the Senate, participating in debates and making speeches, placing himself at the level of the other members of the Senate. He also sought to reduce direct imperial involvement in urban affairs.


    In my opinion, the worst emperors, if we exclude those who had too short reigns to assess their capabilities or were just unlucky, were:

    - Commodus: He was a megalomaniac tyrant who had dozens of people executed. He compared himself to Hercules and preferred to lead a debauched life than taking care of serious state matters. He even fought as a gladiator in fixed matches against wounded soldiers and amputees. For each of his appearance in the arena, he charged the city of Rome a million sesterces, straining the Roman economy.

    - Caracalla: A cruel brute who had his own 22-year-old brother Geta murdered because he didn't like him, then had 20,000 of his brother's sympathisers persecuted and executed. When the inhabitants of Alexandria heard of Caracalla's claims that he had killed his brother, Caracalla massacred the crowd assembled before the city to greet his arrival, before setting his troops against Alexandria for several days of looting and plunder. He executed his father-in-law and exiled his wife. Obsessed by war, he depleted the state treasury and debased the coinage to pay for his military expeditions. Worst of all, he granted Roman citizenship to all free people in the empire. Until then Roman citizenship had been used as an incentive for (foreign) auxiliary troops and provincial administrators to work well and earn their citizenship, which was a sort of special status conferring prestige to a family. Caracalla eliminated all meaning to Roman citizenship by making it universal (except for slaves), which completely destabilised the way Roman society functioned in the long term.

    - Maximinus Thrax: He was a big brute who assassinated the young emperor Severus Alexander (to whom he owned his command of Legio IV Italica) and his mother (and regent) Julia Mamaea, just because the emperor had negotiated a peace treaty with the Alemanni. He was not just the first emperor who didn't hail from the senatorial or equestrian class, but he was of particular low birth. He immediately doubled the pay of his soldiers, for which he had to increase taxes and resort to violent methods and illegal confiscations. He had the close advisors of the previous emperor put to death and managed to launch persecutions of Christians on a large scale during his 2 year reign. According to the Historia Augusta: "The Romans could bear his barbarities no longer – the way in which he called up informers and incited accusers, invented false offences, killed innocent men, condemned all whoever came to trial, reduced the richest men to utter poverty and never sought money anywhere save in some other's ruin, put many generals and many men of consular rank to death for no offence, carried others about in waggons without food and drink, and kept others in confinement, in short neglected nothing which he thought might prove effectual for cruelty – and, unable to suffer these things longer, they rose against him in revolt."

    - Constantine: Ruthless, he killed his two brothers-in-law in order to become sole emperor and destroy the tetrarchy system established by Diocletian. He later had his oldest son and heir, Crispus, executed for something he didn't do. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and although he didn't dare make Christianity the official religion of the empire yet, he did all he could to subsidise Christianity with the taxes from pagans and granted exceptional powers to Christian bishops. He is basically responsible for the collapse of traditional Roman cult and values. He also disbanded the Praetorian Guard, moved to capital to Byzantium, which in a megalomaniac fashion he renamed after himself Constantinople. Constantine created a Police State, a large and corrupt administration (a "Byzantine" administration as it later became known) and reinforced the hereditary class system introduced by Diocletian. He formalised the distinction between the frontier army and the better paid mobile army, a decision which the Greek historian Zosimus claims was responsible for the ultimate collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

    - Constantius II: One of Constantine's three sons to share the empire after his death, Constantius oversaw the massacre of eight of his relatives almost immediately after becoming emperor. After the death of his two brothers, he became sole Augustus of the Roman Empire. His reign was one of the longest (24 years + 13 years as Caesar), yet he was by any standards one of the worst emperors in history. In his book The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World, Adrian Murdoch describes Constantius like this: "Although he was a dull, rather uncharismatic emperor, most interpretations have seen him as at best an incompetent, at worst a paranoid monster. [...] He was not intellectually gifted, one of the reasons he hid behind the pomp and ritual of the court. An out-and-out monster he might not have been, but there was a nasty and sneaky aspect to his character. In one of the more subtle analyses of his character, several comment that Constantius was much better at fighting civil wars than actual wars. [...] Constantius was overly influenced in his decisions by the people who surrounded him; the courtiers and the eunuchs who made up the court. Julian was later to refer to “the wild beasts that surrounded him and cast their evil eyes on all men”, while a bishop more elegantly, but no less harshly, wrote: “I find that he does not possess common understanding, but that his mind is solely regulated by the suggestions of others and that he has no mind of his own at all.” "

    - Theodosius: He made Christianity the official religion of the empire and banned all pagan religions, including traditional Roman religion, thus starting a new era of intolerance and persecution, which hastened the decline of the Roman Empire. He is responsible for the destruction of most ancient Greek and Roman temples, including the Serapeum of Alexandria, which was the heir of the Great Library and the largest library in the world at the time. In other words, Theodosius continued Constantine's work and destroyed what was left of the original ancient Roman culture.

    - Honorius: Theodosius's son, Honorius was as much of a religious persecutor, but with an additional xenophobic slant. He seems to have hated anyone of Germanic descent, even his best general, Stilicho, who was half-Vandal half-Roman, but born and raised in the empire as a Roman. His top general, Stilicho, who had successfully negotiated a peace with Persia and defeated all barbarian invasions during his long career, never losing a single battle, was imprisoned by Honorius and executed in 408 without a fair trial. This was followed by a pogrom against all and any Germanic people living in Italy, including the thousands serving in the Roman army, which Honorius couldn't stand. This left the Western Empire virtually defenceless, allowing the Suebi, Vandals, Alans and Burgundians to carve their own kingdoms within the borders of the empire, then Alaric to sack Rome in 410 and the abandonement of Britain by the Romans the same year. Honorius's bigotry, racism, narrow-mindedness and incompetence hastened the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In fact, there was hardly anything left of the Western Empire outside of Italy after his reign.


    Caligula and Nero are often considered some of the worst emperors, but the reality was more mitigated. Caligula was extremely popular and successful during the first seven months of his reign, but then he got very ill with high fever - probably meningitis, although some claim he was poisoned. He survived, but his personality changed and he became a mad tyrant. Nero's reign would have been lauded as one of the best if he had ruled only for seven years. That was in all likelihood thanks to the guiding influence of his mother, Agrippina, who was the real power behind the throne in his teenage years. The second half of his reign went downhill fast after someone convinced him that his mother was plotting to murder him and he had her assassinated. After that he lost his mind and retreated in artistic activities and delusions of grandeur, eventually thinking of himself as a living god, but still deeply insecure about his own ego and in constant need of approval from the public.
    What Caligula, Nero and Commodus all had in common was that they were inexperienced teenagers when they inherited the title of emperor. Earlier emperors or the Senate should have established a rule that emperors should, like consuls of the Republic before, have reached a minimum age (42 years old for consul) and have a certain level of experience like the old cursus honorum. In case the heir was underage he should have been appointed one or several regents.

    Youth and inexperience is one factor that creates bad emperors. Another is to inherit the name of one or several famous emperors. That was the case of Caligula (officially known as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) and Caracalla (Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) and I am convinced that this played no small part in boosting their ego to megalomaniac proportions. Bathing in the glory of their namesake (adopted) ancestors, they felt no need to prove their abilities to make a name for themselves and instead immediately took the throne with a sense of entitlement.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 08-06-19 at 11:22.
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