Most evil Roman emperor ever ?

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Who was the most evil Roman emperor ever ?

Caligula
6
35%
Nero
3
17%
Domitianus
4
23%
Commodus
3
17%
Heliogabalus
1
5%
 
Total votes : 17

Postby Tarquinius Dionysius on Wed Sep 12, 2007 2:01 am

Salvete omnes,

I'm just browsing around the old archives and peforming necromancy on a few topics here and there :). As for this poll, I decline to vote because I don't think any of these emperors were truly "evil". As has been pointed out, defining the term "evil" is problematic to begin with, but even in the popular sense of the word, I don't see anyone among this list who would qualify as "malicious" or "ill-intended".

To start with Caligula, while he may have done some truly outrageous or cruel things during his brief reign, he seems to me to have been genuinly insane. And if he was, I mean mentally ill, he was obviously not in control of his actions and unfit to rule right from the start.

Nero doesn't strike me as particularly evil either, but his reign has suffered much from the slander of posterity. Popular history would like us to believe that Nero fiddled while Rome burned (or in fact, set it on fire himself) but for one, the fiddle wasn't even invented yet :), and according to Tacitus, he was in Antium at the time the fire broke out. Of course the construction of the Golden House may have been a bad move, and probably did little to dispell popular rumors, as did the fact that, when the fire had nearly subsided, it flared up again in Tigellinus' backyard.
As for the murder of his mother, well, there seems to be no doubt he gave the order, and it is hard to find a more vicious act among the other emperors listed. Then again, I doubt there was much affection between mother and son; their alliance and later rivalry may have been purely political, and Agrippina seems to have been equally ready to replace Nero with Britannicus.

Aside from matricides, the first half of Nero's reign was fairly peaceful, and his administration competent. Afterwards he got progressively lazy and decadent. Notice how you can actually guess the year of mint on Nero's coins from the number of double chins in his portrait. Even his statues got fatter. But I digress. A lot of his companions, like Tigellinus or Nymphidius Sabinus strike me as far more evil than Nero himself. And in his late reign he was mostly preoccupied with his artistic pretensions.

Domitian was said to be cruel and paranoid, but modern historians agree that generally, he ruled well. From a certain point of view however, he may actually have been the most evil of the five listed here. Because whereas the others were either mad, completely uninterested in the office, or otherwise dim-witted, Domitian was calculated and intelligent. There are no unhappy childhoods, brain fevers or malignant freedmen to point to. Domitian was in complete control. Still, did it make him evil?

As far as Commodus is concerned, it was Cassius Dio (an eye-witness to his rule) who described him as "not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions." So he seems to me to have been simply a man of low intelligence, genuinly believing that he was a demi-god and uninterested in the state administration.

Heliogabalus finally is a different story. As with Nero, it may be impossible to separate fact from fiction on his reign. Cassius Dio's text is mostly based on hearsay, and the Historia Augusta 75% fiction. Herodian seems to be the most reliable, and he mentions little of the lurid extravagances recorded by the former two, in short describing him as "an empty-headed young idiot". Heliogabalus seems to have been mostly interested in his religious duties: dancing the night away and worshipping his piece of meteorite rock. Maybe he did indulge in the decadence recorded by the Historia Augusta, but I can only say: that's what happens when 14 year old boys are suddenly led to believe they are Gods. The entire episode is really a complete mockery of the Roman emperorship.

The thread that seems to emerge from the five emperors mentioned here is simply that they all attained their power at too early an age. Caligula was 25, Nero 17, Commodus 19 and Heliogabalus, shockingly, 14 years old at the time they became emperor. It's no surprise that the most capable man here, Domitian, was also the oldest to acceed to the throne (30y).

Curio Agelastus wrote:and although he wasn't an emperor, Sejanus was fairly villainous.

I beg to differ :) I think in the end, Sejanus was no more villainous than Tiberius was. Both took advantage of each other to a certain extent: Tiberius used Sejanus to wipe out his own political opponents (Agrippina's faction) and Sejanus used Tiberius to amass power. Neither one of them could be faulted for bad administration, and although Tacitus devotes a substantial part of his Annales to the notorious treason trials, it's said that the true number of these "political murders" was blown out proportion by him.

There is little evidence that Sejanus actually did conspire against Tiberius, with only vague notions of a "plot" in the ancient sources, and the facts pointing toward Tiberius himself as the more likely instigator of his prefect's downfall. Of course, I'm not ready to let him off the hook as far as the murder of Tiberius' son Drusus is concerned, but if you're looking for real evil here I'd say look no further than Livilla. :)

And while I'm thinking about it, several women from ancient Roman history strike me as far more evil than any of the men ever were: Livia, Livilla, Agrippina the Younger,... Of the emperors it can be said that they were tyrannical, and of their subordinates - prefects like Sejanus, Tigellinus or Laetus - that they were merely unscrupulous or opportunistic. But the women,... sometimes there's no guessing as to what their motives were :)
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Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Fri Sep 14, 2007 1:15 pm

Salve mi Tarquini,

I agree that the "madness" of some emperors has a direct relationship with the age at which they ascended to their position of power. The only exception to this rule I can think of is probably Augustus.

The question whether Caligula can be considered evil at all because he was clearly insane, is actually more of a philosophical question that lies at the root of many moral debates: is evil something we do, or is it something we are? I believe it is a mixture of both, with unfortunate accidents at one end of the spectrum (accidentally killing an innocent person, for example), and the completely rationally controlled desire to harm others on the other end of the spectrum.

What always strikes me about any tyrant, whether Roman or otherwise, is how long people are prepared to put up with them.

As for your comment on imperial women, I'm inclined to disagree, if only because all ancient historians are men, and they tended to have a negative image of powerful women anyway. For example, it was pretty easy for Augustus to villify Cleopatra as immoral and decadent, because she wasn't exactly the "tais toi et sois belle" type. The Ancient world was largely a man's world, and ambitious women were viewed with a curiosity of admiration and fear.

Optime vale!
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Postby Gaius Iulius Tabernarius on Mon Mar 24, 2008 1:41 am

For my money it would be Constantine the usurper, (true he wasn't a real emperor but he was proclaimed emperor by his troops and the citizens of Britain)

He was willing to risk the entire world just to lay claim to Rome, and he did a pretty good job of unleashing the barbarians on Rome. In fact one could argue that if the troops had been good Romans and stayed in Brittan and at the limes that they would have repelled the vandals, Saxons, Goths, and franks.

Thus preserving the WRE and changing the course of human history in a drastic way.

Caligula and Nero where nuts, Domitianus was actually not a bad emperor just very brutal. Commodus wasn't very intelligent from what I know and I think just doing what he could to stay in power.

And as for Heliogabalus I am not even sure evil is the right word, I would call him a religious fanatic.

Besides in his era emperors didn't last more than a few mouths to a year in many cases so I think again he was trying anything he could to survive.

Constantine was the only one to do anything devastating out of shear greed and that is a pretty clear definition of evil or at least extreme recklessness. That is why I say he was the worse.

I wonder how it is that a society produces men like Fabius, Marius, Scipio, Caesar, and Augustus in a few decades but can't come up with even a half decent leader for almost a 1000 years?

Then again I always thought Aetius could have conquered the world if is play for power had been successful.

I can say one thing; we in America haven't had a Washington, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt in quite a few years.
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Postby Aldus Marius on Tue Feb 17, 2009 6:44 am

Salve, Vir Iustus (Welcom to the Forum!), et Salvete omnes!

> Caligula was probably completely insane (without prejudice towards mental patients)...


No fear; no offense taken. Anyone will tell you I'm awfully good-natured about that sort of thing. >({|:-)

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Re: Most evil Roman emperor ever ?

Postby Tarquinius Dionysius on Tue Mar 10, 2009 12:12 am

Formosus Viriustus wrote:On Domitianus : I seem to recall having read somewhere (was it Suetonius ?), that, as I child, living all alone in Rome while his father and elder brother were away to the wars, he was so desperately poor that he had to prostitute himself. How is that for a happy childhood ?

The supposed poverty is a myth really; Flavian propaganda to diminish the fact that Vespasian actually prospered under Nero. The prostitution bit was added after Domitian's death (see The Emperor Domitian by Brian Jones).
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Re: Domitianus

Postby Formosus Viriustus on Tue Mar 10, 2009 12:00 pm

Salve,

Thanks for the info, T. Dionysius, It sounded rather improbable to me. (At least the poverty part, who knows about the rest ?) Another one of those supposed 'rags to riches' stories that are all too common. It's rather unlikely that Domitianus was really living in poverty while his father and brother were some of the most prominent men in the Empire.
Anyway, I like Suetonius very much. He may not be the most thrustworthy historian, but he is not shy in bringing up salacious rumours. It's best to read him cum grano salis, as we say, I guess. I do feel some connection there. I guess it is best to read my contributions to the SVR forum with the same attitude.

Vale,

PS Is that the one who played guitar for the Rolling Stones ? :wink: :wink:
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Re: Domitianus

Postby Tarquinius Dionysius on Tue Mar 10, 2009 9:17 pm

Formosus Viriustus wrote:Anyway, I like Suetonius very much. He may not be the most thrustworthy historian, but he is not shy in bringing up salacious rumours. It's best to read him cum grano salis, as we say, I guess.

Well the interesting thing is that Suetonius' account of Domitian's life is actually a great deal more balanced than that of either Tacitus (the bits from Agricola) or Cassius Dio. Balanced to the point of seeming to be about two people in fact. On one hand the biography is littered with the usual Suetonian gossip (prostitution, adultery, incest), but on the other the text often hints at an emperor who was for the most part quite capable and realistic. Suetonius' biography is also our source of some of the funnier details about Domitian, especially his bizarre sense of humour.

Formosus Viriustus wrote:PS Is that the one who played guitar for the Rolling Stones ? :wink: :wink:

eh, I'm not following...?
Last edited by Tarquinius Dionysius on Tue Mar 10, 2009 11:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Domitianus et al

Postby Tarquinius Dionysius on Tue Mar 10, 2009 11:53 pm

Formosus Viriustus wrote:Being rather new to this business of using the net extensively for such things, I am surprised at how much info there is there nowadays (if you can find it). I guess that by just reading the Domitianus entry in wiki you can learn pretty much all you need to know about him as a layman.

Thanks, I wrote that entry 8)
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