At its height, the Roman Empire controlled huge swaths of Europe and the Middle East—and the Emperors of the great conquering nation had to be cunning, cruel, and brutal to survive in this wide, cutthroat world. From the death of Julius Caesar to the mad ramblings of Nero, here are the most ruthless Roman Emperors in history.
Roman Emperors Facts
1. All Roads Lead to Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar is now the most famous Roman ruler in history, and his brutal assassination at the age of 55 has lived in infamy ever since—yet few people know his even darker history. The brilliant Caesar quickly rose from the rank of Army general to the dictator of all Rome. He lived a fascinating life full of conquest, lust and betrayal.
2. Ahead of His Time
Despite his infamy, Caesar was never actually a Roman Emperor. Nonetheless, his dictatorship of Rome did crumble the more democratic Roman Republic and pave the way for the decadent, powerful Roman Empire.
3. A Roman 10
According to Ancient Roman sources, Caesar was quite a handsome man. One account describes him as “tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes.”
4. Holier Than Thou
Before settling on total domination, Caesar almost became a devoted man of god(s). After all, he worshipped the deity Jupiter. There was just one problem: At the time, priests were forbidden from touching horses. That was obviously problematic since young Julius also wanted to join the military and, you know…murder people on horseback.
5. Rumor Has It
According to some Ancient rumors, Julius Caesar was involved in a passionate affair with a King. King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia was a key ally of Caesar’s, and the Roman travelled to his court to secure the King’s fleet for battle. Apparently, Caesar spent a little too much time there, and his enemies began whispering that the two men were getting it on.
6. Equal Opportunity Offenders
These insidious rumors were incredibly damaging to Caesar’s reputation. Although Ancient Romans were pretty lax about same-sex relationships, they were absolutely brutal when it came to any kind of submissive bedroom behavior. Whether you were a man or a woman, being passive was seen as a mark of humiliation—and many thought that Caesar was weak in bed.
The gossip got so bad that even Caesar’s soldiers started singing, “Caesar may have conquered the Gauls, but Nicomedes conquered Caesar,” while his enemies mocked him as “The Queen of Bithynia.” The bullying eventually reached a fever pitch, with Caesar even being forced to deny the rumors under oath. Not cool, Roman politicians.
7. Show Me the Money
Even from a young age, Caesar was confident—even arrogant—about his brilliance as a military commander. As a virile young man, he went to his superior officers and struck a deal with them: They’d pay him if he won battles. It paid off. Caesar was able to capture many key areas for the Romans, and he got rich in the process.
8. Imposter Syndrome
Despite all his military confidence, Caesar still often suffered from crippling disappointment in himself. In 69 BC, the young Caesar was in Spain when he came across a statue of Alexander the Great. The sight sent him into a tailspin. He realized that when Alexander was his age, he had already conquered the world. Next to him, Caesar felt like he had achieved almost nothing.
9. Third Time’s the Charm
Eventually, Caesar had to settle down and marry—which he did no less than three times. Sadly, most of them ended in heartbreak. His first wife, Cornelia, died in childbirth. He remarried a woman named Pompeia, but then divorced her just seven years later. However, his last wife Calpurnia was with him until his death.
10. You’re Gonna Need More Booty, Mates
During one of his return trips home from ransacking and pillaging, pirates hijacked Julius Caesar’s boat. Instead of cowering, Caesar made sure they would live to regret their mistake. First, he befriended the nappers and persuaded them to double their ransom, since wasn’t he worth more than that? But he wasn’t done yet.
One his uncle paid the ransom and Caesar was free, he enacted his ingenious plot. He took a fleet of men, chased down the pirates, and slit all their throats. What’s the moral here? Know who you’re kidnapping, folks.
11. You OK, Dude?
Throughout his life, Caesar struggled with terrifying illnesses. Specifically, he often suffered from mysterious seizures. Though modern scholars mostly agree that he had major health problems, they aren’t sure whether it was epilepsy, migraine headaches, malaria, or even tapeworms. Medical records were too poorly kept to know for sure.
12. Once, Twice, Three Times a Dictator
Though we now think of Julius Caesar’s death as a hateful crime, that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve it. Fewer people remember that Caesar was a true dictator of the Roman Republic. In fact, he was even proclaimed “dictator for life” shortly before his death. The title gave him enormous power and secured his iron grip on Rome. What were his enemies to do but kill him?
13. Crystal Ball
According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Caesar went to visit a soothsayer (the Roman version of a psychic) named Spurinna. When he sat down and Spurinna performed her rituals, she gasped in horror. She warned the ruler to “Beware the Ides of March.” This, of course, was the day that Caesar would be assassinated.
14. That’s My Boy
Caesar frequently engaged in steamy affairs—and one led to an incredibly dark secret. During his youth, Caesar took the beautiful, well-connected Servilia as his mistress. When she later had a child, Marcus Junius Brutus, Caesar reportedly believed the boy was his illegitimate son. If that’s the case, it’s one of the greatest tragedies in history.
As we know now, Brutus was the one who helped lead the assassination against Caesar. That’s right, he may have killed his own father.
15. You Dog, You
When it came to affairs, Caesar didn’t stop at Servilia. His infamous tryst with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, has gone down in history as a legendary love affair. They lived together for 14 years, and it is believed that if Caesar were ever permitted to marry someone who wasn’t a Roman citizen, he would have chosen her.
16. Your Time Has Come
On March 15th in 44 BC, Caesar finally met his maker. Caesar had an appointment to appear at the Senate, and a group of conspirators were lying in wait to kill their ruler. When they started attacking him, Caesar tried to flee, but—blinded by his own blood—he tripped and fell on the steps. A group of around 60 men quickly mobbed the dictator of Rome.
17. Get It Right, Shakespeare
The famous line “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar has gone down in history as his heartbreaking final words, but his true last words might have been even darker. According to once source, Caesar’s last words were actually, “You too, child?” This bolsters the claim that Brutus was Caesar’s son.
At the time of Caesar’s assassination, the mob stabbed him a total of 23 times.
19. Cult Figure
After his tragic, violent death, Julius Caesar became an absolute god. In fact, he was the first man of his time to be posthumously deified, which is no small feat. A devoted cult formed around the life and divinity of Julius Caesar after his death, and it remained popular for many years afterward. So who had the last laugh, Brutus?
20. All Gone
Unlike other historical figures such as Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar has no living descendants today.
21. A Dangerous Job
Only 20 Roman emperors died a natural death. Most were assassinated or suspected to have been assassinated, while others were forced to commit suicide, executed, or killed on the battlefield.
22. Augustus: Haters Gonna Hate
Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, often remembered simply as Augustus, was the very first Emperor of Rome. In that, he accomplished what his adoptive father Julius Caesar had failed to do. He took power and managed to keep it, but while some have hailed Augustus as a great visionary, others denounce him as a dictator on the level of Joseph Stalin.
23. Long May He Reign
Not only was Augustus the first Emperor of Rome, he also ruled Rome longer than anyone after him.
24. Call Me Unkempt, I Dare You!
Augustus was a pretty disgusting human being. Apparently, he didn’t care much about his personal appearance or even basic hygiene. His teeth were poorly kept, and he would often just have several barbers work on his hair without real care to how it ended up looking. To be fair, who’s going to tell Augustus that he’s having a bad hair day?
25. The Roman Purge
In an act of ruthless vengeance and ambition, when Augustus took power as a member of the Second Triumvirate, he and his cohort banished or murdered thousands of people not loyal to his rule. Although historians quibble about just how big of a role Augustus played in the massacre, there’s no doubt he condoned it.
26. Napoleon Complex
According to sources, Augustus was a bit of a shrimp. He stood 5’7″ and was more than a little embarrassed about his height. He even wore heeled shoes to make himself appear more domineering.
27. You Know What I had to Do to Get Here?
Augustus was desperate to join Julius Caesar on military campaigns and prove his mettle. However, his ambitions were continually frustrated. First, his fearful mother refused to let him go, then he contracted an illness that incapacitated him. When he finally set sail to join Caesar, his ship was even wrecked in a storm—but he refused to give up, and made it after all.
28. Kingslayer Brigade
It was Augustus who formed the mighty Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire. The men were initially his bodyguards, but they soon grew in size and importance. They not only guarded the emperor, but also maintained the peace in Rome and even the rest of the Italian Peninsula. They also took part in their fair share of assassinations over the years.
29. Good Grandson
Augustus spent part of his childhood being raised by his grandmother, Julia, who was also Julius Caesar’s sister. An 11-year-old Augustus personally delivered the funeral oration for his grandmother after she died.
30. Rising Star
While Caesar was busy establishing himself as dictator for life, he sent Augustus to the city of Apollonia in Macedonia to complete his education. However, there was a darker reason for this move. Caesar wanted Augustus to command an army against the nearby Parthian Empire, and named him his “Master of the Horse.” Augustus was just 19 years old.
31. Shedding the Old Identity
Augustus was still in Apollonia when tales of Caesar’s assassination reached him. But the news of the dictator’s death came with another shocking revelation: Caesar had named Augustus as his heir. After hearing the proclamation, Augustus changed his name to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus to both honor his benefactor—and secure his power as successor.
32. I’m No King! Honest!
How did Augustus become Emperor when Caesar was just assassinated for taking too much power? One of the answers lies in his refusal to paper himself with glorious titles. He even turned down the privilege of carrying a scepter, knowing it would fly in the face of the “Republic” he was trying to claim still existed. Of course, the façade eventually faded as he rose in power.
33. What’s in a Name?
Augustus didn’t acquire the name “Augustus” until the Roman Senate gave the title to him after he had secured a key military victory. Literally translated, the name means “The Increaser,” and Augustus absolutely loved it. In fact, it was apparently such an honor that Augustus used it as his name for the rest of his life.
34. Brutal Memorial
Augustus revered Julius Caesar, even long after the legendary general’s death. He was so committed to Caesar’s memory, in fact, that he once ordered an absolutely horrific sacrifice on the anniversary of Caesar’s assassination. 300 prisoners were killed on the altar of Caesar in Rome, all to show how much the emperor respected his predecessor.
35. Love and Marriage
Just like his idol Julius Caesar, Augustus was married three times, and many of these unions were utterly doomed. His first two marriages ended in bitter divorce after just two short years. However, his third marriage to Livia Drusilla lasted for decades, all the way up until Augustus died in 14 AD—but it was far from happily ever after.
36. Marriage Was the Death of Me
When Augustus died at the ripe old age of 75, disturbing rumors still swirled about his demise. According to some Ancient Roman historians, Augustus’ third wife Livia Drusilla poisoned the emperor for utterly selfish reasons. She wanted to ensure that her son Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson, would become the next emperor.
37. They Grow Up So Fast
Augustus only had one child in his life; his daughter Julia. Julia was described as being good and kind-hearted by those who knew her, and she spent her early years as the apple of her father’s eye. However, all this changed as she got older…
38. The Father-in-Law From Hell
As Augustus got more powerful and ambitious, he set his sets on arranging advantageous marriages for Julia. After Julia’s first husband died, he forced her to marry his stepson, Tiberius, even though they despised each other. But that wasn’t even the worst part. He even forced Tiberius to divorce his beloved previous wife just so he could marry Julia.
39. Daddy’s Little Girl
Caught in a loveless marriage, Julia decided she preferred the company of men who weren’t her husband. It ended in utter scandal. In 2 B.C., she was arrested for adultery. In the face of these charges, Augustus finally relented and arranged for Tiberius and Julia to divorce—but not before getting his brutal revenge…
40. A Fate Better Than Death
A thoroughly pissed off Augustus declared that Julia was guilty of treason, but this was nothing compared to the fate of her lovers. The Emperor tracked down every one he could find and, if they were very lucky, merely exiled them from Rome. If they were unlucky, however, the vengeful father forced the men to kill themselves.
41. Disowned Daughter
Augustus then banished Julia to the tiny island of Pandateria. While there, she was forbidden to have male visitors unless Augustus approved of them, and was even forbidden to drink wine. She remained there for the rest of her life, but Augustus had one more cruel act in store. He left specific orders to never allow Julia’s remains in the family mausoleum when she died.
42. Way Harsh, Augie
Augustus never forgave his daughter. He apparently lamented, “If only I had never married, or had died childless.” Harsh…
43. Caligula: A God Among Us
Today, Emperor Caligula’s reputation as an unhinged madman precedes him. He killed men for pleasure, had intimate relations with their wives, demanded to be worshipped as a living god, and caused a financial crisis with his extravagant and unnecessary spending. Of course, all these actions were just an average Tuesday for Caligula.
44. Little Boots
Born Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, “Caligula” was actually—shockingly—an adorable childhood nickname. When he was a boy, his father brought him along on his military campaigns and dressed him in a child-sized solider’s uniform. As such, the troops called him “Caligula,” which means “little boots” or “booties.”
45. A New Level of Excess
Caligula was obsessed with gold and gilded things. In fact, he allegedly used to pour pieces of gold and other artifacts over the ground to walk on them with his bare feet and to wade in them like water. He was also known to put gold and jewels over his clothes, and even lined the walls of his luxurious palace with it.
46. Of Little Worth
In the various writings about Caligula, nearly all historians agree that he placed very little value on human life. In one story, he was supposedly meant to make a sacrifice to the gods by hitting a bull over the head with a mallet, but at the last minute, he turned and hit the priest instead. He then apparently laughed at the priest as he was dying.
47. There’s Nothing in the Rulebook That Says a Horse Can’t Be Consul
When it came to his treatment of humans, Caligula was known for his cruelty, but there was one creature he revered: He loved his horse Incitatus so much that he gave him his own house with a marble stall and manger made from ivory. Caligula had planned to make the horse a consul as an expression of his total power, but died before he had the opportunity.
Chariot racing was one of Caligula’s passions, and he was known to personally participate in races and even to sleep in the stables with the horses. He apparently also enjoyed singing and dancing, and liked to show off whenever possible. One story claims that he once called his Consuls to his room in the middle of the night and forced them to watch him sing and dance in nothing but a tunic and a robe.
49. Who Needs to Be Liked?
As Caligula’s behavior became more erratic and cruel, critics began to question his actions. This didn’t bother Caligula, who said in response: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.”
50. The Mad Emperor
Approximately six to seven months after taking power, Caligula fell ill, possibly by poisoning, and when he recovered he was greatly changed. Among other things, he began having his family members killed, beginning with his cousin. His grandmother was incensed with Caligula’s actions, but she died shortly after. Some claimed he poisoned her, while others said it was suicide.
He also had his father-in-law and brother-in-law executed, and his two living sisters exiled. Nice job, Caligula.
51. First Assassination
Caligula was so hated by the Roman people at the end of his reign that the citizens began to demand that he be removed from power. A plot developed within the senate to assassinate the emperor, and on January 24, 41 AD, Cassius Chaerea slashed his throat from behind, followed by a blow to the chest from another man.
The killing of Caligula marked the first time that a Roman Emperor was assassinated.
52. Erased From History
By the time Caligula died, he was so hated that the Senate pushed to have him completely erased from Roman history. Apparently violent assassination simply wasn’t enough: They ordered the destruction of his statues and public inscriptions, and his coins were pulled from circulation and melted down whenever possible.
53. Claudius: The Unexpected Emperor
Claudius was probably the most unlikely man to ever rule the Roman Empire. Even though he was born into the right family for it, he was disregarded and dismissed by almost everyone for much of his life. Then, in the aftermath of a tragic and bloody event, he found himself in the position that nobody ever predicted he’d have: Emperor of Rome.
54. Level of Guilt
There has been a longstanding suspicion that Claudius was actually involved in Caligula’s assassination, or that he was at least aware of it. Historians who believe this point to the fact that he pardoned nearly all of the assassins after he became emperor, as well as the fact that he was in the same room as Caligula shortly before he was killed. Very convenient.
55. Lost Loves
Before any of his marriages, Claudius was engaged to two different women. His first engagement was to a distant cousin named Aemilia Lepida. However, political reasons forced them to call off the wedding. His second broken engagement was far more tragic. Livia Medullina died on the same day that she was set to marry him.
56. Ailing Man
Claudius showed signs of strange medical symptoms throughout his life.According to the histories, he suffered from tremors in his head and hands, his nose was always running, he walked with a limp, and he would even occasionally foam at the mouth. Historians to hypothesize that he either suffered from Tourette’s syndrome or cerebral palsy.
57. Thanks for the (Lack of) Support!
Claudius’ prestigious family had no time for these ailments, and they wrote him off as weak. Some considered him unable to control his conditions, while others simply named him as an idiot. Claudius’s own mother reportedly said that he was “a monstrosity of a human being, one that nature began and never finished.” Ouch…
58. Seems Like a Nice Kid
If there was one person who particularly enjoyed ridiculing Claudius, it was his own nephew, Emperor Caligula. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Caligula regularly ordered dinner guests to pelt Claudius with “the stones of olives and dates.”
59. Such a Nice Granny…
Claudius’s grandmother, Livia, was so disgusted by Claudius that she allegedly couldn’t even stand to look at him. At one point, soothsayers predicted that Claudius would one day rule Rome as its emperor. In response, Livia “prayed aloud that the Roman people might be spared so cruel and undeserved a misfortune.”
60. Even Tyrion Would Feel Sorry for Him
Because he was the black sheep, Claudius’ family made sure to keep him totally out of the public spotlight ,and only gave him low political positions despite his lofty ambitions. They simply didn’t believe he was fit for a life of power. As it turned out, though, Claudius would prove them all very, very wrong.
61. You Don’t Know Me
Despite all the assumptions of his family, Claudius was far from stupid. He famously possessed a very keen intelligence, which he turned toward academia when his political aspirations were frustrated. History was his primary subject, and he wrote dozens of books. Eventually, his family had to grudgingly admit that he was a gifted writer.
62. Lucky He Was Born Before Casinos
Despite his intelligence, Claudius was hardly without his vices. He was especially fond of dice and frequently engaged in a ruinous gambling habit. He even wrote about dice playing in his many writings, which makes us wonder if he ever tried to defend his gambling by claiming that it was “research” for his book!
63. More Than Meets the Eye
In fact, Claudius was so smart, he was deceiving his entire family. According to historical texts, Claudius himself admitted that he sometimes exaggerated his symptoms as a strategy to survive assassinations or persecutions during the reigns of his predecessors. When other family members were perceived as threats, Claudius was deemed an idiot who couldn’t harm anyone.
64. By the Numbers
Because Roman succession could be so complicated, it’s actually hard to say exactly how many Roman emperors there were in total. The number is somewhere between 85 and 100.
65. Nero: The Mad Man of Rome
When you think of Emperor Nero, you probably imagine some of the worst debauchery, decadence, and violence the Roman Empire ever produced. And to be honest, you’re not wrong. But Nero was also an incredibly complex figure who loved sports, art…and yes, also murder, pillaging, and the corruption of innocents.
66. End of the Line
Nero was the last Roman Emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty that started with his ancestor Augustus.
67. Bad Start
Nero was born on December 15, 37 AD, during the reign of the infamous Emperor Caligula. When Nero was a toddler, Caligula exiled Nero’s mother for plotting to assassinate his imperial self. Given Caligula’s bloodthirsty reputation, it’s amazing that Nero survived as long as he did—and maybe this explains Nero’s equally unhinged antics.
When Nero was still a teenager, the current emperor Claudius adopted him and then declared him as his successor. This was actually an enormously insulting move. You see, Claudius already had a biological son, Britannicus, who he didn’t seem to think was fit to rule Rome in his stead. Ouch, that one had to hurt.
69. Marriage of Convenience
When he was just 16 years old, Nero married his own step-sister, Claudia Octavia, who was the daughter of Emperor Claudius.
70. Choose Your Poison
In 54 AD, Claudius died under suspicious circumstances. Many argued that Nero’s own mother Agrippina had him killed to hasten her son’s rise—and that she used utterly evil means to do so. Sources say she gave him poison, but they differ on her methods. It might have been a poisoned mushroom, a poisoned feather, or even a poisoned, uh, enema. Regardless: not a good death.
With Claudius shuffled off, Nero wasn’t even 17 years old when he became Emperor.
Nero was reputedly good-looking. He was blond with blue eyes and he had a slim build. He didn’t maintain his figure for very long, though, as his portraits on Roman coins show.
73. Sibling Rivalry
Even the very early days of Nero’s rule were plagued with violence. When he ascended, Nero’s only potential rival was Claudius’ sadly rejected son Britannicus. Very conveniently for Nero, however, the young boy died just months after he came into power. Not for nothing, today everyone still assumes that Nero had him poisoned.
74. Athletic Prowess
Nero loved sports, including wrestling and chariot racing. Not content just to watch, the Emperor participated in these events, and even raced at the Olympic Games in 67 AD. The Roman people, rather than being impressed, thought this behavior was beneath an Emperor’s dignity. They mercilessly mocked Nero, though probably only behind closed doors.
75. Improbable Cause
Nero’s marriage to Octavia was doomed to a heartbreaking end. He had her killed, on the probably false grounds of adultery. One account claims that the unhinged Nero tried and failed to get anyone to confess to sleeping with the Empress through torment, so he came up with a better plan. He just bribed someone to confess as an excuse to kill her.
76. This Was His Happiest Marriage, Too
Nero’s first marriage after Octavia’s death was to Poppaea Sabina, whom the Emperor allegedly also killed by kicking her in the stomach while she was pregnant.
77. Nero’s Husband
Some accounts tell us that Nero once took a man named Sporus as his husband. Eerily, Sporus looked exactly like his wife Poppaea—but it only gets worse from there. Nero reportedly had Sporus castrated, and would take him out in public dressed in the regalia of a Roman Empress. Sounds like someone was feeling a little guilty about kicking their wife to death…
78. Participation Medal
We’re told that when Nero raced in the Olympics, he was thrown from his chariot and had to leave the race. He still “won” based on the water-tight logic that he would have finished first—if he had actually finished.
79. Burn, Baby, Burn
In June of 64 AD, a fire broke out in some shops in Rome. It quickly spread and burned out of control for nine days, damaging seven of Rome’s 14 districts and completely destroying three of them. Rumors emerged that Nero stood on the roof of his palace and played the fiddle while the city burned to the ground. The truth, however, is much different.
The myth that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned is technically impossible—the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet.
80. The Beast
In the centuries following Nero’s death, some believed that he was the Antichrist. Pagan oracular texts predicted that he would come back bringing death and destruction with him, and this idea helped to fuel the Antichrist theory. Even modern Biblical scholars have embraced this, with some suggesting that “666” is code for “Nero.”
81. Nowhere to Run
In 68 AD, a regime change by a man named Galba ousted Nero from power. The Senate ordered that the former emperor be treated like a slave, and placed on a cross and whipped. Nero fled Rome and escaped this awful death, but with no supporters left to turn to, he reportedly stabbed himself in the throat and died.
82. Shortest Reign
Gordian I and Gordian II were a father-son team whose rule lasted for a meager 20 days.
83. Marcus Aurelius: The Good Guy
Marcus Aurelius ruled as Emperor of Rome until 180 AD, and he carries a legacy as one of the most respected emperors in Roman history. The great city’s prestige was beginning to crack, but Aurelius was able to leave behind a positive legacy—something very few Roman emperors can claim. Of course, the Philosopher King still had a terrifying dark side.
84. A Jack of All Trades
Aside from being a great military mind, Aurelius was also a great philosopher. His writings have inspired other deep thinkers for centuries.
85. Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
As a child, little Marcus took up some utterly bizarre habits. His painting teacher Diognetus encouraged and fostered the young boy’s interest in famous Greek philosophers—but Aurelius took it way too far. The youth started wearing a sweeping Greek cloak and sleeping on the floor, just like his philosopher idols used to do.
86. Foster Child
Aurelius was born into a wealthy family, but wasn’t originally in line for the Roman throne. He came to power because of his ruthless cunning and sharp intelligence. The ruling emperor Hadrian noticed how quick Aurelius was, and urged his successor Titus to adopt the young boy when he was 17 years old, setting him on the path to Empire.
87. The Slender Man
Prior to entering politics, Aurelius underwent physical training to harden his body. The training included hunting and wrestling. Aurelius is described as being relatively weak and thin compared to his peers, but it doesn’t seem like that held him back. Aurelius had more than enough heart to make up for his stature.
88. Golden Age
Aurelius is considered the last of the Five Good Emperors. These emperors were known for political stability and enormous power, and Aurelius was particularly famous for his aggressive expansion and military campaigns, as well as his rationality and intelligence. As far as Roman Emperors go, that’s about as good as a legacy gets.
89. Infant Mortality
Aurelius was an incredibly fertile man, and he had no less than 14 children throughout his life. However, his time as a father was wracked with tragedy. Of those children, only one son and four daughters survived. His son Commodus was actually the first emperor’s son to survive to adulthood in over 70 years—Rome wasn’t exactly a safe place for an emperor’s kid.
90. A Pox on Your Family
Aurelius’ reign was marred by a terrifying, mysterious illness. The Antonine Plague broke out in 166 AD after military leaders brought it back from their foreign campaigns. Historians usually identify the disease as smallpox, though some even suspect anthrax. Either way, it almost destroyed the entire Roman Empire.
The whole Empire, stretching from France to Iraq, was affected. Thousands of people died every day, with up to 10 million people dying in total. In response, Aurelius started conscripting his battle-hardened gladiators into the army to make up for dead soldiers and even sold off his own possessions to cover the costs of new soldiers.
91. “Based on a True Story”
Nowadays, Marcus Aurelius is probably most famous as the old Emperor who dies at the beginning of the film Gladiator. But while Gladiator depicts Aurelius dying by his son’s hand, the real story is more complex. Aurelius actually died after coming down with a fever in modern day Vienna. He was only the second emperor to die outside of Italy.
92. An Intriguing Antidote
Dangerous as it was to be an emperor, after the 1st century many emperors regularly ingested a concoction of most of the known poisons in the world. The brew was called Mithridatium or Theriac. The idea was that ingesting the mixture would build up an immunity and protect the emperors if someone tried to assassinate them with poison.
93. The TransEmperor
Emperor Elagabalus was likely both transgender and bisexual, and may have been the first recorded person to actively seek out a sex change. He considered having himself castrated, but chose circumcision instead—but either way, most Romans would have scorned these methods and thought they were extremely humiliating.
94. No Need to Thank Me!
Although the Romans did use marble in their buildings, it wasn’t their main construction material until the reign of Emperor Augustus. As a result, Augustus’ final words to the people of Rome were: “I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.”
95. A Showman to the Last
Allegedly, Augustus’ very last words were “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” Frankly, given how his ability play parts and put on facades led to him seizing power, we can’t help but admit that those are the most fitting last words he could have said.
96. No Mercy
Augustus was infamous for being absolutely ruthless when it came to his enemies. Once, a man sentenced to death begged the emperor for his body to be buried. Without batting an eye, Augustus gave this chilling reply: “The birds will soon settle that question.” But that was far from Augustus’ most disturbing act.
In another instance, when a father and son begged for their lives, the emperor told them to gamble to decide which one of them would be spared. The father volunteered to be killed in order to save his son. Augustus coldly watched as his men executed the elder prisoner, and then looked on as the son took his own life right after.
97. Disturbing Joke
Caligula had a malevolent sense of humor. Once at a dinner party, he reportedly burst into raucous laughter in front of all his guests. When asked to explain the reason for his mirth, his response was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. He replied, “I’ve just thought that I’ve only to give the word and you’ll all have your throats cut.”
98. Helicopter Mom
At first, Nero’s mother Agrippina was almost a co-ruler with her son. She handled many state affairs, and coins from early in his reign show their faces side by side. But that all changed when Nero had a sexual awakening. Agrippina deeply disapproved of his affair with a former slave named Claudia Acte, and Nero responded to his mother’s smothering by exiling her.
99. The Unsinkable Agrippina
Nero and Agrippina’s relationship only got worse from there. In fact, he decided to have her assassinated—allegedly as revenge for plotting to kill him. This is where things get really disturbing. According to one account, Nero tried and failed several times to kill her, each time trying to up the ante and still finding his mother frustratingly alive.
First, he tried to poison her on several occasions, but she always took an antidote each time. Then, he constructed a machine that would collapse her bedroom ceiling on her while she slept, but she caught wind of the plot and escaped. Finally, he—seriously—invented a collapsible boat that would drown her while she was on a pleasure cruise.
AND SHE STILL SURVIVED. When the boat sunk, Agrippina forced one of her maids to call for help and claim to be the Dowager Empress, whereupon a crew rowed to the woman and beat her to death with their oars, giving up the game. Agrippina then simply swam safely to shore. Of course, her luck had to run out eventually…
100. The Death of a Good Woman
Finally, Nero succeeded in his assassination attempts, making it look like Agrippina had committed suicide. Once he was finally assured of her death, he went over to her corpse and uttered a horrific response. Apparently, he examined the body and coldly discussed his recently-deceased mother’s good points (mostly indestructible) and bad points (a little controlling).
101. Where It All Started
We’re told that when Agrippina’s assassins arrived, her last words were, “Smite my womb.” That’s right, she commanded them to stab her in her womb because it had borne her such an awful son. SHOW ME THE LIE.
102. Unorthodox Marriage Counseling
Marcus Aurelius married Faustina The Younger in 145 AD. She was mother to all 14 of his children—but some say she wasn’t quite faithful to her powerful husband, and it led to unbelievable tragedy. Authors Herodian and Dio Cassius allege that Faustina fell in love with none other than a gladiator, much to her husband’s chagrin.
When Aurelius found out about his wife’s sinful desires, he turned to soothsayers for advice. The soothsayers came back with a bizarre and violent plan. According to them, Faustina should have intimate relations with the gladiator, who then should be executed while still in the middle of his lustful act. And it didn’t end there.
Faustina should then bathe in the gladiator’s blood and make love to her royal husband, setting everything right in the world once more. Perhaps strangest of all, the source says that the couple actually went through with the macabre routine. Still, many suspect that sexism over Faustina’s political ambitions produced this unsavory account.
This wouldn’t be too surprising, but blood-bathing is a lot more interesting.
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