The Top 5 Worst Roman Emperors

A Who's Who of Evil in Ancient Rome

Selecting the top five worst Roman emperors of all time isn't a difficult task, thanks to myriad Roman historians, historical fiction, documentaries, and even movies and television programs, all of which illustrate the moral excesses of many of the rulers of Rome and its colonies. From Caligula to the lesser known but no less notorious Elagabalus, these emperors have left their mark on history. 

While fictional presentations might be entertaining and gory, there's no doubt that a modern list of the worst emperors would be more influenced by movies like "Spartacus" and television series like "I Claudius" than by eyewitness accounts. However, this list, which is derived from the opinions of ancient historians, presents the worst emperors, including those who abused their positions of power and wealth to undermine the empire and its people.

01
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Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) (12–41 CE)

Caligula

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Caligula, who was also formally known as Gaius, was the third Roman emperor, ruling for four years. During this time, he is known for his feats of waste and carnage that exceeded even that of Nero, his infamous nephew. 

According to some Roman writers, such as Suetonius, although Caligula started out as a beneficent ruler, he became cruel, depraved, and vicious after he suffered from a serious illness (or perhaps was poisoned) in CE 37, shortly after he took the throne. He revived the treason trials of his father and predecessor Tiberius, opened a brothel in the palace, raped whomever he wished and then reported her performance to her husband, committed incest, and killed for greed. In addition to all that, he thought he should be treated as a god.

Among the people Caligula is alleged to have murdered or had murdered were his father, Tiberius; his cousin and adopted son Tiberius Gemellus; his grandmother Antonia Minor; his father-in-law, Marcus Junius Silanus; and his brother-in-law Marcus Lepidus, not to mention a large number of unrelated elites and citizens. 

Thanks to his life of excess, Caligula earned himself many enemies, which led him to be the first Roman emperor to be assassinated. In January 41 CE, the officers of the Praetorian Guard, led by Cassius Chaerea, killed Caligula, his wife, and his daughter. The assassination was part of a conspiracy formed between the Senate, equestrian order, and the Praetorian Guard. 

Elagabalus

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Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, served as a Roman emperor from 218 to 222, a time that significantly impacted his placement on the list of worst emperors. A member of the Severan dynasty, Elagabalus was the second son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus, and of Syrian background.

Ancient historians put Elagabalus on the worst emperors along Caligula, Nero, and Vitellius (who didn't make this list). Elagabalus's besetting sin was not as murderous as the others, but rather simply acting in a manner ill-befitting an emperor. Elagabalus instead behaved as a high priest of an exotic and alien god. 

Writers including Herodian and Dio Cassius accused him of feminity, bisexuality, and transvestism. Some report that he worked as a prostitute, set up a brothel in the palace, and may have sought to become the first transsexual, stopping just short of self-castration in his pursuit of alien religions. In his short life, he married and divorced five women, one of whom was the vestal virgin Julia Aquilia Severa, whom he raped, a sin for which the virgin was to have been buried alive, although she seems to have survived. His most stable relationship was with his chariot driver, and some sources suggest Elagabalus married a male athlete from Smyrna. He imprisoned, exiled, or executed those who criticized him.

Elagabalus was assassinated in 222 CE.

Nero

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Nero is perhaps the best known of the worst emperors, having allowed his wife and mother to rule for him and then stepping out from their shadows and ultimately having them, and others, murdered. But his transgressions go far beyond just that; he was accused of sexual perversions and the murder of many Roman citizens. Nero also confiscated senators' property and severely taxed the people so that he could build his own personal Golden Home, the Domus Aurea. 

During Nero's reign, Rome burned for nine days, the cause of which was fiercely debated. Some said that Nero used the fire to clear space for a palace expansion. The fire destroyed three of Rome's 14 districts and severely damaged seven others. 

An artist at heart, Nero was said to be quite skilled at playing the lyre, but whether he truly played it while Rome burned is debatable. He was at least involved behind the scenes in some other way, and he blamed the Christians and had many of them executed for Rome's burning. 

The rebuilding of Rome was not without controversies and financial strains, ultimately leading to Nero's death. A conspiracy to assassinate Nero in 65 CE was discovered and thwarted, but the turmoil led the emperor to take an extended tour of Greece. He immersed himself in the arts, took part in the Olympic Games, and announced futile projects that didn't address the current state of his homeland. Upon returning to Rome, he neglected to address issues that faced him, and the Praetorian Guard declared Nero as an enemy of the people. He attempted to flee but knew he wasn't likely to succeed. As such, Nero committed suicide in 68 CE.

04
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Commodus (Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) (161–192 CE)

Commodus

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The son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus was, according to most historians, a debauched and corrupt megalomaniac who viewed himself as a reincarnated Greek god, Hercules to be exact.  

However, Commodus was said to be lazy, leading a life of idle debauchery. He surrendered control of the palace to his freedmen and praetorian prefects, who then in turn sold imperial favors. He devalued the Roman currency, instituting the largest drop in value since Nero's rule.

Commodus disgraced his regal status by performing like a slave in the arena, fighting hundreds of exotic animals and horrifying the populace. It was, in fact, this exact act that led to his demise. When Commodus revealed that he intended to celebrate the rebirth of Rome by fighting in the arena on New Year's Day in 193 CE, his mistress and advisers tried to talk him out of it. When they weren't successful, Marcia, his mistress attempted to poison him. When the poison failed, Commodus' fitness coach, Narcissus, choked him to death the day before. Commodus was assassinated on December 31, 192 CE.

05
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Domitian (Caesar Domitianus Augustus) (51–96 CE)

Domitian

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Domitian served as Roman emperor from 81 to 96. The younger brother of Titus and the son of Vespasian, Domitian stood as the last member of the Flavian dynasty in line for the throne and inherited it after his brother suffered a fatal illness while traveling. Some believe that Domitian may have had a hand in his brother's death.

While his reign was mostly peaceful and stable at first, Domitian was also known for being fearful and paranoid. Conspiracy theories consumed him, and some of them were true. 

One of his major mistakes, however, was severely curtailing the Senate and expelling those members he deemed unworthy. He even executed officials who opposed his policies and confiscated their property. Senatorial historians including Pliny the Younger described him as cruel and paranoid.

His cruelty could be seen through his development of new methods of torture and his harassment of both philosophers and Jews. He even had vestal virgins executed or buried alive on charges of immorality and impregnated his own niece. In a strange twist, Domitian insisted his niece have an abortion, and then, when she died as a result, he deified her. 

Domitian was eventually assassinated in 96 CE, a conspiracy that was carried out by some of the people closest to him, including family and servants who were fearful for their lives. He was initially stabbed in the groin by a member of his imperial staff, but other conspirators joined in and repeatedly stabbed him to death.