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 should be a simple matter since we have Roman historians, historical fiction, documentaries, movies, and television programs all of which illustrate the moral excesses of many of the rulers of Rome and its colonies. 

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

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Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus)

Caligula. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

According to some Roman writers such as Suetonius, although Caligula (12–41 CE) started out as a beneficent ruler, after he had a serious illness (or perhaps was poisoned) in CE 37 he became cruel, depraved, and vicious. 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, killed for greed, and thought he should be treated as a god.

Among the people he 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. 

Caligula was assassinated in 41 CE.

Elagabalus. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Ancient historians put Elagabalus (204–222 CE) 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, who 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. More »

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Commodus (Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus)

Commodus. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Commodus (161–192 CE) 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. Commodus was also a bit of a megalomaniac, styling himself as the Roman demi god Hercules.

Commodus was assassinated in 192 CE.

Nero. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Nero (27–68 CE) is perhaps the best known of the worst emperors today, having allowed his wife and mother to rule for him and then having them murdered. He is accused of sexual perversions and the murder of many Roman citizens. He confiscated senators' property and severely taxed the people so he could build his own personal Golden Home, the Domus Aurea. 

He was said to be quite skilled at playing the lyre, but whether he 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. 

Nero committed suicide in 68 CE. More »

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Domitian (Caesar Domitianus Augustus)

Domitian. © Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Domitian (51–96 CE) was paranoid about conspiracies, and one of his major mistakes was severely curtailing the Senate and expelling those members he deemed unworthy. Senatorial historians including Pliny the Younger described him as cruel and paranoid. He developed new tortures and harassed philosophers and Jews. He had vestal virgins executed or buried alive on charges of immorality. 

After he impregnated his niece, he insisted she have an abortion, and then, when she died as a result, he deified her. He executed officials who opposed his policies and confiscated their property.

Domitian was assassinated in 96 CE.