Cheese, angry gods and shoddy surgeons: the unlikely deaths of Roman emperors

Julius Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March was only the beginning. Whether the cause was treason, ill-luck or ineptitude, it was a rare thing for a Roman emperor to die of old age. Here, BBC History Revealed recount some of the unusual ways that Ancient Rome's rulers have met their ends

Engraving of emperor Commodus's death


1

Commodus

Ruled AD 177-192


1

Commodus

Ruled AD 177-192

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Commodus, immortalised as the villain in Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator, was a fan of gladiatorial combat himself. He employed a personal trainer, Narcissus, who would wrestle with him and train him for his self-indulgent displays in the Colosseum. Commodus imagined he was Hercules, and his rule became more brutal day by day. His group of advisors (which included his lover) grew so concerned with his increasingly erratic behaviour that they sent Narcissus to strangle him.

2

Julian

Ruled AD 361-363

Julian is remembered as being the last pagan ruler of the Roman Empire, who restored many Hellenistic temples and practices – including animal sacrifice – in an attempt to reduce the influence of Christianity. When he was struck by a spear at the Battle of Samarra in AD 363, his physician attempted to treat the wound by suturing his damaged intestines and irrigating them with wine – actions that may have hastened his death.

3

Claudius

Ruled AD 41-54

Claudius was the man who added Britain to the Roman Empire, though he was ridiculed by his family from a young age and suffered poor health – possibly from cerebral palsy. It’s thought that he was poisoned by his power-hungry wife, Agrippina the Younger, either via deadly mushrooms or a venom-laced feather. Agrippina wanted to ensure that her son, Nero, would succeed over Claudius’s son, Britannicus. She got her wish, planting one of the empire’s greatest tyrants on the throne.


4

Caracalla

Ruled AD 198-217

Bust of Roman emperor Caracalla
Caracalla, formally known as Antonius, was a member of the Severan dynasty (Photo by Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Regarded as one of the most bloodthirsty emperors, Caracalla had his brother killed in AD 211 so that he would no longer have to co-rule with him. While travelling to visit a temple in Turkey, Caracalla stopped to relieve himself and was stabbed by one of his soldiers. The man was angry that he had not been promoted to centurion, so Caracalla’s enemies persuaded him to end the emperor’s reign.


5

Antoninus Pius

Ruled AD 138-161

One of the ‘Five Good Emperors’, who were all from the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, Antoninus’s reign was marked by a long period of peace and prosperity across the empire. He expired in his mid-seventies after enjoying an excessive amount of cheese at his ancestral estate in Etruria. The night of his feast was spent vomiting, and the next day he developed a fever. He died the following day, after passing the state to his adoptive sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.


6

Valerian

Ruled AD 253-260

Stone relief of Valerian submitting to Shapur I
Roman emperor Valerian and Philip the Arab submit to Shapur I (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Valerian’s first decree as emperor was to task his son Gallienus with ruling the West so that he could march to repel the Sassanid invasion of the East. He had some success, recovering Antioch and Syria, but in AD 260 he was captured by the Sassanid King Shapur I – who used him as a footstool. There are differing tales as to his ultimate end: some say Valerian was forced to drink molten gold, others that he was flayed alive amd subsequently stuffed as a trophy.

7

Vespasian

Ruled AD 69-79

Little is known about the 10-year rule of Vespasian, but we have him to thank for the magnificent Colosseum, which was known in his day as the Flavian Amphitheatre. Used for centuries for gladiatorial combat, executions, mock battles and plays, today it is one of the most visited sites in Rome. After a short illness, Vespasian died in the arms of his helpers, proclaiming his belief that he was transforming into a god.


8

Carus

Ruled AD 282-283

Carus’s short reign was defined by victories on the battlefield. He triumphed over the Quadi and Sarmatians in Germania, and annexed Mesopotamia en route to war with the Sassanids in Persia, where he swept aside the armies of Bahram II. Then, during a violent storm, Carus mysteriously died. Some believed his tent was struck by lightning – a sign of the gods’ displeasure. Superstition caused his armies to retreat, and Rome relinquished its grip on Persia.


9

Valentinian I

Ruled AD 364-375

Valentinian I, the last emperor to conduct campaigns across both the Danube and Rhine, wasn’t known for being a calm and collected chap. At an audience with envoys from the Germanic Quadi tribe – who were disgruntled that the empire was building fortifications in their territory – Valentinian became so enraged with their attitude that he burst a blood vessel in his head whilst screaming at them.

10

Joannes

Ruled AD 423-425

Joannes was a senior civil servant, unexpectedly elevated to the highest office of the Western Roman Empire after the death of Honorius. He failed to establish a firm grip and was considered a usurper to Valentinian III, whom Theodosius II – the Eastern emperor – nominated as the true heir in AD 424.

After losing the inevitable war, Joannes was captured and taken to Aquileia in Italy. He then had his hand cut off and was paraded around on a donkey while being jeered and taunted. To finally put him out of his misery, he was beheaded.

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This content first appeared in the October 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed