Everything you wanted to know about the Roman emperors
How many emperors were there? What powers did they have? And were they as outrageous and scandalous as we think? Shushma Malik answers the key questions about the Roman emperors
Who was the first Roman emperor?
Having emerged victorious from the ruins of the Triumvirate by 31 BC, Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Republic. In 27 BC, he was granted the titles of ‘princeps’ (meaning ‘first citizen’) and ‘Augustus’ (‘revered), with the latter soon taken up as a title. As such, Augustus became the first Roman emperor.
“He had handed back all of the extraordinary powers that he had during the civil war period,” says Dr Shushma Malik, speaking on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “But the Senate gave him those powers back, and he was able to establish over a long period of time a new system of government in Rome, known as the principate.”
Augustus ruled until his death in AD 14, and greatly expanded Roman territory, but he shrewdly maintained the façade of the republic and constitutional forms so as not to be regarded as a dictator. In all but name, however, he was building a monarchy. “We can’t necessarily say that dynastic succession was going to be automatic, but certainly from early on Augustus was thinking about who might succeed him,” says Dr Malik.
“When he became ill, he handed powers to various people, including Agrippa, his friend, so there does seem to be a sense that there was going to be a transfer of power rather than, say, the Senate taking control again.”
How many emperors were there?
“That is a complicated question to answer with a straightforward number,” stresses Dr Malik. “I have a poster on my office door of the Roman emperors and that has 72, but the reason why it’s difficult is because there were quite a number of usurpers claiming to be emperors, particularly in the third century AD.”
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The issue lies in judging the legitimacy of each one. They may have had the backing of their own armies, their own spheres of influence in various parts of the empire, and their alleged reigns sometimes lasted only a few months, even days. The sources need to be scrutinised too: we tend to know more about the earlier emperors – the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero – as the records are more reliable (in relative terms), such as the writings of historian Tacitus.
“And then there’s the so-called ‘fall’ of the Roman empire in the West, normally dated to the fifth century,” Dr Malik stresses. Should the count end there? If so, the last emperor is generally held to be Romulus Augustulus. “In the east, the Roman empire becomes the Byzantine empire, and that goes all the way down to 1453 and the fall of Constantinople. So, it’s tricky – but I’ll stick with 72.”
How much power did they have?
The emperor held ultimate power in political, legal, financial, military and religious matters. While the Senate continued to function and played a significant role in the administration of Rome and the empire, authority was firmly in the hands of the emperor.
When not on campaign, they would be praised for attending the Senate and being proactively involved in politics, says Dr Malik, as long as they were taking good counsel from the right people, such as established politicians. Claudius, for example, was criticised for taking the advice of women and freedmen over senators. And power could only be wielded effectively by those with an interest to do so. During his reign, Nero left Rome for over a year to perform as an actor in Greece.
“In terms of the administration of the empire, the Senate played a big role as many provinces had senators as their governors,” says Dr Malik. They would write directly to the emperor to petition for assistance or advice, but generally they could rule with a degree of autonomy.
What did emperors wear?
While this may not seem the most pressing of questions, there was a politics to an emperor’s dress. Their tunics and togas were a way of showing how they conducted themselves. The historian Suetonius describes Augustus as wearing “common clothes for the house made by his sister, his wife, daughter or granddaughters. His togas were neither close nor full, and his purple stripe neither narrowed or broad.” In other words, he was ready to work and not focused on how he looked.
Compare that to Suetonius’s account of Nero, who was “utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls… he often appeared in public in a dining robe with a handkerchief bound about his neck, ungirt and unshod.”
Were they as outrageously decadent as their reputations suggest?
“A little bit, maybe, but probably not,” says Dr Malik. “I’m not saying that emperors didn’t like luxury, they absolutely did. Some of the great stories about Nero, from writers like Pliny the Elder, are about the different bits of finery that he collected or the gems he had. He would sometimes watch performances through a different coloured gem so that he could have different sensory experiences.
“But I think we have to be wary. In ancient Rome, luxury was the device with which to criticise politicians, emperors, whomever it might be. Cicero criticised Mark Antony in his speeches through his alleged love of luxury. It was associated with the idea of monarchy, so accusations of excess was one of the ways that Roman writers described an emperor as pushing that bit too far. Think of Caligula, Elagabalus and Nero: they really pushed the boundaries of absolute power, and their love of luxury was a way to show that.”
How did Rome survive so long given the tumultuous reigns of some emperors?
It helped that Augustus had a long principate, from 27 BC to AD 14, which allowed him to consolidate his position and lay the groundwork for those who came after him. “Claudius (AD 41-54) and Nero (AD 54-68) also had a fairly good amount of time to keep things fairly stable, even though it might not seem like it from the accounts,” adds Dr Malik.
It's worth noting that the historical records relating to the Julio-Claudian emperors were not contemporary with their reigns. The historians Tacitus and Suetonius were writing a generation later, for instance, while Cassius Dio lived in the second and third centuries AD. The scandalous stories about the likes of Caligula and Nero need to be carefully considered, therefore.
That is not to say they don’t deserve their reputations. But it must be remembered that the histories also focussed on what was happening in Rome itself; the centre, where the personalities of the emperors mattered most. Their behaviours were less important around the empire, where local administration was in place. As Dr Malik puts it: “When we think about how the Romans ruled the empire, it was possible to have these eclectic figures and not necessarily threaten the system itself.”
Who are some of the emperors that should be better known?
“Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-75 AD),” suggests Dr Malik. “You may have heard of him because the Aurelian Wall is still there in Rome, but during his reign we get the revolt of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra in Syria. She took the opportunity to go on a campaign and expand her territory, conquering parts of the Roman province of Arabia and annexing Egypt. Eventually, she was defeated by Aurelian and taken to Rome as a prisoner. It’s one of the most interesting episodes in history that also includes a woman of considerable power.”
There is also Septimius Severus, often known as the first African emperor. Born in Leptis Magna, in modern-day Libya, he emerged victorious from a period of civil war in the late second century and founded his own dynasty. He was regularly on campaign, even travelling to Britain, and established the province of Mesopotamia. “His wife Julia Domna was really fascinating as well,” says Dr Malik. “The literature from this period is so rich, partly owing to her patronage. And it was her side of the family that the next emperors come from.”
Did emperors’ wives have any particular powers?
While they had no formal powers, the wives of emperors could be granted honours and titles, such as ‘Augusta’ or ‘mater castrorum’ (meaning ‘mother of the camp’). This was bestowed on Julia Domna, who was seen as a maternal figure to the soldiers.
Then there are the soft powers that imperial women could wield, although Dr Malik points out that these were not cause for praise but something to be accused of. “These were portrayed as more of a negative thing, to be levied by historians on women seen as too influential.” From whispering in their husbands’ ears to controlling access, some wives were able to build influence.
An example comes from the reign of Claudius. According to Tacitus, a man named Valerius Asiaticus was put on trial for treason, but at the request of Claudius’s wife Messalina. The reason Tacitus gives it because she wanted his beautiful gardens of Lucullus; if he was found guilty, his property would be seized. “This was a good example of how women were accused of having more power than they should by Roman historians, who, of course, had a very Roman perspective of the evils and untrustworthiness of women.”
Who is considered the best Roman emperor?
The worst Roman emperor remains a hotly contested title – with Caligula, Nero, Domitian and Commodus regularly put forward – but there was an emperor named as ‘optimus princeps’ (‘best ruler’) by the Senate while he still lived: Trajan (reigned AD 98-117). “He was portrayed as fair and just; he had the military side and was a good administrator; and he struck the right balance of respect for the Senate and taking an interest in things in Rome,” says Dr Malik. He also threw these spectacular games, lasting 123 days, to mark his conquest of Dacia.
“He has an interesting legacy. In the late-sixth century, Pope Gregory apparently prayed that Trajan should be taken out of limbo and be allowed to die again, this time as a Christian. So the prayers allow for a sort of resurrection. This then leads to Dante, when he wrote Divine Comedy, to let Trajan into paradise.”
Shushma Malik is Onassis Classics Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, and author of The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm