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Vitae Caesarum Pessimarum

Or in English, "Lives of the Worst Caesars" (all apologies to Suetonius). What is it that makes an exceptionally bad leader of men? There are certainly a lot of factors that go into this, but being a bad person is not necessarily one of them. Sure, it helps, but it's not enough. After all, by all accounts, the Emperor Tiberius was a very bad man, but he wasn't anywhere close to being one of the worst Emperors ever. You have to bundle it with such personality traits as greed and incompetence or maybe concepts like plain, unalduterated failure, but even successful people can be bad leaders. I'll refrain from using modern examples so as not to inflame the passions of the politically engaged among us, but there are certain things that all bad leaders have in common. These traits tend to present themselves more prominently in autocratic political systems that lack appropriate checks and balances on executive power (this can include such institutions as high school and most workplaces as well).

Since I enjoy Roman history, I figured it would be easy and non-controversial for me to examine ten cases of poor leadership from antiquity. Most people would probably claim Nero as the worst Roman Emperor, but he doesn't even make the top three (or perhaps the bottom three, depending upon how you look at it). The Roman Empire was interesting partially because although it had its foundations in a republican system of government that was itself formed as a reaction against oppressive kings, it developed into the model for most Western and Southern European monarchies in the medieval period. With the thrill of absolute power naturally came the absolute corruption that is the chief subject of this article. For the purposes of simplicity, I don't consider the Eastern/Byzantine Emperors after the year 480 to be eligible for this list since, retrospectively, they ceased to really be "Roman" after this time.

X: Romulus Augustulus (462-???, r. 475-476) - Perhaps it's not entirely fair to include Romulus on this list, but it would be hard not to do so, considering the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist on his watch. Romulus was the very definition of a useless ruler: he had no policies to speak of, he fought no successful campaigns, and he never built any great monuments. The reason for all of this, of course, is that he was 13 years old when he became Emperor. He had been installed in that position by his father Flavius Orestes, a powerful military man of partially barbarian extraction who had once served as Attila the Hun's prime minister. After Attila's death in 453, Orestes journeyed to Ravenna, the administrative capital of the Western Empire, and somehow managed to join the Imperial court. In 475, the Emperor Julius Nepos appointed him as the head of the army. To repay his benefactor, Orestes induced the Germanic warlord Odoacer - a commanding officer in the Roman auxiliary forces - to overthrow Nepos in the same year. To accomplish this, however, Orestes and Odoacer had to abandon Rome's last remaining foothold in Gaul to the Visigoths to turn their attention to Ravenna. After installing Romulus as Emperor, Orestes unwisely declined to pay Odoacer and his men for their services. Needless to say, Odoacer did not appreciate this, so he rebelled against the regime and captured and killed Orestes. Upon reaching Ravenna, Odoacer intended to do the same to Romulus, but upon discovering his youth, apparently took pity on him and allowed him to retire to Campania. While it would be nice to believe this, the fact of the matter is that history does not record what actually happened to Romulus after having been dethroned. It's entirely possible that Odoacer did kill Romulus, perhaps in 476 or at a later date. Edward Gibbon doubted Romulus' existence after 488, but there is a letter dating from the first decade of the sixth century from Odoacer's successor, Theodoric the Great, to someone named Romulus regarding a pension, but there's no evidence that this person is the same Romulus.

The reign of Romulus would more appropriately be called the reign of Orestes, which isn't saying much for the latter. Orestes overthrew Julius Nepos because he craved power and he foolishly betrayed Odoacer because he was drunk on it. After dislodging Orestes and Romulus, Odoacer proclaimed himself King of Italy as opposed to Emperor of Rome since he recognized that a potential conflict with the East, now ruled by the Emperor Zeno, would be extremely undesirable. Odoacer actually kept up the pretense that he was a vassal of the former Emperor Julius Nepos, who was still alive in exile in Dalmatia at the time of the Germanic revolt. As a post-script, after Nepos' death in 480, Odoacer added Dalmatia to his kingdom. Zeno, fearing a possible encroachment on his own territory, began seeking ways to undermine his rival in the West. Eventually, he convinced his ally Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, to invade Italy and add it to his already substantial holdings in what are now Spain, Germany, and Austria. He succeeded in this effort in 493, killing Odoacer in the process.

IX: Jovian (331-364, r. 363-364) - Imagine that you've lived a life of relative obscurity and your most important function up to this point in your life has been to escort the corpse of a political enemy back to your hometown. This essentially describes the life of the short-lived Emperor Flavius Jovianus. In 363, the Emperor Julian was killed in action against the Persians. Upon his death, his soldiers - with whom he was very popular for his austerity, military successes, and attempts at a pagan restoration in Rome - acclaimed his favorite advisor, Salutius, Emperor. Salutius (claiming he was too old but probably because he was afraid of becoming a target) refused to assume the purple, so the army turned to Jovian. Jovian, who had been the head of the Imperial bodyguards up to this point, accepted. I find it rather appropriate that Jovian only had one job - protecting the life of the Emperor - and he failed miserably at it. This was a good premonition for his own reign. The Romans were at this point still deep within Persian territory as Julian had conducted a blitzkrieg campaign all the way to the heart of the Empire, the enemy capital Ctesiphon. The fact that Jovian wasn't even the soldiers' first choice should tell you something about him.

The army had already begun its retreat from Persia immediately before Julian's death, which probably left a bad taste in the mouths of the soldiers who had come all that way seeking fame and riches. Now, however, the Persians were simply twisting the knife. They knew Julian was dead and that the military was severely demoralized, so they continued to harrass the retreating Romans in small Fabian skirmishes here and there. Eventually, the Persians surrounded them on the banks of the Tigris River and compelled Jovian to sign away the provinces that had been captured from the Persians over the last hundred years of campaigning and to also agree to abandon their alliance with Armenia, which was the focal point of Roman strategy viz-a-viz the Sassanid Empire. Needless to say, Jovian appeared emasculated to his already cynical soldiers and was very seriously worried about a wider revolt against his authority. So he did the most natural thing: he exacerbated tensions by turning his back on Julian's religious reforms and making the worship of pagan deities punishable by death, which paved the way for Theodosius I to make Christianity the only religion permitted in the Empire. Jovian decided to go to Constantinople to consolidate his position and along the way, stopped in a podunk town in central Anatolia named Dadastana. As he went to sleep that night in his Imperial tent, the chilly winter air annoyed him, so he asked someone to start a small fire to keep him warm. Worried about being burned to death in his sleep, he extinguished the fire before dozing off. He then managed to choke to death on the smoke that filled his unventilated tent. Nobody was particularly upset about Jovian's death, given that he was only in power for eight months and that he had done very little of positive note. He was succeeded by Valentinian I, another military man who has gone down in history as one of the few people to ever scream himself to death.

VIII: Valentinian III (419-455, r. 423-455) - Flavius Placidus Valentinianus was the final ruler of both the Theodosian and Valentinian Dynasties, the latter of which probably ranks among the worst of ruling dynasties in any major polity of the ancient world. He was born in a world of privilege and was the son of Constantius III, who ruled as Western Emperor for about seven months before dying of unclear causes. He was elevated to the purple at the age of 4, which typically doesn't spell success. His chief regents were his mother Galla Placidia and her ally, the magister militum Flavius Aëtius. By the time of his majority, Valentinian had become accustomed to a life of pleasure and idle pursuits, which permitted him no time for or interest in ruling the world. He felt little if any concern for the Empire's territorial erosion unless his life were directly endangered, as evidenced by his quick escape to Rome when Attila's horde threatened the capital Ravenna. The one bright light during Valentinian's reign was the success of Aëtius, a brilliant general and statesman. Although Aëtius was undoubtedly ambitious, he maintained the integrity of the Empire as best he could with the support that he was given by his Emperor. His greatest moment came at the Battle of Chalons where he assembled one of the largest alliances in antiquity to defeat the hitherto invincible Attila in 451. In 453, Valentinian allowed Aëtius' son to marry his own daughter, virtually ensuring that his progeny would one day ascend to the throne. Unfortunately, Valentinian changed his mind the next year because he remembered that during his infancy, Aëtius had supported a rival claimant to the throne. To that end, he summoned Aëtius to give an accounting of the Empire's finances and stabbed him to death. Sidonius, a bishop attending the meeting who is now regarded as a saint in the Catholic Church, remarked that Valentinian had acted like a man who cut off his right hand with his left. Less than a year later, Valentinian was assassinated by two of Aëtius' supporters. Having lost its last great champion, the Western Empire was doomed to fail within two decades.

VII: Caracalla (188-217, r. 198-217) - It's no secret that the support of the armed forces can make or break an autocrat, but nobody exploited this fact as well as the founders of the Severan Dynasty. Septimius Severus was a powerful Romano-Phoenician general who seized power after the turbulent end of the reign of Commodus and turned the Roman Empire from an Imperial Republic into a military dictatorship. Severus elevated his sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus and Publius Septimius Geta, to be his colleagues and began training them from very early ages to be ruthless and effective rulers. Lucius, who acquired the nickname Caracalla from the type of cloak that he wore (a "caracal"), listened to his father perhaps a bit too well. Severus died in 211, leaving his sons an Empire to divide between themselves and a simple piece of advice: take care of the army and to hell with everybody else. Caracalla detested his brother Geta, and the feeling seems to have been mutual. Caracalla was a naturally talented military leader while Geta was more suited to diplomacy. In December of 211, ten months after the death of their father, Caracalla had his younger brother killed by the Praetorian Guard. Caracalla then demanded that the Roman Senate condemn his brother's memory for all eternity by passing a damnatio memoriae against him, which erased all public references to his existence.

Geta was an extremely touchy subject for the temperamental Emperor, who maintained that he had killed him in self defense. When some of the citizens of Alexandria made fun of this assertion, he responded by ordering his soldiers to attack the city, which left thousands of people dead and did massive damage to the city's infrastructure. The subject of Geta's death was not mentioned to the Emperor again. Caracalla had some decent success in military affairs and was much beloved by his soldiery. He spent most of the rest of his life either with the military or doing things to make the military happy. One of these things included raising the pay of the military, which meant raising taxes on Roman citizens. When his already exorbitant taxes failed to satisfy the promises he had made, he took the step of officially granting Roman citizenship to all non-slaves in the Empire so he could tax them as well. When that didn't work, he devalued the currency to put more of it into circulation, which is a good way to create a trend of hyperinflation...and that's exactly what happened. In some ways, Caracalla was like the Flavian Emperor Domitian, who based his support on the army but alienated almost everybody else. Like Domitian, Caracalla eventually decided that he should put an emphasis on public works, the first of which was the eponymous Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Due to the high cost of such gargantuan structures - and the increasingly small amount of available funds - this would also be his last public offering. The Baths were completed in 216, and by that time, Caracalla was off to war again. In early 217, Caracalla decided to march against Persia. While in Roman Mesopotamia, the border between the two Empires, Caracalla was assassinated by a disgruntled soldier while relieving himself on the side of the road. Caracalla's death would pave the way for even worse things to come, as his economic policies were one of the direct causes of the Crisis of the Third Century that would begin in 235.

VI: Didius Julianus (ca. 135-193, r. 193) - Like most Roman aristocrats in the late second century, Marcus Didius Severus Julianus lived a quiet life of desperation. Didius Julianus was of high birth, with both sides of his family having produced consuls, and he was distantly related to the short-lived Emperor Otho who served for a short time in the year 69. However, he had the misfortune of living in an age in which glory was reserved solely for the Emperor and anyone who arrogated to it was liable to be considered a traitor. He served important functions but lacked distinction, taking on such uninteresting tasks as a welfare auditor and governing Bithynia (modern day northern Turkey). He was apparently a decent administrator as well as a good military leader, but he never really received much recognition. In 193, the Empire found itself without an Emperor, and the Praetorians declared that they would raise the highest bidder to the Imperial dignity. The Praetorians initially seemed inclined toward a certain Sulpicianus and indeed did not take Didius seriously enough to let him into their camp. Eventually, however, the night of March 28, 193, concluded with the sale of the Empire to Didius Julianus when he declared that he would give 25,000 sesterces to every member of the guard. This was close to 15 times the average salary of one Praetorian and Didius had to accomodate 5,000 of them. That's 125,000,000 sesterces.

To put this in perspective, let's look at what a relatively low-ranking member of the United States military makes on an annual basis. An enlisted soldier at the E-7 paygrade with less than two years of service makes about $30,000 a year. Imagine, then, if during a coup, someone offered 5,000 members of the US military 15 times their yearly salary. That would total up to $450,000 per man or $2,250,000,000. This is a larger amount than the GDP of most countries in the world today. Although it's pretty much impossible to translate ancient currency into modern dollar amounts, this example serves to show that it was a completely unrealistic amount by any fair standard. Didius Julianus was not accepted as legitimate by the Roman public, the Senate, or the rest of the military. He didn't really do anything to change this perception either, and frequently encountered jeers anywhere he went. It was one thing for someone to take control of the Empire by force (which was expected if not valued), but it was downright shameful to buy the highest office in the land. Three powerful regional commanders declared against Didius and they all started to march on Didius in Italy.

One of these was Septimius Severus, the father and predecessor of the aforementioned Caracalla. In response, Didius Julianus declared Severus a public enemy and sent a group of Praetorians to kill him as well as a general to replace him. When this tactic failed, Didius instead tried to negotiate with Severus. Severus didn't even bother responding and continued on his way to Rome. Severus then managed to secure the support of both the Senate and the Praetorians, which sealed Didius' fate. Severus' forces captured Didius and executed him on the first of June, his last words reportedly being something to the effect of "what have I ever done to you?" Didius was not a bad man, but he possessed an ambition out of proportion with his station and made impossible promises to secure an office to which he had no right. His participation in the auction for the Empire is rightly considered one of the most embarrassing incidents in Roman history and indeed in world history. Had he been born in the late Republican period, Didius might have been another Pompey the Great, but in the mid-Imperial era, he lacked the requisite ability and DNA to really make the cut.

V: Nero (37-68, r. 54-68) - Speaking of DNA, let's talk about Nero. Nero was born as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD as the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a member of one of Rome's most prominent consular families, and Agrippina the Younger, the sister of the then-current Emperor Gaius Germanicus. Gnaeus had inherited none of his ancestors' virtue or nobility and Agrippina was scarred by a horrible life in which her father died mysteriously and her mother and older brothers had been murdered on the orders of her great uncle, the previous Emperor Tiberius. After her brother's ouster and the ascension of her uncle Claudius to the purple, she incestuously seduced the latter and compelled him to adopt her son as his own, at which time he changed his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus to reflect this fact. Claudius had a natural son, Britannicus, whom he pushed aside to allow Nero to become his successor. When he considered changing this in his will, Agrippina poisoned him and paved the way for Nero's succession in the year 54. Nero was 16 years old when this happened, but was considered an acceptable ruler because he was one of only two remaining male descendants of the first Emperor Augustus. The other was a man named Decimus Junius Silanus Torquatus, who was not considered a proper Julio-Claudian because his father was the illegitimate son of Augustus' out-of-favor granddaughter Julia the Younger. When Silanus made light of the fact that both he and Nero had the exact same biological relation to the deified Augustus (i.e. that they were both great-great-grandsons of his), Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

Nero's early reign was dominated by his mother who kept her son on a very tight leash. Nero seems not to have had any real interest in being Emperor, being more concerned as he was with artistic pursuits. His mother never allowed him an outlet for this desire, however, which obviously agitated him. She directed domestic and foreign policy, even sitting in on Senatorial deliberations (which was a monstrously scandalous thing for a woman to do in that time). Nero fell in love with a freedwoman (i.e. a manumitted slave) which offended his mother, who demanded that he cease the affair. When he did not, she informed her son that she intended to make a claim on Britannicus' behalf to the army. Nero then had the 13 year old poisoned at a banquet in 55.

This kind of back and forth behavior continued for four more years until 59, when Nero was 22 and well into adulthood. Tired of his mother's constant interference in his affairs, he made a ceiling collapse on top of her in an attempt to kill her. When this didn't work, he tried to drown her by having her boat sink in a lake. When this also failed and she swam to shore, he ordered his bodyguards to beat her to death, which had the desired effect. Nero was now on his own. Nero took the death of his mother to mean that he could now do all the things he had missed out on. He was free to divorce his wife Octavia (the daughter of Claudius), a political marriage that his mother had arranged, and compel his "friend" Otho to divorce his own wife, Poppaea Sabina, so they could marry. Public opinion was severely against this, so he recalled Octavia from exile but had her killed anyway. A few years later, he is alleged to have kicked the pregnant Poppaea in her stomach, killing her and their unborn child. Upon her death, he began a homosexual relationship with a male slave whom he referred to as "Poppaea" because of a preternatural resemblance between the two. It is said that he even attempted to have this slave's genitalia removed to make a marriage between the two legal. Suetonius reports that many aristocratic Romans privately wished Gnaeus had had such a marriage.

Ignoring women and effeminate slaves, however, it's important to note that Nero's real passion was public performance. He was not particularly popular in the West, but in the Hellenic part of the Empire, he was very well-received. He competed in poetry competitions, singing events, and even participated in at least one Olympiad. He always won, of course, and took his art so seriously that he made it a crime punishable by death to leave or to lack sufficient interest in his performances. The only valid excuses for leaving once the shows had begun were childbirth and death. Accordingly, women would pretend to go into labor and men would pretend to die to get out of them. The story that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is not true since fiddles did not exist in the ancient world, but it is said that while viewing the Great Fire of Rome in 64, he compared it to the sack of Troy and recited a brief poem on the subject.

Speaking of the Great Fire, it's probably the most famous event of Nero's reign. Nobody knows who really started the fire or why, and it seems most likely that it was an accidental blaze that got out of control. When you consider that Rome was an extremely cramped city that had not had the virtue of being planned out architecturally ahead of time, it's not difficult to see how large areas of the town could be affected by these types of disasters. Nero blamed the Christians of Rome for starting the fire and they served as convenient scapegoats because they were celebrating it and because most Romans didn't like them anyway. Some historians blame Nero himself, but this seems unlikely. To his credit, Nero assisted in relief efforts, but the fire was a blessing in disguise. Instead of helping to rebuild these victims' homes, he used the space cleared by the fire (about a quarter of the city's territory) to build a large palace for himself. He is reported to have said "now I can finally live!" upon seeing the large expanse of land before him. Nero proscribed the city's Christians, killing those who confessed to the crime under torture.

Nero did have one major foreign policy success, namely the successful prosecution of a war against the Persians that had run from 58 until 63. It was started over Armenia and ended on extremely favorable terms for the Romans when Nero installed his personal choice as King and concluded a peace treaty with Persia that ensured neutrality in the affairs of the disputed territory. Despite all of this, however, Nero began to act in an increasingly more autocratic and arbitrary way. He faced several revolts from all corners of the Empire, the most serious of which included the Pisonian Conspiracy which revolved around an attempt by several Senators to replace Nero with Gaius Calpurnius Piso as well as the rebellion instigated by Gaius Julius Vindex, a general stationed in Gaul. Although both of these revolts were put down, the writing was on the wall. Having the support of neither the Senate nor the military caused Nero great fear and paranoia. In 68, the governor of Spain, Servius Sulpicious Galba, revolted against him. As more legions began to support Galba, the Senate declared Nero a public enemy, which meant it was the legal duty of any Roman citizen encountering Nero to kill him. Rather than face this ignominy, Nero committed suicide, declaring "what an artist the world is losing in me!" Galba succeeded Nero, but was deposed within a year as the Empire tumbled into civil war.

IV: Commodus (161-192, r. 177-192) - Yeah yeah, you've seen Gladiator, but if that's all you have to go on, you don't know the half of it. Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus was the first Emperor born to the purple, meaning that that his father was already reigning at the time of his birth. This is considered an especially auspicious sign for future monarchs. Commodus' father was of course the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who styled himself after Plato's ideal philosoper king. Marcus was the last of the Five Good Emperors, a series of Roman rulers who had ruled justly and had presided over a time of peace and prosperity that the Empire had not seen since the days of Augustus. Gibbon referred to it as a golden age, but this doesn't really hold up under closer inspection. Marcus was engaged in three simultaneous wars and had to contend with economic inflation as well as a multitude of virulent plagues. He brought Commodus in to share some of the responsibilities of office with him in 177, when his son was 16 years old. Marcus spent almost no time in Rome during his reign, deciding his presence was more needed in Gaul to help put down a series of Germanic invasions. Marcus died on the front in 180 of stomach cancer, not suffocation as the movie would have you believe.

Commodus became the sole ruler of the Roman world and got off to a less than brilliant start. He concluded a humiliating peace treaty with the Germans on extremely unfavorable terms and returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. Commodus had no interest in government and preferred idle pleasures to statecraft. He left freedmen in charge of the Empire's business and devoted himself to providing lavish spectacles for the people of Rome. Of course, all of this required money, and the only people who had any at this point were the provincials and the Senatorial class. Needless to say, these two groups were taxed very heavily to pay for these events.

Whereas other Emperors relied on the support of the army, Commodus instead appealed to the mob. Official inscriptions of his tellingly refer not to the "Senate and People of Rome," but rather to the "People and Senate of Rome." When things were good, Commodus took all the credit, but if they deteriorated, he announced that he had had nothing to do with them and blamed the incompetence of his ministers.

Like Nero, Commodus had an intense love of performing, but he didn't care about stupid things like poetry or music. Commodus saw himself as a god, and accordingly styled himself after Hercules, dressing in a lion's skin and carrying a club. He did engage in gladiatorial combat, but this wasn't just a single incidence as portrayed in the film. He did this repeatedly over a number of years, which scandalized polite society. It would be like the President of the United States joining the WWE and winning the title every time. Commodus of course only fought the sick and the weak, but he never lost a match. He also evidently received an enormous sum of money every time he performed, which only served to even more negatively impact the economic conditions of the city. In one instance, he fought every day for a month, earning himself 30,000,000 sesterces.

Commodus gave himself twelve honorific titles and then named all twelve months of the year after himself. He renamed Rome to Commodia, and insisted that citizens refer to themselves not as Romans, but rather as Commodans. Eventually, this all became a bit too much for some people to handle. His administration was utterly corrupt, filled with people who had purchased their positions, and the Senate held him in total contempt. They supported the prefect of the city, Pertinax, in a conspiracy against him. The conspiracy reached its climax on December 31, 192, when one of the Commodus' sparring partners, a Greek wrestler named Narcissus, strangled him to death in a bath tub. Pertinax succeeded Commodus, but was himself cut down in a revolt that inaugurated the Year of the Five Emperors, which also featured the above-mentioned Didius Julianus.

III: Honorius (384-423, r. 393-423) - In 410, a group of Germans led by the king Alaric sacked the city of Rome. Although the capital of the Empire had been moved to Ravenna a few years earlier, it was still obviously an important city. A servant approached the Emperor Honorius and announced "Rome has died." Saddened and distraught, Honorius asked how it had happened. As the servant began to explain, Honorius breathed a sigh of relief and told the man not to worry about it. Honorius had thought that his pet chicken, whom he had named "Rome" had literally died. The destruction of the city did not particularly interest him, so long as his pet survived. I could probably end the story here since that pretty much sums up Honorius' reign and attitude.

Flavius Honorius was the son of the powerful Emperor Theodosius I, and he had been elevated to his position as co-ruler after the death of Valentinian II in 393. Honorius was just 9 years old, so naturally his reign was managed by his father and his ministers. Theodosius died two years later, leaving Honorius as the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. Honorius' most important minister was Stilicho, a military man of mixed Roman and barbarian heritage. Stilicho married his daughter Maria to the Emperor, ensuring their closeness. Looking to take advantage of the weak position of the Empire after the death of Theodosius, it became besieged on all sides by various Germanic incursions. Honorius had reached the Roman conception of adulthood in 399, but continued to not care about administration. Before too terribly long, the Empire began to fall apart. Stilicho did his best to stem the tide, winning some victories here and there, but it was really too late. While territories were revolting and being conquered left and right, Honorius concerned himself with questions such as whether or not it was proper for men to wear pants. He decided that it was not, and banned the practice in the Empire.

In 408, Honorius ordered that Stilicho be executed on charges of treason. He was supposed to have been conspiring to overthrow both the Western and Eastern Emperors with the Germans, a notion that was certainly and demonstrably false. After Stilicho's death, the Germans began chipping away at more and more territory, until eventually Hispania, Britannia, 3/4 of Gaul, and most of Africa were lost to the Romans. In 421, Honorius named a co-emperor, Constantius III, to help deal with the mess, but he died of an unknown illness the following year. In 423, Honorius suffered an attack of dropsy and died. He was succeeded by the worthless Valentinian III.

II: Caligula (12-41, r. 37-41) - Wow, what's left to say about this guy? Caligula's real name (during his reign) was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus and he was referred to in the ancient world by his praenomen Gaius, but for some reason we call him by the nickname he inherited as a child while staying with his father, the general and one-time heir apparent Germanicus, during the latter's campaigns. The name was a reference to the fact that he liked to play at being a soldier so much that his mother, Agrippina the Elder, fashioned him a set of miniature soldiers' boots called "caliga," so his name literally means "little boots." His father died in Syria in 19, supposedly poisoned by friends of a resentful and paranoid Tiberius and his mother was definitely murdered by Tiberius' agents a few years later when the Emperor suspected her of plotting against him. Caligula's older brothers, Drusus and Nero, were also killed. Tiberius, his great uncle, then invited him to join him on Capri. Caligula agreed and during his time there, showed no anger or any other discernible emotion regarding the ill-treatment of his family. Whether this was an act to save his own life or if he really didn't care is unknown to us. Anyway, to make a long story short, Caligula enjoyed all manner of depravity on Capri and earned enough of Tiberius' confidence that he became his co-heir with the Emperor's young natural grandson, Gemellus. Why Tiberius named Caligula, about whom he had shown frequent misgivings, his successor is a mystery. Some say it was because he had no other options (as his other potential successors, Germanicus, his son Julius Caesar Drusus, and the treacherous Prefect Sejanus) had all been killed and Caligula was his only adult male blood relative. Another school of thought has it that he knew Caligula would be so disatrous a ruler that the Senate and the people of Rome would look on his own reign more favorably, which is perhaps true.

Regardless of the motivations, when Tiberius died in 37 (possibly as a result of murder, but more likely old age), Caligula was instantly hailed as Emperor. Caligula's first act was to invalidate Tiberius' will, which had the effect of removing Gemellus from any official capacity as joint ruler. This was not considered inappropriate by the Romans, however, who had adored Caligula's father and were excited about their new Princeps. And at first, everything was fine. He pleased the public with games and entertainments but also took an eye to correcting the injustices of his predecessor's reign. He destroyed most of Tiberius' personal papers, which were largely related to people who stood accused of "treason," a Tiberian codeword for confiscating the property of a wealthy political enemy after killing him on false pretenses. Caligula reduced the tax burden as well, which had increased significantly over the preceding 23 years. He even rehabilitated Gemellus somewhat, naming him the "Prince of Youth," a title reserved for heirs of Roman heads of state.

Then, toward the end of 37, Caligula became seriously ill. We don't know what illness he actually suffered from, but it was one from which the Emperor was not expected to recover. When he finally overcame it, Caligula was definitely a changed man. He began to see conspiracies everywhere and as a result of this, executed Gemellus, Marcus Silanus (his father-in-law and great uncle of the aforementioned Silanus killed by Nero - what an unfortuante family!), as well as the man whom he had hired to prosecute Silanus for not doing his job zealously enough. He then ordered several people who had made prayers begging the gods to take their lives to save his to kill themselves. He also began to hold increasingly more elaborate feasts and spectacles, which predictably enough drained the Imperial purse. When things got tight, he turned to Tiberius' surviving papers relating to "treasonous" persons and kept up the family tradition of killing people for the quick acquisition of capital. He began reinstating the taxes that he had previously abolished and even added some new ones that caused great offense - namely, he required soldiers to give the items they captured while at war to the state. This was a huge blow since one of the main reasons anyone ever volunteered for the Roman army was out of a desire to keep the spoils of war won on the battlefield.

Of course, everybody is really interested in the salacious stuff. Yes, Caligula participated in orgies. Yes, Caligula enjoyed partners of both sexes. And yes, Caligula briefly installed a whorehouse in the palace. He even forced the wives of prominent Roman aristocrats to have sex with him during official dinners and meetings, after which he would return to the table and discuss in horrible detail the good and bad points of the women's performances. We cannot say with certainty whether he committed incest with his sisters, although he did have an unnaturally close relationship with one of them, Drusilla. Despite rumors to the contrary, he did not impregnate her and kill her in an attempt to tear the baby from her womb. Drusilla died in 38 of an unspecified plague and Caligula's behavior only deteriorated. He made it a crime punishable by death for any person to laugh, smile, or dine with his or her family for six weeks after Drusilla's death. The whole Empire went into a forced state of mourning.

There are a whole lot of other things, so I'll only look at the highlights. Caligula decided that he needed to earn military glory, something which was not necessarily forthcoming. He annexed the province of Mauretania, which had been ruled by a pro-Roman client king, by summoning the man to Rome and having him beheaded. He planned an expedition to Britannia but for some reason, the soldiers never left Gaul. Upset by this, he told the soldiers to go to the beach and collect sea-shells as the spoils of war. He suffered a handful of rebellions in Africa and in the East, but none of them ever gained enough traction to seriously threaten his position. Because of all of this, he developed an intense emnity for the Senate and the sentiment was returned. He is said to have made his horse, Incitatus, consul of the Empire to mock his political adversaries. Around this time, he began to publicly declare himself a god. He demanded that people worship him as such, a practice that had occurred during the reign of Augustus but which was limited during Tiberius' tenure. He even claimed a special connection to the gods and was said to routinely have had conversations with them. At one point, he was overheard arguing with Jupiter about some issue or another and informed the god of thunder that he was going to throw him into Hell. Jupiter, unsurprisingly, was not pleased with this development.

In 41, Caligula was viewing a relatively boring set of dances being performed by professionals from Greece. He had managed to offend a member of the Praetorian Guard, Cassius Chaerea, by making several disparaging references to a groin injury he had received while campaigning with Caligula's father in Germania. Eventually, Chaerea became fed up with this and stabbed Caligula to death. Whether it was a conspiracy or a spontaneous outburst is unknown, but the rebellion eventually spread to the entire guard, who took advantage of the chaos in the city of Rome to get drunk and go on a rampage. They killed Caligula's wife, a former prostitute named Caesonia, and their three year old daughter named Julia Drusilla. The Senate began to agitate for a return to the Republic, but the Praetorians were having none of it, and named as Emperor Caligula's uncle and the butt of most of his practical jokes, the physically disabled but intellectually sharp Claudius. Fearing that they would be killed, the Senators confirmed Claudius' position and the notion of restoring Republican rule to Rome never again threatened the Imperial system.

It's hard to say what Caligula's problem was. Some people characterize him as insane while others insist that he was simply a jerk. I think the truth is somewhere in between the two. Caligula had a difficult life and was not particularly well-suited to hold the reins of power. His family's treatment at the hands of Tiberius definitely embittered him and made him cruel but his illness and miraculous recovery in 37 convinced him of his own immortality, creating a situation where a narcissistic misanthrope had the power to play god (which he would literally do after his proclamation of his own divinity). Regardless, it's clear that Caligula was unbalanced on several different levels. His capriciousness and scandalous lifestyle almost brought down the political system that his great grandfather Augustus had worked so hard to create and it is difficult to find many redeeming values in his having worn the purple.

I: Elagabalus (203-222, r. 218-222) - If there's one thing that you've by now hopefully taken away from my list of horrible emperors, it should be that I don't have particularly kind words for the ones who lacked the experience and predisposition necessary to command what was at one time the world's largest and most powerful polity. The worst of this lot was undoubtedly the Severan emperor Elagabalus. After Caracalla's demise, the Senate elected Macrinus to take his place. Caracalla was still extremely popular with the army, which resulted in something of a chilly reception for his successor. Caracalla's surviving female relatives were ordered to leave the Imperial residences and at once began plotting against Macrinus. The focal point of this conspiracy was Caracalla's nephew, Varius Avitus Bassianus. Varius' grandmother, the Severan matriarch Julia Maesa, was the sister of Caracalla's mother. Julia was intent that her family should return to power and began to foment rebellion in the Syrian legions by spreading the rumor that Varius was Caracalla's illegitimate son via an incestuous relationship with his cousin Julia Soaemias. As Macrinus' popularity began to decline, martial enthusiasm for Varius grew. Varius was 13 years old at this time and he had inherited from his family the position as chief priest of Gabal (a Syrian sun deity), which resulted in his more famous name Elagabalus (a Romanized version of Gabal's full name). Macrinus was overthrown and killed after about a year in power and replaced by Elagabalus.

It was understood, of course, that Elagabalus would not really be in charge of anything. He had just turned 14 at the time of his accession and would naturally have no interest in ruling. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. His mother and grandmother saw themselves as the powers behind the throne, a fact which was underscored by their each having received the title of Augusta, typically reserved for the wife of a deceased Emperor. A subject that was particularly near to Elagabalus was his religion. He wanted to bring the Empire together through the worship and veneration of a single god above all others (hmm, who does that sound like?): Gabal. The literal Latin translation of Gabal's name was Deus Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun God. Jupiter was kicked to the curb and replaced by Sol, which didn't particularly appeal to most people. At the very least, it didn't appeal to Rome's Italian center of power, which didn't win Elagabalus many friends in the Senatorial class. Something else that Elagabalus really liked -- and indeed something which was a hallmark of the later Severan Dynasty -- was good old fashioned nepotism.

Elagabalus, Julia, and Soeamias began appointing all manner of disreputable allies to high offices, usually as a result of bribery. Syrian and Bithynian freedmen (that is to say, former slaves) were made prefects, consuls, and entrenched bureaucrats. He made his barber, a very low-born man, grain auditor (that is, the person responsible for doling out bread to the poor of Rome). Elagabalus at this time developed a deep infatuation for a certain Hierocles, an Anatolian athlete and slave whose large member prompted the Emperor to explore the notion of making him Caesar (i.e. heir to the throne). Elagabalus is said to have styled himself as "Hierocles' queen" and apparently promised half the Empire to any physician who could fashion him a functioning set of female genitalia to remove the metaphorical aspect of this love. Elagabalus took to referring to himself as "Imperatrix," the previously nonexistent feminine version of his title Imperator. This caused a great scandal in Rome, not so much because of the fact that Elagabalus preferred men, but rather because of the passive, effeminate nature of his homosexuality. The Emperor Hadrian, for example, had been famously involved in a gay relationship with a Bithynian youth named Antinous, but it was considered acceptable because he was obviously the active participant in said relationship. It was seen as intensely degrading for the Emperor to be anything other than the man in the relationship.

Speaking of relationships, Elagabalus understood, at least, that he would be expected to marry and have children. Since nobody could make a vagina for him, he begrudgingly decided to find a wife. In 219, his grandmother betrothed him to Cornelia Paula, whose family was very presitigious and well-regarded. Elagabalus did not like her, of course, so he divorced and exiled her a year later. He then turned his attentions to the noble and fair Aquilia, whose family had been allied with the Severans for some years. This would have been perfectly acceptable but for one problem: Aquilia was a Vestal Virgin and had sworn an oath of chastity to last 30 years. The penalty for breaking this oath was death by live burial. History does not record whether Aquilia consented to this marriage or indeed as to her eventual fate. It seems that Elagabalus believed that by marrying Aquilia, they would produce divine children. This never happened and he divorced her in favor of Annia Faustina, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius. He then divorced Annia and remarried Aquilia. History also fails to record Hierocles' feelings on this subject.

Needless to say, many of the people who had supported Elagabalus in his rebellion began to have second thoughts about having done so. Julia knew that support for Elagabalus was waning, so in 221 she compelled him to accept his cousin, Alexander Severus, as his co-ruler. Elagabalus resented this immensely and sought to undermine his young colleague whenever possible. Whereas Elagabalus did things like pretend to be Venus while engaging in prostitution at the palace or order expensive togas and shoes to be made out of diamonds and emeralds and discarding them after one use, the military took Alexander in from an early age and brought him up in what was felt to be a more appropriate fashion. Alexander's mother, Julia Mamaea, did not permit her 14 year old son to spend time with the Emperor, whom she correctly regarded as a bad influence. In 222, Elagabalus ordered the Senate to strip Alexander of all his titles and honors and informed the army that he had mysteriously died. The Praetorians immediately revolted and came after the heads of Elagabalus and his mother. When Elagabalus rescinded the order and told the Praetorians that Alexander was still alive, they demanded to see the two rulers in their camp. When Elagabalus and Alexander arrived, the Praetorians declared the latter sole Emperor and executed Elagabalus and his mother, whose memories were subsequently condemned by the Senate. The Emperor was 18. As a piece of trivia, Elagabalus was the first Emperor since Trajan (over a century earlier) to not wear a beard. Alexander would spend almost the entirety of his reign at war and was killed during a mutiny by one of the Gallic legions in 235, which precipitated the Crisis of the Third Century.


There's an old -- almost cliché -- saying that goes "absolute power corrupts absolutely," which I referenced at the beginning. I don't think this is necessarily true. I think it's obvious that most of the characters I've described were in all probability hopelessly corrupt before attaining any sort of power. Power is only a vessel for the exercise of corruption, which can take many forms. You could sell offices like Elagabalus or enjoy getting to decide who lives and who dies like Caligula, or even enact strange, infantile fantasies like Nero or Commodus. However, it was not power that caused these men to behave in this manner; the inclination clearly already existed, but there were enough checks on them to prevent the exercise of (most of) these vices. The corruption really stemmed from something more intangible and more difficult to discern, namely the human psyche. Each of us is on our own special way corrupt. It could be the corruption of cheating on a diet, stealing a stapler from work, or running a stop light. What matters then is not corruption, but rather restraint. The lack of restraint, ultimately, is what made these ten men the worst Emperors ever.

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