Useful Notes / The Roman Empire
Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("The Senate and People of Rome ")

Reg (leader of the People's Front of Judea): All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
PFJ member: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace—SHUT UP!

The Empire.note 

The Roman Empire succeeded The Roman Republic in the first century BC, precisely when being a subject for debate. It is generally thought to coincide with Octavian Caesar defeating his last serious rival for control of Rome, Mark Antony, in 31 BC, or otherwise when he declared himself Princeps in 27 B.C and was granted the honorific cognomen "Augustus". The pretense of a Hereditary Republic lasted rather longer, but withered away.

At its peak the Empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Tigris, and from the Highlands of Scotland to the deserts of North Africa. At one time or another it covered part or all of the modern day countries of- well, here's a list.

Rome, in its own name, continued to exist for quite a long time. By the end of the 3rd century it had gotten so unwieldy that it needed co-emperors to handle everything; in 395, not long after Constantine embraced Christianity, the empire split into the Eastern and Western halvesnote . The Eastern side, which historians re-named the Byzantine Empire for conveniencenote , toiled on almost a thousand years longer, until Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 (despite the power of the Roman legion, evidently their training course did not cover defense against flightless furniture). The Western empire collapsed in 476, ushering in The Dark Ages. Charlemagne took the name of "Rome" for his kingdom, the "Holy Roman Empire," in 800 AD, as did Tsarist Russia ("Tsar" being a linguistic evolution of "Caesar"). The most salient point here is that a "Roman" nation of some sort existed, on paper at least, for well over two thousand years.

    open/close all folders 

     Pax Romana 

"To plunder, to slaughter, to usurp, they give the lying name of empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace."
Calgacus, chieftain of the Caledonians, in Agricola by Roman historian Tacitus

During its heyday, the Roman Empire maintained a level of peace and stability within its borders not often known to people living in those times. With its legions, a relatively enlightened ruling system, religious freedom (well, tolerance and syncreticism, at least), the Roman Empire held well enough (and people considered themselves sufficiently part of it) that an American would probably be quite at home there. In fact, there are two separate terms for this in the modern context: Pax Britannica (for when The British Empire's influence moderated conflict and brought relatively free trade from 1815 to 1914) and Pax Americana.

The Pax Romana was based, to a large degree, upon the political nature of the empire. A great deal was direct empire: Rome had immediate authority over the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. However, Rome's peace was the result of its Hegemonic Empire. Technically independent client nations surrounded it and participated in trade of goods, wealth, and (Roman) culture. In order to maintain control over these client states, Rome regularly sent lavish gifts to their rulers. In return, those rulers did everything they could to keep from antagonizing Rome. Not only did these client states not make war with Rome, they also served as buffers.

On the far side of the client states were barbarian tribes who, being nomadic (the horsemen of the desert) or seminomadic (the Germans to the North moved between different permanent sites depending on the season) and lacking such features of civilization as money and stone monuments, were indifferent to Romanization. They liked Rome's wealth but wanted nothing of its culture. The client states surrounding Rome absorbed the repeated incursions of barbarian raiders so that Rome wouldn't have to. This is why Augustus, after expanding the empire, told his successor to stop doing that: eliminate the clients and Rome has to deal with the barbarians herself.

Barbarians weren't the only problem. In the East, Rome had a potent enemy in the Iranian empires of Arsacid Parthia (247 BC - AD 224) and Sassanid Persia (224 - 651). The client states to the east were essentially shuffled back and forth between Rome and Parthia/Persia in a kind of hegemonic game of checkers, with each side more or less understanding that direct conflict between the two would be disastrous for both. Hence, the Kingdom of Armenia became a buffer kingdom in which the Persians chose who'd be king of Armenia, and that king would travel to Rome to gain the Emperor's approval and be crowned. This kept conflict at a minimum between the two empires for some time.

Although the Pax Romana specifically refers to a phenomenon in the Mediterranean world, the fact is that the period was marked by unusual peace across a solid belt across the Eurasian civilized world from the Atlantic to the Pacific, controlled by four great empires: Rome in the west; with Persia to its east; and then to Persia's east the Kushan and Gupta empires in Afghanistan and northern India; and to the east of both of those the Han Dynasty held not only the Chinese heartland but also the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang. This is arguably the first period of "proto-globalization,"note  as in this time, the influence of the four large empires (Rome, Persia, India, and China) made regular cross-Eurasian trade not merely a reality, but big business. Although restricted to luxuries — nothing else was worth shipping that far — there was unquestionably regular trade, with the Romans developing a taste for Eastern silk and spices, the Chinese developing an interest in Roman glassware, and everything in between. (The Han, by the way, sent an explorer to Rome, who didn't quite reach Rome at the insistence of the Parthians, who were justifiably terrified of the two imperial juggernauts to their East and West deciding to meet in the middle. Nevertheless, he left a fairly detailed report, if one coloured by Chinese mythological views of the West; the Han seem to have greatly respected Rome, seeing it as a Western mirror to themselves and calling it Daqin: Great China.) Ideas also travelled: Christianity made its way to India and Central Asia in this time, finding moderate purchase; late in the period, the Persian Manichaeism spread to Rome and China. At the same time, fighting was restricted to proxy wars at the fringes of the great empires. This period of peace ended, however, after plagues swept Rome and China in the third century. The Western Roman Empire managed to hang on for another two centuries, but only just (see below), while the East held on for another 1200 years; the Han met their fate quicker.

     The Fall 

"It was luxuries like air conditioning that brought down the Roman Empire. With air conditioning their windows were shut, they couldn't hear the barbarians coming."
Garrison Keilor

Unfortunately, the hegemonic empire couldn't last. Although Rome's tribute to her client states paid for the necessary military service of facing barbarian incursions, it couldn't pay for the human cost of warfare. Further, as each client became more Romanized, the citizens thereof became increasingly vocal in their desire to become part of Rome and receive the benefits of Roman civilization directly. Eventually each client state was absorbed into the Roman empire and Rome had to bear the burden of defending her borders herself.

As is often the case with a stable, growing population and economy, Rome faced the difficulties of inflation and, sometimes, too much economic growth, leading to cycles of boom and bust. As the science of economics wouldn't be developed for a few millennia, Rome found herself unable to cope with the complexities of managing the marketplace. Since the environmental factors fueling Rome's population growth also fueled the populations of the barbarians surrounding the empire, it led to a perfect storm that gradually ate away at Rome and led to her downfall. This can be marked in several stages.

Stage 1 - Search and Destroy

Search and Destroy is a military strategy wherein you search out hostile forces, destroy them on their own territory, and then withdraw. This prevents them from doing any damage to your own infrastructure and minimizes all other injuries done. Imminent barbarian incursions would be neutralized before they even reached the borders. This is a costly form of defense, but ideal. It requires a great deal of manpower at the border, regular and maintained fortifications, constant scouting in hostile territory, and a mobile force capable of meeting the enemy. This is what Rome had along all of her borders, with her forces and fortifications deployed in accord with the terrain and density of hostile forces. The German woods required a great deal of manpower and effort; the African deserts could be more sparsely manned. Despite the expense and effort required, attempts to carry out this strategy were made even as late as 375, a hundred years before the Western Empire would fall. However, even before then, declining power forced Rome to increasingly rely on...

Stage 2 - Static Defense

Rather than meet the hostile forces on their own ground, Rome learned to accept meeting them at the border. Very often the empire built actual walls (for example, the Antonine Wall in Scotland and Hadrian's Wall further south in England), though the psychological effects of building such walls may have been known even then. It's likely that this shift was made not out of any strategic choice, but because Rome was losing the manpower to engage in more effective strategies, the reason generally being disease: the Antonine Plague struck in 165 and lasted 15 years, and the Plague of Cyprian began in 250 and lasted at least 20. Both of these are generally accepted to be outbreaks of smallpox, and they caused serious damage to both civilian populations (the Antonine Plague killed up to a third of the population in some areas), and to the army (the Antonine Plague at least is understood to have been spread by a legion returning from fighting in the Middle East). Roman power also ebbed away in the endemic civil wars from the third century onwards, as rival claimants battled for the throne. These inevitably entailed the loss of Roman lives, sacked cities, economic disruption, and the destruction of Roman armies that might otherwise have been used against foreign enemies.

Since it requires less manpower—which is now what the Romans had—static defense it was. Unfortunately, this kind of defense is both unimaginative and passive, and a breach may occur at any single spot on a very long border, as the enemy may concentrate his strength, while the defender has no choice but to guard the entire perimeter. Once a breach is made, an invading horde may raid and pillage a great distance before they are stopped, as military forces are concentrated on the border and it takes time to react to face them. What's more, such defenses are also a constant drain on the defender as they must also be maintained and manned at all times. Once the barbarians broke through, the repeated damage to infrastructure (roads, fortifications, farms) led directly to...

Stage 3 - Withdrawal

Toward the end of the empire's existence, Rome gradually gave up on more and more territory as undefendable. Repeated incursions by hostile forces destroyed the population, the buildings, and the land. By the time the city of Rome was sacked, the Empire`s territory in the West had shrunk to more or less that of modern Italy. Rome itself was sacked multiple times during the fifth century and is seen as the final coda on the death of the empire. The Eastern, or Byzantine, empire continued for another thousand years, having much more secure natural borders, a nigh impregnable fall-back point in the form of Constantinople, and making better use of the significantly more abundant natural resources. Further, the density of hostile barbarians was much less in Western Asia than in Northern Europe, at least until the rise of, variously, the Mongols and Islam. It was Muslim Ottoman Turks who finally conquered Constantinople, destroying the last remnant of the empire. For a time, Byzantium reached out, claimed, and actually reconquered a significant portion of the Western empire (including North Africa, Sicily, modern Italy and parts of Spain) in the sixth century under Justinian I thanks to Flavius Belisarius and Narses. But it, too, had to retreat from those claims, losing the last of North Africa to the Muslims in 698 after the Siege of Carthage and the remains of Italy to the Normans in 1071 after the Siege of Bari.

The ultimate end of the Empire was really due more to its internal struggles than to outside threats like the Germans or Persians. In truth, those groups merely capitalized on the failure of the Roman state. They were an effect - not a cause - of the Fall of Rome.

The reasons for the crumbling of the Western half of the Empirenote  are still hotly debated to this day, but a few common things are agreed upon. First and foremost, the Roman economy began to falter. The massive excesses of wealth did bring inflation, but the real killer of the Empire was a lack of land. In Antiquity, land was far more valuable than money, and it was more or less the primary good for exchanges between those in the upper class. Your wealth was not defined by how much gold you had stockpiled, but by how much land and how many resources you owned. If anything, currency was for the commoners to trade and peddle with on the streets. During the early days of the Roman Empire, land was quite abundant due to the massive conquests of the legions. Legionaries were granted land in exchange for service. However, many of those legionaries came from poor backgroundsnote , they could not afford to sustain their land during the economic crisis of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Meanwhile, as the empire stopped continuously conquering land after the reign of Trajan, the soldiers were paid actually, hard currency. Of course, this became a problem, as the Roman Legions were very numerous and more and more pay increases were needed to keep them staffed. Ultimately, this led to mass inflation.

From this, the latifunda system was born. Latifunda was essentially a system of sharecropping where wealthy nobles owned and operated large plantation farms. The Crisis of the Third Century, a time of unbridled civil war that lasted decades, saw a decline in the urban population, and the urban poor flocked to these latifunda plantations. You see, the mass inflation made the price of food -bread in particular- go up immensely. The urban poor were very susceptible to price changes. There was also widespread banditry, looting, and attacks by Germanic tribes that reduced commerce further note  and caused food prices to increase more. Thus, the urban poor had no choice but to strike out to the country to start farming themselves. However, as previously mentioned, most of the land had been purchased cheaply from legionaries and the like by nobles. Thus, the urban poor had to work as tenant farmers. It is argued that this was the start of the serfdom in Europe. The widening class divide was a sign of the Empire's decline, as the Empire had formerly been a place of great social mobility in comparison to most places in Antiquity. It also meant that there was an increasing reliance on money for exchanges instead of, say, bartered goods or land exchanges, and this proved disastrous once that currency became devalued. The widespread poverty may have been one of the factors in the spread of Christianity. After all, the poor would want to follow a religion in which all men are equal under the eyes of God, instead of the Greco-Roman pantheon with Jerkass Gods that typically favored the rich and powerful in the afterlife.

However, there was an even more obvious threat to the Empire. You see, it turns out founding your empire by marching your armies into the capital might not set a good precedent for future generations. Julius Caesar was only the first of many, note  and his use of his loyal legions in taking over Rome was poised to become the norm for the Empire. While initially stable, the Empire had a problem of constantly erupting into a succession crisis every few decades or so. There wasn't really a good system for choosing an heir, as it was usually up to the current ruling Imperator to decide who would rule after his death. This rather vague system of succession left a lot of room for Loophole Abuse and often resulted in a might-makes-right strategy of succession. The most powerful generals declared themselves Imperator and had their legions duke it out. Most of these squabbles tended to be brief enough that they could be ignored, but one was so massive that it devastated the Empire. The Crisis of the Third Century occurred when a whole bunch of generals declared themselves Imperator after the death of Alexander Severus. Now, this had already happened not once, but twice previously in the 3rd Century, and once in the 1st Century. This time it was different though, as there were more claimants, Germanic tribes right at the Roman doorstep, runaway inflation caused by rapid increases in the amount of a legionaries pay,note and religious tension. In the end, Rome nearly collapsed as the Legions turned on each other and failed to defend Rome from incursions.

The results of the Crisis were dire. Trade broke down due to an increase in banditry, as the garrisons and peacekeepers were spread thin by the war. Entire regions were depopulated, either by constant fighting between the Legions (as in Italy) or constant raids from external enemies (as in Gaul). This caused the disruption in the fragile agriculture network that the highly urbanized empire was so dependent on. The Empire could sustain such massive cities through the vast plantation estates of the wealthy, farmed often by slaves but sometimes by poor tenant farmers, as mentioned above. This caused massive famines and people were forced to abandon the cities and take on a life of farming just to survive. To make matters worse, climate change had devastated Europe. Those raiding Germans weren't just pillaging For the Evulz, they were migrating to escape the colder winters that were setting in. This also caused food prices to increase, further encouraging inflation and agrarianism. And to make things even worse, a plague broke out near the tail end of the 3rd Century. The Empire was poised right then and there to fall, but Emperor Aurelian held it together somehow, and Diocletian split it in two in an effort to prevent a conflict of interest. As Mike Duncan points out in his The History of Rome Podcast, the question as to why the Empire survived the 3rd century but didn't survive the 5th century has many of the same answers. The empire failed to fully integrate the tribes that had settled on their land, turning them from potential allies into rivals and later enemies. Furthermore, there were no "Germanic emperors" unlike the Illyrian Emperors that were drawn from the top talent of "barbarians" and provincials - this inability to use a potentially vast talent pool to its fullest extent made governing that much harder.

The later Germanic invasions were simply the final nail in the coffin. The Crisis had put such a damper on Rome that not even the revitalizing reign of Constantine could reverse the Empire's decline. What is certain, however, is that Rome was largely the one responsible for its own downfall. Constatine's reign furthermore introduced a new layer of problems that would continue to hamper the Eastern Empire centuries after the fall of the Western Empire - by de facto replacing the various cults in the old Roman Empire with Christianity, religious disputes became political disputes and heterodoxy in religious matters became treason in political matters. Thus the Empire had to spend enormous resources on keeping religious cohesion. Some scholars argue that Egypt and the Levant fell as easily as they did when the Muslim armies came knocking because being a dhimmi under Muslim rule seemed preferable to being an apostate under byzantine rule. And Egypt in particular was a center of all kinds of heterodox Christianity.

It wasn't until the 5th Century that the Western Empire actually fell, though. Early into the 5th Century, Germanic tribes migrated southward as the climate grew colder. The Empire had to accommodate these tribes, so the decision was made to allow them to settle the depopulated lands of the Empire, sometimes in exchange for military service. Tribes like the Vandals and Suebi were settled in Hispania, for example.

However, tensions were always high between the two. The Germanic tribesmen were often looked down upon and derided as barbarians, and the Germans did not seem to really respect the Romans either. Fighting inevitably broke out, and that fighting spiraled into war. However, things wouldn't get really bad until Attila the Hun showed up. In the 420s the Huns started to make incursions into Europe. The origin of the Hunnic people isn't fully known, but they appear to be an Altaic people, possibly related to a group described in Chinese sources from a few centuries prior. In 434, Attila and his brother Bleda took joint command of the Hunnic tribes and started raiding the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire and parts of Germany. The Germanic tribes underwent a mass exodus to flee from the Huns, and wound up running straight into Roman territory.

Thus, over the course of the century, the Germans would gradually bite off slices of the Western Empire for themselves while the Huns and other groups sacked and raided the ever-loving crap out of the Empire. The Huns tore through the Balkans and Greece, attacking one of the wealthiest and most urban parts of the Empire, but falling short of sacking Constantinople itself. They defeated the Romans twice and forced Theodosius to pay them a massive sum in tribute. Then they set their sights on Gaul.

Attila raided and pillaged his way through Germania and Gaul until finally an army of Roman and Visigothic troops managed to defeat note  him at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains (also known as the Battle of Chalons). Attila was forced to withdraw, but he continued his raiding and pillaging until 453, when he died at a feast due to internal hemorrhaging.

By that point, it was too late. The Western Roman Empire was pretty much beyond the point of no return. The Visigoths had already sacked the Shining City in 410, and it hadn't even been the capital of the Empire for over a decade note . It was sacked again in 455, this time by the Vandals in one of their many raids across the Mediterranean. Interesting, the Visigoths would later go on to fight alongside the Romans.

By the time Attila died, the Empire had lost territory in Aquitania, Gallicia, and Africa. However, the official end of the Empire came in 476 AD, when Odoacer, a soldier of German descent, took Rome and became the de facto ruler. he nominally claimed to rule in the stead of the emperor Julius Nepos, but Nepos died in 480 AD, which is what some consider to be the actual final date of the Western Roman Empire.

However, the Empire survived in the East for almost a thousand years more as the Byzantine Empire, until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. Some historians consider that to be the actual final date of the Empire, for real this time.


Centurion: What could be worse [than crucifixion]
Old Man: Could be stabbed.
Centurion: What?! It only takes a second; crucifixion lasts hours.
Old Man: Least it gets you out in the open air.
Centurion: You're weird mate.

The most famous person that this happened to was of course Jesus Christ, but it happened to quite a lot of other people too. Another well-known example would be Spartacus. Everyone in his army that was taken prisoner after finally being defeated (about 6,000 people) were crucified at the same time, spread over about 200 km of the Via Appia (the Appian Way). Kinda similar to Jesus, there are claims that Spartacus either escaped, survived, or had a son that survived.

In terms of sheer nastiness, little matches crucifixion in the capital punishment field. It was designed to be as painful and humiliating as possible. The Romans themselves considered it so barbaric that Roman citizens usually couldn't be sentenced to crucifixion.

To go into further detail about crucifixion: five- to-seven-inch-long nails were driven into the wrists and ankles. How the nails were driven in depended on the shape of the cross, which was I, T, X, Y or the traditional cross shape. Then ropes are tied, so the Romans can pull up the cross. The ropes cut into the skin as the cross is raised. Then the person is essentially left to die. Times passes on, the person literally gets baked by the sun. Crows start to come and peck on the eyes on the hung, if that person has no family or friends to fend them off. The hung man must struggle with all of his might to get one tiny breath in, as his lungs are constricted. If he's lucky, he'll get a bitter tasting wine as a painkiller. In terms of waste removal, there was none. This further adds to the humiliation and infects any wounds below the waist. After that, there's not much left as the prisoner gets no food nor drink. Jesus lasted the good part of a day before passing on, but there are cases of men who lasted THREE DAYS of this. It's also where we get the word "excruciating", literally "from the cross."
  • Now imagine this happening to six thousand people at the same time, on the same road.

Quite where the nails went (or if they were even used) and what the person was supposed to die of are debated by historians (The Bible isn't too clear on the subject either, due to translation issues from the original Greek). The usual theory has been suffocation, but some experiments concluded otherwise- certainly exhaustion and dehydration would have occurred too. Jesus' seven traditional sayings on the cross i.e. "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" in Aramaic) would have been very hard, though not impossible, to get out in these circumstances. In order to speed things up, the legs of the condemned might be broken. How long it took to die varied widely and there are cases of people surviving due to a reprieve.

Victims were crucified completely naked to add to the humiliation factor. Though it is perfectly understandable that religious art wouldn't depict it visually (especially given that it was done to disgrace the victims), there is no reason to believe Jesus was spared this token of humiliation.
  • Some have said that humiliation and shame was the main issue Jesus dealt with, as part of the separation from God.

All that is what happened if you got to the cross- you had to carry it there yourself and you were flogged with a rather nasty whip (with iron balls or sharpened sheep bones in) beforehand. There are cases of the flogging killing people. In fact, the flogging was actually intended as a mercy — the worse you were beaten before crucifixion, the sooner you would die on the cross.

     The Legion 

"I came, I saw, I conquered."

The Glory That Was Rome

The centerpiece of the Roman army, the Legion was and is justifiably famous. They were incredibly disciplined, on pain of death. Perhaps what they are most lauded for is not their ability to kill, but for their engineering.

The early imperial army was a two-tier institution, with citizen volunteers making up the legions, which fought as heavy infantry, and non-citizens recruited into the auxilia, which consisted of archers, cavalry, light infantry, and any other type of unit that could help the legions achieve their mission.

As time went on, the legions became smaller and more numerous, so that they could be deployed more easily. The quality of the equipment also deteriorated, but the legions remained a very effective fighting force almost until the very end of the western Empire. Units were classified as limitanei, or border units, and comitatenses, or mobile units.

In the east, the army was reorganized and was focused on heavy cavalry, emulating the Persians. Following the Arab invasions, the military was divided into an elite standing army, the tagmata, and local units raised from military districts, or themata, similar to the limitanei and comitatenses mentioned above. In the high middle ages, some troops were raised in a semi-feudal manner, and the Empire relied a lot more on mercenaries.

     Symbols of the Empire 

Senatus Populusque Romanus

The empire was rife with symbolism and iconography that has truly stood the test of time. Unfortunately, some are virtually never used because, almost without exception, Hitler co-opted them for his Nazi regime, tainting them perhaps beyond redemption. Roman symbols include:
  • The Aquila - An eagle with wings outstretched, a rallying standard for the armies. Also found on a great deal of stonework.
  • The double-headed eagle - Dating to the splitting of the empire, though the symbol is much older.
  • Eagles in general - As they are associated with Jupiter/Zeus and are a symbol of strength. Their status as "King of the Birds", combined with the special Roman relationship with birds in general (avian activity was the primary form of state omen-reading), gave them particular importance to the Romans.
  • The laurels and S.P.Q.R. - As seen at the top of the page, it stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome. Still used as the municipal logo by the modern city of Rome.
  • The fasces - An axe, handle thrust through a bundle of reeds or sticks, the fasces was a symbol of authority. Originally a republican symbol of strength in unity (one reed or stick breaks, a bundle doesn't). It was resurrected by the fascists, specifically Benito Mussolini. So not everything was ruined by Hitler.
    • Not even Mussolini could ruin this one: the French and American republics, which intentionally attempted to recall Rome, used the fasces in their symbolism long before Mussolini. The French Fifth Republic still uses the fasces with an axe in its semi-official emblem, and the fasces are still found in many American symbols: the Seal of the Senate has crossed fasces with axes, while the Mace of the House and the armrests in the Lincoln Memorial are axeless fasces.
      • The fasces is also found in the symbol for the Swedish police and related agencies, as well as in many other nations.
  • The swastika - The symbol most indelibly associated with the Nazis (in the West), it is very ancient, going back to the neolithic, and global, having been found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It is related to the sun, as are most cross symbols.
  • Roman Salute - There is little evidence that actual Romans actually saluted each other by raising their right hands above their heads, palm facing downward. Nevertheless, the image was associated with Roman Republicanism (via paintings by J-L David, among others) and became popularized during the French Revolution and thereafter. It was adopted by many Americans (as Bellamy Salute), by Fascist Italy (the Roman Salute), Nazi Germany (the Nazi salute), and many other political movements, although, after World War 2, its popularity receded drastically.

     The Emperors 

"Two Caesars is one too many."
Augustus, ordering the death of Cleopatra's son (and supposedly Julius Caesar's bastard)

While the image of The Caligula may linger in the popular imagination, Roman emperors varied from good and competent to ineffectual to monsters. The early emperors, starting with Augustus, largely kept republican institutions in place, cultivating the image of what we would call a constitutional monarchy. However, all real power lay with the emperor, as he had the personal loyalty of the legionsnote . Later on, during the third century, the emperors dropped the pretense of being Just the First Citizen and openly embraced autocratic rule. Their personal force of bodyguards, the Praetorian Guard, had a large role in both selecting and displacing them.

Oh, and, just in case you did not know, Julius Caesar was not an emperor. He died almost 20 years before Rome became an empire, for that matter. It is true, though, that he was a monarch in all but name by the time he died, and played a critical role in helping Rome transition into an empire.

Julio-Claudian dynasty

Augustus(27 BC - 14 AD)

The founder of the Roman Empire and its first emperor. Extremely ruthless and Machiavellian with his political rivals, he was benevolent with the general public. He began the Pax Romana and is widely revered for bringing peace to the Empire.

Has his own page.

Tiberius (14 - 37)

The second emperor and Replacement Scrappy for Augustus and his intended heirs. Ruled the early Roman Empire competently enough, but was extremely passive-aggressive, insisting that the Senate debate issues of the day and come to the conclusion that he wanted, without his having to tell them what that conclusion was. This alienated him from the Senate, and he suffered many personal tragedies before dying at 78, one of the most popular things he ever did.

Caligula (37 - 41)

Tiberius' great-nephew. Insane and tyrannical, but just how much is still hotly debated by historians to this day. Was extremely hated by the Senate, though popular with the lower classes for his antics. Had a very short reign of four years, before he was killed by a Bodyguard Betrayal.

Has his own article.

Claudius (41 - 54)

Caligula's uncle and Tiberius' nephew, already an older man when he became emperor. Is famous for a certain TV series, and for conquering Britain. Surviving his murderous family and eventually obtaining the imperial throne due to his Obfuscating Stupidity, he had a fairly successful reign. Poisoned by his wife (and niece) in 54.

  • Action Survivor: He managed to survive the deadly maze of conspiracies and backstabbings that was the Julio-Claudian family, in no small part due to his Obfuscating Stupidity. The imperial family ripped itself apart, and nobody bothered to kill "Claudius the Idiot" until he was the last man standing (well, crouching behind a curtain).
  • Bread and Circuses: Massively expanded during Claudius' reign, and the main reason for his huge popularity with the plebs.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: His most famous trait.
  • Properly Paranoid
  • Sadist
  • Word of Dante: That the modern, academic consensus on Claudius matching what Robert Grave depicted in I, Claudius, particularly the whole idea of him Obfuscating Stupidity, is actually the result of a re-evaluation of the source material sparked by the popularity of Graves' novel and the subsequent mini-series.

Nero (54 - 68)

Claudius's grand-nephew and adopted son and the last descendant of Augustus' dynasty. Wrongly remembered as a fiddling Rome-burning lunatic, Nero was actually extremely popular during his lifetime. That said, his interest in good governance—if not his competence—did leave something to be desired, and he was perhaps inordinately obsessed with the arts, particularly the theatre (which was considered to be low-grade work; hence his lack of popularity with Rome's elite even in his time). Was overthrown after a mutiny by the armies in Spain and Gaul. The first emperor who persecuted Christians, he was given a massive Historical Villain Upgrade within a generation of his death.

Has his own article.

"The Year of the Four Emperors"

Galba (68 - 69)

The first of the short-lived "four emperors". Former governor of Spain, and made emperor by the legions of Gaul and Spain during their mutiny against Nero.

  • Body Horror
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Died in the Forum Romanum when he was chopped to shreds by his bodyguards.
  • The Butcher: Famous for his cruelty when he was governor of Spain. When he was elected to Roman emperor, his first act was to round up the legions who'd been loyal to Nero and decimate them.
  • Disproportionate Retribution
  • Grumpy Old Man: He was seventy years old when he became emperor.
  • Hanging Judge: At least according to Suetonius.
    • ->"He sentenced a money-changer of questionable honesty to have both hands cut off and nailed to the counter; and crucified a man who had poisoned his ward. When this murderer complained that he was a Roman citizen, Galba recognized his status and ironically consoled him with: 'Put this citizen on a higher cross than the rest, and have his cross whitewashed'."
  • Red Right Hand: Galba suffered from gout, which made his hands and feet swollen to a huge size. He also had another Red Right Hand on his body—an enormous tumor which grew out of his belly, and he supposedly needed to wear special armor to restrain this growing tentacle-like mass of flesh.
  • The Usurper

Otho (69)

The second of the four. Once a close friend of Nero (and the ex-husband of Nero's wife), he enthusiastically support Galba in hopes of being named his Number Two and successor. What Galba ended up choosing another he quickly orchestrated a coup with the Praetorian Guard and seized power.

  • Heroic Sacrifice: After a few small battles against the forces of Vitellius, and despite the urging of his troops to continue fighting, Otho stabbed himself in the chest in order to prevent the empire from falling into further civil war.
  • Hidden Depths: Although a metrosexual playboy and a party animal for most of his life, Otho showed a surprising competence and leadership skill when he became emperor.
  • Pretty Boy
  • Replacement Goldfish: Was a friend of Nero's, and promoted himself as a second Nero when he rose to power. The memory of Nero was still majorly popular with the Roman lower classes, so this was pretty good PR. Otho reinstated most of Nero's reforms, and even signed papers as "Nero".
  • The Starscream: He was this to Galba.

Vitellius (69)

The third (and most consistently reviled) of the four. The governor of Germania, he launched his own rebellion against Galba and Otho. Was infamous for his gluttony and cruelty but initiated several popular and long lasting reforms and had a good administrative track record before the Civil War.

  • Adipose Rex: Is described as this by Suetonius.
  • Fat Bastard: How he is remembered. Suetonius describes him as horrible and depraved, though it's more likely that he was simply a lazy emperor and out of his depth.
  • I Was Quite a Looker

Flavian dynasty

Vespasian (69 - 79)

Former governor of Judea and last of the "four emperors". A very competent administrator and military leader. Defeated the Jewish Revolts and built the Colosseum. According to some, the Messianic Archetype prophecy referred to him. He also left his mark on several modern European languages: Because he imposed a tax on the collection of urine,note  urinals, especially public ones, are known by words derived from his name in several Continental languages (e.g. vespasienne in French and vespasiano in Italian).

  • Colonel Badass: Before he became an emperor in his old age.
  • Deadpan Snarker: His main trait. Well, that and Toilet Humor.
    • Vespasian is said to have dealt the snark even when he was sick and about to die. As he lay in his deathbed with knowledge that his successor would have the Senate deify him, he declared: "Oh, dammit — I think I'm becoming a god." (Ut puto, deus fio.)
    • Another bit of snark related to the aforementioned urine tax: Vespasian's son Titus was expressing discomfort with raising Imperial funds with money from pee, and in response Vespasian gave Titus a coin from the day's haul and asked him, "Here. Does it stink?" Titus said, "No." Vespasian replied, "And yet it comes from piss." (This led to a proverb: "Pecunia non olet"—"Money does not stink.")
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Vespasian's exit was classy: aware that he was breathing his last, he got someone to help him out of bed - so that he could die standing up.
    • Well, about as classy as dying from an attack of diarrhea can be. Which becomes something of a Death by Irony, considering he was said to be an fan of Toilet Humor and helped replenish the treasury with a bathroom tax.

Titus (79 - 81)

Vespasian's eldest son, who waged a successful war against the Jews early in his life, which would have long-lasting consequences for Christianity and Judaism. He also organized relief efforts after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which devastated the surrounding area. Died of a sudden illness two years into his reign.

Domitian (81 - 96)

Vespasian's younger son. Was a very competent but authoritarian ruler, and deeply loathed by the Senate. One of the first emperors with a cult of personality. He was assassinated.

Nervan-Antonine dynasty

Nerva (96 - 98)

An old childless Senator who was made emperor by the Senate but was unpopular with the army. Avoided Galba's mistake and adopted Trajan, the most successful and popular general of the time, as his successor. Was the first of the "Five Good Emperors."

Trajan (98 - 117)

Widely considered to be the greatest Roman emperor since Augustus, his conquests increased the Roman Empire to its greatest extent. Trajan conquered Dacia, or modern Romania (Traian is still a common name there), northwestern Arabia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia. Born in the town of Italica, near modern Seville in Spain, he is considered to be the first non-Italian emperor, though he descended from an old Italian family that settled in Spain.

Hadrian (117 - 138)

A peacemaker who pulled back from several areas conquered by Trajan. Traveled around the empire, and built the eponymous wall in Britain. Known for vehemently supporting Greek culture, almost to a bizarre degree. He is also remembered by Jews for being the Emperor who brutally crushed the Bar Kochba revolt, renaming Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and generally making things harder for them. His reign was obscure with relatively few historical depictions. One exception is Marguerite Yourcenar's classic Memoirs of Hadrian.

Antoninus Pius (138 - 161)

Famous for doing nothing at all besides ruling competently for 22 years. In fact, unlike Trajan and the other warrior-emperors that would follow him, Antonius Pius probably never left Italy on campaign and fought his wars entirely through intermediaries in the field. Rumour has it that he also received a delegation from the Han Dynasty in China during his reign. Also built a second wall in Britain (after some victories he managed) which was soon abandoned. He probably the cognomen Pius because he deified Hadrian and pardoned some Senators which Hadrian had sentenced to death.

Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180)

Wisest of the emperors. Initially ruled the empire with Lucius Verus, the first time the Empire had more than one emperor. Tried to live up to the ideal of the philosopher-king, and the author of the well-known Meditations. A decent man and very competent ruler, though his reign was marked by wars against various barbarians in Germania and The Plague, which killed him too.

Commodus (177 - 192)

The son of Marcus Aurelius. Started the empire's long decline by being a spendthrift and useless ruler. May have gone slightly mad before the end, renaming Rome to "Colony of Commodus" and pretending he was Hercules reborn. He did like to fight in the Colosseum, but unlike his fictional portrayal he was murdered by a slave in his bath after ruling for 12 years.

"The Year of the Five Emperors"

Pertinax (193)

An elderly man and accomplished general elected by the Senate. Was betrayed and murdered by the Praetorian Guard after he tried to impose some much needed discipline to their ranks. (are we seeing a pattern here?).

Didius Julianus (193)

Famous only for buying the empire from the Praetorians, who auctioned off the throne after they'd killed Pertinax. Needless to say this made him very unpopular with everyone else, leading to him being executed after almost everyone had abandoned him.

Pescennius Niger (193)

A general whose troops proclaimed him emperor in Syria, in response to the scandalous auction. Defeated by Septimius Severus in the next year.

Clodius Albinus (193)

A second general whose troops rebelled against Didius buying the throne, this time in Britain. He initially allied himself with Severus, who let him have the title "Caesar". Was eventually backstabbed by his "ally" Severus and killed in 197.

Severan dynasty

Septimius Severus (193 - 211)

Harsh but fair emperor and very competent general. Machiavellian master of the Xanatos Gambit. Since he was a military man who depended only on the army for support, the Senate finally slid into total irrelevance during his reign. He hailed from Leptis Magna in North Africa and had Punic as his first language.

Caracalla (198 - 217)

Severus' eldest son. Expanded the Roman citizenship to all free people throughout the empire. Whatever ruling ability he may have had was totally overwhelmed by his constant violent rage. Famously had his own brother, co-emperor Geta, murdered just so that he could reign alone.

Macrinus (217 - 218)

Not a member of the Severan dynasty. The first emperor not to come from the senatorial class, he killed Caracalla before the other way round would've happened. Didn't last long before Severus' family took back the throne.

Elagabalus (218 - 222)

Caracalla's cousin. A flamboyant Camp Gay teenager, at a time when Straight Gay or Bi the Way was the norm (some even claim him to be a Transsexual), he was so flamboyant that it led to extreme disapproval and his early demise.

Alexander Severus (222 - 235)

Another young cousin of Caracalla and Elagabalus. Rather a Momma's Boy, but was shaping up to be a fair, wise, and competent emperor when he was unceremoniously murdered by his soldiers for trying to negotiate with the German tribes as opposed to fighting them on the battlefield.

"The Soldier Emperors"

Maximinus Thrax (235 - 238)

The first of the so-called "Soldier Emperors", and also the first ruler who never set a foot into Rome. Started as a common barbarian soldier from Thrace, and never learned Latin properly. Also known by the nickname "Cyclops" because of his freakish size.

Philip the Arab (244 - 249)

Oversaw the celebration of the millennium since the foundation of Rome. As his cognomen implies, he was an ethnic Arab from the Syrian borderlands—a fact of which modern Syrians are quite proud; they put him on their 100-pound note. Very tolerant towards Christians.

Decius (249 - 251)

Persecuted the Christians and became infamous for it. Died in battle against the invading Goths.

Valerian (253 - 260)

First emperor to be captured by the enemy. Valerian's reign was easily the lowest point of Rome in the third century. Was taken alive by the Sassanid Persians and allegedly skinned, stuffed and put on display. Other accounts have him being forced to be King Shapur's footstool, whilst the more credible ones simply have him stuck in a tower for the rest of his life.

Gallienus (260 - 268)

Valerian's son. Did everything in his power to prevent the total collapse of the Roman Empire. His reign saw the secession of multiple Roman provinces. All Gallienus could do was protect the Italian peninsula until his assassination.

Claudius Gothicus (268 - 270)

Military man from the Balkans and competent ass-kicker. Defeated and almost exterminated the Goths before dying of illness.

Aurelian (270 - 275)

Reconquered the breakaway provinces of Gaul, and crushed the Palmyrene Empire under Queen Zenobia. He probably extended the Roman Empire's lifespan by two hundred years. He obtained the title of Restitutor Orbis, or restorer of the world. Was assassinated by his soldiers after a 5 year reign, which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. His wife Ulpia Severina may have ruled in the interregnum after Aurelian's death, being the only woman to have ever done so.

Probus (276 - 282)

Oversaw the Roman withdraw to the Rhine and Danube rivers. Despite a reasonable competent campaign of military restoration, he was deposed and murdered in a revolt begun by disloyal Praetorians (again).

The Tetrarchy

Diocletian (284 - 305)

A true Magnificent Bastard who reorganized the empire and appointed three other co-emperors, creating what is called the tetrarchy. Declared himself a God-Emperor, marking the point when the emperor's authority was absolute in theory as well as in fact. Persecuted the Christians, because he considered them a threat to Rome's stability. After he felt he had done all he wanted to do, he retired to the countryside and became a gardener. He lived long enough to see the collapse of the Tetrarchy.

Constantius Chlorus (306)

One of Diocletian's co-emperors. Father of an illegitimate son who would later become Constantine the Great. Best known for his tolerant stance towards Christians in his part of the empire.

Constantine the Great (306 - 337)

First tolerated, then favored Christianity. The first Christian emperor of Rome, being baptized just before his death. Moved the empire's capital away from Rome, to what would be called Constantinople. Had his eldest son executed under false pretenses, followed by his wife who may have had a part in the whole thing. This would have terrible reprecussions for his dynasty.

Constantine II (337-340)

Constantine's first (surviving) son. Squabbled with his brother Constans and died while fighting against him during a failed invasion of Italy.

Constantius II (337-361)

Second (surviving) son of Constantine. Credited with masterminding the murder of his male relatives after his father's death. The first emperor to actively discourage pagan practices and promote Christiantiy.note 

Julian the Apostate (360 - 363)

Julian was baptized a Christian but as a youth he became interested in Greek and Roman antiquities, philosophy and history. Eventually he abjured his Christian upbringing and identified as a pagan. Hence his famous title, the Apostate. He was never exactly considered Emperor material in his youth, and his succession came as a surprise since he was known for being an eccentric youth, who started sporting beards (considered unfashionable among Roman elites). As an Emperor he reigned for a short while but began a number of large reforms. Most notably, he compiled several state polices to reinstate the traditional Roman pagan religion, including an attempt to make Hellenism into an organized Church compared to Christianity. He also made promises to the Jewish community in Antioch to resettle them in Jerusalem.

He died during a campaign to invade the Persian Empire and almost all his plans were abandoned after his death. It's possible to compare him to the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten who also introduced a state sponsored religious cult, albeit Akhenaten was a monotheistic radical where Julian was a restorer of the Old Gods. He was the last non-Christian Emperor of Antiquity, and his life and death is often invoked as the Death of the Old Gods, the point at which Hellenism and any attempts to prolong it became Deader Than Disco.

Despite his brief reign however, Julian is considerably popular as a Historical-Domain Character and is probably the most well-represented of the Late Antiquity period. Henrik Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean is one very famous and respected artistic depiction, while more recently, he became well known as a result of Gore Vidal's Julian.

Jovian (363-364)

Became emperor after Julian was killed in battle against the Persians. Jovian undid Julian's more anti-Christian policies, while maintaining tolerance for paganism. Died under mysterious circumstances after only eight months on the throne while still on his way to Constantinople.

Valentian I (364-375)

Ruled in the west, with his brother Valens ruling the east. Valentinian restored the empire's flagging fortunes with military victories against various invaders. Died from a stroke brought on by yelling at enemy diplomats.

Valens (364 - 378)

Famous for losing the Battle of Adrianople, the most disastrous defeat in Rome's history, and getting himself killed.

Gratian (375-383)

Succeeded his father Valentinian. Ended the religious toleration of his predecessors, favoring Christianity and suppressing paganism.

Theodosian dynasty

Theodosius (379 - 395)

Last emperor to rule over east and west. Banned all religions except Christianity. Split the Empire after his death, the west going to Honorius and the east going to Arcadius.

Honorius (395 - 423)

Emperor of the Western Empire. Another imperial idiot. Most notable moment of his reign was the Sack of Rome in 410, which he held some responsibility for, since he had his best general, Stilicho, put to death, along with the families of Gothic soldiers in Roman service. The Goths under Alaric revolted due to their mistreatment and sacked Rome for the first time since 390 BC. Honorius also reportedly lusted after his half-sister.

Majorian (457-461)

General who became emperor after the overthrow of Avitus. Notable for spending nearly all of his reign campaigning to regain lands the Empire had lost and doing a fairly successful job, reconquering most of Gaul and Hispania; his attempt to kick the Vandals out of Africa was thwarted by traitorous soldiers however. His attempts to curb practices putting a strain on the Empire drew the ire of both the aristocracy and magister militum Ricimer who had hoped to use Majorian as a puppet. As a result he was captured, tortured and finally executed by Ricimer with his death arguably ending any hope for the stability or survival of the Western Empire.

Romulus Augustulus (475 - 476)

A kid who was the puppet of his father Flavius Orestes, who himself had violently supplanted the previous emperor Julius Nepos. When Orestes denied the barbarian troops that had helped him to dethrone Nepos the promised rewards — specifically to grant them a third of Italy for settlement — he was in turn overthrown by the German general Odoacer, who deposed the puppet Romulus (but spared his life) and assumed the title "commander of Italy". Romulus is usually identified as the last emperor in the West, although some insist that Julius Nepos, who ruled in Dalmatia until 480, was the last one.note 

(For Emperors of the Eastern Empire after the Western's fall, see Byzantine Empire)

Trope Namer for:

  • The Emperor (from imperator, a military title literally meaning "commander" and usually bestowed upon victorious generals)
  • The Empire (and in the western tradition at least, also the Trope Codifier)
  • The Republic (from res publica, "[government is a] public affair")

Depictions in fiction

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Thermae Romae, set in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (and in 21st century Japan).
  • Highlander: The Search for Vengeance has the back story of Marcus being a general of Rome who while conquering England destroys the hero's village. Later on we see the sacking of Rome.
  • Axis Powers Hetalia has the character of Grandpa Rome, dressed as a Roman general.

    Comic Books 
  • The Astérix series. Though Julius Caesar wasn't an emperor.
  • Alix is one of the two comics (the other being Astérix) translated to latin
  • Aquila is set in a Historical Fantasy version of the Roman Empire during the reign of Nero.
  • Murena
  • Nero Fox (the "Jive-Jumping Emperor of Ancient Rome"), a Golden Age DC Comics Funny Animal character who was emperor of ancient Rome.
  • The Sandman issue 20, "August", in which an old Augustus spends an afternoon disguised as a beggar in the streets of Rome
  • A recent Abrafaxe arc, which ran from Mosaik No. 459 to 482, is set during the reign of Emperor Trajan. The Abrafaxe have to help bring two Germanic children (the son and the daughter of two chiefs who want to have good relations with Rome) from the Rhine to Rome. Which brought them to Carthage, where they found a statue of Bella (the Abrafaxe's distaff counterparts, Anna, Bella and Caramella had passed through the place in an adventure in 25 B.C., during the reign of Augustus).



    Live-Action TV 
  • I, Claudius, based on the novel by Robert Graves.
  • The miniseries Masada about the siege of the titular fortress at the end of the Jewish Revolts.
  • The Roman Mysteries: The TV adaptation of the book series.
  • The Doctor Who episodes "The Romans", "The Fires of Pompeii" and "The Pandorica Opens".
  • The BBC series of Horrible Histories has a 'Rotten Romans' segment every episode, sometimes focusing on Rome itself and other times on Roman Britain.
  • The HBO/BBC series Rome is all about the founding days of the empire.
  • Chelmsford 123 is a Britcom about the Roman occupation of Britain.
  • Plebs, an ITV sitcom set early in the reign of Augustus.
  • Attila is a miniseries that depicts the Hunnic king's wars against Rome and his rivalry with Flavius Aetius.

  • Mike Duncan's The History of Rome details the history of Rome from the legendary founding by Romulus to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer in 476. Even though Duncan is partial to the middle Republican period, the bulk of the work is spent on the Imperial period, in part because it is more complex and in part because more sources are available for a longer period of time.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Vampire: The Requiem: The Requiem for Rome/Fall of the Camarilla duology are set in a stylised fourth century Rome. Requiem for Rome is a setting book, with the default year being 360; Fall of the Camarilla is a campaign covering the period from 320 to 410.
  • Call of Cthulhu historical setting Cthulhu Invictus takes place in the first century AD.


    Video Games 

    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): Roman Empire