The Lazy Person’s Guide to Early Roman Emperors

Sometimes I cannot explain my fixations with history, nor my devilish need to mock it. I could argue that certain topics, such as Roman Emperors, are discussed with such reverence and so little endeavor at levity, that there is a vacuum of historical entertainment. I am painting these men as mortals, defying the dusty, pretentious misconceptions of their demigod natures. Or I could just confess that my trivia and quizzing skills were a little less than on-point in this arena. (Get it?) And the only way I could bring myself to actually learn about the Emperors was to thoroughly laugh at them. I’ll leave it to you.

“Don’t ‘asp’ me what happened to Cleopatra [snicker, snicker]”

1. Augustus

(Sep, 63 BC – Aug, 14 AD)
Reputation: Ushered in an era of peace, development, and innovation.
What He Was Known For: Augustus (aka “Octavian”) was Julius Caesar’s heir before Caesar was poked to death. Augustus fought Mark Antony and Cleopatra for control of Rome until it drove the lovers to suicide, allowing Augustus to consolidate power as the first Emperor of Rome. He built roads and infrastructure. Oh, and he named the month of “August” for himself, since it was his most successful month for battles. I wish I had a month named Katius.
Age at Death: 75
Cause of Death: Unknown natural causes


“Poor Sejanus, I guess Mercury was in retrograde [glug, glug]. Heh-heh.
I can’t wait to tell Caligula that one.”

2. Tiberius

(Sep, 14 AD – Mar, 37 AD)
Reputation: Mama’s boy, brooding, disliked, really unpopular with the Senate
What He Was Known For: He was Augustus’s stepson who wasn’t up to the challenge. Lots of people wanted his throne, and he became tyrannical and murdery to keep it. He kept a pet henchman, Sejanus, for murdering his rivals and their kind, until the henchman was also whacked, under Tibby’s orders, completing the circle of death. In his old age, Tiberius ran and hid in Capri, drank wine, and studied astrology until his dying day.
Age at Death: 77
Cause of Death: Probably natural causes (maybe a pillow to the face)


“What did you just say to me?”

3. Caligula

(Mar, 37 AD – Jan, 41 AD)
Reputation: Really sick and twisted dude, hated
What He Was Known For: He was named as Tiberius’s heir, even though Caligula HATED the emperor for murdering his father. Living with the old emperor in Capri really messed up Caligula in the head, and he may have snuffed out his predecessor with a pillow to the face. His reign started off fine enough, but after a brief illness, Caligula became a strange sort of monster. It wasn’t so much that he liked to pace the halls dressed as a woman (which, hey, ya know, whatever), it was more that he enjoyed the cruelty of executions and declared himself a god. His people hated and feared him.
Age at Death: 28
Cause of Death: Stabbed 30 times by his own guards, and dumped in a shallow grave


“Who threw that chicken leg?”

4. Claudius

(Jan, 41 AD – Oct, 54 AD)
Reputation: Disfigured, weird, but beloved. Also, kinda looked like Daniel Craig.
What He Was Known For: As Augustus’s last remaining direct descendant, Claudius was a disfigured weird dude whose family would pelt him with food when he fell asleep at the dinner table. Despite this, the people of Rome adored him. He was a friend to the poor, the sick, women’s interests, and people in general. He also made his mark by conquering Britain–where many had tried, he, Claudius finally succeeded.
Age at Death: 63
Cause of Death: He was somewhat ill, but his power-grabbing wife, Agrippina, may have had a physician posion him, or fed him bad mushrooms


“I don’t wanna hear the word ‘fire’ out your mouth, or I’ll get my kicking boots.”

5. Nero

(Oct, 54 AD – Jun, 68 AD)
Reputation: Murdery, but also artsy
What He Was Known For: Nero–Agrippina’s son (from another marriage) who was a nutty mixed bag of murder and art. On the positive side, he loved music, poetry, high-minded sports, and the finer things in life. He also wanted to share all these loves with much of Rome. On the down side, he (may have) enjoyed persecuting Christians, and had a lot of his political rivals killed. He killed his mom (stabbing), his brother (poison), his first wife (execution), and his second wife (kicked her to death). Then he missed his kicked wife so much, he married a young boy who resembled her, and had the boy castrated to be more of a woman. When a large portion of Rome burned, instead of fiddling, he kinda wanted to help. But he also claimed a lot of the crispy empty land for a new enormous gilded palace. By the time his reign ended, much of Rome was burnt or decayed. Still, much of Rome seemed to adore him. Also, everyone ever questions every history written about this dude. Controversy!
Age at Death: 30
Cause of Death: Suicide (fearing imminent arrest and execution)


“Otho, you fat ugly bastard, get over here and kiss my feet.”

6. Galba

(Jun, 68 AD – Jan, 69 AD)
Reputation: Brutal old dude. Cranky granddad.
What He Was Known For: Galba cut his way to the throne quickly after Nero’s demise. He thought the way to pull a reverse-Nero was to jack up taxes and sentence a LOT of people to death. Pull those reins tight, and whatnot! Except that during his six months or so ruling, he pissed off his supporter Otho, he pissed off the Praetorian Guard, and he pissed off the Lower Rhine Army. Oops.
Age at Death: 72
Cause of Death: Murdered in the Roman Forum, his head was gifted to Otho.


“I know, I look like I should be named Otho.
Otho love Nero.”

7. Otho

(Jan, 69 AD – Apr, 69 AD)
Reputation: Nero acolyte, mistaken constantly for Beetlejuice character.
What He Was Known For: The former Nero crony gets most of the credit for offing Galba, his predecessor. In his short 3 months as emperor, he brought back gladiator games, completed Nero’s Golden palace (ye know, the one atop the cinders of Rome), and restored some of Nero’s fallen statues.
Age at Death: 36
Cause of Death: Suicide, stabbed himself in the chest upon learning that arrest and execution were imminent. A very Nero thing to do.


“Com’on red eight, Papa needs a new toga!”

8. Vitellius

(Apr, 69 AD – Dec, 69 AD)
Reputation: Fat gambler
What He Was Known For: Gluttony and gambling. He sent armies after Otho primarily because being emperor could help relieve his massive gambling debts. But the gambling continued, he commanded multiple large banquets per day, and quickly settled into a lavish lifestyle. He also banned astrology and executed any known astrologists. He was so hated that armies rose up against him. He tried to escape Rome in disguise, but it didn’t work.
Age at Death: 54
Cause of Death: Dragged through the streets, pleading for mercy, tortured, and murdered


“Well, this is a fucking shit show.”

9. Vespasian

(Dec, 69 AD – Jun, 79 AD)
Reputation: The grown-up in the room, witty and funny guy–but serious anti-Semitic issues
What He Was Known For: Vespasian patched up Rome. He raised taxes, filled the coffers, and built a lot of buildings–in fact, he was the one who ordered the building of the Colosseum. However, before you start building your temple to this dude, keep in mind that he levied a “Jewish tax” on all citizens of the Jewish faith after a related uprising in Judea (66-73). So, wrong side of history there.
Age at Death: 69
Cause of Death: Natural causes, illness


“We shall call it a vol-can-o.”

10. Titus

(Jun, 79 AD – Sep, 81 AD)
Reputation: Being a good guy with bad luck
What He Was Known For: Vespasian’s son. He was a kind guy who kept on building stuff and helping people, finishing up work on the Colosseum. Mt. Vesuvius erupted on his watch, and while he was touring the aftermath, a large portion of Rome burned (again). Then he got sick and died.
Age at Death: 41
Cause of Death: Fever, supposedly. Or, murdered by his brother, Domitian.


“What? Gods don’t go bald, we just have high foreheads.”

11. Domitian

(Sep, 81 AD – Sep, 96 AD)
Reputation: A populist with a god complex
What He Was Known For: Domitian was a vain prick who loved games, the arts, and pageantry. His was a big mixed bag of ruling: He had some minor military victories, helped rebuild parts of Rome, and restored freedoms to (some of) the people. But, he was hated by the Senate, and expanded his father’s “Jewish tax” to include people observing “Jewish behaviors”. Really thought himself god-like and executed people out of jealousy for things like naming a lance after themselves. Reportedly sensitive about his receding hairline.
Age at Death: 44
Cause of Death: Murdered by court officials. They stabbed him in the groin first, and then seven more times.


“Would anyone like a butterscotch? I have one here, I think.”

12. Nerva

(Sep, 96 – Jan, 98)
Reputation: Really old guy who didn’t offend anyone.
What He Was Known For: After all the discord from Nero and the Flavian emperors, the Senate patched things up with an old tempo-emperor, Nerva. He was a decent leader, eliminating the “Jewish tax”, building things, and whatnot. But he was pretty sickly.
Age at Death: 67
Cause of Death: Natural causes. For real, this time.


“Where’s my Wine Boy?”

13. Trajan

(Jan, 98 – Aug, 117)
Reputation: A damn good emperor (who drank heavily and was a pederast)
What He Was Known For: Lots of prosperity, building, conquering, and expansion.  Under his rule, Rome conquered Dacia (present-day Romania-ish area), the Nabataean Empire (Arabian peninsula), and the Parthian Empire (Armenia and Mesopotamia). Loved by his Senate. Tolerant of rising Christianity.
Age at Death: 63
Cause of Death: Edema or stroke. His wife may have pulled a Weekend at Bernie’s for a little while after his death.


“All young male citizens shall henceforth take swimming lessons”

14. Hadrian

(Aug, 117 – Jul, 138)
Reputation: Mostly a damn good emperor. Worshipped his dead boyfriend, literally. Built things.
What He Was Known For: He was an artistic type who wrote a whole lot of poetry, traveled a lot, and loved his military. When his bae, a boy named Antinous died (maybe drowned in the Nile), Hadrian built a cult around the kid that lasted a really long time. Speaking of building, the dude loved him some infrastructure and had a ton of it built, including the very famous “Hadrian’s Wall” that spans England. On the down side, his construction projects inadvertently launched The Second Roman-Jewish War led to a new era of antisemitism in Rome.
Age at Death: 62
Cause of Death: Natural causes, probably a heart attack. But he left behind some nice poetry.


“Shhhh. Rome is sleeping. It needs a nap.”

15. Antoninus Pius

(Jul, 138 – Mar, 161)
Reputation: He was fine. Wait, who are we talking about again?
What He Was Known For: A really quiet, peaceful period in Rome–and not much else. Yes, he built his own “Antonine Wall” across England to one-up Hadrian’s Wall. And I think he just tiptoed around Rome for the rest of his time.
Age at Death: 74
Cause of Death: Natural causes.


“Ready. Set. War.”

16. Marcus Aurelius (and Lucius Verus)

(Mar, 161 – Mar, 180)
Reputation: For Marcus’s brother and co-ruler, Verus, there is none. No one remembers poor Jan. They only remember Marcus.
What He Was Known For: They were the finale of Pax Romana, the Roman golden years. His reign was marked by warfare, especially against the Partian Empire (present-day Iran) and Germanic tribes. And then plague broke out and killed a whole lot of people, including Marcus’s bro, WhatsHisNamecus. Marcus was also the “philosopher king” who pushed stoicism. Reason. Patience. Snore.
Age at Death: 58
Cause of Death: Mystery! (Maybe plague?)


“RAWR.”

17. Commodus

(Mar, 161 – Mar, 180)
Reputation: God complex, self-love
What He Was Known For: Commodus was a vain, athletic guy who thought himself the reincarnation of Hercules. He would sometimes fight in the gladiatorial arena including bouts where he killed exotic animals. But he had very little interest in war or philosophy. Instead, after Rome burned (again), he ritually re-founded the empire, named it for himself, and then renamed the months of the calendar after himself as well. He liked himself a lot.
Age at Death: 31
Cause of Death: Assassination–strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner, Narcissus

Sure, Commodus was not the last of the Emperors, but he marked the end of the Gladiator film, so that’s the end of history I assume. Okay, there were 70 Roman Emperors, and most of them have fallen into the cracks of history. Hopefully these seventeen will entreat you to unearth the histories of the rest and learn not just the salacious and humorous quirks of the Empire, but maybe even some of the nuance.

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