The great emperors of Rome – the heroes, hedonists, villains, and everything in between.
The Julio-Claudian Dynasty, a period of Roman history marked by the reigns of five emperors, began with Augustus. Augustus’ rule was followed by that of Tiberius, a capable but unpopular ruler, who expanded the empire’s borders and strengthened its economy.
Caligula, the third emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, is remembered for his erratic behavior and extravagant spending. His reign was marked by cruelty and debauchery, which ultimately led to his assassination.
Claudius, Caligula’s uncle, succeeded him and proved to be a competent and effective ruler. He expanded the empire, annexing Britain and other territories, and implemented significant legal and administrative reforms.
The last emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, Nero, is infamous for his extravagance and tyranny. He committed suicide in 68 CE.
The end of Nero’s reign marked the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and the beginning of the Year of the Four Emperors, a tumultuous period that eventually led to the rise of the Flavian Dynasty.
Emperor Nero is remembered for his persecution of Christians and his role in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. The fire destroyed much of the city, leaving only four of Rome’s fourteen districts untouched. Nero’s response was to blame the Christians, leading to their widespread persecution and execution.
Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea, was a sprawling complex that covered an estimated 100 acres. It was adorned with gold leaf, marble, and frescoes, and featured an enormous man-made lake, lush gardens, and a colossal statue of Nero himself.
The palace was a testament to Nero’s extravagance and self-indulgence, and its construction was funded by the spoils of his various military campaigns and the confiscation of property from citizens.
Nero was a patron of the arts and a musician and performer himself, of debated talent. He participated in various competitions and even performed in public, which was considered scandalous for a Roman emperor. His love for the arts did little to redeem his reputation, and his rule is remembered as one of tyranny and excess.
Emperor Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian Dynasty, came to power in 69 CE after the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors.
A seasoned military commander, Vespasian brought stability to the empire and embarked on a series of ambitious building projects, the most famous of which is the Colosseum. This massive amphitheater, capable of seating 50,000 spectators, remains one of the most iconic structures of the ancient world.
Vespasian focused on fiscal responsibility and the restoration of Rome’s infrastructure, which had been neglected during the reigns of his predecessors. He implemented a series of tax reforms, including the introduction of the infamous urine tax, which was levied on the collection of human urine used in various industries, such as tanning and laundering.
Vespasian was also known for his wit and humility. He famously quipped, “An emperor must die standing”, as he struggled to remain upright during his final illness.
His pragmatic approach to governance and his ability to restore stability to the empire laid the foundation for the success of the Flavian Dynasty.
Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 to 117 CE, is remembered for expanding the Roman Empire to its greatest territorial extent. Under his leadership, the empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf and encompassing much of modern-day Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Trajan’s military campaigns were marked by a series of conquests, including the annexation of the Nabatean Kingdom, the conquest of Dacia (modern-day Romania), and the invasion of Parthia. These victories brought immense wealth to the empire, allowing Trajan to fund numerous public works, such as the construction of the Forum of Trajan and the famous Trajan’s Column.
Despite his military aggression, Trajan was also known for his benevolent rule and his commitment to the welfare of his subjects. He implemented social programs including the *alimenta*, a system of state-sponsored welfare for orphaned and impoverished children.
Trajan’s reign is remembered as a golden age of Roman history, marked by military success, prosperity, and good governance.
Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 CE, is best known for consolidating the empire’s borders. His reign was marked by a shift in focus from expansion to consolidation. He believed that the empire had reached its optimal size and that further conquests would only weaken it. Some Roman elites opposed this change in policy.
Hadrian’s efforts to strengthen the empire’s defenses included the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, a massive defensive structure designed to protect the province of Roman Britain from raids by the northern tribes.
In addition to his military and administrative accomplishments, Hadrian was a patron of the arts and a lover of Greek culture. He commissioned numerous architectural projects, including the rebuilding of the Pantheon (a large temple) and the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma.
His reign was a period of relative peace and stability, during which the empire’s borders were secured and its cultural achievements celebrated.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180 CE, is remembered not only for his reign but also for his contributions to Stoic philosophy. As the author of the *Meditations*, a series of personal reflections on ethics and self-improvement, Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of the great philosophical minds of the ancient world.
His reign was marked by a series of military campaigns, including the Parthian War and the Marcomannic Wars, which were fought against Germanic tribes along the empire’s northern borders. Despite these challenges, Marcus Aurelius remained committed to the principles of Stoicism, emphasizing the importance of reason, self-discipline, and the pursuit of virtue.
In addition to his philosophical writings, Marcus Aurelius is remembered for his commitment to the welfare of his subjects. He implemented social programs including the establishment of schools and the provision of financial support for impoverished families.
His reign, though marked by conflict, is remembered as a period of intellectual and cultural achievement, during which the principles of Stoicism were put into practice at the highest levels of government.
Emperor Septimius Severus
Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled from 193 to 211 CE, founded the Severan Dynasty and implemented significant military campaigns and reforms.
Born in modern-day Libya, he was the first provincial, non-Italic emperor. Severus rose from a relatively humble background and seized power after a ruthless campaign against his rivals in the Year of the Five Emperors, a period of unrest that began with the murder of Emperor Commodus in 192 CE.
Septimius Severus undertook a series of military campaigns, including the conquest of the Parthian Empire and the suppression of various uprisings in the provinces. He was also recognized for strengthening the empire’s economy and infrastructure. He implemented building projects including the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome and the expansion of the city’s harbor at Portus.
His reign, though marked by conflict, laid the groundwork for the continued success of the Severan Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty before the Crisis of the Third Century.
Emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to 305 CE, is best known for implementing the Tetrarchy, a system of government in which the empire was divided into four administrative units, each ruled by a separate emperor.
This innovative approach to governance was designed to address the challenges of ruling an increasingly vast and diverse empire and to ensure a more efficient and stable administration after the Crisis of the Third Century, when the Empire nearly collapsed.
Diocletian’s reign was also marked by the Great Persecution of Christians, the most severe and widespread persecution of the religion in Roman history. Under his rule, Christians were systematically targeted, with their property confiscated, their churches destroyed, and many executed for their faith.
Diocletian was the first Roman emperor to abdicate the position voluntarily in 305 CE, after suffering illness. His reforms, including the Tetrarchy and the reorganization of the empire’s provinces, laid the groundwork for the eventual division of the Roman Empire into its Eastern and Western halves.
‘Constantine the Great’, who ruled from 306 to 337 CE, is remembered for legalizing Christianity and founding the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, following his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against his rival Maxentius in 312 CE, marked a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. His commitment to Christianity led to the construction of numerous churches and the convening of the First Council of Nicaea, which sought to establish a unified doctrine for the faith.
Constantine also achieved a series of military and political successes, including the reunification of the empire under his rule and the defeat of various rivals and barbarian tribes.
The founding of Constantinople, which would become the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, was one of Constantine’s most significant achievements. The city, strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, served as a symbol of the empire’s continued strength and the growing influence of Christianity.
Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565 CE, is best known for his efforts to codify Roman law and reconquer lost territories. His reign marked a period of renewed imperial ambition and the expansion of the Eastern Roman Empire, which would later become known as the Byzantine Empire.
The codification of Roman law, known as the *Corpus Juris Civilis*, was one of Justinian’s most significant achievements. This monumental work, which sought to compile and systematize centuries of legal precedent, served as the foundation of civil legal systems throughout the Western world for centuries to come.
Justinian embarked on a series of military campaigns aimed at reconquering western territories lost to barbarian invasions, dubbed the *renovatio imperii* (the restoration of the empire). Under his rule, the empire regained control of much of the western Mediterranean, including parts of Italy, North Africa, and Spain.
These victories, though short-lived, marked a brief resurgence of Roman power and a final attempt to restore the glory of the ancient empire.