We all know about the Roman emperor who gave his senator a horse or who “fiddled while Rome burns.” But that’s not the end of it when it comes to the nutsiness of Rome’s Emperors.
Below is our list of five of the most bizarre Roman rulers. These might make you laugh, but the ancient Romans who lived under their control weren’t having fun. (By the by, there is an exhibit about Emperor Nero at the Roman forum. Palatine, and Colosseum until September 18. Don’t miss it!)
TIBERIUS (ruled 14-37 AD).
Why he’s crazy: Tiberius, Rome’s first Emperor, succeeded Augustus. He then retreated to his lavish villa in Capri. The first-century historian Suetonius tells us that Tiberius’ life was anything but deprived. He had constant orgies, hired young girls and boys to play in the grottoes like “Pans and Nymphs”, kept an erotic library, and even abused children and toddlers. (Eek.)
Truth-o-meter (0=completely false, 10=definitely true): 6. Suetonius was fond of scandals. However, he is a more credible source than Tacitus and tells us rumors that were very popular during Tiberius’s time. Although Tiberius might not have been as evil as Suetonius portrays him to be, it is safe to assume that you wouldn’t send your son to spend the summer with Uncle Tiberius.
Find out more: Few bits of classical history are more entertaining than Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius in his Lives of the Caesars, which is filled with far more detail than what we have written. The first six books of Tacitus’ Annals, which are dedicated to Tiberius’ reign are for those who are truly fascinated. Modern historians, however, are less skeptical.
You can visit Tiberius in Italy if you want! You can visit the Palatine Hill to see the remains of his palace or Capri where you will find the Villa Jovis, one his 12 villas.
CALIGULA (ruled 37-41 AD).
Why he’s crazy: Everyone loved Caligula as an emperor. They saw him as the young, fresh face who would follow Tiberius. Caligula was, oops! Caligula was also a delusional megalomaniac. He wandered around the palace all night, instead of sleeping, and spoke in confidence to Jupiter and the moon. The best-known story is that he made his horse senator by building a stable out of marble for him and inviting people to eat with him.
Truth-o-meter: 8. The majority of information we have about Caligula comes mainly from Suetonius who wrote 80 years after his passing or Cassius Dio who wrote over 100 years later. Almost every source, even contemporary, describes Caligula to be insane. Suetonius is the main source. His description of Caligula sounds like he had a psychotic disorder. This would be not surprising considering that everyone around him was required to take part in his delusions at death.
Where can I find more information?Again Suetonius’ Life of Caligula is a good choice. Cassius Dio’s Roman History, and the sixth book in Tacitus’ Annals are also available.
Caligula was also a force behind many public works. The remains of the Claudian Aqueduct can be found near the Caelian, Palatine Hills, central Rome, or at the Parco degli Acquedotti. The Aurelian Wall still includes his Acqua Anio Novus aqueduct.
NERO (ruled 54-68 AD).
Why is he so crazy?A little history about Nero’s treatment of his family members: Nero divorced his first wife and then had her head cut off. He brought it to Rome for his second wife, Poppaea. When Poppaea was pregnant with their second child, he beat her second wife to death. Poppaea saw a young boy with the same appearance as him and married him. He forced him to dress like a woman and had him castrated.
He also murdered his mother… there were rumors that their relationship was more than just mother-son.
Nero sang on a stage, not fiddled! It seems almost normal that Rome was being destroyed while Nero sang on a stage. The people were able to have it when Nero used extreme tactics to rebuild Rome, such as forcing wealthy men to name him their heir and then forcing them into suicide. In essence, he was forced to commit suicide. His final words were: “Oh, how the world is losing an artist!”
Truth-o-meter: 6. His entire life was reconstructed by historians who lived after his death, such as Suetonius and Tacitus. They were clearly biased against him. Many of these accounts contradict one another. Contemporaries do make passing mention of how people hated Nero and that the spirit of his rule, if not all details, is likely correct.
Find out more about Tacitus and Suetonius are good resources. Edward Champlin’s biography Nero offers a contemporary account that cuts through myth and bias.
His Domus Aurea, a massive palace measuring more than 300 acres (some scholars claim it was over 300 acres), is one of the most famous structures Nero left behind. in central Rome. It is possible to see the ruins today from far away, but due to recent collapses, it’s now closed to the public. You can still see the remains of the villa that he built in Subiaco to escape the summer heat.
You can also see sculptures and other effects from Nero’s reign at Palatine, Colosseum, and Forum through September 18, 2011.
COMMODUS (ruled 180-192 AD
Why he is wacky: A complete megalomaniac, Commodus even renamed Rome in his honor. He was also obsessed with gladiatorial fighting. Commodus performed in hundreds of games and often appeared in the stadium as Hercules, complete with lion skins and clubs. A “conspicuous growth” was reported to have occurred on his groin, which was said to be the subject of many verses.
Truth-o-meter: 9. The two main sources, Dio Cassius, and Herodian, both lived under Commodus’ rule. They give eyewitness accounts of what actually happened, including the gladiatorial matches.
Find out more: Herodian’s History of the Empire starting with the Death of Marcus is very colorful as well as Dio Cassius’ Roman History. While it isn’t historically accurate, Gladiator shows some aspects of Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix), gladiatorial obsession, and his difficult relationship with his sister and father. It also shows what Rome would look like in the second Century.
The Colosseum is the best place to get close to Commodus or his spirit than any other. The still-standing Villa of the Quintilli on the Appian Way, built in the second century by the Quintilli brother, was so sought after by Commodus that he executed the owners in 182 A.D. to take it.
ELAGABALUS (ruled 218-222)
Why he’s so weird: You probably haven’t heard of Emperor Elagabalus. But that’s a shame. Here’s why. He was born in Syria and became ruler at the age of 14. He brought his worship of the eastern god Elagabalus with him to Rome to become emperor. This included building a new temple and making sacrifices to the god every morning. The god was to take precedence over all other Roman gods including Jupiter. The emperor, named after the god was also tortured and killed his children. He was also known for his sexual proclivities. He married a Vestal Virgin and slept with men. He asked doctors to castrate and give him female organs.
Truth-o-meter: 9. The Life of Elagabalus was a major account that was written around 150 years after his reign. It is largely invented. Herodian and Cassius Dio, who lived during his reign also provide juicy details about the emperor’s sexual behavior. Their accounts of how he changed Rome’s religion are supported by archaeological evidence.
Find out more: Cassius Dio’s History of Rome (book79), Herodian’s and Herodian’s History (book 5), are excellent, and Historia Augusta’s Life of Elagabalus (book 5) is full of juicy details.
You can still see the massive temple platform that Elagabalus built for his god at Palatine Hill. Elagabalus is also believed to have built the Amphitheatre Castrense which is located near Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. It was incorporated into the Aurelian walls in the 3rd Century.
What do you think? Which Emperor would you most like to be friends with…or call your ruler? Are you satisfied with our assessment? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments
Are you heading to Rome and would like to learn more about Rome’s eccentric emperors. Take a Premium Colosseum tour to see the Palatine, Colosseum, and Forum.