“The Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” – Voltaire
The Roman Empire once covered large parts of Europe and Asia, but now it has vanished. It did not disappear suddenly, but slowly over time due to corruption and a series of skirmishes and rebellions. The Roman Empire was admired and venerated worldwide, and many of its emperors found their way into our history books through their bravery, intelligence, and capable rule, or through their violence and corruption.
The great city of Rome was born in 753 BC, and legend has it that the city was named “Roma” after its founder, Romulus. Rome was declared a republic in 509 BC and the empire was founded in 27 BC. There were around 71 emperors, from Augustus to Theodosius.
It is certainly true that “Rome was not built in a day.” It was largely built on patience and hard work, and many of its rulers had a part to play. Here are 12 of the most fascinating facts about the Roman emperors:
1. The Wolf Twins
Legend has it that Romulus and his twin brother Remus were abandoned in a forest because they presented a threat to the reigning monarch. They were found and reared by a she-wolf. As the boys reached adulthood, they challenged the king and overthrew him. Unfortunately, Romulus killed Remus in an argument over where the city of Rome should be situated, and the new capital was named after Romulus. He laid the foundations for many traditions, social institutions, and legal systems. A bronze sculpture called the Capitoline Wolf shows Romulus and Remus with their wolf mother, and is an iconic symbol of the foundation of Rome.
2. The King who Played the Lyre and Sang
Emperor Nero is said to have been one of the cruelest rulers in Rome. He ruled through terror, and he was a much-hated emperor. It is thought that he murdered his own mother to seize the crown and persecuted Christians and the poor. It is even said that he burnt the city to the ground in order to build a great palace for himself – all this while playing the lyre and singing.
3. The Successor of Julius Caesar
Augustus, or Octavian as he is sometimes known, is thought to have been Caesar’s son, and when he came to the throne, he was determined to avenge his father’s death. He was a talented, intelligent, and competent king, elected to the council at a very young age. He soon won over the hearts of the people with his calm and competent approach. The empire enjoyed a long period of peace during his reign known as Pax Romana. Augustus features in the Bible as the first Roman king to have taken a census of the people; this was the reason for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. He enriched the city during his reign, and Rome flourished during this period.
4. Death Cap King
Emperor Claudius was a very well read and knowledgeable emperor, and he had a keen interest in history and writing. He suffered from either cerebral palsy or Tourette’s syndrome and faced many difficulties in his life due to this disability. Claudius is thought to have died from eating poisonous mushrooms called “death cap” mushrooms. It is not known if this was an assassination attempt, but some sources suggest that his wife Agrippina poisoned him so that Nero could ascend the throne.
5. Egoistic King
Commodus is said to have been a self-centered, sadistic, and cruel king. While his sculptures portray him as a calm figure, the history books say otherwise. He enjoyed watching gladiator fights – the more bloodthirsty the better – especially if they involved injured or disabled fighters.
He declared himself a living god and forced the people to worship him. Not only did he remove the heads of sculptures and replace them with his own image, but he also named most of the months of the year after himself.
6. Little Boots
Caligula, or “Little Boots” as he was often known, was an infamous emperor. His real name was Gaius Julius Caesar, and it is said that he had his own family murdered. He was an insecure ruler who declared himself a living god. He restored capital punishment for treason and enjoyed sentencing people to death whatever their crime.
He refused to wear the traditional Roman toga and instead wore flowing women’s robes made of silk. He had a very close relationship with his horse, and it is believed that he even had him appointed to the Senate.
7. Gloomiest of Men
Tiberius was described so by the historian Pliny the Elder. He never wanted to become king and is best remembered for his solemn and gloomy demeanor. He was, however, a great general: bright and intelligent but in no way interested in ruling the kingdom. During his military career, he conquered many regions such Pannonia and Raetia.
He married Julia the Elder, Augustus’ daughter, thus uniting the bloodlines of two great dynasties. The death of his son led him to depression, and he abdicated and left the city. He was also mentioned in the Bible as it was under his reign that Jesus was put on trial and sentenced to death by crucifixion.
Domitian was a tyrant king, also mentioned in the Bible, and was the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. He was continuously at war and was feared by the people and his own senators. He sentenced to death all those who disagreed with him and killed Jews without mercy. It is no surprise then that he was eventually assassinated.
Constantine the Great was also mentioned in the Bible. He established Christianity as the official religion in Rome, building churches and preaching Christianity all over Europe. His conversion to Christianity is thought to have been down to his mother, Queen Helena, who was deeply religious herself. Constantine was the first-ever Christian Roman emperor.
Trajan reigned until 117 AD, and during his time on the throne, he conquered many new lands for the empire. Inevitably, the great geographical size of the empire brought problems in terms of administration, and Trajan found that the empire could not be ruled as a whole. It was maybe his great desire to conquer new lands that ultimately led to his downfall.
Vespasian was the fourth emperor of Rome, and the first of the Flavian dynasty. Throughout his reign, he tried to maintain peace and harmony in the city and did all he could to restore law and order after the civil war. He proved himself a worthy ruler of the Roman Empire, and was greatly loved by the people.
12. Good Ruler
Titus Aurelius was a good and capable king. He took his duties seriously and made sure the whole kingdom was happy and at peace. He was nicknamed “cumin splitter” because of his frugality; he would always double-check his officials to make sure they were not wasting anything. He managed tax and business well, and his reign was calm and peaceful. He built many roads and bridges, and improved the empire’s infrastructure. Rome prospered under his rule.
Roman emperors came and went. Some were good; some were bad; all of them were fascinating. They are what made the Roman Empire what it was, and without them Rome would not have flourished. Each emperor had his own way of ruling the kingdom. Those who were brave, mighty, fearless, and intelligent served the people well. Those who were skilled on the battlefield led Rome to countless military victories and ensured the many conquests that marked the glory of the Roman Empire.