Top 10 Greatest Emperors of Ancient Rome

The Roman emperors were the designated ruler of Roman empire which started after the end of Roman republic: the period of ancient roman civilization that began with the end of roman kingdom. The legitimacy of an emperor’s rule was dependent upon his control of the army and the recognition by the Senate; an emperor would normally be proclaimed by his troops, or invested with imperial titles by the Senate, or both. But the Roman people regarded their emperors as equivalent of kings, even though the very first emperor Augustus the great absolutely refused to be taken as a monarch. The age of Roman Republic came to an end with the death of Julius Caesar and then Augustus marked the era of Roman empire that lasted from 27 BC to 476 AD. Throughout this period, a number of emperors ruled the Roman empire with their rules divided over a number of dynasties. Here is the list of top 10 emperors who had ever ruled in ancient Rome.

10. Justinian (482 AD – 14 November 565 AD)

Justinian Roman EmperorThough the western Roman empire had already fallen to the barbarians by 476 AD, the eastern empire saw one last conquer under the rule of Justinian I, who ruled the east Roman empire (also called the Byzantine empire) from 526 AD – 565 AD.  During his reign, Justinian sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the historical Roman Empire. Because of his restoration activities, Justinian has sometimes been called the “last Roman” in modern historiography. His great generals Belisarius and Narses reconquered many parts of the empire, including the city of Rome itself.

Justinian was well known for  creating a unified code of laws – The Justinian Code, that took its excerpts from a collection of already used Roman laws. This code was then used as the basis of all the systems of laws in the western world. He also oversaw constructions of great buildings in his capital – the city of constantinople, the most remarkable of them being the church of Hagia Sophia, which later on became the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. But, then came the devastating outbreak of  bubonic plague  in the early 540s which eventually marked the irreversible period of Roman decline from the history.

9. Constantine the Great (Feb 272 AD- May 337 AD)

Constantine Roman Emperor

His full name was Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus. This famous emperor, who went on to become the first christian emperor in the history, was a ruler of major historical importance. He reunited a divided empire under a single emperor and scored important wins against some ardent enemies like the Franks, Alamanni, Goths and Sarmatians. He also re-occupied some of the long lost Roman provinces. He created his own capital and named it after himself – Constantinople, which went on to be cradle of Byzantine empire for centuries. For that reason, he was also known as the founder of Byzantine.

He was more noticeably known to understand the inevitable need of christian support, whose number were in a significant rise. Eventually, he became a historical figure of christianity by becoming the first emperor to adorn it. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on his orders at the purported site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem, became the holiest place in Christendom. His decision went on to have significant impact in the religious preferences in the subsequent Byzantine empire.

8. Antoninus Pius (19 September, 86 AD –  7 March, 161 AD)

Antoninus Pius Roman Emperor(

The adopted son and successor of emperor Hadrian, Antoninus Pius went to rule the Roman empire from 138 to 161 AD. His first act as an emperor was to grant honors to his adoptive father Hadrian. And as a part of deal, Antoninus adopted the future to-be-emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was one of the most peaceful ruler  in the history of Roman empire. There were no records of any military related acts in his time. However, there were a few fickle conflicts here and there, but none of them caused any serious concern.

He also built temples, theaters, and mausoleums, promoted the roman arts and sciences, and bestowed honors and financial rewards upon the teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Antoninus was virtually unique among the roman emperors because he dealt with these crises without leaving Italy once during his reign. This style of government was highly praised by his contemporaries and later generations.

7. Vespasian (November, 9 AD – 23 June 79 AD)

Vespasian Roman Emperor

A famous Roman emperor, Vespasian’s reign lasted from 69 AD – 79 AD. He founded the Flavian dynasty that went on to rule the Roman empire for 27 years. His rule started at one of the most troubled times in Roman history – the Romans were just recovering from the antics of infamous emperors like Nero and Caligula, and a civil war that saw four emperors in a single year. A down to earth man himself, and a competent general, who had proved his mettle in the battlefield, Vespasian was handed the task of bringing balance in Rome. And  over his rule of 10 years, he did all that, sketching his name as one of the greatest Roman emperors.

In his reign, much money was spent on public works as well as on restoration and beautification of Rome. He initiated construction of the temple of peace, a number of public baths and one of the most majestic structures in ancient Rome – the Colosseum. Sadly by the time Colosseum was completed, he was dead. After his death in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus and thus became the first Roman Emperor to be directly succeeded by his own natural son and establishing the Flavian dynasty.

See Also, 10 Famous People of Ancient Rome

6. Hadrian (January, 76 AD – 10 July, 138 AD)

Hadrian Roman Emperor

The famous Roman emperor from 117 to 138 AD, Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus to an ethnically Italian family. Even though his predecessor Trajan never officially designated him as his heir, but Trajan’s wife declared that he had appointed him the heir just before his death, thus paving his path to becoming Roman emperor. He travelled nearly every province in his rule, connecting to the public people at provincial level. A known admirer of Greece, he soughted to bring Greek architecture to its old glory. He rebuilt the Pantheon and constructed the temple of venus and Roma. He also built the Hadrian’s wall which marked the northern limit of Roman Britain.

Hadrian also spent a considerable time of his rule with the military, where he usually wore military attire and at times even dined and slept amongst the soldiers. An alert and responsive military was his biggest challenge, so, he would raise false alarms at times to test his army’s training, drilling and response to any sudden crisis. But despite his reputation as an efficient military administrator, his reign was marked by a general lack of major conflicts, apart from Second Roman-Jewish war, which he handled rather cunningly.

5. Claudius ( August 10 BC – 13 October 54 AD)

Claudius Roman Emperor

One of the first Roman emperors to have born outside Italy, his reign lasted from 41 AD to 54 AD. He was the son of Drusus and Antonia Minor, and the fact that he was afflicted with a limp and slight deafness – he was rather unfairly excluded from public office until his consulship by his family. But as it happens, this particularly infirmity directly or indirectly saved him from fate of Tiberius and Caligula, for potential enemies never saw him as a serious threat.

His rule was seen vulnerable by the eyes of nobility and senate for they thoroughly opposed his ascend to the throne, but he got his biggest support from the military. Claudius comes as a positive mishmash of conflicting characteristics: absent-minded, hesitant, muddled, determined, cruel, intuitive, wise and dominated by his wife and his personal staff of freedmen. But despite all these and his evident lack of experience, Claudius proved to be an able and efficient administrator. He was also an ambitious builder. He constructed many new roads, aqueducts, and canals across the Empire. During his reign the Empire began the conquest of Britain. Having a personal interest in law, he presided at public trials, and issued up to twenty edicts a day.

4. Tiberius (16 November 42 BC – 16 March 37 AD)

Tiberius Roman Emperor

The Roman emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD, Tiberius Claudius Nero was son of Livia Drusilla, who later married Augustus in 39 BC, making him step-son of the Octavian. He was later adopted by Augustus as his heir, that is when he took the name Tiberius Julius Caesar, a name bearing the subsequent emperors after Tiberius would also take. Tiberius was one of Rome’s greatest generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and temporarily, parts of Germania – laying the foundations for the northern frontier. But he came to be remembered as a dark, reclusive, and sombre ruler who never really desired to be emperor, yet was thrusted upon with that responsibility.

Were he to have died prior to AD 23, a period marred by the purge, he might have been hailed as an exemplary ruler. Despite the overwhelmingly negative characterization left by Roman historians, Tiberius left the imperial treasury with nearly 3 billion sesterces upon his death. Rather than going in expensive conquests, he decided to build additional bases and use diplomacy over conflicts. All these innovative steps showed their colors when Rome became a stronger, more consolidated empire.

3. Marcus Aurelius (April 121 AD – 17 March 180 AD)

Marcus Aurelius Roman Emperor

Considered as the last of the five good emperors, and one of the most stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire from 161 to 180. During his reign, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East, in central Europe, he fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, with the threat of the Germanic tribes beginning to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. A possible revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius might have caused serious issues if it had gained momentum, but Aurelius suppressed it immediately.

A remarkable philosopher and writer, Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic tome Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration. Marcus Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain after his death; both Dio and the biographer call him “the philosopher”.

2. Trajan ( September 53 AD – 8 August 117 AD)

Trajan Roman Emperor

Famously declared by the senate as the best ruler, optimus princeps which means “the best ruler”, he ruled the ancient Rome from 98 AD until he took his last breathe. Trajan is one of Rome’s most outstanding emperors. Under his rule, the empire reached its largest extent. He was remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He was respected by the common people, senate and the military alike, having made his name for his philanthropic rule that oversaw extensive public building programs and welfare policies.

As an emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured — he was one of the few rulers whose reputation has survived nineteen centuries. In the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon’s popularized notion of ‘Five Good Emperors’; Trajan was second. Every new emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano which meant “be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”.

1. Augustus ( September 63 BC – 19 August 14 AD)

Augustus Roman Emperor

At the top of the list is a very obvious choice – the founder of Roman empire himself, Augustus who has the longest reign of 41 years starting from 27 BC to 14 AD. Born by the name of Octavian, he was given the name ‘Augustus’ by the senate as an honour for his great achievements. He went on to avenge the death of Caesar together with Mark Antony, before falling out with him. He defeated Mark Antony together with the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra and thereafter, together with the senate of Rome, created a new constitution for the great empire.

The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace that was known as Pax Romana or The Roman Peace. Yes, there were several wars at Roman frontiers for expansion and a year long civil war too, but after the succession of Augustus into the throne, the Roman world was free of any large scale warfare for more than two centuries. Augustus stood at the head of this empire as the emperor. He used his ruled wisely and built roads, aqueducts and buildings. Not only was Augustus the first, but he was most certainly one of the best emperors Rome ever had.

Final Conclusion:

Throughout its entire period, the Roman empire had a number of emperors who took over the rule. Many of them had a stable rule with considerably peaceful reign while at the time of crises, Rome also saw a single year with four emperors and another single year with none less than six emperors. And there were some rather infamous, in fact downright notorious ones such as Caligula and Nero whose reign led to biggest turmoils in the state. But all the emperors listed here had a minimum reign of 10 years each. They also had a significant contribution in expansion of Roman boundaries and also in representation of Roman culture. And one name that should not be missed  is  the famous statesman Julius Caesar. What he started by famously taking the state and senate in his hand led to a chain of sequences that made the rise of Roman empire possible.

28 thoughts on “Top 10 Greatest Emperors of Ancient Rome”

  1. Nice list! I do have to point out one mistake from the excerpt on Claudius. "He was the nephew of rather infamous emperor Caligula" It's the other way around, Claudius was Caligulas uncle.

    • For me, the most fascinating of the Emperors was Claudius. He certainly had his faults but be was a survivor, was considered a student of history, and although not a soldier, undertook the beginning of the conquest of Britain. I think he did quite well in his governance of Rome until done in by Nero and his love of mushrooms.

    • I agree, but I would like to point out that Julius Caesar deserves to be top three, due to his glory in battle, spreading of Roman territory, great adventures, and fairness as well as popularity among his people.

      • I completely agree with you but here the author is talking about the time period between 27 BC-476 AD (Roman Empire) and Julius Caesar died in 44 BC.Moreover,Augustus was the founder of the Roman empire and the first roman emperor whereas julius caesar was the consul/dictator of the Roman Repbulic and therefore can not be included in this list.

      • You crazy? Constantine and upward of that destroyed the Roman empire, they tore down everything created by Augustus. The incredible structures.
        It is said that Augustus didnt care about luxury, so he donated his money to building/rebuilding and restoring temples and structures.
        Waste really since they were destroyed by Christian rulers later in history

    • Exactly as it says: Tiberius was Emperor after Augustus, from 14 to 37, and did not care for the job. All he wanted was the luxury, and left the Senate to do all the ruling. The Senate despised him for this, and told the criticized him to the Roman populace, until he no longer trusted his safety in Rome and left for the island of Capri. He erected statues of his captain of the Guard, Lucius Sejanus, all over the city, and gave all the tasks of ruling to him. Tiberius more or less retired to Capri for the rest of his long life, only returning to Rome a few times.While he lived on Capri, he had a huge villa built for him, Villa Jovis, the Villa of Jove (Jupiter), in which he indulged his pedophilia. He swam naked with and raped infants, toddlers and young boys. He did not otherwise physically harm them in any way, but even in his late seventies, sex with young children was one of his favorite pastimes. SO NO TIBERIUS IS A MAD RULER HE CANT DRAW A straight line!!!!

    • the author is talking about the time period between 27 BC-476 AD (Roman Empire) and Julius Caesar died in 44 BC.Moreover,Augustus was the founder of the Roman empire and the first roman emperor whereas julius caesar was the consul/dictator of the Roman Repbulic and therefore can not be included in this list.

  2. Minor correction. The greatest territorial expansion happened under Augustus. He doubled the territory in his time as Princeps. Trajan added Dacia and temporary parts of Parthia only.

  3. ‘He ruled the ancient Rome from 98 AD until he took his last breathe.’
    Not sure if this is the correct spelling for breath in this context.

  4. Cincinnatus is one of my favorite “emperors”. He was given power to save Rome and after successfully doing so he bequeathed his powers back to the senate…twice!!

    • Doug,- Cincinnatus was born in 519 BC,ten years before the founding of the Republic.

      The Empire didn’t come into existence until 27 BC.Kind of counts him out.

  5. Aurelian (270 – 275 AD) should be in this list.
    He did what no other emperors did in a mere 5 years.

    & sorry but Marcus Aurelius is overrated. :P

  6. Not sure about Justinian. His invasion and re-occupation of what was left of the Western Roman Empire and subsequent evacuation destroyed what little order the Goths had managed to salvage from the collapse and brought on the Dark Ages in Europe.

  7. Does anyone have any great reads on Caligula? I have read so many conflicting stories on him. Not sure who would be a trusted source for info on his infamous rule.

  8. When you said “Aurelius” you meant Constantine. He was the first Christian Emperor, and that is who that bust is of.

  9. Of the Julian-Claudian Dynasty, Tiberius may be the worst of all Roman Emperors. According to Suetonius, he out-eviled Caligula by a good margin.

  10. 1. Augustus – one of the most brilliant rulers in history. Restructured the failing Republic (with himself on top of course), and it endured for almost 5 centuries more as the Roman Empire.

    2. Constantine the Great – sometimes called the first king. Again revamped an ailing empire by adopting Christianity and using that as a basis/justification for continued rule, and moving the capital to Constantinople, which would last for another 1000 years as the capital of the Eastern Byzantine Empire.

    3. Justinian – I’m a little unsure if he should be included as an Roman Emperor, but this list did so I’ll roll with that. He revamped and consolidated what would become the Byzantine empire which then lasted another 800 years. However his invasions of western Europe to reunite the Roman empire were one of his mistakes as it drained the treasury and were of no lasting military or economic value.

    Those are by far the top three emperors (if Justinian can be included), and to my mind its pretty hard to even argue the order. After that are a bunch of very good emperors, the order or which can be debated, but none of them are the giants of history that the above three are. Personally, I’d rank them

    4. Diocletian…building on Aurelian’s success, brought back order and stability after more than a century of Roman decline, ultimately paving the way for Constantine the Great.

    5. Vespasian…picked up the pieces after Nero got done fiddling while Rome burned.

    6. Trajan…one of Rome’s greatest generals, under his rule the Roman empire reached its greatest extent. Nominated a worthy successor (Hadrian)

    7. Aurelian….would be higher if he had ruled longer (maybe even top 3), and he might even have stolen the thunder of Diocletian and Constantine the Great in reorganizing and stabilizing the empire after a century of decline. Did a lot in 5 years, but died before he could consolidate his place in history.

    8. Hadrian..consolidated the gains of Trajan, didn’t screw things up unnecessarily, which is very much an under-appreciated quality, and nominated a worthy successor.

    9. Antonius Pius…an unremarkable reign, which is a good thing when times are good. He also resisted the impulse to go screw things up unnecessarily, and nominated a worthy successor.

    10. Claudius….picked up the pieces after Caligula, and brought back a semblance of order and stability before it all went to heck again under Nero. A short competent interlude that doesn’t get the attention it deserves due to the madmen in power before and after him, which kind of makes his reign irrelevant.

    11. Marcus Aurelius…would be higher (say around 8th) as he was a brilliant soldier and scholar, but he loses massive marks for designating his son Commodus as heir, when it was clear that he was not up to the job, This brought an end to the practice of the 4 emperors before him who had designated a worthy non-blood related successor (often adopting them as sons).

    Tiberius and Domitian did rule competently from an economic and military standpoint, leaving money and a stable empire for their successors, but lose marks for massive human rights abuses, particularly late in their reigns, that leave them out of the top ten. Other worthies like Probus, Nerva and Titus simply did not rule long enough to justify a top 10 ranking.

  11. He was a good emperor at the first half of his reign but then in the end he went full crazy and started killing people. So hje definitely doesn’t deserve such a high spot but he can definitely be on the list.

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