Top 10 Infamous Roman Emperors and Empresses
List sites have already features lists of craziest Roman emperors or most evil women, but I have yet to see a list site focus in both Roman emperors and empresses together and without labeling them as either “crazy” or “evil.” Moreover, many of these other lists report actions by these men as if they are facts, despite the sources being of biased and questionable natures. This list hopes to fill the gap in such coverage and focus on which ten emperors and empresses in Roman history are perceived as the most infamous. Yes, some of the names are ones that cannot be excluded from a top ten list of such emperors and as such should be familiar to many readers, but some may be a bit more unexpected when we consider those known for their infamy.
Also, this list includes not just Rome in the “Western” Roman Empire since, but also the “Eastern” Roman or Byzantine Empire during the years in which Rome and much of Italy was actually still ruled by Byzantine Emperors, i.e. from Justinian up to the time of Charlemagne. Thus, I have seen other lists of Roman Emperors which leave women out and emphasize the emperor’s “craziness”. Instead, my list includes both genders and is more about how they are remembered, hence infamy, rather than what actions we are not certain they actually did. After all, in many of the lists where some of these people’s so-called “crazy” acts are recounted are based on dubious sources and yet presented by the listers as undisputed facts. As such, we hope you enjoy this new spin on the idea of ranking Roman rulers and we look forward to your comments!
10. Domitian (24 October 51 – 18 September 96)
Domitian was the final emperor of the Flavian dynasty. Before his demise, he reigned for a fairly long time from 81 to 96. During that time, Rome fought a number of fierce, yet defensive wars against the Chatti, the Britons, and Dacians. He also deified members of his family and was the first emperor to demand his subject address him as “lord and god”. As a consequence of his polytheistic religious policies and emphasis on the imperial cult, it is alleged that Domitian engaged in substantial persecutions of Jews and Christians. In 89, a major revolt of a Roman governor occurred. Domitian survived that challenge to his reign, but he did not survive the assassination of 96. His assassin stabbed Domitian in the groin with a dagger, wrestled with the emperor, and then joined with other conspirators in dealing six more stab wounds to finish the emperor off.
9. Irene of Athens (c. 752 – 9 August 803)
Irene is the first of the East Roman or Byzantine imperials to appear on this list. She is also the last to have any realistic chance of a tie to “Rome”. She reigned as empress consort from 775 to 780 and then as empress in her own right from 797 to 802. You can count on one hand the number of women to rule by themselves in Roman and Byzantine history. As such, that alone is quite a claim to fame. On at least three occasions she even called herself “emperor” rather than “empress.” What makes her so infamous are two things. First, she did something quite unexpected from a mother: she usurped power from her son and to do so, had him blinded and imprisoned.
If mutilating her own son is not bad enough, the second infamous event of her reign was not only her failure to maintain her authority but also to reunify the Roman Empire. On two occasions, she apparently entered into negotiations to forge a marriage alliance with Charlemagne. First, while he was King of the Franks, the two considered having two of their children marry each other. Well, you already read what she did with her son. Next, she apparently entertained the possibility of marrying Charlemagne after he became Holy Roman Emperor. Had she managed to retain her position and pull of such a marriage, the consequences for subsequent Medieval history would have been considerable. Instead, she was deposed and exiled to Lesbos and the two halves of the remnants of the Roman Empire continued along their separate paths.
8. Justinian I the Great (c. 482 – 14 November 565) and Theodora I (c. 500 – 28 June 548)
As co-rulers, Justinian and Theodora can arguably count as one reign in which many of their more questionable actions, if true, were joint “crimes” against humanity. In any event, this imperial couple is something of a paradox, because they are both simultaneously revered and reviled. On one hand, they are remembered for the beautiful Hagia Sophia basilica built during their reign, the Body of Civil Law codified under their reign, and the re-conquest of formerly Roman territories along the Mediterranean from the Vandals and Goths. For these and other achievements, both Justinian and Theodora are considered saints among Orthodox Christians. Yet, their reign also experienced major catastrophes from the Nika riots that almost overthrew Justinian, had Theodora not emboldened him to stand firm and massacre his critics, to the even more significant Plague of Justinian that resulted in millions of deaths. Moreover, the most famous primary source account of their reign is hardly complimentary. Procopius’s Secret History depicts the couple as monsters, literally! Justinian, for example, allegedly had the ability to make his head vanish.
As for Theodora, Procopius claims that when someone offended her by insulting a fellow female, she had the man bent over before she spanked him “like a schoolboy”. While some of these anecdotes may be inventions of the Medieval author, they nevertheless have added to the infamous memory of Justinian and his wife as a man and woman honored for many long-lasting accomplishments that occurred amidst a reign of cataclysmic disasters.
7. Julia Agrippina the Younger (7 November 15 or 6 November 16 – 19/23 March 59)
Agrippina was the last wife of Emperor Claudius (1 August 10 BC – 13 October AD 54), but the first to appear on this list. She does not have the same place in popular culture as the his earlier wife, Valeria Messalina, but she is infamous all the same. Whereas Claudius had his previous wife executed, Agrippina did the opposite, allegedly murdering her husband via poisonous mushrooms. Yet, despite that criminal act, she became a priestess of his cult (yes, Claudius was deified) and then engaged in a power struggle with her son and Claudius’s successor, Nero (7 November 15 or 6 November 16 – 19/23 March 59).
Early in Nero’s reign, mother and son conspired together against Nero’s half brother, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus (12 February AD 41 — 11 February AD 55), ultimately murdering him. Yet, mother and son did not stay unified. They quarreled to such a degree that Nero plotted to kill her. He first tried to sink her boat, but she survived and swam to safety. He next tried a more direct approach by sending one to three men to assassinate her. Her alleged last words were for the assassin to strike at her womb, i.e. the body part that had produced such a monster.
6. Elagabalus (ca. 203 – 11 March 222)
The allegations against Elagabalus mostly come from the Augustan History, a source of questionable reliability. Nevertheless, this youthful emperor has had the dubious distinction of having so much of his life remembered for personality quirks that may or may not be true. If true, then they present a deeply disturbed individually not really capable of ruling a vast empire. In terms of religious missteps, he offended traditional Romans by focusing worship on Elagabal rather than Jupiter and married a priestess, known as a Vestal Virgin, to have “god-like children,” which was of course sacrilegious. Indeed, his real and alleged sexual missteps are numerous. In addition to the Vestal Virgin, he married and divorced four other women.
He allegedly referred to a male slave as his husband while referring to himself as the slave’s “queen” and prostituted himself to others. Elagabalus even offered a good deal of money to anyone who could in effect perform a sex change operation on him, if the ancient sources are to be believed. Thus, after a relatively short reign, both he and his mother were killed together, decapitated and disposed of. Yet, his infamous memory continued in numerous works of literature, paintings, comics, music, dance, television, and plays. A Spanish word, heliogábalo, was coined after him, which refers to a “person overwhelmed by gluttony”. Even Napoleon described Alexander the Great as commencing his career with the “mind of Trajan; but he closed it with the heart of Nero, and the manners of Elagabalus.” For Napoleon, the most negative historical persons he could compare Alexander’s later life to were none other than Nero and Elagablus. As such, whether the details of his maligned life were true or not, Elagabalus has been remembered as one of the worst examples of a Roman ruler in his own time, in Napoleon’s time, and even for many in the twenty-first century as well.
5. Tiberius (16 November 42 BC – 16 March 37 AD)
Tiberius is most negatively remembered for the numerous despicable acts recounted by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 – c. 122), some of which were recreated in disturbing manner for the opening portion of the film Caligula (1979). This portion of the movie concerns the bizarre debauchery of Tiberius while on Capri in which he engaged in such lewd behavior as swimming with young “minnows” (actually children) who would suck at certain parts of his body. Not in the movie, but in the primary source are a host of other bizarre anecdotes, such as Tiberius beating a man’s face with a fish after hearing about the man bragging for having caught it. Tiberius allegedly then beat the man’s face with a crustacean after the man joke’s that it was good he had not been bragging about the crustacean he caught as well. Yet, even before these incidents, Tiberius had a strange life and at times frightening reign. Before he became emperor, his second wife was exiled for engaging in a scandalous affair. It is also during Tiberius’s reign that Jesus was most likely crucified.
4. Commodus (31 August, 161 AD – 31 December, 192 AD)
Commodus serves as the main villain of two major motion pictures, The Fall of the Roman Emperor, and the Academy-Award winner for best picture, Gladiator. As such, he is one of the more well-known emperors in popular culture. His real-life death did not occur in the arena during a combat against a gladiator named Maximus, but rather in a bath via strangulation from a wrestler named Narcissus. What was the cause of a conspiracy to kill him? Well, among other things, his foreign policy was questionable. He abandoned his father’s efforts to add Marcommania and Sarmatia as provinces to the Roman Empire. Had Commodus somehow consolidated and Romanized these areas it could have arguably made the empire stronger for the eventual Germanic invasions later in the empire’s history. His personal relations were not exactly praise-worthy either.
Under his reign, he had his wife Bruttia Crispina exiled and his sister Lucilla, along with her daughter, executed. His other policies seem consistent with a cult of personality in which he competed as a gladiator, including killing elephants and even a giraffe, gave himself all sorts of lofty titles such as Pacifier of the World, and went so far as to rename both a month and the city of Rome after himself. It should hardly be surprising then that eventually his people would have had enough. Unfortunately for them, his murder only resulted in a series of civil wars known as the Year of the Five Emperors, which was ultimately won by a man named Septimius Severus (1 April 145 – 4 February 211).
3. Valeria Messalina (c. 17/20 – 48)
This wife of the more respected Emperor Claudius (1 August 10 BC – 13 October AD 54) is by far the most infamous empress in Rome’s history and is one of the few empresses to ever be the subject of a titular film: Messalina, Messalina! Penthouse Pet Anneka Di Lorenzo (1952–2011) portrayed the doomed empress in both Caligula (1979) and its sequel, Messalina, Messalina! Messalina is most known for her extreme and shameful sexuality. She was not restrained in the ways of a model Roman imperial lady, such as Augustus’s wife Livia. Instead, she embarrassed her husband by engaging in various unprecedented promiscuous acts for what was essentially a first lady.
Most notorious is the incident later reproduced in a scene for the I, Claudius series in which she competed against and defeated a prostitute in a contest to see who could have the most sexual partners in twenty-four hours. Reportedly, Messalina had twenty-five. After an affair with a Senator, her days were numbered and she was killed via beheading.
2. Nero (15 December 37 – 9 June 68)
Nero is one of three “Caesars” featured in an episode of Ancients Behaving Badly. The others are number one on this list and Julius Caesar; however, historians do not agree on whether or not Julius Caesar should be counted as the first emperor, so I have excluded him from this list. Instead we have the notorious Nero. As with many individuals on this list, the extent of his actual acts of depravity is disputed by modern historians. For example, he almost surely did not “fiddle” while Rome burned, yet he persists in having an infamous legacy.
He is blamed for killing his mother, kicking his wife Poppaea Sabina (30–65) to death and then deifying her, and later cowardly committing suicide to avoid being barbarically tortured to death by angry Romans. He is accused of persecuting Christians and Jews to such an extent that some even denounce him as an anti-Christ. The religious animosity to Nero has persisted long-after his death. Famed German exorcist victim Anneliese Michel (21 September 1952 – 1 July 1976) of Germany even claimed that Nero was one of the demons who possessed her! Yet, if there is one final claim to shame for Nero, it is that he was the last of the Julian-Claudian dynasty to rule Rome, his reign plunging Rome into a civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors (yes, not quite as bad as the five that followed Commodus!).
1. Caligula (31 August 12 AD – 24 January 41 AD)
You did not seriously think it would be anyone else did you? Caligula is hands down the most infamous Roman ruler. Yes, he already appeared in number one on TopTenz , but his legacy is such that he simply cannot be omitted from this list. He is depicted as a monster in the titular film starring Malcolm McDowell as the mad emperor. Caligula appears in an Adult Swim web game as a destructive force and is the focus of such televised documentaries such as an episode of Ancients Behaving Badly and a stand alone documentary called Caligula: Reign of Madness.
His bizarre antics range from lavishing his horse Incitatus with human-like honors and suspected incest with his sisters, one of whom he deified as a goddess. His people so hated him that not only did they stab him multiple times in a manner reminiscent of the death of Julius Caesar, the murderers also bashed his young daughter’s head against a wall. Now, again, whether or not he actually did some of the more heinous crimes alleged against him is questionable. They say that history is written by the victors after all, but regardless of the veracity of the allegations against him, he has gone down as one of the most despised rulers in history, not just of Rome, but anywhere.
As one final comment, a group of filmmakers even put together a spoof trailer starring mainstream celebrities for a not-safe-for-work fake trailer of a never-actually made remake of the 1979 movie. This fake trailer, which has Tiberius and Messalina in it as well, thereby shows the ongoing interest in remembering this particular man as something more akin to a mythological monster than a real person.