Top 10 Infamous Roman Emperors and Empresses

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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.


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28 Comments

  1. Caligula reminds me of Obama for sheer madness. I mean, Caligula declared himself a God, (like you do) and killed anyone who disagreed and did other crazy things. however, Obama probably beats Caligula. After a decade of fighting al-Qaeda, and declaring them “finished” not long ago, he`s now ARMING them against Assad in Syria and have recognised them as the official government. If that isn`t madness, I don`t know what is..

    • Not nearly as bad as Bush flaunting around an aircraft carrier with the huge banner stating “Mission Accomplished” huh? And since when are all Syrian rebels Al-Qaeda? That sounds horribly prejudice. I guess this “madness” is spreading into Europe, because France and Britain wants to arm them (Syrian rebels), even though the US has NOT ARMED THEM. The US hasn’t offered any kind of lethal assistance.The UN has an embargo against Syria. That means the US too, genius. Although, many Western nations have acknowledged them as the official government, since there is an embargo on Syria, that means the rebels, too. Assad is kills his own people all the time, but you think it’s bad to support his opposition? Assad is a dictator just like Saddam Hussein. I bet you completely supported the decision to invade Iraq because a Republican made it, huh? You obviously know very, VERY little about foreign affairs, no? Biased fool. I’m neither liberal or conservative, as I agree with many parts of both sides, but never one side completely. Open you mind a little and do your own research instead of watching news channels (Faux News, MSNBC, CNN, etc.).

  2. Justinian should probly not be on this list: idk if you know this, but typically emperors cannot cause plagues, so as hard as it sounds to believe, he did not in fact cause a plague. It was just named after him because people back then did, in fact, think he caused it because back then people are just weird.

    • Yeah, I agree. Justinian is a saint. If we are purely going by infamy, that alone should disqualify him. The explanation to his placement was a lot weaker than the other emperors too, especially when coupled with the bubonic plague bit.

      I personally think Diocletian is a pretty glaring omission. His persecution of Christians is pretty much the basis of a lot of the standard “throw Christians to the lions” stories we continue to hear to this day.

  3. To TopTenzMaster: are you considering making the TopTenz app available in android devices? It would really help. I have been following this site for well over 2 years.

    • I’m not sure. To be honest I have paid thousands for development and I estimate it will take about 5 years just to break even. Seems readers aren’t interested in paying .99 for it. I sell about 80 per month.

    • To get right to type point, the item header for the Emperor Tiberius had the dates of his reign incorrect. In the time frame listed, that included the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius.

      • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

        Hello!

        The dates provided are their birth and death dates, not the dates of their reigns.

        Best,

        MZ

  4. How was Nero committing suicide cowardly? If I had the choice of being tortured to death or suicide, I’d obviously pick the latter. Not cowardly, but logical. Sure, he was a terrible person, insane even, but that doesn’t make him a coward. Everyone who reads this would have done the same. Anyone who would accept torture is even crazier than those listed.

  5. Gene Claridge on

    Dr. Z,

    Fascinating article! Are you going to make a list of the TopTenz military leaders soon?

    Best,

    – Gene C.

  6. Diocletian if you’re a Christian. His persecution of us was the most extensive. Glad I didn’t live back then, I wouldn’t want to be throw to a lion.

    • The persecution of the christians had political reasons. They behaved in a very agressive way and followed odd practices. If they had integrated into society like everyone else (the Romans have always been very tolerant to any religion!) there would have been no problem.

  7. Nicholas Fill on

    It’s interesting to see that many of the emperors on this list are unknown to the general public. Also, without thinking, I am sure many people would believe that Nero is the most infamous. However, you have proven that is not the case. I am surprised of both the devilish manner of Caligula and the amount that the people hate him. If they stabbed him and beat his daughter in such a brutal way, there may be even more evil he committed then studied.

  8. Mitch Bartholomai on

    Thank you for showing me more about the roman rulers that i knew nothing about before! it was really nice getting caught up on some of the main events that happened withing the main emperors and empresses! Thanks!

  9. Ryan Winchell on

    I did not realize how bizarre some of the Roman Emperors and Empresses were until reading this article. The strange acts of these rulers, some of which are stated in primary sources, are alarming and absurd. I think Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula are the weirdest emperors on the list.

  10. We always hear about the great Roman Emperor Caesar, but I found it quite funny that some of the former rulers of Rome weren’t great rulers at all, and as for the article the Infamous Emperor Elagabalus, I cant beleive he was capable of doing all that while still running the great Roman Empire.

    • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

      Speaking of Caesar, did you see what historically inaccurate thing they had happen to him on the last episode of Spartacus?! I was quite appalled… Good show and all, but that scene was not necessary!

  11. Actually, Neros mistake was: he was not in Rome when it burned! Though he acted fast as he heard about it (ordered help for citizens, opened the parks for them and such things) people never forgave him his absence. And the christians then rewrote the whole story for their purposes…
    Same goes for Caligula, who, according to newer research, seemed to be a quiet and modest ruler. Caligula was not crazy, he simply broke with some traditions and got in conflict with the roman aristocracy. What Suetonios wrote was in fact denunciation.

  12. I found Agrippina very interesting because who would have thought she would murder her husband with poisonous mushrooms. The story even gets more twisted when both mother and son agree to murder Nero’s half brother. After they succeed, Nero decides to kill his mother which I did not see coming since they both planned a solid plan to kill Nero’s half brother. This specific story really caught my attention and expanded my knowledge on some emperors and empresses!

    • But you have to be aware that the sources for this story are highly dubious and they all contradict each other. This story is more like a fairytale.

  13. Adam Lenhart on

    All I can say is that I am glad that I am not picking an order for the most infamous Roman emperors and empresses. All the cruelty is just a little too weird for me to assign a rank to any one of them. Augh!

  14. Dr Z,
    This was a very interesting article; extremely informative considering I have no heard of many of these emperors/empresses, so reading about their achievements and ingenuity was quite interesting.
    Chelsea

  15. The icon shown for Empress Irene is actually that of the Great Martyr Irene. They are not the same person. Furthermore, it is not even clear that the empress of that name was ever named as a saint. The few icons labeled as “Irene the Empress” look identical to those of Great Martyr Irene. I suspect that both her icons and her being regarded as a saint have resulted from a relatively recent confusion of the two Irenes. The empress’s behavior towards her son, which you have recounted, would disqualify her from sainthood if not repented.

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