28 April 2022

Questionable Choices: Roman Emperor-Style

Somebody a whole lot smarter than Yours Truly once said: "Actions reveal character." And a lot of people who have come along afterward and read that sentence have agreed with and quoted (or mangled) said sentence.

Speaking as someone with a background in historical/biographical analysis, I can say from experience that history is replete with examples of this sort of thing. Some of the more amusing (and horrifying) ones come down to us from the annals of Imperial Rome. Let's take a look at a few of them, shall we? Specifically those of the emperors themselves. Bear in mind that each of the actions referenced below was the action of the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world at the time.

The "Mad" Emperor Caligula
Let's start with a pretty obvious and telling example.

The emperor Gaius (Nicknamed "Caligula," Latin for "Little Boots," a nickname no one dared call him to his face) at one point in his brief four-year reign, appointed his favorite race horse a member of the Roman Senate.

Roll that one around in your head for a minute.

* Was Caligula just nuts?
* Was he making a larger point about the irrelevance of the Senate and what he thought of its members?
* Both?
* Was Cassius Dio (the writer who left us with this anecdote), who wrote about Caligula hundreds of years after his death, making the whole thing up?

(For the purposes of this discussion: an illustration of actions revealing character, let's assume the veracity of each set of reported facts.)

You can likely draw your own conclusions.

A Couple of Other Examples:

Agrippina crowning her son emperor and him looking less than grateful.

We have a whole host of this sort of telling anecdote about that most infamous of Roman emperors, Nero. Including these choice nuggets:

Once flew into a rage and assaulted his pregnant wife, knocked her to the ground, and kicked her in the abdomen until she began to hemorrhage. She died in the midst of the subsequent miscarriage.

* Had his overbearing, power-hungry mother Agrippina murdered. She, more than anyone else, paved the way for Nero's rise to the imperial throne. Not least by marrying the previous emperor (her uncle, Claudius) and then poisoning him with a plate of his favorite food: mushrooms.


Galba: the embodiment of "penny wise, pound foolish."
A martinet to shame all other pretenders to the title, the wildly successful general (and later wildly unsuccessful emperor) Galba is probably best known as the first of four generals whose troops proclaimed him emperor and marched on Rome to have him installed within the following year. It was Galba whose march on Rome led to the death-by-suicide of his erratic monster of a predecessor, Nero.

Yet Galba's most telling action was first offering a bribe to the members of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor's personal bodyguards, and the only military unit allowed to go armed within the walls of the capital city), and then reneging on the offer, once he got to Rome and saw how utterly Nero had bankrupted the Roman treasury.

Note to any would-be usurping strong-men out there: if you're going to offer the guys whose job it is to guard your body a hefty bribe in order to buy their loyalty. You probably want to really think before you decide not to follow through on that offer.

Galba didn't, and paid the price. The Praetorians assassinated him, and then backed another general. This one paid off on his promised bribes.

Tune in next time for more tales of Roman emperors and their questionable choices, and what they reveal about character. See you in two weeks!


  1. There's nothing like Roman Emperors to make you realize what a really bad idea authoritarian government is! Of course, can you imagine the tweets about them today?

    1. Eve- so right! Can you imagine the tweeting by the likes of Juvenal and Ovid? They'd both be Social Media darlings, and Ovid could well have wound up executed, instead of merely exiled to a distant outpost on the Black Sea.

  2. I find the extensive era fascinating, such a combination of good and bad, hope and hopelessness. But, all things considered, our goths are pretty nice.


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