Facts About Ancient Roman Emperors That Made Us Say 'Really?'

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If absolute power corrupts absolutely, there is no better proof than the emperors of Ancient Rome. After centuries of republican government, Rome was transformed by Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) into an imperial dictatorship, a decision he considered necessary for the state's survival. For more than 400 years, the western empire was ruled by men who were alternately power hungry or power mad, megalomaniacal, selfish, brutish, and often short-lived. However, some of them were quite competent, some were brilliant, and some were even good leaders.

Historians have been discussing weird Roman emperor facts since before the empire fell, so there's a lot of weirdness to choose from. The following facts about Roman emperors reveal how bizarre, entertaining, and sometimes compassionate these rulers could be.

  • Antoninus Pius Oversaw One Of The Most Peaceful Eras Of Roman History
    Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 117-138 AD) is notable for just how innocuous it was. Given the turbulent politics of imperial Rome, this is actually a major achievement. 

    For 23 years, the emperor is said to have ruled well and justly, overseeing one of the most peaceful eras in its later history. While latent issues in the empire would rear their heads during the reign of Antoninus's successor, Marcus Aurelius, and the military was not entirely free of conflict, historians credit Antoninus for his "lack of scandal, corruption and military disaster," and for leaving the government with a major surplus when he passed.

    191 votes
  • Augustus Had A Personal Fortune Of $4.6 Trillion
    Photo: Vatican Museums / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Emperor Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) may have been the richest person to ever live. He inherited a vast fortune from his great-uncle Julius Caesar, but his wealth skyrocketed after his defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BC. Once Egypt's rulers were gone, Augustus claimed the entire kingdom as his personal property.

    Egypt's abundant grains, watered by the fertile Nile River, made it the breadbasket of Rome. According to the Money Project, Egypt composed 25-30% of global GDP in classical antiquity, and this tremendous wealth has led some to estimate Augustus's net worth at approximately $4.6 trillion. MSN calculates that figure as "equivalent to 20% of the entire [Roman] empire's economy."

    262 votes
  • According to Ancient Roman biographer Suetonius, Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD) had a wry sense of humor. After he passed an unpopular tax on public latrines, his son Titus complained that it was a distasteful way to make money. Vespasian held the money collected to his son's nose and asked him if it smelled. After Titus said no, Vespasian replied, "Yet it comes from urine."

    It seems he continued to make jokes even on his deathbed. For context, ever since Emperor Augustus deified his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, it had become common for most emperors to be declared gods after their passing. When Vespasian was nearing his own demise, Suetonius claims the emperor said, "Woe's me. Methinks I'm turning into a god."

    179 votes
  • Diocletian Reorganized The Empire After A Century Of Turmoil - Then Willingly Retired
    Photo: Jebulon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Diocletian rose to power following the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 AD), a tumultuous period for the Roman Empire in which its territories split apart, its economy cratered, and emperors were getting assassinated every other year. (More than 20 emperors ruled during this 49-year period; by comparison, 26 emperors ruled from 27 BC to 235 AD.)

    To be fair, it was Diocletian's predecessor, Aurelian, who re-unified the Roman Empire from the separate states it had fractured into. It was Diocletian, however, who maintained power, created the tetrarchy (a new form of imperial administration that did not outlive him), reimagined the office of the emperor, and stabilized the empire after decades of chaos. 

    Then, after 21 years of rule, Diocletian willingly abdicated in 305 AD. His retirement continued for a handful of years, even after his successors returned to the infighting and civil wars that led to the third century crisis. When the people asked Diocletian to end his retirement, he famously replied he was too busy growing vegetables:

    If you could show the cabbage I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.

    144 votes
  • Claudius Was Mocked By His Family For His Disabilities
    Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

    Physical weakness was a grave humiliation in Roman society, and Claudius - despite being a member of the esteemed Julio-Claudian dynasty - was considered an embarrassment to his family. Ancient Roman historians wrote that Claudius shook, had a limp, and would occasionally foam at the mouth. Modern scholars believe he may have suffered from cerebral palsy or Tourette's.

    Even Claudius's mother was unkind to him, allegedly calling him "a monstrosity of a human being, one that nature began and never finished," and his nephew, Emperor Caligula, encouraged people to throw food at him.

    Yet despite these infirmities, Claudius had a keen mind. He wrote dozens of books on history, and though all of them have been lost, they were used as sources for the surviving works of the historian Tacitus. As an emperor, he proved to be far more capable than his critics expected.

    153 votes
  • Imperial equestrian statues were once common throughout Europe, but most of them were destroyed in the centuries after Rome's fall. Christians deemed them pagan idols and, if they were made of precious metals, melted them down to create new statues or coins. The bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, however, which stands nearly 14 feet tall and once stood in Rome's Piazza del Campidoglio (and before that, the Lateran Palace), was spared this fate.

    It is believed that the statue owes its survival to a case of mistaken identity. Early Christians thought the bearded Marcus Aurelius was Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor - and thus worthy of preservation. One 10th century text refers to the statue as "caballus Constantini," or the "horse of Constantine."

    100 votes