At its zenith in 117 AD, the Roman Empire stretched from the cold fringes of northern Britain to the deepest valleys of the Nile. Many who led the empire were renowned as great statesmen, but some had reputations as ruthless despots with penchants for depravity and excess.
Here we look at six of the cruellest Roman emperors who put their own desire for power ahead of the needs of their people.
1. Tiberius (reigned 14-37 AD)
Tiberius began his reign as emperor in commendable style. He toned down the traditional pomp, was frugal, and was fair when dispensing justice.
But deep into his reign, he showed his true colours. Those who displeased the emperor, from jesters to the highest-born nobles, were tortured, exiled, executed, or forced to commit suicide. It was considered wrong to execute virgins, so condemned young maidens would be assaulted by the executioner before being put to death.
Tiberius hosted massive orgies at his villa in Capri, where participants included ‘experts’ in threesomes who would perform in front of the emperor. The villa also housed a library full of sex manuals in case anyone needed to go and look up a specific position or technique.
Often Tiberius’ savage behaviour was bizarre and inexplicable. Once, when on a remote shore, a fisherman startled him and offered him a mullet. The emperor punished him by ordering his face to be roughly scrubbed with the fish. The brave fisherman quipped that he was glad that he’d not offered the emperor a large crab. Tiberius took offence and commanded that the man’s face be torn to shreds with the claws of a crab.
Tiberius died at the age of 77, with many suspecting that his great-nephew and successor, Caligula, finished off the ill and frail old emperor.
2. Caligula (reigned 37-41 AD)
Caligula’s reign got off to a promising start. He recalled to Rome many of those who’d been exiled by Tiberius, scrapped an unpopular tax, and built temples, harbours, and aqueducts.
But it was about six months into his time as emperor, at the age of 25, that his imperial reign of terror began. Caligula was ruthless, sadistic, and extravagant. He was said to treat his horse better than any of his subjects. The beast lived in a white marble stable and fed from an ivory manger.
He was rumoured to tour the city at night with his guards, indulging in wild orgies with prostitutes before burning down their brothels as his party left.
On one occasion, a bored crowd at the circus booed Caligula. Big mistake. Those who led the chorus of jeers had their tongues cut out and were thrown into the arena to be torn to shreds by wild animals. Caligula then regularly emptied the city’s overcrowded jails and had the prisoners fed to the show’s animals.
Possibly what reviled the people of Rome most in Caligula’s reign were the mandatory orgies at the imperial palace. The steep entrance fee was then used to finance the emperor’s extravagances and wars. He commanded that the highest citizens of Rome should turn up, pay to get in and bring their wives, daughters, and sisters with them, who would all be forced to join in.
Caligula was assassinated by several of his bodyguards at the age of 28.
3. Nero (reigned 54–68 AD)
Emperor at 17, Nero was described by some as a generous ruler during the first five years of his tenure. He lowered taxes, allowed slaves to file complaints about their masters, and was a patron of the arts.
But Nero’s benign rule didn’t last long. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, in which Nero was famously said to have played his lyre while watching the city burn, he ramped up the murderous persecution of Christians. Members of the young religion were tortured, killed in the arenas, beheaded, boiled in oil or water, crucified, and made into human torches.
Not much of a family man, Nero tried to murder his mother by sending her away in a galley he’d had specially made. The booby-trapped ship would collapse and sink with the removal of a couple of bolts. Most of the passengers drowned, but Nero’s mum secretly made it to shore and escaped. Nero found out and sent a slave to finish her off.
The Roman people eventually tired of Nero’s murderous ways and sentenced him to be whipped to death. However, he managed to avoid this grim sentence by taking the slightly better option of cutting his own throat.
4. Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD)
This emperor might have been the one who put the finishing touches on the Colosseum, but Domitian was a cold and sadistic tyrant who sent masses of Romans to their deaths. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty, either. He liked to see prisoners in private, hold their chains in his hands, and shove a flaming torch under their private parts before personally castrating them.
He was a show-off at public events and liked to force slaves to stand a fair way away from him with their fingers spread on a wooden board. Domitian would then shoot arrows between the terrified slave’s fingers.
He was known for having such a high libido that he was nearly always engaging in what he liked to call ‘bed wrestling’. He executed senators, writers, family members, provincial governors, and actors. He had one man bumped off for a harmless joke at the emperor’s expense.
Domitian was assassinated at the age of 44 by a palace steward who concealed the deadly dagger in a bandaged arm.
5. Commodus (reigned 176-192 AD)
Few Roman emperors were as hard-hearted and bloodthirsty as Commodus, the son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. There seemed to be nothing and no-one he wouldn’t kill, and he is still famous today as the Roman emperor who enjoyed fighting with the gladiators (although the contests were always fixed for him to win). One day in the Colosseum it was said that 100 lions were released, and Commodus promptly dispatched every single one of them with a well-aimed arrow. Believe that if you will.
Commodus’ mean streak showed from a young age. When he was 13, a slave failed to make his bath hot enough. The spoilt teenager flew into a rage and ordered the slave to be thrown alive onto a fire. His lackeys instead tossed a sheepskin into the flames when Commodus wasn’t looking, and the foul smell it gave off put a smile on the youngster’s face, convinced that his servant was now engulfed in flames.
When he became emperor, his cruelty and vanity skyrocketed. One of his favourite hobbies was personally giving haircuts and shaves to his slaves. This may sound like a kind offer but Commodus had a habit of ‘accidentally’ cutting off noses, ears, lips, and pieces of cheeks and chins.
Several senators had the emperor killed after finding out that they were on his hit list. When news spread of Commodus’ death everyone in the empire had a massive party.
6. Diocletian (reigned 284-305 AD)
Generally, Diocletian is not thought to have been a particularly callous or violent ruler until the final two years of his reign.
In a series of orders during 303 and 304 AD, Diocletian and his subordinate co-emperors demanded that any Christians meeting to worship in groups should be sentenced to death, all Christian churches should be pulled down, all scriptures should be burned, and all Christians holding official posts should be sacked. Many Christians endured terrible torture and even a whole town was massacred for declaring itself Christian.
One victim of the emperor’s new-found ferocity towards the religion was very close to home. Diocletian’s butler, Peter, refused to honour the Roman gods when he was commanded to. He was brought before the public and whipped so viciously that his skin was shredded to the bone. Next salt and vinegar were poured into his wounds. Then a big barbeque was brought out, and, bit by bit, tiny morsels of flesh were removed from Peter’s mangled body and cooked in front of him until he died.
The ‘Great Persecution’, as it is sometimes known, went on until 313 AD, eight years after Diocletian’s abdication, and in 324 AD Christianity became the preferred religion of the empire.