Before we go over the list of most controversial Roman Emperors, we must define what classifies as controversial? Is it simply being bad emperor? Or is it something more? By a definition, a good Roman emperor was anyone who ruled more than 10 years, because at the time, it was nearly impossible to stay at the head of the Empire for long time. Staying on top of the Roman Empire meant staying on top of a very complex and tricky political system, all while coordinating military actions and making peace with the Senate. And to top it all, the Emperor was responsible for the lives of more than 60 million people. But for the sake of argument, we won’t take controversial as “outrageous” and “fanatic”. What makes the following emperors controversial is their desire to suppress the Senate, and their flamboyant lifestyle. Let’s take a look.
One can argue that Tiberius had the undying respect of the Army like no other rules, except for Augustus maybe. He had a few speed bumps on his road, but in general, he had a good ruling. His biggest knock on wood is purging the Senate, at a time when the two dynasties, the old Republic and the new Monarchy were still coming in terms. He was faced with a standard political conflict, and he couldn’t resolve it.
Despite everything, Tiberius managed to stay on top of the Empire for three decades, and he guarded the frontiers at all time. But the bad press focuses on the charges of pedophilia, the corruption of Caligula, and his senility at old age. People forget that he did as much as successful campaigning on the borders of Rome as other successful emperors, and he managed to reach even Germany. However, he is not credited by modern histories. In fact, all what he is remembered are the accusations, many of which might not be true. Today, he portrayed as the “Emperor Palpatine”.
Domitian did not get along with the Senate. Not one bit. Before Domitian, previous two Emperors managed to stay in power allowing the Senate to run wild with taxes for the provinces. And Domitian made sure to stop that practice. And while he did not get along with the Senate, the rest of the Empire was doing great. He is considered controversial because he was getting money from some 600 rich families, and gave them to the poor 60 million people. In the modern world, he would be Bernie Sanders in the United States.
Known for his sexual perversity, extravagance as well as cruelty, Caligula earned the nickname which means “little boot”. His only goal during his reign was to increase the authority of the emperor, giving him more power than previous emperors had. Because of that, he was dubbed a tyrant.
Some of his tyranny is best described by a legend. According to the legend, he ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the crowd in the gladiator arena. The civilians were then eaten by deadly animals. And Caligula did this only because there were no criminals to be prosecuted and thrown into the arena in a fight. In other words, he was bored, so he wanted to find an entertainment.
Caligula proclaimed himself as God, placed a statue of him in the Temple of Jerusalem, and ordered pilgrims to worship him and his statue.
Famously or infamously, Nero is known as the “emperor who fiddled while Rome burned”. He was one of the earliest prosecutors for Christians. His hatred towards Christians is not matched by any other emperor. At one point, he was burning Christians in his garden for a source of light in the night.
He also executed his own mother, Agrippa, and some believe he is responsible for the poisoning of his stepbrother. His reign will be remembered as one with extravagance and tyranny, using the title of emperor for his opulent lifestyle. Unlike some emperors on this list, Nero had absolutely no love or care for the people in his Empire. And despite his tyranny, Nero managed to rule for 15 years, mainly because he executed anyone who he didn’t trust.
After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero blamed the Christians, as the people and the city were looking for a scapegoat. He enforced taxes on the people, and by the age of 68, was hated by everyone in Rome. After his guards deserted him in the palace, Nero fled to a nearby villa, where he took his own life.
Elagabalus took the throne at the young age of only 14 years old. After taking the throne, he enforced some of his most depraved desires and fantasies onto Rome. Some argue that his reign started the Crisis of the Third Century. 50 years after his assassination, Rome was ripped from inside out by a civil war.
Elagabalus was a man, but he wanted to be a woman, and offered huge sums of money to the physician who would be able to turn him into a real woman. He dressed up as a woman frequently, visiting the nearby whorehouses where he was wearing female disguises and had sex with men. And despite all of this, he was married five times, even taking one of the Vestal Virgins as his wife.
But the thing that outraged Rome the most was the installation of a foreign god, the Syrian sun god of El-Gabal. That was the move that showed disregard for the Roman religion, and the people made him pay the price. After just four years of reign, Elagabalus and his mother were stabbed to death, beheaded and then dragged through Rome.
For a brief time, Commodus ruled together with his father. What makes him controversial is his lifestyle, having more than 300 concubines. Commodus was also a tyrant, and loved making jokes of the common people. One legend says that he once cut open a fat man, just so his intestine split on the floor. He opened his stomach with a knife.
But what makes him one of the most controversial emperors is his hatred towards animals. Some say he killed 100 lions in just one day, despite the disgust of the spectators. And he once ordered all the cripples, hunchbacks and all other undesirable people in the city to be thrown into the arena. They were forced to fight each other till death.
Julian the Apostate
Julian was not a tyrant, and he did not argue with the Senate. But he tried to change religion in Rome, reversing it back to paganism. During his reign, wealthy Romans have already converted to Christianity, and the common people started embracing it. But Julian hated Christianity, and wanted to reverse the religion back to paganism.
Some say he did not want a complete suppression of Christianity. Instead, historians believe that Julian tried to enforce polytheistic policy in Rome. Some might say he was a visionary and liberal, as he wanted to allow everyone to worship who they wanted.
One of the biggest knock on Septimus Severus, who some can argue was a great Emperor, is that he prosecuted Jews and Christians. For Severus, the Roman Law was an absolute, and he believed in draconian interpretation of it. The Roman Law did not tolerate any other religion, only Roman religion.
Septimus had respect only for his army, and nobody else. Despite his controversial belief, Septimus managed to unify the army and give it a clear leader.
Another ruler who managed to prosecute Christians. But unlike Septimus, Diocletian had a different philosophy. He removed their rights, and forced them to convert into Roman religion. Christians that refused to be converted, were martyred. Diocletian started by imprisoning those who refused to be converted to Christianity. But soon after he continued his tyranny with beheading and crucifixion. He even burned Christian churches to the ground. Christian senators were stripped of their rights and titles. Christians went into hiding, and stayed there until Constantine’s rise to power and allowance of Christianity.
Irene was an empress, not an emperor, but that is what makes her the most controversial out of all. The fact that a woman was occupying the position of an Emperor was a controversy in itself. Irene was quickly removed from the throne. What followed was a Papal coronation of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, and split of the empire to East and West.