Tag Archive: Get to know a Roman Emperor

Roman Emperor and wise philosopher king Marcus Aurelius made what turned out to be a very bad decision before his death in 180. He named his son Commodus as his successor. Throughout the entire second century, Rome had experienced long periods of relative peace and prosperity under the 5 good emperors, all of whom where adoptive heirs chosen for their wisdom and ability to rule. It had been over 100 years since the last father/son succession (Titus and Vespasian in AD 79). The decision to make Commodus emperor had long reaching consequences. Many scholars mark his reign as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire.

Commodus was the first emperor who was born during the reign of his emperor father. He was only 18 when he took the throne. Almost immediately, he took a hands-off approach to governing, leaving the daily grind of politics and decision making to his advisors so that he could do whatever else he wanted. I remember seeing the movie “Gladiator” in 2000 when it came out, which depicts Jauquin Phoenix as Commodus. When I saw the movie, I was pretty turned off by how loose the history was for a historical epic. After doing a little research, I was shocked to find out that while the history of the movie is poor and 95% fabricated for storytelling, the craziest of Commodus’ behaviors are well documented. He was a monster who thought of himself as a god (just look at this portrait bust picture here of Commodus as Hercules), and he was obsessed with gladiatorial games and indeed loved nothing more than fighting in front of assembled Rome. Of course, he always won and even killed slaves as a warm up activity. Winning in the arena didn’t make him a hero to the people however… To the Romans, gladiators were among the lowest of the low, so it deeply offended the senators and citizens of Rome to see the emperor stoop to their level. On top of that, he required people to come to the arena and charged them money to see him fight.  Commodus survived a few assassination attempts, and became increasingly paranoid. In his madness, he renamed the months of the year for himself, demanded to be addressed as “Hercules son of Zeus” and wore a lion skin and carried a club on public occasions. On one occasion, he killed 3 elephants, a giraffe and a tiger in the ring. He also cut the head off of an ostrich, walked up into the seats and held the head over the senators,  implying that he could kill them too as he had the ostrich. In 191, another fire destroyed large parts of Rome, including the sacred temple of Vesta and the temple of peace. It was seen as a bad sign to all of Rome, except for Commodus, who saw it as an opportunity to promote himself as the second founder of Rome. He went so far as to re-name Rome after himself. Not surprisingly, he was eventually murdered in an elaborate plot. After 12 years, his reign was done and once again, Rome was plunged into a near civil war over who should succeed.

The year 193 was a rough one for Rome. As in the year 68-69 when Nero’s death sent Rome into chaos and 4 emperors ruled in one years time, Rome again was plunged into uncertainty and bloodshed. As with Nero, the problem was that there was no heir for Commodus. There was a quick move to install a man named Pertinax as emperor. By all accounts, he was a solid candidate as a respected military general and former senator. He only reigned 3 months before he was assassinated by rivals with other ideas. 3 Roman generals were all proclaimed emperor by troops who supported them, and after long peroids of battle between romans, Septimus Severus was emperor. He was ruthless in claiming power. He had the supporters of his rivals killed, including 27 senators. He raised the yearly pay for soldiers, securing their support, even has he waged brutal war in modern day Iraq. He was victorious, and continued to strengthen the military might of the empire. He  took to rebuilding much of what was destroyed in the fire of 191 under Commodus. Here’s what the ancient history says of Septimus Severus:

“He restored a very large number of the ancient buildings and inscribed them with his name, just as if he had erected them in the first place from his own private funds. He also spent a great deal uselessly in repairing other buildings, and in constructing new ones.”

Today, you can see the ruins of these many building projects. The largest is in the forum, the large arch of Septimus Severus that still stands in amazing condition and serves as a gateway into the city center. It was built to commemorate the victories in the Parthian wars in 203. Relief carvings and inscriptions on the arch are still visible. He also built a huge addition to the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, which included bumping out the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Today the ruins are clearly visible at the palace complex. Septimus Severus ruled for 18 years before he died of illness. In his statues, he is made to look a lot like Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius with his regal beard. Those emperors, he was not, but he did succeed in accomplishing much through the use of ruthless power. He learned nothing from history, because he named his sons co-emperors as his successors, saying to them on his death bed, “Be generous to the soldiers, and take no head of anyone else!”.

His sons were Caracalla and Geta, and the only problem was that they hated each other. Caracalla murdered his own brother within 10 months, becoming sole emperor. It was a bad PR move, but Caracalla took his fathers dying advice. He went directly to the soldiers, claimed that he killed his brother in self-defence, and then gave them an even bigger pay raise. With the army behind him, he set about eliminating all of Geta’s many supporters. In the early months of 212, as many as 20,000 people were killed in mass executions. Some courageous romans protested, and they were killed too. It sounds stupid to say it, but Caracalla wasn’t crazy (as Commodus and Caligula were), but rather insanely paranoid and ruthless. He was willing to do anything to have his way and maintain power. The names and likeness of Caracalla and Geta were everywhere on the buildings built by his father Septimus Severus. Caracalla had all references to Geta removed. Just look at this image here, a fresco of Septimus Severus and his family. You can clearly see one of the boy’s faces completely scratched away.

Caracalla was too paranoid to stay in Rome where it was only a matter of time before he would be assassinated. He spent most of his 6 years as emperor on the battlefront with the army, waging war in Germany and in the west. He had raised soldiers salaries 50%, so he had protection- or so he thought.  He was killed by one of his own bodyguards as he went to relieve himself in the woods. A glamourous way to go for a glamourous guy.

Even though he stands with the most tyrannical of emperors, Caracalla’s name marks one of the greatest Roman structures. Most likely begun by his father and completed by Caracalla, an enormous roman bath complex is among the most impressive ruins in all of Rome. To the Romans, visiting the baths was a way of life, both a cleansing ritual and a part of social society. Caracalla’s baths were one of the largest structures ever, originally decked out from floor to ceiling with precious marble and bronze, paintings and sculptures. Of course, those are all long-gone, as is the roof. Still, the shear size of the baths is mighty impressive. More to come on the baths in a later post-

Rome was governed from the year 96 to 180 by a chain of emperors dubbed the “5 Good Emperors” by Machiavelli. It has been studied and argued for centuries that Rome achieved it’s greatest heights under these emperors, who ruled with absolute power but possessed wisdom and virtue. Each was the adoptive heir of the previous emperor, which seems good evidence that choosing someone other than a full-blooded son to wield unlimited power usually led to a ruler with the people’s concerns in mind. The 5 good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

Antoninus Pius reigned for 23 years, and brought to Rome a prolonged time of peace. His adoptive son was the nephew of his beloved wife Faustina.  Marcus Aurelius assumed the throne upon his death and immediately made his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, a co-emperor. Lucius Verus died only 8 years later after suffering a stroke, leaving Marcus Aurelius sole emperor. Marcus had the heart and sole of a philosopher. He was well studied in the ways of ancient philosophy, and made many writings which have been passed down through time. Known as “the Meditations”, Marcus’ writings paint a picture of his wisdom and his preoccupation with death. Here’s a sample from the Meditations:

“The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just- though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity.”

Marcus may have been wise with a solid understanding of his responsibility  as emperor, but that did not ensure a peaceful reign. After years of peace on Rome’s borders, all hell broke loose in the east and the north, leading to years of war. Marcus himself was on the frontlines for much of it, gone from Rome for a period of at least 8 years without returning. Eventually, the Roman armies secured the borders and won, but at great cost. They brought plague back to the capitol from the east, which raged in Rome for over 10 years. The hardest fought wars were against Germanic tribes to the north. It was here on the that Marcus Aurelius eventually died after years of illness, possibly cancer, in 180 after 19 years in power. More so than any other emperor, and due in large part to his writings which have survived to the present, he has gone down in history as a figure who embodies the best of Rome.

2 important monuments to Marcus Aurelius are found in Rome today. The first is the Column of Marcus Aurelius (also called the Aurelian Column). It stands in a piazza in the heart of modern Rome, not far from the government buildings. It is an impressive structure at 100 feet high. The form mimics that of Trajan’s column, which is found a few blocks away in the forum. Like Trajan’s column, Marcus’ column contains an incredibly detailed sculptural frieze that reads like an enormous spiral comic book. It tells the story of Marcus’ military victories in the north. At one time, it would have had a statue of Marcus Aurelius on the top. That one is long gone, replaced rather strangely with a statue of St. Paul.

The other significant monument to Marcus Aurelius is his bronze equestrian statue, which shows him heroically riding a horse. It’s made of cast bronze. At one point, there were probably many such statues in Rome, and carved bronze pieces also decorated many buildings. Those pieces are all gone forever, scavenged and melted down in the middle ages. “The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius” survives because people in the middle ages believed it to be a statue of the Christian Emperor Constantine (more on him later). The statue was unharmed and has stood for centuries and has only recently been placed inside the Capitoline Museum at the Roman Forum. It’s near the top of the greatest works from antiquity to still survive today. It shows with amazing detail just how talented Roman sculptors were.

Marcus Aurelius was a wise man, known as the philosopher king. It’s surprising and ironic then, that he made such a poor choice for his successor. His son was Commodus, and in choosing him Marcus Aurelius became the first emperor in nearly 100 years to favor a son over an adoptive heir. Commodus turned out to be one of the worst tyrant emperors, grouped with the likes of Caligula and Nero. Like those emperors, he was obsessed with power, demanded to be worshiped as a god, and was eventually assassinated. The reign of Commodus is seen as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. You could say that it began under Marcus Aurelius with his wars in the north, as eventually it was the northern tribes who wore down deteriorating Rome and sacked the capitol. Perhaps more on Commodus later-

For now, here’s another great SmartHistory clip with a more detailed look at the “Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius”. Enjoy-

Antoninus Pius was the adoptive son of the Emperor Hadrian, and became emperor himself after Hadrian finally died after a long drawn-out illness in AD 138. He would be remembered as one of the 5 good emperors, and he would reign longer than any previous emperor other than Augustus, 23 years.

His first act was to request that the senate deify Hadrian. One could say that Antoninus’ reign was all a continuation of what Hadrian put in place. Hadrian disliked war and unlike his predecessors, did not see the need to use it as a political tool. He felt that Rome’s borders were spread far enough, and he concentrated his efforts on making things better within the empire and along it’s borders. He even built a huge wall across Britain to keep northern invaders out and secure the border. All of this meant that Antoninus inherited an empire that was in pretty good shape. Like Hadrian, he resisted expanding the empire through waging war. This resulted in the longest period of peace that Rome had ever seen. Antoninus never traveled to Rome’s borders, and never led an army. In fact, he hardly ever left Rome in 23 years.

Very little is known about his biography from ancient writings, but evidence remains of his actions as emperor. We know from statues that he was bearded, a look made popular and passed down by Hadrian. By all accounts he was tall and handsome, calm and kind hearted. He was a perfect fit for what many Romans wanted in an Emperor. He was a good speaker, and he was not easily tempted (as many other Emperors were) with power and money. Instead, he seemed to understand that he was a custodian of the empire, and his only role was to keep things afloat and in good shape. He was not an overly ambitious emperor, and unlike others he was not consumed with leaving his mark on Rome. He died at the ripe-old age of 74, a hugely popular figure in Rome and was unanimously deified by the senate. His ashes were placed in Hadrian’s mausoleum, known today as the Castel St. Angelo. Today there is still a debate about Antoninus: Was he really a truly good emperor, or was his reign a lucky result of the peace brought about by Hadrian? There seems to be evidence of both- either way, Rome prospered.

Antoninus Pius was not the greatest of Roman builders, but a very important structure of his exists today in the Roman Forum. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is a partial ruin that has been turned into a church, but you can still make out the impressive front steps and portico today.  At one time, it looked like this model in the picture to the right. It was built in 141 by the Emperor and dedicated to his wife Faustina, who had died in 140 after 31 years of marriage. She was the niece of Hadrian and Antoninus’ link to the throne. After Antoninus died, his successor, Marcus Aurelius added his name to that of his wife in an inscription across the front. In the middle ages the temple ruin was converted to the Catholic Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. Today, it is one of the strangest churches anywhere. On the forum side, the steps and columns are still visible, as is the inscription to Antoninus and Faustina, with a church roof and entry on the opposite side. During the middle ages, the forum was all under 10-20 feet of earth, so today with the ground excavated you can see the church and what remains of the original structure undernieth and behind it. It’s a weird one.

In recent news, a giant head of Antoninus Pius’ wife Faustina was found in Turkey in 2008, along with a huge bust of Hadrian, evidence that she was perhaps remembered and celebrated there as well. Here’s a link to that story with photos.


Following the death of Emperor Trajan, power was passed to his cousin’s son Hadrian. Trajan never designated an heir, but supposedly chose Hadrian on his deathbed. Hadrian went on to rule Rome from 117-138, bringing 20 years of peace to the empire. Hadrian is considered 1 of the 5 good emperors, even if he was far from a perfect leader. He is the first Emperor depicted wearing a full beard  (aside from Nero with his nasty neck beard). Supposedly, Hadrian wore a beard to conceal bad complexion. He also was a great admirer of all things Greek, and may have taken the look to resemble the great bearded Greek heroes. The Emperors after Hadrian all have beards, so he set quite a fashion trend in the 2nd century.

Hadrian’s basic philosophy of rule was the opposite of Trajan. Trajan loved war, and used it as a powerful political tool. Hadrian hated it, and immediately upon becoming Emperor pulled the armies Trajan had advanced east of Rome’s borders out of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq (insert modern political parallel here). Hadrian believed that Rome was big enough and turned his attention to strengthening its borders and its infrastructure. He ordered a 80 mile long wall built across Britain from sea to sea in order to keep the northern barbarians out and define the edge of the empire. It was 15 feet high, 10 feet think and marked every mile with a guard post. Hadrian’s wall took 10 years to build, and is still visible today in England. Hadrian’s biggest blunder was his war in Jerusalem. After the city was destroyed and the temple laid waste by Vespasian, Jerusalem remained a ruin for decades. Hadrian decided it would be a good idea to create a new city there, and build a huge temple to Jupiter on the spot of the Jewish temple. This brought about a second Jewish revolt and the death of many Roman soldiers there. 3 years later, half a million Jews were dead, and Hadrian built his temple anyway.

Back in Rome, Hadrian used his power to build some of the cities most enduring structures. The first was the Pantheon or “temple to all gods”, the grandest building of old Rome which still stands today. His Pantheon was a rebuilding after a fire in the original structure built 100 years before, but today when you go there you are walking almost entirely in Hadrian’s structure. Check out the previous post on the Pantheon here. The Pantheon is one of the most revolutionary buildings in the world, made of poured roman concrete and designed as an enormous open interior space equally wide and tall. There is an opening at the top which allows for light and air called the oculus. The Pantheon is a marvel of architecture and a huge inspiration to the great thinkers and architects of the Renaissance, who studied it to learn its secrets. Today, it is a virtual time-capsule to the reign of Hadrian- the only ancient Roman building to survive to today in such condition.

Hadrian also built an enormous compound for himself outside of Rome. Today, the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa are in the town of Tivoli. His other great building was his mausoleum, an enormous circular tomb on the river Tiber. Hadrian’s mausoleum was an huge drum of stone designed to contain his ashes. It was over a hundred feet high and even had trees planted on the roof. It probably looked something like this little picture here.

When you have a structure that big, its ruin is bound to be put to use. Today, it’s called the Castel Sant’ Angelo. It’s situated just north and across the river from Piazza Navona and in close proximity to St. Peters Basilica. It was converted early on to a medieval fortress, and has been in use for nearly it’s entire history in one way or another. Being so close to the Vatican, it was a palace for the popes and the one sure place to hole up when invading armies came into Rome. Today when you visit the place, you can walk into it’s core and the empty room that once held the remains of Emperor Hadrian. He’s long since gone, as are the great marble columns and stones that once made his mausoleum so impressive.

I’ll write another post on Castel Sant’Angelo later, but for now, check out this great site. It has a virtual 360° cam of the Castle and lots of cool info, including a downloadable app and MP3 audio tour. 

The year 69 was a bad one for Rome. Nero, the greatest abuser of imperial power and enemy of all of Rome, had finally killed himself. Rome rejoiced, but their celebration was short-lived. The year 69 came to be known as “The year of 4 Emperors”, because that’s what it was. It was a chaotic time of civil war as rival factions fought to place their candidate on the throne. Nero was the last in the line of the Julio-Claudian Emperors going back to Julius Caesar, and he produced no heir. Lots of differing opinions arose about who should fill his shoes and what kinds of reforms should be made to ensure that there wasn’t another Nero. The first of the 4 was GALBA, who was already 70 years old. He made the huge mistake of taking hard and unapologetic stances right away to erase Nero, including canceling benefits to important Romans and members of the military. This didn’t go over well. OTHO was among those in power when Galba was assassinated after only 7 months.

The problem with Otho was the northern armies had chosen VITELLIUS, and they began to march towards Rome to make him the Emperor. Otho had a force too, there was a battle, and in defeat Otho killed himself (after only 3 months as Emperor). Vitellius faced a similar problem when the huge eastern armies declared their commander VESPASIAN emperor and also marched on Rome. Vitellius was killed too (after 8 months as Emperor), and finally, after a year of intense back and forth fighting and extreme uncertainty, Rome had a leader.

Vespasian was 60 years old in 69AD, and was a natural fit. He was a strong military commander and when he discovered he was Emperor, he was in Judea (modern-day Israel) suppressing the great Jewish Revolt. Vespasian’s story is one that also fits into Biblical History. In the time of Christ, there were those in Judea planning a revolution against the Romans. In the year 70, Jerusalem finally fell in what remains the greatest of defeats in Judaism. The city was burned to the ground, and the Holy Temple was completely destroyed. The Romans were fed up with Judea- for too long the Jews had been resistant to their control and they unleashed everything they had to stop the revolt. Few were spared. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus claimed that 1,100,000 died in the siege of the city. Vespasian had already left for Rome to begin his reign as Emperor, and he left his son Titus in charge. Today, directly across from the coliseum in Rome, there is a large arch called “The Arch of Titus”. It was built to commemorate and celebrate Roman victory in Judea.

Today, you can see this sculpture on the inside of the arch:

The panel shows the soldiers marching back into the city with the spoils of war, including all the riches from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (notice the giant menorah).

Vespasian ruled 10 years before dying quite suddenly of illness, and was succeeded by his sons Titus and Domitian in what is now known as the Flavian dynasty. Though Vespasian was older, he came from a middle class family and represented a new attitude towards the Emperor. He was determined to provide stability to Rome after years of corruption and civil war, and he did it through military campaigns, taxation and financial reform, and like any good Caesar, by building grand new buildings in Rome to cement his legacy. Nero’s Domus Aurea (golden house) was altered, and an enormous new structure began building on the site of his man-made lake. It wouldn’t be finished till after Vespasian’s death during the reigns of his sons, but it would become the greatest of all ancient Roman buildings. Positioned directly across from the colossal golden statue Nero had built, the Flavian amphitheater, or Coliseum, remains the greatest legacy of Vespasian. I’ll have lots more on that later…

There’s no doubt about it- Emperor Nero, the last in the bloodline of “the divine” Augustus, was certainly among the most diabolically evil tyrants of all time. He grew up idolizing Caligula, who most Romans figured was as bad as an Emperor could be. Caligula was certainly bad, but also crazy. Nero was just plain evil, and he used his unlimited power in horrific ways. By the time he was forced to commit suicide (which he did while lamenting, “what an artist dies in me”) he had bankrupted Rome, killed off all his family members and pretty much everyone else in prominent government standing, and ruthlessly persecuted Christians.

Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was a woman willing to anything to have power. As a woman she couldn’t become Emperor, but her son could, so she married Emperor Claudius (even though he was her uncle), convinced him to adopt her son Nero as his heir, and then poisoned him. She was very much the puppeteer behind her son and his early reign as Emperor. Eventually, Nero grew tired of her influence and had her killed.

There are many crazy stories about Nero and his abuse of power, but none more important than his actions surrounding the great fire of 64. Rome burst into flames, and over 6 days most of the city burnt to the ground. Word spread quickly that Nero had fiddled (or played his lyre) as he watched Rome burn. Historians say that he sang a song about the fall of Troy, and through he probably wasn’t rejoicing at the fire, his image took a huge hit. To deflect the criticism after the fire, he blamed the Christians in Rome. They were an easy scapegoat. To Romans, they followed a common criminal who was killed by Rome, and they “drank the blood and ate the body” of Jesus. It was understandable that they were sometimes seen as cannibals. The first great persecution was a result. Christians were dressed in animal skins and fed to lions for sport, and crucified and burned as human torches. Sometime during this persecution, the apostles Peter and Paul also met their ends. According to tradition, Peter was killed in the circus of Nero and crucified upside down, while  Paul, as a roman citizen, was beheaded. St. Peters basilica was built over Nero’s circus on the spot of Peter’s crypt, which became a place for early Christians to gather. Here’s a map that shows the foundations of Nero’s chariot track, the original St. Peters, and the basilica as it is today:

Nero’s excesses are legendary. In the aftermath of the fire, he took a large area of burnt Rome and transformed it into an enormous golden palace for himself, called the Domus Aurea. When Nero built it, there was a huge backlash. Romans came to believe that Nero himself had started the great fire in order to clear the city for his own palace. The Domus Aurea included hundreds of decorated rooms, large courtyards, a man-made lake with a floating palace in the middle, and a 120 foot high colossal golden statue of Nero as the sun-god (The colossal statue led to the much later naming of the building to be built in it’s place, the Coliseum). After Nero was dead, those in power attempted to eradicate all traces of him by altering his statues and buildings. They filled in his lake at the Domus Aurea, and eventually built the greatest of all Roman buildings on the site: the Flavian amphitheater, or Coliseum. Much of the Domus Area is still there, with many underground rooms exquisitely painted. It was only recently opened to tours in the last few years, but in 2010 torrential rains caused the cave in of a huge vaulted ceiling, causing destruction and the closing of the Domus Aurea for the foreseeable future.

When Augustus became the first emperor and instituted a system that would pass power to his heirs, he could never have imagined how bad things would get. When he died in 14 AD without a male heir, his stepson Tiberius became Emperor. He tried to do what Augustus had done in balancing power with the senate, but wasn’t nearly as good as it. A dark and detached person, he spent much of his time away from Rome, lounging in his private villa while Rome faced many problems. Legendary tales were written of his debauchery and excesses. Over time much resentment grew over his abuses of power, to the point where he put many Romans on trial for treason, seized their property and had them executed. The most important event to happen during his reign was unknown to him. Jesus was crucified in the province of Judea, and eventually his followers would grow and forever change the Roman Empire and the world. When Tiberius died after 20+ years as Emperor, Romans rejoiced. They had no idea of the terror that was coming.

His grand-nephew Caligula became Emperor at 24 years old. He ruled for less than 4 years, but became one of the most infamous tyrants the world has ever seen. At first, things started out great. The son of a war hero, he was initially seen as a savior by Romans. He promised to forget the trials Tiberius had ordered and work with the senate. He commissioned some ambitious building projects and increased his own power before exhibiting some truly bizarre behavior after a year or 2. Nearly all the ancient historians tell of his cruelty, perversion and appetite for extravagance. He was probably also insane. Because he was so loathed by all of Rome, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Many stories of his life have been exaggerated or fabricated to defame and devalue Caligula’s name. The most famous story about him is that he named his horse a council (important senate official). While this is debatable, he did dine with the horse and fed it golden barley, and the horse did have a marble stall, ivory manger, and a collar of jewels. Many other things about Caligula are not up for debate- he was one bad dude for sure- and if even a fraction of the stories about him are true than he was evil enough.

Aside from being mad with power, killing off his mother and brothers and his political rivals, marrying his sisters, and turning the palace into a brothel he was also most likely insane. All great Emperors were also supposed to be great military leaders, so Caligula led a huge army north to conquer Britain. WHen they reached the English channel, he ordered his soldiers to attack the seashore and pick up as many sea shells as they could before returning home. He also proclaimed himself an actual God, and asked to be worshiped as one. He ordered a giant statue of himself placed in the temple in Jerusalem, an act which only made the violence in Judea even worse. Before the statue was done, Caligula was assassinated by his own guard. His statues were torn down, his name defamed, and Rome plunged into chaos. His assassins attempted to overthrow the government and turn Rome back into a Republic.

As the only blood heir, Caligula’s uncle Claudius quashed the rebellion and took power. He was un unlikely candidate and 50 when he became Emperor, but over the next years he returned at least a little stability to the empire. He led military campaigns and conquered Britain and North Africa, and built 2 mighty aqueducts that led water to Rome. Most of his family had been killed, so after a few failed marriages he married his niece Agrippina. This was a fateful mistake. Agrippina had one goal in marrying her uncle: to place her own son, Nero, on the throne. She convinced him to adopt Nero as his step-son. When Claudius became ill, she took the opportunity to poison him, and when that failed she poisoned him again. Nero became the emperor, and brought about a legendary reign of terror on Rome.

So why does any of this matter? Well, for one, the Emperors of the 1st century are an extreme character study on the dangers of absolute power. They used that power to make huge advances in architecture while building ancient Rome. Far more importantly, their rule co-exists with the rise of Christianity. When you understand how twisted Ancient Rome and it’s rulers were, the radical counter-message of love and servanthood found in Christianity becomes that much more apparent. Could anything be more opposite from the lives of these emperors than Jesus when he says, “the greatest among you must be a servant”? No wonder the good news of Jesus spread like a wildfire. I think today, 2,000 years later, it’s easy for us to lose sight of that radical message of love. Understanding the worst of ancient Rome gives us a context for the New Testament and a faith that eventually conquered Rome itself.

Trying to understand the complex history of ancient Rome is a little like learning advanced quantum theory: It’s nearly impossible to make sense of it all without learning a lot of background. It would be pretty difficult to learn all there is to know about ancient Rome, so in an effort to at least make a little sense of things I’m going to profile some of the key figures of Ancient Rome. Each of the Emperors launched lavish building projects around the city (and the empire) to boost their own egos and appease the people, and today you can walk the ruins of these buildings and get a sense of how beyond amazing Ancient Rome really was. More importantly, as citizens of the western world we follow a way of life that can be traced back to the Romans and the decisions of the emperors. Their story is also the craziest real-life soap opera of all time.

To understand the role of Roman Emperor, you have to start with JULIUS CAESAR. He was not an emperor, but his actions led to the enormous changes in Roman government that allowed for supreme dictators. Rome had been around for many centuries since its mythical founding by Romulus and had functioned as a republic for nearly 500 years, ruled by a senate and governed by the people (and by people, I mean Roman men, since everyone else was second class). By 50 BC, the republic was in civil war, torn apart by many different wars being fought on many fronts. Julius Caesar was a powerful general leading Roman legions through Gaul (France and Germany). Long story short, he was successful and very powerful with the control of a large army, and his power made for strained relations with the senate and other armies in Rome. He saw that the government was dysfunctional, and with an army at his back returned to Rome to take charge. He was granted powers in a time of crisis to unify the empire, which he did through defeating enemies and increasing his own authority. He made sweeping reforms of the system, and became more powerful over the next 3 years. As his power grew, so did resentment from those who viewed him as a tyrant. He was famously assassinated in the senate chamber by a group of senators on the “ides of March”, 44 BC. In his will, he named his nephew Octavian his heir. It was Octavian, who became Augustus, that would cement the role of Emperor and and forever change Roman government.

After the assassination, there was a long drawn-out struggle for power. Octavian was only 20, but he took every advantage he had in claiming his place as Caesar’s heir. He famously defeated general Mark Antony, who was in love with Cleopatra and living in Egypt. With the conquest, he added Egypt to the empire along with all of it’s food and other resources. After 500 years, Rome was no longer a republic but an empire. He became AUGUSTUS, and began a 50 year rule that brought about the pax romana, or peace of rome. Augustus was smart and savvy. He knew that if he grabbed all power for himself as his uncle did, he would be a target. Instead, he played the part of a peaceful ruler, gradually shaping government and increasing his own power in small increments over decades. He built a large temple in the forum, and set about rebuilding Rome. It is said that before Augustus, Rome was made of brick, but after of marble. He made many changes across the empire and increased its size even further. He also renamed the months of the calendar- July in honor of Julius Caesar and August in honor of himself. He is often seen as the greatest Roman emperor. Being that he reined for so long and in such good standing, there are many statues to be found of Augustus at museums around the world. His temple in the forum is in pretty bad shape, but is still visible in ruin. His Mausoleum is not far from Piazza Navona in the heart of old Rome. It’s also a ruin now, long since stripped of it’s stone, but at one time it held the cremated remains of Augustus and his family. Augustus is of course mentioned in the New Testament story of Christ’s birth. His rein was a significant time for the Roman Empire and indeed the history of the world. As for Rome, the power he managed to secure for future emperors led to occasional periods of prosperity but more often than not, chaos at the hands of some of the craziest power-hungry monsters the world has ever seen.