Monday, December 17, 2007

World History Blog Poll: Which of these men was the most evil Roman Emperor?

There were a lot of good men who ruled the Roman Empire. They are easy to identify when they were both decent human beings and good rulers to boot. Unfortunately, the Romans also suffered under the hands of evil men as well. These men were depraved but they were not always bad rulers making their identification as sinister men hard.

But this is not always the case. Four men have stood out as amongst the worst through history. This may be just bad press but the evidence suggests these men were not people you would have wanted to have had to deal with. These are Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Commodus.

A just closed World History Blog Poll asked, "Which of these men was the most evil Roman Emperor?" Nero was the consensus choice with 49% with Caligula following at second with 29%. Commodus got 11% and Domitian finished fourth with 9%.

Were these really evil men? You decide.

Tacitus noted how Nero murdered his mother Agrippina, "A night of brilliant starlight with the calm of a tranquil sea was granted by heaven, seemingly, to convict the crime. The vessel had not gone far, Agrippina having with her two of her intimate attendants, one of whom, Crepereius Gallus, stood near the helm, while Acerronia, reclining at Agrippina's feet as she reposed herself, spoke joyfully of her son's repentance and of the recovery of the mother's influence, when at a given signal the ceiling of the place, which was loaded with a quantity of lead, fell in, and Crepereius was crushed and instantly killed. Agrippina and Acerronia were protected by the projecting sides of the couch, which happened to be too strong to yield under the weight. But this was not followed by the breaking up of the vessel; for all were bewildered, and those too, who were in the plot, were hindered by the unconscious majority. The crew then thought it best to throw the vessel on one side and so sink it, but they could not themselves promptly unite to face the emergency, and others, by counteracting the attempt, gave an opportunity of a gentler fall into the sea. Acerronia, however, thoughtlessly exclaiming that she was Agrippina, and imploring help for the emperor's mother, was despatched with poles and oars, and such naval implements as chance offered. Agrippina was silent and was thus the less recognized; still, she received a wound in her shoulder. She swam, then met with some small boats which conveyed her to the Lucrine lake, and so entered her house...Meantime, Agrippina's peril being universally known and taken to be an accidental occurrence, everybody, the moment he heard of it, hurried down to the beach. Some climbed projecting piers; some the nearest vessels; others, as far as their stature allowed, went into the sea; some, again, stood with outstretched arms, while the whole shore rung with wailings, with prayers and cries, as different questions were asked and uncertain answers given. A vast multitude streamed to the spot with torches, and as soon as all knew that she was safe, they at once prepared to wish her joy, till the sight of an armed and threatening force scared them away. Anicetus then surrounded the house with a guard, and having burst open the gates, dragged off the slaves who met him, till he came to the door of her chamber, where a few still stood, after the rest had fled in terror at the attack. A small lamp was in the room, and one slave-girl with Agrippina, who grew more and more anxious, as no messenger came from her son, not even Agerinus, while the appearance of the shore was changed, a solitude one moment, then sudden bustle and tokens of the worst catastrophe. As the girl rose to depart, she exclaimed, "Do you too forsake me?" and looking round saw Anicetus, who had with him the captain of the trireme, Herculeius, and Obaritus, a centurion of marines. 'If,' said she, 'you have come to see me, take back word that I have recovered, but if you are here to do a crime, I believe nothing about my son; he has not ordered his mother's murder.' The assassins closed in round her couch, and the captain of the trireme first struck her head violently with a club. Then, as the centurion bared his sword for the fatal deed, presenting her person, she exclaimed, 'Smite my womb!' and with many wounds she was slain."

Suetonius wrote of Caligula, "Having asked a man who had been recalled from an exile of long standing, how in the world he spent his time there, the man replied by way of flattery: 'I constantly prayed the gods for what has come to pass, that Tiberius might die and you become emperor.' Thereupon Caligula, thinking that his exiles were likewise praying for his death, sent emissaries from island to island to butcher them all. Wishing to have one of the senators torn to pieces, he induced some of the members to assail him suddenly, on his entrance into the Senate, with the charge of being a public enemy, to stab him with their styluses, and turn him over to the rest to be mangled; and his cruelty was not sated until he saw the man's limbs, members, and bowels dragged through the streets and heaped up before him."

Roman-Empire.net noted of Commodus, "In the later stages of his reign Commodus became ever more obsessed with performing as a gladiator. He even changed parts of his palace into an arena in order to fight beasts there or gladiators. But Commodus was not satisfied with such private fights. He also appeared in public as a gladiator. For the Roman public, or at least the privileged classes, it was a harsh shock to see their emperor publicly debase himself to the level of a slave or a prostitute in the arena. For, in Roman attitudes, gladiators were indeed understood as one of the lowest possible levels of society. But Commodus cared little about such attitudes. He liked to appear in the arena dressed up in a lion skin as the ancient hero Hercules, son of Jupiter. There is little doubt that by this time Commodus was deranged. Senators had to be present at such performances, as their emperor slaughtered helpless animals or hapless gladiators. At one day he is said to have killed one hundred bears. Given this number, it is hard to imagine that the animals were anything but helplessly tethered with no chance to fight back and were simply stabbed to death. The fighters who would meet Commodus in the arena stood equally little chance. For if the emperor was armed, all they would have were harmless wooden weapons."

Of Domitian, one site noted, "Historians have described Domitian as 'crazy and unbalanced'. He suffered from social inadequacy and preferred solitude to the company of people. He had a distrustful nature and was constant in fear of conspiracies; the pillars of his palace were made of white reflective marble so that he could see what was going on behind him. Like Caligula, Domitian was very sensitive of his baldness and official portraits continued to show him with flowing locks of hair. Domitian was also notorious for his cruelty. He is supposed to have invented a new method of torture: burning the sexual organs of his victims. Domitian was capable of inviting an erring official to supper, dismissing him in such a way that the man retired happy and carefree. Nevertheless, the next day he was executed. Domitian also enjoyed asking senators to dinner-parties at which all the equipment was black, so that the guests were numb with fright. Like Vespasian, Domitian persecuted Stoic philosophers and Jews. He had all Jews, who claimed descent from King David, tracked down and killed. Very peculiar was Domitian's pleasure in catching flies, stabbing them with the point of a pen and tearing their wings out. "

1 comment:

The Minstrel Boy said...

Caligula was perfectly odious. Nero a close second. Some of the acts of Caligula were so deranged that they are almost comical. The "war" against Neptune where chests of seashells were displayed as booty, the turning of the senate chamber into a whorehouse staffed by the wives of the senators, the nomination of his horse as a senator, then, there's that whole marrying, impregnating, and then murdering your sister thing. Nero had his moments, but Caligula was one long unrelenting stream of crazed and violent evil.