Five of My Favorite Emperors

The first week back in class was a frightening reminder that the end of this program is imminent. The amount of reading in my history class is slowly dwindling down, I have finished more than half of the material in my Italian book, and we are finally translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses in my Latin course. The next three weeks in my Ancient Roman Civilization course consist of site visits that I remember excitedly reading about on the syllabus six weeks ago. Tyler is leaving Italy in less than ten days so that he can return to his classes in California, and I’m trying to squeeze as many activities as possible into our last days together. This week we are going to eat dinner at the pizzeria Dar Poeta, which my friend Jared recommended to me several months ago. I’m certain that he is reading this post and feeling amazed that I still haven’t gone to the pizzeria he once described as “mystical.” On the bright side, my careful financial planning has allowed me to afford nice dinners, souvenirs, and museum tickets in November. Hurray for not spending all of my cash in two months!

In one of my blog posts a few weeks ago, I discussed my Roma Pass museum adventures and shared some of my favorite photos from those days. I took over 300 photos during those three days, and today I wanted to share some pictures of amazing Roman portraiture from the Palazzo Massimo. Every statue that I saw was incredible, and I probably have photos of the majority of the museum’s collection. However, I wanted to focus on the statues of my favorite Roman emperors and take some time to share their stories. The transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire has always fascinated me.

If I had to choose a single historical figure to study for the rest of my life, I would choose Augustus without any hesitation. I cannot imagine what sort of hypothetical situation would require me to make that strange decision, but I think that I could sacrifice my entire life to studying the age of Augustus. I had originally planned to write this post entirely about Augustus, but I cannot resist discussing the rest of the Julio-Claudian and the Flavian dynasties as well. I love terrible emperors like Nero and Caligula just as much as I love great leaders like Augustus. I truly hope that these stories about my five favorite Roman emperors are enjoyable to read. Keep in mind that these emperors are listed based on my personal favoritism, and this is not a list of the best emperors, or even “good” emperors. I’m a student, not Machiavelli.

  1. Augustus: the Princeps, the Pater Patriae, the legend

Why do I love Augustus? I have too many reasons to count. Having acquired power at the age of eighteen after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Octavian proved to be capable of almost anything. From eliminating the conspirators who killed his adoptive uncle to reestablishing an era of peace in Rome, Augustus was responsible for countless major changes in Roman history. It has been said that he found Rome made of mud and left it as a city made of marble. He was a master of propaganda, and he manipulated his public image with great success. Perhaps the reason that I speak so positively of Augustus in 2015 is because of how well he crafted his public image between 44 BC and 14 AD.

Another outstanding aspect of the Augustan era is its length; while most Romans were lucky to live to the age of forty, Augustus reigned for forty years and lived to be seventy-six years old. It is hard to imagine how Roman history might have changed if this leader’s reign had not lasted for so long. During his forty years in power, Augustus took possession of Egypt as a Roman province, revitalized Roman religion, assumed many of the primary positions in the Roman government, established a new form of coinage, built new roads throughout his Empire, and adorned the capital city of Rome with monumental buildings. He was the first among citizens (princeps), the father of the fatherland (pater patriae), the chief priest of Roman religion (pontifex maximus), and many other honorary positions as well.

Augustus is awesome, and despite some of his actions that I don’t approve of (like banishing Ovid from Rome), he is still my favorite Roman leader.

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Hanging out with my favorite Roman at the Palazzo Massimo.
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The wife of Augustus, Livia, who popularized the hairstyle seen in these busts.
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Statues of Augustus are everywhere in Rome. It seemed like every museum has at least one depiction of Augustus.

2. Hadrian:

Maybe my fascination with Hadrian has been slightly exaggerated on this blog. Before I came to Rome I did not know a lot about Trajan or Hadrian, but I have learned so much about them in my time here that I feel the need to share all of these facts in my blog. Hadrian is my second favorite emperor because I adore his construction projects, many of which still exist today. He rebuilt the Pantheon, constructed his mausoleum (The Castel Sant’Angelo), and designed the Temple of Venus and Roma, which is thought to have been the largest temple during his time. Perhaps one of the reasons that I love Hadrian is because I associate him with the design of the Pantheon, which has been replicated endlessly in the United States. In fact, many government buildings and monuments are modeled on Roman and Greek architecture. Whenever I think of Roman architecture, I’m reminded of the Emperor Hadrian.

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. bears a striking resemblance to the Pantheon.
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Hadrian was also a lover of Greek culture, and he brought the beard back into style in the Roman world.
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Hadrian was also a lover of having Greek lovers. Pictured in this relief is his favorite young boy, Antinous, whom Hadrian adored. After Antinous died under mysterious circumstances, Hadrian had the boy deified and founded a cult dedicated to the worship of Antinous. This cult spread through the Empire and became wildly popular. Some scholars claim that Hadrian was unhappy in his marriage to Sabina, and that throughout his life he seemed to express a preference for young men. Nevertheless, Hadrian’s pederasty and love of Antinous symbolizes his connection to Greek culture.

3. Tiberius

Tiberius is my third favorite Roman emperor because his reputation in Roman history is simply unfair. It must have been difficult to live up to the expectations with Augustus as his predecessor. As both the step-son and inherited son of Augustus, he became Roman Emperor around the age of 56 in 14 AD. Tiberius did not desire to be princeps, but he reluctantly accepted the titles bestowed upon him. Tacitus and Suetonius claim that Tiberius refused the titles of pater patriae, imperator, and augustus. Although he tried to act as Augustus had acted, he could never be as beloved as Augustus was. Tiberius allowed the Senate to make decisions, but the Senate still resented him.

After the death of his son in 23 AD, Tiberius seemed to have grown sick of politics. He gave authority to the Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, and retired to the island of Capri in 26 AD. When Sejanus plotted against Tiberius and attempted to seize power violently, he was condemned by the emperor and sentenced to execution. This situation led to drawn out treason trials against those who had joined Sejanus and conspired against Tiberius. Although Tacitus and Suetonius portray Tiberius as a blood-thirsty and vengeful emperor who took pleasure in eliminating the conspirators, modern historians have found these claims to be misleading. The treason trials seriously changed the reputation of Tiberius, and he lived out his final days in Capri. Tiberius left power to Caligula and his own grandson, Gemellus, but Caligula had Gemellus executed.

Maybe my favorite thing about Tiberius is his association with Caligula; without Tiberius, we wouldn’t have Caligula! Without Caligula, there would be no stories of widespread terror, sadism, murder, horses elected as consuls, and brigades of soldiers being told to collect seashells on the beach. The entire reign of Caligula was a disaster, and we have Tiberius to thank for that disaster.

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A bust of Tiberius as a young man.

4. Nero

Nero is another one of the emperors whom I love to hate. Like Caligula, Nero was an insane combination of a narcissist and a megalomaniac. To be honest, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero are wonderful examples of men who did not belong in power. After Caligula was assassinated, his uncle Claudius (whose partial deafness and limp had caused him to be excluded throughout his life) was declared the new emperor. Although Claudius was a surprisingly talented leader despite his lack of experience, he was often perceived as vulnerable and weak. His niece, Agrippina the Younger, convinced Claudius to marry her and adopt her young son, Nero. Claudius accepted, adopted Nero, and made him joint heirs with his own son Britannicus. In 54 AD, Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina, and the following year Britannicus was also poisoned, presumably by the wishes of Agrippina as well.

Why do I love Nero? I think the stories that surround his personality and his time in power are hilariously ridiculous. He supposedly played his musical instrument with glee as he watched Rome burn to the ground in the fire of 64 AD. He loved to sing, play instruments, recite poetry, and act in other ways that the Romans considered to be shameful. He competed in the Olympic Games and nearly died racing a chariot. It has been said that he would bribe judges at poetry competitions in order to win, and eventually he would just have the prizes sent to Rome because he knew that his victory would be certain. He was the first emperor to actively persecute Christians, and he even blamed Christians for starting the fire of 64.

When a vast region of Rome was destroyed by that fire, he used the land to build himself a palatial mansion, the Domus Aurea (Golden House). This mansion had a zoo, an artificial lake, several bathhouses, private villas, vineyards, groves of fruit trees, area for private flocks to roam, and endless rooms for entertainment. It has been said that when the construction was completed that Nero snidely commented “Finally, I can live like a human.” Rome was recovering from a terrible disaster, but Nero was happy to finally have the mansion he always wanted. Isn’t he the greatest? After a rebellion arose, Nero committed suicide and his memory was erased through the damnatio memoriae. Suetonius tells the story of how Nero couldn’t even muster up the nerve to kill himself correctly. After pacing back and forth muttering “What an artist dies in me!” Nero begged one of his companions to set an example and commit suicide first. As a shameless narcissist, Nero couldn’t kill himself, so he had another companion do the deed for him.

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Nero probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list of my favorite emperors, but I fell in love with his terrible character after reading the gossipy tales in “The Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius.

5. Vespasian

Vespasian is the most recent addition to my list of favorite emperors because for the last few weeks I have been researching his reign and the construction of the Colosseum. Perhaps the reason that I like Vespasian is because he was the general who acquired power after the tumultuous year of the four emperors. He founded the Flavian Dynasty, and he was left with the difficult task of cleaning up the mess left by Nero. After returning the land from the Domus Aurea to the Roman people, he started projects of his own. Vespasian started construction on the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, on top of area that was once Nero’s artificial lake. He was also the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son. Thanks to Vespasian, we have the Colosseum today, and that makes him one of my favorite emperors.

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Vespasian looks so grumpy and wise in this depiction.
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Thanks for building one of my favorite things in Rome, Vespasian!

Maybe with my talent for writing irrelevant lists full of pictures I could land a job at BuzzFeed one day! Just kidding, I like to write about history, not pander to random trends. Also, I’m too tired to continue writing coherently, so I think that I should get some sleep. Thanks for reading! Arrivederci!

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