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Ancient History
Roman Emperors

Roman Emperors

Note: the title 'Emperor' is largely a modern concept. Julius Caesar was Dictator of the Roman Republic for two years before his assassination, and Augustus is generally considered to have been the first Emperor (of Rome). Augustus himself wished to maintain the façade of Republican rule, and used the title Princeps Senatus (first man of the Senate). The English word Emperor derives from the Latin title Imperator, which was granted to successful generals, and (at least in the early days of the Empire) still had to be earned by the Princeps.

This page covers the first twenty Emperors, including Julius and Augustus. This takes us up to AD 192, after which it all gets a bit messy (OK – even messier than it already was). We then look at one more who came along a bit later.

First of all we have a couple of memorable years:

The Year of the Four Emperors Click to show or hide the answer
The Year of the Five Emperors Click to show or hide the answer

For more details on each of these years, see below.

49–44 BC Formed the First Triumvirate, with Pompey and Crassus, 60 BC Click to show or hide the answer
Conquered Gaul, 58–50 BC
Invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BC
Fought against Pompey 49–48 BC, defeating him at Pharsalus
Returned to Rome (from Egypt) as dictator in 46 BC
Reformed the Roman calendar in 46 BC (to take effect on 1 January 45 BC), creating a system that predominated throughout Europe and its settlements (in America, etc.) until the 16th century AD
Assassinated in 44 BC
44–27 BC Great nephew of Julius Caesar, adopted by him as his son and heir Click to show or hide the answer
Mark Antony (a fellow member of the Second Triumvirate) married his sister
Defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, 31 BC
27 BC – AD 14 First Emperor of Rome (see Note above), and had the longest reign; title taken by Octavian on succeeding Julius Caesar in 44 BC; in power at the time of Jesus's birth Click to show or hide the answer
AD 14–37 Stepson and successor of Augustus – Emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus's crucifixion; never really wanted to be emperor – Pliny the Elder called him "the gloomiest of men"; retired to the island of Capri in AD 26, leaving administration largely in the hands of two unscrupulous praetorian prefects Click to show or hide the answer
Uncle of Claudius and Germanicus (their father, Drusus, was his brother)
Said to have freed Androcles and the lion
AD 37–41 Nickname of Gaius Caesar, the third Emperor of Rome: great–nephew of Tiberius (son of Germanicus – see above) Click to show or hide the answer
Name (given to him by his father's soldiers when he went on their campaigns as a child) means 'little boots'
Made his horse Incitatus a consul
Assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard; succeeded by his uncle Claudius
AD 41–54 Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, in 55 BC and 54 BC, but the Roman conquest of Britain really began (in AD 43) under Click to show or hide the answer
Nephew of Tiberius, and uncle of both his predecessor Caligula and his successor Nero
Divorced his third wife Messalina, and had her executed for treason
Believed by some historians so have been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina (the Younger – mother of Nero) – possibly with mushrooms
AD 54–68 Succeeded his uncle Claudius (who was also his stepfather) Click to show or hide the answer
Had his mother Agrippina killed
Last of the Julio–Claudian dynasty
Roman Emperor at Boadicea's time
Reputed to have ordered the executions of St. Peter and St. Paul

AD 69 is known as the Year of the Four Emperors. The four emperors were:

08 Jun 68
15 Jan 69
Seized power after Nero's suicide, with the support of the Spanish legions; murdered by the Praetorian Guard, and succeeded by the leader of the coup Click to show or hide the answer
15 Jan 69
16 Apr 69
Appointed by the Praetorian Guard, after the assassination of his predecessor; committed suicide, by stabbing himself with a dagger, after losing the Battle of Bedriacum to his rival, who then succeeded him Click to show or hide the answer
17 Apr 69
20 Dec 69
Seized power with the support of the German legions, in opposition to his two predecessors; murdered by the troops of his rival, who then succeeded him Click to show or hide the answer
21 Dec 69
24 Jun 79
Seized power with the support of the eastern legions; died of natural causes Click to show or hide the answer

The last of the Four Emperors was succeeded by his elder son, who was succeeded by his younger brother. These three comprise the Flavian dynasty (because their family name was Flavius).

AD 79–81 Elder son of Vespasian: succeeded him as emperor on his death; died suddenly of a fever and was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian, whom some suspect of poisoning him Click to show or hide the answer
The arch in Rome, which stands to this day, commemorates his victory at Jerusalem
AD 81–96 Vespasian's younger son: succeeded his elder brother as emperor on his death; assassinated by court officials, whose motive may have been the recent execution of his secretary Epaphroditus Click to show or hide the answer

Vespasian's younger son was succeeded by one of his advisors, who was the first of what Niccolo Machiavelli (in 1503) referred to as the Five Good Emperors. Part of Machiavelli's argument was that each of these five (or at least the first four) were succeeded not by their biological sons, but by men that they had adopted to be their heirs:

AD 96–98 Appointed by the Senate following the assassination of Domitian Click to show or hide the answer
AD 98–117 Remembered as a successful soldier–emperor, who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history; at the time of his death, the Empire had attained its maximum territorial extent Click to show or hide the answer
AD 117–138 Built the wall that marked the northern limit of Roman Britain; also rebuilt the Pantheon and constructed the Temple of Venus and Roma Click to show or hide the answer
AD 138–161 Longest reign since Augustus (a couple of months longer than Tiberius) Click to show or hide the answer
Built a wall across the central belt of Scotland (between the Firths of Clyde and Forth), and gave his name to it
AD 161–169 Ruled jointly with his adoptive brother, following the death of their adoptive father, until his death from plague in 169 Click to show or hide the answer
AD 161–180 Ruled jointly with his adoptive brother, until the latter's death in 169; succeeded by his biological son Click to show or hide the answer
His collected writings are known as the Meditations – written in Greek while on campaign in the last ten years of his life, and still revered as a monument to a philosophy of service and duty

Of these six, the fifth (AD 161–169) is the one that's not considered to be one of the Five Good Emperors.

The last of the Five Good Emperors was the first Emperor since Vespasian to be succeeded by his biological son:

AD 180–192 Ruled jointly with his father, for the last three years of the latter's reign, and succeeded him on his death; assassinated on New Year's Eve 192 by a conspiracy of his advisors Click to show or hide the answer

There were plenty of candidates to succeed Commodus. AD 193 was a tumultuous year in the Roman Empire; it's known as the Year of the Five Emperors, because that's how many of them were proclaimed at some point in that year, and in some part or other of the Empire. I don't think I've ever heard any of them mentioned in a quiz, so I'm not going to list them here. (I'll just say that the first was called Pertinax; he lasted until 28 March before he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.)

The next Emperor of Rome (and the last) that I think we need to concern ourselves with is:

AD 306–337 First Christian emperor of Rome; inspired before a decisive battle by a vision of the Cross, with the words "in this sign you shall conquer" (abbreviated to IHS) Click to show or hide the answer
Son of St. Helena, who is traditionally credited with converting him to Christianity
Born around AD 272 in Dacia (modern Serbia); came to Britain in 305 to serve in the Roman army with his father, the emperor Constantius I; proclaimed emperor by his troops at York in 306, following the death of his father; following the so–called Civil Wars of the Tetrarchy, became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire by 324
Commemorated by a statue outside York Minster, unveiled in 1998
Summoned and presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325
Moved his capital to Byzantium in 330

There were subsequently ten more Roman emperors of the same name as the above. Constantine XI was the last Roman (Byzantine) emperor, reigning from 1449 until his death in battle at the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

© Haydn Thompson 2018–23