The combined Roman empires of West and East lasted almost 1,500 years between them but they are both marred by their share of inept emperors. If you do your research you’ll find faults with practically every single Roman emperor. The list of those with unusual sexual appetites and/or a monstrous cruel streak is quite long and you’re probably familiar with a few of these individuals.
Names such as Caligula and Nero are usually mentioned when discussing particularly notorious emperors with a taste for blood or those with bizarre proclivities. Yet in this piece, I will not be discussing well-known monsters. Instead, I will look at some lesser-known names and focus on their ineptitude while emperor. This includes those who made bad decisions and those who were about as useful as mannequins. As always, I look forward to further discussion and the mention of emperors I will leave out of this article. These inept Roman emperors will be listed in chronological order from the earliest to the latest.
1 – Commodus (180-192)
Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, one of the great rulers of Rome and was joint emperor with his father from 177 until 180. The regard with which his father was held only served to add to the fury at the ineptitude of Commodus. He was the emperor featured in blockbuster movie Gladiator and was a far cry from being the hard worker and popular ruler his father had been.
He is probably the best known name on this list and was infamous for demeaning the title of emperor and fighting in the arena like a gladiator. Commodus was also lazy, corrupt and liked to punish anyone who reminded him of his failure to live up to his father’s lofty standards.
As cruel and sadistic as he was, it was his incompetence in terms of actually ruling the empire that made him stand out. It was clear that he had no interest in being a leader and was only worried about indulging in his obsession with the arena and dressing in feminine looking costumes. As a result, Commodus was quite happy to sell government offices to the highest bidder.
He decided to devalue Roman currency by reducing both the purity of the silver used in the denarius along with its weight. Unlike his father’s reign which mainly involved military action, Commodus wanted nothing to do with war and negotiated a peace treaty with Danubian tribes soon after taking sole power. He left administrative duties to a series of favourites which led to unrest and attempted coups. Eventually, Commodus did try to act as an emperor but was very dictatorial.
After the senators made a failed attempt to poison Commodus, they got his favourite wrestler Narcissus to kill the emperor which he reportedly did by strangling him in the bath tub in 192. According to Dio Cassius, Commodus’ lack of interest in administrative affairs was the beginning of the empire’s downfall.