Augustus became the first Emperor of Rome in 27 BC and began an empire that lasted for almost 1,500 years. It lasted so long because it was blessed with some remarkable rulers and survived in spite of some appallingly bad ones. There were numerous critical points in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires that required a steady hand. In some cases, the right man was on the throne and in others; an incompetent and/or crazed fool was in power.
In this piece, I look at 8 Roman Emperors in the West and East who died at a bad time. Not every emperor on the list was a remarkable ruler nor were they all young at the time of their death. However, they were all better rulers than what followed them and when they died, chaos reigned.
1 – Tiberius – 37 AD
If you were to take the word of Tacitus and Suetonius as Gospel, you would believe that Tiberius was a sex-crazed brutal and cruel monster incapable of good leadership. There are lurid accounts of what he did in the palace of Villa Jovis which was located in Capri. He spent approximately a decade there and supposedly engaged in all manner of sexual depravity.
In reality, Tiberius probably fled to Capri because he had no real desire to be the Emperor. He was far from the first choice of a successor to Augustus and from the outset of his reign; he acted like a reluctant leader. Matters were not helped by the fact he had to deal with his interfering mother, Livia. There is a suggestion that he went to Capri to get away from her. Once he went to the island, he trusted Sejanus with power, but his friend betrayed him and plotted to murder Tiberius to become Emperor.
Tiberius returned to Rome and had Sejanus executed in 31 AD. He also executed a number of other people suspected of treason, and from this point onwards, Tiberius’ reputation was destroyed. The Senate had nothing for contempt for the Emperor who once again retreated to Capri and left the running of the state in other peoples’ hands. Had he died in 23 AD, Tiberius may have received plaudits for prudent management of the Empire and its finances. He also strengthened the empire’s economy; there were 3 billion sesterces in the treasury when he died in 37 AD.
Tiberius will not go down as one of the great Roman Emperors, but he fares well in comparison with his successors. Caligula, after a brief spell of promise, descended into madness and became an inept ruler during his short reign. While Claudius was better, he was murdered and succeeded by the incompetent Nero, and upon the death of the infamous tyrant, Rome was plunged into the chaos known as the Year of Four Emperors in 69 AD.