In This Chapter
● Men who didn’t live up to Rome’s great ideals
● Lunatics, thugs, and crooks
Like all the best history, Roman history is packed with villains. Villains make for great stories, and the Romans revelled in making sure none of their worst offenders went forgotten. I’ve picked ten here, but I can promise you I could have picked out ten times as many and still had room for more.
Tarquinius Superbus (535-509 BC)
In the annals of Roman history, Tarquinius Superbus (see Chapter 10) went down as one of the greatest villains of all time. Not only was he an Etruscan, but he’d only become king by arranging the murder of his father-in-law. He was called Superbus because of his pride and insolence (superbus means ‘arrogant, overbearing’). He ignored the Senate and the public assemblies, so he ended up being hated by both. It was said that many of the citizens forced to work on his public sewer system tried to commit suicide, they were so exhausted. Tarquinius crucified the bodies of those suicides so that they could be eaten by animals. He emptied the treasury. When his son Sextus committed the Rape of Lucretia, it was the last straw for the Roman people. When Tarquinius was thrown out, it was the end of the rule of kings for good.
Coriolanus (527-490 BC)
Caius Marcius was the hero of the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BC in the war with the Latin League (refer to Chapter 11). He’d killed one of the enemy soldiers who was going to kill a wounded Roman. He took part in a later siege of the town of Corioli, which belonged to the Latin Volscian tribe. The Volscians came out to attack the Romans, but Marcius led a very small force and pushed them back into Corioli. For this he was given the name Coriolanus. But Coriolanus was a patrician and the plebs resented his attitude - he even tried to hold back a grain handout until the plebs agreed to give up their tribunes. He was forced to leave Rome and amazingly joined the Volscians and led their assault on Rome. This was regarded as the most scandalous and outrageous betrayal imaginable, guaranteeing his infamy.
He only pulled back when his wife and mother came out of Rome to ask him to. One day William Shakespeare used the story for one of his most famous plays.
Sulla (138-78 BC)
Sulla (see Chapter 14) went down in history as the man who marched on, and captured, Rome. For that, he was damned to all eternity in Roman history. One of the men responsible for the fall of the Roman Republic, he rose to fame and power as the arch-rival of the general Gaius Marius (also in Chapter 14) and justified taking Rome because it was in the grip of mob rule led by Marius. Sulla was totally ruthless in his annihilation of his enemies, but it’s a mark of the age that the relative order he imposed meant he was appointed dictator. Roman historians remembered his rule as a terrible time of proscriptions, arbitrary execution, banishment, and confiscations. No wonder the historian Appian (a Greek who wrote in the early second century AD) called his rule an ‘absolute tyranny’ of force and violence.
Sergius Catilinus (d. 63 BC)
Lucius Sergius Catilinus was one of Sulla’s (see the preceding section) lieutenants, so perhaps it’s not surprising he was such a bloodthirsty thug. In every sense a product of the age, Catilinus divorced his wife and married an heiress to underwrite his political ambitions. As a provincial governor, he extorted money and disqualified himself from becoming consul when placed under investigation. His conspiracy (see Chapter 14) was his solution to his money troubles and his thirst for power. He was damned by Cicero in famous speeches in which Cicero condemned Catilinus for being the kind of crook who needed to be driven out if the Roman Republic wasn’t to be overrun with men like him.
Gaius Verres (c. 109-c. 43 BC)
Verres had an appalling reputation for milking dry the provinces he was sent to govern. Verres seized inheritances, passed laws to take money off farmers, took bribes to let guilty men off, and even - and this was considered the worst of all his crimes - tortured and executed Roman citizens as if they were slaves. He was absolutely the worst kind of Roman administrator imaginable, because men like him could wipe out Rome’s claim she was acting for the good of the places she conquered. In 70 BC, the lawyer Cicero (refer to Chapter 14) was responsible for the prosecution of Verres on charges of extortion. Despite attempts by Verres and his associates to bribe their way to freedom, the evidence was overwhelming. So before the trial ended, Verres exiled himself and was then made an outlaw together with punitive fines. He was executed in about 43 BC by Mark Antony.
Caligula (reigned AD 37-41)
Caligula’s villainy is one of the most priceless stories of the days of the Roman Empire. But let’s face it, the odds were stacked against him. He was only the third emperor and had to follow in the footsteps of Augustus and all his achievements, and then the miserable Tiberius who at least had a track record as a war hero. Caligula had none of these things to offer the Roman people, and he was totally out of his depth. Add to that the fact that he seems to have become seriously ill, and it was a recipe for disaster. The rest of his reign was a cycle of manic self-delusion, perversion, crazed indulgence, and merciless brutality. The incredible thing is that the brand-new institution of the principate (the rule by an emperor, see Chapter 16) survived this devastating body-blow.
Nero (reigned AD 54-68)
Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians, is more of a comical figure, but he was a gift to the historians Suetonius and Tacitus who positively revelled in telling the tale of this absurd posturing youth. Convinced of his own great artistic talents, Nero’s adult life (once he had done away with his mother Agrippina) was a reckless cavalcade of self-indulgence, violence, narcissism, and eccentric extravagance that included building himself a vast sprawling palace in Rome and performing in Greece. No wonder the tales of his reign made him a byword for tyranny in later ages.
Commodus (reigned AD 180-192)
Commodus earns his place in this list because he was the emperor who brought to an end the Age of the Five Good Emperors. From 96-180 (see Chapter 17), the Roman Empire and most of the free people who lived in it enjoyed an amazing period of affluence and stability. It all went wrong because Commodus was Marcus Aurelius’s son but wasn’t up to ruling (all the other emperors had had no sons, so the best man for the job had been chosen instead). Commodus was a weak-minded fool who handed over power to corrupt officials and spent his time performing in the arena. It was a tragedy for Rome, because his violent death was inevitable and it heralded in a century of intermittent civil war and a succession of soldier emperors.
Didius Julianus (reigned AD 193)
Frankly, from Commodus’s reign on, I’m spoilt for choice for bad Romans, but I’ve chosen one of his immediate successors. What marks Didius Julianus out is that, unlike all previous emperors, he was out for himself and his family and nothing else. He didn’t even have an army of supporters. All he had was his ambitious wife Manlia Scantilla and daughter Didia Clara. In early 193, he offered 25,000 sesterces per soldier if they’d make him emperor, to the disgust of everyone. A call went out for revenge, and as a result, the Roman Empire exploded into civil war as the rival avengers fought it out for supreme control (refer to Chapter 18). Didius Julianus had taken the Empire to a new low - ironically he never paid the soldiers and was murdered after two months.
Caracalla (reigned AD 211-217)
When Septimius Severus made Caracalla and his brother Geta joint emperors and his heirs, the idea was to establish a new imperial dynasty. How wrong can a man be? Once Severus died in 211, Caracalla let rip. The brothers fell out, and Caracalla murdered Geta and his supporters, and his own wife. The rest of Caracalla’s short and brutal reign was a reckless cycle of murder and intrigue as he pursued his obsessive belief that he was a reincarnation of Alexander the Great. No wonder he was murdered himself. His short, thuggish reign was the first of many similar ones that followed over the next century, and the sad truth is that he really helped the set the pace.
Elagabalus (reigned AD 218-222)
I doubt if Augustus would have bothered with establishing himself as emperor if he’d known who’d come along 200 years after his death. Elagabalus, born Varius Avitus Bassianus, was the victim of his mother’s ambitions (Chapter 19).
But he compounded that with his own obsessive sexual perversions, which included marrying a vestal virgin. That outraged the Romans who were equally horrified by his Sun-God cult which he celebrated by building a massive temple on the Palatine hill in Rome to their disgust. What matters, though, is that Elagabalus had absolutely no idea what being a Roman emperor meant apart from an opportunity to indulge himself with complete and utter indifference to the dignity of the position he held, the needs of imperial government, or even a sense of honour and respect. He outraged Rome and the Empire, making sure he died a violent death.