Top 5 Craziest Roman Emperors – Imperial Insanity

Tom Curley

A crazy Roman Emperor

When we delve into the annals of history, the Roman Empire stands out for its grandeur, conquests, and, of course, its emperors.

But not all emperors were remembered for their wisdom or military prowess; some carved their names into history with their sheer eccentricity and bizarre actions.

In this article, we will explore the five craziest Roman emperors. These rulers were not necessarily the worst or most incompetent; instead, they were known for their unusual, often outrageously cruel behavior.

From extravagant spending to peculiar hobbies and erratic governance, these emperors left a mark that historians and scholars still discuss today. So, let’s journey back in time and unveil the stories of Rome’s craziest rulers.

5. Nero

Nero and Agrippina painting by Antonio Rizzi. Agrippina the Younger was one of the most powerful women in the history of Rome. \ Museo Civico Ala Ponzone
Nero and Agrippina painting by Antonio Rizzi. Agrippina the Younger was one of the most powerful women in the history of Rome. \ Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nero, one of Rome’s most notorious emperors, often comes to mind when we think of eccentric rulers. From 54 to 68 AD, his reign was marked by a series of dramatic and controversial events.

He is famously known for his extravagant lifestyle, his pursuit of artistic endeavors over political duties, and the ruthless elimination of his enemies, including members of his own family. Notably, he’s often accused of starting the Great Fire of Rome, though historical accounts vary on the truth of this claim.

One of the most striking stories about Nero involves his artistic ambitions. He fancied himself a poet, musician, and actor, often performing for the Roman people, who were obliged to applaud his less-than-stellar talents. His extravagance knew no bounds, best exemplified by his Golden House, the Domus Aurea, a sprawling palace complex complete with lavish gardens and a 30-meter-tall statue of himself.

Despite his infamy, Nero’s historical portrayal is not one-sided. Some historians, like Edward Champlin, argue that Nero has been unfairly maligned over the centuries. Champlin suggests that the traditional narratives about Nero might be exaggerated or misconstrued and that his rule had beneficial aspects for the empire.

This alternate view of Nero, suggesting that he might not have been as tyrannical or eccentric as often portrayed, prevents him from ranking higher on our list of craziest emperors.

4. Commodus

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, hence the lion skin, the club and the golden apples of the Hesperides. Part of a statuary group representing Commodus' apotheosis. Roman artwork.
Bust of Commodus as Hercules / Wikimedia Commons

Commodus, taking the fourth spot on our list, is a unique case of imperial eccentricity. Son of Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s most respected emperors, Commodus had a hard act to follow. He was groomed for the throne, but his interests lay far from the administrative and bureaucratic duties of running an empire. Immortalized in the popular film “Gladiator,” his reign showcases a blend of disinterest in governance and a fascination with the more thrilling aspects of Roman life.

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Unlike his father, Commodus didn’t find the running of an empire particularly engaging. Instead, he was drawn to the excitement of gladiatorial combat. He often participated in these games himself, a move that shocked and offended the Roman elite. His participation wasn’t just a hobby but an obsession, reflecting his desire for personal glory over the state’s welfare.

Under Commodus, the Roman Empire began to show signs of decline more clearly. Though issues had been simmering before his reign, his disinterest in governance and preference for personal entertainment exacerbated the empire’s problems. The consequences of his rule were significant. His assassination led to a civil war, which further destabilized Rome and indirectly contributed to the Crisis of the Third Century.

The question remains: was Commodus truly ‘crazy‘ or just disinterested? His behavior suggests a mix of both. His obsession with gladiatorial games and neglect of imperial duties point to a ruler who was not only uninterested in the traditional role of an emperor but also someone who indulged in his personal whims to an extreme degree.

This combination of disinterest in state affairs and an obsession with personal pursuits places Commodus firmly among the craziest Roman emperors, particularly for being the wrong leader at a critical point in Roman history.

3. Elagabalus

A young Elagabalus. The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: The Roses of Heliogabalus / Wikimedia Commons

Elagabalus, ranking third on our list, is one of Rome’s most enigmatic and controversial emperors. His reign was short but memorable, marked by religious eccentricity and scandalous behavior. His devotion to the Eastern sun god Elagabal, after whom he was named, was central to his rule. Elagabalus didn’t just worship this deity; he believed himself to be the living incarnation of the god, a belief that significantly influenced his actions and policies.

His religious practices were considered exotic and strange by the Roman elite. He attempted to elevate the god above traditional Roman deities, even marrying a Vestal Virgin in a shocking breach of Roman religious customs. His devotion to Elagabal was a political statement that set him apart from his predecessors and the Roman establishment.

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Elagabalus’ sexual life is another aspect that has attracted much attention from historians. There are numerous, often lurid, stories about his sexual exploits and marriages, some of which likely border on exaggeration. Nonetheless, these tales have painted a picture of an emperor whose personal life was as unconventional as his rule.

While some of the more sensational stories about Elagabalus might be exaggerated, as noted in other historical analyses, there’s little doubt that he was an ineffective ruler. His focus on religious and personal pursuits over an emperor’s administrative and military responsibilities contributed to the instability and challenges facing the Roman Empire during his reign.

Elagabalus’ combination of religious eccentricity, controversial personal life, and neglect of imperial duties makes him a standout in the annals of Rome’s craziest emperors.

2. Caligula

The Louvre’s Caligula / Bradley Weber, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Caligula, known as “Little Boot,” occupies the second spot on our list of Rome’s craziest emperors. His reign started with promise; he was initially popular among the Roman people and the Praetorian Guard. However, everything changed after he suffered a severe illness early in his rule. This medical episode, from which he nearly died, seemed to mark a turning point in his behavior, leading many to believe he went insane.

Following his recovery, Caligula’s actions became increasingly erratic and cruel. He is infamous for numerous acts that ranged from bizarre to downright horrifying. Among the most notorious was his rumored incest with all three of his sisters.

He was known for his sadistic tendencies, often subjecting his subjects to brutal and whimsical punishments. He reportedly made parents watch the execution of their own children and reveled in humiliating the Senate and other high-ranking officials. His behavior caused widespread fear and resentment, ultimately leading to his assassination by members of his own guard.

These stories, some of which are detailed in historical analyses, paint a picture of an emperor who not only indulged in excesses but also seemed to lose touch with reality. Whether his actions resulted from his illness or an inherent part of his character remains debated among historians.

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Nonetheless, Caligula’s reign is remembered as one of the most tumultuous and bizarre in Roman history, marked by a descent from a promising young ruler to a tyrant whose insanity brought fear and chaos to Rome.

1. Caracalla

Caracalla
Caracalla / Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata Wikimedia Commons

Topping our list of the craziest Roman emperors is Caracalla, an emperor whose initial semblance of normalcy gave way to extreme paranoia and cruelty. His descent into madness is often traced back to a failed assassination attempt, after which his actions became increasingly erratic and brutal.

Caracalla’s reign is marred by acts of unfathomable cruelty. The most shocking of these was the murder of his brother, Geta, in front of their mother. This fratricide was just the beginning of his reign of terror. In an attempt to erase Geta’s memory, Caracalla ordered the execution of thousands of Geta’s supporters, a massacre that spread fear throughout the empire.

His tyranny extended far beyond the walls of Rome. In Alexandria, Caracalla’s response to mere rumors and jests about his involvement in his brother’s death was chillingly disproportionate. He ordered the massacre of approximately 20,000 people, an act of brutality that cemented his reputation as a psychopath.

Caracalla’s obsession with Alexander the Great also affected his erratic behavior. He sought to emulate Alexander in military conquests and even planned to reconstitute Alexander’s empire. This obsession, combined with his paranoia and cruelty, made him a volatile and dangerous ruler.

Economically, Caracalla’s decisions were equally disastrous. His significant increase in soldiers’ pay contributed to the empire’s financial strain, setting the stage for the Crisis of the Third Century. This period was characterized by military anarchy, where armies frequently assassinated emperors for financial gain.

Caracalla’s reign was not just marked by internal cruelty but also by actions that had far-reaching consequences beyond Rome’s borders. His combination of personal madness, obsession with Alexander the Great, and brutal military and economic policies make him the epitome of a crazy Roman emperor whose impact was felt both within and outside the empire.

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Tom Curley
I'm Tom Curley, owner and operator of History Hogs, where my passion for ancient history drives everything we do. From Rome to Byzantium, I dive deep into the stories and details that shaped our past.
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