Ancient history

Roman Emperors:When Power Goes to Their Heads

Nero at Bayes. By Jan Styka. Private collection

How do we know we have power over people? By making them suffer. The “mad emperors” of antiquity did not know this precept of George Orwell, but they all applied it cheerfully. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian or Commodus all had one thing in common:more or less toxic parents, who made them an oversized ego, before offering them the Empire on a platter. Rule over the world was proof of their superiority. They all deserved this Empire which was their inheritance. But power corrupts especially minds inclined to self-centeredness.

Family settling of scores

Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar and first emperor of Rome, founded his own dynasty. His successor was Tiberius, the eldest son of Livia, his third wife. It was hardly his first choice, and Tiberius knew it well. As a child, he had found himself in the house of Auguste when his mother had married him. His powerful father-in-law had always preferred his younger brother Drusus, so perfect, so intelligent, so loved by the people. Tiberius almost led the life of a private individual with his beloved wife, Vipsania. This was the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the dearest friend of Augustus, whose daughter Julie he had moreover married.

When Agrippa died in 12 BC. BC, the fate of Tiberius changed:Livia wanted one of her sons to inherit the Empire. After the disappearance of Drusus in 9 BC. J.-C., she therefore worked in favor of her eldest son, by promoting his remarriage with Julie. Now son-in-law of Augustus, Tiberius became his heir. Once emperor, he embodied the symbol of the end of the Republic:he had been chosen by his predecessor in a system that was not supposed to be dynastic, and he had been placed in this position by the fierce will of a mother. who hoped to pull the strings of power through a docile and grateful son. Unloved by all, viewed with suspicion by the Senate, subject to an imperious mother, Tiberius was never really the master of his empire.

Become Augustus' successor by force of circumstances, Tiberius did not really aspire to become emperor, despite the schemes of his mother, Livia.

His reign seems to develop like a long revenge against his own family. He persisted in destroying with sadistic refinement the descendants of his brother Drusus. His nephew, Germanicus, was adored by the people and the Senate of Rome; Augustus had forced Tiberius to adopt him so that he would become his successor. Jealous, the new emperor strove to break his career. After Drusus' untimely death, Tiberius attacked his widow, Agrippina the Elder, Augustus' favorite granddaughter and Julie's daughter. It is true that Agrippina, a merciless virago, would have crushed Tiberius if he had not put her out of harm's way. He also had Germanicus' two eldest sons exiled and murdered so that they would never claim the purple. Posthumous revenge, he let Livia's corpse rot before consenting to her funeral; it was probably his way of finally humiliating this overbearing mother.

Tiberius, the perverse misanthrope

To protect himself from the deleterious atmosphere of the capital, Tiberius retired to Capri. His absence from Rome fueled the craziest rumours. In ancient times, to effectively destroy a reputation, sexual attacks were used. To prove that Tiberius was unfit to reign, he was said to be impotent:physical impotence induced civic impotence. To compensate for his deficiency, Tiberius would have given free rein to his fantasies, offering his penis to suck on babies he called his "little fish". He is also said to have populated the gardens of his island palace with maidens and young men performing erotic scenes of satyrs and maenads. Vindictive and obsessed with sex, such is the image of a bitter Tiberius, whose entrenchment in Capri is symptomatic of a feeling of imposture and a form of paranoia. His reign was animated only by his thirst for family revenge.

For want of anything better, Tiberius chose as heir the youngest son of Germanicus, Caligula, thus bequeathing to Rome a new scourge. He would have sensed his great-nephew's destructive potential as early as his teenage years. Caligula is indeed the archetype of the child-king who has become an adult tyrant. He spent his first seven years in military camps, alongside his mother and father. Agrippina the Elder dressed him as a little soldier; he was the mascot of the troops, a reduced model of his father. A feeling of omnipotence developed very quickly in him, reducing his ability to empathize to a trickle, a fatal consequence of an ego hypertrophied by his parents and a social position unsuited to his young age.

The hostile world of Caligula

When he was 7 years old, he witnessed the death of Germanicus, then the relentlessness that his mother put into promoting his two eldest as the successors of Tiberius, which earned them exile and death. Caligula understood that he lived in a hostile world, where the stakes were survival and power. His great assurance and limited sensitivity allowed him to endure his semi-captivity in Capri, where Tiberius forced him to live. Convinced by his education that he was worthy of coming to power as a direct descendant of Augustus, he probably participated in the assassination of a cacochymal Tiberius who was too attached to life.

The advent of Caligula at 24 further dilated his ego. He no longer accepted advice, scolded his grandmother Antonia and publicly humiliated his uncle Claude. Only his three younger sisters mattered to him. Caligula certainly had a vision of power influenced by pharaonic Egypt. He was also said to have incestuous relationships with his sisters, which made sense with his Egyptian conception of power. He imagined himself as an absolute monarch, as an equal of the gods. He opened a temple to his own deity, with a service of priests who dressed his statue in the same way as himself every day. His intrusion into the divine sphere deeply shocked public opinion:the emperor was the princeps , the first of the citizens certainly, but not a god. It was thought then that his excesses, which bordered on madness, would provoke the wrath of the protective deities of Rome.

Also read Caligula, the emperor who wanted to be a god

Besides flouting the gods, Caligula showed his contempt for the senators and the people. He contrived to make them suffer, so much so that historians today consider the hypothesis of a symbolic revenge against an Empire which had done nothing to save his mother and his brothers from an ignominious end. . He invented cruel refinements for the sole purpose of demonstrating his full power. Humiliating and terrorizing became immeasurable joys for him. There were the little antics:proposing his horse Incitatus for the office of consul, to demonstrate to the senators that they were so useless that an animal could occupy their functions. But there were also great sadistic impulses:he had the son of a high dignitary put to death in front of the latter, before forcing him to dine with him during a particularly festive meal.

Caligula often seemed to re-enact violent moments in his own history. These perverse games were perhaps a pathological reliving of his own traumas. His will to hurt and subdue was also exerted on the people. He sometimes gave performances by ordering the awnings of the arena to be folded up, which protected the crowd from the sun, while forbidding anyone to leave. His motto had become a tragic verse:"Let them hate me as long as they fear me!" But hatred is the mother of rebellion. Caligula fell victim to a plot led by the leader of his bodyguard, Praetorian Prefect Cassius Cherea.

Nero, in the shadow of a dominating mother

Nero, Caligula's nephew brought to power in 54 by his mother Agrippina the Younger after the reign of Claudius, inherited this atavistic madness which changed princes into tyrants. Like Tiberius and Caligula before him, he grew up in the shadow of a dominating mother, who wanted to make him the instrument of her power, thus creating psychic imbalances that augured the worst for the future:ego disproportionate by the certainty of to be a superior individual, but subservient to a mother who constantly demonstrated her omnipotence over him.

Agrippina had a great influence on Nero at the beginning of his reign. Finding this situation unacceptable, Seneca set the emperor against his own mother. The philosopher did not know that by pushing him to free himself from maternal authority, he would plant the seed that would make the terrible project of matricide bloom. After having had Agrippina assassinated in obscure conditions, Nero finally gave free rein to his megalomania, his mother being the only one who could restrain him. He then established his own vision of power, dreaming of himself as a Hellenistic monarch.

Also read Agrippina, power by proxy

Art lover, singer and composer, orphan Néron launched himself as a candidate in several competitions of which he emerged victorious. However, going on stage for a noble was a social downfall. In the eyes of the Romans, who applauded him out of fear, he debased his person as much as his title. Determined to beautify the world, Nero undertook a policy of great works which emptied the coffers of the State.

The great fire of Rome in 64 was the greatest setback of his reign. If Nero organized emergency relief and accommodation for those who had lost everything, he saw this tragedy as an opportunity to rebuild the city:widened streets, luxurious porticoes, homogeneity of the building. The capital became sumptuous, but he arrogated its heart by means of expropriations to create a sprawling palace, the Domus aurea . On this immense domain, domesticated nature represented in miniature the universe of which it was the center. The centerpiece of the "golden house" was a technical feat:a dining room with a movable ceiling, representing the celestial vault.

Corrupt, more than crazy

However, Nero's whims often took on the color of blood. He was only too aware of the precariousness of power and therefore pursued a security policy by vacuum, always finding an opportunity to assassinate a cousin perceived as a rival. However, he does not seem to have been the author of the death of Poppea, who probably died following a pregnancy complication. He loved his wife passionately, and the lavish funeral he offered her is irrefutable proof of this. In the eyes of the Romans, Nero embodied the hubris , that culpable excess that offended the gods. Finally declared a public enemy, he committed suicide in 68.

The tyrants of the High Empire came from a changing Rome, which preferred to fantasize about a diarchy (the senate sharing power with the emperor) rather than accepting itself as a monarchy. The ancient chroniclers all belonged to the class of senators, who could no longer bear to see their participation in government reduced. Hence the tyrannical portrait they drew of emperors with assumed monarchical inclinations. Untangling historical facts from senatorial propaganda is therefore a challenge. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and the others were undoubtedly bloodthirsty tyrants. Their paranoid megalomania was also not unfounded. But it deserves to be nuanced. More than mad, they were above all corrupted by power, like monsters engendered by the paradoxes of a family universe that isolated them.

Find out more
Lives of the Twelve Caesars, by Suetone, Gallimard, 1975.
Agrippine. Sex, Crimes and Power in Imperial Rome, by Virginie Girod, Tallandier, 2015.
Tibère, by Robert Turcan, Les Belles Lettres, 2017.


During his exile in Capri, Tiberius, successor of Augustus, engaged in sexual voyeurism. He suffers from paranoia and obsessive disorder.
Caligula succeeds Tiberius. A megalomaniac, he showed a lack of empathy and dreamed of being an absolute monarch, having become the equal of the gods.
Devoured by ambition, Agrippina the Younger had her husband, the Emperor Claudius, assassinated in order to place her young son Nero on the throne.
Nero oscillates between omnipotence and the fear of losing power. To reassure himself, he killed all those who stood in the way of his supremacy.
Domitian, of the Flavian dynasty, is condemned by the Senate to the damnatio memoriae posthumously, because of his cruelty.
Commodus rejects the policies of his father Marcus Aurelius and orders a series of systematic executions to sow terror among the people.
Heliogabalus replaces Jupiter, the patron god of the Roman Empire, with the invincible Sun (Sol invinctus ), of which he proclaims himself the high priest.

The Cruel Domitian
At the end of the I st century AD. J.-C., the youngest of the Flavian dynasty, Domitian, also entered the legend for his turpitudes. The eldest, Titus, seemed to have been favored by their father, Vespasian. He was therefore only the shadow of his brother, until the premature death of the latter allowed him to access the purple. Revengeful and megalomaniac, corrupted by full powers, Domitian dreamed of being an absolute monarch. He made the same mistakes as Caligula and Nero. His contempt for the senators earned him their pitiless hatred. He ruined the State by his policy of great works and the increase in the pay of the soldiers, who kept for him a certain loyalty in exchange for his good graces. Domitian was feared for his cruelty. When he sat in court, he gave hope of a lenient judgment before pronouncing a severe sentence, going for no reason to the death penalty. Alone in his apartments, he indulged in an unhealthy pastime, proof of his failing mind:stabbing flies with an awl. Dangerous and out of control, he was assassinated by members of his court, who feared for their lives.

Commode the megalomaniac
The emperors accused of madness were not limited to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the most decried by supporters of senatorial power. If the principle of personal power was consolidated over time, the opposition continued despite everything to spread its propaganda to defame the emperors who were particularly hostile to the power of the Senate. It is in this context that the reign of Commodus (161-192), son of the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, took place, who indeed endeavored to persecute and eliminate opponents to his policy. To discredit him, these opponents emphasized his megalomania. The August History (Life of Commodus Antoninus , 8, 6-9) relates as follows:“His folly was such that he wanted the city of Rome to be called a colony of Commodus. […Which] the Senate not only gladly welcomed, derisively, as one might imagine, but he called himself Commodian, lavishing on Commodus the names of Hercules and God. According to the sources, this megalomania is explained by the tendency of emperors to want to be treated like living gods. A behavioral disorder that corresponds to the feeling of living outside of reality... and which still affects many current celebrities when success goes to their heads.