Why did Roman emperors get assassinated so often?

Today’s question comes from Katherine McDonald, who is a scary smart historical sociolinguist and Greek classicist and blogger herself, and I strongly recommend that you all follow her. And she asks a very good question, because Roman emperors spent an awful lot of time getting killed. Just thinking of the first 12 of them, Caligula, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Domitian are all assassinated or driven to suicide by a coup. That’s a 50% death by violence rate at the START. And that’s before we even make it to the third century crisis, where emperors’ reigns are so short that they managed to get through 26 of them in 50 years, a period which included the laughably named “Caran Dynasty”, which lasted 3 emperors and a full 4 years (and one of them was struck by lightning).


In this regard, the Romans were extremely weird. I had never really considered how weird they were - having been immersed in Roman history for the past 17 years I’ve lost all perspective on them - until Katherine sent me this excellent lecture by Stanford historian and very smart quantitative man Walter Schreidel which gives a statistical analysis of how the Roman monarchy compares to 31 global dynasties across human history in terms of reign and dynastic lengths and death by violence (which Schreidel pleasingly terms “premature termination”). Now this lecture is really very good, but it’s also 45 mins long and quite methodologically dense and I am aware that most people don’t find academic lectures to be the super-great-fun-time that I do, because they have lives. So I will summarise for you.


How weird are the Romans anyway?




This chart was floating around a bit last year, produced by a redditor and it summarises fairly neatly how good Roman emperors were at getting themselves a bit stabbed or beheaded. But how do they compare to the rest of the world?


In short, the Romans are unique. According to Schreidel’s analysis, the Romans are entirely unique in their wildly unstable monarchy. His analysis is pretty dense and he includes a lot of figures, but the most important are as follows: First, the average reign length for the best bits of the Roman Empire (Augustus to Theodosius) was 7 years. That’s half as long as the global average and a third as long as the non-Roman European average. That’s rubbish.


Secondly, the longest Roman dynasty is the first, the Julio-Claudians who run for about 100 years from Augustus to Nero and last about 4 generations. Which doesn’t sound bad. Except the global average dynasty length is 300 years and 10 generations. In addition, two are brutally murdered and one is possibly killed by his wife. For five emperors, that is poor. But for the Romans, that is about as good as it gets. If at any stage in Roman history you can get three emperors in a row who don’t get murdered, that’s a winning streak. The absolute record is six in a row from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius and that’s because all those emperors adopted their successor. As soon as Marcus A let his biological son get in on the ruling act, we got Commodus who actually ruled for 15 years but is mainly remembered for being a berk and getting killed.


So the Romans ARE odd in terms of how unstable and violent their monarchy was. Which brings us then to Katherine’s question…Why was being Roman emperor so damn dangerous?

Shreidel offers only very brief answers to this question in his lecture - his business is what not why - so this is 90% me from here on in. I’m going to expand on his answers and offer you two good reasons why the the Romans were so stabby.


Reason One: The Emperors are Warlords


There is basically no time in Roman history when the emperor wasn’t in the army, backed by the army, or the winner of a civil war. The best way that an emperor could maintain a good long reign and and be remembered well was to keep the army busy conquering things and violently subjugate a someone.


This starts at the very beginning. Julius Caesar and Pompey get to face each other down because they both conquered so much. Augustus gets to be consul at 19 and the father of the country etc because he has JC’s army behind him and then he violently, militarily crushes everyone else and captured Egypt. Claudius conquers Britain, Vespasian and Titus conquer Jerusalem, Trajan conquers basically everything he has ever heard of or can see. After that, virtually every single emperor that lasts is a successful general who leads his regional troops against Rome. Even dear darling Marcus Aurelius, of the Meditations and the Gladiator hagiography and the philosopher-king beard, led a brutal war against Parthia and another against the Germans that was memorialised on his own column in Rome with scenes of slaughter, domination and war. Truly, tip top gory stuff.


If we look at the first assassination we can see this very clearly. Caligula is murdered along with all his family and the senate attempt to reinstate the republic. But Claudius is backed by the Praetorian Guard and by extension the armies. And Claudius threatens his way to the throne in the same way that Augustus threatened his way to the consulship. All winks and nudges and hints of a sword.


For all our terribly high-minded ideals of the Romans, and our Western, super-racist perceptions that warlords are a thing of African post-colonial states and World of Warcraft (seriously, googling for a picture for this bit was a racist horrorshow, which is why I went with Immortan Joe), that’s exactly what the majority of Roman emperors were. They were a military backed dictatorship from the very beginning that did its damn best to present as a peaceful dynasty a of divinely chosen family. Augustus does everything he can to turn his family into something superhuman. He emphasises again and again their descent from Venus. He has his adopted dad deified and worshiped. He gets himself called Augustus which is basically “most holy one”. He encourages the imperial cult. He gets Virgil to write the Aeneid to really hammer home the special chosen one descended from gods and Trojans idea. And it does not work. It impressively fails to protect them because no matter what he does…


Reason Two: Being Emperor is Just a Job


For all the effort that Augustus pours into trying to differentiate his family from all the other families, it just never sticks. In part I think that this is to do with his own bad luck at not having a son or a surviving grandson that he can coat in semi-divinity through the Julian bloodline. Instead he gets stuck with Tiberius who comes from the Claudian bloodline and can only just about be aligned to Augustus’s goals. Also Tiberius doesn’t come across as the most demi-god-like bloke. He’s the kind of guy that might make you question your faith if someone told you he was divine. And on top of that, Augustus put very little effort into divinely legitimising him, possibly because he hated him and possibly because it was a waste of time. So, already by his second move Augustus's ambitions for his dynasty were scuppered.


The other reason is that the hatred of kings was so deeply embedded in Roman cultural DNA that they basically refused to admit that they had one for 1500 years of having one. They let emperors call themselves Imperator, Augustus, Caesar - literally anything that eventually came to mean king - except the actual word king (rex). They let both JC and Augustus be half-divine, but the second JC looked at a crown that hinted rex, they stabbed him 46 times. Not having kings was their cultural USP and they were not planning on letting that change just because they happened to have kings. No siree bob.


And that means that the job of emperor is never allowed to take on a cultural meaning that is more than just the biggest job in the empire. It’s a job that comes with the coolest palaces, the hottest slaves and the best parties but it is still, no matter what, just a job that can be done by anyone. While Chinese and Japanese emperors, Egyptian pharaohs, Incan emperors and basically everyone else got to be living gods, and even English kings until pretty recently got the Divine Right, Roman emperors were always just dudes with swords who were willing to do the paperwork. The imperial cult involved sacrifice to the emperor, but at no point did the idea that emperors were literally divine or special in any way take off. And if the emperor is just a dude, then his job is open to anyone.


Once you have a desirable job, and no one thinks that you’re particularly special for having that job, then anyone can have a go at taking it from you. Especially if they have the exact same qualification and number of legions as you do. And that’s exactly how we end up with the third century crisis, where every general in every part of the empire thinks he have have a bash at being emperor. The third century crisis, at the most base level, is the year of the four emperor that follows Nero’s death writ large.


So there you have it. The Romans are unique in so many ways. Because they’re violent and nasty and love war more than anything, and because they refuse to accept that you have to be special to rule an empire. But at least so many of them have the kind of personal ambition and go-getting style that a Donald Trump would find admirable: to face down the current emperor and take his place.