7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors
7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors

Patrick Lynch - October 6, 2016

The combined Roman empires of West and East lasted almost 1,500 years between them but they are both marred by their share of inept emperors. If you do your research you’ll find faults with practically every single Roman emperor. The list of those with unusual sexual appetites and/or a monstrous cruel streak is quite long and you’re probably familiar with a few of these individuals.

Names such as Caligula and Nero are usually mentioned when discussing particularly notorious emperors with a taste for blood or those with bizarre proclivities. Yet in this piece, I will not be discussing well-known monsters. Instead, I will look at some lesser-known names and focus on their ineptitude while emperor. This includes those who made bad decisions and those who were about as useful as mannequins. As always, I look forward to further discussion and the mention of emperors I will leave out of this article. These inept Roman emperors will be listed in chronological order from the earliest to the latest.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors

1 – Commodus (180-192)

Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, one of the great rulers of Rome and was joint emperor with his father from 177 until 180. The regard with which his father was held only served to add to the fury at the ineptitude of Commodus. He was the emperor featured in blockbuster movie Gladiator and was a far cry from being the hard worker and popular ruler his father had been.

He is probably the best known name on this list and was infamous for demeaning the title of emperor and fighting in the arena like a gladiator. Commodus was also lazy, corrupt and liked to punish anyone who reminded him of his failure to live up to his father’s lofty standards.

As cruel and sadistic as he was, it was his incompetence in terms of actually ruling the empire that made him stand out. It was clear that he had no interest in being a leader and was only worried about indulging in his obsession with the arena and dressing in feminine looking costumes. As a result, Commodus was quite happy to sell government offices to the highest bidder.

He decided to devalue Roman currency by reducing both the purity of the silver used in the denarius along with its weight. Unlike his father’s reign which mainly involved military action, Commodus wanted nothing to do with war and negotiated a peace treaty with Danubian tribes soon after taking sole power. He left administrative duties to a series of favourites which led to unrest and attempted coups. Eventually, Commodus did try to act as an emperor but was very dictatorial.

After the senators made a failed attempt to poison Commodus, they got his favourite wrestler Narcissus to kill the emperor which he reportedly did by strangling him in the bath tub in 192. According to Dio Cassius, Commodus’ lack of interest in administrative affairs was the beginning of the empire’s downfall.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors

2 – Elagabalus (218-222)

He was approximately 14 years old when he became emperor in 218 and was known for his cruelty and desire to be a woman. He routinely wore make-up and female clothes and apparently prostituted himself! As well as reportedly making sexual advances at practically everyone who crossed his path, Elagabalus had an affair with a Vestal Virgin which caused outrage in Rome.

He further enraged the Senate by installing the Syrian sun god El-Gabal as the main god of Rome (above Jupiter) and it is from this sun god’s name that he received his nickname (he was only called Elagabalus after he died and was known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus when he became emperor). To make matters worse, he decided to transfer sacred relics to the new temple he had built for El-Gabal and made himself the High Priest.

Romans could just about accept the emperor’s unusual sexual appetites but his religious acts were a step too far. He has been described as “the least able emperor Rome ever had” by historian Adrian Goldsworthy in How Rome Fell: The Death of a Superpower and the empire only functioned because of the efforts of his grandmother Maesa. Eventually, it was decided that another one of her grandsons, Alexander, would be a more suitable ruler. On 11 March 222, after less than four years as emperor, Elagabalus was beheaded by members of the Praetorian Guard. His body was dragged through Rome, spat on and tossed in the Tiber.

Some historians claim that his disastrous reign and death which led to uncertainty in the empire was the beginning of the Crisis of the 3rd Century. This was a period where Rome was attacked by barbarians and torn apart from the inside by uprisings, anarchy and civil wars.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors
en.wikipedia.org (Honorius with his favorites)

3 – Honorius (393-423)

Honorius was the youngest son of Theodosius I and his reign as Western Roman Emperor began in 393 when he was named co-emperor by his father. Honorius became sole ruler upon his father’s death in 395 and initially, the 10 year old was ably assisted by Flavius Stilicho who had been chosen by Theodosius as guardian to Honorius until the young man was old enough to govern for himself.

Rome was in crisis as the Visigoths marched on Constantinople soon after the death of Theodosius. At the start of the 5th century, the Visigoths, under their leader Alaric, turned their attentions to the West and entered Italy in 401/402. While Stilicho pushed them back, further hordes of barbarians began attacking different parts of the empire including Britain, Gaul and Hispania.

Honorius’ solution was to hide and he moved his capital from Rome to Ravenna. He was apparently more interested in chickens than affairs of government and effectively sat idle while the empire fell apart. He allowed a minister called Olympius to become his main confidant. Olympius convinced Honorius that Stilicho was in league with the barbarians in a bid to usurp him. In August 408, the emperor foolishly had Stilicho and the general’s allies executed.

In August 410, Alaric was able to sack Rome and once again, Honorius was powerless to stop the Visigoths. He did have an able commander in Constantius who helped the emperor win some victories in 411 but further fragmentation of the empire followed as invasions took place in several different locations. While Constantius was trying to keep the Western empire together, Honorius was busy making sexual advances towards his half-sister. This outraged the public and resulted in his half-sister fleeing Rome for Constantinople in 423.

Honorius died in 423 with no heir. While he became emperor at a difficult time, his complete lack of leadership ability was exposed and he was unable to do anything about his rapidly fragmenting empire. Unfortunately for Rome, he was quickly followed by an equally unfit emperor.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors
en.wikipedia.org (A painting ‘The Feast of Attila’

4 – Valentinian III (425-455)

He was just 4 years old when Honorius died and was emperor at the age of 6 when the usurper Joannes was defeated. His mother Galla Patricia acted as regent until 437 when Valentinian III came of age. By then, Flavius Aetius had emerged as the man in charge of managing imperial policy in the Western empire.

Like other weak emperors, Valentinian was happy to let others do the hard work of governing the empire for him. The biggest threat to the empire at this point was the Huns who were led by the legendary Attila. Time and again, Aetius managed to prevent the Huns from completely destroying the Empire and achieved a decisive victory at Chalon in 451. However, Attila invaded again and soon had Rome at his mercy. There are a few possible reasons why he didn’t finish the job.

First, it is suggested that Pope Leo I persuaded him to turn back. Another suggestion is that the recent famine in Italy caused him to turn back. He needed supplies to take Rome (perhaps he had run out) and the lack of crops available would have made it tough to finish the invasion so it was a better idea to return home. Finally, Alaric had died soon after sacking Rome so superstition amongst his men may have led to the decision to return home. Attila died soon afterwards anyway and his empire fell apart within 16 years of his death in 453.

Rather than allowing Aetius to continue dealing with the affairs of the empire in the West, Valentinian grew jealous of the military leader’s success and murdered him with the help of his chamberlain Heraclius in 454. When he asked a counsellor whether he had done the right thing, he was told that he had cut off his right hand with his left.

With Aetius dead, Valentinian’s complete lack of ability was exposed and a powerful individual called Petronius Maximus had the emperor assassinated in 455 after having his own dreams of power dashed. Two followers of Aetius did the deed and Heraclius was also murdered. Maximus proclaimed himself emperor but his ‘reign’ lasted less than three months and he was also killed; a mob stoned him to death!

Although the Western empire was already in dire straits by the time Valentinian III took over, it was virtually dismembered by the end of his reign. In his 30 years on the throne, Rome lost most of Gaul, all of western Spain and practically all of North Africa. As was the case with Honorius, the only time Valentinian III took action was when he killed the person keeping things together.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors
www.executedtoday.com (Heraclius stands over Phocas)

5 – Phocas (602-610)

Phocas is often regarded as one of the worst Byzantine emperors. Little is known about his early life but he may have been as old as 55 when he usurped the throne from the emperor Maurice in 602. He was reasonably popular at first since he reduced taxes which had been a point of contention during the rule of his predecessor. In one sense, Phocas may be the victim of overly harsh criticism from Byzantine historians. After all, he had no legitimate claim to the throne and ended up losing a civil war; as you know, history is seldom kind to losers.

The initial adulation didn’t last very long as Phocas was faced with the same problem as Maurice was; the Byzantine empire had overstretched itself and keeping things in check was proving to be too difficult. The Persian king Chosroes began a war against the Byzantines that was to last for over a quarter of a century and would significantly weaken the Roman empire in the East while ultimately leading to the demise of the Persian empire.

While Phocas fared reasonably well in the early stages of the war, he was forced to deal with a rebellion in Egypt in 609 which meant taking most of his troops away from the war with the Persians. This rebellion became a civil war as Heraclius, son of the governor-general in Africa (with the same name), began the revolt with a view to taking the throne. In 610, Heraclius defeated Phocas and executed his enemy.

It may well be a case of history being unfair to Phocas. He was likely not as bad as historians tried to suggest but he was cruel and tyrannical and was unable to prevent the Persians from starting and continuing a war that would last for over 25 years and ultimately weaken the Byzantine empire. His successor, Heraclius, is viewed in a far more positive light.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors
en.wikipedia.org (Siege of Constantinople 1204)

6 – Alexios III Angelos (1195-1203)

Alexios III took the throne from his brother Isaac II in 1195 and had him blinded and imprisoned. He was known for his extravagant spending and imposed heavy taxes on the people of the empire while claiming that he was collecting money to fight off German emperor Henry VI who was apparently looking to launch an attack.

At this stage, what remained of the Byzantine empire was under threat from Seljuk Turks, Bulgarians, Vlachs and the Kingdom of Hungary. Alexios failed miserably to deal with crises via diplomacy and frivolously spent the empire’s money.

He really managed to excel in the incompetence stakes when trying to deal with the Fourth Crusade which attempted to install Alexios IV, son of Isaac II, as emperor. By neglecting the Byzantine navy during his reign, Alexios allowed the Crusaders to successfully attack Constantinople by sea; a feat that had never before been achieved. Additionally, the Byzantines outnumbered the Crusaders by up to 3:1 and also had the Varangian Guard to call upon.

Yet he really managed to outdo himself in terms of terrible leadership after the Varangian Guard helped to repel the initial Crusader assaults by land and sea. Alexios initially did the right thing by facing the numerically inferior attackers in the field in an attempt to drive them away from Constantinople. Instead of attacking however, he elected to withdraw his troops in a move that has baffled historians ever since. Alexios then showed his cowardice by fleeing to Thrace as Constantinople was ultimately taken by the Crusaders. He tried to organize resistance but once again failed and he died in 1211 at a monastery in Nicaea.

7 of the most Inept Roman Emperors
en.wikipedia.org (Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty)

7 – Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328)

He was another emperor who perhaps was a victim of poor circumstances. When he gained the throne, the empire had almost been bankrupted by the wars fought by his predecessor Michael VIII. However, Andronikos II severely lacked the strategic vision to deal with these issues and during his reign, the empire endured a sequence of disasters.

He became sole emperor in 1282 and proceeded to raise taxes and reduced exemptions as a means of raising money. Yet he made the shocking error of effectively disbanding the Byzantine navy in 1285 which had consisted of around 80 ships. The lack of naval power cost him dearly during two wars with Venice and his attempt to resurrect the navy in 1320 was a complete failure. The Venetians and Genoese warred on Byzantine waters and the Genoese had a trading colony at Galata which apparently earned 15 times the tax revenue of Constantinople. Worst of all, the emperor saw none of this money!

While he managed to use a marriage alliance to prevent war with Serbia in Macedonia, he was unable to prevent the collapse of the Byzantine frontier in Asia Minor. His co-emperor Michael IX (given the title in 1294/95) couldn’t prevent the Turks from advancing in Asia Minor and the government hired Catalonian adventurers to help them deal with the threat. Once their leader was murdered in 1305, the Catalans turned on the Byzantines and assisted a party of Turks in the devastation of the heartland of the empire including Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace.

Meanwhile, the Turks took yet more Byzantine territory including Prusa in 1326. While the Byzantine empire was on the rocks by the time Andronikos came to power, his complete ineptitude caused utter destruction. He had to abdicate his throne in 1328 when his grandson Andronikos III defeated him in a civil war and marched into Constantinople. The failed emperor died as a monk in the empire’s capital in 1332.