Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars

Alexander Meddings - November 6, 2017

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
In this scene from the 1970s British TV Series I Claudius the dying emperor is visited by the Sybil


Our ancient writers unanimously agreed that Claudius was poisoned—served either poisoned mushrooms at dinner or given a feather dipped in venom, so that when he put it down his throat to vomit he was administered the fatal dose. Those suspected of assassinating him were his wife (and niece), Agrippina, and her son, Nero, using the hired help of the notorious imperial poisoner Locusta. They weren’t even that subtle; Nero would later make jokes about mushrooms being the “food of the gods”, for eating them had got Claudius deified.

In reality, Claudius’s death may not have been as exciting as scandalous as people think. Ancient writers were keen to implicate others whenever an emperor died a non-violent death. We’ve seen it with Tiberius, with rumors that Caligula had him either poisoned or smothered, and it happened with Augustus too—his wife, Livia, faced accusations that she’d orchestrated her husband’s death by secretly administering him poison.

The fact that Claudius had a bad track history with his wives—the one prior to Agrippina was executed for marrying another senator and conspiring against him while he was away on business—made Agrippina an easy target. But while Claudius’s death may have been relatively unremarkable, a surviving text that circulated Nero’s court shortly afterward is anything but.

Known as the Apocolocyntosis—try saying that after a couple of drinks—the text was supposedly written by Seneca the Younger, the great stoic philosopher and tutor to Emperor Nero. It’s essentially a piece of satire about Claudius’s death and arrival amongst the gods (by Claudius’s time it was becoming common practice for emperors to be declared gods after their death—a process known as apotheosis). Apocolocyntosis is a pun on this word; translating to something like the “pumpkinification” of Emperor Claudius, or “How Claudius became a pumpkin”.

It describes how, on October 13 54 AD, the Fates decided to mercifully intervene and give the 64-year-old emperor terminal respite from his torturous existence. Claudius was watching a troupe of comedians when he interrupted the performance with a loud fart. He utters his final words,

“Oh dear, I appear to have shit myself”,

before then ascending to heaven. Rather than receiving a warm welcome, however, he’s tried before a court of gods—headed by Augustus—and condemned to be the slave of Caligula for all eternity.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Vasily S. Smirnov “Nero’s Death” (1888). The TLS


Both as an emperor and as a human, Nero was inexcusably bad. His show-reel of worst moments include: assassinating his mother, forcing one wife to commit suicide and kicking another wife to death when she told him off for spending too much time at the games. As emperor, he completely failed his principal job of holding the empire together. For in his final days, he mismanaged events so spectacularly that what started out as an insignificant revolt led to him committing suicide without an heir, plunging Rome into yet another civil war.

The beginning of the end came with the rebellion of the Roman governor of Gallia Lugdunensis (Northern France) in March 68 AD. Sick of Nero’s inept leadership and looking to win support for his cause, he nominated the Spanish governor Galba as the new emperor. Despite Galba being declared an enemy of the state, it wasn’t long before the armies abandoned Nero and swore allegiance to him.

The 30-year-old emperor toyed with several solutions, including throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba or Rome’s enemies, the Parthians, or mounting the rostra (a speaking platform in the forum) dressed in black and publicly apologizing for all past offenses. In the end, he decided to do nothing and went to bed. Waking up in the middle of the night, he found everyone had abandoned him, even his personal gladiator who he was searching for so he might end help the emperor end his wretched life.

Eventually, he made his way to the villa of his freedman (ex-slave), Phaon, just outside the city. Hiding himself inside, he waited for news from the outside world. A few hours later it arrived, but it wasn’t what Nero wanted to hear. The Senate had declared him an enemy of the state. Nero steeled himself for suicide, but could not bring himself to do it, asking in vain for someone to show him how it’s done. Eventually, mistaking the sound of horses outside for someone sent to arrest him, he drove a dagger into his throat.

Moments before his death, Nero is credited with saying,

“Qualis artifex pereo! — What an artist dies with me!”

While taken to mean “what an artist dies with me!”, in reality the phrase has been misunderstood for centuries. Artifex translates less as “artist” and more as “artisan” in the modern sense of the word: a builder and a creator. Then again, Nero was never any good as an artist anyway; Suetonius tells us he had a husky singing voice—desirable among the 90s Seattle grunge scene, less so in first-century Rome.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Galba. Mary Ann Bernal


Galba may have been the first to fill the power vacuum left by Nero’s suicide, but he was by no means the last. His violent, tight-fisted, and fundamentally unpopular reign lasted just 7 months, from when he seized the throne in June 68 to his assassination on January 15 69. Events started when the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Otho emperor in their camp. Deciding they needed to lure Galba away from safety, they sent soldiers to him Otho had been killed, and the emperor was needed at the camp. He set off through the Forum, but, abandoned by his attendants, was cut down by cavalry at the side of the street.

There are varying accounts of his final moments. One has the shocked emperor cry out: “Soldiers, what are you doing? I am yours and you are mine!” before being cut down. Another has him trying to bribe his way out, offering his assassins a donative if they spare his life. Most ancient accounts, however, agree that he faced his death bravely, bearing his throat to his assassins and urging them to strike if they believed that the right thing to do.

The only ones to come to Galba’s rescue were a detachment of German soldiers. Fiercely loyal by nature—as they had been to Caligula moments after his assassination—this detachment had been treated particularly well by the emperor whenever one of its men was sick or wounded. Orienteering wasn’t their strong point, however; having got hopelessly lost trying to locate him in the Forum, they arrived too late to help.

Galba’s corpse was subjected to terrible humiliation. A passing soldier, returning from the corn distribution, set down his load, pulled out gladius and decapitated it. He wanted to take the head to Otho but had difficulty gripping it. He couldn’t take it by the hair as Galba was completely bald. So after hiding it inside his tunic on his way through the Forum, he pulled it out, stuck his thumb in its mouth, and carried it thus to Otho.

The new emperor Otho impaled the head on a lance and paraded it around the Praetorian Camp. Encouraging jeers and insults from his men, Otho was said to have shouted: “What a pretty boy you are Galba, better make the most of your youthful good looks!” At 73, however, Galba had been neither; reputed to have a hooked nose, crippling arthritis, and a sprawling fleshy growth protruding out of his right flank.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Emperor Otho. Wikimedia Commons


While Otho’s death might not be the most eventful of the Twelve Caesars, it’s by far the most redemptive. The ancients gave his life a terrible write-up. Suetonius describes him as a wild, extravagant, and sexually debauched young man; a favorite of Emperor Nero with whom he was believed to have been more than just friends. Tacitus thought him no different from Nero or Vitellius, and while we haven’t looked at Vitellius yet, suffice to say this was no good thing.

However, both writers showed great respect for the way in Otho he met his end. Tacitus calls his suicide egregio, a word that has given us “egregious”. These days egregious describe something really bad, but in antiquity, it meant the opposite. It might seem strange to us today that suicide could be viewed in lofty, praise-worthy terms. But the world of the Twelve Caesars was a world yet to be colored by Christian moralizers who preached suicide as a sin.

Otho’s reign was short, and not particularly sweet. Declared emperor in January 68, by the middle of April he was dead, age of 38. His death came after he was defeated in battle by the legionary commander of the lower-Rhine and rival claimant to the throne, Aulus Vitellius. What’s remarkable is that Otho’s defeat was by no means crushing; he still had deep numbers of reserves. But to spare the empire more years of detestable civil war, and further Roman blood being spilled, Otho chose to die.

Cassius Dio, a later writer, credits him with saying,

“It is far more just to perish one for all than many for one”,

And he also tells us that this message that went down so well with his soldiers that many killed themselves along with him. There’s bound to be exaggeration, but all sources agree that upon retiring to his quarters he wrote letters to his loved ones, distributed money among his slaves, and left his door open all night, admitting anyone who wanted to see him. As soon as he woke the next morning, he pulled out a dagger from under his pillow and stabbed himself through the heart.

Otho’s suicide earned him the admiration of later Romans. Those who had hated him in life sang his praises in death. So much so, in fact, that a patriotic tradition sprang up around him saying that he hadn’t removed Galba because he wanted to become emperor, but he had done it so that he might restore the Republic.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
“La Mort de Vitellius”. Wikigallery


Vitellius had the worst death of the Twelve Caesars. In terms of execution, location, and people involved, Vitellius’s death borrowed elements from several other emperors’ deaths. That it did is appropriate, if not slightly ironic, especially considering the extent to which Vitellius ingratiated himself with—and therefore owed his eventual position to—several former emperors.

On Capri, he was alleged to have been one of Tiberius’s favorites, known affectionately—and for reasons we really don’t need to go into—as one of his “tight-bums”. He befriended with Caligula through their shared love of chariot racing and with entered Claudius’s intimate circle through their shared love of gambling. Understanding that music was the way to Nero’s heart, he would pre-arrange encores during the emperor’s musical performances, leading Nero to think he was more popular—and better—than he actually was.

Vitellius met his end on December 22 69 AD, when the advance guard of Vespasian, commander of the legions in Judaea and the last of this civil war’s emperors, entered Rome. The emperor went into hiding (in a door keeper’s lodge, according to Tacitus), but was soon dragged out by the rampaging troops. They initially didn’t recognize him, but once they learned the identity of their imperial captive they resolved to put him to death.

The emperor was stripped half-naked, a noose thrown around his neck and his hands bound behind his back and dragged the length of the Via Sacra into the Forum. En route, the plebeians spat at him, threw excrement, and insulted him over his obesity and grotesque appearance. The journey took painfully long; Vitellius limped the whole way as one of his legs was mangled from when Caligula had once struck him with a chariot. After at least 30 minutes, judging from the length of the Via Sacra, he arrived at the Germanian steps.

There he was executed, made to bleed to death from dozens of tiny incisions. His body was pierced with hooks and dragged to the Tiber, the river becoming his ultimate resting place. As mentioned, his death shared characteristics with others. Like Nero, he tried to flee and was given dramatic last words,

“But I was once your emperor!”

As with Tiberius, people wanted his body consigned to the Tiber—though with Vitellius they actually succeeded. As with Caligula and Galba, he was murdered in public—terrible ends for terrible emperors.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
The alleged famous last words of Vespasian. YouTube


The way in which Vespasian met his death is very much in keeping with the character portrait that survives of him from antiquity. Histories and biographies show Vespasian as a light-hearted, witty man. And because, as we’ve seen so far, the manner in which an emperor lived his life is often reflected in the manner in which he departed it, it should come as no surprise that humor features large in the death of Vespasian.

While away in Campania in July of 79 AD, Vespasian suffered a minor illness. We don’t know the details, but it was enough to convince him to head back to Rome and start putting his affairs in order. Famously, upon first feeling ill he was said to have joked, Vae, puto deus fio,

“Alas, I think I am becoming a god”

making reference to the now-common practice of deifying emperors (the Senate did, in fact, posthumously declare him a god).

However, his health deteriorated rapidly, not helped by the fact that he was used to taking long, cold baths—just as any good Roman should—and therefore had an underlying intestinal disorder. He stopped off at Rieti, a city not far from Rome in the region of Lazio, but soon found himself confined to his bed. From there he continued to receive embassies and deal with official business, but a sudden bout of diarrhea on June 23 convinced him this was the end. Exclaiming that an emperor should die on his feet, he struggled out of bed, dying in the arms of those attending him.

So goes the official version. Scratch below the surface, however, and you find something sinister about the reign and character of Vespasian. Like Augustus, he was the first emperor of a new dynasty, a man who had only come to power by merit of being the only man left standing after a costly civil war. War in all its forms must inevitably be followed by peacetime. But in the aftermath of civil wars, rarely are such peacetimes jovial.

We should imagine Vespasian’s reign as one characterized by intense propaganda, severe censorship, and the rooting out and eradication of any past (or potential future) enemies. One indication of this is the fact that there is hardly a bad word to say about Vespasian in the surviving literature. History, after all, is often written by the victors.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Emperor Titus. Famous People


Titus’s death was not violent or theatrical or mysterious, it was simply sad. This was an emperor, we are told, who oozed potential but never got the chance to fully fulfill it. His death, on September 13 81 AD at the age of 41, was, in the words of Suetonius, “more humanity’s loss than his own”. There’s really little to say about Titus’s death from the Roman accounts. Returning from the games to his Sabine estate, a sudden fever forced him to stop off at Rieti. Inauspiciously, it was at the same villa his father, Vespasian, had passed away in just two years before.

The only intriguing question concerns his final words. While being carried in a litter to his family villa in Rieti, he apparently drew back the curtains and lamented about his life being cruelly taken from him when he didn’t deserve to lose it—okay, so maybe it was quite theatrical. He then uttered that he had just one regret in life. However, presumably to the annoyance of those around him, he refused to disclose what this was, though some speculated a secret affair with his brother’s wife, Domitia.

An altogether different version appears in the Babylonian Talmud. According to this Jewish text, the cause of Titus’s death was an insect that flew up his nose and picked away at his brain for seven years. That the Jewish author should have suggested this is hardly surprising: no love was lost between Titus and the Jews, given that the emperor had captured Jerusalem and sacked their Temple in 70 AD, killing as many as one million people. What’s surprising is that this legend was lazily copied from another regarding the biblical King Nimrod.

We’re told that the Roman public mourned as if they had lost a member of their own family, clearly an exaggeration. Moreover, Suetonius tells us that upon hearing about his death the senators flocked to the senate house, opened its doors, and took it in turns to heap praises on the deceased emperor, speaking more highly of him than they ever had when he was alive. We should be careful in seeing any of this as genuine; it more probably reflected their attempt to ingratiate themselves with his brother, and successor, Domitian.

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars
Irish Times


“It was a terrible thing to be an emperor”, Domitian once said, “for everybody thought their paranoia over conspiracies was groundless until they ended up murdered.” Whether or not this quote was apocryphal we’ll never know. If it wasn’t, it’s certainly ironic as it perfectly foreshadowed his own death, assassinated by one of his niece’s attendants in the emperor’s bedroom on September 18 96 AD.

Another irony about Domitian’s death was that the emperor was already aware of its time and manner through a prophecy. His father, Vespasian, had once laughed at him when he rejected some mushrooms over dinner, reminding him that it was the sword, not poison, he should be mindful of. This foreknowledge, repeatedly reinforced by a number of bizarre omens and portents he received throughout his life, apparently drove his murderous paranoia.

Domitian had been told he would be killed on the sixth hour of September 18. What he hadn’t factored in was that those charged with telling him the time might be part of the conspiracy. On the appointed day, thinking the danger had passed, he agreed for someone with important news to visit him in his chambers, dismissing his attendants. Almost comedically, we’re still told that Domitian was “astonished” when he received his first stab wound. Other conspirators, including many of his chamber staff, then burst in, hacking the 45-year-old emperor to death and bringing his 15-year reign to an end.

Domitian was one of Rome’s worst emperors. Or at least that’s what we’re told. The Roman satirist Juvenal used to refer to him as “the bald Nero.” But what he and Nero shared was not personality, but the fact that they were both the last rulers of their respective dynasty—Nero, the Julio-Claudians; Domitian, the Flavians. This in many ways guaranteed that they would be negatively portrayed. For it was always in the interest of successive dynasties to portray the last member—or rather the last member of the last one—as malicious and incompetent.

What’s telling is while the senators were reportedly delighted over Domitian’s death, the army were distraught and the people were indifferent. This indifference should make us re-evaluate Domitian as a terrible emperor and point us towards asking new questions: Not why Domitian was killed 15 years into his reign but, if he was really as bad as our sources say, why for 15 years he was allowed to live.