Five Hardcore Deaths Suffered By Roman Emperors


It is iron­ic that the ancient world that cre­at­ed the adage “mod­er­a­tion in all things” could dis­re­gard this coun­sel in fla­grant fash­ion. We’ve recent­ly writ­ten about a num­ber of var­i­ous Gre­co-Roman excess­es, from cer­tain Roman gas­tro­nom­ic overindul­gences to grotesque­ly imag­i­na­tive Greek tor­ture meth­ods. Today, con­tin­u­ing this trend, we bring you a short list of the most grue­some deaths of Roman emper­ors, based on The Awl’s 2012 post, “Roman Emper­ors, Up To AD 476 And Not Includ­ing Usurpers, In Order Of How Hard­core Their Deaths Were” com­piled by Josh Fruh­linger.

With­out fur­ther ado, and in no par­tic­u­lar order, here is the list:

Cara­calla & Geta (198–217 C.E.) – Unlike some of the oth­er emper­ors we’ve gath­ered here, Cara­calla real­ly was a jerk of colos­sal pro­por­tions. After reign­ing over Rome for a few years along­side his father, Sep­ti­m­ius Severus, Cara­calla took charge of the Roman Empire in tan­dem with his younger broth­er, Geta, in 211. The reign of broth­er­ly love didn’t last long: after fail­ing to assas­si­nate Geta dur­ing the rev­el­ry that was the fes­ti­val of Sat­ur­na­lia, Cara­calla had him slaugh­tered in their mother’s arms by loy­al cen­tu­ri­ons dur­ing a peace agree­ment meet­ing.

To fol­low with this frat­ri­ci­dal motif, Cara­calla him­self was mur­dered in 217 by a man whose broth­er Cara­calla may have had killed just days ear­li­er. Cara­calla had stopped on the side of a road to uri­nate while jour­ney­ing to Edessa, and was dis­patched by Julius Mar­tialis, one of his body­guards, with a sin­gle sword blow. Mar­tialis, in turn, suc­cumbed to an arrow fired by an Impe­r­i­al Guard archer. We pre­sume that Mar­tialis did­n’t have any more broth­ers, because things seem to have end­ed there.

Joannes (423–425 C.E.) – By the rare extant accounts, Joannes seems to have been a senior civ­il ser­vant of some abil­i­ty who had, to his detri­ment, failed to estab­lish a firm grip on the Empire. Although Pro­copius, an antique schol­ar, had called him “both gen­tle and well-endowed with sagac­i­ty and thor­ough­ly capa­ble of val­or­ous deeds,” Joannes was quick­ly engulfed in con­flict with the east­ern part of the Empire. In 425, the east­ern Empire’s army cap­tured him, cut off his hands, and placed him on a don­key to be parad­ed and jeered at in a hip­po­drome. Hav­ing suf­fered both insult and injury, Joannes was put out of his mis­ery and decap­i­tat­ed.

Com­modus (177–192 C. E.) – On paper, Com­modus should have made an exem­plary emper­or. Both his grand­fa­ther and father were emper­ors before him, and his father, Mar­cus Aure­lius, was praised both as a ruler and one of Stoicism’s cen­tral thinkers. Com­modus, how­ev­er, inher­it­ed nei­ther his father’s philo­soph­i­cal incli­na­tions nor his polit­i­cal smarts. To cap off a reign plagued by polit­i­cal strife, Com­modus let him­self fall vic­tim to some destruc­tive mega­lo­ma­nia: after Rome was engulfed in a con­fla­gra­tion, Com­modus declared him­self to be the new Romu­lus and cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly re-found­ed the city under the new name of Colo­nia Lucia Annia Com­modi­ana. The renam­ing of his empire’s fore­most city didn’t quite cut it, how­ev­er, and Com­modus resort­ed to renam­ing the months of the year after his 12 names. As Decem­ber of 192 (known, by this point, as Pius of 192) drew to a close, Com­modus was poi­soned by his con­cu­bine, but vom­it­ed the sub­stance, where­upon his wrestling train­ing part­ner was sent in by a num­ber of sen­a­tors to stran­gle the emper­or in the bath­tub.

Valer­ian (253–259 C. E.)If Joannes’ demise strikes you as hav­ing been some­what undig­ni­fied, Valerian’s end was a full-blown assault on human decen­cy. Lac­tan­tius, an ear­ly Chris­t­ian author, claimed that after his cap­ture by the Per­sian king Sha­pur I, Valer­ian was put to use as a regal foot­stool to help the Per­sian ruler mount his horse. Valer­ian, under­stand­ably, expressed some con­ster­na­tion at such treat­ment, and offered Sha­pur a hefty sum in exchange for his free­dom. There are two ver­sions of what tran­spired next. In the first, Sha­pur express­es his dis­dain for Valerian’s measly offer by pour­ing molten gold down the for­mer emperor’s throat. In the sec­ond, Sha­pur also express­es his dis­dain, albeit in a more cre­ative fash­ion, this time by flay­ing Valerian’s skin and sub­se­quent­ly stuff­ing it with straw to be put on dis­play. Thank­ful­ly, there’s evi­dence to con­tra­dict Lac­tan­tius’ account, which leads some his­to­ri­ans to believe that Valer­ian was used as nei­ther fur­ni­ture nor gold recep­ta­cle, but rather lived a qui­et life with some of his sol­diers in an inde­ter­mi­nate Per­sian city. For his sake, we hope they’re right.

Above, you can see “The Humil­i­a­tion of Valer­ian by Sha­pur,” a pen and black ink sketch cre­at­ed by Hans Hol­bein the Younger in 1521.

For a full list of gory deaths, head on over to The Awl.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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Cours­es on Roman his­to­ry can be found in the His­to­ry sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 800 Free Online Cours­es

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