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6 Unexpected Ways People Became Roman Emperors

Have you ever thought about how one became the emperor of ancient Rome? Surprisingly, there was no official procedure of succession. When an emperor died, the throne was up for grabs for any of the high-ranking officials, blood relatives, and sometimes seemingly random candidates. This is why almost every time a famous emperor perished, the entire empire was thrown into panic and chaos.

As you can imagine, the prospect of wealth and nearly unlimited power made numerous people willing to fight and even kill for the emperorship. But were all these trials and tribulations worth it? Retrospective research shows that nearly two-thirds of Roman emperors died a violent and early death. Just think of Julius Caesar himself, who had been murdered by his close circle. No wonder some emperors had ruled rather reluctantly…

No matter our stance on this curiously erratic system of succession, we must admit that it sparked quite a few mind-boggling stories, the likes of which you’ll never find in fiction novels. Here’s how 7 different people rose to the throne of the Roman Empire (not all of them voluntarily).

1. Nero inherited the throne

Roman Emperors Nero
Image source: Egisto Sani/ Flickr

Being fairly familiar with European monarchies, we tend to assume that inheriting a throne is a rather uncomplicated process. But things were not so simple back in Ancient Roman times. Even though it was not unheard of for an emperor to succeed to the throne, it did not guarantee the new emperor and his children lifelong rule.

This convoluted process of succession is exemplified by the story of Nero, the 5th Roman emperor. Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD, Nero was the son of Julia Agrippina, the great-granddaughter of the first Roman Emperor Augustus. In 49 AD, Julia married emperor Claudius and convinced her husband to adopt young Lucius. 

Emperor Claudius passed away in 54 AD, and a number of Roman historians suspected that Julia had poisoned him to promote her son. Nero inherited the throne at the young age of 17, but he did not show sympathy toward his mother. Just five years later, he ordered the assassination of Julia Agrippina.

Nero’s tyrannical rule and cruelty echoes to this day. The infamous emperor was proclaimed a public enemy by the senate and was stripped of power, leading him to commit suicide in 68 AD. Having no descendants to succeed him, Nero made the empire plunge into even greater disorder after his death.

Related article: 10 Superb Quotes by Ancient Roman Emperors

2. Empress Irene of Athens gained power through motherhood

Roman Emperors Irene of Athens

Only a man could be officially proclaimed Roman emperor, but that didn’t prevent several women in history from ruling the empire, even if they could not do so directly. Julia Agrippina’s story is a failed attempt of governing through her son, but there were other powerful noblewomen in Ancient Roman history, particularly in the history of the Byzantine Empire, who had better success.

After the division of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire (also called the Eastern Roman Empire) formed in 330 AD with its capital in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

Let’s speed up a few centuries to the death of the Byzantine emperor Leo IV the Khazar in 780 AD. At the time, his oldest successor, the future Constantine VI, was too young to take the throne. Therefore, his mother, empress Irene, was temporarily appointed to serve as regent.

Irene belonged to an affluent and powerful Greek family and ruled the Byzantine Empire on her own until 790 AD. When the still-young Constantine tried ruling himself, things didn’t go so well, and Irene made the executive decision to first oust and then blind him to prevent Constantine from ever becoming emperor. This cruel decision would ultimately come to haunt Irene, as her reign as the lone sovereign would only last from 797-802 AD. Irene was overthrown by her own finance minister, who sent her into exile and became emperor Nikephoros I.

3. Didius Julianus bought the throne

Roman Emperors Didius Julianus

Money can’t buy everything, but apparently, it can buy you the title of Roman emperor. Didius Julianus was a wealthy governor who bought his way onto the throne. He was the second in line after emperor Pertinax in 192 AD, a year known as the "Year of the Five Emperors." If you paid attention to the numbers, you already know that Julianus’ reign didn’t last long, but it’s the way he purchased the emperorship that’s truly unbelievable. 

After the assassination of Pertinax by the Praetorian Guard, the position of emperor was open. Just a quick reminder - the Praetorian Guard was an army unit that served as bodyguards and intelligence agents for the Roman emperors. In reality, they had a huge impact on Roman politics and were known to overthrow and appoint emperors.

To find the new emperor, the Praetorians decided to auction off the throne to the highest bidder. Julianus won by paying 25,000 sesterces to every Praetorian guard, a sum that covered several years' pay. Thus, Julianus became emperor, even though he wouldn’t get to enjoy his new position for long. Upon finding out that he purchased the emperorship, the public openly refused to recognize the new emperor. Eventually, the senate abandoned the newly-baked emperor, and he was ultimately executed by his successor a mere 66 days after ascending the throne.

4. Diocletian and Maximian rose to emperorship from humble beginnings

Roman Emperors Diocletian
Image source: Dronepicr/ Flickr
The previous story, perhaps, proves that gaining public support was an important factor in becoming a successful Roman emperor. But no story epitomizes the power of rising through the ranks as that of Emperor Diocletian and his co-emperor Maximian.

Born into low-status families, Diocletian and Maximian. The two had met in the Roman army and quickly ascended to power. Diocletian was an excellent politician, whereas Maximian had military might. Diocletian gained the throne first, and a few years later, he appointed Maximian co-ruler. After 20 successful years of rule, the two retired, although Maximian soon returned to the court and ultimately died in 310 after leading an unsuccessful revolt against emperor Constantine.

5. Claudius didn’t want to rule, but the Praetorian Guard made him

Roman Emperors Claudius  'A Roman Emperor' by Lawrence Alma Tadem (1871, cropped)
'A Roman Emperor' by Lawrence Alma Tadem (1871, cropped)

The story of Claudiu’s reign begins when his nephew, the third emperor of Rome ascended to the throne in 37 AD. That nephew was Caligula, a charismatic and initially popular leader who soon descended into utter tyranny and brutality. After 4 years of utter madness, the leader of the Praetorian guard Cassius Chaerea, who was personally wronged by the emperor, knew he had to act.

In 41 AD, the guards assassinated Caligula. As they were exiting the murder scene, one of the guards noticed Claudius, who was then in his 50s, hiding behind a curtain. Claudius was at first petrified by fear, but then he fell into complete shock. The Praetorian Guard dragged him out from behind the curtain and onto the throne. Reluctantly, Claudius ruled under their support until 54 AD. And if you read the first story, you already know how his life ended.

Related article: 10 Truly Bizarre Facts About Life in Ancient Rome


6. Tiberius was the Recluse Emperor

Roman Emperors Tiberius
Image source: Egisto Sani/ Flickr

The second emperor of Rome, Tiberius, seemingly never wanted to rule. And at first, this was no big deal, as he was adopted by Augustus and third in line to the imperial throne, so the chances of him becoming emperor were rather slim in his own eyes and the eyes of his parents. Nearly a decade before his ascension to the throne, Tiberius even withdrew from public life and lived on the island of Rhodes as a private citizen, willingly rejecting all rank. 

Things changed for Tiberius when Augustus’s natural descendants, his grandsons Lucius and Gaius Caesar, both perished. Involuntarily, Tiberius accepted his role. A quote by Suet from Life of Tiberius describes the prince’s attitude: “A good and useful prince, who you have invested with so great and absolute a power, ought to be a slave to the state, to the whole body of the people, and often to individuals likewise …”

Over the years, Tiberius would spend most of his life away from Rome, ultimately ignoring and passing on many of his duties as emperor. That being said, Tiberius’ reign is not viewed by historians as terrible. Compared to his truly horrific successors Caligula and Nero. As reluctant as Tiberius was, historians look back at his rule as a stable period in Roman history.

H/T: Live Science, The Collector, PBS

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