Roman civilization made extraordinary achievements that have steered the course of human history. Lest we forget, however, the empire also produced some extraordinarily bad men.
Ah, the Romans. They gave the world extraordinary architectural and engineering feats like the Colosseum and Pantheon, sewer systems, aqueducts, and roads. The Romans also made great intellectual contributions that continue to shape the way we think and conduct ourselves. Their legal system, philosophical and literary output, and even the empire itself were testaments to powerful minds. Lest we forget, however, Roman civilization produced some major baddies, including Caligula, Nero, and Commodus – three paradigmatic cases of the stunning depths of depravity and degradation of which human beings are capable.
So successful in so many areas of human civilization, the Romans were also perplexingly primitive in others. For example, the Romans took a rather progressive view of healthcare when they built a public hospital in 293 BCE. At the same time, the people cheered the violent, gruesome, and deadly gladiator games, knowing full well that they had considerable power over the loser’s fate: life or death.
It’s All Greek To Me: Greek Influences on Roman Civilization
Long before the Roman Empire, the Greek culture, which the Romans adopted and adapted, and which also influenced subsequent Roman rulers, was an exemplar of both extraordinary achievements and bad behavior. Of course, what the 21st century mind considers aberrant was often valorized by or merely commonplace for the Greeks and later, the Romans. The Greek gods, for example, served as rather poor role models for your average person.
Despite being married to Hera, a fellow immortal, the ancient Greeks’ top dog god, Zeus, had no compunctions about dalliances with other goddesses and mortals. Zeus’s bad behavior included taking the form of a swan to rape the Spartan queen, Leda.
The daily lives of mere mortals in ancient Greek city-states were molded in pedestrian, non-divine violence of various stripes. The Greeks sported war mongers, practiced slavery, and controlled women’s lives in much the same way one might control farm animals. Athens and Sparta, for example, were among the most militarily aggressive of the Greek city-states; people around the Mediterranean acquired slaves through trade, war, and even piracy; and with the exception of Sparta, where women could own property, females were generally regarded as inferior to slaves.
Roman Empire, 218 BCE – 117 CE. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Given the geographic proximity to Rome, it’s not surprising that so much of Greek life and values seeped into what became the Roman Empire. Cultures morph through myriad events, sharing or observing practices, rituals, and activities. Ancient Roman law, for example, derived from the laws written by 5th century BCE Athenian statesman Solon. The Romans also incorporated the Greek pantheon of gods into their own religious structures, borrowed architectural features like the Doric column, and adopted the mosaic art techniques of Greek musical notation and literature. Other cultures also contributed to what would become Rome. The Roman empire’s brutal and bloody gladiator games, for example, were adopted from the Etruscans of northern Italy, rather than created out of whole cloth by the Romans.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
One interesting feature of the developments leading to the Roman Empire was the cycle of power dynamics in relation to territory expansion. Rome began as a village. Of course, it’s hard to say how societies and then civilizations emerge – it’s not like you can say, “At 5:00 PM on Saturday, a bunch of people got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s start a society.’ Then they sat down over a beer and hashed out some laws, an economic structure, culture, and social order. By 10:00 PM, Rome was born!” (That wouldn’t have been as compelling a story for ancient minds as the one involving Romulus and Remus.) Nevertheless, scholars date Rome’s founding to about 625 BCE.
Roman mythology holds that twin brothers Romulus and Remus were the offspring of a mortal, Rhea, and the war god, Mars. Set to be killed in order to prevent them from assuming the throne, the demigods were saved by a she-wolf and a woodpecker.
Initially controlled by the Etruscans, whom they overthrew, Romans initiated self-rule. So far, so good on the freedom front. Humans being, well, humans, however, some Romans became increasingly powerful. Then they became rulers, more territory was gained, more infighting happened, and so on. During the Period of Kings (625–510 BCE), Republican Rome (510–40 BCE), and then Imperial Rome (31 BCE–476 CE), people plotted, deceived, murdered, and otherwise behaved atrociously in order to gain power. Of course, everyone has their justifications – it would be strange for someone to say, “Well, yes. Of course what I’m doing is terrible. That’s why I’m doing it!” Brutus and Cassius, for example, plotted to kill Caesar in 44 BCE; both claimed, as we learn in both the documentary and its companion book, I, Caesar, that Rome’s dictator had become too ambitious, concentrating power in such a way as to negatively impact Rome’s interests.
Through it all, the Romans continued to conquer societies, control or benefit from trading, and expand the wealth that concentrated in Rome. Among the beneficiaries of that wealth and power were various corrupt, brutal, and merciless individuals who, like many of their countrymen, sought to gain, centralize, or maintain power. It’s not surprising, then, in combination with hundreds of years of glorifying power – and the machinations to achieve it, including violence – that baddies such as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus could ascend to positions that granted them unlimited freedom to exercise their basest urges.
Caligula (37–41 CE)
“Now, children!” The primly dressed teacher claps her hands to draw all eyes to her. “Today’s question: Who doesn’t love a good torture and decapitation session?” The children look perplexed – all but one. “Oh! Oh! I know! I know!” exclaims an exuberant Caligula as he thrusts an arm into the air. The teacher smiles indulgently at the boy later called a monster by the Roman historian Suetonias.
Though the truth about such figures is difficult to discern, scholars generally agree Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was malignant with grandiose ideas, extravagant proclivities, and vicious emotions. Nicknamed Caligula (“Little Boots”) because of the mini military uniform he wore when he was with his father on military campaigns – gives a whole new meaning to the Take Your Child to Work Day, doesn’t it? – the youngest son of the war hero Germanicus was not slated to rule. After his family died, however, Caligula was raised (or imprisoned?) by Emperor Tiberius. It was during these formative years that Caligula honed his sadistic and mercurial tendencies.
Bust of Caligula, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
As emperor, Caligula was a war monger, paranoid to the point where he purged perceived adversaries (including his wife), ran what was effectively a brothel out of his palace, boasted about having sex with other men’s wives, apparently killed on a whim, let his people starve while wasting money staging fake battles, and claimed he was a god. While some of his despicable actions may be partly attributable to illness, there is little doubt that, just as a storm is not merely rain, Caligula’s atrocities can’t be explained entirely by madness.
Or can they? Could we say that certain actions and a vicious character are so extreme that they can’t be explained except by a diseased mind? We believe torturing kittens is bad, for example, but we also think the action says something about the instability of the torturer himself. “Normal” people don’t do those things. And again, surely Caligula wanted to do these things, and so thought he was doing good – at least for himself.
Nero (54–68 CE)
“Lions, 160; Christians, nil.” We’re also confident that normal people don’t throw people in an arena with lions as entertainment. Alas, that’s what Caligula’s nephew Nero did. Nero Claudius Caesar murdered and executed rivals and family members, including his own mother and lover, Aggripina, adoptive step-sister and first wife, Claudia Octavia, and pregnant second wife, Poppaea. Then there were the random murders in the street and, as legend has it, the mass murder of Christians as some sort of retribution for a massive fire that burned a lot of Rome – including Nero’s palace.
Fun fact: Before the Stoic philosopher Seneca tutored Nero, Socrates was followed around by Critias, who later became one of the Thirty Tyrants who assumed power after the Peloponnesian War.
Nero’s tutor, Seneca, said that as the rich get richer and move away from their “inferiors,” they treat them less and less as humans. Such seems to have been the case with baddies like Nero. Presumably all power has a similar effect – as Lord Action’s saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Commodus (177–192 CE)
If an emperor’s power was absolute – or he at least believed it to be – it’s not surprising that Caligula wasn’t the only one who considered himself a god. Commodus believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Greek demigod, Hercules.
Arguably the baddest of the baddies, Commodus didn’t lead his empire, which was administered by those he delegated (then murdered, after they lost his trust). Instead he spent his time with his large harem, played gladiator in Rome’s Colosseum, murdered loads of people and animals, and, after Rome burned, insisted the rebuilt city be named after him. He also staged gladiator fights at his palace, arming combatants with fake weapons, thereby ensuring he would win (and they would die). And he dressed as a gladiator and “fought” in the Coliseum, slaughtering disabled people and real gladiators, who were unarmed or tied up for easier kills.
Commodus was made (even more) famous through Joaqin Phoenix’s portrayal in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.
Commodus was eventually murdered – strangled in the bath by Narcissus, the wrestler who carried out the assignment for conspirators who included Commodus’ mistress, Marcia. After all the cruelty, debauchery, and mind-boggling effrontery, it’s unlikely anyone missed the monster.
Among the most astounding facts about Commodus is that his father was none other than the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Known to many as the author of Meditations, Aurelius is also considered an outstanding emperor who improved the lives of the lowest in Roman society – women, minors, and slaves.
Ironically, the Greek philosophy we know as Stoicism militates against the very attitudes and behaviors that Aurelius’s own son, and previous emperors Nero and Caligula, embraced. More specifically, the cluster of Stoic philosophies emphasized a virtuous life as an activity in which knowledge of the world leads to beneficial results. So, understanding is transformative, therapeutic. The more you know, the better your life will be, because you adjust your attitudes, expectations, and so forth, to the way things are.
It seems our three baddies didn’t seem to get the memo on hubris. Long before Stoic thinkers argued that happiness is the result of aligning yourself with the nature of the universe, which they took to be both providential and inexorable, Homer, and later the Greek tragedians, gave us stories about ego unbound. Believing yourself to be better than you are is dangerous business.
There is some evidence that the accounts of outrageous behaviors described here are partly fabricated by enemies. But even if, for example, Nero didn’t murder his pregnant wife but merely committed manslaughter, we’re still left with someone who brutalized another human being. There’s sufficient evidence that the likes of Caligula, Nero, and Commodus are better left to history.
As Goes Rome, So Goes the World
Yet repugnant people persist. So, what does all of this say about us fellow humans? Are we really any different now from the folks walking around in Roman times? Perhaps not. Perhaps, to borrow from Nietzsche, we are simply human, all too human. The surging and striving and power of life projects us in myriad directions, some of which yield terrible oppression, apparently needless suffering, and unnecessary death – all of which seem only too familiar to ordinary people like us, even if we lack the power, status, and resources to dare indulging in base cruelty and repulsive rapaciousness. Could this be why we humans continue to this day tolerating such egregious behavior – because we see glimmers of ourselves?
On the other hand, the extraordinary inventions and innovations mentioned at the outset of this article feel almost superhuman, intellectual achievements that far surpass our quotidian minds. To this day, we marvel at what it takes to send a robot to Mars, believing such feats beyond our ordinary capacities.
“Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down),” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Now, as then, there are plenty of examples of the constellation of human behaviors. Some argue that American football, for example, is an echo of gladiator games. There are dictators, tyrants, authoritarians. We continue to commit various forms of violence, from emotional and physical assault to wanton cruelty and murder. But we also do wonderful things, such as creating sublime works of art and attempting to restore natural beauty for future generations. And, we also continue simply to ask questions like, why are we the way we are?
Mia Wood is a professor of philosophy at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California, a visiting lecturer at the Community College of Rhode Island, and an adjunct instructor at Bristol Community College and Providence College. She is also a freelance writer interested in the intersection of philosophy and everything else. She lives in Little Compton, Rhode Island.
Title image: Roman aqueduct and bridge, Pont du Guard, in southern France. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)