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Damned Emperors

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I guess it’s slowly becoming my speciality. It all started with Marius’ Mules, written back in 2003, in which I portrayed (and continue to do so throughout the series) the great dictator Julius Caesar. History gives us a larger than life hero in Caesar, (and Caesar’s own writings do nothing to disabuse us of this notioin) though even the slightest reading between the lines shows us a man of more depth and considerably more ambition and callousness than that. But from Caesar I’ve explored so much further.

Caesar accepts the surrender of Vercingetorix by Royer (1899)

The next step came with Praetorian: The Great Game, in which I dared, against traditional opinion, to show a Commodus who was golden and glorious, and not at all a sadistic, wicked and megalomaniac emperor. Admittedly he was young then, and even the ancient sources tell us that he started well. But still…

Then, persuaded to it by my agent (an all-round genius) I moved on to a truly great villain: Caligula, and I was determined to try and find the real man amid the cruel legend, picking holes in the logic or veracity of sources and trying to distill a truth from their viciousness. I think I succeeded, not in finding a nice man, for I don’t think that is true, but a man driven to cruelty by his experiences, not at all insane, and more a victim than a lunatic. This was followed up by re-examining Commodus once more, this time in great depth for his own novel, and from an angle that considered the possibility that he was actually bipolar. This opened up a wealth of possibility in terms of what could have been the truth. I have signed on to write two more fictionalised and rehabilitative biographies of damned emperors for Canelo in the coming years. Watch out for more rehabilitation…

Commodus as Hercules

Now, with the release of Sons of Rome, I’ve managed to get my claws into another maligned emperor: the enemy of Christians everywhere: Maxentius. Of course, once again, the meagre evidence gives us a very different picture to recognised history. This is a man accused of persecuting the Christians and yet who allowed them to elect a pope? Hmmm. I shall leave you to read the book to see what I mean.

What is it, though? What actually is a damned emperor?

Those emperors who suffered what we now call Damnatio Memoriae were surprisingly common when one looks down the list, and do not always tally with what we see as a villain in history. To take an objective point of view, let us say that it matters not how an emperor lived, but more how he died, as to whether he was damned or praised. There are plenty of emperors who started so well but ended corrupt and wicked (Tiberius) or who did the most appalling things but are remembered as great men (Hadrian), so I don’t think we can safely say that being a good man was a ticket to herohood, while being a bad one would label someone a villain for history.

Come on Caracalla, give us a grin….

Essentially, when an emperor, for good or ill, ended up at odds with the senate, or a powerful family member, or often his own bodyguard, and eventually the knife came in the dark (Caligula), or in the toilet (Caracalla), or in the groin (Domitian) or poison was given (Claudius), or sometimes they were just openly hacked to pieces (Didius Julianus), their fate beyond death was decided. Of the 81 emperors, or successful usurpers, who ruled Rome from the foundation of the Principate to the fall of the city in 410, up to 35 may have suffered damnatio memoriae!

If they were popular, even if they had been assassinated and their assassin seized the throne, they might well be granted apotheosis, and be given rites and said to have risen to sit among the gods. They would be given their own cult, they would be remembered in festivals, have priests assigned to them and be generally godly from then on. If they were unpopular, or their enemies were powerful enough to insist upon a course of action in the face of public opinion, the opposite would happen, and they would be officially damned. For the record there were odd occasions that buck the trend. Tiberius was neither damned nor ascended, while damnation for Caracalla was popularly sought, but not granted.

The emperor’s apotheosis as he rises to the heavens, from the column of Antoninus Pius

What happened, then, when an unpopular emperor was damned? Well it was pretty thorough as evidence, or lack thereof, clarifies. Firstly their statues and busts were torn down and destroyed, as well as other images. A famous painting of the Severan family has the face of Geta scratched out after his brother first murdered, then damned, him. Many damned emperors have left remarkably few statues for their incumbency.

Where’d you go, bro?

My latest investigation, Maxentius, has left half a dozen statues at most. Why? Not just because they were smashed. After all, marble was expensive. Bronze statues of an emperor could be melted down and recast, but with marble that was more troublesome. The great colossus of Nero that stood next to the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome (and gave it its eternal name) was changed to a statue of Sol Invictus after his death, and then into one of Commodus in the late 2nd century before being changed again after that. One of the most famous statues in the Roman world is the colossal Constantine that survives as fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome.

Errrr…. Constantine

The interesting thing is that an examination of the head shows that it is unrealistically shaped, much wider than it is deep. This is a clear indication that the statue was not originally Constantine and has been cut back to change the face. Originally, it was almost certainly either his opponent Maxentius, or possibly his son Romulus who had a giant statue voted to him by the governor of Sardinia. The reworking of statues is an incredibly common theme in imperial imagery, and not as troublesome as you might think. After all, the statues of rich ladies were occasionally tooled to allow for separate hairstyles that could be changed depending upon the fashion of the time. For reference, the only surviving full body statue identified as Maxentius is now in the museum in Ostia. Not a single statue or bust remains in Rome.

Maxentius in Ostia

So does it stop there with the image? No it does not. The unfortunate’s name also gets scratched out of public inscriptions and even things like milestones. There is a wonderful milestone in the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle (RIB 2291) which has been changed three times. The first inscription is now illegible but then, after that was defaced, a new one to Carausius (a usurper emperor who ruled Britain for a while) was added. When Constantine’s time came, the milestone was upended and that end was planted in the ground, a new inscription worked into the other. Another nice example of this practice is to be found in the museum in Alba Iulia in Romania, where Geta’s name has been erased from a monument.

Oops… there goes Geta’s name
The Carlisle Milestone

Is there more to it? So far a damned emperor is lucky to have his face come down to us for posterity, and his name has been removed from most things but the rather damning accounts of later vicious biographers telling what must usually be apocryphal stories. Often the defacing goes so far that coins are deliberately mutilated. Remember that at this time, a coin’s value lies in its inherent metallic content, so defacing it does not necessarily decrease its value. And wait… there’s more.

Often decrees, laws and declarations made by an emperor would be repealed. A prime example is Commodus’s renaming of everything but the family cat in line with his own appellation. Clearly the city remained Rome, and not Colonia Commodiana (though an altar found in Syria confirms that the changes had been accepted readily before his death.) Tellingly, Gaius (Caligula) was in absolute power over the empire for four years and we know from contemporary accounts that he had made reaching changes to seating organisation in theatres, amphitheatres and circuses. We know that he made huge changes in laws to allow his sisters precedence. Yet there are no new laws or statutes surviving from his reign. That he might play with the social order but not alter laws and statutes seems unfeasible, which tells us that after his fall his opponents repealed everything he had put into place.

To some extent then, since usually any remaining family were executed alongside the emperor, they were by and large removed from history entirely, other than the defaming carried out by later biographers. As time went on, and Christianity became more powerful and rooted, the damning of emperors takes on a new angle. Nero is also now remembered as an aspect of the Antichrist in the Catholic Church, Julian was not damned politically as of old, but was demonised and damned by the Church. And my personal favourite, Maxentius, was turned into a vicious hater of Christians by Constantine’s pet Christian writers.

Julian the (fabulous) Apostate

But to those of us who like to study such things, the challenge presented by damned emperors is too much to resist. We are given men portrayed as monsters, with little in the way of evidence, yet there are tantalising hints throughout that there is more to their story than we are told, that they were more rounded and human than history tells us.

I won’t stop investigating them and writing about them, as the damned emperors fascinate me. I hope you find them as interesting.

Four ‘bad’ emperors in a classic Horrible Histories song – (from left to right) Commodus, Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus

Written by SJAT

October 28, 2020 at 10:56 am

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