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Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t

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(or Why I choose to write about the ‘damned’ emperors.)

Alright, you’re going to argue with me from square one, but in my opinion, if we can call Augustus an emperor, when he never acknowledged himself as one and assiduously kept republican characteristics, then we might as well apply the same to the somewhat infamously dictatorial Caesar, his great uncle.

I trust we need not delve too much into the history of this man. His life and death are fairly well known by even the least academically minded. Et tu, brute. Infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it infamy! And so on. So, yes, Caesar was not an official emperor, yet he bears all the hallmarks of it. By his death he held unshakable power in Rome, and the laws had been repeatedly bent or ignored entirely to allow him to continue his rule. It was rumoured that had he lived, he intended to move his centre of power away from Rome to Egypt, which was likely one of the contributing factors to his assassination.

Though Caesar never suffered the specific Damnatio Memoriae that later emperors enjoyed, his death was no murder by a power-hungry opponent or a personal beef settled with a blade. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and each blade was wielded by the great and the good of Rome. After his death, Brutus addressed the crowd with the words ‘We are once again free.’ If this is not being damned by the senate of Rome, then I don’t know what is, so we’ll proceed with that justification and classify him as damned.

And it’s important that I do, because that’s where it all began. I came to write about Caesar through the eyes of one of his officers in the Marius’ Mules series, the first novel I ever wrote, back in 2003. Up to that point, I had viewed Caesar as a bold and heroic character. A genius and a general supreme. Essentially, history’s common view. And unlike most of my forays into the world of such characters since then, where I have had to look beyond later character assassination to redeem a human within, in Caesar’s case it is more a matter of finding fault with a man given to us as a perfect Roman, because the sources we have for Caesar generally praise him. Once the civil war that followed his death had settled, it was his own blood who controlled Rome for the next century, and the entire imperial system owed itself to Caesar and his direct successors, so while emperors may later have reviled some of their predecessors, Caesar remained on his pedestal throughout. As such, accounts of him were guaranteed to be positive. Perhaps most of all, the account we have of the high point of his career was written by the general himself. There may, therefore, have been something of a bias involved.

As such I spent my time throughout the series glimpsing tantalising images of a less perfect man, and tried to portray him as such. Caesar loses his temper a few times, yes, but he is always gracious and merciful, brave and powerful, shrewd and resourceful in his writings. Surprise, eh? But the first works to cover his campaigns that were not written by him were the “Alexandrian War” and the following “African War”, both of which were probably written by his deputy Aulus Hirtius. In those two works, Caesar’s actions often come across as rash, hasty and ill-thought out. In both cases he still wins the day, but unlike the earlier texts of Caesar himself, they portray a man who essentially ****s up the entire campaign and only survives through a combination of thinking outside the box and blind luck. Add to this the fact that Caesar had many lovers, possibly several love-children, and three wives, the last of whom was still his wife when he was messing around with Cleopatra, and the image that begins to form is of a rather less than perfect man for all his genius and glory.

This is why I loved to write about Caesar, and this is what has spurred my interest in other such cases. The sheer fascination of delving into a well-recorded character and trying to reassemble a real person from the caricatures of history.

Next up is Caligula. This was my first foray into truly studying a damned emperor. Most people will be aware of Caligula, at least as a raving lunatic, a murderer and a weird porn character played by Malcolm McDowell. There probably has not been an emperor damned after his death who became as famous as this man. He is given to us as the man who made his horse a consul, who fought a war against the sea god, who made his men gather shells and stones and bring them back to Rome as spoils of war, of an incestuous weirdo who slept with his sisters.

Alright, so that is what we’re told. Caligula ruled for four years and upon his assassination, he was the first emperor to suffer what we now call Damnatio Memoriae, in which his name was erased from everywhere, his statues smashed, his laws repealed, his coins defaced, his very name condemned, and he being denied the right to ascend to godhood. He was stabbed by members of his own Praetorian guard, who suspiciously found Claudius hiding nearby and proclaimed him emperor immediately. It might be noted that Claudius was Caligula’s uncle, who was undoubtedly rather put out for those four years that the imperial throne had completely bypassed him. He was not treated well by Caligula, and so a suspicious man might suggest that Claudius was behind the plot to murder his nephew. Otherwise it’s all a little too convenient.

And the odd thing, if we accept these stories at face value, is that Caligula seems to have been very popular with the majority of Rome. The army liked him. The masses liked him. The only people that didn’t like him were the senatorial crowd, who, you might note, were the ones who wrote all the stories of his madness after his death. Now, a suspicious man might be scratching his chin and wondering how much of what we know is actually complete garbage, and what the real Caligula (who’s true name, coincidentally, was Gaius Julius Caesar) was actually like.

Just to give a couple of examples of my research and conclusions on the real Caligula, we’ll first take his horse, Incitatus. There is no denying Caligula loved horses and the races and so, in fact, did many emperors. But what do we actually know of Incitatus? The horse is recorded in two sources. Suetonius tells us “Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.” Very well, he spoiled the animal for sure, if Suetonius can be trusted. But even Suetonius, who repeatedly condemns Caligula only gives us a vague rumour that he would have made his horse a consul. Cassius Dio gives us “One of the horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.” More of the same, and this time only personal opinion that he would have done such a thing. One might remember that Suetonius was writing imperial biographies in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, some 80 years after Caligula’s death. His source material was already biased, for Suetonius was not born until 30 years after Caligula’s death. Similarly, we might view Dio with suspicion, for he was even later, writing nearly two centuries after Caligula’s death and basing his tale on a long-held tradition of madness. Thus, our main sources are the equivalent of me now putting together a biography of a Hanoverian monarch, only with much less to work from. Both of those writers were working with an imperial agenda in mind that necessitated the condemning of Caligula and the Julio-Claudians, and if these recorded events ever actually happened, a tempting suggestion is that the whole thing was a rather acidic joke on Caligula’s part aimed at humiliating the senators.

Similarly, the story of the chests of shells and pebbles the legions carried back as plunder can be seen very differently, when one realises that Caligula had gathered his legions for an invasion of Britain, where they seem to have revolted against him on the French coast. What better humiliating punishment for soldiers who have rebelled than making them carry chests of stones all the way back to Rome as the spoils of their war? Again, this reeks of Caligula’s very dry and potentially dangerous sense of humour. Not a sign of madness, but an indication of a man not afraid of dark humour aimed at those who defied him.

Essentially, when one looks deeper at Caligula, one can see a character greatly different from the one presented to us. Oh, he was no god, for sure. His sense of humour seems to have been cruel and acerbic and to have missed the mark repeatedly. He was suspicious (but then any man who had watched his entire family arrested and executed in his youth might be suspicious). But he also appears to have been glorious, beloved of his people, brave and wily. One thing he does not seem to be, if you pull apart the sources, is insane. This, then, is what I love about damned emperors.

Next up is Domitian. The second son of the renowned Vespasian and brother of glorious Titus, Domitian never expected, and was never expected, to rule. He was . History has presented us with a quiet and bookish, yet also wicked and brutal, character. Domitian ruled for a good 15 years, in the end falling to a conspiracy of the emperor’s own freedmen. His character has come down to us mainly through the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom solidly condemn him, and yet one might note, both of whom are writing in the reigns of the emperors who only owed their existence to the fall of Domitian and the Flavian dynasty, and who naturally vilified their predecessor in order to justify their own power.

If, however, one looks at the scant evidence we have of contemporaries who were writing during the time of Domitian, such as Statius, we find the emperor being praised and portrayed as a glorious figure. One must always be aware of bias in both directions with ancient biographies.

I have yet to write a novel centring on Domitian, though it is already planned and very much in my sights. However, in my first foray into non-fiction, I have biographised the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, and a man who served during Domitian’s reign. In researching this, I repeatedly came up against Tacitus assassinating the emperor’s character largely in order to heighten the glory of his subject. But often in Tacitus, while he attributes to Domitian a truly abhorrent character, when he actually provides detail, it often doesn’t marry up with that image.

As examples, Tacitus tells us Domitian: “was by nature a man who plunged into violence“, of his “sinister intentions“, of “the emperor’s cruelty“. He tells us straight that Domitian resented Agricola’s success and popularity, and harboured a great hatred. And then in his text, he tells us also that for Agricola “Triumphal decorations, a public statue, and all the insignia that go with an honorary triumph were therefore decreed by the senate on the emperor’s command, coupled with a flattering speech.” For an emperor who had no trouble imposing imperial will, this seems rather at odds, as does the fact that when jealous opponents repeatedly accuse Agricola of crimes, the emperor throws out the cases. Most impressive of all, when Agricola fell ill in his last days, Tacitus tells us that Domitian sent court physicians and freedmen to attend him, and even that there were “more visits […] than is usual with emperors.” Though Tacitus tries to inflect all these events with sinister motives, it really does not add up, and what we are left with is the impression of an emperor who actually values and cares for his general.

I can’t wait to get my teeth into a full novel about this fascinating man who was so damned and despised after his death and yet who had been a secret agent, an overlooked second son, and who had inherited an empty treasury and left a wealthy Rome for his successors and a huge architectural legacy across Rome.

Emperor Commodus facts

Ok, you may not have recognised him from the name, but I bet the pic jogs a few memories. Commodus, portrayed above by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, was my second foray into fictional biographies, with an eponymous novel. Commodus was my attempt to delve into the sources and tear apart the chaff to find the real character, as I’d done with Caligula.

Commodus is given to us mainly by Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta. While not portrayed as an insane and dangerous lunatic as was Caligula, he comes across as a megalomaniac and a man given to wild notions and flights of fancy, often cruelly at the expense of others. Once again, though, we must beware of the sources. We can say with some certainty that Commodus came to blows with the senate more than once, and that there was a gulf between the two that was filled with resentment and distrust. As such, one might expect senators to be somewhat damning of the emperor who had so defied and belittled them. Cassius Dio was one of those very senators Commodus hated. Herodian’s career is not fully known, but there is solid circumstantial evidence that he too was a senator at that time. The Historia Augusta’s section on Commodus is likely based on the works of Marius Maximus who, you guessed it, was of senatorial rank during the reign of Commodus. Thus our three main sources were all naturally hostile towards the emperor. Can we trust what we’re told? In this case less even than in other such works.

In some places, these biographies clearly delve into the fantastical and ridiculous. The HA gives us the laughable event: “he put a starling on the head of one man who, as he noticed, had a few white hairs, resembling worms, among the black, and caused his head to fester through the continual pecking of the bird’s beak β€” the bird, of course, imagining that it was pursuing worms.” Dio tells us of Commodus in the amphitheatre that “On the first day he killed a hundred bears all by himself“. Herodian, at least, steers largely clear of such fanciful notions, but even he dips occasionally into hyperbole.

Of the accusations of megalomania, several of his acts are cited, and yet once again, a lot of this is down to the angle one takes on them. He is known (confirmed in inscriptions) to have changed the names of the months to his own twelve names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius. Mad? Really? When the month of Quintilis had been renamed after Julius Caesar two centuries earlier, and shortly after that, Sextilis had been renamed for Augustus – July and August as they now are? One might suggest this is a little over the top, yes, but there was a solid precedent for it, and that its usage is recorded even out in the Syrian desert suggests that it was not really considered unacceptable by provincials. And how crazed was it that he refounded Rome after a disastrous fire and named the restored metropolis Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana after himself? Mad, right? So why do we honour and celebrate Constantine for refounding Byzantium as Constantinopolis? Is that not the very same megalomania at work? Or perhaps we should worry about his identification with Hercules, for he dressed as the god at public events. Surely that’s properly barking mad? And yet a bust of a young Commodus portrayed as Hercules as a boy can only have been commissioned by his father, the great Marcus Aurelius, and so was Commodus perhaps merely continuing his father’s vision? Moreover, the identification of emperors with that god arose once more a century later during the tetrarchy, so really this is not an isolated thing, but an imperial trend.

In my research I came to the conclusion that Commodus was neither wicked nor insane, but rather suffered Bipolar disorder (previously known as Manic depression), which would fit his darker moods and periodic withdrawal from public life, as well as his somewhat over the top glorious notions. Certainly, Commodus cannot be the monster we are given.

Following the death of Commodus and the brief reigns of two successors, the next real power in Rome was Septimius Severus, but to secure his throne, he had to put down usurpations by Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Niger never managed to secure acceptance by the senate, and so was not truly an emperor, though Albinus was briefly legitimised by Severus.

I have yet to delve in depth into the lives of these two usurpers, though both have appeared in the Praetorian series, particularly Niger, in which they are portrayed simply as ambitious Roman noblemen. Let’s largely skip them for now and move onto more fertile ground.

For our last exploration, I’ve put the final two on my list together. Diocletian was the man who founded the tetrarchic system (splitting the empire in half and appointing a senior and junior emperor to each.) He ruled from 284 to 305 AD. Maxentius, one of several claimants to the western empire as the system collapsed again, reigned from 306 to 312. Both men are among the last to be damned, and their reputations have suffered in particular because of their opposition to Constantine. Their biographies come to us mostly through Christian writers who favoured their hero Constantine, and so any man Saint Constantine was set against is naturally vilified.

Of Diocletian, Eutropius says “He used his victory, indeed, cruelly, and distressed all Egypt with severe proscriptions and massacres. Yet at the same time he made many judicious arrangements and regulations, which continue to our own days,” gracing us with an unusually rounded image of a man both damnable and laudable in different ways. Cruel and dangerous, yet clever and an able administrator. Indeed, this juxtaposition is echoed throughout Eutropius: “He was willing to gratify his own disposition to cruelty in such a way as to throw the odium upon others; he was however a very active and able prince.”

Lactantius, on the other hand, not only gives us a very one-dimensional view of the emperor, but he also makes his bias very plain from the outset: “While Diocletian, that author of ill, and deviser of misery, was ruining all things, he could not withhold his insults, not even against God.” Thus, it is with extreme care that we have to consider anything Lactantius tells us. Diocletian was one of the greatest persecuters of Christians in history, and so the views of Christian writers are unlikely to be positive.

Actually, the evidence for Diocletian’s damnation is scant, for he retired and died naturally in a villa in Croatia, though an inscription found in Rome in which Diocletian’s name has been scratched out and replaced with that of Constantine hints that Diocletian’s reputation went the same way as his co-emperor Maximian, damned by Constantine even if he later rehabilitated the man’s memory. Diocletian is something of a bit part player in the Rise of Emperors series that I co-wrote with Gordon Doherty, an Emperor Palpatine to Galerius’s Darth Vader. In our work he is characterised as cruel and dangerous, possibly even mad. This may be a caricature, but given that even the more positive biographies of the man make him cruel, it seemed natural to follow the trend. Quite simply, even if you’re not a Christian, given that Diocletian presided over one of the most brutal and widespread persecutions in history, it is hard to see him as little more than a villain.

To the last of our emperors, then. Maxentius is the son of that very same Maximian mentioned above. Maxentius is my protagonist throughout the Rise of Emperors series, alongside Gordon’s Constantine, and with him I had to apply much the same system of research as with Caligula and Commodus. Maxentius has once again come down to us as the villain of the piece, a brutal and cruel usurper facing the sainted and wonderful Constantine. Our sources for Maxentius are universally Christian and therefore in Constantine’s pocket, and so it should come as no surprise that they damn Maxentius. The approach here, though, is different to those earlier emperors, for there is no accusation of madness among these biographies. Maxentius is simply wicked, dangerous, licentious and evil.

One might note from the outset that Maxentius had every bit the same claim to the Western Empire as Constantine. Both had been sons of emperors, and both had expected to be included in the succession. When they were not, both took matters into their own hands, Constantine proclaimed by his army in York, Maxentius proclaimed by the Praetorian Guard and the senate in Rome. There are, in fact, few lines in the sources at all on Maxentius. He is not well covered by contemporary writers.

Lactantius, one of Constantine’s great biographers, only deals peripherally with Maxentius, though he labels him from the outset “a man of bad and mischievous dispositions, […] proud and stubborn.” Though he treats the events of Maxentius’s reign only in snippets, even at the end, the demise of Maxentius is noted as “The hand of the Lord prevailed.” Thus is Maxentius presented to us as an agent of the devil, despite the fact that there is no real evidence of Maxentius’s cruelty towards Christians. Indeed, there is only actually one direct story of the man persecuting Christians.

The somewhat fanciful legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria says that she went to Maxentius when he instituted persecutions. She argued her stance and managed to out argue 50 pagan philosophers summoned by the emperor. At this point he loses his temper and begins to imprison and torture he, eventually leading to her death, when her body oozed something like milk instead of blood. Quite apart from there being no evidence of a Maxentian persecution, the story holds less water than a cotton colander. And just to hammer a nail into that coffin, the Christians of Rome had been forbidden to elect a high priest (a pope) under Maximian, yet Maxentius saw the investiture of three popes. Hardly the actions of a persecutor of Christians.

Beyond Lactantius, various Panegyrics do Maxentius little service, though one of the other main sources is the 5th century historian Zosimus. Zosimus periodically has a stab at Max’s reputation here and there with phrases like “conducted himself with cruelty and licentiousness” and yet his treatment of the actual events is surprisingly neutral, and even tips in the direction of admiration occasionally with moments like “They would have destroyed the whole city, had not Maxentius soon appeased their rage.”

The simple fact is that whether the sources are entirely damning or just a little dubious, Maxentius is given to us as a hater of Christians, a bane to Rome and a dangerous and unacceptable usurper. No one has a good word to say about him, and yet we have to remember that all those writing do so under the aegis of his enemy and successor, Constantine. So if Maxentius the hater of Christians, the tyrant and the despot is a fiction of vilifying biographers, what do we know of Maxentius the real man?

Actually, the most telling thing about Maxentius comes from surviving archaeology and geography. While Galerius, Constantine, Licinius, Daia, and every other weasel barking during the tetrarchy, sought imperial power, each and every one imagined the seat of that power somewhere in the provinces. Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany, each emperor ruled from a court somewhere in their heartland. Maxentius was something different. Though he had been born into a once humble family from the Balkans, it was Rome for which he stood and which became the heart of his domain. The only Roman imperial sceptres and regalia ever found have been attributed to him. At the very end, when facing Constantine, he consulted Rome’s most ancient scriptures and fought to protect Rome, even turning its walls into the impressive specimens we can see today. Logic and a little investigation suggest that despite his provincial origins, Maxentius was the only claimant of the era who represented Rome.

Furthermore, Rome had seen only a few eras of great public building in 300 years of emperors, and these projects were all attributed to great men. Augustus remodelled the forum and began to fill the Campus Martius with monuments. Vespasian and Titus extinguished the excesses of Nero and replaced them with magnificent public buildings. Trajan filled Rome with great works for the people. Other rulers constructed buildings in scattered numbers, but only the greatest of emperors embarked on city-changing projects of grand public works. And the last one to do so? The last emperor to embark on a plan of public buildings in Rome was Maxentius. And were the works mere self-aggrandizement? Alright he may have built a villa with the mausoleum of his son on the Via Appia and a new private bath on the Palatine. But he also built or reconstructed all of this:

If one looks at the archaeology and tries to ignore the worst of the propaganda, what comes out of it is the image of a traditionalist. In a world where emperors are trying to change the administration, the geography, the capital, even the religion of the empire, Maxentius stands for Rome, as an echo of the great emperors of the past. In a way, he is the last great pagan emperor of Rome. Indeed, he is the last emperor to rule from Rome, and the last emperor to reside on the Palatine. Maxentius is, to me, the last true Roman emperor.

So that’s it for now. I shall in time investigate and rehabilitate others, and certain names are already in my sights, but if you want to read about the emperors so far, here are the books. All are available through online stores such as Amazon and the iStore (except Agricola which is available as a pre-order only), and Caligula, Commodus and Sons of Rome are available in your local bookstore also. Happy reading and let’s reform the reputations of a few great men…

Written by SJAT

April 9, 2021 at 9:07 am

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

Competition Time

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Do you want to win a collection of Roman goodies?

Do you?

Well here’s your chance. One lucky winner can get their hands on this amazing prize:


And all you have to do to win this prize is to upload to my Facebook Page a photo of you with a copy of Caligula somewhere interesting. That’s right. Just post your pic here, and you’re in with a chance to win. It can be a hardback, paperback or ebook with the cover showing, I don’t care. Here’s my feeble effort, but I have to try, coz if I won, the postage would be REALLY cheap…


I know. The expression. I look like an axe murderer. But that’s just the terrifying thought of having to let this lot go: Here’s what’s in the prize:


Signed copies of the first three Praetorian novels


Roman ‘as’ coin of Caligula, obverse Caligula with head bare, reverse Vesta seated.


CD of the album ‘Bloom’ by the excellent band ‘Caligula’s Horse’ AND the DVD of the classic BBC series ‘I Claudius’. Note that the DVD is region 2…


A bottle of excellent red wine made from the same Aglianico grape and in the same locale as the ancient Falernian wine, the slopes of Mount Falernus in Campania.

AND… Caligula himself as used in my various promotional photos over the year

That’s the prize. I hope I win it! But it’ll probably go to one of you lucky people. The winner (the most interesting pic) will be chosen by an independent celebrity, and not myself, to avoid any preferential treatment. The winner will be drawn on Friday 21st of December, so get thinking and photographing. And, of course, if you haven’t bought and read Caligula yet, now is the best time ever.

Good luck everyone.

Written by SJAT

November 30, 2018 at 11:53 am

Caligula – from the horse’s mouth

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Mad, bad and dangerous to know. Well, actually, that was Lady Caroline Lamb describing Lord Byron. But it got your attention…

So I don’t often blather about my own books on this blog, but today is release day for the paperback of Caligula. And while like every author I love books to sell for obvious reasons, this is the first book I’ve sold that you can readily buy in bricks-and-mortar bookshops. And the success of Caligula will determine how many sequels I get to write. Caligula is out there, and Commodus is coming in spring, but there could be two more. If you lovely people buy Caligula, that is.

Caligula. A new telling of an old, old story.


Rome 37AD. The emperor is dying. No-one knows how long he has left. The power struggle has begun.

When the ailing Tiberius thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order, he will change the fate of the empire and create one of history’s most infamous tyrants, Caligula.

But was Caligula really a monster?

Forget everything you think you know. Let Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister and confidante, tell you what really happened. How her quiet, caring brother became the most powerful man on earth.

And how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever . . .

So now is the time. If you like your Roman history, try Caligula. And watch out on my social media for the next week for one heck of a competition to win some AMAZING goodies. Wander in to your local book store and order it. Or go online and buy it. Christmas is coming up. I bet your dad would love to read a juicy tale about Rome’s most infamous emperor. Heh heh heh.


Caligula is available in paperback (or hardback) with free worldwide delivery from Book Depository here.

The kindle edition is available here (UK and Commonwealth only, sadly not in the US)

Also available as an Audible audio book here. And really, it doesn’t get better than in the lovely tones of Laura Kirman.

That’s it, lovely people. All I have. Now off to potentially plot two more damned emperors.



Written by SJAT

November 15, 2018 at 10:13 pm