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Old October 6th, 2011, 06:45 PM   #1

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How to Kill an Emperor - Ancient Roman Assassinations


The Roman world thrived on gossip. News traveled across the Empire via the words of gossipmongers, with as much reliability and only slightly less velocity than our modern medias. Its little wonder then, that the death of a Roman emperor invariably proved juicy gossip indeed, everyone from senators to slaves forwarding their theories about the dark secrets surrounding his demise, and wondering who murdered him, and how.

Contemporary rumors claimed virtually every Caesar was a victim of assassination. Nonetheless, it cannot be disputed that many died unpleasant deaths at the hands of their rivals or underlings, even family. Some were murdered in revenge or self-defense, others were butchered to pave the way for an ambitious usurper. Some of Rome's most notorious rulers joined the shades of their forefathers with a dagger in their heart, or poisoned mushrooms in their intestines.

In this post, I'm going to tell the story of every (real or rumored) Imperial assassination from Augustus to Severus Alexander, spanning the 14-235 CE period. I chose my cut-off date because of the skimpiness and unreliability of our sources for the later Empire, this makes it tricky to determine just what killed many later emperors, and would also make for tedious reading due to the rapid rate of succession in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Centuries.


Julius Caesar, 44 BCE
An honorable mention to the dictator whose life and achievements made the Roman Empire possible. Caesar was brutally killed by a mob of dagger-wielding senators in the Senate House on March 15th, 44 BCE. Though he initially resisted with a pen, he submitted to his fate when he recognized Brutus, the son of his favorite mistress, in the crowd. His death has become, along with the crucifixion of Christ, one of the most influential and romanticized murders in human history.

Augustus, 14 CE
The adoptive son of Caesar and the first emperor, Augustus died in 14 CE a tired and amiable old man, and one of history's great survivors. Malicious and presumably unfounded rumors attributed his death not to age, but to poison administered by his controlling wife Livia.

Tiberius, 37 CE
The second emperor, Tiberius was a twisted and melancholy personality who died in a self-imposed retirement. There were whispers that his death was hastened, perhaps even caused via suffocation, by Gaius, who was eager to succeed.

Gaius "Caligula", 41 CE
A violent and thoroughly disturbing personality, Gaius Caligula was the first Roman emperor known for a fact to have fallen prey to an assassination plot. The Praetorian prefect Marcus Arrecinus Clemens plotted Gaius' death with a party of senators. The man chosen to carry out their plot was Cassius Charea, a burly, mean-spirited veteran soldier whose ferocious appearance was off-set by. Ahigh pitched voice-for which the emperor teased him mercilessly. The embittered soldier, with two Praetorians at his back, assaulted the emperor in a corridor underneath his Palace on January 21st of 41; Gaius and his wife Caesonia were gutted, and their infant daughter was smashed against a wall.

Claudius, 54 CE
Tradition suggests that there was a connection between Agrippina, Claudius' first wife, and the mushrooms that were the emperor's final meal. Modern historians point out that, with her son Nero already destined to succeed Claudius, she would have had no motivation to kill her husband-uncle.

Nero, 68 CE
Though not directly assassinated, the cultured but self absorbed young emperor Nero was dethroned by his court, and took his own life with the aid of a slave. He died with a dagger in his neck, after uttering some of history's most unique last words: "what an artist the world loses in me".

Galba, 69 CE
Nero's immediate successor, Galba's stint as emperor was brief before he was overthrown by his young follower Otho. Galba and his appointed heir Piso were both butchered by Praetorians in the Roman Forum; a solitary brave centurion died with them, defending his emperor to the last. No soldierly respect was shown to the centurion; the heads of the murdered men were taken to Otho.

Vitellius, 69 CE
Otho's short-lived successor, and Rome's most obese emperor, Vitellius was dethroned on Christmas day, being tortured and hacked to pieces by legionaries from the Flavian field army.

Vespasian, 79 CE
Rumors that Vespasian was poisoned by his son Titus were probably mere malicious gossip.

Titus, 81 CE
A common urban legend during the reign of Domitian stated that the latter murdered his brother by feeding him a poisoned fish.

Domitian, 96 CE
Domitian, one of history's most unhappy, paranoid, and unpleasant rulers, was the victim of a plot that matched that against Caligula in both brutality and poetic justice. Domitian's paranoia, and the resulting rash of executions and banishments, alienated the ruling class. The final and successful plot against Domitian includes his wife Longina, his Praetorian prefects Secundus and Norbanus, several senators, Domitian's bedroom chamberlain, and Stephanus, the embittered ex-slave of one of the emperor's victims. It was the latter who killed Domitian in the latter's bedroom, stabbing him in the groin and elsewhere after a violent struggle.

Commodus, 192 CE
Commodus was the first emperor to die violently in almost exactly a century. Just as megalomaniacal as Domitian and only slightly less bloodthirsty, Commodus perished in a plot headed by his mistress Marcia. He was strangled and/or drowned by the gladiator (or wrestler) Narcissus while taking a bath.

Pertinax, 193 CE
Commodus' immediate successor, the elderly politician Pertinax, tried to calm mutinous Praetorians; he received a javelin in his chest for his troubles (which were promptly ended).

Julianus,193 CE
The senator and retired general famous for purchasing the throne, Julianus was a short-lived and retrospectively comical usurper. He was put to death by a soldier hired by the Senate.

Niger, 194 CE
The candidate for the purple chosen by the eastern legions on the death of Pertinax, he was murdered after fleeing from his final defeat by Severus.

Geta, 212 CE
The younger son of Severus, his brother and co-emperor Antoninus arranged for a meeting with him. The meeting proved to be a set up; Geta was cut to pieces by Praetorian centurions while cowering with his mother begging for mercy.

Antoninus "Caracalla", 217 CE
This complicated personality, simultaneously cultured and ferocious in temperament, perished in a stereotypical assassination. While halting on the side of the road during a march in Syria, apparently to urinate, he was fatally stabbed in the side by his Praetorian prefect Macrinus.

Macrinus, 218 CE
Macrinus and his son and co-emperor fled after their defeat at Immae, but both were hunted down and beheaded. Macrinus wandered Asia minor in disguise for some months before being recognized by a centurion, with fatal results.

Antoninus "Elagabalus", 222 CE
Rome's most eccentric emperor by a long shot, Elagabalus was nearly killed by the Praetorians on several occasions. On the final night of his reign he, his mother, and at least one of his male lovers were butchered by Praetorians who threw their bodies in the Tiber.

Severus Alexander, 235 CE
The last Severan, Alexander was fatally stabbed by mutinous troops along the Rhine during a campaign against the Alamanni. It was said his murderers were ashamed when they saw that he was sitting down to eat rations no better than theirs.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 07:17 PM   #2
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CJ Caesar was of course not an emperor; Augustus & Tiberius I oficially (and in all likelihood actually too) died from natural non-violent causes. Gossips aside, that was probably the case of Claudius I too.

On the other hand, if the forced suicidal Nero is included, the forced suicidal Otho should be there too. And if rumors are taken into account, Tito & Marcus Aurelius may also be added (not my personal choice, however). Interestingly & suspiciously, Hadrian was reportedly a failed suicidal.

Last edited by sylla1; October 6th, 2011 at 07:28 PM.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 07:22 PM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by sylla1 View Post
CJ Caesar was of course not an emperor; Augustus & Tiberius I oficially (and in all likelihood actually too) died from natural non-violent causes. Gossips aside, that was probably the case of Claudius I too.
I think that Caesar can be considered an emperor, since he had all the powers of an emperor and that he probably planned to rule until his death (which he certainly did). He did not rule with the title "imperator" (while he had it as a victorious general), but Augustus did not either, so...
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Old October 6th, 2011, 07:28 PM   #4

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He made it all possible too. Its not like anyone else of the time was going to defeat Pompey, and Pompey never had designs on autocratic rule.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 07:36 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by clement View Post
I think that Caesar can be considered an emperor, since he had all the powers of an emperor and that he probably planned to rule until his death (which he certainly did). He did not rule with the title "imperator" (while he had it as a victorious general), but Augustus did not either, so...
The neverending debate; we tend to agree on the facts, not so much on your conclusion above.

Strictly speaking, the position of emperor didn't exist yet at the time of CJ Caesar; it was a de novo creation of Augustus.

Besides, the position of other irregular autocratic Republican leaders (let say Marius, Sulla, Sextus Pompeius or Antonius) would then be equivocal too.
IMHO it would be better to count as emperors just explicit de jure emperors.

Last edited by sylla1; October 6th, 2011 at 07:50 PM.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 07:40 PM   #6

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But the first emperor was Caesar's adoptive son and heir.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 07:54 PM   #7

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Seemed like the emperors were more-so just a puppet for the Praetorian Guard. Good article , Salah.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 08:11 PM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by sylla1 View Post
The neverending debate; we tend to agree on the facts, not so much on your conclusion above.

Strictly speaking, the position of emperor didn't exist yet at the time of CJ Caesar; it was a de novo creation of Augustus.

Besides, the position of other irregular autocratic Republican leaders (let say Marius, Sulla, Sextus Pompeius or Antonius) would then be equivocal too.
IMHO it would be better to count as emperors just explicit de jure emperors.
I will just write an answer because i don't want to pollute the topic. However, it seems that Caesar is closer to Augustus than to the other rulers you mentioned :
- He effectively ruled the empire.
- He did not need to have his power been confirmed, at least from the moment when he was granted the title of "dictator for life". This is in contrast with Marius who was just a consul and hence had to be confirmed in his role each year. Moreover, Marius was not always consul, but from the moment he took power to his death, Caesar remained the official master of Rome.
- He finally had a title that granted him power for a lifetime.
- Not to mention that there is a clear continuity between Caesar and the emperors (the Caesars) and it is not the case for Sulla or Marius.

And several other reasons.

You said "de jure emperor". And I do have a problem with that expression, which is that de jure, the title was not "emperor". So I tend to think that when you say "emperor" you mean a de facto emperor meaning :
- Someone who really rules the empire (or at least one part of the empire, but then he is not the emperor of rome).
- Someone who has a title (whatever it is) that makes this reality official until his death. The difference between Caesar and Augustus was merely one of title, but both of them were officially expected to keep it until their death.

It seems that you do not have the same opinion on that though.
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Old October 6th, 2011, 08:39 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by clement View Post
I will just write an answer because i don't want to pollute the topic. However, it seems that Caesar is closer to Augustus than to the other rulers you mentioned :
- He effectively ruled the empire.
- He did not need to have his power been confirmed, at least from the moment when he was granted the title of "dictator for life". This is in contrast with Marius who was just a consul and hence had to be confirmed in his role each year. Moreover, Marius was not always consul, but from the moment he took power to his death, Caesar remained the official master of Rome.
- He finally had a title that granted him power for a lifetime.
- Not to mention that there is a clear continuity between Caesar and the emperors (the Caesars) and it is not the case for Sulla or Marius.

And several other reasons.

You said "de jure emperor". And I do have a problem with that expression, which is that de jure, the title was not "emperor". So I tend to think that when you say "emperor" you mean a de facto emperor meaning :
- Someone who really rules the empire (or at least one part of the empire, but then he is not the emperor of rome).
- Someone who has a title (whatever it is) that makes this reality official until his death. The difference between Caesar and Augustus was merely one of title, but both of them were officially expected to keep it until their death.

It seems that you do not have the same opinion on that though.
IMHO you are simply gratuitously making things more complicated than required, in spite of the ostensible absence of any significant disagreement between us on the relevant hard facts.

Irrelevant semantics aside, the strict original title of the position inaugurated by Augustus was princeps. In any case, the title imperator was used by all of them, becoming inherent to the position from Caius onwards, and eventually replacing princeps itself as the main title, up to the XV century (now naturally usually as its Greek translation autokrator).
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Old October 6th, 2011, 09:39 PM   #10

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Salah ad-Din View Post
The Roman world thrived on gossip. News traveled across the Empire via the words of gossipmongers, with as much reliability and only slightly less velocity than our modern medias. Its little wonder then, that the death of a Roman emperor invariably proved juicy gossip indeed, everyone from senators to slaves forwarding their theories about the dark secrets surrounding his demise, and wondering who murdered him, and how.

Contemporary rumors claimed virtually every Caesar was a victim of assassination. Nonetheless, it cannot be disputed that many died unpleasant deaths at the hands of their rivals or underlings, even family. Some were murdered in revenge or self-defense, others were butchered to pave the way for an ambitious usurper. Some of Rome's most notorious rulers joined the shades of their forefathers with a dagger in their heart, or poisoned mushrooms in their intestines.

In this post, I'm going to tell the story of every (real or rumored) Imperial assassination from Augustus to Severus Alexander, spanning the 14-235 CE period. I chose my cut-off date because of the skimpiness and unreliability of our sources for the later Empire, this makes it tricky to determine just what killed many later emperors, and would also make for tedious reading due to the rapid rate of succession in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Centuries.


Julius Caesar, 44 BCE
An honorable mention to the dictator whose life and achievements made the Roman Empire possible. Caesar was brutally killed by a mob of dagger-wielding senators in the Senate House on March 15th, 44 BCE. Though he initially resisted with a pen, he submitted to his fate when he recognized Brutus, the son of his favorite mistress, in the crowd. His death has become, along with the crucifixion of Christ, one of the most influential and romanticized murders in human history.

Augustus, 14 CE
The adoptive son of Caesar and the first emperor, Augustus died in 14 CE a tired and amiable old man, and one of history's great survivors. Malicious and presumably unfounded rumors attributed his death not to age, but to poison administered by his controlling wife Livia.

Tiberius, 37 CE
The second emperor, Tiberius was a twisted and melancholy personality who died in a self-imposed retirement. There were whispers that his death was hastened, perhaps even caused via suffocation, by Gaius, who was eager to succeed.

Gaius "Caligula", 41 CE
A violent and thoroughly disturbing personality, Gaius Caligula was the first Roman emperor known for a fact to have fallen prey to an assassination plot. The Praetorian prefect Marcus Arrecinus Clemens plotted Gaius' death with a party of senators. The man chosen to carry out their plot was Cassius Charea, a burly, mean-spirited veteran soldier whose ferocious appearance was off-set by. Ahigh pitched voice-for which the emperor teased him mercilessly. The embittered soldier, with two Praetorians at his back, assaulted the emperor in a corridor underneath his Palace on January 21st of 41; Gaius and his wife Caesonia were gutted, and their infant daughter was smashed against a wall.

Claudius, 54 CE
Tradition suggests that there was a connection between Agrippina, Claudius' first wife, and the mushrooms that were the emperor's final meal. Modern historians point out that, with her son Nero already destined to succeed Claudius, she would have had no motivation to kill her husband-uncle.

Nero, 68 CE
Though not directly assassinated, the cultured but self absorbed young emperor Nero was dethroned by his court, and took his own life with the aid of a slave. He died with a dagger in his neck, after uttering some of history's most unique last words: "what an artist the world loses in me".

Galba, 69 CE
Nero's immediate successor, Galba's stint as emperor was brief before he was overthrown by his young follower Otho. Galba and his appointed heir Piso were both butchered by Praetorians in the Roman Forum; a solitary brave centurion died with them, defending his emperor to the last. No soldierly respect was shown to the centurion; the heads of the murdered men were taken to Otho.

Vitellius, 69 CE
Otho's short-lived successor, and Rome's most obese emperor, Vitellius was dethroned on Christmas day, being tortured and hacked to pieces by legionaries from the Flavian field army.

Vespasian, 79 CE
Rumors that Vespasian was poisoned by his son Titus were probably mere malicious gossip.

Titus, 81 CE
A common urban legend during the reign of Domitian stated that the latter murdered his brother by feeding him a poisoned fish.

Domitian, 96 CE
Domitian, one of history's most unhappy, paranoid, and unpleasant rulers, was the victim of a plot that matched that against Caligula in both brutality and poetic justice. Domitian's paranoia, and the resulting rash of executions and banishments, alienated the ruling class. The final and successful plot against Domitian includes his wife Longina, his Praetorian prefects Secundus and Norbanus, several senators, Domitian's bedroom chamberlain, and Stephanus, the embittered ex-slave of one of the emperor's victims. It was the latter who killed Domitian in the latter's bedroom, stabbing him in the groin and elsewhere after a violent struggle.

Commodus, 192 CE
Commodus was the first emperor to die violently in almost exactly a century. Just as megalomaniacal as Domitian and only slightly less bloodthirsty, Commodus perished in a plot headed by his mistress Marcia. He was strangled and/or drowned by the gladiator (or wrestler) Narcissus while taking a bath.

Pertinax, 193 CE
Commodus' immediate successor, the elderly politician Pertinax, tried to calm mutinous Praetorians; he received a javelin in his chest for his troubles (which were promptly ended).

Julianus,193 CE
The senator and retired general famous for purchasing the throne, Julianus was a short-lived and retrospectively comical usurper. He was put to death by a soldier hired by the Senate.

Niger, 194 CE
The candidate for the purple chosen by the eastern legions on the death of Pertinax, he was murdered after fleeing from his final defeat by Severus.

Geta, 212 CE
The younger son of Severus, his brother and co-emperor Antoninus arranged for a meeting with him. The meeting proved to be a set up; Geta was cut to pieces by Praetorian centurions while cowering with his mother begging for mercy.

Antoninus "Caracalla", 217 CE
This complicated personality, simultaneously cultured and ferocious in temperament, perished in a stereotypical assassination. While halting on the side of the road during a march in Syria, apparently to urinate, he was fatally stabbed in the side by his Praetorian prefect Macrinus.

Macrinus, 218 CE
Macrinus and his son and co-emperor fled after their defeat at Immae, but both were hunted down and beheaded. Macrinus wandered Asia minor in disguise for some months before being recognized by a centurion, with fatal results.

Antoninus "Elagabalus", 222 CE
Rome's most eccentric emperor by a long shot, Elagabalus was nearly killed by the Praetorians on several occasions. On the final night of his reign he, his mother, and at least one of his male lovers were butchered by Praetorians who threw their bodies in the Tiber.

Severus Alexander, 235 CE
The last Severan, Alexander was fatally stabbed by mutinous troops along the Rhine during a campaign against the Alamanni. It was said his murderers were ashamed when they saw that he was sitting down to eat rations no better than theirs.
Jesus, who would want a job?
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