Among the Roman emperors that were polytheists, ruling from 27 BCE until about 325 BCE (with one exception afterwards), the good were few and all the rest were more or less bad. Since it was the ambition of Julius Caesar that had laid a foundation for the empire, after he had waged bloody wars against the Gauls and his adversaries in the Senate, it is no wonder that it should be so difficult to judge the good leaders of such a deformed and ugly entity. The legacy of Alexander, a proud and bad polytheist indeed, had already established a precedent for extreme conquest in Europe, and the Romans took up the task soon after defeating the Carthaginians. The Romans, though generally a religious and traditional people, were corrupted by this lust for growth and wealth, which gradually wore out their original piety; their love for their own ways and Gods often proved at the expense of foreign cultures and Gods. The truth is, the period following Alexander was a time of decline for polytheism in general, or at the very least, a time of failed experiments. Empire was now a common thing in the world, one that seemed more honorable to raise and more secure to keep than any other form of government. Even the best Roman emperors inherited a heavy dilemma that they could not escape from: either to preserve and make the most of what they have, or lose all to ambition and war. The disease of empire was pandemic, although nobody could truly see it, because nobody could comprehend it. However we judge of details, it is necessary to understand that the Roman empire, and certain actions by Roman emperors, gave rise to many evils, including the one which put an end to polytheism altogether, i.e. Christianity. Below is a list of the most notable emperors with notes on their respective reigns and deeds.
–Hadrian (reigned 117 to 138 CE): Adopted by Trajan, but resigned lands in Mesopotamia and some parts of East Europe contrary to Trajan’s policy of expansion. Rebuilt the pantheon of Rome and constructed the Temple of Zeus in Athens, among other buildings. Travelled throughout the empire during his reign and was very interested in culture. His only faults were his negligence, or possible aggravation, of the Jewish problem that began in the reign of Nero (see below), as well as his artificial deification of his lover Antinous.
–Antonius Pius (138 to 161 CE): Adopted by Hadrian. Reigned peacefully and wisely without any expansion, except in a small and brief expedition into Caledonia (Scotland), ending with the construction of the Antonine Wall along the border. Encouraged emancipation of slaves, economy in expenditure, and justice in legislature. His only fault was his official support of Mithraism and his construction of a temple for it, a strange and syncretic religion (possibly invented like Christianity) that challenged traditional cults.
–Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180 CE): Adopted by Antonius Pius. He ruled along with his adopted brother Lucius Verus for eight years and continued alone. He was humble, just and wise. He waged war against the Persians only for honor and was forced to engage defensively with a few Germanic tribes (the Marcomanni especially) who were Roman clients turned renegades, probably owing to pressure from Germanic expansion from the North. During the campaign against the Germans, he wrote a long and personal journal to humble, instruct, and comfort himself.
–Diocletian (284 to 305 CE): Distinguished among all Emperors in that he came to the throne alone, shared imperial power with three others, and then resigned it in favor of retirement. He was known for his piety and attachment to traditional Gods. Furthermore, he did his best to save a declining empire by introducing earnest reforms in economy and law, which failed because the empire was already too sickly. However, it could be said that he prevented a horrible collapse of the kind that had plagued the empire for 30 years before his reign, and at the same time, he laid a foundation for the sort of regionalism that the empire desperately needed. He divided the empire into east and west, and subdivided large provinces for the sake of better administration. It is difficult to judge whether his persecution of Christians in the east (where he ruled) led to more good or bad. By that time the Christians were too bold and powerful, increasing their influences everywhere, including within the imperial palace itself (see Constantine, below). It is said that Diocletian was reluctant to persecute them, but Galerius (his co-ruler) prompted him. The Christians are known to have greatly exaggerated the effects of the temporary persecution and used it as a pretext for a continual persecution of polytheists beginning from the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor.
–Julian (360 to 363 CE): Second cousin of Constantine, and known as “Julian the Apostate” for his renunciation of Christianity. He attempted to restore polytheism, now broken and isolated, to its former position and accordingly rebuilt destroyed temples, reinstituted priests, and favored polytheists in public office. Furthermore, knowing that the Christians hated the Jews, he intended to rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem and show them favor. His reign was short, however, because he died from wounds inflicted in battle during a punitive campaign he had waged against the Sassanid Persians, who had raided the eastern borders some years before. One historian even reports that he was assassinated by a Christian soldier, but this, though perhaps likely, cannot be confirmed.
–Augustus (reigned 27 BCE to 14 CE): The very first emperor. Aimed at promoting peace and harmony, but only after expansions and suppressing any rebellions. Established projects of construction in Rome and introduced reforms to strengthen Roman society and restore tradition, but maintained many slaves who were the cause of the society’s corruption. Began the bad precedent of deification of rulers, when he deified his adoptive father Caesar. His mismanagement of the Jewish succession to the throne plagued many emperors afterwards.
–Claudius (41 to 54 CE): Engaged in the first renewed expansions of the empire since Augustus, particularly in Judea and Britain. He also forbade the rituals of the Celtic druids, one of which was human sacrifice. Nevertheless, he was religious and traditional, preventing eastern religions and cults from spreading in Rome. He was also a good scholar who was interested in preserving the Etruscan and Carthaginian heritage as well as improving the empire’s administration. He was said to be deformed in his legs and ill-tempered, but would apologize for his occasional anger. He was poisoned by his wife, who was also mother to Nero.
–Nero (54 to 68 CE): Son in law, stepson and adopted son of Claudius. He was not as bad as some historians make him; his extreme popularity with the people made him envied by the Senate, which hoped to get revenge for previous humiliation by emperors. He took part in the Olympic games of Greece and showed the Greeks much favor, though sometimes at the expense of the Jews. The Jews suddenly rebelled because of bad blood between them and the Greeks that had been brewing since Alexander, and particularly since Claudius. Nero responded by sending Vespasian to quell the rebellion; it was Vespasian’s son (Titus, see below) who destroyed the temple on his own whim. It is not known why exactly Nero murdered his mother, but she was a woman of foul intrigues, having murdered Claudius before with an ambition to rule through her son. As for the fire of Rome, which is usually attributed to a fault of his, it was either accidental or spread by his enemies in the Senate to hurt his reputation with the people. One historian states he was out of the city when the fire broke out and returned immediately to put it out and pay for relief. The Christians may have been blamed in order to counter rumors by the senate. However, the senators seems to have won the battle, for Nero committed suicide when he was declared a public enemy by them.
–Domitian (81 to 96 CE): Brother of Titus and son of Vespasian. He ruled after the short reign of his brother Titus. He was known for his very religious and traditional views, which made him rebuild the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, after the fire had consumed it. However, he inflamed the Jews by imposing a special tax on them in order to fund the construction.
–Trajan (98 to 117 CE): Although known for his good and exemplary character, he brought the Roman empire to its greatest extent by several unnecessary expansions. In particular, he conquered Dacia, where he was resisted by the great king Decebalus. However, he afterwards pursued a policy of peace and public welfare, and his greatest accomplishment was probably his choice of an adoptive successor, Hadrian.
–Commodus (177 to 192 CE): Son of Marcus Aurelius. He ruled well like his father at first, but gradually he behaved like a tyrant and even thought of himself as divine. If there is any good he did, it was mostly in causing the decline of the Roman empire as an institution, since his assassination caused a period of instability and civil wars.
WORST EMPERORS (since too many were bad to include here, I will present only the worst)
–Caligula (reigned 37 to 41 CE): He was certainly the most despicable emperor of all. He committed all sorts of adultery, engaged in incest with his sisters, murdered on whim, appointed his horse as a priest, and expected to be worshipped as Zeus, going so far as to aim at placing a cult statue of himself in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. According to one historian, he even committed the supreme sacrilege of ordering the removal the head on the statue of Zeus in Olympia, to be replaced with his own. He was the last of the dynasty of Augustus and was assassinated by being stabbed 30 times (just like Julius Caesar) by senatorial conspirators.
–Titus (79 to 81 CE): Before he became emperor, he was installed as general of the Roman forces in Judea (during the rebellion of the Jews) by his father Vespasian, who left to claim the imperial throne in Rome. Meantime, Titus ended the war in the worst way imaginable, i.e. by selling Jerusalem’s inhabitants into slavery, by destroying the temple in Jerusalem after plundering its treasures, and by using the treasures to fund the amphitheater of Rome (colosseum) as well as a triumphal arch. Thus, instead of ending the war, he only prolonged it by revenge, since the Jews rebelled twice afterwards. The destruction by fire of the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter in Rome may have also occurred by Jewish hands. It is also likely that the actions of Titus in Jerusalem gave rise to the new religion of Christianity, since the first Christians were renegade Jews who had probably despaired in Judaism, but harbored a deep hatred towards Rome which manifested itself in extreme proselytism and hunger for power*.
–Caracalla (193 to 217 CE): Ruled at first with his father and brother. His father, who gained the throne by a civil war, advised him “to pay the soldiers well and look down on all others”. After his father’s death, however, he had his brother murdered (as well as all his supporters), and threatened to do the same to his mother when she tried to save him. This crime was aggravated when he condemned his brother through damnatio memoriae, whereby all records bearing his name and image were erased. As if this was not enough, he had the officials of Alexandria slaughtered and ordered his men to plunder the city when he heard that some Alexandrians had mocked his tyranny. Caracalla also had his father in law executed on false charges and then banished his own wife, whom we hated (and had been forced to marry), only to have her murdered some time after. His fate was the same at the hands of one of his soldiers. His busts bear a clear image of his evil and troubled character.
–Constantine (306 to 337 CE): Son of Constantius, one of the three co-rulers appointed by Diocletian. His mother was Helena, a Christian mistress of Constantius. Constantine was treated with some inferiority because he was illegitimate, and this accounts for his lust for power afterwards, as well as conversion to Christianity. His mother ruled over him, as she did over his father. He is infamous not only for his conversion, but also his zeal in the persecution of polytheists, particularly in the east, which continued after him without intermission.
* Although the Jews had engaged in their own sort of cultural imperialism earlier towards neighboring polytheistic tribes in their region, it could not justify the destruction of their temple and the cruel enslavement of their people. I believe it was not the Jews, but the multicultural and imperial policies of Alexander, followed by those of the Romans, that are directly responsible for the appearance, virulence, and conquest of Christianity. Christianity, properly speaking, can be considered as a Hellenistic religion that engaged in the same syncretism, theology, and expansion of earlier mystery schools like Orphism and Gnosticism.