Greatest Roman Emperor

I’m on a big Roman history binge lately so I thought I’d throw up the classic big question for debate:

Who was the greatest Roman emperor, and why?

Augustus, because he created the job description.
Trajan for achieving the greatest expansion.
Marcus Aurelius for his writings.
Justinian for rewriting the Roman Law and keeping the empire going.

I’ll throw Titus Flavius Vespasianus (“Vespasian”) in for consideration. The empire was in a bad way and getting worse quickly. Economy going downhill, political instability so bad that there were 4 emperors in 1 year, etc. He restored stability with military, political and financial skill. He’s easily overlooked because there weren’t any noteworthy events during almost all of his rule…and that’s the noteworthy event. It could be argued that he saved the Roman empire and it could be argued that makes him the greatest Roman emperor.

Probably not the greatest Roman emperor, but I’ll throw him in for consideration. Shame about his younger son, Domitian, who was a murderous nutjob and came to the throne after Vespasian and his older son, Titus, rather conveniently died in quick succession of unknown diseases…or poison.

Or how about Gaius Julius Caesar? Should he be counted as a the first emperor? He functioned as one. If so, how is greatness to be measured? He was undoubtably extremely capable and accomplished a great deal, but he was ethically dodgy even by the standards of the time.

Et tu, I can’t think of a name?

Vespasian also had a good sense of humour, and didn’t take himself too seriously.

Either that or a chronic sinus infection.

I think you can make a good case for Augustus (known as Octavius until he became Emperor):

This thread is great fun if you read it in the voice of Michael Palin’s Pontious Pilate from Life of Brian. Correction, ‘Bwian’.

The big three, in order, are Augustus, Diocletian, and Constantine. All three founded or re-funded the Empire and changed the course of history.

I’ll throw Trajan in as a bonus. He didn’t make the kind of fundamental changes any of the top three did. But his reign was probably the height of the Roman Empire.

On the admittedly minority view that “greatest” means “did the least harm,” I’m going to go with Didius Julianus, on the basis of his short reign: 28 March 193 – 1 June 193. His last words were alleged to be “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”

Augustus is hard to top. I’d give a special award to Julian though for his attempt to bring back the old gods. It didn’t stand a chance but at least it stopped the Christians persecuting everyone else for a while.

“Yeah, hi, this purple toga doesn’t fit right and I’d like my money back, please.”

Practically speaking is hard to go against Augustus, Diocletian and Trajan. Perhaps Nerva and the other four “Good Emperors” (One of whom, of course, was Trajan).
I am particularly fond of Justinian and Julian for being romantic contrarians swimming against History’s current, but I don’t think neither of them could really be considered “Great” from a point of view of what’s good for the Empire and its population.

Considering the tax system was one of the important government functions that fell apart before these men restored order, I’ll claim that I meant to say that they re-funded the empire.

Nicely done!

That’s a good point. Perhaps Nerva for (a) providing stability after the murder of Domitian(*) and (b) for establishing the custom of searching the empire for the person best suited to be the next emperor and making them heir. That, it could be argued, was a key part of the five good emperors and thus the golden age of Rome.

  • There was good reason for murdering Domitian, but it could easily have caused great instability, civil war and the downfall of the empire. The previous murdering of the emperor caused the Year of the Four Emperors and there didn’t seem to be another Vespasian around to come to the rescue.