A Tiered Ranking of Roman Emperors

Photo: tiered ranking of Roman emperors

A Tiered Ranking of Roman Emperors: Buckle Up

By Maggie Yuan


From buying the throne to invading the ocean, Roman history is filled with absurd, unbelievable stories. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Roman Empire, a period that begins right before the 1st century CE, and lasts until the “fall” of Rome (which is, like most other events in Roman history, debated). Though some Roman emperors have become a mainstay in American culture, such as Nero and Augustus, other emperors’ accomplishments have been all but lost to history. Here, I have compiled a list of facts and accomplishments of the Roman emperors in an attempt to rank them. 

For brevity’s sake, the list will end after the Barracks Emperors (Alexander Severus). These rankings are completely subjective, arbitrary, and have no logic to them. Hopefully, by the end, you will learn many new fun facts about these interesting figures! Woo!!


The Julio-Claudian Dynasty

Augustus (31 BCE-14 CE)

  • Full name: Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus 
  • + maneuvered his way into imperial power without completely destroying the old republic
  • + named pater patriae, “daddy of the country”
  • + Pax Romana: established a Roman peace … or so he says
  • + commissioned everybody’s favorite AP Latin text, Vergil’s Aeneid
  • – deified himself in his autobiographical Res Gestae Divi Augusti even before his death
  • + bonus points for being the first emperor
  • Final Ranking: A – an all-round good emperor


Tiberius (14-37 CE)

  • Full name: Tiberius Claudius Nero, later Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus
  • – imagine being a last resort for the role of emperor (Tiberius doesn’t have to)
  • + doesn’t take breakups very well: stalked his first wife, Vipsania Agrippina, after he was forced to divorce her in order to marry Augustus’ daughter Julia
  • + a decent emperor who strengthened the Empire, but had to murder some people along the way
  • + self-imposed exile to Capri, probably to get away from the toxic people of Rome
  • – turned into a tyrannical emperor toward the end of his reign, executing people for the fun of it
  • + interesting death: supposedly was smothered to death by his bedsheets
  • Final Ranking: B – he shows that men have feelings too


Caligula (37-41 CE)

  • Full name: Gaius Caesar Germanicus
  • + his name literally means “Little Boots” (no, not Kinky Boots)
  • + so many smear campaigns against him that the truth is unknown
  • – bled the treasury of Rome dry
  • – possibly had an illness that led to his cruel and tyrannical decisions
  • + supposedly wanted to name his horse Incitatus a consul
  • + “invaded” the ocean (does collecting seashells count?)
  • + narcissism runs in the family: attempted to make himself a god
  • + got himself assassinated by the Praetorian Guard after a measly 4 years
  • Final Ranking: S – his actions speak for themselves


Claudius (41-54 CE)

  • Full name: Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus, later Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
  • – found hiding behind a curtain when Caligula was being murdered, subsequently made emperor
  • – he didn’t tell mom jokes, his mom made jokes about him: called him “a monster of a man” 
  • + wrote many works on Roman, Etruscan, and Carthaginian history, none of which survive
  • – had 4 wives throughout his lifetime — possible mommy issues?
  • + first emperor to actually invade Britain (Caligula’s “invasion” in fact does not count)
  • + a moderate emperor who expanded the administrative power of the emperor, i.e. boring actions
  • – expelled the Jews from Rome for a short period of time
  • + murdered by his niece-wife with everybody’s favorite food, mushrooms
  • Final Ranking: B – not a bad emperor


Nero (54-68 CE)

  • Full name: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
  • + came into power at the age of 17 through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger
  • + was a relatively stable emperor in the early years of his reign, when he wasn’t actually doing any of the ruling – empire was really ruled by Burrus and Seneca the Elder
  • – had his mother put to death for opposing his marriage – harsh reaction much?
  • + pursued his artistic interests and gave public performances, rather than administering the empire
  • + supposedly fiddled while Rome burned
  • + blamed Christians for the great fire of 64 CE, leading to a subsequent persecution of Christians in Rome
  • + built his Domus Aurea (Golden House) over the destruction of the fire, leading many to believe that he had started the fire himself 
  • + had a chin beard
  • – forced to commit suicide, a bit of an oxymoron
  • + a banger of a final sentence: reported to have said “Qualis artifex pereo” (what an artist dies in me) 
  • + subjectively the best emperor in all of Roman history
  • Final Ranking: S – was just a misunderstood artist and a mommy’s boy who never wanted to be emperor


Emperors of 69 CE

Galba (June 68-January 69 CE)

  • Full name: Servius Sulpicius Galba, later Servius Galba Caesar Augustus
  • + marched on Rome and named emperor by the Senate
  • – only emperor for 7 months
  • + roasted by Suetonius, who said “he was capable of ruling the empire, had he never ruled”
  • – murdered by Otho
  • Final Ranking: C – forgettable


Otho (January 69-April 69 CE)

  • Full name: Marcus Salvius Otho, later Marcus Otho Caesar Augustus
  • – cuckolded by an emperor: had his wife, Poppaea Sabina, taken from him by Nero
  • – attempted to put down a rebellion by Vitellius, but loses the battle and commits suicide
  • – only emperor for 3 months
  • Final Ranking: D – wife stolen and battle lost, what more could he ask for?

Vitellius (April 69-October 69 CE)

  • Full name: Aulus Vitellius
  • + proclaimed emperor by his troops in Germany, subsequently defeats Otho to win Senate approval
  • – convinced to abdicate the throne
  • – murdered by Vespasian’s army after Vespasian invaded Rome
  • Final Ranking: D – didn’t even die as an emperor


The Flavian Dynasty

Vespasian (69-79 CE)

  • Full name: Titus Flavius Vespasianus, later Caesar Vespasianus Augustus
  • + final man standing in the power struggle of 69 CE
  • + first emperor of equestrian origins
  • + unprecedented proclamation of legal powers and recognition of his auctoritas
  • + a true money man: his fiscal policy doubled taxes in order to replenish Roman coffers lost under Nero
  • + a true buildings man too: multiple public works projects, including beginning construction of the Colosseum 
  • + typical emperor behavior: final words were “Vae, puto deus fio” (Alas, I think I’m becoming a god), and was deified immediately after his death
  • Final Ranking: A – a very frugal, rational emperor


Titus (79-81 CE)

  • Full name: Titus Flavius Vespasianus, later Titus Vespasianus Augustus
  • – captured and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE
  • – had a controversial relationship with a foreign princess, Berenice
  • – didn’t stop Mount Vesuvius from erupting, smh
  • + even Roman biographers love him – called the “darling of the human race” by Suetonius
  • + completed construction on the Colosseum (alliteration!)
  • + an extremely popular emperor, despite having only reigned for 2 years
  • – died of a fever 
  • Final Ranking: B – the very definition of what could have been


Domitian (81-96 CE)

  • Full name: Titus Flavius Domitianus, later Caesar Domitianus Augustus
  • + although not a bad emperor, was hated by the aristocracy for his cruelty
  • + first emperor since Claudius to campaign in person
  • – narcissism strikes again: insisted on being called dominus et deus (master and god)
  • – stole people’s property to build his own
  • – assassinated by the Praetorian Guard
  • – a damnatio memoriae was issued that wiped his name from Roman records
  • Final Ranking: C – egotistical??


The Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (first five also known as the Five Good Emperors)

Nerva (96-98 CE)

  • Full name: Marcus Cocceius Nerva, later Nerva Caesar Augustus
  • + publicly denounced the tyranny of Domitian’s reign, initiating the damnatio memoriae 
  • + agrarian reforms
  • + adopted Trajan, setting off the practice of emperors not being related by blood (for the most part)
  • Final Ranking: C – ruled for too little time to do much


Trajan (98-117 CE)

  • Full name: Marcus Ulpius Traianus, later Caesar Divi Nervae Filius Nerva Traianus Optimus Augustus
  • + the longest name for an emperor thus far
  • + born in Spain, he was the first non-Roman emperor
  • + able win the respect of both the Senate and the populace
  • + created a public fund to support poor children in Italy
  • + extensive public works projects, including a bath so that all Roman citizens would think of him as they bathed
  • + did a lot of conquering all the way up to the Persian Gulf
  • + under him, the Empire grew to its largest size, and would only shrink after his reign
  • + adopted his cousin Hadrian as the next emperor on his deathbed
  • Final Ranking: S – for the name alone!


Hadrian (117-138 CE)

  • Full name: Publius Aelius Hadrianus, later Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus
  • + a devoted admirer of Greek culture
  • + first emperor to take a tour of the empire, simply out of his own curiosity 
  • + constructed a wall in Britain 
  • + took the youth Antinoüs as his lover and openly wept when he died
  • + an objectively good poet (4 of his poems survive today!)
  • + initiated into the Eleusian rites 
  • + built a villa in Italy that evoked many of his past travels
  • – banned circumcision, leading to a revolt in Judaea (I guess no era enjoys it when you police people’s privates)
  • Final Ranking: S – a very well-traveled, artistic, and cultured emperor


Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE)

  • Full name: Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus, later Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius 
  • + given the surname Pius because he awarded divine honors to his predecessor Hadrian
  • + king move: after the death of his wife, he created a charity for the daughters of the poor
  • – smooth reign, with not many interesting events 
  • Final Ranking: B – seems like a good man with an uninteresting reign


Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE)

  • Full name: Marcus Annius Verus, later Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
  • + he was marked out to be emperor during the reign of Hadrian, and rose to power without a trail of murder behind him
  • + jointly ruled with Lucius Verus (but really, it was just him ruling)
  • + known for writing the Meditations, a book of Stoic philosophy
  • + his reign is considered the Golden Age of the Roman Empire
  • – named his son Commodus as his successor, ending the streak of adoption
  • Final Ranking: A – a philosopher-king that Plato would have loved, but perhaps overrated?


Lucius Verus (161-169 CE)

  • Full name: Lucius Ceionius Commodus, later Lucius Aurelius Verus
  • – joint ruler with Marcus Aurelius, but not really… 
  • + conquered the Parthians on a campaign with Marcus Aurelius
  • – died of a stroke on the way home from a military campaign
  • Final Ranking: C – got to be an emperor without any of the glory attached


Commodus (177-192 CE)

  • Full name: Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, later Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus
  • – ended the 84 years of peace cultivated by the preceding 5 emperors
  • – allowed for arbitrary executions that destabilized his reign
  • – renamed Rome ‘Colonia Commodiana’ (Colony of Commodus)
  • + cosplayed as Hercules, even fighting against lions in the gladiatorial area
  • + strangled to death by a champion wrestler
  • Final Ranking: S – it takes a lot of bad decisions and skill to end a century-old peace


Year of the Five Emperors

Pertinax (January 193-March 193 CE)

  • Full name: Publius Helvius Pertinax
  • + the son of a freed slave
  • – murdered by soliders after only 3 months in power
  • Final Ranking: D – unimportant 


Didius Julianus (March 193-June 193 CE)

  • Full name: Marcus Didius Severus Julianus
  • + literally became emperor because he was the highest bidder for the throne
  • – murdered by soldiers who proclaimed Septimius Severus as emperor
  • Final Ranking: B – just because he won the throne in an auction


Pescennius Niger (193-194 CE) 

  • Full name: Gaius Pescennius Niger Justus 
  • + proclaimed emperor by his troops in the Asiatic provinces 
  • – defeated in battle by Septimius Severus and killed
  • Final Ranking: D – was he really even emperor?


Clodius Albinus (193-197 CE)

  • Full name: Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus
  • + initially in 193 CE, Septimius Severus acknowledged Albinus as caesar and heir
  • – lost the support of Severus
  • – proclaimed emperor by his troops again in 197 CE and attempts to invade Rome
  • – doesn’t even make it to Rome, dies fighting Severus in Gaul
  • Final Ranking: C – he put in some effort, and he was proclaimed emperor twice!


The Severan Dynasty

Septimius Severus (193-211 CE)

  • Full name: Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax
  • + the final man standing in the year of the 5 emperors (193) 
  • + Rome’s first African emperor 
  • – turned the Roman Empire into a military monarchy by restructuring the legions and giving them a larger role
  • + took away a lot of influence from the Senate and aristocracy
  • + annexed Mesopotamia in 199 CE, everybody’s favorite OG river civilization
  • Final Ranking: B – took back control of the Empire after a year of struggles


Caracalla (198-217 CE)

  • Full name: Septimius Bassianus, later Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus
  • – ruled jointly with his father Septimius Severus until his death in 211 CE
  • + extended Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire
  • + built the Baths of Caracalla
  • + of Syrian descent on his mother’s side
  • – exiled and killed his own wife, Fulvia Plautilla
  • – killed his brother and rival for the throne, Geta, because wife-murder wasn’t enough
  • – loved military expeditions, committed many massacres in conquered areas (he seems to just love to murder)
  • – assassinated by Macrinus for his unpredictability
  • Final Ranking: A – not afraid to kill any of his relatives or keep people on their toes


Geta (209-211 CE)

  • Full name: Publius Septimius Geta
  • + named co-emperor after the death of his father, Septimius Severus
  • – died in his mother Julia’s arms after being murdered by his brother Caracalla
  • Final Ranking: D – known for being killed


Macrinus (217-218 CE)

  • Full name: Marcus Opellius Macrinus, later Caesar Marcus Opellius Severus Macrinus Augustus
  • + first emperor without senatorial status
  • – agreed to an unfavorable treaty with the Parthians
  • – cut his soldiers’ pay (because that’s always worked out for other Roman leaders), leading to the Gallic Third Legion declaring Elagabalus emperor
  • – killed in battle at Antioch after Elagabalus was declared emperor
  • Final Ranking: D – everybody knows you should never make the army angry


Elagabalus/Heliogabalus (218-222 CE)

  • Full name: Varius Avitus Bassianus, later Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
  • – gained access to the throne after he was passed off as an illegitimate son of Caracalla
  • + attempted to get the entire empire to worship Baal, a foreign god
  • + married a Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa
  • – convinced by his powerful grandmother Julia Maesa to adopt his cousin Severus Alexander and divorce his wife
  • – don’t mess with your grandma: murdered by the Praetorian Guards after he tried to undo his grandmother’s orders
  • Final Ranking: A – very eccentric, quirky emperor


Severus Alexander (222-235 CE)

  • Full name: Gessius Bassianus Alexianus, later Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander
  • – his grandmother, Julia Maesa actually had the power
  • – power also given to a council of 16 senators, because obviously it couldn’t only be a woman ruling
  • – his incompetent reign leads to a period of civil strife
  • – attempted to buy peace from the Germanic tribes, leading to his murder at his soldiers’ hands
  • Final Ranking: D – somehow messed things up even though he had no power


Maggie Yuan (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and International Relations.


Comments? Join the conversation on our TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn!