Ancient Civilizations: Rulers of the Roman Empire

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13088

As the Roman empire grew, it became harder to govern. Some men were up to the challenge, and some were not. Find out why some emperors were considered good, some bad, and others downright horrible!



learning style
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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How much do you already know about Roman rulers?

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From 27 BC to 476 AD, Rome was ruled by emperors; some good, some bad, some really, really bad!

The First

As you learned in the previous Related Lesson in this Ancient Civilizations: Rome series (right-hand sidebar), the Romans turned to Julius Caesar to bring their divided people back together. Caesar was a Roman army general who conquered Gaul (now France) and even brought his troops into Britain. He came back a hero and was loved by rich and poor alike. The fact that he built a new harbor, improved buildings, and gave away land and money may have something to do with that!

statue of Julius Caesar

While Caesar was away, another Roman general, Pompey the Great, became the most powerful leader in Rome. The Senate had given him control of the navy to clear the Mediterranean of pirates, which he did. He also conquered the lands of Israel and Syria. So Pompey was very popular as well.

bust of Pompey the Great

The time came when Pompey and Caesar had to face each other and fight to see who would be the ruler of Rome. In 49 BC, Caesar brought his army to the Rubicon River in north Italy. He offered to disband his army if Pompey would do the same. If Caesar crossed the river with his army, he would be invading his own country. Should he do it or not? He waited to hear from Pompey. Pompey refused, so Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and took control of Rome.

  • Have you ever heard the expression crossing the Rubicon? If not, can you guess what it has come to mean?

The phrase crossing the Rubicon is used when someone has made a final decision about a serious matter, something they cannot go back on.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon

Though he was never called emperor, Caesar was named dictator for life in 44 BC. He wanted complete power, so he could improve Rome's laws and government. The empire was so large that it was hard to govern, and he was determined to put it all in order. He had big dreams, but they were not to come true.

  • Can you guess why?

The Roman people offered to make Caesar their king several times, but he refused. Still, many of the senators felt that Caesar was becoming too powerful. So they killed him! They invited him to a Senate meeting where several of them rushed at him with daggers and stabbed him.

The sad thing is that while Caesar's killers claimed they did not want any Roman man getting too powerful; the all rulers who came after him had absolute power, and some even considered themselves to be gods!

After Caesar's death, his nephew Octavian took power. Caesar's killers were exiled or put to death, and the Senate gave Octavian the titles of Augustus (revered one) and Imperator (military commander, which is where we get the word emperor).

The Good

The "good" Roman emperors were the ones who were good at governing the empire and expanding it. Of course, it doesn't mean that everything they did was good.

Octavian, now know as Caesar Augustus, reigned for 48 years. He brought an end to all the civil wars, had roads paved all over the empire, and constructed so many great buildings that he bragged:

"I found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble."

statue of Caesar Augustus

Another good Roman emperor, considered by some historians as the best of all, was Trajan who ruled for 19 years. He conquered Mesopotamia and the land that is now called Romania. He helped the poor of Rome receive food and an education. But Trajan, along with most of the early Roman emperors, also persecuted and killed Christians because he wanted to stamp out this new religion --- not exactly what we consider good behavior today!

Marcus Aurelius is often called the Philosopher Emperor. He wrote books on philosophy focusing on duty, respect for others, and self-control. He was wise, fair, and tolerant of others. He let the citizens speak freely, even if they were critical of him. He picked good advisers and was able to deal with the many problems that arose during his reign. He strengthened the borders between Rome and Germany to keep the barbarians out. (To the Romans, anyone who was not part of the empire was a barbarian!)

statue of Marcus Aurelius

The Bad

The Emperor Tiberius was the opposite of Marcus Aurelius. He made it a crime for anyone to speak ill of the Roman emperor (himself). This angered the people of Rome, who liked to be able to speak freely as people usually do!

statue of Tiberius

Tiberius had many citizens killed for disagreeing with him. However, he once advised an official, who wanted to use harsh methods to squeeze more taxes out of the citizens:

"A good shepherd shears his sheep; he does not beat them!"

So Tiberius was not always cruel; he may have just been afraid of people complaining about him because they might rise up and overthrow him!

The Emperor Commodus was not cruel either, just rather silly and self-absorbed. He fought in the games at the Colosseum, killing wild animals and gladiators, and charged a large fee for his appearances. And he erected statues of himself modeled after Hercules, the Roman god.

bust of Commodus

Commodus neglected to take care of the real business of the empire and left things in a state of chaos and confusion.

The Really, Really Bad!

But the absolute worst of all the emperors were Caligula and Nero. Both are considered to have been insane.

bust of Caligula

Caligula used all the money in the treasury for himself. Then he began to kill rich citizens, so he could have their money. He killed many people for no reason at all, just because he wanted to. He once ordered the army to go to the beach just to pick up seashells! He also kept his horse in a marble stable and tried to get him (the horse) appointed as a consul! Not surprisingly, he was killed by one of his guards after a 4-year reign.

marble head of Nero

Nero was only sixteen when he became emperor. His mother killed two people -- her husband, who was Emperor Claudius, and Claudius' son -- so that Nero would come to power. She wanted to rule the empire through him, but he ended up killing her instead. (He later killed two of his wives, also.)

Nero was only concerned with enjoying himself and not with governing. He loved to play music and sing, and he forced people to listen to him for hours. He also thought he was a great actor, painter, and poet.

In 64 AD, a fire broke out in Rome. It burned for six days and destroyed much of the city. When it was over, Nero eagerly began building a new Rome including a splendid palace for himself. People began saying that he started the fire himself, so that he could claim all the land, and that he had played music while watching the city burn.

Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and had many of them killed. Finally in 68 AD, the Senate condemned him as an enemy of Rome and sent guards to arrest him. Instead, Nero killed himself crying:

"I go, and the world loses a great artist!"

Yes, he really did say that!

Now, head over to the Got It? section where you'll create a timeline of Roman emperors and get to interview Julius Caesar!

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