(Not) Knowing Your Romans

Statue of Julius Caesar

In 2013, the author of Commemorating Augustus conducted a survey in which people on the street in Leeds, UK, were asked: “We would like to find out which Roman emperors people are most familiar with. If I ask you to name a Roman emperor, what is the first name that comes to mind?”

I could pretty much guess the results.

Julius Caesar

The most common answer by far was “Julius Caesar.” Which is problematic because he wasn’t an emperor.

On one hand, I kind of understand the confusion. He ruled like an emperor at a time when the Republic really was already functionally dead.

On the other hand, thinking he was an emperor probably means people know he was important, but not how he was important, which is the point of understanding history. (To all of you who were taught that history was about memorizing name and dates, I apologize on behalf of our failing educational system.)

Caesar was a dictator, which was an actual, official position in Roman Republic politics. Caesar fought in a civil war, and he was relatively lenient toward his defeated enemies – which ended up being a mistake, as they were the same people who murdered him a few years later. Officially, they rejected his consolidation of power as contrary to republic ideals. Unofficially, they were also cheesed off by reforms benefiting the general populace to the detriment of the upper class. His death sparked another civil war, which did give birth to the empire, as his adopted son Octavian because the first emperor under the title Augustus.

I suspect his popularity can be laid at the feet of Shakespeare. Certainly I had to read Julius Caesar in high school, and I’m not sure I learned of any emperor besides maybe Augustus, and even that is a stretch.

“Don’t Know”

The second most common answer was “Don’t know,” although it got only half as many votes as Julius Caesar.

Nero

With only a quarter of Julius Caesar’s votes, Nero comes in third. I expected him to come in first, but I was only thinking actual emperors. His literally insane antics are legendary, and that’s the sort of thing that gets people interested. If I asked people what they knew him for, the most common answer would probably be “setting Rome on fire.” We’re not actually sure he did that, but it’s what people remember. Certainly he took advantage of the situation.

He also pushed for one of the worst persecutions of Christians in Roman history, so he also has that infamy working for him.

I try to always have a Nero coin in my coin jewelry inventory, because people recognize the name. I don’t label most of my Roman coins, because “Claudius Gothicus” means nothing to most people beyond having a really metal name. But if there’s anyone people know, it’ll be Nero.

(If Julius Caesar’s coins were less rare, I’d carry those. But they weren’t minted for very long and are therefore expensive.)

“Why would someone want to wear a crazy guy?” A customer asked.

“For some customers, that’s a selling point.”

Caligula

Caligula contributed absolutely nothing to Roman history other than bat-shit craziness. He made Nero look sane. And that is why he is in fourth place.

(I get asked about him too, but he only survived two years, so there’s not a lot of coins from him either.)

Octavian/Augustus

Augustus is the guy everyone should remember. His rule established the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) which lasted for 200 years, 40 of which he ruled over.

Before him, Rome had been torn apart by two civil wars and piles of civil unrest. We call him the first emperor although he refused to take a monarchical title, preferring to be “first among equals.”

He was a capable military commander, politician and administrator. He managed to convince both the upper class and the commoners that his leadership would benefit them. He even managed to get through life without being murdered, which is somewhat a feat for Roman emperors.

He got about a tenth of the votes as Julius Caesar.

Others

The next couple names are probably UK specific. #6 is Claudius, made famous by the British miniseries I, Claudius. #8 is Hadrian, who had Hadrian’s Wall built in the north of England.

In between them at #7 is Marcus Aurelius, whom some know for his philosophical works.

#9 is Hercules. Not an emperor. Not even Roman. He’s a Greek demi-god.

Tiberius comes in at #14. There’s two reasons why people know his name. First, he’s the only emperor mentioned by name in the Bible. Second, James T. Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius, and I swear I’ve been told he’s memorable because of this fact.

Constantine the Great

Constantine, at #10, had one big thing going for him, but it’s a really big thing: he legalized Christianity. A lot of people think he made it the official religion of Rome, which is a mistake. He gave the Church a lot of resources, but Roman polytheism continued to be the official religion, and we’re not sure what his own beliefs were.

Now we’re getting ridiculous

I totally get it if you can’t name Roman emperors. But none of these are acceptable answers:

  • Alexander. I presume they mean Alexander the Great, who was Macedonian, wasn’t in Rome, and died 300 years before the Roman Empire existed.
  • Napoleon. The dude is French, people. And more than 1500 years too late.
  • Commodus. Ok, this is an actual Roman emperor and so is technically a legit answer, but the only reason you know him is because you saw Gladiator.
  • Pontius Pilate. This was the Roman governor of Judea who had Jesus executed. Not an emperor, but at least the right time period.
  • Judas. Wut? He wasn’t even Roman. He was Jewish, just a regular guy until he became a disciple of Jesus, whom he eventually betrayed.
  • Zeus. We’re not even trying.
  • Henry. I give up.

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2 Comments

  1. How about Heliogabalus? He should be running close with Caligula and Nero.

    1. Author

      I’ve never known the average person to know that name. Remember, we’re talking average person on the street. Yes, he shows up on lists of most horrible emperors, but I would say he’s pretty obscure.

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