Untimely Deaths: Life Expectancy for Roman Emperors

Death of Nero engraving

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For all the power of the Roman emperors, they had a dismal survival rate. Only about 30% died of natural causes. Everyone else died of assassination, warfare, or “suicide,” the last of which generally being at the point of a sword.

Warfare was a common part of life for monarchs in the ancient world. Emperors were expected to also be generals. In fact, the word emperor comes from the Roman word imperator, which marked a person as a skilled general. So death in combat was an expected part of the job.

Assassination, on the other hand, was not. Roughly 30% to 40% of emperors were murdered, most commonly by their own soldiers, often the Praetorian Guard, which were the emperor’s personal soldiers. His own bodyguards were his worst enemy.

Rome was a military juggernaut, but that military was expensive. Emperors constantly struggled to pay for their military endeavors, and soldiers going without pay could get testy. Moreover, the Praetorian Guard were not simply soldiers. They proclaimed a new emperor even before the Senate did. They had no official political authority but plenty of practical power. Wronging the Guard was a quick path to a short life.

Dying of natural causes generally meant one of two things for Roman Emperors: they were struck by something tragic before someone could murder them, or they were actually good at their job and ruled until old age. Of the Five Good Emperors, who ruled Rome for almost a century, all died of natural causes. Augustus, first emperor of Rome, died of old age after ruling for 40 years. Constantine the Great died quietly after 30 years of rule.

Causes of Death for Roman Emperors
Found on reddit, so it’s not exactly an academic study. However, I think it a good summary of known history. If you want more specifics, check out Wikipedia’s List of Roman Emperors, which includes causes of death.

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