How to be a bad emperor

In one performance of a tragedy, when his scepter slipped and he quickly picked it up again, he trembled with fear that he would be disqualified from the competition for his error. He only took courage when an actor swore that amid all the cheers and cries of applause, it had not been noticed.

Nero suffered from stage fright. A passionate actor, he would take preparations to develop his voice. He used to get so nervous during performances that he refused to clear his throat or wipe the sweat from his brow.

In one performance of a tragedy, when his scepter slipped and he quickly picked it up again, he trembled with fear that he would be disqualified from the competition for his error. He only took courage when an actor swore that amid all the cheers and cries of applause, it had not been noticed.

According to Suetonius, Nero would make the announcement himself that he had won, so he entered as many competitions as he could. As emperor he could force organisers to change their dates to fit his plans.

There is the comedic element here. The incompetent actor unaware of just how bad he is. At an early stage during his reign he would perform in private. Once, as he played the mad Hercules, chained up a fresh recruit rushed in to save him. The fate of that solider is not known.


Suetonius is full of such nuggets which bring the Roman Emperors alive as fully fleshed characters.

A close friend of Pliny the Younger (who was also friends with Tacitus), Suteonius came from a privileged but not elite class from Roman North Africa. He might be described as the Imperial Librarian under the reign of Trajan, although his actual responsibilities are not known. He likely wrote the Lives of Caesars during the reign of Trajan and Hadrian. It was later claimed that he had an affair with Hadrian’s wife Sabainus. He also wrote short biographies on contemporary literary figures, sport and fashion.

Some of the most famous stories of antiquity come from his book about the emperors:  Caesar was bald and wore a laurel wreath to hide his baldness; Nero fiddled while Rome burnt; Caligula was going to make his favourite horse a consul.

Yet most of the anecdotes, it has to admitted, are pretty grim. The description of punishments under the reign of Tiberius make for harrowing reading. Tiberius stopped executing people, when he realised it cut short their torments.

Paranoia runs deep and punishments would lead to more punishments and even family members were indited. It is this claustrophobic world that Robert Graves drew on for his I, Claudius books. Yet the film which matches Suetonius best to my mind is Caligula, (which is a nasty film).

In Suetonius the judgement values are different from today’s. For example, he talks about how Tiberius indulged in cunnilingus, but a few pages later says that he was a pedophile, almost as if they were on a level.

One of the greatest ironies of history, is that for many people these first Roman emperors are interesting and important because it was under them that Jesus lived and died and the first Christian missions began. The Great Fire of Rome, which it still popularly believed that Nero started, resulted in the torture of Christians and the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. For many people, it is the anonymous victims of the rulers that are more interesting.

How to be a bad emperor

How to be a bad emperor is a selection of passages from Suetonius which reveal the worst aspects of the early Caesars. It is translated by Josiah Osgood in a fluent English that renders Suetonius’ more serious intentions. It is part of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern readers series. Like the Loeb Classics, the Latin text faces an English Translation but the text is bigger and easier to read for beginners. The book is light and will easily fit into a Vetra pocket.

Osgood has selected four emperors as exemplars – Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. These are all pretty grim figures. Each has salacious stories connected to them which reveal their foibles and depravity.

Although it is never made overt, the ageing, senile white hulk of Trump shadows over the text. Like Caesar, he has an over preening sense of his own importance, like Tiberius he is paranoid, like Nero he is a narcissist and like Caligula he is nepotic and gives important offices to close friends.

One description of Tiberius domestic policies fits this model particularly well:

“He never afterward brought to full strength the equestrian jury pools; he did not replace any of the tribunes of the soldiers, the prefects, or the provincial governors; he left Spain and Syria for a number of years without consular governors; he left Armenia be overrun by the Parthians, Moesia lads waste by the Dacians and Samatians, the Gallic provinces by the Germans. The dishonour to the empire was as great as the danger”

It is a wilful destruction of the institutions of the state for personal ends.

Yet a more suitable comparison might be to someone like Mark Zuckerberg, who models himself on Augustus. Coming to great power at a young age, Zuckerberg shows the same level of ruthlessness and propriety. His enterprise is an untidy mix of disruptive energies and respect for traditional institutions. Politicians are becoming less powerful. This is mostly under their own volition. Even before Trump, in the West, there has been a gradual transfer of political power to transnational institutions. This has become more complicated with the rise of the big tech companies.

The book is framed as a guide book on being a bad emperor, but it will be read by most people as a guidebook on how to survive bad emperors. What is Suetonius’ advice?

Is it to keep low and wait it out? Avoid attention unlike Ptolemy of Mauretainia who was ordered to death by Caligula because he drew too much attention to himself by his fine fashion. I would argue not.

It is to gain solace and strength from an understanding of history and use the resources of institutions and solidarity to challenge and oppose oppression in all its forms. Evil triumphs when good people do nothing. This message can be gleaned from every page of this powerful little book.


A lucid translation and a book perfectly designed for dipping in and out of. Every pocket needs one. It packs a punch way beyond the printed page.


How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders by Suetonius and edited by Josiah Osgood is published by Princeton University Press. It is available from all good bookshops £13.99 


This review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics