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Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors

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I make it a point to pick up "Pen and Swords" Roman history works. The writing is always well done, and the book itself is high quality with good images. This is no different.

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Why Not the Worst?
Eighty-four emperors ruled the Roman Empire between 27BC and 476AD. Some were very good, remembered as great leaders to the present day. Some were bad. A few were so bad they are even more famous (or perhaps infamous) than the good emperors.

Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors, by L J Trafford focuses on the latter. It catalogs the worst of the worst. She picks out what she considers the dozen worst emperors and examines their careers in all their inglorious splendor. She spreads her choices throughout the life of the empire, four each from its beginning, middle, and end.

Her choices differ from the conventional list of worst emperors. Some of the usual suspect are present: Caligula, Domitian, Commodus, and Elagabalus. Others, like Nero and Tiberius are absent. A few of her choices are surprising. Galba, Nerva, Vitellius and Gordian I are generally acknowledged as less than stellar performers, but rarely make it to the bottom of the tank.

Trafford defends her choices. She makes them based on job performance rather than depravity. While a correlation exists between depravity and incompetence, some emperors of reputed immorality actually proved competent leaders. She cites Tiberius as an example. Additionally, she shows accusations of depravity were always post-mortem and frequently greatly exaggerated. (Although not necessarily much in the cases of Caligula and Elagabalus.) She reserves the worst emperor label for those emperors who left the empire much worse off for their existence.

She opens the book with a quick review of Roman government through the Republic into the opening years of the Empire. She also explains what an emperor was, the powers possessed by the emperor (especially at the outset of the Imperium), and how they were derived from the Republic. Then she shows what characteristics made a great emperor, using Augustus to illustrate her points. This section closes with a discussion of what constituted a bad emperor and why.

After that Trafford is off to the races, gleefully exposing the failures and follies of her dirty dozen emperors. She confesses to being bored with the well-run periods of the empire. The badly-times are more entertaining. While she revels in the scurrilous tales of emperors, she also debunks those accounts.

Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors reads like a supermarket tabloid, eagerly dishing dirt on the disfavored emperors. Yet it is solid history, irreverent, but accurate. Trafford has fun with her subject. So will her readers.

“Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors,” by L J Trafford, Pen and Sword History, 2024, 216 pages, $34.95 (Hardcover), $12.99 (Ebook)

This review was written by Mark Lardas, who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperor’s by L.J Trafford is a really great, comprehensive guide to some of Rome’s most tyrannical (or in some cases, most useless) emperors. Trafford covers 500 years of ‘bad’ emperors in chronological order, encouraging the reader to consider the reliability of the primary sources. I enjoyed her breezy, tongue-in-cheek way of writing, which was to me reminiscent of a Terry Deary for adults. It’s definitely a book that will appeal to people who are a bit intimidated by very heavy, factual books (not that this one isn’t fact-heavy, it is, but I’d venture to say that each chapter reads more like a short story/history book hybrid). I only have one real point of contention with this book, which happens to be one that Trafford has already largely addressed, which is the title. I think that it is a reach to call these emperors the worst that Rome experienced. Whilst some of them certainly were insane or incompetent (or both), I can’t help but feel as if there were perhaps better examples to use. Trafford writes that of course what makes one emperor ‘worse’ than another is truly subjective, and has intentionally left out some names that you might expect to see in a book titles ‘Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors’ (e.g., Nero). I think that Trafford could have just as easily titled the book ‘Ancient Rome’s Emperors that I find the most amusing’, but I suppose it doesn’t sound quite as fluid. There is some merit to this approach though, as despite having been a classics student, there were a fair few emperors included in this round up that I had known very little about.

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Unfortunately the frequent change of writing technique going from fact into the first person with attempts at humour just doesn't work for me. A shame as much information was forthcoming. I'm sure however this style will appeal to some.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Pen & Sword for this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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Ancient Rome really had some bad Emperors and this book had everything that I was looking for. It had a great researched element to it and I enjoyed what was written.

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This humorous history explores Rome’s worst emperors—from the ruthless to the incompetent. This book examines what marked them as failed leaders, the evidence of their follies and cruelty, and how reliable the accounts really are.

This book is informative and rollicking fun. I appreciated the author’s insights into why the emperors might have behaved the way they did (for instance, Caligula’s reasons for hating the senate).

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.

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I was a little put off by the breezy, slangy tone and language of the book, but I can see how it will probably appeal to someone who knows little about the era and might be daunted by a more academic style book.

Trafford joyfully covers 500 years of history, in chronological order, cover most of the Roman Empire in detail, with a heavy focus on those she deems "worst". I loved how she gets into the question "who says so?" rather than accepting all the primary and secondary sources at face value, examining the bias each contemporary and historian brought to the tablet.

Trafford starts by comparing Augustus to a magician, cleverly hiding in plain sight the fact he was an emperor - and how subsequent emperors did or didn't do that, with the worst, coincidently, being the ones rubbing the Senators face in the fact they were absolute monarchs.

A very good coverage of the emperors of Rome, especially for someone new to the subject.

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A light-hearted look at the Roman Empire's 'worst' emperors. As the author notes, categorising someone as the worst can be rather subjective & some of the more notorious emperors you'd expect to feature, i.e. Nero do not make the cut. Of those that do, there were quite a number I knew next to nothing about & the commentary about them here is a delight to read. For me, this book for me is akin to an adult's version of 'Horrible Histories' & I mean that as a compliment.

There's lots of information conveyed in a tongue-in-cheek way - I could imagine Frankie Howerd narrating this had it been released when he was alive (RIP). Not sure how this writing style will fare more widely but, having been born & raised in the UK with our national sense of humour (half sarcastic self-deprecation, half sexual innuendo), I loved it. Will definitely check out more of the author's work.

My thanks to NetGalley & publishers, Pen & Sword History, for the opportunity to read an ARC.

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