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Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors (Hardback)

Ancient History > Rome & the Roman Provinces > Roman Army

By L J Trafford
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 240
Illustrations: 40 mono illustrations
ISBN: 9781399084420
Published: 28th November 2023

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Between 27 BCE and 476 CE a series of men became Roman Emperor, ruling a domain that stretched across Europe, North Africa and the Near East. Some of them did this rather well, expanding Rome’s territories further, installing just laws and maintaining order within the city. Others, however, were distinctly less successful at the job.

Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors takes an engaging and amusing look at the mad, the bad and the catastrophically incompetent of Rome’s rulers. From the sadistically cruel Caligula to the hopelessly weak Valentinian II, there were many who failed dismally at the top job for a variety of reasons.

But what qualifies someone as a worst emperor?

What evidence is there to support it?

And should we believe any of it?

Join us on a tour of the very worst leadership ancient Rome has to offer as we delve into sadistic acts of cruelty, paranoia run rampant, poor decision-making skills and the danger of being the wrong man at the wrong time.

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).

NetGalley, Fiona McNeill

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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.

NetGalley, Mark Lardas

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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.

NetGalley, Kathryn McLeer

Article: 'Author L J Trafford explores Ancient Rome's worst emperors

Royston Crow

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.

NetGalley, Gayle Noble

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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).

NetGalley, Andrea Romance

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 subjec

NetGalley, Kara Race-Moore

About L J Trafford

L.J. Trafford studied Ancient History at the University of Reading after which she took a job as a Tour Guide in the Lake District. Moving to London in 2000 she began writing ‘The Four Emperors’ series. The series comprises four books – Palatine, Galba’s Men, Otho’s Regret and Vitellius’ Feast – which cover the dramatic fall of Nero and the chaotic year of the four emperors that followed. Palatine, published in 2015, received an Editor’s Choice Mark from the Historical Novel Society. Her first book for Pen and Sword, How to Survive in Ancient Rome was published in October 2020.

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