Top Five Mad Roman Emperors

As I mentioned when discussing Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, the figure of the Mad Emperor seems to be one of Rome's most enduring contributions to popular culture, something I'm sure would distress any actual Romans - though it's got to be better than the orgy, their other major (sometimes related) contribution.

We've seen many different versions of several historical 'mad' emperors over the years; these are a few of my favourites.

5. Bill Wallis as Hadrian in Chelmsford 123, 'Arriverderci Roma!'
How mad? He's married to a horse, his ex-wife is a goat and he's having an affair with a sheep.
Really mad? Not unless you count a well-known fondness for Greek culture, which extended to him growing a beard, which was fashionable among educated Greek men, but not Romans. But since Greece was one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, this seems not unreasonable. In fact, Hadrian has one of the better reputations of all the emperors. This generic nutcase is technically Hadrian solely because the show is set in AD 123.
What's to like, then? The expression on his face when he approaches the sheep with an admonishment to his slave not to breathe a word to Portia (the horse) is priceless.

4. Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar in Carry on Cleo
How mad? He came, he saw, he conked out. He's not really mad as such, but he doesn't seem entirely sane either, and tends to put his trust in the wrong places.
Really mad? Depends what you count as madness. Declaring yourself dictator for life and then wandering around without a bodyguard might be considered mad, in a certain light.
What's to like, then? Do we need to quote it again? They've all got it in for me! Williams is just the perfect antidote to many a straight-laced, sombre Caesar.

3. Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator
How mad? He kills his father and he's in love  - or lust - with his sister (which was Not OK, even for a Roman). He takes on one of the best gladiators in Rome, which, even if you've already mortally wounded said gladiator, isn't a great idea. He also has a very amusing way of saying the word 'vexed'.
Really mad? According to Cassius Dio, he was more stupid and cruel than actually mad. He 'was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people' (including the real Lucilla).
What's to like, then? Phoenix is absolutely brilliant in this role. You almost feel sorry for Commodus as you watch him desperately try to win his father's approval, but by the end, with his utterly chilling instructions to Lucilla concerning their future relationship (luckily cut off by Maximus' victory in the arena) you're glad to see his blood spilled all over his nice white armour.

2. Simon Woods as Octavian in Rome
How mad? This entry is for Woods specifically, because although Pirkis' Octavian does take part in that whole unfortunate incest episode, it's in Woods' older Octavian that the cracks really start to show. Even leaving aside his rather dubious sexual tastes - to each his own, and Livia seems quite happy with it - this is a man who is slowly but surely taking over the world, killing a large number of people in the process. He's a psychopath, basically.
Really mad? Augustus has an excellent reputation as an emperor, because he ensured during his lifetime that he would leave an excellent reputation behind him. He was obviously hyper intelligent, and not mad in the traditional let's-marry-a-horse kind of way, but personally, I lean towards the opinion that he was pretty psychotic.
What's to like, then? The man took over the world. Literally. I think this internet 'poster' sums it up quite nicely.

1. John Hurt as Caligula in I, Claudius
How mad? Where to start? Has affairs with all three of his sisters, eats his own foetus, declares war on Neptune, turns the Imperial Palace into a brothel, invites his favourite horse to his uncle's wedding and then there's the gold bikini...
Really mad? Oh yes. Quite doolally.
What's to like, then? John Hurt's Caligula just had to be at the top of this list - quite possibly the best mad imperial performance on screen. Everything about Hurt's Caligula is ridiculous and fantastic, but I suppose it's the gold bikini - and accompanying dance sequence - that clinches the win.

Honourable mention: Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis? Because I'm sure he's brilliant but, I'm ashamed to say, I haven't actually seen it yet. Update: I've seen it now, review here!


  1. I love this list. You must order Quo Vadis this very instant. Funny for camp OTTness if nothing else! Ustinov is fab as the mad one.

    My fave mad emperor has got to be the mad teenager Elagabalus (c. 200 AD) who smothered his guest in rose petals. No film of this but there is a great painting by Alma-Tadema.

  2. Somebody *needs* to make a film about Elagabalus, that'd be brilliant!

  3. I've been trying to think of some other mad emperors in the media, but I haven't had much luck. The best I can come up with is Malcolm McDowell's Caligula in the film of the same name. For the most part, it's just John Hurt's version writ large (not sure about the gold bikini, though). The film got an X rating, so it must have been pretty explicit. Though it should be noted that that was an era where a film like Midnight Cowboy got the same rating.

    Not sure you could get a film out of Elagabalus. He mostly just flounced around while his female relatives tried to run the empire. Now if you could get a good miniseries going about the Severan dynasty, he'd certainly provide a few good episodes.

  4. There's a fair few Neros I think - Michael Sheen was Nero a while back. There's at least one other Commodus, in Fall of the Roman Empire. There are quite a few Caligulas I think, a friend of mine teaches a first year course on representations of Caligula.

  5. I've just finished reading Anthony Barrett's bio "Caligula: The Corruption of Power", which tries to deny Caligula was completely cuckoo, but of course as soon as he mentioned Caligula summoning senators to watch him dance I thought "Gold lame bikini time."

    BTW if your friend has written any easily available articles on representations of Caligula in film/TV/novels, could you let us know where to find them.

  6. Didn't Hadrian kind of lose it towards the end of his life? Maybe not mad, but definitely homicidally cranky.

    I always saw Augustus/Octavian as a Magnificent Bastard/Chess Master.

    That macro of Octavian cracks me up.

  7. Hadrian did sort of lose it when Antinous died, but I think he eventually got over it.

  8. @RWMG Not that I'm aware of, but I'll let you know if she does!

    @lux and DmX I hadn't heard that about Hadrian, but I haven't done much work on him, so it's possible. I think DmX is right though, he probably just reacted badly to Antinous' death. And yes, Octavian is definitely a Magnificent Bastard!

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  10. I don't see Octavian as being "mad" in the context used in this article. I think he was just really, really focused. Couple that with his belief that he was a Divi filius and could not permit the chance of an Easterner and pretender to rule the Empire and you will wind up with a lot of death and destruction.

  11. Well, true, he wasn't really mad as such, just really really power-hungry. I'd be careful about the divi filius bit though - that was a very useful piece of politcal propaganda for him, I doubt that he really believed it in the sense we use the term

  12. This might already be well known to those reading and commenting here, but Caligula features, not in his own person but as a clear model, as a "mad emperor" in the Judge Dredd universe, in the person of Chief Judge Cal:

  13. Judge Dredd has never really appealed to me but I might have to have a look just for that! :)

  14. Nah, I can't agree with you about Octavian at all. Yes, with the "Rome" version of Octavian of course, they definitely played up on any "psychotic" behaviour he may have had. But sorry, they took a LOT of liberties with his personality and his relationships with his mother Atia, his sister Octavia and his wife Livia. None of those are even close to what we know historically about him. There was never any incest associated with Augustus, his mother died long before his conquest of Rome and war with Antony [although she is said by Tacitus et al to have been his tutor and a true Roman matrona] and his sister was revered. Yes, of course his propaganda machine was well-oiled, yet later authors could and did criticize him, but never with such blatant psychotic charges.

    I think Octavian was a genius, and if not for him, Rome would have fallen and would not have existed as an empire for another 500 years. Psychotic perhaps only in the way that true genius is.


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