Roman Emperors

roman emperorBackground: Roman emperor was the ruler of Rome during the period of imperial rule. In 27 BC Rome transformed into an empire from republic. Julius Caesar played the most vital role in this transformation and his son, Octavian (Augustus) is commonly considered as the first Roman Emperor. However, some historians believe that Julius Caesar was also an emperor, considering his unmitigated control of senate and army which made him absolutely powerful. Imperial Rome was different from the days of kingdom. Emperor could exercise authority only if he had control over senate and army. Roman emperors used titles like ‘Augustus’, ‘Caesar’ and ‘Imperator’. They also used the religious title of ‘Pontifex Maximus’.


This title was last used by a Roman emperor in 387 AD, when Gratian surrendered it to Pope Siricius. Romulus Augustus is widely accepted as the last Roman emperor of Western Roman Empire. He abdicated his throne in 476 AD, which also spelled end of Western Roman Empire. However, Eastern Roman Empire continued to exist for another thousand years in some form till the ‘Siege of Constantinople’ by Ottomans in 1453. Eastern Roman Empire was also called Byzantine Empire and its last emperor was Constantine XI.

Powers of the Emperor: The first Roman emperor, Augustus refused to have supreme authority like the Roman kings of past. He preferred to have several titles and offices which gave him authority over all major state bodies. Roman Emperor’s title ‘Princeps Senatus’ meant he oversaw the working of senate, convened their sessions, commanded their agenda and set forth rules and regulations for the senate.

As ‘Pontifex Maximus’, emperor had religious authority to conduct religious ceremonies, consecrate temples, control the Roman calendar and appoint the vestal virgins. Emperors also exercised legal authority of a tribune. He could punish any civilian or citizen for a crime, could pardon anyone, call senate session anytime he deemed appropriate and could veto senate’s decisions and decrees.

Imperial Dynasties: The first imperial dynasty was the Julio-Claudian dynasty which was founded by Augustus in 27 BC. It had five emperors in all. They were Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. After Nero’s assassination, a year of civil war and strife followed. This period is known as ‘The Year of Four Emperors’. At the end of this period Vespasian assumed the office of emperor and founded the Flavian Dynasty in 69 AD. Other well known imperial dynasties were Nerva-Antonine dynasty, Severan dynasty, Gordian dynasty, Constantinian dynasty, Valentinian dynasty and Theodosian dynasty.

Eastern Roman Empire: Roman Empire expanded its territories greatly with the passage of time. The areas also included Mediterranean regions in east that were previously under Greek influence and were culturally very different from western regions of the empire. The two regions however, remained part of the empire and maintained their different cultures and social outlook. In 293 AD, Emperor Diocletian, administratively divided east and west and appointed a co-emperor to share power with him.

This system existed till 313 AD, after which the empire was recentralized. After the fall of western regions, Eastern Empire or Byzantine Empire continued to exist till 1453 AD. Several imperial dynasties ruled it till its eventual demise.

Famous Roman Emperors: There are many Roman emperors who are remembered for different reasons in history. Augustus was the first emperor of Roman Empire. Caligula is known for his tyrannical rule. Nero is remembered for his indifference while Rome burnt. Vespasian is known for building The Colosseum. Other well known emperors were Titus, Marcus Aurelius, Constntine I and Commodus.