Ancient Roman Emperors - What Makes a Good Leader, Lesson Plan Illustration

Ancient Rome for Teachers
Roman Empire & Emperors

Roman Emperors - Which emperor would you choose to be your leader?

Time Frame: 1-2 class periods


  • You will need: 
    Whatever you need to make posters
    Biographies: Nero, Trajan, Diocletian, Constantine, Valens (one copy cut up to hand out one biography per group), and then one per student at the end for class discussion (bios can be cut down at that point; this per student handout is to remind them of who's who for discussion.)


Say:  In ancient Rome, the government was very different during the Empire than it was under the Republic. There was still a Senate, but the current emperor could take away or give power to the Senate. The Assembly was gone. It was never a building. The Assembly was the right of the common man to assembly in the forum and vote. Vote for what? They did not pick the emperor, and the emperor was all-powerful. During the 500 years that Rome was an Empire, there were lots of emperors, some good, and some bad. Some took power by force. Some inherited the job from their fathers. Some emperors died by natural causes. Some were killed in wars. Some were murdered. 

Ask: What makes a good leader. (Quick discussion.)

Say: Let's take a look at one Roman Emperor, Emperor Nero, and see if  you think he was a good leader based on the information provided in these two short, cartoon, PowerPoints.
Show presentations:
Nero at the Circus Maximus
Nero Goes Insane

Ask: Would you say that Emperor Nero was a good leader?


Say: Today, we’re going to run political campaigns, working in groups. I am going to give you a biography of one Roman emperor. Your group's job is to get your candidate elected as emperor – not by the people of Rome, because the vote is gone. The people in this class will vote with a show of hands for their favorite candidate based on the campaigns. Majority rules. You may choose to work against your assigned candidate, because you believe he would make a very bad emperor. But be careful. In these dangerous times, you would not want your candidate to know you are working against him. Your campaign promises must sound positive on the surface. You will need to create two things - a campaign poster and a short speech with campaign promises. For example, a slogan might be Nero’s Our Hero. To go along with that, you would create a couple of campaign promises in your speech that supported Nero as a hero. Good Luck in the elections!

Divide your class into four groups. Give each group a biography of a real Roman emperor. Give students time to create their campaign based on the information in the biography they were handed. If some of your students wish to take Nero as their candidate, divide the class into five groups, but tell the Nero group that their slogan cannot be Nero is a Hero. They have to create their own slogan.

Allow each group time to present their candidate. Once all candidates have been presented, have the class vote with a show of hands. Tally their votes accurately. Announce the totals accurately. Then award the election to a candidate not of their choosing. For example, if Constantine gets the most votes, announce Nero as the new emperor, even if he is not running  Remind students that the common man had no voice in government.  

Read each biography aloud to the class. Compare the election promises with the biography as presented in the handout. Was the candidate presented accurately?

CLASS DISCUSSION:  Suggested Handout, shortened bios. One per student. (See below.)

  • Does it make sense to classify the emperors as good or bad?

  • Which emperor was the hardest to judge?

  • Which system of government do you think worked better for the ancient Romans, the Republic or the Empire?

  • What do we expect from our leaders today?


Suggested Handout, shortened bios 

NERO - He started out as a good ruler, but he went insane. He murdered his mother and his wife. He threw thousands of Christians to the lions. He ordered some members of the Senate to kill themselves. The Senate ordered his execution. Nero heard about it, and killed himself.

TRAJAN - He was the first emperor who was not from Italy. He was Spanish. He was a great conqueror. Under his rule, the empire grew, and covered more geography than at any other time.

DIOCLETIAN - He split the Roman Empire in half. The Western Roman Empire (Europe) included the city of Rome. The Eastern Roman Empire (Arab countries) included the city of Byzantium. Each half had an emperor, but one was the senior emperor, in charge.

CONSTANTINE - He was the first Christian emperor. He chose to live in the Eastern Roman Empire, and chose his capital to be the small town Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. Rome became less and less important to the Eastern Roman Empire.

VALENS - He allowed the Visigoths (Goths) to settle in the Danube region of the Western Roman Empire. He promised these settlers that Rome would help with food and shelter. He did not keep his promises. The Visigoths rebelled. It was the beginning of the end of Rome.

For more classroom activities, see: Our Classroom Activities for Ancient Rome