Bios Five Roman Emperors Handout to accompany What makes a good leader lesson plan Illustration

Five Roman Emperors Handout

EMPERORS of the Roman Empire - Handout
Return to Ancient Rome Emperors Lesson Plan, What makes a good leader?

In the 500 years Rome was an Empire, there were over 140 different emperors. Here are five. Copy the five biographies. Hand one biography to each group. You are selecting their choice of candidate. (The people had no voice in government. They did not get to choose their candidate for emperor.)

NERO – Early Days of the Roman Empire

Nero was adopted by his great-uncle, the emperor. Like Emperor Augustus, when Nero became emperor, he treated the Senate with respect and gave them greater power. He reduced taxes. He changed the laws so that governors in the provinces could not ridiculously tax people to pay for their gladiator shows in Rome. He thought about ending the killing of gladiators and criminals in the arenas. He acted as a judge. He believed that people should have a fair trial. In the beginning, possibly due to the influence of his teacher, the famous philosopher Seneca, Nero was a good ruler.

Nero loved to sing and dance and recite poetry. He performed once on a public stage. That shocked the Senate and the people. When a fire broke out that burnt down much of Rome, the Romans blamed the fire on Nero. The gods were angry because Nero performed in public. Nero blamed the fire on the Christians. The gods were angry because the Christians would not worship them.

Nero rebuilt some of the city with his own money. But he also began appearing in public in a housecoat type outfit, without a belt, without shoes. He smelled. He did not bathe very often. He became mean and cruel. Nero began sending people he did not like a note ordering them to commit suicide. If they did not, they were killed without a trial. Senators were executed. Christians were crucified. No one was safe. It was crazy. And so was Nero. Finally, the senate moved. They ordered the emperor to be beaten to death. Nero heard about it, and chose to commit suicide, which he did in AD 68.

TRAJAN – Pax Romana

Trajan was a member of the Spanish nobility. He was the first emperor who did not come from Italy. While serving in the military and in government, he gained leadership experience prior to becoming emperor. Towards the end of the first century AD, he received a note telling him that he had been adopted - by the emperor! That put him in line to become the next emperor. His adoption was pure politics. The current emperor needed a popular heir. And Trajan was certainly popular.

Trajan did not return immediately to Rome, as expected. He took time to wander along the Roman frontier, along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, visiting the army. The troops thought he was great because he did not ask for anything special. He shared their hardships. If they were sleeping on the ground, so did he. He was a brilliant general and a modest man. The combination was extremely attractive to the troops. When the emperor died, and Trajan became emperor, the legions were pleased.

When he finally arrived in Rome, at the turn of the century, in AD 99, as emperor, he was greeted with cheers. Trajan entered the city on foot. He hugged Senators; he walked among the people. No one had ever seen anything like this. Rome was enchanted. He was a well-educated, attractive man. He loved hunting and hiking and mountain climbing. He believed in order and in freedom. One of the first things he did was promise the senate and the people that he would always keep them posted on what was going on in government and that their freedoms were important to him.

He started huge public works programs to begin to correct the problems of crowding and poverty in Rome. It was Trajan who started the welfare system for children. He starting repair and building projects. Some sections of the famous roman roads had been built though wetlands. He fixed that. He built bridges. He added a harbor. He added more roads.

Trajan was not perfect. He had quite a temper. And he loved war. He was always fighting somebody. Under his direction, the Roman Empire grew to its largest size – it covered more geography that at any other time. You might think a guy like Trajan would die in battle. He did not. He died in AD 117 from natural causes. Trajan's fame as the near perfect Roman emperor was remembered. Rome did not always have good emperors, but the good ones who came after Trajan tried to live up to the example he had set.

DIOCLETIAN – Split the empire into two huge pieces to achieve better government

Diocletian became emperor in an interesting way. When the current emperor died in battle, the Roman Army announced that Diocletian was the new emperor. In 285 AD, Diocletian became the Emperor of Rome. The empire had suffered years of war and famine and instability. Diocletian wanted to change this. Through reforms, he began to re-establish peace.

He had some new ideas. One of his best was to get some help running the empire. He decided the Roman Empire was too big for one man to govern. He split the empire down the middle, into two huge pieces. The western half included the city of Rome. The eastern half included Asia Minor. He chose his good friend, Maximian, to rule the Western Roman Empire. He ruled the Eastern Roman Empire. He also assigned two men the role of “Caesar” – assistants to the emperors. Caesars acted like junior emperors. It was a four-headed approach to government. Once he had leaders installed in various sections of the empire, he set about fixing some of the problems that had been facing the empire for many years.

Diocletian changed the military system so that men served a term of 20 years. After that, they could retire with honor. He tried to restore the treasury with coins that had value and started new taxes on property and on individuals. He tried to restore the Roman religion, which meant he ordered people to return to the temples and worship the gods in the old ways. He believed Christianity was a threat to the Roman way of life. In 303 AD, he ordered the destruction of all Christian places of worship and the death of all Christians. These new edicts seemed to increase the number of followers, not decrease, but Christians were hunted until Constantine became emperor.

In AD 305, twenty years after he took power, Diocletian abdicated (turned over) his job as emperor, and retired to his beloved palace on the Croatian Coast. He believed he had put the Roman Empire back on course.

CONSTANTINE (the Great) – Made Christianity legal

Constantine was the first Christian emperor. He made a great many changes. In AD 313, by the Edict of Milan, he made Christianity legal. People could worship without fear of persecution. He took the treasures from the temples in Rome and used this wealth to pay for the construction of new Christian churches. He outlawed gladiator contests. He reorganized the army by disbanding the Praetorian Guard, the guard who had held strong influence over the empire for so long. His taxation reforms just about broke everybody. Those who lived in the city of Rome had to pay their taxes in gold or silver. This tax was levied every four years. If you didn’t pay, you were beaten and tortured. People sold their children into slavery to pay their taxes. Constantine was a hard, vain, ruthless man, with a horrible temper. He had his own son executed without any proof of guilt.

He is most famous, possibly, for building the city that carried his name – Constantinople. (This name was later changed to Istanbul.) He decided that Rome was too riddled with crime and poverty to worry about any more. He moved to the Eastern Roman Empire, and used tax monies from Rome to build his new capital. He was careful about it. He announced that the senate in Constantinople was of a lower rank than the Senate in Rome, but he clearly intended that his new capital would someday replace Rome. He died of natural causes in AD 337.

VALENS – Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire

Valens was a military man. When his brother became the emperor of the Western Roman Empire – the half that included Rome – he asked Valens to rule the other half, the Eastern Roman Empire. Valens said okay, and moved to Constantinople. When his brother died, Valens took over as senior-Augustus, the main emperor. He put his nephew, another military man, in charge of the Western Roman Empire. His nephew was not in Rome either. He was off, fighting a war.

More trouble was brewing. The Visigoths, the barbarians to the north, were fleeing from the Huns, another tribe. The Visigoths crossed the Danube and entered the Roman provinces to escape the Huns. Emperor Valens said: “Let them stay. What’s the big deal?” So they did. Hundreds of thousands of Visigoths settled in the Danube region of the Roman provinces.

Things might have ended differently if the Visigoths had been treated kindly. Emperor Valens had promised food, shelter and other help to the settlers. But Valens did not keep his promise. The Visigoths were forced to live in horribly crowded conditions, and they were starving. It is not surprising that the Visigoths rebelled. They did not have to cross the vast Danube River to attack. They were already in. To make matters worse, while the Visigoths kept the army busy, the Huns, another barbarian tribe, were free to cross the Danube and enter the Italian peninsula as well. Things were a mess back in Rome.

Valens rushed back to Rome to deal with it. He called upon his nephew to help. His nephew said sure. He’d be right there as soon as he finished the battle he was in. But Valens did not wait. He decided to take on the Goths (Visigoths) by himself. Valens’ army was wiped out, and Valens himself died in the battle in AD 378.