Who was the least influential Roman emperor?

bread and games

After the fall of the Roman Republic, emperors like Nero ruled almost unrestricted. However, they had to keep the people happy. A to-do list for Roman rulers would have consisted of three main items: food, hygiene, and entertainment.

Gladiator fights were an important part of the Roman entertainment industry. | © istockphoto.com/Lusky


If it is true that we live in a fun society today, then that is even more true of the Romans. Entertainment was even more important to them than to us, because the respective government was judged on the quality of the circus program. If the games were good, people would praise the emperor in the highest tones. There are many parallels between Rome and a modern metropolis. Rome was already a cosmopolitan city. Greeks, Syrians, Jews and Egyptians populated Moloch, foreign languages ​​were spoken on every corner. When Caesar in 46 BC BC had triumph celebrations organized, he ordered that plays by "actors of all languages" should be performed. Otherwise the population was very colorful. There were free and slaves, rich and poor. But also poor free people and rich slaves, for example. You could have a career in Rome. However, that remained the exception. Most of the residents probably lived on the subsistence level, because Rome was the most expensive place in the universe. Yet these plebeians expected something out of life. First food and drink. Then a certain comfort with the opportunity to relax after a day's work. And just: good entertainment. The state had to take care of all of this. If it didn't work out, the people could get uncomfortable. Bloody riots were not uncommon. So rulers who cared about political stability should heed some advice. One of the most important:

Make sure you have enough food

Especially with the food supply it was often a problem. Rome was rich, but that was the problem: You couldn't make a lot of money with the staple grain, grain. That is why farmers in Italy preferred to grow wine or raise cattle. The grain had to be delivered from far away, from Sicily, Spain and North Africa. This resulted in so long transport routes that there were inevitable supply bottlenecks again and again. And then the streets of Rome began to simmer. The people then quickly demanded the head of the leading imperial adviser. Usually, however, when all went well, grain was affordable. The emperor even provided the needy with regular grain donations. There were also many other donations to the plebs. It was the surest way to keep the people calm. First bread - and then games. Although, strictly speaking, something else came up before the games: hygiene.

Take care of latrines and thermal baths

A smooth supply of fresh water via the famous aqueducts was one of the basic supplies for the Roman citizens. Ancient Rome was supplied by eleven large pipes that transported water from a distance of up to 90 kilometers. The sophisticated technology remained unsurpassed for more than 1500 years and was only achieved again at the turn of the 20th century. There were seldom problems. The pipes had to be constantly inspected and repaired, but the Romans always had enormous amounts of water at their disposal. The luxuriously equipped thermal baths, which all residents of Rome, including slaves, could visit free of charge, made a significant contribution to public health. The thermal baths were a mixture of fun pool and wellness oasis with fitness room, sauna and massage. But they also had an important hygienic function: They were used for washing. A normal Roman city apartment had no bathroom - not even a toilet. The public toilets in the thermal baths testified to Roman ingenuity: they already had a water flush, a canal with running water that disposed of everything. In front of the latrine visitor, water also flowed through a channel again - he could clean himself with it with the help of a small sponge. Thanks to the emperor for the beautiful toilets!

Provide top entertainment

The most beautiful thing in the life of the Romans, however, were the games, an exhibition of imperial power. The respective ruler was measured by the exoticism of the animals, the bloodthirstiness of the fights, the number of extras and the special effects. Especially when there was a military victory to be celebrated, the games never wanted to end and were scheduled for more than 100 days. In AD 354, 176 days a year were reserved for state-organized entertainment shows. Researchers assume that the residents of Rome spent 20 to 30 percent of their days in the circus. Incredible - but maybe no more than a sports fanatic watches television today. The games cost huge sums of money. But not to waste these funds in the circus, but perhaps to invest them in social benefits, was out of the question. The Romans just didn't think that way.

In addition to the entertainment function, the games also had a political side. As none other than Cicero explained, the people there were able to express their opinion, for example through applause, whistles and chants. Sometimes very specific demands were made. For example, the people of Emperor Caligula once demanded the lowering of indirect taxes, but the latter responded with targeted executions. Incidentally, not only gladiators appeared in the circus, but also pantomimes and comedians, for example, who recited verses on current topics and sometimes criticized them sharply. Like a political cabaret artist, the comedian Datus ridiculed the powerful, in one case even with Emperor Nero: he sang “Goodbye father, goodbye mother” and performed eating and swimming movements. He was alluding to the fact that Nero's mother Agrippina had poisoned her husband Claudius with a mushroom dish to bring Nero to the throne before she was murdered by him herself. Although he had first tried to let her go down with a ship. By responding to such ridicule - approval or disapproval - the audience could express its own opinion.

However, the mighty found means to steer the masses in the circus according to their wishes. They put whisperers, claqueurs, in the audience who specialized in manipulating the crowd as inconspicuously as possible. Their goal was to finally get the whole circus to shout a slogan or demand desired by the emperor loudly in the choir. At best, the people then believed they had expressed their own opinion of their own free will. For example, with the help of claqueurs, Emperor Titus managed to get the circus audience to demand the punishment of some unpopular people he wanted.

Were the Romans Sadists?

From today's perspective, one could answer this question with a yes. But they didn't see themselves that way. When convicts were executed in the arena by accusing them of the wild beasts, in the eyes of the audience they only got what they deserved. The emperor did justice. One had no pity at all for the masses of slaughtered animals, because they were beasts, the offspring of a nature that was still untamed at the time and which one was afraid of. And the gladiators? They were admired for their bravery. The fact that they perished in large numbers was not seen as a drama in the Roman military state. Everyone had to be ready to fight and die for Rome. Incidentally, Formula 1 races only differ in degree from Roman chariot races. And perhaps with a time gap of a few decades, many of today's plebs programs will be described as inhuman.

Christoph Driessen

The article first appeared in G / HISTORY 2/2013: "Gladiators"


Last modified: March 17, 2016