History has been brutal to 8 Roman emperors, they are considered bloodthirsty madmen. They are Caligula, Nero, Commodus, Elagabalus, Domitian, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Caracalla), Tiberius, and Diocletian. However, most of the stories about their cruelty are probably exaggerated or completely made up and even if a normal person had lead the lives they lived, a little madness would be expected.
Nero did not fiddle as Rome burnt, he wasn’t even in Rome when the Great Fire broke out and the fiddle had not yet been invented. And he didn’t have the fire set, most historians agree that the fire that killed thousands of people was probably set by the Christians. Which was Nero’s opinion at the time. In the aftermath of the fire, Nero opened the treasury up to rebuild the city, even having villas and houses built and donating them to tradespeople who couldn’t afford to rebuild. For the record, Nero was still a jerk, he just wasn’t as big a jerk as history makes him out to be. He did cut off his wife’s head and present it to his mistress as an engagement present afterall… But he wasn’t specifically trying to burn the citizens of Rome and he didn’t take delight in the fire.
Caligula might very well have been a bit paranoid and he did not trust the Senate or the wealthy citizens of Rome. But he survived 5 assassination attempts, so perhaps his paranoia was justified. Also, it’s the 1st Century, cruel rulers aren’t exactly unknown the world over. However, Caligula wasn’t doing anything different than any other ruler of the time. Disobedience was met with swiftly and harshly. Plus, his sister was always trying to snatch the throne away from him for her son – Nero – so perhaps punishing disobedience and disloyalty was the right course of action. As far as sanity goes though, Caligula declared war on the god Neptune, ruler of the Seas. So his elevator may not have gone all the way to the top.
Commodus was made famous by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator. Until then, most modern people had never heard of him. Commodus also dealt with several assassination attempts by members of his family and the Senate and as such, didn’t trust either of them very much, which is understandable. Towards the end of his reign, he did start accusing anyone near him of trying to kill him every time he got sick, often ordering them killed. However, Commodus’ own wife, did indeed try to poison his food, so again he might have been paranoid with good reason.
Tiberius was the successor of Augustus. And his biggest problem was that his stepfather hadn’t wanted him as heir. Augustus constantly told Tiberius that he was stupid and didn’t deserve the throne. But Tiberius was a very smart military strategist and earned his spot as Emperor when his stepfather died without having named an heir, the military supported Tiberius’ claim. However, when those with money know that you were not supposed to be in the head spot, they tend to plot against you and the wealthy of Rome did exactly that. Tiberius ended up having to bring back treason trials as a result of the plotting and it wiped out a few families that held positions within the Senate, which made him more enemies. Tiberius like his successor Caligula would also deal with multiple assassination attempts. I don’t know how much poison one person can ingest before it makes them a bit wonky, but Tiberius and Caligula and Commodus probably had every bit of those doses.
Elagabalus was a teenager who had never even visited Rome when he became Emperor. His grandmother was a relative of the Emperor and she plotted to make Elagabalus emperor. He was just 14 when he was given the power to rule an empire. Elagabalus was 14 and like most 14 year old boys, he didn’t like to listen to his elders and he had the same sense of humor as most 12 year old boys. Elagabalus was ruled by his hormones, taking a string of brides, and expressing some extreme sexual tastes, it’s fairly difficult to offend Romans when it came to sex, but Elagabalus managed. When he was 18, his grandmother (the same that had instilled him as emperor) had him murdered.
Caracalla’s father Septimius Severus wasn’t all that thrilled at the idea of having his son serve as emperor, but Caracalla was the oldest. To temper his impulsiveness, Septimius Severus made his two sons co-heirs and co-emperors. Caracalla served for two years as co-emperor with his brother Geta, but things didn’t go well. The two could not agree on anything and it was dividing the empire. To fix it, Caracalla had Geta killed. At which point, Romans who had supported Geta began plotting against Caracalla. Caracalla became paranoid. Caracalla reacted violently, sending troops into the Egyptian city of Alexandria and executing any person suspected of plotting an uprising against Caracalla.
Diocletian on the list is actually the result of the influence of the Catholic Church on history. He was actually a really good emperor, very capable, the Empire saw an improved economy and expanded. Diocletian even had a co-emperor that ruled half the empire from Alexandria, Egypt while he ruled from Rome. But he really enjoyed finding new ways to kill Christians, whom he considered troublemakers. After the Catholic Church rose to power, the history of Diocletian was revised a bit by them, to make him seem crazier and crueler than he was.
Domitian isn’t all that different from Diocletian. As far as emperors went, he was really good at it and the empire prospered under his leadership. However, he was suspicious of the Senate like most emperors and he had 12 of them killed one night at a dinner party… or that’s the story. Domitian like Diocletian fell victim to some revisionist history at the hands of the Catholic Church long after his death, because he had the same hobby as Diocletian, killing Christians for fun and profit.