For most people even today Nero was one of the ‘bad’ emperors (he killed his mother), and Caligula was mad and depraved (he wanted to appoint his favourite horse as consul, and committed incest with his sisters); but the categorisation of emperors along moral lines is not a modern phenomenon. The emperor was without doubt the most important individual in the Roman world, the embodiment of the imperial project. His character, appearance, and actions were of fascination to contemporaries during and after his life. In this module we will survey Roman cultural responses to the office of emperor, and specifically the role played by prominent authors in creating a discourse on the individuals that occupied the imperial throne from its inception to Late Antiquity.
Several genres of ‘political’ literature flourished under the empire, which took the emperor as their primary subject - biography, historiography, and speeches of praise and blame. Their rise may partly have been a response to the concentration of power in a single individual, but they also constantly engaged in evaluating emperors in traditional terms of virtue and vice, turning emperors into examples of good or bad rule for later holders of the office. Such texts, then, played an active role in the creation of an image of an emperor both during and after his reign. In this module we will survey key texts chronologically from the first to fourth centuries, and consider how and why each author interpreted individual emperors; how the ideal of the emperor developed during that time; when and in what way it was acceptable to criticise an emperor, or how risky this could be; to what extent an emperor could influence the creation of his positive image via contemporary orators. We will examine some case studies of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ of emperors such as Claudius, Caligula, Constantine and Julian, and in the process you will gain a chronological overview of the Roman imperial period. Finally, we’ll reflect on how modern depictions of emperors, in formal biographies and TV/film depictions, compare to the concerns articulated in ancient texts.