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HIST2111 Roman Emperors and Imperial Lives

Module Overview

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.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Key primary sources that describe the lives of emperors.
  • Details of the lives of several important emperors from the early to late empire.
  • Various ideals of emperorship expressed at differing periods of the empire.
  • The challenges faced by historians in using literary texts as historical sources.
  • Trends in modern scholarship on ancient biographical, historiographical, and epideictic texts.
  • The response of modern culture to the lives of ancient emperors.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Organise and structure material to write and present confidently.
  • Identify, select, and synthesise key arguments from recommended resources.
  • Participate constructively in group discussions.
  • Analyse evidence critically.
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Examine the terms in which Roman authors described emperors.
  • Examine the political and cultural context within which emperors were depicted.
  • Examine how modern popular depictions of emperors compare to ancient antecedents.
  • Evaluate the trends of development in political literature from the early to late empire and evaluate the factors that contributed to this development.
  • Critically assess the value of biographical and historiographical texts as historical source material.
  • Critically evaluate the role of political literature in ancient culture.
  • Critically evaluate modern scholarship on the form and role of Roman political literature
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the form and development of ancient political literature on emperors.
  • Show familiarity with a range of primary sources.
  • Apply knowledge of modern scholarship to your evaluation of ancient texts.
  • Critically analyse source material.


In this module we will draw upon a wide range of textual sources across several genres, in order to survey the developing discussion of emperors from the early empire in the 1st Century BC to late antiquity in the 4th Century AD. Each week will focus on either a specific author, a specific emperor or combination of the two. We will conclude by considering how these ancient models have influenced depictions of emperors in modern media. • Intro and Ancient Biography before the Empire • Suetonius I: form and content • Suetonius II: the imperial ideal • Plutarch: a Greek view of Roman emperors • Biography and history: Otho in Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch • Panegyric I: Pliny and Trajan • Theory and Practice: rhetorical handbooks and how to praise • Panegyric II: Praise literature in late empire • Blaming the dead: damnatio memoriae and negative exemplars • Blaming the living: imperial invective in the fourth century • ‘Epideictic’ and history: Ammianus and Orosius • Modern depictions of ancient emperors.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • Weekly lectures focusing on key emperors, texts, chronology and concepts, including lecturer-led examination and discussion of sources. • Weekly seminars focusing on examination and discussion of the historical context of texts and secondary literature and the key issues of debate they raise. Learning activities include: • Preparatory reading before each seminar. • Participation in group and class discussion. • Independent reading of the texts provided and of related secondary works. • Short oral presentations on primary sources. • Independent research of additional information and source materials. • Discussion in seminars will help you to develop your ideas on a topic, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument.

Preparation for scheduled sessions264
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Momigliano, Arnaldo (1978). The historians of the classical world and their audiences: Some suggestions. Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Classe di lettere e filosofia. ,3 , pp. 59– 75.

Flower, Richard. Emperors and Bishops in Late Roman Invective. 

Jones, C. P (1970). Plutarch and Rome. 

Baldwin, Barry (1983). Suetonius. 

Stadter, Philip (2002). age and Emperor: Plutarch, Greek Intellectuals, and Roman Power in the Time of Trajan (98–117 AD). 

Pernot, Laurent (2015). Epideictic Rhetoric: Questioning the Stakes of Ancient Praise. 

Feldherr, Andrew, ed. (2009). The Cambridge companion to the Roman historians.. 

Ash, Rhiannon, and Martha Malamud, eds (2006). Ingens eloquentiae materia: Rhetoric and empire in Tacitus. Ingens eloquentiae materia: Rhetoric and empire in Tacitus. Special issue of Arethusa. ,39 .

Rees, R. D. (2002). Layers of Loyalty in Latin Panegyric AD 289–307. 

Marasco, Gabriele, ed. (2003). Greek and Roman historiography in Late Antiquity: Fourth to sixth century A.D. 

Marincola, John, ed. (2007). A companion to Greek and Roman historiography. 

Rees, Roger (2012). Latin Panegyric: Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. 

Lobur, John Alexander (2008). Consensus, concordia, and the formation of Roman imperial identity. 

Pelling, Christopher (2002). Plutarch and History. 

Blockley, R. C. (1975). Ammianus Marcellinus: A study of his historiography and political thought. 

Lindsay, H. M. (1998). Characterisation in the Suetonian life of Tiberius. Ancient history in a modern university. , pp. 299–308.

Morgan, Gwyn (2006). 69 A.D.: The year of four emperors. 

Ash, Rhiannon (2006). Tacitus. 

Haase, Wolfgang, ed (1991). Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II 33.5. 

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Suetonius. 

Whitby, Mary (1998). The propaganda of power : the role of panegyric in late antiquity. 

Bartsch, Shadi (1994). Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. 

Pauw, Dirk A. (1979). Ammianus Marcellinus and ancient historiography, biography, and character portrayal. Acta Classica. ,22 , pp. 115–129.

Millar, Fergus (1992). The emperor in the Roman world. 

Ash, Rhiannon (1999). Ordering anarchy: Armies and leaders in Tacitus' Histories. 

Hägg, Thomas, and Phillipe Rousseau (2000). Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. 

Bradley, Keith R (1991). The imperial ideal in Suetonius’ Caesares. Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt. ,33 , pp. 3701–3732.



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2000 words) 30%
Essay  (2000 words) 30%
Examination  (2 hours) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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