The reigns and deaths of the Roman Emperors

Published on October 29, 2014 by Dr. Randal S. Olson

emperor history roman empire

2 min READ

Ah, the Roman Empire. One of the greatest empires to conquer the known world of ancient Europe. At its height, every man desired to sit on the throne, making the Roman Emperor one of the more precarious roles in ancient history. We always hear about the greatest and worst Emperors -- Caesar Augustus and Caligula, for example -- but we so rarely hear about the other Emperors who lost their lives in service of -- and sometimes in detriment to -- the Empire.

A few weeks ago, someone on /r/dataisbeautiful charted out the length of the reigns of each King and Queen of England and how they ultimately met their end. (Spoiler: The royal line didn't seem very healthy.) Then earlier this week, another user charted out the causes of death of the Roman Emperors. It seemed only natural to combine the two to show the reigns and deaths of the Roman Emperors. All of this data comes from Wikipedia, who already had the entire line of Emperors sorted out into a table.


Click on the image for a larger version

In the visualization above, we see the fairly sordid history of the Roman Empire. Well over half of the Emperors met some form of premature and violent end, with the average reign lasting only 8 years throughout the history of the Empire. Most of these violent ends are attributable to a particularly unstable period of the Empire known as the Crisis of the Third Century, where over 20 men (Maximinus I -> Carinus) -- mostly prominent Generals of the army -- ascended to the throne in a mere 50-year period. Nearly all of the Emperors during this period died violently, either by assassination or in battle.

The Crisis only came to an end when Diocletian, a military commander of low birth, came into power. Diocletian realized that the Empire was too large for one man to rule, and thus split the rule of the Empire with 3 other men, forming a tetrarchy, or "rule of four." Thanks to Diocletian's guidance and reforms, the Empire managed to hold together for another century despite The Crisis nearly tearing it apart. Diocletian is the only Emperor to have voluntarily abdicated from the throne, although it must have been tragic for him to watch the Empire crumble despite his life's work rebuilding it.

The Roman Empire as we know it ended with Theodosius I who, despite his efforts, could not secure the Empire for his sons. His sons quickly lost control of the throne and the Empire fell into turmoil again, eventually leading to the sack of Rome in 410 AD and the eventual dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire -- later known as the Byzantine Empire -- survived and even thrived for another millennium until it was conquered in 1453 AD.

Want to learn more about Roman history? I highly recommend this excellent podcast called The History of Rome.