Chapters 19b

The Roman Emperors Icon

September 22, 2021

Some might think that many of the Roman emperors would be an example contrary to my assertions. Some of them lived nobly and showed great qualities. Nevertheless, they lost their empire or were killed by subjects who conspired against them.

I shall discuss the following emperors:

  • Marcus
  • his son Commodus
  • Pertinax
  • Julian
  • Severus
  • his son Antoninus Caracalla
  • Macrinus
  • Heliogabalus
  • Alexander
  • Maximinus

In other principalities, a prince only has to deal with:

  • the ambition of the nobles
  • the demands of the people

But the Roman emperors had a third difficulty in having to deal with their soldiers’ cruelty and greed.

This ruined many emperors because it was hard to give satisfy both soldiers and the people.

  • The people loved peace, and so they loved a peaceful emperor.
  • The soldiers however loved a warlike emperor . Then they could get double pay and satisfy their own greed and cruelty.

Hence, those emperors were always thrown out of power who, either by birth or training, had no great authority. Most of them, especially those who came new to the principality, recognizing the difficulty of these two opposing forces, were inclined to give satisfaction to the soldiers, caring little about injuring the people.

This unfortunately was necessary, because as princes cannot help being hated by someone, they ought, in the first place, to avoid being hated by everyone. When they cannot manage this, they ought to try most of all to avoid the hatred of the most powerful.

Therefore, those emperors who through inexperience had need of special support more readily favoured the soldiers than the people. Whether this policy worked to their advantage or not depended on whether the prince knew how to 30 maintain authority over them.

This is why Marcus, Pertinax, and Alexander, all being men of modest life, lovers of justice, enemies to cruelty, kind and generous to others, came to a sad end.

Marcus alone lived and died respected, because he had become emperor by hereditary title, and owed nothing either to the soldiers or the people.

Afterwards, being possessed of many virtues which made him respected, he always kept both groups in their place while he lived, and was neither hated nor despised.

But Pertinax was created emperor against the wishes of the soldiers. They were accustomed to live beyond the rules under Commodus, and could not bear the honest life to which Pertinax wished to reduce them. Thus having given a cause for hatred, to which hatred there was added a lack of respect for him because he was old, he was destroyed at the very beginning of his administration.

Hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones. Therefore, a prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil. When the principality is in a bad way, you have to submit to the wishes of who you think you have need of to maintain yourself – it may be either the people or the soldiers or the nobles – and then good works will do you harm.

Alexander was a man of such great goodness that in the 14 years he held the empire, no one was ever put to death by him without due process of law. Nevertheless, being considered too much like a woman, and a man who allowed himself to be governed by his mother, he became despised, and the army conspired against him, and murdered him.

Commodus, Severus, Antoninus Caracalla, and Maximinus had opposite characters. To satisfy their soldiers, they did not hesitate to commit every kind of wicked act against the people. All, except Severus, came to a bad end.


Severus was so brave that he ruled successfully.

He kept the soldiers friendly, although the people were oppressed by him. His courage made him so much admired in the sight of the soldiers and the people. This kept:

  • the people astonished
  • the soldiers respectful and satisfied.

As a new prince, Severus was both the fox and the lion.

He knew the laziness of the Emperor Julian. And so he persuaded the army in Sclavonia, of which he was captain, to go to Rome and revenge the death of Pertinax, who had been killed by the emperor’s own soldiers. Under this pretence, he moved the army towards Rome.

He reached Italy before it was even known that he had started. On his arrival at Rome, the fearful Senate elected him emperor and killed Julian.

Severus wished to make himself master of the whole empire. But he had two difficulties:

  • Niger, the head of the Asian army, named himself as emperor in Asia
  • Albinus in the West also wanted to be emperor.

He considered it dangerous to be hostile to both, so he attacked Niger and deceived Albinus.

He wrote to Albinus that he was willing to share his rule by giving him the title of Caesar. He said that he wrote that the Senate had made Albinus his colleague. Albinus believed this as true.

But after Severus had conquered and killed Niger and settled affairs in the east, he returned to Rome. He complained to the Senate that Albinus, little recognizing the benefits that he had received from him, had sought to murder him and for this he was forced to punish him.

Afterwards, he sought him out in France, and took from him his government and life. Therefore, anyone who carefully examines the actions of this man will find him a most courageous lion and a most tricky fox. He will find him feared and respected by31 everyone, and not hated by the army.

He, a new man, was able to hold the empire so well, because his reputation for courage always protected him from the people’s hatred for his violence.


His son Antoninus was very capable and had very excellent qualities. These made him admired by the people and accepted the soldiers.

He was a warlike man, full of energy, who despised all delicate food and other rich delights. This caused him to be loved by the armies.

Nevertheless, his fierceness and cruelties were great and far beyond belief. After endless single murders, he killed a large number of the people of Rome and all those of Alexandria.

He became hated by the whole world, and feared by those he had around him, to such an extent that he was murdered in the midst of his army by a soldier.

Killings like this, which are done with a resolved courage by those who are not afraid to die, cannot be avoided by princes. Anyone who does not fear death can do them.

But a prince may fear them less because they are very rare. He only has to be careful not to do any serious injury to those whom he employs or has around him. Antoninus had not been careful about this.

He had dishonourably killed a brother of that soldier, whom also he threatened each day, yet retained in his own personal soldiers. This, as it turned out, was a foolish thing to do, and proved to be his ruin.


Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius and inherited the Roman empire. He only had to follow his father’s footsteps to please his people and soldiers.

But he was by nature cruel and hard. He allowed his soldiers too much freedom, so that he could treat the people badly.

In addition, he did not maintain the proper respect for his own position, often descending to the theatre to compete with soldiers, and doing wicked things not worthy of the emperor. He became despised by the soldiers. He was conspired against and killed.


Maximinus was a very warlike man. The armies were disgusted with Alexander’s weakness and so they killed him and elected Maximinus as emperor.

He did not keep this position this for long, for two things made him hated:

  1. He came from a very poor background

He once raised sheep. This was known by everyone and was considered a completely unsuitable background for an emperor.

  1. When he first became emperor he put off going to Rome and officially taking the position.

He had also gained a reputation for great cruelty by having done many wicked things, through his representatives in Rome and elsewhere in the empire. So, the whole world was moved to anger at the meanness of his birth and by fear of his cruelty. First Africa rebelled, then the Senate with all the people of Rome, and all Italy conspired against him, to which may be added his own army. The army, besieging Aquileia and meeting with difficulties in taking it, were disgusted with his cruelties, and fearing him less when they found so many people against him, murdered him.

I do not wish to discuss Heliogabalus, Macrinus, or Julian, who, being thoroughly despised, were quickly wiped out.

Princes in our times have much less trouble with this difficulty of giving too much satisfaction to their soldiers, because, notwithstanding one has to keep them happy, that is soon done.

The Roman armies were experienced in governing their empire. But our armies are not.

It was more necessary to satisfy the soldiers than the people of the Roman empire.

Nowadays, it is more necessary for all princes, to satisfy the people rather than the soldiers because the people are the most powerful. This is not true for Turkey and Egypt.

The leader of the Turks always keeps 12,000 foot soldiers and 15,000 horse soldiers around him for the kingdom’s security and strength.

It is thus necessary that putting aside every consideration for the people, he should keep them his friends.

The kingdom of the Egypt is similar, being entirely in the hands of soldiers. It follows again that, without regard to the people, the leader must keep the soldiers as his friends.

Egypt is unlike all other principalities. It is most similar to that controlled by the Pope. It cannot be called either an hereditary or a newly formed principality, because the sons of the old prince do not inherit.

The person who is elected to that position by those who have authority, and his sons remain only as nobles. Because this is an ancient custom, it cannot be called a new principality. And so there are none of those difficulties in it that are met with in new ones.

Thus, a new prince will follow an old constitution which is framed so as to receive him as if he were inheriting it.

Being hated has resulted in the fall of the emperors mentioned above.

It will also be recognized how it happened that, a number of them acting in one way and a number in another, only one in each way came to a happy end and the rest to unhappy ones. It would have been useless and dangerous for Pertinax and Alexander, being new princes, to imitate Marcus, who inherited the principality.

Likewise it would have been completely destructive to Caracalla, Commodus, and Maximinus to have imitated Severus. They did not have sufficient courage to enable them to follow in his footsteps.

Therefore a new prince in a principality cannot imitate the actions of Marcus. Nor is it necessary to follow those of Severus.

Instead, a prince should take:

  • from Severus those parts which are necessary to establish his state
  • from Marcus those which are proper and glorious to keep a state that may already be stable


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