How To Be A Bad Emperor by Suetonius: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Be A Bad Emperor by Suetonius.

In short

There are bad leaders, and then there are the truly awful ones. In How To Be A Bad Emperor, Josiah Osgood presents a new translation of Suetonius on some of the worst Roman emperors: Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero.

Even though this is simply an extract of the original Lives of the Caesars (which contain the above emperors and others) it’s still an interesting – albeit short – read.

How To Be A Bad Emperor does show what happens when people gain power without having the constitution or character to properly lead. As Osgood writes in the introduction, maybe it’s not so much that power corrupts as that it shows your true nature and your true qualities.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.


‘Caesar refusing to stand to greet the Senators when they come bearing honors: a lesson in how to treat colleagues. Tiberius trying to win glory from a disastrous fire: a reminder that you shouldn’t always try to take credit for your accomplishments. Caligula brutalizing those around him, even forcing his father-in-law to cut his throat with a razor: brutalize, and you will be brutalized back. Nero meeting the threat of rebellion by loading his wagons with organs for the theaters and concubines with buzz cuts: your pet projects may fatally undermine you and your organization.’

Caesar

  • Be vain.
  • Boast about being the best in everything.
  • Be offensive to everyone.
  • Insult your companions and senators.
  • Let self-confidence blind you to impending doom (and ignore all the warning signs).

Tiberius

  • Go on a pleasure exile (abandoning your capital & responsibilities).
  • Indulge in every vice.
  • Be stingy and don’t show generosity.
  • Turn hostile on your family members – even your mother and sons.
  • Become harsh and cruel (or maybe not become, but start show your true nature). E.g. he forebode relatives of those punished to death to mourn for them.
  • Punish people severely for doing minor wrongdoings.
  • Tiberius: “Let them hate me, so long as they accept!”

Caligula

  • Create your own temple and godhead.
  • Remove the heads of other statues and put your own on it.
  • Force your father-in law-to kill himself with a razor.
  • Have sex with (all three of) your sisters.
  • Steal the wives of others to marry them yourself.
  • Exert cruel punishments on many for no good reason.
  • Force family members to watch the execution of a son or father (or invite them to a feast immediately after).
  • Begrudge all who have slight advantages even if they are in bad circumstances or in bad fortune.
  • Be overwhelmingly confident yet excessively fearful.
  • Give a horse a marble stable, jewels, slaves, and furniture and think about making it a consul.
  • Caligula: “Let them hate me, so long as they’re afraid!”

Nero

  • Kill your mother.
  • Be easily distracted, panicked, and indecisive.
  • Give in to passions (e.g. start singing and performing music, or chariot racing – and let those passions take precedent over being emperor).
  • Force others to watch these passion by closing off theaters until your performance is over (rumor has it that some women even gave birth during his performances because they couldn’t leave).
  • Ignore discontent, rebels and uprisings, and finally be forced to take your own life when everyone else has abandoned you.

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