Veni, Vidi, Gone: A Death Map of Roman Emperors

Most Roman emperors died violent deaths, and many were far from Rome when they did

Totalus Rankium is “a fun, informative podcast (ranking) the Roman Emperors based on: fighting ability; madness; their successes; what they looked like and how long they lasted”. For that last metric, the podcast also produced this map, showing the locations where Roman emperors expired. 

To be the Emperor of Rome was to be leader of the biggest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. Yet even in a world where life already tended to be nasty, brutish and short, it was one of the more dangerous jobs: only about a quarter of all Roman Emperors died natural deaths. 

According to this graph, of the 70 Emperors to rule Rome between 14 and 395 AD, more died of assassination (23) than of natural causes (20), and that’s not even including those who were possibly assassinated (8), executed (3) or forced to commit suicide (5). A further 9 met a violent death on the battlefield. 

Most of the emperors died in or near Rome; this short selection of those who expired elsewhere shows that if American politics is House of Cards, Roman politics was Game of Thrones

Septimius Severus Constantius, 21st Emperor (reigned 193-211), is the only one to have died in Britain. He is also the most prominent of the handful of Emperors with African roots. Severus was born in 145 in Libya from an Italian mother and a father with Berber and Punic ancestry. He seized power in the so-called Year of the Five Emperors - luckily for him, he was the fifth. Severus defeated his rivals, consolidated his power, annexed the Kingdom of Osroene and sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, pushing the Roman frontier to the Tigris river. He also consolidated Rome’s frontiers in Arabia and North Africa. In Britain, he reinforced Hadrian’s Wall, re-occupied the Antonine Wall to the north of it and invaded Scotland. However, that conquest was cut short by the illness that was to fell him in Eburacum (now York) on February 4th, 211. His dying words to his sons Caracalla and Geta, who would succeed him, were: "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men". At his death, the Roman Empire had the greatest extent it would ever have, encompassing an area of 2 million square miles (5.18 million sq. km) - two thirds of the continental U.S. (1).

Severus Alexander, 26th Emperor (r. 222 - 235) is the only Roman Emperor to have met his death in Germany. He was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty, founded by Severus (the one who died in York). Alexander gained control of the empire at the tender age of 13, following the assassination of his cousin Elagabalus. Alexander was an able and tolerant administrator, and Rome prospered under his reign - although the fact that he relied heavily on the advice of his mother and grandmother was much resented. The rising Sassanid empire in Persia inflicted a number of defeats on Rome’s armies in the east. When he tried to appease the Germanic tribes in the north with bribes rather than meet them in battle, this alienated many in the Roman army and ultimately led to his assassination. Alexander and his mother were assassinated on March 19, 235 by mutineering soldiers of the 22nd legion at Moguntiacum (now Mainz). His assassination kicked off the Crisis of the Third Century - fifty years of wars, invasions and economic collapse.  

France - or as it then was called: Gaul - proved to be the death of no less than four emperors. 

Serbian-born Gratian, 67th Emperor (r. 367-383), first was junior co-emperor with his father (Valentinian I), then senior co-emperor with his brother (Valentinian II). He was the last emperor to lead a military campaign against Germanic tribes across the Rhine. Gratian favoured Christianity, refused to accept the divine attributes of imperial rule and had all pagan temples and shrines confiscated by the government. When a Roman general in Britain revolted and invaded Gaul, Gratian fled from Paris to Lyon, where he was betrayed and assassinated on August 25th, 383. Ironically for a promoter of Christianity - and like most emperors before him - Gratian was still deified after his death, in keeping with Rome’s pagan state cult.

Flavius Valentinianus, 68th Emperor (r. 375-392) was four years old when he was acclaimed Augustus by his father’s generals, succeeding his father Valentinianus I as the co-emperor to his half-brother Gratian. As Valentinianus II, he first held court in Milan and ruled over a central part of the empire (including Italy and North Africa). In 388, after the defeat of the usurper whose invasion of Gaul had led to the death of Gratian, he was installed in Vienne under the guardianship of Arbogast, a Frankish general and ally of Theodosius, emperor of the eastern half of the empire. Relations between the two were not amicable, to say the least. Arbogast killed a friend of the emperor before his very eyes, forbade Valentinian II of leading an army into Italy to counter a barbarian invasion, and tore up the resignation letter Valentinian had presented him with. Valentinian was found hanged in his residence on May 15th, 392. He was only 21. Arbogast claimed it was suicide. Most believe it was Arbogast.  

Maximian, 52nd Emperor (r. 285-310). The son of a Panonnian shopkeeper, he served in the army with Diocletian. After Diocletian’s accession to the top job, he appointed Maximian as his co-ruler, or Caesar, because of his military prowess. Maximian subjugated the Frankish king Gennobaudes, thus re-establishing Roman dominance in the Rhineland but failed to dislodge Carausius - a rebellious general who had founded a secessionist ‘British Empire’ (Imperium Brittaniarum). He led a military campaign in North Africa against Frankish pirates and Berber raiders. Maximian and Diocletian jointly retired from imperial office, but Maximian got re-involved in imperial politics, ultimately with fatal consequences. Following his failed rebellion against the emperor Constantine, he was captured in Massilia (Marseilles) and strongly advised to commit suicide - he hung himself in July 310. Constantine issued a damnatio memoriae, erasing all public inscriptions and destroying all public works bearing the name of Maximian. He was reconsecrated as a god from 317. Via his two daughters, he was grandfather or great-grandfather to every reigning emperor from 337 to 363. 

Constans, 62nd Emperor (r. 337-350). The son of Constantine I, Constans co-ruled first with his brother Constantine II and then with his other brother Constantius II, who would eventually succeed him. His homosexuality (including “scandalous behaviour with handsome barbarian hostages”) and favouritism of his personal bodyguard lost him the support of the army. While on the run to Spain from a rebelling general, he was assassinated in February 350 in Vicus Helena (now Elne in France), thus (sort of) fulfilling a prophecy that he would die in the arms of his grandmother - Helena, the mother of Constantine. 

Two Roman emperors died in Africa:

Gordian I and II, joint 28th Emperors (r. 238). This father-and-son team clung to power for just 21 days in 238, also known as the Year of the Six Emperors. They reluctantly assumed the leadership of a tax revolt against Maximinus Thrax, who had gained the imperial purple by killing Alexander Severus in Mainz. Although the Senate and a number of provinces sided with them, they were ultimately defeated in their power base of Carthage following the invasion of a Roman legion from the neighbouring province of Numidia. Gordian junior was killed in action, Gordian senior hanged himself with his belt. Both were deified by the Senate.

Asia, or as we now would call it: the Middle East, saw several emperors meet a tragic end: 

Gordian III, 32nd Emperor (r. 238-244), was the grandson of Gordian I and the nephew of Gordian II. It was basically in their memory that he was proclaimed emperor. He was only 13 years old at his proclamation, younger than any other sole emperor of the unified Empire. When the Sassanid Persians invaded Roman Mesopotamia, Gordian III became the last emperor in history to open the gates of the Temple of Janus (a symbol for Rome being at war; closed doors meant peace). Sassanid sources say Gordian III fell in battle near present-day Fallujah in Iraq, sealing a major Roman defeat. Roman sources do not mention this battle, and say the emperor died in northern Mesopotamia. 

No Roman ruler died as ignominiously as Valerian, 40th Emperor (r. 253-260). After his defeat at Edessa in 260, he set up a peace negotiation with his Persian counterpart Shapur. But his opponent seized him and held him captive for the rest of his life, which was spent in humiliating slavery. Shapur reportedly used Valerian as a human footstool when mounting his horse. When Valerian offered to gather a ransom for his release, Shapur had Valerian killed by forcing him to swallow molten gold. The emperor’s skin was stuffed with straw and kept as a trophy in the main Persian temple. Some historians, however, suspect the horrific tale is a deliberate exaggeration by a Christian scholar to demonstrate that persecutors of Christians (like Valerian) were destined for gruesome deaths. 

Carus, 48th Emperor (r. 282-283) successfully fought Germanic and Sarmatian tribes in the west, annexed Mesopotamia and sacked the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon in the east. For his victories, he received the titles Germanicus Maximus and Persicus Maximus. His death, near the Tigris, has variously been attributed to natural causes, assassination, a combat wound and lightning. 

Numerian, 50th emperor (r. 283-284), son and successor of Carus, together with his older brother Carinus. While Carinus was in charge of the west, Numerian led a Roman retreat from Persia. For much of that voyage, Numerian travelled in a closed coach, supposedly because of an inflammation of the eyes. By the time the coach reached Bithynia, a terrible smell emanated from it. Upon opening the curtains, Numerian’s soldiers found him dead. As his successor, the soldiers chose Diocletian, who swore he had nothing to do with Numerian’s death and pinned the blame on the late emperor’s aide Aper, whom he then personally and publicly killed. 

Julian, 63rd Emperor (r. 355-363), also known as Julian the Apostate. Although both his parents were Christians, he was the last non-Christian emperor and tried to revive paganism. He reopened pagan temples, removed Christian privileges and fostered division between various Christian sects. In an attempt to promote any religion other than Christianity, he even proposed to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Early in his career, Julian defeated a Germanic army three times larger than his own at Argentoratum (Strasbourg). But he was mortally wounded in combat against the Sassanid Persians, dying in Maranga, Mesopotamia. His last words are reported as: “You have won, Galilean”, an acknowledgement of his failure to defeat Christianity. Several of Julian’s literary works survive, including Misopogon (‘Beard-Hater’), a satirical essay on the dislike of the citizens of Antioch of the emperor’s own ‘philosopher’s beard’, in a time when the fashion was for clean-shaven faces.

For more on the Roman Empire, its leaders and their deaths, check out the Totalus Rankium Twitter feed and podcast. Causes of death graph found here on Reddit

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(1) i.e. minus Alaska and Hawaii: 3.1 million sq mi, 8.0 million sq. km

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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