Being a Roman emperor might seem like a cushy gig, but it was a potentially deadly job, according to a new study.
“Popular culture associates the lives of Roman emperors with luxury, cruelty, and debauchery, sometimes rightfully so,” writes Joseph H. Saleh, a risk analysis expert who teaches in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“One missing attribute in this list is, surprisingly, that this mighty office was most dangerous for its holder. Of the 69 rulers of the unified Roman Empire, from Augustus (d. 14 CE) to Theodosius (d. 395 CE), 62% suffered violent death.”
The fact that so many Roman emperors faced violent deaths is a matter of public record, says Saleh, whose work Fast Company magazine dubbed “the Nerdiest Study of 2019.” His analysis focuses more on the length of their individual tenures. Absent term limits, impeachments, and democratic elections, what factors influenced the length of their reigns? Would they be hastened or delayed by their leadership style or a fault of the particular system of government?
Saleh dug into those question by borrowing from the parlance of reliability engineering, which would look at a system’s “time-to-failure” profile. Instead, he developed each emperor’s “time-to-violent-death” profile to gain insight.
“We examined whether there is some structure of underlying randomness in the process [of regicide],” he notes.
Among other things, Saleh found that two-thirds of all Roman emperors died violently in the first year of their rule. Of those who survived at least seven years, many were able to hold onto their thrones for another five years.
“A fundamental engine of the spectacle of regicide was not structural in nature, nor within the legions or the flawed system of government of the empire, but intrinsic to the actors themselves,” he writes.
“The individuals should not be neglected in future work. It was the mutual interactions between the motivations and ambitions of individuals on the one hand, and the social, political, and military factors on the other hand that led to spectacle of regicide of Roman emperors. The whole was subject to historical contingencies and some level of randomness in the timing and alignment of factors.”
Saleh’s scientific analysis of the process leaves room for a robust debate involving history, politics, and even human behavior. Ever the seeker, Saleh welcomes the discussion.
“I undertook this work mostly for the pleasure of writing, and the pleasure of exploring and sharing something on this topic,” says Saleh. “It was an incredibly enjoyable experience, and I hoped anyone who reads this would get a bit of this pleasure out of it. I did not expect nor consider there would anything utilitarian in this work.”