The third century AD was a bad time for the Roman Empire.[*] It was under threat from enemies on all sides, and in a terrible state economically. Disgruntled legions were able to murder incumbent emperors and appoint new ones as the whim took them. Between 235 and 284 there were 21 'official' emperors, and countless ephemeral others, of whom all but one died of unnatural causes. The lucky odd man out was Claudius Gothicus, 214-70 (not all that lucky, actually: he was emperor for less than two years, and died of plague in Sirmium, in what is now Kosovo, while preparing for a major assault on the Goths). Fik Meijer's Emperors Don't Die in Bed (Routledge, £14.99, translated from Dutch by S.J. Leinbach) is a brief history of the empire structured around the deaths of its rulers, from Julius Caesar to Romulus Augustulus. Caesar wasn't, strictly speaking, an emperor, but he did declare himself dictator for life and, in Meijer's (or rather Leinbach's) words, 'paved the way' for the empire. Romulus Augustulus, dethroned by Odoacer in 476 when he had been emperor for less than a year and was still only 15 years old, wasn't - unlike the overwhelming majority of his predecessors - horribly murdered, but lived out a comfortable retirement on a country estate in Campania. Odoacer, by contrast, was overthrown by Theoderic and killed.
LRB 3 June 2004 | PDF Download