How to Be a Truly Terrible Leader

What Caligula, Julius Caesar, and the bad Roman emperors can teach us

Josiah Osgood
Forge
Published in
5 min readFeb 10, 2020

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An illustration of Julius Caesar collapsed, wounded, amidst a group of Romans brandishing daggers.
Image: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

TThe Roman biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus believed power doesn’t corrupt so much as it allows one’s worst, preexisting instincts to go unchecked. His epic biography, Lives of the Caesars, showed how power made the emperors of Rome feel free to indulge their own passions and pursuits, no matter how weird or reckless — often, to their own demise.

“The moment Nero became emperor,” Suetonius writes, “he summoned the lyre player Terpnus, considered the best at the time, and for days on end sat by him after dinner as he sang late into the night.” Little by little, Nero began to sing himself — to the horror of his domineering mother, Agrippina, and his tutor, the philosopher Seneca. Similarly, as a schoolboy, Nero had an enthusiasm for racehorses; “in the early days of his rule,” he started sneaking off to the Circus as much as possible. Soon enough, he wished to drive chariots himself.

In Suetonius’s biography of Tiberius, we see the emperor retreat to the beautiful and isolated isle of Capri, where it was easier to ignore public affairs and “give free rein to all of the vices that he had badly concealed for so long.” Suetonius catalogued these faults — including hard drinking and cruelty — in horrifying detail, before…

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Josiah Osgood
Forge
Writer for

Josiah Osgood is Professor of Classics at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He is the author of How to Be a Bad Emperor (Princeton, 2020).