Ten Really Bad Emperors

Honors College Retro Reading HNRC301VH-002

Death of Nero - Vasily Smirnov, 1888

The Death of Nero - Painted by Vasily Smirnov, 1888

Instructor: Dr. Charles E. Muntz
Time: Monday 5:00-6:15 pm
Place: 129 Gearhart Hall
Dr. Muntz's Office: 408 Old Main
Office Hours: M 1:00-2:30 and by appointment
Phone: (479) 575-5891
Email: cmuntz@uark.edu


They fiddled while their kingdoms burned. They imposed reigns of terror while building entire armies to guard them in the afterlife. Their personal lives were so decadent that they have become bywords for depravity. Now 10 Really Bad Emperors will explore some of the most infamous rulers in history across time and space, from Roman Caesars and Muslim Caliphs, to European Kings and Chinese Emperors. 

Each week we will examine a different bad emperor in-depth in a seminar discussion with sources ranging across thousands of years of history and multiple perspectives. We will consider the historiography to understand how each emperor earned their reputation for “badness” both during and after their reigns. And we will look at how deserved their reputations really are, and how much may be propaganda and later legend. Through a comparative approach we will grapple with how different cultures construct “badness” and why some themes are universal across the bad emperors. Finally, we will examine the continuing lives of the bad emperors and how they continue to be used as exemplars of “badness” throughout history up to the present day, especially in comparison with more recent bad “emperors.”

Covid Policies

This is a face-to-face class and regular attendance is very important. But, if you feel sick or are exposed to someone and have to quarantine, DO NOT come to class. Email me right away and get tested for Covid-19. Testing is available at Pat Walker Health Center, 479-575-4451, but you can also now get at home tests that give you results in 15-30 minutes. You can order these tests for FREE or find them at pharmacies or online.

Our classroom is equipped with video-streaming equipment, and you can not come we will employ Zoom so you can still take part in the class - participating in an face-to-face class remotely is not ideal, but we will make it work. Once I know you can’t come I will send you a meeting invitation, so it is important that you contact me right away.

In the event that I have to quarantine, class will be held remotely over Zoom (assuming I’m well enough) - I’ll distribute the meeting invites if necessary.

Wearing a mask while in class is highly recommended for your protection and for the protection of those around you. Masks are available in classrooms and many public areas around campus. Eating and drinking is not permitted during class. If you require accommodations due to a disability, please contact the Center for Educational Access.


Source Analysis Paper: Rewrite part of Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian to transform Vespasian into a “bad” emperor. Due October 21 by 5pm. Assignment and text here.

Participation: This is a seminar, so I expect everyone to participate in the discussions. Questions are provided to get us started, but feel free to raise other issues or comparative material. 

Final Project: For the final project, you will pick out a bad emperor we did not cover in class, and do a report on them. This will include a 10 minute in-class presentation on either November 28 or December 5, and a written report due December 15. More detailed instructions will follow.

Extra Credit: Bad emperors are portrayed everywhere, but especially in political satire. Keep your eyes open for depictions of our emperors, other bad rulers, or just generic tyrants in modern media and bring any you find to class for extra participation credit. They should come from no later than the past six months.

Paper: 30%
Final Project: 30%
Participation: 40%


Suetonius: The Caesars. Trans. Donna Hurley. ISBN 9781603843133

Sima Qian: The First Emperor. Trans. Raymond Dawson. ISBN 9780199574391


Academic Integrity: As a core part of its mission, the University of Arkansas provides students with the opportunity to further their educational goals through programs of study and research in an environment that promotes freedom of inquiry and academic responsibility. Accomplishing this mission is only possible when intellectual honesty and individual integrity prevail.

Each University of Arkansas student is required to be familiar with and abide by the University’s ‘Academic Integrity Policy’ which may be found at http://provost.uark.edu/. Students with questions about how these policies apply to a particular course or assignment should immediately contact their instructor.

Equal Access: University of Arkansas Academic Policy Series 1520.10 requires that students with disabilities are provided reasonable accommodations to ensure their equal access to course content. If you have a documented disability and require accommodations, please contact me privately at the beginning of the semester to make arrangements for necessary classroom adjustments. Please note, you must first verify your eligibility for these through the Center for Educational Access (contact 479-575-3104 or visit http://cea.uark.edu for more information on registration procedures).

Unauthorized Websites or Internet Resources: There are many websites claiming to offer study aids to students, but in using such websites, students could find themselves in violation of our University’s Academic Integrity and Code of Student Life policies. These websites include (but are not limited to) Quizlet, Bartleby, Course Hero, Chegg, and Clutch Prep. The U of A does not endorse the use of these products in an unethical manner. These websites may encourage students to upload course materials, such as test questions, individual assignments, and examples of graded material. Such materials are the intellectual property of instructors, the university, or publishers and may not be distributed without prior authorization. Furthermore, paying for academic work to be completed on your behalf and submitting it for academic credit is considered ‘contract cheating’ per the Academic Integrity Policy. Students found responsible for this type of violation face a grading penalty of ‘XF’ and a minimum one-semester academic suspension per the University of Arkansas Sanction Rubric. Please let me know if you are uncertain about the use of a website.

Unauthorized Recording by Student: Recording, or transmission of a recording, of all or any portion of a class is prohibited unless the recording is necessary for educational accommodation as expressly authorized and documented through the Center for Educational Access with proper advance notice to the instructor. Unauthorized recordings may violate federal law, state law, and university policies. Student-made recordings are subject to the same restrictions as instructor- made recordings. Failure to comply with this provision will result in a referral to the Office of Student Standards and Conduct for potential charges under the Code of Student Life. In situations where the recordings are used to gain an academic advantage, it may also be considered a violation of the University of Arkansas' academic integrity policy.

Recording of Class Lectures: By attending this class, student understands the course is being recorded and consents to being recorded for official university educational purposes. Be aware that incidental recording may also occur before and after official class times.

Unauthorized Use and Distribution of Class Notes: Third parties may attempt to connect with you to buy your notes and other course information from this class. I will consider distributing course materials to a third party without my authorization a violation of my intellectual property rights and/or copyright law as well as a violation of the University of Arkansas' academic integrity policy. Continued enrollment in this class signifies your intent to abide by the policy. Any violation will be reported to the Office of Academic Initiatives and Integrity.

Please be aware that such class materials that may have already been given to such third parties may contain errors, which could affect your performance or grade. If a third party should contact you regarding such an offer, I would appreciate your bringing this to my attention. We all play a part in creating a course climate of integrity.

Miscellaneous: Please turn off and put away all cell phones and any other non-course related items and finish any food you might be eating or drinking before coming into class. Please remain seated during class - if you need to use the lavatory, do so before or after class.

Emergency Procedures 

Many types of emergencies can occur on campus; instructions for specific emergencies such as severe weather, active shooter, or fire can be found at emergency.uark.edu.  

Severe Weather (Tornado Warning): Follow the directions of the instructor or emergency personnel. Seek shelter in the basement or interior room or hallway on the lowest floor, putting as many walls as possible between you and the outside. If you are in a multi-story building, and you cannot get to the lowest floor, pick a hallway in the center of the building. Stay in the center of the room, away from exterior walls, windows, and doors.

Violence / Active Shooter (CADD):

  • CALL: 9-1-1
  • AVOID: If possible, self-evacuate to a safe area outside the building.  Follow directions of police officers.
  • DENY: Barricade the door with desk, chairs, bookcases or any items.  Move to a place inside the room where you are not visible.  Turn off the lights and remain quiet.  Remain there until told by police it’s safe.
  • DEFEND: Use chairs, desks, cell phones or whatever is immediately available to distract and/or defend yourself and others from attack.

Daily Topics and Reading Assignments

Discussion Questions are Here

August 22: Introduction

August 29: A Pair of Good Emperors
    Suetonius: Lives of Vespasian and Titus (pp. 303-327 in your translation)

September 5: Labor Day Holiday

September 12: Tiberius
    Suetonius: Life of Tiberius (pp. 113-156 in your translation)
    Velleius Paterculus: Book 2, Chapters 94-131 (Note that Velleius sometimes refers to Tiberius as Nero or Caesar)

TBA - I, Claudius Night

September 19: Gaius (Caligula)
    Suetonius: Life of Gaius (Caligula)
    Josephus: Excerpts from the Jewish Antiquities on Caligula and the Jews

September 26: Claudius
    Suetonius: Life of Claudius
    Seneca: Apocolocyntosis

October 3: Nero
    Suetonius: Life of Nero

October 10: Domitian
    Suetonius: Life of Domitian
    Tacitus: Agricola excerpt

October 17: Fall Break

October 21: Paper Due by 5pm

October 24: The First Emperor of China
    Sima Qian: The Birth of the First Emperor (pp. 3-10); Annals of Qin (pp. 61-94), The Rebel Chen Sheng (pp. 135-142)

October 31: Justinian & Theodora
    Procopius: The Secret History Proemium and Part II

November 7: Al-Hakim of the Fatimids
    Excerpt from A History of Egypt in the Middle Ages by Stanley Lane-Poole
    Excerpt from Caliph of Cairo: Social Reform and Legislation, by Paul Walker (You need to be on campus to access this)

November 14: George III of Great Britain
    Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence
    Excerpts from British Historians on George III
    Andrew Roberts, The Last King of America: Chapter 13 The Declaration of Independence, esp. pp. 293-307

November 21: Leopold II of Belgium
    Mark Twain: King Leopold’s Soliloquy

November 28: Final Presentations

December 5: Final Presentations

December 15: Final Projects due