I've had this problem before, but never wrote down how I fixed it. emacs
would whine about not being able to open a termcap database file, and
wouldn't start on the console. The X version worked fine, but using the
-nw option resulted it in dying.
infocmp -C rxvt-unicode | sudo tee /etc/termcap
If you strace emacs when you start it, you'll see it tries to open that file, which doesn't exist on Ubuntu by default. I tried everything else, the big suggestion from 1996 being install some compat library, which is ancient, and installing libncurses5-dev, which puts the include file in the right spot, but doesn't actually fix anything, even after reconfiguring/compiling like you're supposed to.
Regardless, that little snippet fixes it, and now I have emacs.
EDIT: So actually that fixed it to the point that it would run, but I didn't have colors. I don't know what I did, but I recompiled and everything from scratch and it's good to go now.