The Five Good Roman Emperors
Everything you need to know about them and the lessons they teach us in the modern world.
The ancient world experienced its fair share of dictatorship, blatant decadence, immorality, and hedonism during the reign of several tyrannical caesars of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Modern history books are filled with the lore of their savagery and madness that was the signature of their time on the throne.
After the fall of the last reigning emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero, Rome was uneventful through the years of 69–96AD in comparison to the preceding years. The Empire saw Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian rule under what was known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
Vespasian stayed in rulership until 79AD and then his son, Domitian, came into power. During his reign, there was a diligent officer, Nerva, who was positioned to rise to power and launch a new era of Good Emperors under what was the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.
The Five Good Emperors
After the death of Domitian, the empire was on its way to restoration and into the hands of wise and generous rulers. The “five good emperors,” as they are commonly referred to, were Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian (who were related to one another only by adoption), and the two Antonines, Antoninus Pius and ever beloved, Marcus Aurelius. The period of general prosperity which began under Vespasian continued under these emperors. It is during this time that Roman civilization was at its best, its highest stage of development.
Nerva held a number of official positions under various emperors during both the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, helping Emperor Nero suppress the Piso Conspiracy in 65 CE (receiving special honors, the ornamenta triumphalia) and serving as co-consul under both Vespasian and Domitian. Having this experience was the perfect element to bring him into power to make him a good ruler for the people who were subjected to decades of tyranny.
Marcus Cocceius “Nerva” Caesar Augustus — Reigning (A.D. 96–98)
Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus was declared Emperor by the Senate on September 18th, 96 after the assassination of Domitian. Ending the Flavian dynasty.
Upon coming into power, Nerva had a lot to repair within the empire. Within the brief time that he sat upon the throne, he could do little except to remedy the wrongs of his predecessor. He forbade the practice of delation, recalled the exiles of Domitian, relieved the people from high taxes and was tolerant to the Christians. Something that hadn’t happened in quite some time as Christians were tortured at the hands of his predecessors. His wise and just reign has long been acknowledged and praised by historians. In order to prevent any trouble at his death, he adopted Trajan as his successor and gave him a place in the government.
One of the characteristic features of Nerva’ s brief reign was his attempt to relieve the poor. His first order of business was to purchase large lots of land from the wealthy landlords and let them out to citizens in need. It is noteworthy that he submitted this law to the assembly of the people. Next, he showed his great interest in the cause of public education. He set apart a certain fund, the interest of which was used to educate the children of poor citizens. His interest in caring for the impoverished and uneducated set the tone for his successors who carried on serving those less fortunate populations of subjects.
Education among the Romans, though not usually endowed by the state, was very general and was highly appreciated. Its main features were derived from the Greeks. It was intended to develop all the mental powers and to train a man for public life. Children began to attend school at six or seven years of age. The elementary studies were reading, writing, and arithmetic. The children were inspired to learn the alphabet by playing with pieces of ivory with the letters marked upon them. They were taught writing by a copy, set upon their tablets; and arithmetic by means of the calculating board (abacus) and counters (calculi). The higher education comprised what was called the liberal arts (artes liberales), including the Latin and Greek languages, colloquialisms, composition, and oratory. Philosophy also played a huge role in the development of mentality and morality. An important part of education consisted in public recitals and declamations, which were intended to train young men for the forum, and which were often held in the temples. The state sometimes patronized education, as we have already seen in the case of Nerva himself.
Nerva suffered a stroke during a private meeting. Shortly thereafter he was struck by a fever and died at his villa in the Gardens of Sallust, on January 28th of 98 A.D. He was deified by the Senate, and his ashes were placed in the Mausoleum of Augustus. He was the last Roman emperor to be interred.
Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus “Trajan” Divi Nervae Filius Augustus — Reigning (A.D. 98–117)
After Julius Caesar and Augustus, Trajan may be called, in many respects, the greatest of the Roman sovereigns. Adopted by Nerva, he was accepted by the senate to rule the Empire. He made himself popular with the army as their leader. The people of the Empire also greatly favored him. He was born in Spain; and the fact that he was the first emperor who was not a native of Italy, demonstrated that the distinction between Romans and provincials was passing away. He was a brave general, a wise statesman, and a successful administrator. He continued the efforts of Nerva to soothe the evils which the early despotism had brought upon Rome. To the people he restored the elective power; to the senate, liberty of speech and of action; to the magistrates, their former authority. He abolished the law of treason (lex maiestatis), and assumed his proper place as the chief magistrate of the empire. He was a generous patron of literature and of art. He also had a keen desire to relieve the condition of the poor. It is said that five thousand children received from him their daily allowance of food. Highly esteemed by the Romans that to his other imperial titles was added that of “Optimus” (the Best).
Since the death of Augustus, there hadn’t been any important additions to the Roman territory, except Britain. However, under Trajan, the Romans became once more a conquering people. The new emperor carried his conquests across the Danube and acquired the province of Dacia. He then extended his reach into Asia, and brought into subjugation Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, as the result of a short war with the Parthians. Under Trajan’s rulership, the boundaries of the empire reached its greatest extent.
Rome and the rest of the provinces all received the benefit of his wise administration, and the empire reached its highest point of material grandeur. Roads were constructed for the aid of the provincials. He restored the harbors of Italy and improved the water supply of Rome. He built two new baths, one of which was for the exclusive use of women. The greatest monument of Trajan was the new Forum, in which a splendid column was erected to commemorate his victories.
During this period Roman art reached its pinnacle of development. The art of the Romans, as we have before noticed, was modeled largely in part, after that of the Greeks. While lacking the fine sense of beauty which the Greeks possessed, the Romans yet expressed to a remarkable degree the ideas of massive strength and of imposing dignity. In their sculpture and painting they were least original, reproducing the figures of Greek deities, like those of Venus and Apollo, and Greek mythological scenes, as shown in the wall paintings at Pompeii. Roman sculpture is seen to good advantage in the statues and busts of the emperors, and in such reliefs as those on the arch of Titus and the column of Trajan.
However, it is truly in architecture that the Romans excelled; and by their splendid creations, they have taken rank among the world’s greatest builders. Under Trajan’s reign, Rome became a city of magnificent public buildings. The architectural center of the city was the Roman Forum, with the additional Forums of Julius, Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, and Trajan. Surrounding these were the temples, the basilicas or halls of justice, porticoes, and other public buildings. The most conspicuous buildings which would attract the eyes of one standing in the Forum were the splendid temples of Jupiter and Juno upon the Capitoline hill. While it is true that the Romans obtained their chief ideas of architectural beauty from the Greeks, it is a question whether Athens, even in the time of Pericles, could have presented such a scene of imposing grandeur as did Rome in the time of Trajan and Hadrian, with its forums, temples, aqueducts, basilicas, palaces, porticoes, amphitheaters, theaters, circuses, baths, columns, triumphal arches, and tombs.
Just one month short of his 64th birthday, on the 9th of August in117 AD, the great Emperor Trajan died suddenly from a stroke at Selinus in Cilicia on a trek from Syria to Rome. This event prompted the renaming of the city as Trajanopolis and the building of a cenotaph to Trajan.
Publius Aelius Hadrianus “Hadrian” Augustus Reigning (A.D. 117–138)
At the death of Trajan, his adopted Spanish born son Hadrian was proclaimed Emporer by the praetorian guards. Hadrian protested. He did not regard this as a constitutional act, and he requested to be formally elected by the senate, In some respects, he was similar to Trajan, with the same generous spirit and desire for the good of the people. Like Trajan, he also had the same wish to add to the architectural splendor of Rome. Trajan taught him to be a friend of literature and a patron of the fine arts, although he differed from Trajan in not thinking that the greatness of Rome depended upon military glory. He believed that the army should only be maintained; but that foreign conquest was less important than the prosperity of his subjects. In his political ideas and administrative ability, he was a type of the true statesman. He is said to have been a man of wider acquirements and greater general capacity than any previous ruler since Julius Caesar. He was in the best sense liberal and cosmopolitan. Additionally, he was in fact, tolerant of the Christians and put himself in sympathy with the various races and creeds which made up the empire. Hadrian laid down that accusers of Christians had to bear the burden of proof for their denunciations. Against the Jews only, who rose in revolt during his reign, he showed a spirit of unreasonable severity.
Hadrian did not believe that the mission of Rome was to conquer the world but to civilize its own subjects. He therefore voluntarily gave up the extensive conquests of Trajan in the East, the provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. He declared that the Eastern policy of Trajan was a grave mistake. He openly professed to hold fast to the policy of Augustus, which was to improve the empire rather than to expand it.
Another piece of evidence of the statesmanship of Hadrian is seen in the fact that he was agreeable, to take advice. While he is said to have shown on some occasions an exceptional irritability of temperament, he is represented as a man distinguished on the whole by “an ability rarely equaled by the Roman princes”. He paid great deference to the senate; and the body of imperial counselors (consilium principis), which had been occasionally consulted by the previous emperors, became from his time a permanent institution. The emperor was not now the victim of unworthy advisers, as in the time of Tiberius, but was surrounded by men noted for their learning and wisdom. These men were often trained lawyers, who were highly skilled in the rules of justice.
Perhaps the most important event in the reign of Hadrian was his compilation of the best part of the Roman law. Since the XII. Tables there had been no collection of legal rules. That ancient code was framed upon the customs of a primitive people. It did not represent the actual law by which justice was now administered. A new and better law had matured in the courts of the praetors and of the provincial governors. It had been expressed in the edicts of these magistrates, but it had now become voluminous and scattered. Hadrian delegated to one of his jurists, Salvius Julianus, the task of collecting this law into a concise formation so that it could be used for the better administration of justice throughout the empire. This collection was called the Perpetual Edict (Edictum Perpetuum).
Hadrian displayed a stronger sympathy with the provinces than any of his predecessors, and under his reign, the provincials attained a high degree of prosperity and happiness. He conducted himself as a true sovereign and friend of his people. To become acquainted with their condition and to remedy their evils, he spent a large part of his time in visiting the provinces. Of his reign of 21 years, he spent more than two thirds outside of Italy. He made his temporary residence in the main cities of the empire, — in York, Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria — where he was continually looking after the interests of his subjects. In the provinces, as at Rome, he constructed many magnificent public works; and won for himself a renown equal, if not superior, to that of Trajan as a great builder. Rome was decorated with the temple of Venus and Roma, and the splendid mausoleum which today bears the name of the Castle of St. Angelo. Hadrian also built strong fortifications to protect the frontiers, one of these connecting the headwaters of the Rhine and the Danube, and another built on the northern boundary of Britain.
The general organization of the provinces had few changes. There were still the two classes, the senatorial, governed by the proconsuls and propraetors, and the imperial, governed by the legati, or the emperor’s lieutenants. The improvement which took place under the empire in the condition of the provinces was due to the longer term of office given the governors, the more economic management of the finances, and the abolition of the system of farming the revenues.
The good influence of such emperors as Hadrian is seen in the new spirit which inspired the life of the provincials. The people were no longer the prey of the taxgatherer, as in the times of the later republic. They could, therefore, use their wealth to improve and beautify their own cities. The growing public spirit is seen in the new buildings and works, everywhere erected, not only by the city governments but by the generous contributions of private citizens. The relations between the people of different provinces were also becoming closer as a result of the improvement of the means of communication. The roads were now extended throughout the empire and were used not merely for the transportation of armies, but for travel and correspondence. The people thus became better acquainted with one another. Many of the highways were used as post-roads, over which letters might be sent by means of private enterprise or government couriers.
The different provinces of the empire were also brought into closer communication by means of the increasing commerce, which provided one of the most honored pursuits of the Roman citizen. The provinces encircled the Mediterranean Sea, which was now the greatest highway of the empire. The sea was traversed by merchant ships exchanging the products of various lands. The provinces of the empire were thus joined together in one great commercial community.
At the age of 62 Hadrian’s health was declining and thus died of natural causes in July of 138 A.D. After the completion of the Tomb of Hadrian in Rome in 139 by his successor Antoninus Pius, his body was cremated, and his ashes were placed there together with those of his wife Vibia Sabina and his first adopted son, Lucius Aelius, who also died in 138.
Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus “Antoninus Pius” Augustus Pius — Reigning (A.D. 138–161)
Discovering in Roman history a more noble character than that of Hadrian, we would find it in his adopted son and successor, Antoninus, surnamed Pius. The description given of him by his son, Marcus Aurelius, is worthy to be read by all. “In my father,” he says, “I saw mildness of manners, firmness of resolution, contempt of vainglory. He knew when to rest as well as to labor. He taught me to forbear from all improper indulgences, to conduct myself as an equal among equals, to lay on my friends no burden of servility. From him I learned to be resigned to every fortune and to bear myself calmly and serenely; to rise superior to vulgar applause, and to despise vulgar criticism; to worship the gods without superstition and to serve mankind without ambition. He was ever prudent and moderate; he looked to his duty only, and not to the opinions that might be formed of him. Such was the character of his life and manners — nothing harsh, nothing excessive, nothing rude, nothing which showed roughness and violence.”
The reign of Antoninus is known in history as the uneventful reign. Since much that is usually called “eventful” in history is made up of wars, tumults, calamities, and discords, it is to the greatest credit of Antoninus that his reign is called uneventful. No conquests, no insurrections, no proscriptions, no extortions, no cruelty. His reign is an illustration of the maxim, “Happy is the people which has no history.” Although not so great a statesman as Hadrian, he yet maintained the empire in a state of peace and prosperity. He managed the finances with strategic skill and economy. He was kind to his subjects; and interfered to prevent the persecution of the Christians at Athens and Thessalonica.
The most distinguishing feature of his reign was in the field of law. His high sense of justice brought him into close relation with the great jurists of the age, who were now beginning to make their influence felt. With them, he believed that the spirit of the law was more important than the letter. One of his maxims was this: “While the forms of the law must not be lightly altered, they must be interpreted so as to meet the demands of justice.” He laid down the important principle that everyone should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. He mitigated the evils of slavery and declared that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another. It was about the end of his reign that the great elementary treatise on the Roman law called the “Institutes” of Gaius, appeared.
The greatest legacy of antiquity to the modern world is Christianity, Greek philosophy, and Roman law. Which is by far, the highest product of its civilization. It is not to the amphitheaters, circuses, triumphal arches, or to its sacred temples that we must look in order to see the most distinctive and enduring features of Roman life. We must look rather to its basilicas — that is, the courthouses where the principles of justice were administered to the citizens and Roman subjects in the forms of law.
It was during the period of the Antoninus that the imperial government reached its highest development. This government was, in fact, the most remarkable example that the world has ever seen of what we may call a “paternal autocracy” — that is a government in the hands of a single ruler, but exercised solely for the benefit of the people. In this respect, the ideals of Julius and Augustus seem to have been completely realized. The emperor was looked upon as the embodiment of the state, the personification of law, and the promoter of justice, equality, and domestic peace. Every department of the administration was under his control. He had the selection of the officials to carry into execution his will. The character of such a government the Romans well expressed in their maxim, “What is pleasing to the prince has the force of law.”
The Emporer died of illness in 161 and was succeeded by his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as co-emperors.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus — Reigning (A.D. 161–180)
Marcus Aurelius was the adopted son of Antoninus Pius and came to the throne at his father’s death. The new emperor was primarily a philosopher. He had studied in the school of the Stoics and was himself the highest embodiment of their principles. He was wise, brave, just, and temperate. The history of the pagan world presents no higher example of uprightness and manhood. In whatever he did he acted from a pure sense of duty. But his character as a man was no doubt greater than his ability as a statesman. So far as we know, Marcus Aurelius never shrank from a known duty, private or public; but it is not so clear that his sense of personal duty was always in harmony with the best interests of the empire.
In judging this great man, we must not forget that his reign was a time of great misfortunes. Rome was afflicted by a deadly plague and famine, the most terrible in its history. From the East it spread over the provinces, carrying with it death and desolation. One writer affirms, with perhaps some exaggeration, that half the population of the empire perished. The fierce barbarians of the north were also trying to break through the frontiers, and threatening to overrun the provinces. But Marcus Aurelius met all these dangers and difficulties with courage and patience.
The most striking example of the fact that the emperor’s sense of duty was not always in harmony with the highest welfare of the people is shown in his persecution of the Christians. The new religion had found its way throughout the eastern and western provinces. It was first received by the common people in the cities. As it was despised by many, it was the occasion of bitter opposition and often of popular tumults. The secret meetings of the Christians had given rise to scandalous stories about their practices. They were also regarded as responsible in some way for the calamities inflicted by the gods upon the people. Since the time of Nero, the policy of the rulers toward the new sect had varied. But the best of the emperors had previously been cautious like Trajan, or tolerant like Hadrian, or openly friendly like Antoninus. However, Marcus Aurelius sincerely believed that the Christians were the cause of the popular tumults and that the new sect was dangerous to the public peace. He, therefore, issued an order that those who denied their faith should be let alone, but those who confessed should be put to death. The most charitable judgment which can be passed upon this act is that it was the result of a great mistake made by the emperor regarding the character of the Christians and their part in disturbing the peace of society.
During his reign, the peace of the empire was first seriously threatened by invasions from outside the Empire. The two great frontier enemies of Rome were the Parthians on the east and the Germans on the north. The Parthians were soon repelled. But the barbarians from the north, the Marcomanni and Quadi, continued their attacks for fourteen years. Pressed by the Slavonians and the Turanians on the north and east, these tribes were the forerunners of that great migration of the northern nations which finally overran the empire. With courage and a high sense of his mission, the emperor struggled against these hordes and succeeded for the most part in maintaining the northern frontier. He died in his camp at Vienna, at his post of duty.
Marcus Aurelius expressed in his life and writings the highest ideas of Roman philosophy. The Romans cannot, however, be said to have shown any originality in their philosophical systems. These they derived almost entirely from the Greeks. The two systems which were most popular with them were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed that happiness was the great end of life. But the high idea of happiness advocated by the Greek philosophers became degraded into the ideals of pleasure, which could easily excuse almost any form of indulgence. In Rome this idea of life exercising its influence, especially upon the wealthy and indolent classes. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the end of life was to live according to the highest law of our nature. This doctrine tended to make strong and upright characters. It could not well have a degrading influence; some of the noblest men of Rome adhering to its tenets — such men as Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic philosophy also exercised a great and beneficial influence upon the Roman jurists, who believed that the law of the state should be in harmony with the higher law of justice and equity.
The lessons these Emperors have taught us is that when it comes to dealing with people can show interest, respect, non-judgment, and compassion. Also to give assistance, be of service to others and be just.
- © Gena Vazquez 2020