Five Good Emperors


After the ignominious fall of Domitian, the last Flavian Roman Emperor, in the year 96, the Senate and people of Rome were looking for stability and grounded leadership -- two qualities which had been of negligible prominence during the 15 years that Domitian had been in office. It is interesting that at this point, there was no consideration of abolishing the Principate system ("Princeps" was the official title given to the office we now refer to as "Roman Emperor," though I'll use the latter term from now on) despite the fact that it had only been in existence for a little more than a hundred years and had really produced only four decent rulers up to that point. The Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) was the nadir of the Principate on a logistical level by that time (to say nothing of simply bad rulers or of later crises that would follow) since it revealed a fundamental flaw in the scheme: how to answer once and for all the question of succession? The Julio-Claudian Dynasty had died out the year before with the suicide of Nero and within 12 months, three other generals had claimed the purple and been killed by rival aspirants before the fourth, Vespasian, solidified his grasp on power and stayed there for the next ten years. It seemed likely that upon the death of Domitian, Vespasian's younger son, a similar crisis would be likely to erupt.

Somewhat surprisingly, one did not. The Senate appointed and confirmed one of their own, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, as Emperor in 96. On the face of it, it was sort of a surprising choice for two main reasons: first, Nerva was a virtual unknown outside of political circles and second, he had no military background. It was exactly because of these reasons, however, that Nerva was the perfect choice. He was old compared to previous Emperors (66 at the time of his ascent) and he was seen as something of a consensus builder; the Senate could rely on him to keep their interests in mind, which was something that previous Emperors (specifically Tiberius, Caligula, and Domitian) had balked at doing. He was also nonthreatening in the sense that as he was not a soldier, he would not have the complete and personal backing of the army that could have enabled him to institute mass proscriptions. Unfortunately, this lack of a military background hurt him since Domitian (whose family was staunchly entrenched with the army) was still popular with the legions. In fact, the Praetorian Guard at one point threatened to kill him if he did not produce Domitian's murderers and appoint a successor to their liking. To placate them, he adopted as his son (and thus his designated successor) one Marcus Ulpius Traianus, the famous Spanish general whom we refer to as Trajan.

Nerva died in 98, less than two years after taking power. His death was natural and the succession of Trajan was without controversy. It seems obvious that Nerva was supposed to be an "interim" Emperor given his nonthreatening personality and advanced age. He made a number of goodwill gestures to the various interest groups of Roman politics and continued public works started by his predecessors. Conciliatory and humble, Nerva wasn't so much a "good" Emperor as he was a "not bad" one, although there is a tendency nowadays in contemporary analysis of the era to regard him as a poor administrator. Still, Rome could (and ultimately would) do much worse.

Golden Age

Edward Gibbon, in his popular book about the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (appropriately called The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), refers to the era of the Five Good Emperors (96-180) as a sort of Golden Age: a time when the most number of people were at their most happy and prosperous for the longest uninterrupted period of time. Those interested in social/people's history might disagree with this assessment, but it's hard to deny that something was changing for the better in terms of the administration and stability of the Empire. Some people regard Trajan as a better Emperor than even Augustus, which is amazing when you consider the esteem in which people held Augustus: he was like George Washington, Winston Churchill, and King Arthur all rolled into one, a semi-mythical figure who led his people out from chaos and into a new age of honour and prosperity. Trajan, and all subsequent Emperors, had a tough act to follow. For his part, this commander from Spain hit the ground running. Given his military background, he was expected to embark on great campaigns, which he did with great success. He conquered Dacia (modern Rumania) and crucially added its expansive gold and silver mines to the Imperial revenue. With this money, he funded public works and further wars of expansion.

Trajan next set his sights on Arabia, annexing parts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Finally, his greatest military campaign took him into the heart of Persia, conquering Armenia, Mesopotamia, and parts of Western Iran. He overthrew the Parthian king and put his own candidate on the throne, temporarily neutralizing what had been Rome's most serious adversary in the East. During the Persian campaign, however, various revolts sprung up in the newly conquered territories and Trajan left the front to deal with them. During his trip, he fell ill and died in the year 117. Trajan had some fascinating titles and honorifics: all spelled out, his "official" name would have been something like Marcus Ulpius Nerva (reflecting his adoption) Traianus Augustus (his title) Dacius Maximus (great conqueror of Dacia) Optimus (the best). His was also a tough act to follow and that responsibility fell to his cousin and lifelong friend Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known to us as Hadrian.

If Trajan was Dionysian, Hadrian was Apollonian. Hadrian was more practical than his glory-seeking predecessor and realized that the conquest of Mesopotamia would have taxed Roman security forces too badly to have been worth the while, so he recalled the army and set up a more defensible perimeter outside of Armenia and then proceeded to have his armies on the frontier build fortresses and walls to solidify their positions. The most famous of these encampments is Hadrian's Wall in Northern England, which stretched some 73 miles across the island of Britannia and kept the Picts out. Hadrian believed in not overextending the Empire and he never embarked on any wars of conquest. He did put down a major revolt in Judaea which sprung up over (a) his desire to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city and (b) his banning of the practice of circumcision. The revolt was quite bloody for the Romans and embittered Hadrian so much that upon the successful conclusion of it, he expelled all Jews from Jerusalem and renamed the city Aelia Capitonlina, thus fulfilling his original intention. Going a step further, he put an end to the practice of allowing local client kings to rule in the area and renamed the region Syria Palaestina.

Hadrian's objection to circumcision was due mainly to his Hellenism, a view that encompassed a combination of Greek humanism and Near Eastern cultural leanings. As an intellectual, Hadrian was dedicated to improving the station of his people (or peoples) by building cities and public works. He was famous for bringing into fashion the dome. He enjoyed this architectural innovation so much that he seems to have had Trajan's favorite architect, Apollodorus, put to death for ridiculing it. Hadrian also undertook an extensive tour of the Empire, examining conditions in all places and checking out the defensibility of their positions. Hadrian died from a protracted illness in 136, and his adopted son Titus Aurelius Antoninus succeeded him. Antoninus was actually his second adopted son as his first one, Lucius Aelius Caesar, died seven months before Hadrian did.

Antonine Dynasty

I cheated a little bit when I called this node "Five Good Emperors" because I'm going to go a little further than that, but more on that subject at its appropriate time. Antoninus Pius (as he became known for his devotion to Hadrian's memory) could be summed up in one word: moderate. Like all good moderates, his reign was noticeably devoid of great innovations and featured a lot of delegation. He engaged in the standard public works and largesse upon his succession, and he allowed local officials to deal with issues as they best saw fit in the provinces. Antoninus Pius was like Nerva in the sense that he was seen as sort of a consensus builder, except for the fact that he actually kept good relations with the military. He continued on in Hadrian's tradition of promoting Hellenism, but in an altogether inoffensive fashion that didn't result in bloody uprisings (although there were a few minor provincial revolts that his governors dealt with). The most notable thing about Antoninus Pius' reign, truly, are his successors: Hadrian's nephew Marcus Annius Verus and Lucius Annius Verus, the natural son of Lucius Aelius Caesar. When Antoninus Pius died in 161, both of these men succeeded him (an arrangement which had rarely worked out well in the past and would not work out well in the future). In keeping with Roman naming conventions, Marcus changed his name to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus upon his adoption. Though technically joint rulers, it was obvious that Lucius was the junior partner. Lucius' main function seems to have been to command the armies in the East while Marcus Aurelius called the shots in the capitol. This arrangement worked out all right because Lucius defeated the Parthians and Marcus set about various legal reforms and public to the benefit of the reputation of both.

Marcus Aurelius was essentially deified in popular culture by the film Gladiator, but he was not completely like his fictional portrayal. He had no interest, for example, in abolishing the Principate and restoring the Republic. He also did not shut down the gladiatorial games although it's unknown exactly what sorts of spectacles he put on. Both Marcus and Lucius traveled to the Danube to deal with Germanic invasions, but in 169, Lucius died from an unknown plague which was likely contracted during the campaign in the East. This plague would soon consume the Empire, killing large swaths of people daily for a period of 15 years. For his part, Marcus would spend essentially the rest of his life at war. While not through with the Germans, a serious revolt in the East broke out, with basically all of the provinces in that area declaring in favor of an usurper. He put down the revolt, however, and toured Greece in an effort to seem every bit the intellectual heir of Hadrian. Perhaps influenced by his trip to the cradle of Western thought, he wrote his famous Meditations, a classic of Stoic philosophical writing, while on the campaign in Germania. He died of cancer in 180, effectively ending the Pax Romana.

Five Good Emperors...and One Bad One

There was no succession crisis upon the death of Marcus Aurelius. Like his four predecessors, he had a candidate in mind before his death, and that individual did in fact succeed him. In reading this description of the lives and times of the Five Good Emperors, what is the salient feature? None of them ever designated his natural son to succeed him, meaning that succession was based on merit rather than family connections. Marcus Aurelius, for all the good that is ascribed to him, broke with this tradition when he named his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus to succeed him in 166. In fact, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus ruled jointly for about three years before the former's natural death (no, Commodus did not smother him with a pillow). It's sort of difficult to understand why Marcus Aurelius broke with this tradition as it must have been clear to him that his son was wholly unprepared for the responsibility of absolute power. He had no political or military experience to speak of and really never had a chance to demonstrate any since he became Emperor at the age of 19.

Commodus was a much stranger person than Gladiator makes him out to be. He started out all right, eventually making peace with the Germans and realizing that he was unequipped for statecraft. He left the affairs of state to his ministers while he engaged in idle pleasures. There are two big misconceptions about Commodus that Gladiator puts forth: the first is that nobody liked him and the second is that he was only around for a short while. In reality, Commodus was popular with the common people (on account of his almost constant staging of lavish games) and the army (due mainly to the fact that he paid them well and kept them busy) but completely loathed by the Senatorial class. The feeling was mutual, and it wasn't long before conspiracies against him broke out. He put down all of them except for the one that ultimately claimed his life in 192 (meaning that he ruled for 12 years in contrast to the few short months depicted in the film). I won't go on extensively about his eccentricities, but he adopted a Caligulan notion of being descended directly from the gods, favoring the mantle of Hercules for himself. He frequently dressed in the manner of Hercules, wearing a lion skin and carrying a club. In life, Commodus had himself depicted in the nude, which was taboo as non-sexual nudity in Roman art was exclusively used to depict actual gods. Many of his surviving statues reflect this. He gave himself 12 names so all the months of the year could in some way be named after himself: Lucius Aelius (emphasizing descent from Hadrian) Aurelius Commodus Augustus (title) Hercules (as a god) Romanus (as the embodiment of Rome) Exsuperatorius (a title for Jupiter, roughly meaning supreme) Amazonius Invictus (Invicible) Felix (lucky/happy) Pius. He changed the name of Rome itself to the Colonia Commodia and mandated that people should refer to themselves as "Commodians" rather than "Romans."

Then, of course, there's his famous career as a gladiator. Yes, he engaged in gladiatorial combat. Yes, he was ultimately killed by a gladiator. It was of course scandalous (imagine if the President of the United States took on Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H in a three-way title bout) but Commodus didn't care. He won all of his fights because his opponents were usually already wounded or otherwise dying. Finally, on December 31 192 (or should I say 31 Pius 945 AUC?) he was strangled to death by a wrestler named Narcissus while taking a bath. As you might expect, this led to a succession crisis and to up the ante on the Year of Four Emperors, 193 became the Year of Five Emperors, which featured the sale of the Empire to Didius Julianus before finally, a Libyan general named Septimius Severus won the day and established the even more ill-fated Severan Dynasty.


The rulers in power from the period of 96 to 192 are sometimes referred to as the Nervian-Antoninan Dynasty to include Commodus in the bunch since he doesn't really fit in anywhere else. As I mentioned earlier, the most obvious feature of the time is that four consecutive Emperors attained power without a civil war and all of them preferred the merit of his successor to bonds between natural father and natural son -- with the notable exception of Marcus Aurelius. However, I'd like to pose a question: were the Five Good Emperors really all that "good"? Trajan and Hadrian were undoubtedly two of the finest rulers Rome ever had, but Nerva and Antoninus Pius were basically nonentities. These two didn't really do anything that great in my opinion aside from maintain the status quo. Honestly, though, neither of them will ever show up on a "worst of" list. They provided stability (if stagnation) in a time when it had been sorely lacking. It's difficult to fault the aged Nerva or the cautious Antoninus for not wanting to rock the boat and I won't take that away from them. Marcus Aurelius and Commodus are also interesting cases.

Although Commodus is generally seen as the guilty party in terms of bringing about the fall of the Pax Romana, it's undeniable that the problems had their origins in Marcus Aurelius' reign. The plagues, the multiple wars, and the devaluation of the Roman currency began in the 160s and 170s. The revolt against Marcus Aurelius was significant because some of the most important Eastern provinces, especially Egypt and Syria, wanted him out. The whole thing started when it was rumored that Aurelius had died, but even after it was discovered that he was still alive, these provinces still favored the would-be claimant. The only reason he didn't succeed is because his second in command killed him. Aurelius couldn't really deal with these issues in any effective way because, truly, what could you do about a plague and a three-front war?

Commodus was also in something of an untenable position. By the time of his accession, his father had been at war for almost his entire reign. Given his youth and inexperience, it's as if he were destined to be a failure. His later reign was certainly bold and daring, but not in any positive or constructive way. It's possible that if he had been given more time to mature, his reign would have been more, shall we say, restrained. Then there's the fact that we don't really know the full story about him: remember that history was written mainly by those of the Senatorial class, with whom Commodus was embroiled in conflict. It's quite likely that accounts of his rule are incomplete and in some cases, partially fabricated. The Five Good Emperors were good, but they weren't good enough to change human nature or to prevent disease and war. Their successors wouldn't have much luck either.

Flavian Dynasty | Five Good Emperors | Severan Dynasty

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