The Five Good Emperors

Deliverable #2: In-depth Paper

September 28, 2002

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In ancient Rome, the period of time between 96 AD and 180 AD is often referred to as that of the "Five Good Emperors", because the five men that came to power during this period brought the Roman Empire a strength and prosperity unseen since the days of Octavian. They were to be the last great emperors before the decline and fall of the empire. It was the manner of their selection that allowed the empire to prosper, for each of the five emperors was chosen based on skill and experience, rather than made emperor through blood ties or civil wars.

Prior to appointment of the first of the "five good emperors", the empire had found itself in dire times. Constant civil war over the position of emperor left the people demoralized and vulnerable, with an unsteady government to protect them. This changed in 69 AD when Flavius Vespasian was victorious in his civil war and was proclaimed emperor. He stabilized the government and put the people's mind at ease. This was not to last however, and his second son Domitian took the position of emperor in 81 AD. Domitian's cruelty and eccentric desires inspired a disgust among the public that is rumored to have rivaled Nero's. The public was fearful of another aftermath of civil war however, so rebellions were few and far between. Domitian was eventually murdered in 96 AD, leaving the empire with no leader to turn to.

With the murder of Domitian, the blood line to the throne was ended, and no generals were in position to take control. This gave the senate the opportunity to choose a suitable new leader. Marcus Cocceius Nerva was chosen to be that leader, a long time Flavius supporter with a strong history as a senator with influential political ties. He was already 66 when he became emperor, and had no sons to carry on the title. He was to remain in office only two years, but would create a tradition that would keep the empire strong for the next 84 years.

In reality, Nerva's short time in power kept him from making any major changes to Roman society. He was labeled as a great leader mainly due to comparison from the previous emperor the people had been subjected to. Most of the changes he put into effect were merely repairing the damage that Domitian had caused before him. In the two years that he reigned he put forth a number of budget changes, allotting more to the poor of Italy and refusing to have gold or silver statues made of himself. He also swore before the senate to never execute it's members. It was the at the end of his life, however, that Nerva truly made his mark on Rome and provided the means for it to be a strong society for years to come.

In the past, the method of passing along the title of emperor had primarily been through shared bloodlines, whether the emperor's son, nephew, or a far more removed connection. However, Nerva had no sons to pass his title on to. Instead, he nominated a successor that had already proven himself in the Roman system. He adopted Marcus Ulpius Trajanus as his heir.

Trajan was an understandable choice as successor to the throne. He was currently commanding the troops on the Rhine, and already held a high level of respect from the armies of Rome. He was 46 by the time he became emperor in 98 AD, and already had plenty of past experience. He is remembered as a quiet military man of high ability and character. Trajan stayed in the Rhine and Danube regions of the empire for a few years, strengthening defenses and assessing loyalties, before finally returning to Rome in 100 AD. Although his style of rule had many similarities to the cruel and eccentric Domitian's, Trajan's good nature and respect for his former superiors won him great favor and respect.

Trajan's new ideas and attitude provided Rome with a terrific boost to both the economy and it's military conquests. Taking note of the poor financial situation the empire was in, Trajan put forth new ideas for profit, rather than the usual taxation of the masses or confiscation and fines. Instead, he cut down on the spending for unneeded luxuries in both his imperial household and public departments, as well as weakening monopolies to help free trade flourish. These measures generated a vast public wealth that no other rule had previously achieved.

Trajan was still a soldier at heart, however, and the economic boost could hold his interest for only so long. It was during Trajan's reign that the empire's borders reached their greatest extent, although they were lost again almost immediately afterwards. Trajan's first conquest was against the Dacians in modern-day Romania, who had been raiding within the borders of Rome under the command of their king, Decebalus. In 101 AD, Trajan organized his first expedition against the Dacians. He bridged the Danube and marched on the Dacian capital with frightening ferocity. Decebalus submitted, but then reverted to his old ways almost immediately after. Trajan was forced to take to the field against him once again and Dacia was conquered in 106 AD, it's leader choosing suicide over Roman execution.

Another campaign of conquest was started in 113 AD when the Parthians placed a king in Armenia without Rome's approval. Although it is likely Trajan's personal ambitions were likely also a factor, this was reason enough to depose the Parthians of any might that could begin to rival Rome's. Over the next three years he took Armenia, marched south east across Mesopotamia and Assyria, ending at the Persian Gulf. Although he wished to move against Parthia further, uprisings in the newly acquired land and his own failing health forced him to retreat back to Italy, leaving the east in the hands of his successor, Hadrian. Trajan never made it back to Rome, dying in Cilicia in 117 AD.

After Trajan's death, Publius Aelius Hadrianus was named as his successor. It is unknown whether Trajan had previously named Hadrian, or the decision was made by Trajan's wife after his death. In either case, the eastern armies had already hailed Hadrian as their new emperor, and the senate was quick to make it official. Hadrian had accompanied Trajan in many of his military conquests, and had been left in charge of the Rhine when Trajan had left for Rome. Hadrian acted as Trajan's second in command during the war against Parthians, and was an understandable choice for the soldiers to rally behind. Before his visit to Rome for the deification of his predecessor however, four men of power that Trajan had put in command throughout the empire were executed by orders of the senate. Although Hadrian claimed no responsibility, suspicion haunted him for the rest of his life.

Hadrian proved to be a much different man than his predecessor, however. Hadrian's ideas of strengthening government and not overstretching the empire's resources were a direct contrast to Trajan's expansions. Where Trajan saw marauding barbarians that could be conquered by his armies, Hadrian saw an untamed frontier that would prove to costly to hold. In his bid to strengthen the empire as a whole, he ordered the land that had been taken in the Parthian campaign to be abandoned, and instead fell back to the Euphrates river in current day Turkey. He theorized that the only way to defeat Rome's enemies was to maintain organized efficiency, a skill which the barbarians lacked. He also believed that the empire would be best protected by declaring it's borders on either natural or man-made boundaries. It was in the spirit of this belief that he had a massive wall built along the empire's northern border in Britain. Hadrian's wall, as it is called, has come to represent his stronghold ideal.

The great expanse of the empire had proved difficult in maintaining a connection from the government of Rome to the outer territories, leaving those territories to be governed more by local leaders than Rome itself. Hadrian differed from other emperors in this respect, spending much of his time visiting the outer regions of the empire and inspecting the military garrisons spread throughout. For although calm, his rule was not entirely peaceful. During his reign he made an enemy of the Jewish people by forbidding their religious practices and by building a shrine to the god Jupiter on the site of a previously razed ancient Jewish temple. The Jews raised against him in anger, prompting Hadrian to order the eradication of fifty Jewish fortresses and almost a thousand villages.

In his later years, Hadrian became less popular with the people, garnering the image of a cruel man who no longer held the best interests of Rome as his primary concern. This image was further validated by his first choice as successor, Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus. Lucius Aelius had very few qualifications for the job, and Hadrian was believed to have selected him for only his good looks. Lucius soon died however, and Hadrian was left to his next choice for successor, a far more qualified man named Antoninus. Hadrian died that same year in the June of 138 AD at his imperial villa.

Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, or Antoninus Pius as he would later be called, proved to be another bastion of stability for the empire. Antoninus had been born into a family of powerful politicians, and had followed his ancestors example to the fullest. He had already reached consulship by the time Hadrian was declared emperor, and he was soon made an administrator for the new emperor. During this time, he served what many would have considered a full career under Hadrian. After the death of Hadrian's would-be successor, Antoninus proved a prime choice for heir. Hadrian adopted Antoninus, and in return Antoninus adopted Hadrian's nephew by marriage, Marcus Annius Verus, a youth with whom Hadrian had spent considerable time, as well as the original successor's orphaned eight year old, Lucius Ceionius Commodus.

Antoninus' reign brought 23 years of peace to an empire that had been undergoing political upheavals and wars for centuries. It was this lack of major changes that made his reign such a successful one. His major social works included finishing many of the projects that Hadrian had started, continuing the suppression of spending on extravagant luxuries, and giving gifts and public games to the people and men whom distinguished themselves to the empire. Holding an interest in law like many of his predecessors, he formed legislation for the protection of slaves, as well as furthering a number of family protection laws. After his wife died in 141 AD, he dedicated a program in her memory that offered loans to farmers, and then donated the funds that were generated from it to orphaned girls. Also, during numerous disasters and famine, Antoninus was known for providing oil, grain, and wine free to those affected, through his own private funds. Acts like these prompted the Senate to bestow the name "Pius" on their dedicated emperor.

Unlike Hadrian before him, Antoninus spent most of his time in Rome proper, bringing the strength of the government back to it's original home. He claimed that he didn't want to burden the outer territories with the cost that entails housing an emperor. Antoninus was only able to do this because of the information that Hadrian had gathered before him. Only two major changes were made to the empire's borders during his reign, an expansion and strengthening of the eastern boarder in upper Germany, and a fortified earthen wall constructed some distance north of Hadrian's Wall in Britain. From his position in Rome, Antoninus was also able to thwart a Parthian attack on Armenia by personally writing the Parthian king a letter of warning.

In preparation for his passing of the empire to his two pre-appointed heirs, his daughter was married to Marcus Aurelius in 145 AD, and both of the young men had already held the consulship numerous times. Antoninus' stable empire had also proved helpful in providing a large surplus for which the two successors could rely on. Antoninus died in 161 AD, having provided the empire with a period of safety, prosperity, and sanctity that could quite possibly be the greatest it would ever see.

After Antoninus' death in 161 AD, Hadrian's plans for the future of the empire were soon put into effect. Marcus was the unopposed choice for new emperor, and he immediately named his brother Lucius co-emperor. Although both had been given a similar education, Marcus proved to be a far more responsible leader than his younger brother. Marcus had a love of philosophy, but was often forced to sacrifice his personal desires for the best interests of the empire. He believed that his responsibility was to Rome first, everything else was unimportant in comparison. His brother did not share this self-limiting lifestyle however, and often used the resources available to him to pursue enjoyment and luxuries when his attention was needed elsewhere. This became apparent to the elder Marcus when he sent Lucius to oversee the war against Parthia in 162 AD. Unlike during Antoninus' reign, the enemies of the empire were quite active during this period, with Parthia making another attempt at Armenia and Germanic tribes rallying together against Rome in the north.

In the east, Lucius, who had very little military experience, spent the majority of his time entertaining himself at cities far from the front lines. Realizing the gravity of the situation with the Parthians, Marcus also dispatched some of Rome's greatest military figures along with Lucius, giving command of the forces in Syria to Avidius Cassius. Under the command of these great men, Rome's army devastated the Parthian kingdom. The Parthians capitulated in 166 after four years of desperate losses. The victory over Parthia was short lived, however, as a plague spread across the empire. The emperors did their best to control the disease, and offer aid to those effected by it. However, another war was soon to break out, diverting the rulers' attention once again.

To the north, a collection of German tribes allied together against the empire, making themselves a major threat to the safety of the Roman people. The two emperors quickly conscripted an army and marched to defend the empire in 168 AD, Marcus attending to this war in person. Lucius Veras died the next year, after a supposed peace with the barbarians. However, the German tribes broke the peace and crossed the Danube, laying siege to a city in Roman territory. Marcus began a slow war of dividing and conquering the tribes that was interrupted in 175 AD when Avidius Cassius claimed himself to be a new emperor. Marcus begrudgingly traveled to Syria, only to find Cassius killed before he arrived. Marcus soon returned to the German front with his son Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus. Marcus died at the front in 180 AD, leaving both the war and the empire in the hands of his 16 year old son. This was to be the first time in over 80 years that the title of emperor was passed to someone chosen by blood rather than adopted on account of ability, and would prove to end the period of great rulers.

The passing of leadership to Marcus' son, Commodus, proved to be a fatal step in the future of the Roman empire. He immediately offered peace with the barbarians, forgoing his father's war for the safety and luxury that the city of Rome could provide him. An agreement was reached, and the reputation of Rome was forever weakened. Commodus proved to be another Nero incarnate, put into a position of power too young and without the proper training and experience. Commodus' crazed megalomania was a sure sign that the golden age of the empire was over. He was assassinated in 192 AD, plunging the empire once again into civil war.

Although each of these emperors had a different way of managing the empire, a shared goal made them all effective emperors. Each of these men realized the importance of the empire over themselves, and each was willing to make sacrifices in order to strengthen it. The continuing of the line by adoption rather than by blood allowed the best candidates to be selected, ensuring that the likes of Domitian and Nero, youths simply born into the power of emperor, could no longer threaten the empire.

The seemingly coincidental lack of imperial sons had provided emperors selected for competency and destined to succeed. This provided a haven for the empire from the civil wars and internal conflicts that had been tearing it apart since it's earliest days. Within this shelter, the empire grew and prospered, and reached the greatest expanse of territory, power, and influence that it, or arguably any other country in the world, would ever see again.

Copyright 2002, All rights reserved


Original Web Upload June 2002
Last Update: September 28, 2002