The bad emperors (Nero, Caligula) and the first Christian Emperor (Constantine) seem to be the best known as far as the public is concerned. But I think we could all learn a lot personally, and call our society to a higher standard via a close look at the so-called “Five Good Emperors.” It actually surprises me how little known they seem to be among my peers, and even among some educated Rome aficionados I’ve met. Let me provide some background info first off.
Categorizing Roman History
There are several divisions of history to keep in mind when talking about the Roman Empire. There’s the Principate which began with Augustus and ended with the Crisis of the Third Century as well as the Dominate which began with Diocletian and continued through to the end. The character of the latter is remarkably different from the former–more of a blatant autocratic monarchy as opposed to the facade of republicanism characterized by its predecessor. During the Principate, the emperor styled themselves as “first among equals” and pretended the Senate was still the final authority while the Emperor reigned as a king in all but name. This system was devised by Augustus after seeing his adopted father, Julius Caesar, get assassinated for flaunting his power too obviously and proclaiming himself “Dictator for Life.”
With a few notable exceptions, all (of western and the united) Rome’s great Emperors fall in the Principate era, which is what we’re going to focus on from here on out. Now, there were four dynasties that make up this period: The Julio-Claudian, Flavian, Nerva-Antonine and finally the Severan. The longest and greatest of these was the Nerva-Antonine, which came to power when the last Flavian Emperor, Domitian, died and the Senate granted Nerva the office of Princeps (the title “Emperor” is a modern anachronism). They would reign from 96 to 180 CE, during the period where Rome was at the peak of its power. In fact, the Empire was at its greatest territorial extent under Trajan, of this dynasty.
The Roman Empire’s Golden Age
Speaking of which, it’s time we actually put names to these guys. The first was Nerva, then Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and finally Marcus Aurelius (known to history as the “Philosopher King.”) What set them apart was that each man actually qualified for the position–there was no nepotism or hereditary succession which plagued literally all of the other dynasties Rome, (or any other monarchy) has ever had. Even in the Principate, the other three dynasties produced some truly horrible leaders by virtue of the fact that they happened to be related to the previous Emperor, so they ascended to power despite their obvious shortcomings. (Most dramatically, Augustus led to Caligula and Nero while Septimius Severus led to Elagabalus and Caracalla for example.) Here for the first time, you saw Nerva (who was old and childless when he got the job) pass on the title to an adopted heir. Now, this in itself wasn’t new. Julius Caesar adopted Augustus for example. But even then, Augustus was his great-nephew. Here, there was absolutely no familial link between both men and more importantly, the tradition continued for more than one generation.
Trajan, Hadrian and Antonius Pius all continued this trend, adopting the most promising young upstart in Roman government as their heir, and it worked wonderfully. There was a peaceful transition of power (unlike the various years of Four/Five/Six Emperors Rome suffered, as well as the Crisis of the Third Century) and just as important, no maniacs or incompetent people got handed control of the known world. The end of this tradition, when Marcus Aurelius gave control to his biological son Commodus, is commonly cited by historians as the turning point in Rome’s history. Obviously it would survive nearly 300 more years in the West and 1300 in the East, but mostly through inertia rather than good management. There would occasionally be a great Emperor who’d turn things around for awhile–Severus, Julian the Apostate, Constantine and Justinian come to mind–but on the whole the quality of leadership declined and the periods of chaos/multiple emperors increased. (In my personal opinion, while Commodus was indeed the beginning of the downward trajectory, Honorius was the beginning of the end. That is to say, his reign was the point when the Western Empire became unsalvageable.)
Here’s a quick look at all of them sans-Nerva (who was more of a significant but brief launch point than a worthy peer of his descendants):
Best known for overseeing a successful series of wars which lead to Rome reaching its territorial peak. He led a successful invasion of Parthia, sacking the Capitol city of Ctesiphon. At home, his reign was one of peace and prosperity with many public works projects commissioned including Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column. He created a welfare program known as the alimenta, which aided poor children and orphans. The contemporary Romans considered him the best of the Emperors, and an example of this includes the phrase “Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano” (more fortunate than Augustus, greater than Trajan) said upon the coronation of later Emperors.
Known for constructing Hadrian’s Wall, the Temple of Venus and Roma and rebuilding the Pantheon. Traveled to every province in the Empire to get a feel for the people he ruled and what each segment of the population needed. Was a great admirer of Greek culture, and worked to restore Athens through many construction projects.
Instituted some legal reforms including greater enfranchisement of slaves—making it a crime to kill your own, and allowing a Proconsul to separate them from owners in cases of mistreatment. Also established the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” concerning criminal trials. He mitigated the use of torture and prohibited its application against children. Antoninus also constructed the Antonine Wall and expanded access to clean drinking water throughout the empire. He was also unique in allowing local governors greater autonomy in dealing with political matters, as well as receiving and sending envoys to India and Han China. In that regard, Antoninus represents a fascinating road not taken in Roman history, one of greater integration with the larger international community. Unfortunately, plagues and Germanic incursions would force his successor to focus on local matters, and from there interest in communication with the far east was lost.
As the author of Meditations he is considered a great philosopher of Stoicism. Led another war against Parthia and sacked Ctesiphon once again. Also led successful campaigns against Armenia and several Germanic tribes in the Marcomannic Wars. “Alone of the emperors,” wrote the historian Herodian, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”
This period fascinates me to no end, as does the idea of a benevolent dictatorship with succession through adoption of the most worthy candidate. I realize such a system would still be vulnerable to a good ruler turning corrupt or perhaps dying without an heir lined up, but in a perfect world I believe this is how things should be. I really wish the Empire had had a formal Constitution written up that enshrined this practice–Rome might still be around today. Furthermore, it frustrates me that the Medieval Kingdoms did not learn from history and utilize this form of government–how much suffering and setbacks might humanity have been spared? Alas, this form of succession is but a tantalizing footnote in history. A glimpse at what might’ve been…
I’ll end by noting that the term “Five Good Emperors” was coined by Machiavelli and popularized by Edward Gibbon, perhaps the most famous modern historian of the Roman Empire. In his quintessential series, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he said unequivocally that these five were the greatest of Rome’s leaders. In his own words:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”