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The Five Good Emperors: Prosperity and Power Before the Final Fall

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The Five Good Emperors is a term referring to a group of Roman emperors who reigned between the 1 st and 2 nd centuries AD. This period is often regarded to be the high point of the Roman Empire, as the prosperity and power of the empire was uninterrupted for over 80 years. Yet, it was also during this time that the first cracks began to emerge in the empire, which would later contribute to the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire.

The Course of the Empire, painting of Rome by Thomas Cole. Photo source: Brandmeister / Public Domain.

The Course of the Empire, painting of Rome by Thomas Cole . Photo source: Brandmeister / Public Domain .

Who Were the Five Good Emperors?

The Five Good Emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Alternatively, the Five Good Emperors are known as the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty. While Nerva was made emperor by the assassins of Domitian, the rest of the Good Emperors came to power as a result of being adopted by their predecessors, as opposed to actual blood relations. The Nerva ‘Dynasty’ consisted of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian; whereas the Antonine ‘Dynasty’ comprised of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Occasionally, the latter includes Lucius Verus, Marcus’ adoptive brother and Commodus, Marcus’ biological son.

The first of the Five Good Emperors was Nerva, who became emperor after the assassination of Domitian in 96 AD. At the time of his ascension Nerva was already 66 years old and was not expected to reign for long. Nerva’s short reign of 15 months meant that he did not have the time to contribute to the empire like the other Good Emperors did. Nevertheless, by accepting the throne after Domitian’s assassination, Nerva was able to prevent the empire from plunging into civil war as had happened in 69 AD after the death of Nero. He once again maintained the stability of the empire by adopting Trajan and naming him his successor.

Expansion and Consolidation

The period of the Five Good Emperors saw the Roman Empire achieve its greatest territorial extent. Trajan’s 19-year reign, which lasted from 98 AD to 117 AD, saw a number of military campaigns being carried out in the East. In 101 AD Trajan launched his first military campaign against the Dacians followed by a second one in 105 AD. The Romans emerged victorious and the emperor’s triumph over the Dacians was commemorated in a triumphal column known as Trajan’s Column . The emperor then campaigned against the Parthians and succeeded in sacking the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. Moreover, Trajan’s campaign saw the annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom, Armenia, and Mesopotamia.

View of Rome with Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, the Column of Trajan and a Temple. (DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain)

View of Rome with Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, the Column of Trajan and a Temple. ( DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain )

The task of consolidating the empire, however, was left in the hands of Trajan’s successor Hadrian, who reigned for 21 years, from 117 AD to 138 AD. Realizing that it was impossible to hold on to the territorial gains made by his predecessor, Hadrian decided to abandon Armenia and Mesopotamia. Unlike Trajan, who believed that Rome’s prestige rested on military conquest, Hadrian was of the opinion that it was more important to develop the areas already under the Rome’s control. Hadrian’s concern for the provinces may be seen in the fact that he visited almost every province of the empire during his reign.
Hadrian, however, was not well-loved by the Senate and after his death was refused deification. His successor Antoninus Pius, however, succeeded in persuading the Senate to confer the customary divine honors upon his adoptive father, thereby earning him the title ‘Pius’. Antoninus Pius’ reign of 23 years, which lasted from 138 AD to 161 AD, was a period of peace during which no major wars or revolts occurred.

Statue of Antonius Pius in armor. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/ Public Domain)

Statue of Antonius Pius in armor. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/ Public Domain )

The Era of The Five Good Emperors Comes to an End

Antoninus Pius was succeeded by his adopted sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who reigned as co-emperors. When the latter died in 169 AD, Marcus became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. For centuries after his death, Marcus was held in high esteem and often considered to be a model emperor. Indeed, Marcus was an abled administrator and well-known for his philosophical views. Unlike his predecessor, however, Marcus’ 19-year reign, which lasted from 161 AD to 180 AD, was much less peaceful. In the same year of his ascension, for instance, the Parthians invaded Syria. Although the war was won by the Romans, the returning troops brought with them the plague. The pandemic, known as the Antonine Plague, ravaged the empire from 165 AD to 180 AD. Additionally, the emperor had to deal with the Germanic tribes who were raiding across Rome’s Danubian frontier.

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Marcus’ greatest failure as emperor, however, was his succession by his biological son Commodus. Unlike his father and the other Good Emperors, Commodus is remembered by history as a tyrannical ruler. Worse still, after his assassination in 192 AD civil war broke out once again and the following year came to be known as the Year of the Five Emperors, during which five emperors sat on the Roman throne in quick succession of each other.

Emperor Commodus as Hercules and as a Gladiator. (Ghirlandajo / Public Domain)

Emperor Commodus as Hercules and as a Gladiator. (Ghirlandajo / Public Domain )

Top image: Powerful Roman Emperor ( vukkostic / Adobe Stock )

By Wu Mingren

References

Bowersock, G. W., 2019. Hadrian. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hadrian
Crook, J. A., 2018. Marcus Aurelius. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marcus-Aurelius-Roman-emperor
Hammond, M., 2018. Trajan. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Trajan
Morey, W. C., 1901. Outlines of Roman History: The Five Good Emperors,—Nerva to Marcus Aurelius. [Online] Available at: https://www.forumromanum.org/history/morey26.html
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. Five Good Emperors. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Five-Good-Emperors
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Antoninus Pius. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Antoninus-Pius
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. Nerva. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nerva-Roman-emperor
www.unrv.com, 2018. Five Good Roman Emperors. [Online] Available at: https://www.unrv.com/early-empire/five-good-emperors.php

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