The Five Good Emperors: The High Point of the Roman Empire

The “Five Good Emperors” is a term used to refer to Roman emperors who are recognized for their relatively stable and prosperous rule and their efforts to improve governance and administration. They have been depicted as model rulers throughout history, from writers around the time (like Cassius Dio), to famous figures in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods (like Machiavelli and Edward Gibbon).

Collectively they are supposed to have overseen the greatest period of peace and prosperity that the Roman Empire witnessed – what Cassius Dio described as a “Kingdom of Gold” underwritten by good government and wise policy.

Who Were the Five Good Emperors?

four-of-the-five-good-emperors
Four of the Five Good Emperors: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius

The Five Good Emperors belonged exclusively to the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96 AD – 192 AD), which was the third Dynasty of Roman emperors that ruled over the Roman Empire. They included Nerva, the founder of the dynasty, and his successors Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

These constituted all but two of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, with Lucius Verus and Commodus left out of the illustrious five. This is because Lucius Verus ruled jointly with Marcus Aurelius but did not live for very long, whilst Commodus is the one who brought the dynasty, and the “kingdom of gold”, to an ignominious end.

Indeed, after the calamitous rule of Commodus, the empire has been seen to have fallen into a gradual but irretrievable decline, with some points of optimism, but never to return to the heights of the Nerva-Antonines. Whilst then, there were two emperors excluded, a history of the Five Good Emperors is in part, a history of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.

Nerva (96 AD – 98 AD)

nerva

As mentioned above, Nerva came from deep within the senatorial ranks and was propped up by that aristocratic body as Roman emperor in 96 AD. However, this seemed to have been done without the express consent of the military who by this point had become pivotal in the legitimacy of each emperor’s accession and his subsequent reign.

Therefore, whilst Nerva tried to busy himself with the affairs of the state, his position from the beginning, was quite precarious. The senate also felt as though Nerva had not been sufficiently retributive towards those who had excelled under his predecessor Domitian, by informing on and scheming against their peers.

These informers, or “delatores” who were often despised in senatorial circles, began to be hunted down and accused by senators, in a chaotic and uncoordinated fashion, whilst those who had been previously informed against and imprisoned were released. In all of this, Nerva seemed unable to get a proper grip on affairs.

Moreover, to appease the people (who had been quite fond of Domitian) Nerva introduced various tax-relief and rudimentary welfare schemes. Yet, these, combined with the customary “donatives” payments Nerva had given to the army, caused the Roman state to overspend.

As such, although Nerva is heralded as the starting point of this illustrious dynasty, he was beset by a number of problems during his brief reign. By October 97 AD, these troubles had culminated in a military coup spearheaded by the praetorian guard in Rome.

The events that unfolded are not entirely clear, but it seems as though the praetorians besieged the imperial palace and held Nerva hostage. They forced Nerva to give up some court officials who had orchestrated the death of Domitian and seemingly intimidated him to announce the adoption of a suitable successor.

This successor was Trajan, who was well respected in military circles, and may, some historians suggest, have been behind the coup in the first place. It was not too long after Trajan’s adoption that Nerva passed away in Rome, reportedly of old age.

The adoption of Trajan was not only a masterstroke for subsequent Roman history, but it also set a precedent for succession in the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty. From Nerva onwards (until the accession of Commodus), successors were chosen not by blood, but by adoption, ostensibly for who was the best candidate.

This was also done (with some potential caveats) under the eyes and will of the senatorial body, immediately imbuing the emperor with greater respect and legitimacy from the senate.

READ MORE: Nerva

Trajan (98 AD – 117 AD)

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Trajan – the “Optimus Princeps” (“best emperor”) – began his reign by taking a tour of the northern frontiers next to which he had been posted when his adoption and subsequent accession were announced. He, therefore, took his time returning to Rome, perhaps so that he could properly ascertain the mood and situation.

When he did return he was very enthusiastically greeted by the people, the elite, and the Roman army, after which he began to get down to work. He started his rule by offering gifts to all of these elements of Roman society and declared to the senate that he would rule in co-partnership with them.

Whilst this was not actually how things developed in practice, he maintained good relations with the senate throughout his reign and was praised by contemporaries such as Pliny, as a benevolent and virtuous ruler, working hard to stay aligned with the values of the senate and people.

He also ensured his enduring fame and popularity by working on two areas quite extensively – public works and military expansion. In both, he excelled, as he adorned the city of Rome – as well as other cities in the provinces – with prodigious marble buildings and he expanded the empire to its largest-ever extent.

In particular, he waged two successful wars against the Dacians, which filled the imperial coffers with an abundance of gold, allowing him to spend so lavishly on his public works. He also conquered parts of Arabia and Mesopotamia for the Roman Empire, often on campaign himself, rather than leaving it all in the hands of deputies.

All of this was underwritten by a policy of self-moderation and leniency, meaning that he eschewed the luxury that his predecessor was supposed to be associated with, and declined to act unilaterally when punishing any of the elite.

However, this image is somewhat skewed by the sources we still possess, most of which are supposed to present Trajan in as positive a light as possible or are probably quite dependent on these same eulogistic accounts for their own.

Nonetheless, Trajan seems to have in many ways warranted the praise he has received from both ancient and modern analysts. He ruled for 19 years, maintained internal stability, expanded the empire’s borders significantly, and seemed to have had a ready and insightful grasp on administration as well.

After his death, one of his favorites, Hadrian was propped up as his successor and had reportedly been adopted by Trajan before his death (although there are some doubts). Trajan certainly left large shoes to fill.

READ MORE: Trajan

Hadrian (117 AD – 138 AD)

Hadrian

Hadrian did not in fact manage to fill the shoes of Trajan, although he is still remembered as a great emperor of the Roman Empire. This is the case even though he seemed to be despised by portions of the senate, due to the fact he executed a number of their members without any due process. As alluded to above, his accession was viewed with some suspicion as well.

Nonetheless, he ensured that he etched his name in the history books for a number of reasons. Foremost among them was his decision to carefully and comprehensively fortify the borders of the empire, which, in a number of instances, involved pulling the frontiers back from the extent Trajan had pushed them to (causing the ire of some contemporaries).

Along with this, he was very successful in maintaining stability throughout the empire, putting down a revolt in Judaea at the beginning of his reign. From then onwards he took great care to ensure that the provinces of the empire and the armies that guarded them were properly managed. To do so, Hadrian traveled extensively across the empire – more than any emperor had previously done.

Whilst doing this he ensured that fortifications were laid down, supported the creation of new towns and communities, and oversaw construction work throughout the empire. He was therefore seen throughout the Roman world as a very public and paternal figure, rather than some distant ruler closeted up in Rome.

Culturally, he also promoted the arts perhaps more than any emperor had done before him. In this, he was a lover of all Greek art and in this vein, he brought the Greek beard back into fashion by sporting one himself!

Having toured the entire empire (visiting each of its provinces), Hadrian’s health declined in his later years which were marred by further tensions with the senate. In 138 AD he adopted one of his favorites – Antoninus – as his heir and successor, dying the same year.

READ MORE: Hadrian

Antoninus Pius (138 AD – 161 AD)

Antoninus-Pius

Against the wishes of large portions of the senate, Antoninus Pius ensured that his predecessor was deified (as Nerva and Trajan had been). For his continued and impervious loyalty to his predecessor, Antoninus received the cognomen “Pius” by which we now know him.

His reign is, unfortunately, quite bereft of documentation or literary accounts (particularly in comparison with the other emperors explored here). Yet we know that Antoninus’s reign was marked by its peace and prosperity as reportedly no major incursions or rebellions occurred throughout the period.

Moreover, it seems as though Antoninus was a very efficient administrator who maintained fiscal propriety throughout his reign so that his successor had a sizable sum left to him. This all occurred amidst extensive building projects and public works, particularly the construction of aqueducts and roads to connect the Roman empire and its water supply.

In judicial matters, he seems to have followed the policies and agendas laid down by Hadrian, just as he seems to have enthusiastically promoted the arts across the empire as well. Additionally, he is known for commissioning the “Antonine Wall” in northern Britain, just as his predecessor had commissioned the more famous “Hadrian’s Wall” in the same province.

After a particularly long reign, he passed away in 161 AD, leaving the Roman empire, for the first time, in the hands of two successors – Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius.

READ MORE: Antoninus Pius

Marcus Aurelius (161 AD – 180 AD)

Marcus-Aurelius

Whilst Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus did rule jointly, the latter died in 169 AD and has subsequently been overshadowed by his co-ruler. For this reason, Lucius Verus did not seem to warrant inclusion amongst these “good” emperors, even though his reign as emperor appeared for the most part to be in line with Marcus’s.

Interestingly, even though there were numerous wars and a devastating plague that occurred during his reign, Marcus is held alongside Trajan as one of the most celebrated rulers of the Roman world. This is in no small part down to the fact that his private philosophical musings – The Meditations – were subsequently published and are now a seminal text of stoic philosophy.

Through them, we get an impression of a conscientious and caring ruler, who was desperate to “live life in accordance with nature.” Yet this is of course not the only reason Marcus Aurelius is celebrated as one of the Five Good Emperors. In many respects, the ancient literary sources give a similarly glowing impression of Marcus in his administration of the state.

Not only was he proficient in handling legal and financial affairs, but he ensured that he showed reverence and respect to the Senate in all his dealings. In line with his philosophical bent, he was also known to be very fair and considerate with all he interacted with and sponsored the proliferation of the arts as his predecessors had.

Nonetheless, the empire was beset by several problems during his reign, some of which have been seen as precursors to the empire’s subsequent decline. Whilst the Antonine plague caused a demographic decline, the wars along the frontiers in the east and west set the tone for subsequent troubles.

Indeed, Marcus spent a considerable amount of his reign from 166 AD to 180 AD warding off the Marcomannic Confederacy of tribes that had crossed the Rhine and Danube into Roman territory. This was preceded by a war with Parthia as well that occupied Lucius Verus and then Marcus himself from 161 AD to 166 AD.

It was during his campaigning that he wrote much of his Meditations and it was also on the frontier that he passed away in March 180 AD. Unlike his predecessors, he had not adopted an heir and had instead named his son by blood Commodus as his next in line – a fatal prevarication from earlier Nerva-Antonine precedents.

READ MORE: Marcus Aurelius

Where Did the Name “The Five Good Emperors” Come From?

The label of the “Five Good Emperors” is believed to have originated from the infamous Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. When assessing these Roman emperors in his lesser-known work Discourses on Livy, he repeatedly praises these “good emperors” and the period they reigned over.

In doing so, Machiavelli was repeating the praise given before him by Cassius Dio (mentioned above) and it was followed by the later encomium given about these emperors by the British historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon declared that the period during which these emperors ruled, was “the happiest and most prosperous” for not just ancient Rome, but the whole “human race” and “history of the world.”

Following on from this, it was standard currency for some time for these rulers to be praised as virtuous figures managing a blissful Roman empire of unblemished peace. Whilst this image has changed somewhat in more recent times, the image of them as a praiseworthy collective remained mostly intact.

What Was the State of the Empire Before the Five Good Emperors Took Charge?

Augustus-Caesar-Octavian
Emperor Augustus

As mentioned above, the Roman Empire had been ruled by two previous dynasties before the Nerva-Antonines took over. These were the Julio-Claudians, founded by the emperor Augustus, and the Flavians, founded by the emperor Vespasian.

The first Julio-Claudian dynasty was marked by its famous and iconic emperors, including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They had all come from the same extended aristocratic family, with Augustus at the head, who had established himself as emperor through an ambiguous pretense of “saving the Roman Republic” (from itself).

Gradually, as one emperor succeeded another without the senate’s influence, this facade became a blatant fiction. Yet even with the political and domestic scandals that rocked much of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the senate’s power continued to wane.

The same occurred under the Flavians whose founder Vespasian, had been named ruler outside of Rome, by his army. The empire, meanwhile, continued to expand in its geographical and bureaucratic size, throughout the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Dynasties, as the military and court bureaucracy became just as important, if not more, than the support and favor of the Senate.

Whilst the transition from Julio-Claudian to Flavian had been punctuated by a bloody and chaotic period of civil war, known as the Year of the Four Emperors, the shift from Flavian to Nerva-Antonine was a little different.

The last emperor of the Flavians (Domitian) had antagonized the senate throughout his rule and is remembered mostly as a bloodthirsty and tyrannical ruler. He was assassinated by court officials, after which the senate jumped at the opportunity to reestablish its influence.

How Did the First of the Five Good Emperors Come to Power?

After the death of the emperor Domitian, the senate jumped into affairs in order to avoid a bloody breakdown of the state. They did not want a repeat of the Year of the Four Emperors – the period of civil war that erupted after the fall of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. They also lamented their loss of influence since the emergence of the emperors more generally.

As such, they put forward one of their own – a veteran senator by the name of Nerva, as emperor. Although Nerva was relatively old when he came to power (66), he had the backing of the senate and was a well-experienced aristocrat, who had skilfully maneuvered his way through a number of chaotic reigns relatively unscathed.

Nonetheless, he did not have the proper backing of the army, nor of some sections of the aristocracy and senate. It was therefore not long before he was forced to adopt his successor and truly get the dynasty off to a start.

Domitian
Domitian

What Made the Five Good Emperors So Special?

Based on all of the above it may or may not seem clear why these emperors were so special. The reasons are in fact more complicated than they might seem as a number of different factors in their reigns and their dynasty as a whole are important when considering this question.

Peace and Stability

Something that the Nerva-Antonine period is always recognized for, is its relative peace, prosperity, and internal stability. Whilst this picture is perhaps not always as secure as it may appear, the phases of Roman history that preceded or followed the Five Good Emperors and the “High Empire,” show quite stark contrasts.

Indeed, the empire never really reached the level of stability and prosperity that was acquired under these emperors again. Nor were successions ever as smooth as they seem to have been under the Nerva-Antonines. Instead, the empire underwent a steady decline after these emperors which was characterized by sporadic periods of stability and rejuvenation.

It seems as though Trajan’s successful expansions of the empire, followed by Hadrian’s consolidation and strengthening of the frontiers, helped to keep the frontiers mostly at bay. Moreover, there seemed, for the most part, to have been a significant status quo between the emperor, the army, and the senate, that was carefully cultivated and maintained by these rulers.

This helped to ensure that there were relatively few threats to the emperor himself, with a notably low number of rebellions, revolts, conspiracies, or assassination attempts during this period.

The System of Adoption

The system of adoption that was so central to the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty has often been credited as an essential ingredient in its success. Whilst it is important to note that none of the Five Good Emperors until Marcus Aurelius actually had blood heirs to pass the throne onto, the adoption of each heir certainly seems to have been part of a conscious policy.

Not only did it help increase the chances that the “right person” was chosen, but it created a system, at least according to the sources, where the rule of the empire had to be earnt, rather than assumed. Successors were therefore properly trained and prepared for the role, rather than the responsibility passed onto them through birthright.

Moreover, to pick the most fitting candidates for succession, those that were healthy and relatively young were selected. This helped foster one of the other defining characteristics of this dynasty – its remarkable longevity (96 AD – 192 AD).

Standout Emperors: The Preeminence of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius

As has been demonstrated, these constituent emperors that make up the famous five, were quite different from one another in a number of ways. For example, whilst Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Hadrian were quite militaristic emperors, the other two were not known for their military feats.

Similarly, the documentation we have on the respective emperors varies quite a bit, just as the brief reign of Nerva offers little room for extensive analysis. There is therefore a bit of an imbalance in the sources, which is also reflected in later analyses and representations.

Out of the five emperors, it is Trajan and Marcus Aurelius who have been most celebrated, by a considerable degree. Whilst both were often referred back to with glowing praise in later centuries, the others were not so readily recalled. This was repeated into the Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods as well.

Whilst this is not to diminish the other emperors, it is apparent that these two figures in particular helped to propel this dynasty to the front of people’s minds for praise.

Senatorial Bias

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Roman senators

One thing that does unite all of these emperors, except Hadrian, is their amiability and respect for the senate. Even with Hadrian, his successor Antoninus seemed to have worked very hard to rehabilitate his predecessor’s image in aristocratic circles.

As ancient Roman histories tended to be written by senators, or other members of the aristocracy, it is no surprise to find these emperors so resolutely loved in those same accounts. Moreover, this kind of senatorial bias towards other emperors who were close with the senate is repeated elsewhere, even when the portrayals are much more difficult to believe.

This is not to say that these emperors did not warrant praise for their style of ruling, but there are still a number of issues with the reliability of their accounts. For example, Trajan – the “best emperor” – was given that title by contemporaries like Pliny the Younger two or three years into his reign, which was hardly enough time for such a pronouncement.

On that point, much of the contemporary sources we still have for Trajan’s reign aren’t reliable accounts of history. Instead, they are speeches or letters (from Pliny the Younger and Dio Chrysostom) which are supposed to praise the emperor.

It is also important to note, that all of the Five Good Emperors increased autocracy in the empire – a trend that despised predecessors like Domitian had already started but were roundly critiqued for. The coup that forced Nerva to adopt Trajan, as well as Hadrian’s senatorial executions were also downplayed by favorable voices for this dynasty.

Modern historians have also suggested that the long quiescent reign of Antoninus Pius allowed military threats to build up along the frontiers, or that Marcus’s co-option of Commodus was a grave error that helped the fall of Rome.

Therefore, whilst there are many justifications for the subsequent celebration of these figures, their parading on the stage of history as the greatest of all time is still up for debate.

Their Subsequent Legacy in Roman History

Under the Five Good Emperors many contemporaries, like Pliny the Younger, Dio Chrysostom, and Aelius Aristides, painted a serene picture of the empire and its respective rulers.

When the Five Good Emperors were followed by the reign of Commodus, a civil war, and then the underwhelming Severan Dynasty, it is no surprise that the Nerva-Antonines were looked back upon around this time by Cassius Dio as a “Kingdom of Gold.” Similarly, Pliny’s laudatory speech on Trajan called the Panegyricus was seen as a testament to happier times and better rulers past.

The Severans even tried to present themselves as the natural successors to the Nerva-Antonines, taking on their names, titles, and imagery. And so, the trend was set, as historian after historian would look upon these rulers fondly – even some Christian historians who tended to reject the praise given to past pagan emperors.

Subsequently, when Renaissance writers such as Machiavelli read the same sources and compared the Nerva-Antonines with the Julio-Claudians (who had been so colorfully depicted and critiqued by Suetonius), it seemed obvious that the Nerva-Antonines were model emperors in comparison.

The same sentiments followed in figures like Edward Gibbon and the next batch of Roman historians who were to follow.

Machiavelli
A portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

How are the Five Good Emperors Seen Now?

When modern analysts and historians view the Roman Empire, the Five Good Emperors are still usually seen as the fosterers of its greatest period. Trajan is still seen as one of the most celebrated rulers of ancient Rome and Marcus Aurelius has been immortalized as a sage ruler full of timeless lessons for the budding stoic.

On the other hand, they have not escaped some criticism, either as a collective or individually as Roman emperors. Most of the major points of contention (Hadrian’s transgressions against the senate, Trajan’s coup, the Antonine Plague, and Marcus’s wars against the Marcommani) have already been alluded to above.

However, historians have also wondered to what extent we have an exaggerated image of these figures as well, given the limited source material we possess. Question marks have also been raised around how much this dynasty is to blame for how the Roman empire fell into a subsequent decline.

Did the increasing of their absolute power around the emperor, as well as the apparent quiescence of Antoninus Pius’s long reign help contribute to the troubles that followed? Were the populace really that much better off than they were in other periods, or just the elites?

Some of these questions are still ongoing. However, the bare facts, as far as we can ascertain them, certainly indicate that the period of the Five Good Emperors was a relatively happy and peaceful time for the Roman Empire.

Wars, both internal and external, seemed to be far rarer, reigns were much longer, successions were much smoother, and there didn’t seem to have been any moments of real catastrophe looming for the Roman people.

There was also – the Meditations aside – a prodigious amount of literary output in this period, of poetry, history, and philosophy. Although it is not usually held in as high esteem as the Augustan “Golden Age” of literature, it is still usually termed the Roman “silver age.”

All in all, and in comparison with other periods, Dio seems justified in calling it a “Kingdom of Gold,” at least for those who benefited most from it.

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