Who were the Five Good Emperors and What were their Major Accomplishments?
For many centuries, the Roman Empire had its fair share of rulers. However, not all of them excelled at leading the empire. While some of them ruled fairly, many of them drove the empire to the brink of chaos. Rome’s saving grace came during the reigns of the Five Good Emperors. That period was probably something the Romans had never witnessed before, especially when it came to the smooth transfer of power between emperors and their successors.
These five rulers -Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonine Pius, and Marcus Aurelius – brought a lot of prosperity and security to the Roman Empire. Their reigns went a long way in consolidating the two-century of growth, expansion, and relative tranquility and peace (i.e. Pax Romana) that the empire enjoyed.
So who exactly were these Roman emperors that earned the reputation of being good and what was so different about them?
In the article below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the lives, reigns and notable feats of the Five Good Emperors of Rome.
How Rome benefited from having leaders by merit and not by blood
The main thing that set apart the Nerva-Antonine dynasty from its predecessors was not only the often unusual succession of “good” emperors; but also the fact that every successor during this period inherited their role based on merit and not birth.
Nerva was the first to break this trend, as he was not a blood relative of his predecessor Domitian. The following five Roman rulers that we are about to explore were all adopted heirs. This trend boded very well for the empire, especially in terms of stability, peace and prosperity. This was because the absence of family influence ensured that the emperors could divert all their attention to restoring and maintaining Rome’s power.
By installing leaders on the basis of merit instead of by blood, Rome was sparred a lot of misfortunes that were triggered by the turbulent period known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Commonly known as the first civil war to erupt in the Roman Empire, that period (i.e. the year 69 AD) witnessed four emperors rule in succession: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. The political instability that ensued in that period almost resulted in Rome’s implosion as many of its provinces became ungovernable. Some of those problems continued right into the short-lived Flavian dynasty (69-96 AD) as Rhine legions opposed the rule of Vespasian and his two sons – Titus and Domitian. It was not until 96 AD, when Domitian was assassinated and Nerva ascended to the throne, that relative political stability was restored in empire.
Emperor Nerva (reign: 96-98 AD): The Pacesetter
Emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva was the first of the Five Good Emperors. He is also regarded as the weakest in comparison to his successors. Nonetheless, Nerva played a powerful role in Rome’s history, occupying Domitian’s seat as ruler and effectively putting an end to potential civil unrest following the emperor’s assassination in 96 AD.
Not much is known about Nerva’s life except that he likely grew up in a prestigious home and had held key positions in other dynasties, including the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, before he was crowned Caesar. He also worked alongside Emperor Nero and successfully quelled the Pisonian Conspiracy against Nero in 65 AD for which he was heavily rewarded. Nerva also served as an advisor to Domitian, as well as the latter’s father Vespasian.
Despite his experience and previous achievements, Nerva was still a very unusual choice for the Roman Senate. At the time of his inauguration, he was sixty-six years old with no child. Typically, the new emperor was in no position to start a new dynasty. But the Senate remained committed to their choice, especially since his position was the perfect middle ground for both anti and pro-Domitian groups.
Although Nerva’s reign (96-98 AD) was the shortest, he did make significant changes within the empire, including embarking on tax and social reforms. He was extremely kind to the poor and eradicated several costly taxes, including the unpopular “Fiscus Judaicus”, which all Jewish people living in Rome were required to pay.
Nerva’s two-year reign meant that he did not have the luxury of time to construct any major buildings. Regardless, he still embarked on some building projects and continued the construction of Domitian’s imperial forum. The kind emperor was also credited for building a granary and carrying out some restoration work in the Colosseum.
He was also known for his water reforms as he appointed the water commissioner Frontinus to build aqueducts in Rome and improve its irrigation systems.
Despite Nerva’s good works, including his economic reforms and building projects, he still fell under heavy criticism, especially from the Praetorian Guard. This was due to his staunch refusal to punish Domitian’s killers. As a result, the palace’s soldiers held the emperor hostage and while he was able to escape, the entire experience had been traumatic for him. Nerva eventually punished the killers and deified Domitian. He adopted Trajan and declared him his successor.
Nerva is generally praised for his decision to adopt a distinguished and well-respected general in the person of Trajan. That decision of his allowed for a peaceful transition of power after his death.
Trajan (reign: 98-117 AD): The Warrior Emperor
Marcus Ulpius Trajan was the first Roman emperor to have been born outside of Italy. He came from Italica, which is located in modern-day Seville, Spain. His lineage, however, could be traced back to Umbria, Northern Italy. Despite him not coming from Rome, Trajan’s 19-year reign was regarded as the most successful of the Five Good Emperors.
He was everything that the ideal Roman was: fierce, determined, and with exceptional military skills. But he was also a smart politician; his shrewdness was one of the key reasons why Nerva chose him as his successor.
Trajan’s conquests made him so popular to the point where future emperors like Septimus Severus claimed that he was Trajan’s descendant. He was also extremely popular among Christians during the Middle Ages even though he was a pagan. His popularity among his historians stems from the widely accept view that he was compassionate towards the poor.
It was under his rulership that Rome expanded its territories to its greatest extent in history. By the end of Trajan’s reign, Rome covered Britain, Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Spain.
What also made him beloved among the military was that he headed most of the campaigns, with his most significant conquest being that of Dacia (an area north of Macedon and Greece and east of the Danube) in 105 when he razed the Dacian capital Sarmizegetusa to ground. The fall of Dacia allowed Trajan to push further into the Parthian Empire and secure more territories.
Trajan’s reign also saw developments in Rome’s public works, including roads and structures such as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Column, and Trajan’s Market. He made funds available for the major renovation works of the Circus Maximus, which was one of Rome’s biggest chariot-racing venues at the time. According to the Roman author and natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, Trajan increased the capacity of the stadium by adding about 5,000 seats. At its peak, the Circus Maximus could accommodate more than 145,000 spectators.
Like Nerva, he was also concerned for the less privileged, and it is widely believed that he provided 5,000 children with daily food allowances. Trajan was also a keen supporter of the arts. He was a fair ruler who dismantled the pillars of despotism caused by previous tyrannical rulers and gave more power to the Romans. It’s no wonder that he received the title “Optimus” which means “the Best.”
Trajan died while returning to Rome from Parthia. Shortly before he died, he adopted Hadrian and made him his successor.
Hadrian (reign: 117-138 AD): The Wanderer
Emperor Hadrian was mostly known for his travels. But these trips weren’t for leisure. Instead, the emperor used his time away from home to visit the rest of the empire and adopt security measures to protect it from enemies. He was also the second emperor to come from Spain.
One of his most notable trips was to Britain, where he ordered for the construction of a wall – called Hadrian’s Wall– which protected Roman-occupied British lands from “barbarian” tribes like the Caledonians.
Aside from Britain, he also visited other areas, including North Africa, Turkey, and the Balkans. He loved Greece and it was his wish to make Athens the main center for cultural activities within the empire.
Hadrian also ensured that he always left his mark wherever he visited. Many cities within the empire erected buildings and other structures in honor of his visit, and he also had coins minted for those visits as well.
Most of Hadrian’s works can still be seen in contemporary times. Around 126 AD, he oversaw the rebuilding of the Pantheon, which is one of Italy’s most notable landmarks. It’s likely that Hadrian worked with the architect Apollodorus of Damascus on other minor projects as well.
Hadrian built the Temple of Venus and Roma, as well as his home in Tivoli which was his personal project. The villa resembled a small city and included many lavish features like baths, dining rooms, gardens, and an observatory.
Before Hadrian’s death, he adopted Antoninus Pius and named him his successor. However, unlike his predecessors, Hadrian also named Pius’s successor Marcus Aurelius.
After reigning for 21 years, he passed away in 138 AD at his villa at Baiae which is located on the northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples. He was 62 years old. He was laid to rest at a the Hadrian Mausoleum, which is also known as the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Antoninus Pius (reign: 138-161 AD): The Wise One
Antoninus Pius was born into a family of senators. Before becoming emperor, he had served as a high-ranking official during Hadrian’s reign. When he became emperor, he adopted the name Pius for two likely reasons; either he had successfully convinced the Senate to deify Hadrian or because he chose not to execute the senators that Hadrian had sentenced to death.
Unlike his predecessors, much of Pius’s reign was marked with longer bouts of peace. The only major threat he likely faced was the Roman military campaign to invade sections of Scotland. Because of this campaign, Pius redirected his focus to building another wall (much like Hadrian’s) called the Antonine Wall. But the campaign wasn’t all that successful. Adding to his woes was the fact that the newly-conquered land was poor. As a result, future emperors shifted back to Hadrian’s Wall a few decades later.
Despite his not-so-successful military conquests, he was still a responsible ruler and ensured that the empire’s finances were in order. He was also tolerant of other religions and cults.
Antoninus Pius didn’t have many buildings to his name. During his reign, he either completed or restored former building projects. Some of the new buildings he constructed included a temple and mausoleum in the memory of his adoptive father Hadrian. He also built a temple for his wife Faustina who he deified after her death. Pius’s other famous construction project was the Antonine Wall, which Roman troops stopped using a year before his death.
Marcus Aurelius (reign: 161-180 AD): The Great Thinker
Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of Roman Empire’s most famous rulers for quite many reasons. First and foremost, his rule was vastly different from the others before and after him. Aurelius ruled alongside his brother Lucius Verus and they set the tone for future co-rulerships within the empire.
Having two rulers benefitted the empire immensely. When there was a threat, the two rulers were pretty much able to divide and conquer, with Aurelius remaining in Rome and Verus heading to the East. Together, they defeated the Parthians, as well as other Germanic tribes.
Aurelius was known for his administrative reforms and was a staunch legislator and economist. He ensured that the Roman currency, the Denarius, was revaluated. However, his biggest challenge was a pandemic which Verus and the troops brought from Parthia. The pandemic was known as the Antonine Plague and later historians believed it to be smallpox.
The future emperor Commodus constructed the Column of Marcus Aurelius in honor of his military conquests. Another sculpture designed in the emperor’s honor was his equestrian sculpture.
Aurelius was also known for his literary works, most notably his book “Meditations”, which he completed in the latter years of his reign. His writings are a great source for learning more about philosophy and stoicism.
Commodus’ reign draws the curtain on the era of Five Good Emperors
Historians believe Aurelius and Trajan to have been the best rulers during the period of the Five Good Emperors. It’s often said that Aurelius’ death in 180 marked the end of the Pax Romana era. His successor, Commodus, was unprepared to be a ruler and failed in his bid to properly fill the big shoes left by his predecessors. As result, the era of the Five Good Emperors came to an end, and Rome, which although lasted for a few more centuries, failed to reach the level of prosperity and stability seen during the reigns of those five emperors.