Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Good Emperors (Incomplete)

Steve Muhlberger
Today we will talk about the period that is usually considered the peak of the Roman empire, the second century A.D.

During most of this century, Rome had both internal and external peace.  It was also a time of
prosperity, at least for some:  the ruins of Roman cities all over the East, Africa, and Europe attest to that.

It was also a century in which Rome had a run of what are called "Good Emperors;" in other words
emperors who were not noticeably murderous or scandalous in their dealings with the Roman aristocracy, whose records and evaluations we are greatly dependent on.

The combination of these factors makes the second century A.D. the conventional measurement of the Roman achievement.  When Gibbon, back in 1776, wrote his  Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the most famous histories ever written, he measured the later decline of Rome
against the Rome of the Good Emperors.

In this lecture and the next we will look at Rome of the Good Emperors, to see what it was like, why it was like that, and, eventually, why the period came to an end.  The next lecture will examine two Roman provinces in some detail.  In this one, we will quickly go through the rulers and events, and look at general features of the period.

The phrase Good Emperors, or Five Good Emperors, is usually applied to the men who ruled from A.D. 96 to 180:  Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Anoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.  But they were preceded by a dynasty that deserves a brief mention, the Flavians.

The first Flavian was  Flavius Vespasianus, the last and most successful of the four emperors of A.D. 69, and the initial commander of the expeditionary forces that put down the Jewish revolt.  He was succeeded briefly by his son Titus.  Titus was the man who actually took Jerusalem.  The third Flavian was Domitian, a younger son of Vespasian.

The first two men were considered to be good men, except by the Jews, perhaps better than any of their predecessors except Augustus.  Domitian was another matter:  he was a suspicious, unsympathetic person who put many senators to death and was eventually murdered.  Domitian was the terror of Tacitus's middle life, and was his model for what Tiberius must have been like.  He of course was vilified by everyone.

There was no big uproar when Domitian was killed in 96.  Instead, the Senate merely elected an elderly and respected colleague, Nerva, to take over the emperorship.  He was the first of a long-lasting dynasty of five, called the Antonines.  The fact that it was a successful dynasty by adoption has usually caught the modern imagination.  It certainly is striking that when Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his natural son Commodus, he turned out to be a murderous loony and a bloody civil war resulted.  But if adoption was the key to the success of the Antonines, it was simply a matter of luck that there were no natural sons to complicate matters.  As far as the Romans were concerned, the emperorship was hereditary in principle from the time of Augustus.

The goodness of the good emperors consists in two things.

First, we only have positive reviews from surviving writers.  This should not be underestimated as a factor.  The worst things about Caligula or Tiberius were only written down when their dynasty was dead and gone.  Perhaps when the Antonines ran out, there was simply no one around with an interest in blasting them.

The second part of their goodness is that they, like Vespasian and Titus, treated the senatorial aristocracy with restraint and respect.  This may have been easier for them than for the early emperors.

By the time of Vespasian in 69, not to mention the time of Nerva in 96, the Republican tradition was almost extinct.   Only two men of ancient blood held high office in A.D. 68:  Nero and Galba.  Each was the last of his line.  Vespasian was a new man:  none of his ancestors had sat in the  senate.  He was a man who had worked his way into the top ranks of society entirely through service to the imperial system.  He symbolizes in himself the restructuring of the aristocracy itself by a century of imperial rule.

Two of the good emperors are scarcely worth discussing as personalities.  Nerva died very quickly, and had little impact, except as a revered ancestor of the others.  Antoninus Pius lived a long time, reigned 23 years, and was a hard-working emperor, but few authentic details are known.  In fact, not much worth mentioning happened in his reign.  This can be interpreted in his favor.  But the fact is, the building of the Antonine Wall, the more northerly of the two British defense walls, is the one thing
I can put my finger on.

The other three are worth a few words.  Trajan, the first long-reigning emperor of the five, was a military man of considerable talent and application.  During the first decade of the second century, he conquered the kingdom of the Dacians, located across the Danube in modern Romania.  Then, in the last years of his life, he invaded Parthia, conquered Mesopotamia, and marched to the Persian Gulf, weeping when he got there because he was too old to follow Alexander's example any farther.

It is interesting that in later Roman times, Trajan was considered to be the best emperor since Augustus, or maybe the best ever.  He was praised by the Romans not for the blessings of peace he provided, and which are considered to be the purpose of Roman rule by modern historians, but
because he fought and won some flashy wars.   It became a habitual compliment to compare the current emperor to Trajan, or to say he was "better than Trajan."   It is funny that Trajan agreed in advance with all these positive appraisals.  Towards the end of his life he added the phrase "Optimus" to his name.  "Optimus" not only means "the Best," but recalled Jupiter's title Optimus Maximus.  What would people say if Nero had done the same thing?

Trajan's successor was his cousin, Hadrian.  Hadrian proved to be a much different man than his adoptive father.  For one thing, he was not militarily inclined.  He immediately abandoned Trajan's recent conquests (which were far from secure and probably not worth the trouble).  He was of
course blamed for this.    He was a devotee of Greek literature of art, and lavished patronage on Athens and many other Greek cities.   Hadrian's immense villa near Tivoli outside Rome is can still to be seen, in ruins.  "Imperial City" might be a better term than "villa."

A peculiar incident illustrates his character.  On one of his many tours of the empire, he fell in love with a Greek boy named Antinous.  Antinous later fell in the Nile and drowned.  Hadrian was prostrated with grief and proclaimed that Antinous was now a god.  Hundreds of statues of him were erected all over the Roman world, and an Egyptian city near where he died was renamed for him.

The last of the good emperors was Marcus Aurelius.  He is perhaps most famous as the philosopher-emperor.  He was a convinced stoic.  His belief in duty gave him the strength for a difficult reign, which included many years of fighting on the Danube frontier against the Marcomanni.  Marcus Aurelius's philosophical notebook, the  Meditations , is the only set of imperial memoirs we have.  Historians have often portrayed him as the best of emperors, but more recently some have seen him as  the Roman Mackenzie-King.  Like Mackenzie-King, Marcus Aurelius consulted spirits.  In fact, Mackenzie-King sometimes talked to Marcus Aurelius.  It is perhaps in reaction to this kind of atmosphere that turned Marcus Aurelius's son Commodus into a new Nero, a flamboyant performer who even fought in the arena.

So much for the personalities.  What can we say about the empire that these men ruled?

Up until about 160, Rome was perhaps as secure as it ever was.  Perhaps the biggest revolt was the Second Jewish War, provoked by Hadrian when he forebade circumcision, a Jewish custom disgusting to him and to the Greeks who were often the rivals of the Jews.

Part of the reason for this is the prosperity of the empire.  This prosperity manifested itself in different ways in different places.

In the east, the second century A.D. has some claim to be the peak of Hellenistic civilization.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.