Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Rome under the Good Emperors

Steve Muhlberger

The 2nd century A.D. is often considered the peak of the Roman Empire.   The prosperity of the period (evident in the many ruins of Roman cities from this period) and a run of "good emperors" contribute to this image.   When Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776, it was already a cliché that later decline must be measured against Rome of the Good Emperors.

Whether or not it makes sense to measure the achievement of Rome by reference to a single period, this much ballyhooed period deserves a serious look.

Let's begin by a quick look at rulers and events.

The phrase Good Emperors or Five Good Emperors is usually applied the men who ruled from  A.D. 96 to 180:

Nerva (96-98)
Trajan (98-117)
Hadrian (117-138)
Antoninus Pius (138-161)
Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
They were preceded by a three-ruler dynasty called the Flavians, two of whom are usually considered "good emperors:"
Flavius Vespasian (69-79)
and his sons
Titus (79-81)
Domitian (81-96)
Vespasian was the last and most successful of the four emperors of A.D. 69, and the initial commander of the expeditionary force which put down the Jewish revolt.   He was briefly succeeded by his well liked son Titus (the man who actually took Jerusalem).   Domitian was a suspicious and unsympathetic person who put many senators to death and was eventually murdered.   Domitian supposedly said, "No one believes in plots against emperors until they have actually been assassinated.  He was the model for Tacitus' Tiberius.

When Domitian was killed, an elderly senator named Nerva was elected.   He did not live long but began a long-lasting dynasty of five, called the Antonines (see above).   The next four were adopted as adults by their predecessors.    This "dynasty by adoption" has long caught the historical imagination, especially since it ended with Marcus Aurelius' son-by-blood Commodus,  a murderous loony who provoked a bloody civil war.   The long series of adoptions has been seen as contributing to the stability of the empire.    However, the adoptions were not the result of a "principle of succession," but simply a matter of luck.    The empire had been seen in hereditary terms from the time of Augustus.  Any of the four who adopted an heir would have left it to a son if he'd had one.

Why are these "good emperors?"  (Or perhaps we should say, "officially good emperors?")

1. We only have positive reviews from surviving writers.   Bad things were only written about emperors after they and anyone connected with them had died.    Our unfavorable views of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero were written many years later.   It may just be that by the times the Antonines ran out, no one was interested in blasting them.

2.  They treated the senatorial aristocracy with restraint and respect.   Senators and their circle were among those most interested in discussing the goodness or badness of emperors, and their views were those most likely to survive in literature.    It may have been easier for the "good" emperors to get along with senators than it had been for the Julio-Claudians.   The old clans were gone.    Of all the office-holders of A.D. 68, the end of Nero's reign, only two were from old families:   Nero and his short-lived successor, Galba.   Each was the last of his line.   Vespasian was a "new man" in that he had no senatorial ancestors and had worked his way up to the top in the service of the imperial system.    The aristocracy had been restructured by a century of imperial rule and was not a source of real opposition (as opposed to Tacitean complaining) to the emperors.

There is not much to say about either Nerva (good emperor #1) or Antoninus Pius (good emperor #4).   Nerva lasted only long enough to serve as a revered ancestor for the rest.   Antoninus Pius reigned 23 years that seem to have been very peaceful, which can be interpreted in his favor, but very few authentic details survive.    (Our main source is a fraudulent biography of the late 4th century, the Historia Augusta.)

The other three are worth a few more words.

Trajan (#2) was a talented and energetic military man who in the first decade of the 2nd century conquered the kingdom of the Dacians (roughly modern Romania).   At the end of his life he invaded Parthia (current incarnation of the Persian empire) and marched to the Persian Gulf, weeping when he got there because he was too old to follow Alexander any farther.

It is worth noting that he was often considered in later times to be the best emperor ever (the Gothic king of Italy in the 6th century was praised as the "New Trajan.")   He got this reputation not because of any blessings of peace he might have provided, but because of his flashy wars.    Note that Trajan himself agreed in advance with all these positive appraisals.   He added the word "Optimus" ("the best") to his name.    "Optimus" recalled the title given Jupiter, "Jupiter Optimus Maximus."   (What would people say if Nero had done the same?)

Hadrian (#3)  was a cousin of Trajan's but a much different man.   He immediately abandoned Trajan's recent conquests in Mesopotamia as too costly to hold (probably a good call) and devoted himself to the peaceful arts.    He was a devotee of Greek literature and art, and lavished patronage on Athens and other Greek cities.  (For instance, he completed  Hippias' Temple of Olympian Zeus at Athens, a white elephant that had been sitting half-finished for half a millennium, since before the Persian War.)    Another great monument is his "villa" (imperial city?) of Tivoli, whose extensive ruins can be seen near Rome.

A peculiar incident that illustrates character was his love for Antinoos, a Greek boy he'd fallen in love with in his travels.  When Antinoos fell in the Nile and drowned, Hadrian was prostrated with grief, and proclaimed that Antinoos was now a god.   Hundreds of statues were erected all over the Roman world, and an Egyptian city near where he died was renamed for him.

Remember that these are the good emperors.

The last of the five is the most famous, Marcus Aurelius.  He is famous as the philosopher emperor, and he was certainly a convinced stoic, a belief that helped him in a difficult reign fighting the Marcomanni and Quadi on the Danube frontier.   His philosophical memoirs, the Meditations, are the only set of imperial memoirs that survive.   The worth of his philosophical thought is dispute.   The biography on the De Imperatoribus Romanis site is positive, while the 1984 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is dismissive:   "In many ages these thoughts have been admired; the modern age, however, is more likely to be struck by the pathology of them, their mixture of priggishness and hysteria."

Was Marcus Aurelius the Roman Mackenzie-King?   Like Mackenzie-King, M. Aurelius consulted spirits.    In fact, Mackenzie-King consulted M. Aurelius!

The Empire that They Ruled

Rome was as secure as it ever was.

Up to 160, its wars were successful and perhaps profitable.    The one major revolt was the Second Jewish War, which Hadrian provoked by forbidding circumscription as a custom disgusting to his Greek sympathies.

After 160, wars with the neighbors became a drag on the empire, but its own integrity was not threatened.

Rome's strength was founded on its prosperity.

In the east, we see the peak of Hellenistic civilization.   In the 2nd century A.D., Greek cities were as safe, rich, and influential as they ever had been or ever would be.   Writers included Plutarch and Galen.    Interest in philosophy was so great that the period is called "the Second Sophistic," when travelling teachers and lecturers were in great demand all over the Greek-speaking world.

It is now that Greek culture had its greatest impact on Rome and its ruling class.   Of course Greek culture had been important since at least the 3rd century B.C.    What does "greatest impact" mean, then?   The highest levels of the aristocracy were immersed in Greek thought and forms of expression:   Hadrian, for instance, though from an old colonial family that had made its fortune in Spain, received in Rome an education that valued everything Greek over everything Latin.   As emperor he avoided the Latin west, apart from Italy, and spent all his time touring the great Greek sites and distributing patronage to them.
Marcus Aurelius wrote his thoughts (whatever their value) in the language of philosophy, Greek.

Note also the dominance of Greek historical writing.   History in classical antiquity was the study of serious public men.   After Tacitus, who died in the early 2nd century, no one wrote a major Latin history until the 390s (when it was written by a Greek!).   The slack was taken up by Greeks writing in Greek, presumably for the many Greek-speaking senators (prominent in Rome for the first time.)

In the west, Latin culture was spreading over large parts of Africa, Spain, Gaul and the Balkans.   In large part of the western province, urban life had not been highly developed before the Roman conquest.   The Romans encouraged the adoption of Roman styles and political structures by local elites to win over their loyalty.    Valuable members of those elites were picked out for citizenship and eventually even membership in the Senate.   At the same time Roman colonies were planted, filled with veterans who by military service were able to better themselves at the expense of the natives.

There was a slow spread of Roman citizenship in both parts of the empire.   In the east one might be a citizen yet remain culturally Greek.   In the west, becoming a citizen meant adopting the language and urban-rural life of the Latin conquerors.

"Urban-rural life" means that though the wealthiest based their power on landholding, but power was expressed in the local politics, religious rites  and cultural activities largely performed in the urban center (sometimes quite small) that ruled the rural district.    There was also a rural element to the life of the elite, who lived a good part of their lives in villas, luxurious country houses in a Mediterranean style (built, eventually, even on the Scottish border).   These could be centers of production for the rich but were also signs of privilege.

Romanization was uneven, though.   Poor or remote areas were only lightly touched by this cultural movement.

But this was a time when Rome, a going concern, was immensely attractive to local elites, for both material and intangible reasons.   Coming the other direction, there was pressure on the emperors to grant citizenship to all sorts of people.    As in Italy centuries earlier, Rome to be an empire had to reward its junior partners in rule or alienate them.   An empire cannot be built on force alone.

Roman citizenship was widely granted in the 2nd century (eventually, in the early 3rd century, nearly every free person was granted it).   It became less and less an Italian empire.  Citizenship, however, became watered down.   The authorities could no longer afford to treat all Roman citizens well.   In the 1st century, an obscure Jew in trouble with the law (Paul) could, if he happened to be a Roman citizen, appeal to Caesar, and the governor might send him to Rome to be dealt with by the emperor or judges appointed by him.   But in the 2nd century, the governor or judge would look closer to determine if that citizen was humilior (more humble) or honestior (more honorable).   A humble citizen could now be tortured and beaten even before he was convicted of anything.   Only the richer and better connected would get first-class treatment.

Romanization was also promoted by the economic growth of the period -- something that is obvious from the ruins and even more by the piles of unimpressive practical articles unearthed by archaeologists from Roman sites.    The Roman period seems to coincide with one of those times when climate and the lack of dangerous epidemic diseases promotes population growth, settlement and economic activity.   The population of Gaul may have doubled in the first two centuries or so of Roman rule.   A more intense use of resources was necessary in such circumstances.

Rome's political supremacy contributed to growth.   It provided a certain degree of peace for a number of decades; it also demanded a large share of the wealth to feed the city of Rome and the armies.   There was pressure on peasants to produce; there were opportunities for merchants and improving landlords to make money through capital improvement; there was long-distance trade in both luxuries and staples.     How much improvement in technology resulted?   What happened to the average standard of living?   These are questions specialists debate and there are no obvious answers.

One drawback of the boom is that it led to trouble on the northern borders.  It is usually said that in the later 2nd century the empire came under "greater barbarian pressure," a vague phrase that discourages further thought.    We can be more specific.   If this was indeed an era of population growth and intense economic activity, activity dominated by the imperial capital and its Mediterranean trade routes, then of course people from elsewhere would come looking for opportunities.   A few might come with sword in hand.

More interesting than the cliché bearded, trouser-wearing barbarian is a figure like Decebalus.   He was the king of Dacia, which included much of Romania and was based in Transylvania, where silver and iron were common.   Decebalus attacked the empire in Domitian's reign and was defeated by Trajan.  His kingdom was then incorporated into the empire.

The Dacian kingdom ruled by Decebalus was in an area long under Greek and Roman influence, an area that flourished in the 1st century A.D. for the same reasons that the empire did, and because it had mineral wealth.   Economic growth allowed Dacian kings to build an increasingly "civilized" kingdom.    The capital of Sarmizegethusa was big, if not built of stone, and served by a sophisticated aqueduct system.   Roman coins circulated throughout the country.   It was this economic boom that allowed Decebalus to build up a military machine that gave the Romans man headaches before it was destroyed.

In Marcus Aurelius's reign the Marcomanni and Quadi based in Hungary and perhaps the Czech and Slovak republics, were equally troublesome.

A world that is energetic and economically diverse can be a problem for the imperial power that wants to dominate it.   Rome had conquered the world, or the part Rome knew, because at one time it was a frontier area that had both fresh resources and the techniques of older civilizations to exploit them with.   The success of Romanization seen in the second century had its dangers as well as its benefits.   The relative advantage of Italy vis-a-vis its provinces was decreasing.   Rome's ability to enforce its authority would eventually decrease, too.


Barry Baldwin, The Roman Emperors.
Cornell and Matthews, Atlas of the Roman World.
Barry Cunliffe, Rome and the Barbarians
The World Atlas of Archaeology

Original material copyright (C) 2001, Steven Muhlberger.