The first and second centuries of the common era featured a time of peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire that were unparalleled in the history of the known world. It was during this period that the reign of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome occurred.
The era is commonly referred to as the “Pax Romana” or Roman Peace. The Pax Romana lasted a little over 200 years, from 27 BCE to 180 CE and is widely-considered to be the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.
This coincided with the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire with the first emperor Augustus beginning his reign in 27 BCE. The Pax Romana would last all the way until the end of the reign of the beloved Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE.
Despite the term, true peace was not to be found in this era. Rome continued to expand militarily and waged near-endless wars on its frontiers to expand the influence and culture of Rome. In fact, it was during the Pax Romana that Rome reached the height of its territorial extent under emperor Trajan.
The empire was also subject to a power struggle and civil war during this period, and hardly a peaceful one at that. In the years following this civil war a line of strong, impactful emperors began.
The resulting stability and prosperity during these years led these emperors to be called the “Five Good Emperors.”
Through their strong governing, the Roman Empire reached its pinnacle. When their combined reign ended, the empire crumbled and would never recover.
The Pax Romana
While the Pax Romana may imply that this 200 year period was peaceful, that is certainly not the case. This period featured many disastrous events such as civil war, plagues, natural disasters, and plenty of warfare.
Rather, the Pax Romana was named as such because this time period was more peaceful simply in comparison to prior periods of the Roman Republic.
Trade flourished with an increased focus on building roads and interconnecting the expanding empire. The empire placed an emphasis on the arts and culture, and the city of Rome experienced a sort of cultural renaissance. Romans built the Colosseum, Pantheon, and other famous landmarks such as Hadrian’s wall during this time period.
For Rome’s enemies, the Pax Romana was anything but peaceful. Campaigns were waged on all sides of the empire with the Roman Empire reaching its territorial extent during this period.
During the traditional period of the Pax Romana (27 BCE – 180 CE), Rome experienced a fair amount of internal strife as well. The empire needed organization, and governing the vast amount of territory and the multitude of conflicts required strong leaders.
The Julio-Claudian dynasty began with a strong ruler in Augustus, but their effectiveness gradually waned with each subsequent ruler. The last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the emperor Nero, died by suicide, sparking a civil war.
Following the civil war (known as the Year of Four Emperors), the Flavian dynasty briefly ruled before crumbling itself. The Senate would go on to name the old politician Nerva to be emperor in 96 CE.
Nerva would begin the Nerva-Antonine dynasty in 96 CE. Including himself, modern day scholars call its first five rulers the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome.
Who Were the Five Good Emperors of Rome?
The Five Good Emperors refer to the first five rulers of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. These rulers included Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Historians often consider the last ruler of this dynasty, Commodus, to be the beginning of the empire’s long decline.
During the reigns of the Five Good Emperors the Roman Empire was at its height. While there may not have been true peace as the name “Pax Romana” suggests, these rulers brought strong governance and stability to the empire.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, none of the Five Good Emperors inherited the title of emperor from blood relations. Nerva was named emperor by the Senate after the assassination of Domitian and subsequently chose the person he saw with the most merit to become the next emperor.
This trend would continue on all the way until Marcus Aurelius, who named his son Commodus as his heir.
The philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli coined the term “Five Good Emperors” in his book, The Discourses on Livy. In it he argued that the adopted emperors were far superior to any other emperor that gained the title by birth (aside from the emperor Titus of the Flavian dynasty).
Through the rule of the Five Good Emperors, the legacy of Rome was ensured and the impacts of its cultural, political, economic, and social feats are in some cases still felt to this day.
Below highlights a brief summary of each of the reigns of the Five Good Emperors.
Nerva (96-98 CE)
Nerva is often considered to be the weakest ruler of the Five Good Emperors. The man was a career politician that served faithfully under Nero and the rulers of the Flavian dynasty.
After the assassination of the last Flavian ruler Domitian, the Senate immediately named Nerva as emperor. At 66 years old and childless, the Senate likely saw Nerva as a safe choice for emperor, or even a placeholder emperor.
Nevertheless, Nerva immediately filled in and declared an end to the widespread persecution and injustices of the prior emperor. This restored some power to the Senate and gained him favor with the commoners.
Even so, the old man did not have widespread support around the empire, and in particular he clashed with the military. The military preferred a military leader to be emperor and thus compelled Nerva to choose a successor from their ranks.
Nerva would ultimately adopt an ambitious, popular general named Trajan and name him heir to the title of emperor.
After only fifteen months of rule, Nerva died of natural causes.
Though not much is known about Nerva’s life and reign, his success in ensuring a peaceful transition of power was crucial for the Roman Empire.
Trajan (98-117 CE)
The second of the Five Good Emperors of Rome was Trajan, who ruled for a period of 19 years. History has looked kindly upon Trajan and his rule and he is widely considered to be among the best emperors in Roman history.
Trajan was the quintessential Roman. He was a strong, ambitious leader with a military background, and was also a shrewd politician. He was beloved by the military, politicians, and commoners alike.
Under Trajan’s rule the Roman Empire reached its territorial extent. Upon his death the empire’s border stretched from Britain in the north, Mesopotamia in the east, North Africa in the south and the Iberian peninsula in the west. The Mediterranean was firmly under Roman control.
In order to reach this extent Trajan led several of his own wars. Perhaps his most notable was the conquest of Dacia whose plethora of gold mines brought great wealth to the empire.
Trajan also conquered Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Armenia from the Parthian empire, but following his reign Rome abandoned the provinces due to their indefensibility.1
Aside from conquests Trajan also oversaw an extensive public works program to build sections of Rome as well as repair and expand Roman roads. Many works from his rule remain to this day such as Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column.
Trajan also implemented a social welfare program called the ailmenta that helped orphans and poor children throughout the empire. Though limited in scope, policies like these endeared him to the commoners of the empire.
Hadrian (117-138 CE)
Scholars believe that on Trajan’s deathbed he adopted Hadrian and named him his successor. The Roman Senate agreed with Trajan’s choice and named Hadrian as the next emperor.
Hadrian oversaw a successful and stable rule, though it was bogged down by conflict with the Senate.
Hadrian’s policies seemingly ran counter to his predecessor’s. Instead of an expansionist and aggressive posture, Hadrian preferred to shore up Rome’s borders and increase their defensive posture and capabilities.
He willingly gave up Trajan’s recent territorial gains in the east due to their indefensibility. Elsewhere he solidified borders, building perhaps his most well-known and lasting legacy: Hadrian’s Wall running east-west across Britain.
Hadrian was also greatly interested in the Roman provinces, reportedly visiting nearly every one of them. His love for Greece in particular was very well-known, and he hoped to make Athens the cultural center of the empire.
Towards the end of his reign Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius and named him his successor. This was only on the condition that Antoninus adopt both Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius and subsequently name them both his own heirs.2
Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE)
Among the Five Good Emperors of Rome, the reign of Antoninus Pius was the longest. It is also remarkable that it was one of the most peaceful reigns in Roman history.
The histories of Rome fail to mention any large military campaigns nor major rebellions that occurred during this period. If any reign signified the Pax Romana, it would be that of Antoninus Pius.
In some ways Antoninus Pius followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Hadrian. He preferred to strengthen existing provinces within the empire instead of conquer and subdue new territories. In addition, he maintained the status quo in the provinces and left many of Hadrian’s policies unchanged.3
In other ways Antoninus differed from Hadrian. While Hadrian traveled all over the empire, it is notable that Antoninus Pius never left Italy during his reign. He was an extremely effective politician and managed to repair a contentious relationship with the Senate.
Like other emperors in the Pax Romana, Antoninus Pius focused on public works projects throughout the empire, with a specific focus on aqueducts, bridges, and roads. Antoninus’ rule is also notable in that he left his successor with a surplus in the treasury, a rare feat.
Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE)
Following the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius ascended to the title of emperor. Although the Senate intended to confirm him as the sole emperor, Marcus insisted on following the succession plan of Hadrian and would not accept rule unless he shared it with his fellow adoptive brother, Lucius Vera.
Marcus and Lucius co-ruled from 161-169 CE when Lucius Vera perished from disease. Afterwards, Marcus ruled by himself until his own death in 180 CE.
Marcus Aurelius was known for his philosophical tendencies and was a practicing stoic throughout his lifetime. His collection of personal writings called Meditations showed the great wisdom of the emperor and provides modern historians with insights to the ancient stoics.
Despite his philosophical background, Marcus’ reign was beset by military conflict. War with Parthia in the east from 161-165 was followed by conflict with the Germanic tribes at the northern border from 165-180.
Legions returning from the Parthian wars also brought with them the plague. The subsequent “Antonine Plague” tore through the empire, bringing great suffering from 165-180.
Scholars often group Marcus Aurelius with Trajan as one of the greatest emperors in Roman history. His biggest mistake was one that had massive ramifications.
Instead of continuing along with the theme of adopting capable rulers and naming them heir, Marcus Aurelius instead named his son, Commodus, to be his heir.4
This abrupt departure from the meritocracy would prove disastrous for Rome. Historians widely consider Commodus’ reign to be the beginning of the decline of Rome.
1) Lightfoot, C. S. “Trajan’s Parthian War and the Fourth-Century Perspective.” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 80, 1990, pp. 115–26. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/300283.
2) Geer, Russel Mortimer. “Second Thoughts on the Imperial Succession from Nerva to Commodus.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 67, 1936, pp. 47–54. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/283226.
3) Williams, Wynne. “Individuality in the Imperial Constitutions: Hadrian and the Antonines.” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 66, 1976, pp. 67–83. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/299780.
4) Brian K. Harvey. “Two Bases of Marcus Aurelius Caesar and the Roman Imperial Succession.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 53, no. 1, 2004, pp. 46–60. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4436714.