First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors

Patrick Lynch - January 8, 2017

The Western Roman Empire had dozens of rulers from its formation in 27 BC to its conclusion in 476 AD. I have already covered the worst emperors in Rome’s history but what about the best? Which leaders helped make Rome into a great empire? Many things make a great leader; military competence, administrative ability and the capacity to put the people’s needs ahead of your own. The names of the men mentioned in this article typically crop up when historians create their top 10 lists.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors

1 – Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD)

Augustus’ real name was Gaius Octavius (or Octavian), and he is considered to be the first Roman emperor. He was born in Rome in 63 BC and was named in Julius Caesar’s will as adopted son and heir and formed the Second Triumvirate with Lepidus and Mark Antony after Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The trio ruled as military dictators and divided the kingdom amongst themselves. Tensions quickly mounted between Octavian and Antony which ultimately led to a civil war. Octavian was victorious at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and four years later, he became Emperor Augustus although he referred to himself as the First Citizen of the State.

Augustus is widely regarded as one of the greatest emperors of Rome and his reign began a period known as Pax Romana, or ‘The Roman Peace.’ Unlike Caesar, who made himself a dictator, Augustus formed the principate in 27 BC. It was effectively a monarchical system with a sole ruler who held power for life. Despite having full control of all aspects of the Roman Empire, his powers were concealed behind constitutional forms. It was a shrewd move as to the public eye; Augustus was a humble ruler when in reality, he had the final say in everything.

He proved to be an excellent leader who at least listened to the advice of the Senate. Augustus was not then military genius that Caesar was, but he was an able commander and had brilliant military minds such as Agrippa at his disposal. Augustus created a standing army and began an aggressive campaign of expansion as a means of keeping Rome safe from barbarians.

Domestically, Augustus started reconstruction and social reform programs. A host of stunning structures was built in Rome, and the emperor was also a fan of the arts. He offered patronage to leading poets of the era including Horace and Virgil. The ‘humble’ ruler also made sure his image was promoted across the empire in the form of coins and statues. Although there were some military disasters towards the end of his reign such as Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, Augustus left the empire in fine shape and set the scene for further expansion and approximately 200 years of relative peace within Rome.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors

2 – Vespasian (69 – 79 AD)

Vespasian belongs on the list because he did exceedingly well in turbulent times. He was the last ruler at the end of the chaotic Year of Four Emperors in 69 AD. Titus Flavius Vespasianus was born in Rieti in 9 AD. He enjoyed a reasonably successful military career where he distinguished himself during the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. His political career began with a consulship in 51 AD and, after retiring from public life, Vespasian returned to the scene as a governor in the Africa Province.

Ancient historians disagree as to his conduct in Africa. Suetonius claims he was an odious leader whereas Tacitus wrote that Vespasian was an honorable man. Upon his return, he was briefly part of the imperial retinue but fell out of favor after allegedly falling asleep during one of Nero’s musical performances. After a spell fighting a Jewish revolt in Judea, Vespasian became embroiled in the chaos that followed the death of Nero in 68 AD.

Galba, Otho, and Vitellius reigned in quick succession. The supporters of Otho looked for a new leader and settled on Vespasian. He ultimately became emperor upon the death of Vitellius in December 69 AD. It is fair to say that the new ruler inherited a mess, but he slowly managed to turn things around. Vespasian was known as a fair emperor who regularly issued writers with financial rewards. You could say this was an exceedingly smart move as it ensured that favorable accounts were written about him!

Nonetheless, it does appear as if Vespasian did an excellent job as leader of Rome. As well as restoring discipline in the army after the civil wars, he bolstered the empire’s treasury. This enabled him to construct numerous buildings in the capital. Notable structures include the completion of the huge statue of Apollo (work began during Nero’s reign) and the Temple of Peace. Work also commenced on the Colosseum. Despite being a good emperor regarding achievements and temperament, there were a number of conspiracies against him. He survived assassination and died from illness in 79 AD. Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus who reigned for just two years. Domitian was another one of Vespasian’s sons, and he reigned as emperor for 15 years until his assassination in 96 AD. His death marked the end of the brief Flavian dynasty.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors
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3 – Trajan (98 – 117 AD)

In the eyes of most historians, Trajan ranks as one of the top 2-3 emperors while some have him as their #1. The Senate even took the step of naming him ‘optimus Princeps’ (the best ruler). He was an excellent military commander and administrator and the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under his leadership.

Trajan was born in Italica in 53 AD in what is now modern-day Spain. He joined the army at a young age and served as Tribune under the rule of his father in Spain. He survived Emperor Domitian’s reign of terror and was named the governor of Upper Germany by Emperor Nerva in 96 AD. After escaping the Praetorian Guard mutiny, Nerva realized that he needed a successor as he had no children. He adopted Trajan in 97 AD, and when Nerva died the following year, Trajan became emperor. However, the new ruler did not set foot in Rome until 99 AD as he elected to inspect the borders of the Danube and the Rhine to test the loyalty of legions.

As emperor, Trajan had an excellent relationship with the Senate and was praised for his bravery and justice. He presided over one of the best domestic policies Rome had under the Empire. This included restoring the road system, helping children of the poor and building public paths, a port at Ostia, aqueducts and much more. Finally, he freed those who had been imprisoned or exiled during the reign of Domitian.

Despite being hailed as a thoughtful ruler, Trajan was a warmonger and was involved in three wars during his reign. He quickly defeated the Dacians in 101 AD but had to fight them again four years later. Once more, Trajan was victorious, and the kingdom of Dacia became part of the empire. After a few years of peace, Trajan went abroad to fight Parthia in 114 AD. He would never again return to Rome while he lived. After almost dying during a Mesopotamian rebellion in 117 AD, Trajan left for home but died on the way. The empire mourned the death of a great ruler but fortunately for Rome; he was followed by a succession of able leaders.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors
English Heritage – Hadrian’s Wall

4 – Hadrian (117 – 138 AD)

Hadrian was yet another high-quality emperor, and while he is said to have been born in Italica in 76 AD, historians cannot agree on his birthplace. He entered the military at a young age and served as a tribune during the reign of Nerva. His senatorial career began in 101 AD when he became quaestor, and he probably wrote and read Trajan’s speeches to the Senate. Hadrian was part of Trajan’s personal entourage during the First Dacian War but was removed from this lofty position during the Second Dacian War. Officially, he was named as Trajan’s successor in 117 AD, but it appears as if the dying emperor never adopted Hadrian; it was probably his wife, Plotina, who did so. However, Hadrian was the general commander of the eastern Roman army at this point, so his claim to the crown was almost untouchable.

He was almost an absentee emperor as he spent more than half of his reign away from Rome. Hadrian used this time to visit the provinces of the empire, check on the army’s discipline and handle administration. As well as being an excellent administrator, Hadrian won the approval of his men by eating and sleeping with regular soldiers. He preferred negotiation over war, but this wasn’t always possible. Hadrian built a temple to honor Jupiter on the Temple of Solomon’s ruins in Jerusalem which led to the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 AD. By the time the rebellion was quashed in 135-136 AD, approximately 580,000 Jews had died.

Hadrian is best remembered for the wide array of building projects that took place during his reign. He established several new cities and oversaw the creation of dozens of structures. Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain is by far his most famous structure, however. Construction began in 122 AD, and the majority of it was finished in six years. It was originally up to 20 feet high in places and 20 feet wide in other parts of the wall which was 73 miles long upon completion.

Hadrian returned to Rome after the Bar Kokhba revolt due to his ailing health. He named Antonius Pius as his successor with the proviso that Marcus Aurelius would follow. This was an excellent decision as both men were able rulers. Hadrian died in 138 AD after a number of failed suicide attempts. In the end, he just ignored the advice of doctors and indulged himself in food and drink.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors
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5 – Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 AD)

Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 AD and is considered to be the last of the Five Good Emperors. He was apparently born into an aristocratic family and was named as the heir to Emperor Antonius Pius when the latter took the throne in 138 AD. From that point onward, Marcus was effectively ‘groomed’ for the role and was made consul in 140 and 145 AD. He studied philosophy and oratory and upon the death of Pius in 161 AD, Marcus became emperor.

He was a reluctant ruler at first and refused to take the title of emperor unless his adopted brother Lucius Verus was given equal power. Despite this condition, Marcus held more authority than Lucius throughout their co-reign which ended in 169 AD when Lucius died from the plague.

Although he is regarded as a philosopher, Marcus’ reign was filled with warfare. Also, he had to deal with the Christians who refused to honor Rome’s gods or take part in the empire’s religious festivals. The first major conflict of his time as emperor was the Roman-Parthian War which began in 161 AD. Lucius left Rome to deal with the enemy and successfully defeated the Parthians in 166 AD.

Throughout the 160s, some Germanic tribes started raiding the empire’s northern border. A massive invasion began in 166 AD, but Rome couldn’t deal with the situation until the following year due to the war with Parthia. Marcus was forced to lead a lengthy campaign and proved to be a good general despite having little or no formal military experience. He composed his famous work called ‘The Meditations’ during his campaign in the Danube region, but it was never supposed to be published. Marcus died in modern day Vienna in 180 AD and is remembered for being a just emperor who placed the needs of the people above his own. Unfortunately, his son Commodus was the complete opposite. He was made co-emperor in 177 AD and is remembered as one of the worst Roman emperors.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors
Alternative History

6 – Aurelian (270 – 275 AD)

Aurelian is probably the least well-known ruler on this list, but he achieved a great deal during his brief reign. He was born in 214/215 AD in the province of Moesia, but relatively little is known about his early life. Ancient sources suggest he joined the army in around 235 AD and unlike other emperors; he probably began in the ranks of the legions and was forced to work his way up. His stint in the army came during the Third Century Crisis, and he seemingly developed a good military reputation.

Aurelian first became part of Emperor Gallienus’ entourage and later, he served under General Claudius who ultimately became the leader of Rome upon the assassination of Gallienus. Aurelian enjoyed a rapid rise under Claudius and soon became the head of the Roman army behind the emperor. Although Quintillus was named emperor after the death of Claudius, the military refused to recognize him as the leader. Aurelian was declared emperor a few months later and defeated Quintillus in battle.

He took over a splintered empire and attempted to stitch it back together. Aurelian had to deal with the threat of the Vandals and the Juthungi immediately and was successful in doing so. When he returned to Rome, there was a revolt by workers of the mint in the city. The emperor crushed the resistance and closed the mint. Then he curried favor with the public by canceling debts to the Treasury and burning the records in a public bonfire.

Aurelian barely had time to pause for breath before tackling the problem of the breakaway Palmyra Empire which was taking the empire’s eastern possessions. By 273 AD, he had the situation under control and turned his attention to another breakaway empire; this time it was the Gallic empire in the west. Aurelian won a decisive victory at the Battle of Catalunian Fields and planned to launch a campaign against the Sassanid Empire in 275 AD.

However, he was assassinated in this year in a plot hatched by high ranking members of the Praetorian Guard. During his five-year reign, Aurelian kept the empire together while saving Rome from barbarian invasions that threatened to take the city. With a less able ruler, perhaps the empire would have collapsed by the end of the third century and the Byzantine Empire may never have been formed.

First Among Equals: 7 Great Western Roman Emperors
Alternative History

7 – Constantine the Great (306 – 337 AD)

Constantine the Great is known as the first Christian Roman Emperor. He was born in modern day Serbia in a place called Naissus in 272 AD. Towards the end of the third century, Emperor Diocletian realized that the empire was too large to be governed by one man. As a result, he split it into two and ruled the east with Galerius as his second in command. Maximian ruled the west with Constantine’s father, Constantius, as the number two.

Due to his father’s position, Constantine grew up in the imperial court and became a high ranking officer under Diocletian. In 305 AD, both Diocletian and Maximian abdicated their positions, so Constantius became emperor of the west. Constantine believed he should have become the leader, but he didn’t have to wait long for his chance as his father died in 306 AD. He quickly established a reputation as a no-nonsense ruler when he attacked the Franks, killed two of their kings and threw their bodies to the animals in the amphitheater.

Although Severus had been named as the new ruler in the West, the army supported Constantine and Severus was killed in 308 AD. Galerius had succeeded Diocletian in the east and tried to invade the west to remove the threat of Constantine. Meanwhile, Maximian’s son, Maxentius, sought to seize power and was declared emperor of the west by his father in 306 AD! At one stage, up to six men tried to claim the title of ‘Augustus.’ Eventually, Constantine won the struggle. He came after Maximian and the former ruler committed suicide in 310 AD. Maxentius was an unpopular leader, so Constantine bided his time before gaining support and launching his bid for control. He defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD and was undisputed ruler of the west.

Licinius controlled the east and had an uneasy truce with Constantine that lasted until 316 AD when they went to war against one another. Constantine defeated Licinius decisively at the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324 AD and became the sole ruler of the entire empire. By now, he realized that Rome was an unsuitable location for his capital, so he moved the capital city to Constantinople in 330 AD.

Constantine had displayed tolerance towards Christians and Pagans during his reign, but ultimately, he was a practicing Christian, so he forbade pagan sacrifices and abolished crucifixion and gladiatorial contests to appease the Christians. He made the mistake of having his son Crispus executed after believing false reports of adultery. It turned out that his second wife, Fausta, made the accusation. Some reports claim she committed suicide while others suggest the emperor had her executed.

Constantine embarked on further military campaigns in later life including a defeat of the Goths. He also regained lost territory from the Dacians. The emperor wanted to invade Persia but died in 337 AD before he could launch the attack. Upon his death, the empire was left to his three sons who fought one another for full control. Constantius II was the last man standing.