A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome

A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome

Patrick Lynch - July 9, 2017

The history of the Roman Empire is littered with rulers that were cruel (Commodus), known for their bizarre proclivities (Elagabalus) or were utterly inept (Honorius). However, this great empire wouldn’t have lasted for centuries if the majority of its leaders were unsuited for the role. There were a number of excellent emperors, and for 84 years (96 – 180 AD), the empire thrived under the leadership of five outstanding rulers in succession. In this article, I will take a closer look at Rome’s 5 ‘Good’ Emperors.

A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome
Nerva. Wikipedia

1 – Nerva (96 -98 AD)

Domitian was the last of the Twelve Caesars, and most Romans were glad to see the back of him. Towards the end of his reign, Domitian treated the Senate with complete contempt and was considered a tyrant. In 96 AD, two praetorian prefects helped hatch a plot to eliminate the emperor, and on September 18, Domitian was murdered by two men; an ex-slave named Stephanus (who died in the bloody hand-to-hand struggle) and an unnamed man.

A well-respected lawyer named Nerva was chosen as the new emperor by the Senate, and it was a wise decision as he was the first in a line of outstanding leaders. It is a testament to his ability that Nerva is respected for his reign even though it only lasted two years. Nerva was forced to spend much of his time remedying the wrongs of his predecessor. He began by granting an amnesty to those exiled from Rome by the tyrant Domitian, and he even gave them their property back. Domitian’s network of informers was destroyed, and several of the spies were executed.

Although he apparently introduced a number of measures as a means of increasing his popularity, they were actually examples of good government in action. For example, he tried to relieve the poor by purchasing large lots of land from landlords and renting them out to Romans in need. Nerva also created a special fund for the purpose of educating children from poor families. His ‘good’ successors built upon this initial reform to improve education and care for the poorest members of society.

Nerva was the definition of a reluctant emperor and had the role thrust upon him. However, he was a sensible choice by the Senate given his political career. Nerva helped handle the Conspiracy of Piso and was given special honors by Nero. Vespasian chose him as consul in 71 AD, and Domitian followed suit by naming Nerva as a consular colleague in 90 AD. As he has the respect of practically everyone in Rome, the conspirators in the assassination of Domitian approached him. Nerva was allegedly on the cusp of being accused of treason by the increasingly paranoid tyrant, so he became involved to save his life, not to become emperor.

He was 65 years of age when he became emperor and was weak and frail with a tendency to overindulge in wine. While Domitian ruled with an iron hand, Nerva allowed everyone to do as they pleased. In 97 AD, there was a crisis in the military as it still held some semblance of loyalty to Domitian since he gave soldiers an overdue pay rise. They surrounded the emperor’s palace and demanded that he hand over the men involved in the death of Domitian. He refused but eventually, the two ringleaders were executed.

Nerva’s position was in jeopardy, and he knew he needed to do something to secure his position as emperor. He acted accordingly by choosing the governor of Upper Germany, Trajan, as his heir. Trajan was popular with the Senate, and the army and virtually everyone agreed that he was the ideal successor. Trajan was ‘adopted’ in October 97 AD, and Nerva’s authority was absolute. However, he did not get to enjoy it for long because he died on January 28, 98 AD. At the beginning of Nerva’s reign, the Senate referred to him as pater patriae, ‘father of the country.’ Although he was frail and feeble, Nerva began the process of an era of prosperity and nominating Trajan as his successor was a masterstroke.

A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome
Bust of Trajan. Trajan’s Column

2 – Trajan (98 – 117 AD)

Trajan was born near Seville in 52 AD which ensured he had the distinction of becoming the first Roman Emperor who was not born in Italy. He earned a reputation as an excellent military commander and assumed command of the Seventh Legion in northern Spain at a young age. In 88/89 AD, he marched his army into Upper Germany to help suppress a revolt against Domitian. Although he arrived too late to help, his actions earned the trust of the emperor who made Trajan consul in 91 AD.

Despite Trajan’s ties with Domitian, Nerva respected him and gave him the governorship of Upper Germany in 96 AD. The following year, he received a handwritten note from Nerva which said Trajan was to be ‘adopted’ by the emperor. Nerva made the decision to prop up his government, but instead of remaining by the emperor’s side, Trajan moved to punish the leaders of an earlier mutiny in Upper Germany. When Nerva died in January 98 AD, Trajan decided to inspect the German frontier borders to further increase goodwill amongst the soldiers.

Trajan eventually returned to Rome in 99 AD and was greeted as a hero. He helped his cause by entering the city on foot, embracing members of the Senate and meeting regular citizens. His modest and open nature ensured he enjoyed immediate support from politicians and the public alike. Throughout his reign, Trajan worked closely with the Senate and always informed them of his plans. He was a powerful and masculine figure who loved hunting, and while he was not a learned man, he was highly intelligent.

Most historians rate him as one of the greatest Roman Emperors because he was an excellent statesman, effective administrator, and an outstanding general. During his reign, roads were constructed to help citizens of the provinces, and he restored Italy’s harbors. Trajan also improved the city’s water supply and built two new baths; one was designed especially for women. Roman art also reached its pinnacle during Trajan’s reign. While its sculpture and painting tended to mimic that of the Greeks, Roman architecture stood out on its own during this period.

Above all, Trajan expanded the empire which hadn’t enjoyed any significant expansion since the death of Octavian barring the conquest Britain. He had a genuine passion for war and perhaps his most famous campaign came against the Dacia kingdom in modern day Romania. Although it took two wars, Dacia was eventually annexed and became a Roman province in 106 AD. The emperor used much of the booty taken from its new province to create public works such as Trajan’s Forum and the harbor at Ostia.

Trajan went to war again in 114 AD, this time in the Parthian War. Once more, Rome was successful, and it conquered the territories of Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Armenia. The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under the leadership of Trajan, but he faced difficulties in the form of the Jewish Revolt of 114-118 AD. Although he captured Ctesiphon in 116 AD, he had to leave after insurrections weakened his army. He withdrew to Syria and set out for Rome. However, he died en route at Cilicia on August 9, 117. The man known as Optimus Princeps (the best ruler) was loved and respected, and his death was a terrible loss for Rome. Fortunately, his successor happened to be an exceptional leader too.

A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome
Hadrian. Wikipedia

3 – Hadrian (117 – 138)

Like Nerva, Trajan ‘adopted’ his successor; although this time, the emperor was near death. Born as Publius Aelius Hadrianus on January 24, 76 AD, Hadrian had the advantage of possessing the right connections. His father was Trajan’s cousin, and when he died in 86 AD, the 10-year old Hadrian became the joint-ward of a Roman equestrian named Acilius Attianus and Trajan.

Trajan wanted to help his ward enjoy a career in the military but was not happy to discover that the teenage version of Hadrian enjoyed hunting and luxury above duty. He was even recalled from his station in Upper Germany by the angry Trajan who wanted to keep a closer eye on his ward. Hadrian finally showed some military promise when fighting near the Danube and when Nerva died, Hadrian won the ‘race’ to tell Trajan thus ensuring his permanent good grace with the new emperor.

He fought with distinction during the Dacia campaign and became governor of Syria in 114 AD. According to Cassius Dio, Trajan did not name Hadrian as his successor on his deathbed. Instead, the empress Plotina kept Trajan’s death a secret for several days. In the meantime, she sent forged letters to the Senate which declared Hadrian as the new emperor. Regardless of how he became the ruler of the empire, Hadrian was worthy of the role. While Trajan spent much of his time on expansion, Hadrian was more concerned with consolidation.

Hadrian abandoned the recently conquered territories in the East. This decision was in line with former Emperor Octavian’s assertion that the empire should not stretch beyond the natural borders of the Euphrates, Danube, and Rhine. He started his reign poorly by denying his involvement in the deaths of four men who supported Trajan. However, Hadrian soon showed his considerable abilities by tightening the borders and improving army discipline. He also expanded upon Trajan’s program of welfare for the poor, and he personally visited the imperial territories on the frontier. His first journey was to Gaul in 121 AD, and he did not finish these journeys until his final return to Rome in 133/34 AD. He saw more of the empire than any other ruler of Rome.

Unlike so many other emperors, Hadrian was ready and willing to seek advice. He was known for the level of respect he showed the Senate and surrounded himself with learned men. One of his most important achievements was to collate Roman law into a single collection known as the Perpetual Edict. He also gained famed for Hadrian’s Wall in Britain; construction began in 122 AD. By 136 AD, he knew his health was failing so he sought a successor. He initially chose Lucius Ceionius Commodus, but his first choice died suddenly in January 138 AD.

Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius the following month and retired soon after as he was in terrible pain from his illness. He died at Baiae on July 10, 138 AD. Although he was an excellent administrator who kept the empire steady and stable, Hadrian was an unpopular ruler at the time of his death. Perhaps this is because he had a fearsome temper and was feared by many.

A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome
Antoninus Pius. Wikipedia

4 – Antoninus Pius (138 – 161)

Antoninus Pius was born in Lanuvium on September 19, 86 AD, and while he was only Hadrian’s second choice, the decision proved to be an excellent one. Antoninus received the nickname ‘Pius’ due to the respect he paid to the memory of his adopted father. He served as consul in 120 AD during the reign of Hadrian and was renowned for being mild-mannered and extremely capable. The emperor trusted him with the governorship of the province of Asia in 134 AD, and he was then selected as one of Hadrian’s most important advisors. As well as adopting Antoninus in 138 AD, Hadrian went one step further by specifying that Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus would be next in line after Antoninus.

Once he became Emperor, he persuaded the Senate to offer divine honors to Hadrian. When his wife died in 140/141 AD, Antoninus founded the Puellae Faustinianae, a charity for daughters of the poor, in her memory. While he wasn’t on Hadrian’s level regarding statesmanship, he was an outstanding ruler as he ensured the Empire remained stable, peaceful and prosperous. Antoninus even stepped in to prevent the persecution of Christians in Thessalonica and Athens.

It appears as if Antoninus’ reign was relatively peaceful with few noteworthy events. However, it could be due to the lack of information from primary sources of the era. There is mention of a rebellion in Roman Britain which was successfully suppressed and revolts in Dacia, Egypt, Germany, and Mauretania. In 142 AD, the Antonine Wall was built to extend the frontier 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.

The main military action that took place during his reign occurred in Britain as governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus invaded southern Scotland and won some important battles. However, the Antonine Wall was decommissioned in the 150s and completely abandoned in the 160s. Antoninus never commanded an army during his reign as he preferred to remain in Rome and trust his generals.

The emperor made his mark in the field of law and apparently laid down the notion that everyone was innocent until proven guilty. Antoninus also declared that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another man. He also decreed that slaves could be forcibly taken from their masters and sold if consistently mistreated. Many scholars believe that Rome’s imperial government reached its zenith during Antoninus’ reign as he came closer than anyone else to achieving the goal of becoming the embodiment of the state. He was a promoter of equality, justice, and peace and ensured his government existed solely for the purpose of the people.

It would be remiss to suggest Antoninus was the perfect ruler. For example, he extended the use of torture to gain evidence for pecuniary cases. He also spent a fortune in 148 AD celebrating the 900th anniversary of Rome’s foundation. It was a magnificent festival by all accounts, but it drained the treasury to such a degree that the emperor was forced to devalue the denarius. He changed the amount of silver in the coins from 89% to 83.5%. It was the beginning of what was an extraordinary level of currency debasement over the next couple of centuries.

Antoninus was in his seventies as his reign drew to a close and in his later years, he had to nibble on dry bread to help him summon the energy to stay awake during morning meetings. Marcus Aurelius was the heir apparent and began to take on a greater role in terms of administrative duties. On the night of March 6, 161 AD, Antoninus was gravely ill so on the following day, he summoned the imperial council and named Marcus as his successor while also giving his daughter to the future emperor. Antoninus died on March 7; his place in Roman history as one of its finest leaders secure.

A Golden Age of Leadership: The Five Good Emperors of Rome
Marcus Aurelius. RioVida Networks

5 – Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 AD)

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the 5 Good Emperors, and he carried on the tradition of high-quality government established by his immediate predecessors. He was born in Rome on April 26, 121 AD and by the time he was 17, he was destined for greatness as he was named as one of the two successors to Antoninus Pius. As a result, he had an ‘apprenticeship’ of sorts for almost a quarter of a century, so he was well-prepared when he finally became emperor. Marcus was consul in 140, 145 and 161 AD.

Although he was named as full emperor in 161 AD, he insisted that his adopted brother Lucius Varus shared the throne. Varus spent most of his reign in the military and fought in Armenia and Mesopotamia between 162 and 166 AD. He celebrated a triumph with Marcus when he returned home but soon, he was marching again, this time to Pannonia. He died from a stroke on the way back to Rome in 168 AD, so Marcus was officially the sole ruler of Rome.

Marcus spent much of his reign fighting back against invasions of the Roman frontier. He had to handle the Parthians in the east and the Germans in the north. Once Varus died, it was left to Marcus to fight on behalf of Rome. Although the threat of the Parthians was dealt with early in his reign, the German tribes were a far tougher proposition. He spent the rest of his time fighting against the Germanic tribes and banished barbarians from Italy after tribes that settled in Ravenna seized possession of the city.

Unlike the reign of Antoninus Pius which was peaceful and reasonably straightforward, Marcus’ time as emperor was marked by the worst plague and famine in the history of Rome to that point. Soldiers serving in the East brought back the sickness, and a large percentage of the Empire’s population perished. Marcus had to deal with the possible destruction of his Empire with internal and external threats, but he managed to succeed.

Although he was a warrior, Marcus was also a great philosopher which helped him become brave and just. It is possible to gain a clear insight into this great emperor’s mind by reading the Meditations which he wrote. Marcus has received criticism for his apparent persecution of Christians. He genuinely believed that the religion was the cause of many problems within the Empire which made it dangerous to the health of the people. Although he left Christians who renounced their faith alone, he ordered the execution of those that didn’t.

In 177 AD, he proclaimed his son Commodus as the joint emperor. They resumed the Danubian Wars as Marcus was determined to reverse the recent trend of defending the Empire. With the benefit of hindsight, appointing Commodus was a terrible decision as the future emperor was the first in a long line of awful rulers. However, if Marcus wanted to continue the recent tradition of choosing an unrelated successor, he would have had to execute his son.

Some historians claim he is an overrated figure; he certainly benefits from any comparison with most emperors who succeeded him. However, it should be noted that he presided over the Empire during a difficult period and ruled as well as anyone could be expected. Marcus died on March 17, 180 AD near Vienna and his ashes were returned to Rome. Commodus succeeded him and presided over a disastrous reign. The death of Marcus marked the end of the 5 Good Emperors. Little over half a century later, Rome was almost destroyed during the strife known as the Third Century Crisis. Although there were a handful of superb emperors after that, the death of Marcus could almost be seen as the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire.