The Five Good Emperors

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Podcast Transcript

Depending on how you define it, there were approximately 70 Roman Emperors. 

They were a mixed bag ranging from philosophers to the insane, from generals to children. 

Some were truly horrible, but some were actually pretty good at their job. In particular, there were five consecutive emperors who reigned during the peak of Pax Romana.

Learn more about the Five Good Emperors on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When talking about “good” Roman Emperors, you have to put things into perspective. Being a “good” emperor doesn’t mean that they were necessarily good people.

This was ancient Rome, after all, where slavery was a massive institution, people were killed for sport in arenas, and crucifixion was considered an acceptable form of execution. 

So, when I say “good,” it doesn’t mean they were saints, but rather they were good at their jobs, or at least, they weren’t crazy. 

The term “Five Good Emperors” was coined by Niccolò Machiavelli in 1531 and popularized by the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon in his landmark book “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

With that, I should give a quick overview of the emperors who lead up to the five good emperors. 

The Roman Empire is considered to have started in the year 27 BC when the Senate gave Julius Caesar’s posthumously adopted son, Octavian, the title of Augustus. 

Augustus is widely considered to be the greatest Roman emperor in history, as well as having been the longest-serving. He was the first emperor in what is known as the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. 

Following Augustus was Tiberius, Calligula, Claudius, and Nero. Nero and Calligula are usually put on the list of worst emperors.

When Nero died in the year 68, he had no heir, and it led to the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors, which I covered in a previous episode. 

The man left standing was Vespasian, the first emperor of the Flavian Dynasty. Vespasian is widely considered to be a good emperor, and he was the one who commissioned the Roman Colosseum. 

The only other emperors in the Flavian Dynasty were his two sons, Titus and Domitian. Titus was pretty good, and Domitian was, again, a horrible emperor. 

The story of Five Good Emperors starts with the death of Domitian. 

In the year 96, Domitian was assassinated by members of his inner circle.

When Nero died 28 years earlier, it led to chaos in the empire, and no one wanted to see a repeat of that and a possible civil war. 

By this time, everyone had become accustomed to the position of emperor, so the impulse wasn’t to go back to a republic but rather to get a new emperor.

The same day Domitian was killed, the Senate proclaimed a 66-year-old senator, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, as Emperor. This was the first time, and one of the only times when the Senate openly selected an emperor rather than just rubber stamping a selection that was made for them. 

Nerva was selected as a steady hand who could stabilize the empire to undo much of the damage which was caused by Domitian. 

Nerva cut taxes and released political prisoners. He didn’t punish the assassins of Domitian and allowed the Senate to pass a damnatio memoriae on Domitian, which allowed for the destruction of all his statues and references to his name. Here I’ll refer to my episode on damnatio memoriae.

He also paid a large donation to the army to quell any concerns, as the army was the only group where Domitian was very popular. 

He stopped treason trials, didn’t execute a single senator, and instituted reforms to make the government more responsive and effective. 

While Nerva brought stability and normalcy to the empire, he was very old for an emperor and had no sons. There was also no clear path of succession for anyone else. 

To rectify this problem, Nerva made what was arguably his best decision. He selected as his successor the popular military commander Marcus Ulpius Traianus, known to us as Trajan. Moreover, he adopted Trajan as his son. 

Nerva died in January 98, having served for only 16 months. However, as short as his reign was, it was incredibly important as he righted the ship of state after the disastrous reign of Domitian. 

The selection of Trajan as his successor was one of the best decisions in Roman history. 

Trajan is widely considered to be one of the best emperors in history, and at the time, he may have been considered even greater. Just as Octavian was given the title of Augustus, Trajan was given the title of Optimus Princeps, which basically means the greatest emperor. 

Trajan’s conquest grew the Roman Empire to the largest extent it would ever achieve. 

There was one thing about Trajan which separated him from all previous emperors. Trajan wasn’t actually Roman or even Italian. He was born and raised in Spain. 

Trajan was known for his public works projects, which included the construction of new roads, bridges, aqueducts, and public buildings throughout the empire. One of his most famous projects was the construction of a new harbor at Ostia, which helped to facilitate trade and commerce in the Mediterranean.

Trajan was so highly regarded that when future emperors were sworn in, they were told, May you be more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan.”

If you visit Rome today, you can see Trajan’s Column, which is across the street from the ruins of the forum. It is a 35 meters or 115-foot-tall column that documents the military exploits of Trajan in the Dacia, or modern-day Romania.

Trajan served as emperor for 19.5 years. Before he died, he favored a young man by the name of Publius Aelius Hadrianus, aka Hadrian. He had given Hadrian a ring which was given to him by his successor, Nerva. 

Despite his publicly favoring Hadrian, he also never openly named him his successor. 

Trajan died on August 11, 117, without having named an heir. His wife, Pompeia Plotina, kept his death a secret until she could create documents showing the adoption of Hadrian.

The adoption went against all legal norms, and it was incredibly shady, but it was a done deal. Hadrian quickly consolidated power and presented it to the senate as a fait accompli. 

Like Trajan, Hadrian was also from Spain, which just showed how diverse the empire was becoming. 

Hadrian, like his predecessors, took steps to reform the government. He realized that Empire had gotten too big to manage adequately and took steps to consolidate the empire into something more defensible.

His best-known construction is Hadrian’s Wall which separated Roman Britain from Scotland. 

While Emperor, Hadrian traveled constantly, visiting many of the remote Roman provinces. 

He spent over half of his 21-year reign traveling around the empire outside of Italy. 

He also commissioned many large construction projects, including the current version of the Pantheon, which is still standing in Rome. 

Hadrian had no children of his own and, by all accounts, didn’t even like his wife. He was known for a scandalous relationship with a Greek teenage boy by the name of Antinous. When Antinous died at the age of 18 in the Nile River, Hadrian was devastated and ordered his deification.

There are more surviving statues of Antinous today than of any other person from that era. 

Hadrian adopted a man by the name of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Antoninus, or as we know him, Antoninus Pius. 

Hadrian died in 138 after ruling for a lengthy 21 years. 

The transition to Antoninus Pius was incredibly smooth. When Hadrian died, there was no controversy at all as Antoninus Pius was well-established, and everyone knew who was next.

Antoninus Pius served as emperor for 23 years, the second longest reign of any emperor besides Augustus. 

There were no major revolts during his reign. He was known for being probably the most humane and kind of all the emperors. He fought in no major wars, and there is no record of him even visiting a military unit during his tenure as emperor. This was arguably the peak of Pax Romana. 

He built another wall in Britain which was further north and much more defensible than Hadrian’s Wall. 

Despite having such a long, successful tenure, there is shockingly little in writing which survives about him. 99% of all texts from ancient Rome have disappeared, and this particular period is devoid of surviving documents. 

By any measure, Antoninus Pius is one of the greatest Roman emperors and by some measures, the greatest. However, he is largely unknown to most people. 

As the fourth of the good emperors, he did with the others before him and selected his heir, and formally adopted him. 

He had two adopted sons, which he appointed as co-emperors. Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. 

Both men began their term as co-emperor in 161 upon the death of  Antoninus Pius. 

Unlike other co-emperors, they didn’t try to kill each other, and it marked the first time in Roman history that two rulers actually ruled together. 

Lucius Verus actually only ruled for eight years before becoming succumbing to an illness in 169. He is widely overlooked as an emperor and is not put on the list of Good Emperors, even though his entire reign was during this period. 

After his death, his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius became the sole emperor. 

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Good Emperors and the last emperor during the period of Pax Romana, which began under Augustus. 

Marcus Aurelius is noted for his military campaigns, which puts him in stark contrast to his predecessor, who never went on campaign. He fought campaigns with Parthia in the east and Germanic tribes in the north. 

He is also best known as one of, if not the greatest, stoic philosophers. 

His book Meditations is one of the greatest philosophical treaties of all time, and it was never even intended to be published publicly. It was simply his diary of writings for himself that was found after he died. 

If you have ever seen the movie Gladiator, the emperor who dies at the beginning of the movie was Marcus Aurelius.

The Five Good Emperors are often grouped together as the Nerva–Antonine dynasty. Of the five emperors I’ve mentioned, four of them, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, are almost always on every list of great emperors. The only reason Nerva isn’t considered great is because he ruled for a little over a year, but that year was still of pivotal importance. 

What did these emperors all have in common? They were all selected and adopted by their predecessor. None of them were the natural-born offspring of an emperor.  Because none of the emperors had sons, they were able to pick successors who were able and talented, not just related. 

Moreover, all the successors were mature and experienced by the time they became emperors. 

So what happened? What did this all fall apart? 

It was because Marcus Aurelius had a son, Commodus. 

Commodus was born into the purple, meaning when he was born, his father had already become emperor. He was the first emperor to grow up knowing his whole life that he would be emperor someday. 

Marcus Aurelius made him his co-emperor when he was just 16 to help give him experience, but Marcus Aurelius died just two years later, making Commodus the sole emperor at the age of 18. 

To put it succinctly, Commodus was a horrible emperor. He was a horrible administrator, he put himself into gladiatorial games and left the coffers of the empire empty, whereas his predecessors left them full. 

Commodus was so bad he was killed by his own praetorian guard, and his downfall ushered in the Year of the Five Emperors, which I covered in a previous episode.

Edward Gibbon marks the death of Marcus Aurelius and the ascension of Commodus as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. It would take centuries to totally unwind, but this is where the car started to roll downhill.

If you were to find yourself with a time machine and you could pick a time to visit ancient Rome, sometime during the reigns of the Five Good Emperors wouldn’t be a bad choice.

As Edward Gibbon himself stated, “If a man were called upon to fix that period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the deaths of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener midnyte8989 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States They write:

This is the podcast you’re looking for!

993, 994, 995, aaaaannndddd done! This has been a wonderful few months of listening. These topics satisfy my ever-changing train of thought.  I enjoy learning about everything and everywhere, so thank you. With that being said, what are the hours of operation for the clubhouse pools in TX!! ?

Thank, midnyte! The pool in the Texas chapter of the completionist club is open depending on the weather. As you know, every so often, Texas can suffer from extreme, normal winter weather. When Texas gets these bouts of weather which shut down the state, even though it is completely normal weather everywhere else, on such days, the pool will be closed. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.