Many people have a very negative view of the Roman Emperors, because they believe they were tyrants. While many of the emperors abused their power, some tried their hardest to be good leaders, and to do what they believed was right for the people. An important group of these benevolent leaders, who demonstrated restraint and justice in their actions, was the so-called “five good Emperors.” The five good Emperors were a series of successive rulers who were extraordinarily just, and who chose successors who they believed would follow their example.
After Julius Caesar, the title of Emperor was passed from person to person both by inheritance and by rebellion. Many of the first Emperors chose a favorite relative and declared they would take over when the Emperor died. This practice lead to stable rule for several decades, but after the assassination of Nero, there was chaos while several military leaders competed for power. Finally, one last family line took power: Vespasian, followed by his sons Titus and Domitian, ruled Rome for for 27 years. After Domitian’s assassination, the first of the five good Emperors took power.
Nerva was the first Emperor to be chosen by the Senate, and began is rule in 96 C.E.. He is mainly remembered for helping restore a bit of normalcy after the assassination of Domitian, and his rule only lasted a year. At the time he was made Emperor, Nerva was very old and had no children of his own. This made him an ideal candidate for the title, since he would have to choose his successor based on merit, and not simply name a family member.
Shortly after his reign began, Nerva had an extended dispute with the Praetorian Guard, the official protectors of the Emperor that were typically involved in assassination attempts. They believed that Nerva hadn’t done enough to cement his rule and ensure the continuation of the Empire. In particular, they wanted him to name a successor with a military background, and all but forced him to name Trajan. Nerva died a few months afterwards, but set the empire on track for almost a century of fair rule.
Trajan was both a strong military leader and a powerful civil leader. Militarily, he expanded the borders of Rome to their peak: the area under his command when he died was the largest Rome ever held. Domestically, he built several public buildings and shared the prosperity of his military conquests with the Roman people.
In contrast to previous Emperors, Trajan began his rule in 98 C.E. by declaring that he would share the responsibilities of leadership with the Senate. This, combined with his work to undo the seizures of property and power by previous Emperors, is what led the Senate of his time and later historians to declare Trajan among the most just Emperors of Roman history. As a civil leader, Trajan returned land that previous Emperors had stolen from their political enemies, and focused on ensuring the financial stability of the empire. At the same time, he was able to undertake an enormous number of public works projects, building bridges, canals, public buildings, and lasting monuments that benefitted all.
As a former soldier, Trajan was also an enormously effective military leader. The Roman Empire was always under attack by kingdoms to its east, and Trajan came extremely close to eliminating this threat for all time. He fought two successful wars against the kingdom of Dacia, a kingdom which had defeated Emperor Domitian in battle and plagued the Empire for years. After conquering Dacian, he turned his attention to another Eastern kingdom, Parthia. Before his death in 117 C.E., Trajan conquered substantial amounts of Parthia, in what is now Iraq, Syria, and Israel.
While Trajan had conquered more territory than any Emperor before or after, Hadrian was tasked with managing it. Known for traveling extensively in the Empire, to the extent that the Senate and Romans of the time thought it was unseemly, Hadrian helped to convert the military conquests of Trajan into a real political unit that could be managed.
Britons know Hadrian best because of his famous wall. Hadrian’s wall was part of a larger project of Hadrian’s to ensure that the newly-expanded Empire was safe from threats. Apart from the wall in Brittania, Hadrian constructed similar walls along the Danube river to the north of Italy, and stressed the importance of a strong and well-disciplined army to counter new threats. Hadrian also was forced to give up some territory conquered by Trajan that proved difficult to defend, shrinking the borders of the Empire to better secure the remainder.
Unfortunately, not much historical record survives to recount Hadrian’s rule. He was known to be a supporter of the arts, and he wrote some poetry himself. This is consistent with the other good Emperors: it shows he was a scholar and concerned with leading a good life, rather than clinging to power. Before his death in 138 C.E., he named Antoninus Pius as his successor, but demanded that Pious name Marcus Aurelius as his own successor in turn.
The most peaceful of all the Emperors, Antoninus Pius’ rule was marked by a domestic focus. He was a skilled civil administrator and during his reign he brought about legal and economic reforms. His particular focus on making the law more equitable and fair earned him a reputation as an exceedingly just man.
The most famous legal reform of Antoninus was to introduce the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, a principle which stands to this day. Antoninus also greatly expanded the legal rights of slaves, and made it easier for slaves to be freed. Alongside his changes to the legal system, he also enlisted several legal advisors to write about the law, creating a culture of fair-minded legal reform throughout the empire.
Marcus Aurelius was the most famously philosophical of the five good Emperors, and one of the most widely-known philosopher-rulers of history. He took the title of Emperor in 161 C.E., at first with the assistance of Lucius Verus, but later on his own after Verus died. A skilled military commander and a fair domestic ruler, Aurelius was last and best embodiment of the spirit of the good Emperors.
Because he had already had a long political career before becoming Emperor, Aurelius was a skilled civil servant. His responses to important domestic events of the time were viewed as exceedingly just. During floods and earthquakes, he took a personal interest in overseeing the response and rebuilding, and ensuring that cities within the Empire were taken care of. In keeping with the example started by Trajan, he included the Senate in his decision-making, and had a reputation of trying to not expand the power of the Emperor.
Unlike his predecessor, Aurelius fought wars with both the Parthians and the Germanic tribes north of Italy. In the Parthian war, his co-ruler Lucius Verus commanded the troops, and secured another victory against the Parthians that would subdue them for a while. Aurelius himself led troops in the Marcomannic wars, a series of battles against the assorted Germanic tribes caused by the tribes’ invasion of Roman territory. Although Aurelius won a victory in against the tribes, the wars were simply the first wave in a centuries-long dispute with the Germanic northerners that would eventually contribute to the Empire’s downfall.
Aurelius is best known for his book The Meditations, written during the Germanic war. In it, he outlines his Stoic philosophy, and describes how he had striven to lead a good life no matter his station, as a citizen or as the Emperor. The book was a fitting symbol for the last of the good Emperors: a passionate attempt to persuade readers to do what is right, not just what is best for them. Unfortunately for the people of the Roman Empire, few of the later Emperors would follow Aurelius’ advice.