The low point struck with Domitian, last of the “twelve Caesars”. He was followed by a particularly auspicious period during which five “good” emperors followed in succession.
The “five good emperors”
Following the difficulties under the rule of Domitian the Emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius brought a period of stability and growth for the Empire.
It is not surprising that monumental testimony of this period is still found throughout Rome. For example the columns of Trajan and of Antoninus depicting their various wars of conquest; the Pantheon remodelled by Hadrian, and the fabulous statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback.
Nerva (96-98AD) was an aristocrat chosen by the senate. He was honest and loved poetry and his short reign was full of justice although perhaps he lacked a firm hand with his subjects.
He chose to take a different approach from his predecessors:
- lessened the heavy taxes which the long line of Caesars had come to impose on Roman citizens
- recalled all those who had been exiled, such as the philosopher Epictetus
- put a stop to the practice of using informers to eradicate those who might be regarded as being subversive or against the emperor.
In many ways Nerva was quite the opposite of the Neros and Domitians: whilst the latter might be regarded as true tyrants he was viewed as giving the citizens of Rome excessive freedom and liberty.
An example of this was when the Praetorian guard took it into their own hands to set right Domitian’s murderers. This involved finding the culprits and putting them to death without a trial in clear violation of Nerva’s authority. Given that Nerva wasn’t capable of punishing this rebellion himself he chose to share his government with a young general from Spain called Trajan. It wasn’t long before Nerva himself died leaving Trajan to rule alone.
At the time of Nerva’s death Trajan was on military campaign along the Rhine. A full year passed before he came back to Rome.
Emperor Trajan (98-117AD) was just the right emperor for the times. He expanded the empire further, conquered the lands south-east of the Black sea, and also succeeded in quelling the rebellious Dacians to whom Domitian had been paying a shameful ransom.
Trajan was also a great builder. He had a fabulous marble column erected in memory of the great and successful wars against the Dacians of Eastern Europe. The column is known as “Trajan’s column” and is still standing in the Forum at Rome . The artistic quality of the sculpture spiralling up this amazing column is not the best but it is certainly “neo-realist” and tells us much of those events. The size and construction of the column itself is an engineering feat: In many ways Trajan’s column is an architectural and cultural wonder.
The column was stood in a new forum which he had built. It is fitting that the column is structured like a papyrus scroll and stands by a grandiose library. The library was split into two halves: half of which contained documents in Latin and the other half in Greek. He also built a magnificent basilica, a triumphal arch and numerous statues adorned his forum.
Throughout the empire he had new public buildings built such as theatres and baths. Bridges, roads and acqueducts were amplified and maintained.
Trajan was called “Optimus” by his people. He was a man of intellect as well as one of action and men of literature such as Pliny the younger and Plutarch were amongst his personal friends. He ensured that poor children were reared and assisted poor landowners to improve their properties through loans made at preferential rates.
Trajan, in his final illness, adopted Hadrian (emperor from 117-138AD) who was also a great man of action, thinker and builder. Whilst Trajan had set to increasing the size of the empire, Hadrian was concerned with consolidating it.
In modern UK he is popularly remembered for the great wall he built along the northern borders of England and Scotland. He was also a good writer. In his later years he became a little introvert especially after the death of his young friend Antinous whom he deified and in whose honour he named a new city and built a temple. It is said that Antinous committed suicide because it had been foretold that his death was necessary in order for Hadrian to do the great things he was destined for. Hadrian travelled at length across the empire and brought back much learning.
His villa at Tivoli near Rome includes many architectural features which he had marveled at during his travels.
Hadrian’s huge mausoleum was built along the same concept as that of Augustus on the banks of the river Tiber. It was of such an imposing size that it later became a fortress and is currently known as Castel St. Angelo: the Papal stronghold next to the Vatican and St. Peter’s basilica.
He also rebuilt the Pantheon in its present form after it had burned down. It is still regarded as a marvel of architecture and engineering and provided inspiration to the likes of Michelangelo.
Emperor Antoninus Pius
Hadrian adopted a Gaul called Antoninus Pius to succeed him as emperor. He bade Antoninus to adopt a young man aged 17 called Marcus Aurelius as his own son as well as a small boy called Lucius Verus. Both these men succeeded Hadrian as emperor.
Antoninus was called Pius by his citizens for the respect he paid to Hadrian’s memory. For example he had a temple to the Divine Hadrian built in Rome of which a section can still be seen in Piazza di Pietra.
He erected a memorial column, similar in style to that of Trajan to commemorate his foreign wars. The column is still standing and very beautiful.
Antoninus ruled for 23 years, many of which together with the young Marcus Aurelius. Power didn’t corrupt him and he ruled in the interest of the good of his subjects.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius
When Antoninus Pius died Marcus Aurelius was left to rule together with Varus but unfortunately the latter died soon after. The rule of Marcus Aurelius lasted 19 years. Like Hadrian he was an avid learner and philosopher (symbolised by the beard on the statue). However he was forced to spend much of his time at the head of his armies against the barbarians who were pressing against the borders as yet more barbarians pressed towards them.
During this period there was a great plague, brought by the soldiers who had served in the east. The sickness weakened the empire and the roman treasury was low. Marcus Aurelius did his utmost to check the advance of the invading hordes and made use of his learning as a philosopher to rule his subjects well. One of his best books is called “meditations” and it was written whilst on military campaign near the Danube. Within it he writes much of what learned from his teachers such as Antoninus Pius and others.
A bronze equestrian statue of him on the Capitoline Hill has amazingly survived the ages because throughout the Middle Ages it was thought to be of Saint Paul. Pollution has meant that the original statue of Marcus Aurelius is kept within the Capitoline museum while a copy of it stands on the Capitoline Hill where it was placed as part of Michelangelo’s rework of the square.