Between 27 BC (the rise of Augustus Caesar) and 96 AD (the fall of the Flavian dynasty), the ancient Romans had been on a pretty good run.
After several centuries of internal strife and civil war, they’d finally figured out a decent formula: put most if not all the power in the hands of the emperor and those around him, and keep expanding the outer frontiers of the empire.
Settling on this approach allowed the city of Rome to grow to new heights, and it created the conditions for an empire. By building roads and canals all across Europe and Asia, the Romans connected and transformed the land they controlled.
Upon the death of Domitian, the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty, a new group of rulers stepped in. These emperors were known as the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.
Together, these five men, starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Auerilius, brought Rome to new heights. But as so often happens in the world of imperial expansion, their success also brought the empire to the beginning of its end.
The Five Good Emperors
The first five emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius — have been referred to as “the five good emperors.” This name comes from Machiavelli, who wrote in the 16th century about Rome and admired the ruling strategies of these five men.
Historians tend to agree that Rome reached new heights in terms of territorial expansion as well as economic prosperity during this time. Many attribute this success to the stability that resulted from the rule of “the five good emperors.”
One of the reasons why this group of emperors was so successful is that they inherited a Roman empire at its strongest point.
After the nearly three-decade run of the Flavian dynasty, the Roman state was stronger than ever before. Taxes were being collected effectively throughout the empire and trade and commerce brought new riches to Rome and helped develop a collective imperial culture.
However, something the Nerva-Antonine dynasty did differently than previous dynasties was choose successors not based on blood but rather merit. Instead of relying on stepsons and nephews, the emperors of this line adopted fellow politicians and military commanders who seemed right for the job.
Whether or not this was an intentional rebuke of how power had changed hands in the two previous dynasties remains unclear, but the fact of the matter is that this approach produced a string of emperors who ruled more evenly and effectively than any others in Roman history.
Growing Rome to Its Highest Point
When Domitian ( the last of the Flavians) was killed by opponents, Nerva, a friend and ally of the Flavians, took control of Rome. To do this, he had the Senate declare him emperor. At this point, the Senate was a shell of its former self. But it still held symbolic power. It was hard for an emperor to make a true claim to the throne without the backing of the Senate.
His reign, which lasted just two years, helped consolidate power behind his name. Before he died, he named Trajan, from Spain, his successor.
Together with those who followed him, Trajan would take Rome to new heights. Its already massive power and influence would expand to new places and people and transform the ancient world.
One of the biggest accomplishments of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty was that the empire expanded to its largest point. Thanks to conquests by Trajan, Arabia, Iran, Mesopotamia, and Assyria all fell under the control of the Roman empire.
After Trajan, Hadrian campaigned throughout western Europe, reaching as far north as Scotland and bringing more of the region under Roman control. Both Trajan and Hadrian took considerable steps to secure the empire’s frontiers, the most famous example being the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which separated Roman Britain from the tribes to the north who could not be conquered.
These efforts helped more clearly define the limits of the Roman empire, which encouraged prosperity in the provinces by putting more space between Rome and its enemies.
By the time Marcus Aurelius rose to power, the Germanic people of central Europe were beginning to creep into Roman lands. Much of his time as emperor was spent fighting these foes back. These wars ultimately strained the Roman empire’s finances, weakening it and opening it up to turmoil after the death of Aurelius.
Social Programs and Culture
In addition to expanding the boundaries of the Roman empire, the emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty also spent a considerable amount of time building within its boundaries.
While Trajan and Marcus Aurelius are known for their military successes, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius are known for their domestic achievements. Trajan traveled all across the empire, promoting Roman culture and rule along the way.
At the same time, Trajan invested heavily in public buildings such as theaters, schools, and markets, all of which helped Roman culture grow. These projects also helped him improve his status with the Roman people. He also expanded on the vast Roman network of roads, helping to connect newly conquered territories and bring them into the fold of the empire.
This alternating effort of expansion and consolidation helped Rome not only grow in size but also in power. The territory it claimed became connected to a vast administrative bureaucracy that laid the groundwork for today’s Europe.
Trajan also enacted what amounts to the world’s first social welfare program. Using taxes collected by the empire, he provided for those who could not provide for themselves, a move that not only helped make him more popular but that also helped improve the economic standing of people across the empire.
The End of the Line
After the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius was named co-emperor alongside his brother Lucius Veras. But his brother soon died and Marcus Aurelius ruled alone. This changed in 176 AD when he appointed his son, Commodus, as co-emperor and also his heir.
This made Commodus the first emperor in the Nerva-Antonine dynasty to not be an adopted son but rather a biological heir. The exact impact of this remains unclear. But Commodus wound up being the last in the Nerva-Antonine line and his rise to power coincided with a decline in stability.
Most historians use this as a dividing point in Roman history.
The ascent of Commodus effectively ended the Pax Romana, a roughly 200-year period of peace, stability, and prosperity within the Roman empire.
This also marked the beginning of Rome’s downfall and eventual separation. The divisions that were growing by the end of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty would continue to fester until Rome itself could no longer stand united.
From Stability and Growth to Gradual Decline
During this period of rule by the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, Rome enjoyed unprecedented peace and stability. This helped Rome grow to a never-before seen size. Its robust institutional infrastructure helped connect this vast territory into a unified empire.
From this point on, Rome’s grip on power in Europe and the Mediterranean began to slip. But thanks to the progress it made during the reign of “the five good emperors,” it had solidified its legacy as the foundation of the modern world.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao