‘The Five Good Emperors’ administered the Roman Empire successfully in spite of dramatic setbacks. In the realm of foreign policy, their reigns were characterized amid great adversity by the triumph of Roman arms and the consolidation of the Empire’s borders. In contrast to some of their Julio-Claudian and Flavian predecessors, they demonstrated a facility for managing the constituencies upon which the emperor rested his authority. Finally, they oversaw-and in some cases participated in-a cultural and intellectual flourishing throughout the Mediterranean. Ultimately, one can assess the Antonines’ performance without discarding Gibbon’s encomiastic account completely.
Notwithstanding a Jewish uprising in North Africa between 115 and 117 A.D., Trajan enjoyed considerable military success. He disregarded utterly Augustus’ injunction against further imperial acquisition, conquering Arabia, Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia from the Parthians. He went on to crush King Decebalus between the years of 102 and 106 A.D., annexing the Dacians’ Carpathian stronghold as a full Roman province. Trajan would use the booty from his Danubian campaign to construct a new forum. In hindsight, one can condemn him for such adventurism. Augustus had rightly recognized the Rhine and the Danube as the borders beyond which Roman resources could not extend. Indeed, Dacia would become the only permanently-occupied Roman province abandoned prior to the sack of Rome. But the Roman Senate’s decision to greet all new emperors with the exhortation sis felicior Augusto et melior Taiano belies any such judgment. Trajan’s reign-mediated, perhaps, by Hadrian’s consolidation of the imperial limes-was looked upon fondly by Romans during the Empire.
Some explanation for this outlook might be found in Trajan’s adept management of senatorial relations and in his imperial paternalism. Trajan’s civilitas would become paradigmatic. Upon his ascension he renewed the oath that Titus and Nerva had taken to eschew persecution of senators, thus facilitating freedom of speech. This stands in marked contrast to Nero and Domitian’s treatment of Thrasea Paetus, Helvidius Priscus, and the rest of the ‘Stoic opposition.’ Additionally, Trajan promoted equestrians over freedman to positions within the imperial bureaucracy. That way he avoided the condemnation that Claudius had received for being a pawn of various factions within the imperial household. The senatorial aristocracy’s appreciation of such behavior can be gauged by Pliny’s Panegyricus (100 CE), in which the author ‘encourages the emperor in virtues by a sincere tribute.’ Though his adoption of the alimenta program, by which grain was provided to the rural poor, may have had more to do with maintaining army rolls than acting charitably, Trajan did demonstrate some concern for Italian landowners.
Though Hadrian’s relationship with the Senate would prove to be somewhat rockier, he does seem to have executed his imperial duties faithfully. In contrast to Nero’s decadent embrace of Greek arts and Commodus’s love of gladiatorial combat, Hadrian managed to express his philhellenism in a regal manner. The Pantheon, long thought to have been constructed by Augustus’ general Marcus Agrippa due to the architrave’s inscription, has in recent decades been shown to have been a restoration project overseen by the emperor Hadrian. He also restored the Temple of Olympian Zeus near the Athenian acropolis. ‘At least palace building,’ notes Mackay, ‘is a regal pastime.’ More substantively, Hadrian imposed pragmatic restrictions upon Trajan’s conquests. His first action was to abandon the provinces of Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia, after which he successfully quenched a revolt initiated by officers who disagreed with the decision. He suppressed the Jewish rebellion that had broken out under Trajan and constructed his eponymous wall along the border of present-day Scotland, which would denote more or less the Empire’s northernmost reach. In addition to his non-military tours around the Empire (behavior with which we might associate a modern presidential candidate), Hadrian continued Trajan’s promotion of equestrians at the expense of freedmen and regularized the cursus honorum governing the possession of political office at Rome. He also appointed four ex-consuls to administer the Italian peninsula, aping somewhat the concern Trajan had shown for the rural population with his alimenta program. Finally, Hadrian’s initiation into the Eleusianian Mysteries, his sculptural depiction with a philosophic beard, and his encouragement of the cultural explosion known as the Second Sophistic all demonstrated an interest in the classical age of Athenian rhetoric. It is very hard to condemn a leader with such a record.
One is inclined to believe that Antoninus Pius’ ‘unremarkable’ reign owes itself more to efficient administration than dullness on the emperor’s part. If Marcus Aurelius eulogy in the Meditations is any indication, Pius espoused a sense of stability and predicatability similar to Dwight D. Eisenhower. The sources stress above all else his generous and merciful personality, recalling the Trajanic civilitas. According to Dio, the epithet Pius derived from the emperor’s insistence that the Senate deify Hadrian despite his temperamental deterioration after the death of his lover Alcinous in 130 A.D. Furthermore, he pardoned those who had been destined for execution under Hadrian’s rule. Aelius Aristides’ panegyric may sound toady to modern ears, but something can be said for the sources’ uniformity in lauding this emperor. His foreign policy included several minor successes, including the extension of Rome’s British frontiers to the Firth of Forth and the successful assignment of leaders to the Quadi and the Armenians. Thus Antoninus emerges from the pages of history as the prototypical Burkean statesman, one who transmitted the institution over which he was placed intact to his successors.
Of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ Marcus Aurelius encountered the most adversity. Therefore his association, via Edward Gibbon, with the happiest state of human history, if not wholly accurate, is nonetheless impressive for being debatable at all. His ascension was greeted by a Parthian invasion of Armenia and the Cappadocian governor’s inability to quell it. Sending his adoptive brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus east in 163 A.D., Marcus ultimately found a successful general in Avidius Cassius, who advanced even past the northern Tigris. Yet returning troops would in 165 A.D. carry back to Rome a devastating plague. Estimates for the death toll involved range from 2% to 20% of the imperial population during Marcus’ reign. Compounding these problems was the southwesterly migration of Germanic tribes, a movement that pushed the Marcomanni and the Quadi into Roman territory. Between 166 and 180 A.D., Marcus fought a series of perilous campaigns along the Danube, one of which resulted in the siege of Aquelia, the first time Italy had been invaded since the assault of the Cimbri had been turned back by Marius in the late second century B.C. Finally, in 175 A.D., Marcus’ erstwhile general Avididius Cassius led a revolt in the East, encouraged-perhaps-by Marcus’ wife Faustina. For all this, Marcus still managed to forge an imperial ideology and facilitate the expansion of Greek philosophy during the 2nd century A.D. He erected a column similar to Trajan’s, upon which his ultimate pacification of the Dacians was portrayed as the triumph of Romanness over barbarism. This theme is echoed in his famous equestrian statue, under which it is thought a conquered Dacian used to cower. In addition to writing a diary that took on philosophical importance in its own right, Marcus also endowed four chairs in the Hellensitic schools of philosophy at Athens, picking up where Hadrian left of re patronage of the arts. Finally, he transmitted imperial authority intact to his son Commodus, whose decadence would delve the Empire once more into civil war at the end of the second century A.D. If Marcus Aurelius did not do a ‘good’ job, he did the best job he-or anyone-might have done. What Churchill called the ‘grievous inquest of History’ must pass him over unscathed.
The picture of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ that develops from the sources we have-and it is a hazy one, to be sure-is one of five rulers overseeing the expansion and cultural improvement of an empire in the face of dramatic difficulties. We rightly view Gibbon’s enthusiasm as elitism run amok. We should not, however, make the mistake of allowing the pendulum to swing to far in the other direction. The ‘Five Good Emperors’ each did the noblest thing that a man placed in a position of authority can do: they did what they could.