The Nerva-Antonine Dynasty
The Golden Age of Rome was a period of prosperity that fell under the “Five Good Emperors” of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Describe the characteristics of the Golden Age and the achievements of the Five Good Emperors
- The first five of the six successions within the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty were notable in that the reigning emperor adopted the candidate of his choice to be his successor, rather than choosing a biological heir.
- Although much of his life remains obscure, Nerva was considered a wise and moderate emperor by ancient historians. Nerva’s greatest success was his ability to ensure a peaceful transition of power after his death, thus founding the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.
- Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, and led the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death.
- Hadrian was known to be a humanist and a philhellene, renowned for his building projects and commitment to his military lifestyle.
- Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, enjoyed not only military successes during his reign, but also authored a defining Stoic tome on equanimity in the midst of conflict.
- Marcus Aurelius: Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE, as well as a notable Stoic philosopher.
- Hadrian: Roman Emperor from 117 to 138 CE. Known for his grand building projects and his philhellenism.
- Trajan: Roman emperor from 98 CE until 117 CE. Officially declared by the Senate as optimus princeps, and known for his bold expansion of Roman borders.
The Nerva-Antonine Dynasty was a dynasty of seven Roman Emperors who ruled over the Roman Empire during a period of prosperity from 96 CE to 192 CE. These emperors are Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus.
The first five of the six successions within this dynasty were notable in that the reigning emperor adopted the candidate of his choice to be his successor. Under Roman law, an adoption established a bond legally as strong as that of kinship. As such, the second through sixth Nerva-Antonine emperors are also called Adoptive Emperors.
The importance of official adoption in Roman society has often been considered as a conscious repudiation of the principle of dynastic inheritance, and has been deemed as one of the factors of the period’s prosperity. However, this was not a new practice. It was common for patrician families to adopt, and Roman emperors had adopted heirs in the past; Emperor Augustus had adopted Tiberius, and Emperor Claudius had adopted Nero. Julius Caesar, dictator perpetuo and considered to be instrumental in the transition from Republic to Empire, adopted Gaius Octavius, who would become Augustus, Rome ‘s first emperor. Moreover, there was a family connection, as Trajan adopted his first cousin once removed and great-nephew by marriage, Hadrian. Hadrian made his half-nephew by marriage, and heir Antoninus Pius, adopt both Hadrian’s second cousin three times removed, and half-great-nephew by marriage, Marcus Aurelius, also Antoninus’ nephew by marriage, and the son of his original planned successor, Lucius Verus. The naming by Marcus Aurelius of his son, Commodus, was considered to be an unfortunate choice and the beginning of the Empire’s decline.
With Commodus’ murder in 192, the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty came to an end; it was followed by a period of turbulence, known as the Year of the Five Emperors.
The Five Good Emperors
The rulers commonly known as the “Five Good Emperors” were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The term was coined by the political philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli, in 1503:
From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced. Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the Senate.
An alternative hypothesis posits that adoptive succession is thought to have arisen because of a lack of biological heirs. All but the last of the adoptive emperors had no legitimate biological sons to succeed them. They were thus obliged to pick a successor somewhere else; as soon as the Emperor could look towards a biological son to succeed him, adoptive succession was set aside. Nonetheless, this period was a time of peace and prosperity.
In 96 CE, Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy involving members of the Praetorian Guard and several of his freedmen. On the same day, Nerva was declared emperor by the Roman Senate. This occasion marked the first time the Senate elected a Roman Emperor.
Nerva’s brief reign was marred by financial difficulties and his inability to assert his authority over the Roman army. A revolt by the Praetorian Guard in October 97 essentially forced him to adopt an heir. After some deliberation, Nerva chose Trajan, a young and popular general, as his successor. After barely fifteen months in office, Nerva died of natural causes in 98, and upon his death, he was succeeded and deified by Trajan. Although much of his life remains obscure, Nerva was considered a wise and moderate emperor by ancient historians. Nerva’s greatest success was his ability to ensure a peaceful transition of power after his death, thus founding the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.
Trajan was Roman emperor from 98 CE until his death in 117 CE. Officially declared by the Senate as optimus princeps (“the best ruler”), Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, and led the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He is also known for his philanthropic rule, and oversaw extensive public building programs and implemented social welfare policies.
Bust of Trajan: Bust of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 CE.
Hadrian was Roman Emperor from 117 to 138 CE. Known for his grand building projects, he re-built the Pantheon and constructed the Temple of Venus and Roma. He is also known for building Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the northern limit of Roman Britain. During his reign, Hadrian traveled to nearly every province of the Empire. An ardent admirer of Greece, he sought to make Athens the cultural capital of the empire, and created a popular cult in the name of his Greek lover, Antinous. He spent extensive amounts of his time with the military; he usually wore military attire and even dined and slept amongst the soldiers.
Bust of Hadrian: Bust of the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138 CE.
Hadrian was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, who was subsequently succeeded by Marcus Aurelius, who was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE. He ruled with Lucius Verus as co-emperor from 161 until Verus’ death in 169. He was the last of the Five Good Emperors and was a practitioner of Stoicism. His untitled writing, commonly known as the Meditations, is the most significant source of our modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius was an effective military commander, and Rome enjoyed various military successes against outsiders who were beginning to threaten the Empire. During his reign, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East: Aurelius’ general, Avidius Cassius, sacked the capital Ctesiphon in 164. In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, although the threat of the Germanic tribes began to represent a troubling reality for the empire. A revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius failed to gain momentum and was suppressed immediately.
His Meditations, written in Greek while he was on a campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, which describes how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius: Bust of Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180 CE.
Military Successes of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty
The Nerva-Antonine Dynasty saw the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent.
Examine the military efforts of the Nerva-Antonine emperors=
- The second emperor in the dynasty, Trajan, is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, through the Dacian Wars.
- The conclusion of the Dacian Wars marked the beginning of a period of sustained growth and relative peace in Rome.
- Despite his own great reputation as a military administrator, Hadrian ‘s reign was marked by a general lack of documented major military conflicts, apart from the Second Roman–Jewish War, and instead is marked by pacifist tendencies.
- The peace policy was strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications along the empire’s borders, the most famous of these being the massive Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain.
- Hadrian’s Wall: A defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in 122 CE during the reign of the emperor Hadrian.
- Dacian Wars: Two military campaigns fought between the Roman Empire and Dacia during Roman Emperor Trajan’s rule.
Several of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty emperors were known for their notable military successes.
Trajan and the Dacian Wars
After Nerva’s short rule, his adoptive heir, Trajan, a popular military leader, ruled as emperor from 98-117 CE. Officially declared by the Senate as optimus princeps(“the best ruler”), Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death.
The Dacian Wars (101-102, 105-106) were two military campaigns fought between the Roman Empire and Dacia during Roman Emperor Trajan’s rule. The conflicts were triggered by the constant Dacian threat on the Danubian Roman Province of Moesia, and also by the increasing need for resources in the economy of the Roman Empire.
Dacia, an area north of Macedon and Greece, and east of the Danube, had been on the Roman agenda since before the days of Caesar, when they defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Histria. In 85 CE, the Dacians swarmed over the Danube and pillaged Moesia, and initially defeated the army that Emperor Domitian sent against them. The Romans were defeated in the Battle of Tapae in 88, and a truce was established.
Emperor Trajan recommenced hostilities against Dacia and, following an uncertain number of battles, defeated the Dacian King Decebalus in the Second Battle of Tapae in 101. With Trajan’s troops pressing towards the Dacian capital, Sarmizegetusa Regia, Decebalus once more sought truce terms. Decebalus rebuilt his power over the following years and attacked Roman garrisons again in 105. In response, Trajan again marched into Dacia, besieging the Dacian capital in the Siege of Sarmizegetusa, and razing it. With Dacia quelled, Trajan subsequently invaded the Parthian empire to the east, his conquests expanding the Roman Empire to its greatest extent. Rome’s borders in the east were indirectly governed through a system of client states for some time, leading to less direct campaigning than in the west in this period.
The conclusion of the Dacian Wars marked a triumph for Rome and its armies. Trajan announced 123 days of celebrations throughout the Empire. Dacia’s rich gold mines were secured, and it is estimated that Dacia then contributed 700 million Denarii per annum to the Roman economy, providing finance for Rome’s future campaigns, and assisting with the rapid expansion of Roman towns throughout Europe.
The two wars were notable victories in Rome’s extensive expansionist campaigns, gaining Trajan the people’s admiration and support. The conclusion of the Dacian Wars marked the beginning of a period of sustained growth and relative peace in Rome. Trajan began extensive building projects and became an honorable civil leader, improving Rome’s civic infrastructure, thereby paving the way for internal growth and reinforcement of the empire as a whole.
Dacian Wars: Fiery battle scene between the Roman and Dacian armies.
Hadrian and Hadrian’s Wall
Despite his own great reputation as a military administrator, Hadrian’s reign was marked by a general lack of documented major military conflicts, apart from the Second Roman-Jewish War. Hadrian had already surrendered Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia, considering them to be indefensible. In the East, Hadrian contented himself with retaining suzerainty over Osroene, which was ruled by the client king, Parthamaspates, once client king of Parthia under Trajan.
Hadrian’s abandonment of an aggressive policy was something the Senate and its historians never forgave: the fourth century historian, Aurelius Victor, charged him with being jealous of Trajan’s exploits and deliberately trying to downplay their worthiness. It is more probable that Hadrian simply considered that the financial strain to be incurred through keeping a policy of conquests was something the Roman Empire could not afford. Proof of this is the disappearance during his reigns of two entire legions. Also, the acknowledgement of the indefensible character of the Mesopotamian conquests had perhaps already been made by Trajan himself, who had disengaged from them at the time of his death.
The peace policy was strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications along the empire’s borders. The most famous of these is the massive Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain, built on stone and doubled on its rear by a ditch (Vallum Hadriani), which marked the boundary between a strictly military zone and the province. The Danube and Rhine borders were strengthened with a series of mostly wooden fortifications, forts, outposts, and watchtowers, the latter specifically improving communications and local area security.
To maintain morale and prevent the troops from becoming restive, Hadrian established intensive drill routines, and personally inspected the armies. Although his coins showed military images almost as often as peaceful ones, Hadrian’s policy was peace through strength, even threat, with an emphasis on discipline, which was the subject of two monetary series.
Hadrian’s Wall: Sections of Hadrian’s Wall remain along the route, though much of it has been dismantled over the years, in order to use the stones for various nearby construction projects.
Art and Culture Under the Nerva-Antonines
Emperor Hadrian, among other Nerva-Antonine emperors, patronized the arts, held public festivals, and influenced the culture of Rome and beyond.
Describe trends in art and culture under the Nerva-Antonines
- Trajan was known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, as well as hosting major public festivals in the Colosseum.
- Emperor Hadrian had a major influence on Roman culture through his love of Greek culture.
- He patronized the arts, building and rebuilding important and influential structures, such as Hadrian’s Villa. He also introduced Greek styles into public use, such as wearing a beard instead of being clean-shaven.
- As a cultural Hellenophile, Hadrian was familiar with the work of the philosophers Epictetus, Heliodorus, and Favorinus, and used their ideas to improve social welfare in Rome.
- Hadrian’s Villa: A large Roman archaeological complex at Tivoli, Italy, built by Emperor Hadrian and based on Greek architectural styles.
- philhellenism: Used to describe both non-Greeks, such as Romans, who were fond of Greek culture, and Greeks who patriotically upheld their culture.
Several of the Nerva-Antonine emperors are known for their support of the arts and culture of Rome.
Trajan was known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which earned him his enduring reputation as the second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world. During a period of peace after the Dacian wars, he initiated a three-month gladiatorial festival in the great Colosseum in Rome (the precise date is unknown). Combining chariot racing, beast fights, and close-quarters gladiatorial bloodshed, this gory spectacle reputedly left 11,000 dead (mostly slaves and criminals, not to mention the thousands of wild animals killed alongside them), and attracted a total of five million spectators over the course of the festival. The care bestowed by Trajan on the managing of such public spectacles led the orator Fronto to state approvingly that Trajan had paid equal attention to entertainments as well as to serious issues. Fronto concluded that “neglect of serious matters can cause greater damage, but neglect of amusements greater discontent.”
Hadrian has been described—
first in an ancient anonymous source and later echoed by Ronald Syme, among others—as the most versatile of all the Roman emperors. He also liked to demonstrate knowledge of all intellectual and artistic fields. Above all, Hadrian patronized the arts. Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur was the greatest Roman example of an Alexandrian garden, recreating a sacred landscape, albeit lost in large part to the despoliation of the ruins by the Cardinal d’Este, who had much of the marble removed to build Villa d’Este. In Rome, the Pantheon, originally built by Agrippa but destroyed by fire in 80, was rebuilt under Hadrian in the domed form it retains to this day. It is among the best-preserved of Rome’s ancient buildings, and was highly influential to many of the great architects of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Hadrian’s Villa: The ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in their present state.
Another of Hadrian’s contributions to popular Roman culture was the beard, which symbolised his philhellenism; Dio of Prusa had equated the generalized using of the beard with Hellenic ethos. Since the time of Scipio Africanus, it had been fashionable among the Romans to be clean-shaven. Also, all Roman emperors before Hadrian, except for Nero (also a great admirer of Greek culture), were clean shaven. Most of the emperors after Hadrian would be portrayed with beards. Their beards, however, were not worn out of an appreciation for Greek culture, but because the beard had, thanks to Hadrian, become fashionable. This new fashion lasted until the reign of Constantine the Great and was revived again by Phocas at the start of the 7th century. Notwithstanding his philhellenism, however, in all other everyday life matters, Hadrian behaved as a Roman civic traditionalist, who demanded the use of the toga by senators and knights in public, and strict separation between the sexes in the public baths and theaters.
Hadrian wrote poetry in both Latin and Greek; one of the few surviving examples is a Latin poem he reportedly composed on his deathbed. Some of his Greek productions found their way into the Palatine Anthology.
As a cultural Hellenophile, Hadrian was familiar with the work of the philosophers Epictetus, Heliodorus, and Favorinus. At home he attended to social needs. Hadrian mitigated slavery; masters were forbidden from killing their slaves unless allowed by a court to punish them for a grave offense. Masters were forbidden to sell slaves to a gladiator trainer or to a procurer, except as justified punishment. Hadrian also had the legal code humanized and forbade torture of free defendants and witnesses, legislating against the common practice of condemning free persons in order to have them tortured as a means of gathering information on their supposed activities and accomplices. He also abolished ergastula—private prisons for slaves in which kidnapped free men could also be kept.