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The Five Good Emperors of Rome & the Nervan-Antonine Dynasty

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  • 0:06 Five Good Emperors
  • 1:37 Nerva & Trajan
  • 2:38 Hadrian & Pius
  • 3:52 Aurelius & Verus
  • 5:35 Commodus
  • 6:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will identify the emperors of the Nervan-Antonine Dynasty. It will explain the rule of the Five Good Emperors of the era, while also highlighting the rule of Commodus, the last of the dynasty's emperors.

Who Were the Five Good Emperors?

When Emperor Domitian was assassinated without a living heir in the year 96 CE, the Roman Senate quickly and wisely chose a man to take his place. This man's name was Nerva, and lucky for the Empire, this choice was a good one. Nerva's reign began the Nervan-Antonine Dynasty, which included what history calls the Five Good Emperors. In order of their reign, they were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

As we discuss these emperors, we'll highlight the details of each reign. In doing this, there are two main points I'd like you to grasp. First, the Five Good Emperors brought relative peace, stability, and prosperity to Rome. Since they were preceded, then followed by, some pretty ruthless characters, this makes them stand out in the pages of Roman history. Second, the reign of the Five Good Emperors was characterized by the adopting of one's heir to the throne, rather than the crown simply going to a biological son or whoever was strong enough to take it. In other words, the emperor passed his crown on to the man he felt was the most worthy to wear it, regardless of blood ties. Making this transition even more seamless, the adopted son actually shared in the imperial duties while his adopted father still lived.

Now, on to our Five Good Emperors.

Nerva and Trajan

As already stated, Nerva began the reign of the Five Good Emperors in 96 CE. Unlike many emperors, he is remembered in history as a rather honorable guy. He lessened the strain of taxation on his people and worked to bring back into the fold of Rome those who had been mistreated and exiled by his predecessor, Domitian. Since Nerva was up there in age when he took the crown, his reign was short lived. However, before he died, he adopted Trajan as his heir, thus beginning the custom of adoption to the throne.

Trajan ruled as a soldier and went to work expanding the boundaries of the empire. He annexed several areas, and grew the empire larger than ever before. Adding to this, he oversaw many building programs within Rome, including the renovation of the Circus Maximus and the enlargement of the Forum. Today, Trajan's Column still stands in honor of his reign. Before Trajan died, he adopted Hadrian as heir.

Hadrian and Pius

Unlike Trajan, Hadrian did not work to extend the boundaries of the empire. On the contrary, he is most famous for the wall he built in order to plant them firmly in place. Although the most famous of these is Hadrian's Wall in Britain, several others were constructed throughout the empire.

Apart from the walls he built, Hadrian is also remembered for the Second Jewish War. In this conflict, his reign squelched a Jewish rebellion in Judea, destroying the city of Jerusalem, its population, and its surrounding villages. With this, we come to his successor, Antoninus Pius.

Antoninus Pius reigned from 138 CE to 161 CE. Although his reign was long, we know very little about the man himself. Perhaps the least famous of the Five Good Emperors, history tells us he was actually very well-liked by the subjects he ruled. Unlike his predecessors, Pius was content to stay within the borders of Italy, ruling the Empire during one of its most peaceful eras. Perhaps his most memorable accomplishment is his adoption of Marcus Aurelius as heir and his odd choice to give Aurelius a co-heir named Lucius Verus.

Aurelius and Verus

Coming to the throne in 161 CE, Aurelius and Verus shared the title of emperor. Although Aurelius never sought to rob Verus of honor or power, Verus died from illness less than a decade into their reign. With his early death, Verus has been overshadowed by Aurelius. In fact, he is not even included as one of the Five Good Emperors.

With this, we turn attention to Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most famous of the Five Good Emperors. Ironically, Marcus Aurelius is not usually remembered for military accomplishment or political advancement. Instead, he's remembered for his philosophical beliefs. As a student of Stoicism, Aurelius held to the belief that any destructive emotions (for example jealousy, rage, fear) come from an error in a person's judgment. Accordingly, through exercising self-control, a wise man can free himself of such emotions, thus reaching moral perfection. This belief system ruled Aurelius' life and left us with his famous writings known simply as his Meditations. In this collection, Marcus Aurelius gives a glimpse into the man he was. Here are just a few of his most famous meditations:

You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

And, perhaps my favorite: Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

Commodus

With these quotes, we come to the end of our Five Good Emperors, but unfortunately, not the end of the Nervan-Antonine Dynasty. There is one more emperor we must mention, and he is known to history as Commodus. He is definitely not remembered as good.

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