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Emperors of the 2nd Century

Updated on February 26, 2012

The period comprising the final years of the 1st century and most of the 2nd century was the age of the five "good" emperors: Nerva (reigned 96-98), Trajan (reigned 98-117), Hadrian (reigned 117-138), Antoninus Pius (reigned 138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180). Following them, a swift decline that began with Commodus (reigned 180-192) led to the vast disorder and mounting crises of the succeeding centuries.

Pertinax and Didius Julianus each reigned briefly in 193 but were quickly succeeded by Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211), who was the choice of the army. The legions had made and unmade rulers in the days of the triumvirs (1st century B.C.) and again in the year of the four emperors (69). From the reign of Commodus onward they were once more to play an increasing role in the making and unmaking of monarchs. Against the background both of what went before and what followed, the reigns of the five good emperors appeared to later historians and to contemporaries alike a kind of golden Indian summer, which lingered for almost a century before the frosts and storms of the long dark winter set in.


Marcus Cocceius Nerva, a distinguished senator and jurist, was chosen by the Senate to succeed the despotic Domitian, who was assassinated in September 96. Since Nerva was 66 years old, it was obvious that his election was only a temporary solution. Yet even in his brief reign he did much to reestablish peace and confidence, especially in remote regions of the empire. His crowning achievement was the appointment of his successor, Trajan, the ablest administrator and general in the army.


More than anyone else, Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus) laid the foundations of prosperity and internal peace that endured through most of the 2nd century. His conquest of Dacia (roughly modern Romania) in 101-102 and 105-107 extended the European boundary of the empire beyond the Danube. During the Dacian wars he took large supplies of precious metals and 50,000 able-bodied prisoners. With the aid of this reserve of wealth and manpower he overcame an inherited public deficit and embarked upon a vast program of public works. Trust funds were set up for the care of the poor and for public education of freeborn children, partly no doubt in the interest of encouraging the free Italian population to raise large families in the face of rising foreign-born groups. The impetus to architecture continued through the reign of Hadrian, and the impressive ruins of forums, baths, theaters, basilicas, circuses, hippodromes, aqueducts, and harbors attest to the wealth and magnificence of the period.

Dacia remained Roman until the Gothic invasions of 250-270. The whole later history of Europe would undoubtedly have been very different had the Roman Empire enjoyed another century of peace and prosperity and been able to extend its border beyond the Rhine to the Elbe, the Oder, or the Vistula. If this had occurred, a much shorter line could have been completed via the Carpathians to the mouth of the Danube- one that might later have held the barbarians in check.

Trajan continued Rome's expansion in the east. The commercially strategic Nabataean kingdom in northwestern Arabia, conquered in 105, was made a Roman province. Afterward a road was built from Syria to the Gulf of Aqaba, and a Roman fleet was stationed in the Red Sea. In his war with Parthia (113-117) , Trajan annexed Armenia and conquered Mesopotamia, including the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon. He died while returning from an expedition against the Parthians, and his annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia was promptly repudiated by Hadrian.


Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) was a very different person from Trajan, his cousin. Hadrian reversed Trajan's aggressive policy, strengthening existing frontiers instead of expanding them. He was a patron of literature and art, and especially generous to the ancient Greek cities, where classical civilization had been born. The ruins of his villa at Tivoli still testify to his unbounded enthusiasm for the arts, mythology, and archaeology. Like most of the good emperors, he was tolerant and cosmopolitan, and he enthusiastically promoted the common welfare.

More than half of the Emperor's time was spent in the provinces, Hellenizing, Romanizing, and organizing their social and political life. He encouraged the work of the great jurists in collecting, codifying, and expounding the whole body of Roman law. He attracted men of ability to the civil service, and he instituted the famous Roman postal system.

Hadrian precipitated a war with the Jews when he ordered the erection of a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem. The whole Jewish world rose in revolt in 132, and the rebellion was suppressed in 135 only after bitter fighting. Hadrian's increasing megalomania and self-identification with deity led also to the opposition of the Christians, who refused to acclaim him dominus et deus.

Hadrian's plaintive death song, the often quoted Animula vagula, blandula ("Little soul, little wanderer, little darling, soon to go down to the cold, pale, naked underworld, never to smile again..."), is not the language of the great emperor in the heyday of his power and magnificence, and should not be viewed as characteristic of him. The man was sick, physically and mentally; indeed he was dying. But the verses do reflect the enfeeblement of spirit that was sapping the inner vitality of the empire, for all its external splendor and apparent prosperity.

Antoninus Pius

Much less is known about Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus), who had been adopted by Hadrian as heir to the throne. What Marcus Aurelius says of him is convincing evidence that Antoninus' 23-year reign must have been one of the happiest in all history. He was a true "father of his country." During his reign "all the provinces flourished," and by his economical administration the treasury accumulated a large surplus.

In this peaceful period the spread of Oriental cults took on new impetus. Along with them went a renewed emphasis on astrology as well as a greater propaganda for popular philosophy. During his reign, in 147, the 900th anniversary of the founding of Rome was celebrated. The Alexandrians hailed him as the World Redeemer Heracles, the benefactor of all mankind.

Marcus Aurelius

Perhaps the most interesting of the good emperors was the last, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who reigned for 19 years. More about him as a man is known than about any other Roman emperor, since his Meditations contains his whole life philosophy. It is one of the noblest documents of ancient Stoic piety and speculation, and along with the works of Seneca and Epictetus it is the fullest exposition of the later Roman type of Stoicism.

But it was Marcus' ill fortune to be compelled to face the accumulated liabilities and the mounting misfortunes that had resulted from the long era of prosperity following Trajan. During these years the Parthians in the east and the German tribes north of the Danube had bided their time and were now ready to try to seize territorY of what they assumed to be an enfeebled Rome.

Under the able generalship of Avidius Cassius, the Romans repulsed the Parthians, destroying Ctesiphon and Seleucia, its sister city across the Tigris, in 164. The victory was a costly one.

The Roman troops brought home with them a plague, which spread everywhere and decimated the population of the west and north. It lasted for many years and may have contributed to that strange loss of vitality that characterized the decline of the empire in the following centuries.

The restive northern tribes, which invaded the Danube Valley and northeastern Italy in 167, were completely defeated by 180. But the effort required the absence of the emperor from Rome during much of this time.

This absence was most unfortunate for Marcus, both personally and publicly. These were the years when Commodus, his son and successor, was growing up. Lacking firm parental restraint, the young prince became spoiled and irresponsible.

Marcus' choice of Commodus as his successor blots out much of the solid achievement of his difficult but nobly pursued career.


The ill-starred reign of Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus lasted for 12 years.

The poison of autocratic power seems to have unbalanced his mind. He persecuted the Senate, renamed Rome "Colonia Commodiana" after himself, and renamed the months after his own names and titles. He planned to appear publicly as the incarnation of Hercules on January 1, 193, in the roles of both consul and gladiator. But he was assassinated on New Year's Eve, 192, by members of his palace staff.

Close of the Century

The 2nd century ended in gloom and foreboding of worse things to come.

The reigns of Commodus' successors Pertinax and Didius Julianus were short-lived. Then, in 193, began the dynasty of the Severi, who were oriented toward the East and had little regard for Roman traditions. The slow decline of the Imperium Romanum had begun.


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