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Roman Emperors Pt. 5

Updated on December 14, 2009


Reigned:  18 September 96  -- 27 January 98

Succeeding Domitian, which brought an end to the short-lived Flavian dynasty, Nerve came to the throne at 65, in a reign that established the Nervan-Antonian Dynasty.  The Nervan-Antonian dynasty is a dynasty of six loosely connected Roman Emperors, who ruled over the Roman Empire for almost the whole 2nd century (96-192):  Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninius Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

 Marcus Cocceius Nerva in a village north of Rome, Nerva came from a noble family long steeped in high servitude to Emperors since before the end of the Republic and was brother to the Emperor Otho.  His ancestors included counsel and governors appointed by Emperors as well as his grandfather being a friend to Tiberius. 40s. Emperor Vespasian apparently befriended him during his time as imperial advisor and may have asked to watch over Vespasian’s youngest son, Domitian.    The Senate recoiled at the idea that inheritance was a legitimate source of sovereignty, in appointing Nerva, the Senate essentially named him Emperor because he was one of theirs.  (Caesar and Christ, p. 407, Will Durant)  Nerva returned the favor and declared that, during his reign, no senator would be executed.

While much of his life remains obscure, his historic reputation -- considered wise and moderate by ancient and the 18th century Edward Gibbon, who deemed Nerva and his successors as the Five Good Emperors – may have insufficient basis in fact. While well-intentioned, his weak rule brought the Roman Empire to back to the brink of civil war.

His reign was marred by his inability to assert command of the Roman Army, which had favored Domitian.

Jewish people were a substantial element in Rom’s population by the time of Caesar. Many had been brought to Rome as war captives after Pompey’s campaign in 63 BCE. They were quickly emancipated due to their industry and found themselves typically opposed by republican forces and befriended by imperial personalities. Their refusal to worship other than their own God, their refusal to attend the game and foreign customs often found them derided by the population. But they had supported Caesar and were, in turn, consistently supported by him and Augustus. Tiberius, though initially hostile to them, eventually protected them. Claudius confirmed their right to live by their own laws. While Domitian banished Roman Jews to the valley of Egeria, Nerva brought them back and restored their civic rights and freed them from the trbute Vespasian had laid upon them. (Caesar and Christ, p. 365, 407 Will Durant)

In addition, he had recalled Domitian’s exiles and restored their property. He also distributed land to the poor and established a fun to encourage and finance parentage among the peasantry, annulled many taxes and lowered inheritance taxes. Against that background, he stated “I have done nothing that could prevent me from laying down the imperial office and returning to private life in safety.” But the Praetorian Guard had different ideas and besieged his palace and killed several of his councilors. (Caesar and Christ, p. 407 Will Durant).

A revolt by the Praetorian Guard a year later forced him to adopt Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan) (a general of the armies along the German frontier) as his son and successor. Trajan was formally bestowed with the title of Caesar and shared the consulship with Nerva. Several months later, Nerva died of natural causes and was succeeded by Trajan.


Reigned: 28 January 98 – 7 August 117

Rome expanded to its greatest extent under Trajan, whose reputation has remained stable from his time to modern history. Indeed, new emperors after him were honored by a prayer in the Senate, “felicior Augusto, melior Trajano (may he be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan). .

Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Trajan rose in power during the reign of Emperor Domitian. He is known for a robust public building program that left Rome key landmarks.

The son of a prominent senator and general, the Ulpia had settled in what is now Spain in the third century BCE.   His father was also Governor of Syria.  He served in the northern forces in Germania when Nerva, ironically, sent the future Emperor Hadrian to tell Trajan he had just been named the adoptive son and successor of Nerva.  In hindsight, it seems telling that, upon learning of his new appointment, Trajan continued his work at the frontier for nearly two more years.  (Caesar and Christ, p. 408 Will Durant)

Trajan was a soldier to his core.  His carriage was military and his sheer presence was said to be commanding.  Tall and powerful, he often marched on foot with his troops and forded all the rivers with full armament, evidencing a courage that implied indifference to death.  “Told that Licinius Sura was plotting against him, he went to Sura’s house for dinner, ate without scrutiny whatever food was offered him, and had himself shaved by Sura’s barber.”  (Caesar and Christ, p. 408 Will Durant) 

When he reached Rome at 42, he was at the height of his physical faculties. So conditioned to endure tyrants, Rome was readily won over by his simplicity, geniality and moderation. He seemed as unaffected by the power of his office as any Emperor had been. (Caesar and Christ, p. 409 Will Durant)

While fair beginnings were not uncommon to imperial reign, Trajan distinguished himself throughout his reign in ways that reinforced such fair beginnings. He provides others the villas of former emperors and regarded nothing as his own and lived as simply as Vespasian. He would always consult the Senate on important matters of state and discovered the Senate was willing to let him rule as he wished so long as he allowed the Senate to maintain its dignity and prestige, which, like Rome, had come to value security more than freedom. (Caesar and Christ, p. 409 Will Durant)

His sexual appreciation for young men was notable, though it did not affect his reputation among Romans or historians, (Dio Cassius, Epitome of Book LXVIII; 6.4). (Caesar and Christ, p. 408 Will Durant), except once it may have once affected his administration. He favored the “king of Edessa out of appreciation for his handsome son …who was handsome and in the pride of youth and therefore in favor with Trajan.” Dio Cassius, Epitome of Book 6; 21.2–3

Trajan was known as a competent and tireless administrator, as well as a just judge. He is known for the founding principal that innocents should not be published under the principle “It is better that the guilty should remain unpunished than that the innocent should be condemned.” (Caesar and Christ, p. 409 Will Durant). He was also one of the first proponents of transparent government – building heavily while lowering taxes and publishing a budget “to expose the revenues and outlays of the government to examination and criticism.” (Caesar and Christ, p. 409 Will Durant)

As a military commander, he launched a campaign against King Decebalus of the kingdom of Dacia (Romania of WWII). He saw Dacia as a fist plunged “into the heart of Germany, and would therefore be of great military value in the struggle that Trajan foresaw between the Germans and Italy. (Caesar and Christ, p. 410 Will Durant) . He captured Sarmizegetusa and reinstated King Decebalus as a client king and returned to Rome. When Decebalus broke his agreement and instigated rebellion against Rome, Trajan marched back, retook Sarmizegetusa and destroyed Decebalus. He put the gold mines of Transylvania under his control. He took “out of Dacia a million pounds of silver and half a million pounds of gold – the last substantial booty that the legions would win for” Rome. (Caesar and Christ, p. 409 Will Durant) He then sent Romans to colonize it.

Following Dacia, he pushed east to establish the province of Arabia Petraea (southern Syria and Saudi Arabia). He launched a campaign in 113 against Parthia (much of modern day Turkey) and advanced as far as what is now the city of Susa, Iran. During his Parthian campaign, Trajan fell ill and, sailing back to Rome, died of a stroke.

Some historians suspect that because Trajan named Hadrian emperor immediately before his death, that Trajan’s wife, who liked Hadrian, may have played a role in Hadrian’s succession.

Which was worse?

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