The "Five Good Emperors" temporarily abandoned the hereditary principle - each was chosen on his merit by the senate. They were: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.


Their united reigns are possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) 1.3

After the extinction of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, a consistent policy of rule and dynastic succession were never again effectively combined. Able men could, however, make their way to the top and, if allowed to reign without internecine upheaval, could do so with as much insight and flair as any of the Caesars, and with more than most.



Nerva vowed publicly that he would never execute a member of the senate, and stuck to his promise even when the senator Calpurnius Crassus was proved guilty of conspiracy against him. (VRoma: Museo Massimo: Ann Raia)

When for the first time the senate made its own choice of emperor and appointed Nerva, its members chose well; equal perspicacity attended the appointment of his four successors. All four came from families which had long before settled out of Italy: those of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius in Spain, and that of Antoninus in Gaul. Nerva assured himself of the support of the military by adopting as his son and joint ruler the commander in Upper Germany, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (Trajan), and set a significant precedent by nominating him as his successor.


Trajan was born at Italica near Seville in AD 52, and became emperor in AD 98. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Trajan established at once that the senate would be kept informed about what was going on, and that the sovereign right to rule was compatible with freedom for those who were ruled. He was a brilliant general, but also a good person to work for, of which there is evidence in the correspondence between him and Pliny the Younger, when the latter was governor of Bithynia.

Triumphal arch at entrance to the Forum of Trajan

Gold aureus of Trajan, depicting the triumphal arch which was the entrance to the Forum of Trajan. After the procession which celebrated his first victory over the Dacians in AD 103, there were 123 days of public games and gladiatorial contests. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Trajan was determined to subdue the Parthians, who occupied great tracts of desert land south of the Caspian Sea. He scored some notable victories and occupied some of the Parthian lands, but fell ill and died on his way back to Rome in AD 117, having left his 41-year-old chief-of-staff, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian), who was his ward, in charge of the situation in the east.

Plotina, wife of Trajan

Gold aureus of the time of Trajan, with the head of his wife, Plotina. It was said in some quarters that Plotina engineered Trajan’s adoption of Trajan as his son and kept her husband’s death a secret until the official bulletin about the adoption had been issued.(© Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)


Hadrian claimed that Trajan had adopted him on his deathbed; in any case he had already been acclaimed as emperor by the army in the east, and the senate had little choice but to confirm him in the post or risk civil war. Hadrian settled down to restore general order throughout the empire and to consolidate the administration at home. The Roman empire was a collection of territories occupied by Roman troops and administered by Roman citizens according to Roman law. Central government from Rome was well-nigh impossible, and provincial governors were largely left to their own devices. Hadrian, however, travelled tirelessly not only to all the provinces in the empire, but along most of their outer confines as well.

Antinous, Hadrian's lover

Antinous, whose lover Hadrian almost certainly was, drowned in the Nile in mysterious circumstances in AD 130. (Vatican Museums: René Seindal)

Hadrian was a man of wide learning who, it was said, spoke Greek more fluently than Latin. He was a patron of art, literature, and education, and a benefactor of the needy poor. His liberal-mindedness did not, however, extend to the Jews, whom he provoked into renewed revolt by forbidding Jewish practices, including circumcision, and by proposing a shrine to Jupiter on the site in Jerusalem where the ancient Jewish temple had stood before it was destroyed by Titus.

imperial couple

Imperial couple as Mars and Venus, AD 120 - 40: Hadrian and his wife Sabina, whose head has been later replaced by that of Lucilla, wife of Verus. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

Hadrian died in AD 138. After his first choice as successor died, Hadrian had just before his own death adopted in his place the eminent senator Antoninus, then in his early fifties. At the same time he restricted the choice of the next emperor after Antoninus to Lucius Verus (AD 130 - 69), son of his original nominee, or Antoninus’s own nephew, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.


Marcus Aurelius was an active devotee of the Stoic school of philosophy, one of whose doctrines was the universal brotherhood and equality of man. When the time came, he insisted that equal imperial rights should be invested in Verus, which were duly but largely nominally exercised by Verus until his death. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal)

The twenty-three years of the reign of Antoninus, surnamed by the senate “Pius”, are remarkable for their lack of incident, perhaps because with the reports available to him of Hadrian’s globe-trotting missions, he was able to spend most of his time at the centre of government in Rome. He made one or two adjustments to the frontiers of the empire, most notably in Britain, where a fortified turf wall, 60 km long, was built right across the Clyde - Forth isthmus, some way north of Hadrian’s Wall. It appears, however, to have been abandoned, perhaps dismantled, in about AD 165. Hadrian’s Wall then became once again the most northern frontier of the empire until about AD 400, when the Romans withdrew from Britain.

Marcus Aurelius celebrates victory in Germany

Detail from the arch of Marcus Aurelius, showing him riding in a triumphal chariot in AD 176. This celebration of his victory over the Marcomanni was delayed while he put down an insurrection in the east. Winged victory hovers over him. A trumpeter blows a tuba, the long horn used by the military to sound the advance and retreat. If the head and shoulders in the centre of the design are those of Faustina, she was his late wife. Though various amours and other disloyal acts have been attributed to her, she was deified on her death in AD 175. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)


Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: René Seindal).

Antoninus, after a peaceful reign, died in his bed. By contrast, Marcus Aurelius, the “philosopher emperor” had to spend most of his time in the field at the head of his armies, one of which brought back from an eastern campaign the most virulent plague of the Roman era, which spread throughout the empire. At his death in AD 180 the empire was once again undergoing a period of general unease.

Faustina the elder, wife of AntoninusFaustina the younger, wife of Marcus Aurelius

(Above) Annia Galeria Faustina, wife of Antoninus (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal). (Below) Her younger daughter, also called Faustina, wife of Marcus Aurelius (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal).



Trajan was born in Italica (near modern Seville). Because his family had settled out of Italy in the 3rd century BC, he is regarded as the first provincial emperor of Rome.

Trajan to Pliny the Younger on Christians

You have taken the right course of action, dear Secundus, in investigating the charges against those who have been brought before you as Christians. It is not possible to lay down any general rule in these circumstances. These people should not be subjected to a witch-hunt; if they are brought before you and the case is proved, they must be punished, with the proviso that if a guilty party denies he is Christian and gives evidence of this by worshipping our gods, however suspiciously he may have acted hitherto, he shall be pardoned because of his repentance. Anonymous information should have no place in our criminal system. It is a dangerous precedent which does not belong to this age of ours” Correspondence of Pliny X. 97

“Luckier than Augustus…”

Later generations were so impressed by Trajan’s achievements that in the late fourth century, when the empire had changed out of all recognition, each new emperor was installed with the invocation, “May he be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan.”

Young Hadrian

When young, Hadrian “became so immoderately obsessed with Greek studies, for which he had a natural inclination, that some people called him the ‘little Greek’ Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Hadrian 1. 5

Death on the Nile

If Antinous committed suicide, a probable cause lies in the fact that he would have been losing his attractiveness at an age at which it was no longer regarded as acceptable to have a relationship with an older man. Whatever the reason, Hadrian was inconsolable. Within a few days, he had founded a city near the spot in honour of the object of his love, called Antinoopolis, served by a new road (called the Via Hadriana) linking it to the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos and supplied with many superior motorway services. Antinous was deified, and a Greco-Egyptian cult, devised and promulgated by Hadrian, proliferated throughout the east.

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius (Digital reconstruction by Richard Sebring).

Believe it or not:

Trajan attracted a lot of favourable publicity through a system of alimenta, whereby local landowners pledged property to the value of about 12½ times a lump sum loaned by the emperor, on which they paid five per cent interest into a fund for the purpose of feeding children. In Veleia in northern Italy, 263 boys, 35 girls, and two illegitimate children received from the fund benefits in cash.

Trajan’s real father was deified in AD 113. As his adoptive father, Nerva, received a similar honour after his death, Trajan had the unique distinction of having two fathers who were worshipped as gods.

Hadrian married Trajan’s great-niece Vibia Sabina in AD 100. They had no children, but she is said to have procured a miscarriage rather than give birth to a monster such as Hadrian.

Hadrian was always regarded by the senate with suspicion. At his accession, and in his absence, its members had been browbeaten into ordering the execution of four prominent politicians, each of whom might, under different circumstances, have been regarded as a potential successor to Trajan. Hadrian always protested that he was not involved, but on his death, the senate, having nurtured its collective resentment for almost 21 years, proposed a motion that all his acts should be cancelled, and that he should be denied the title of god. Antoninus objected, and had the deification of his adoptive father reinstated. It is said that for this Antoninus received the title of Pius.

Marcus Aurelius is remembered by the triumphal column in Rome which bears his name and records his victories over the Marcomanni, but is an inferior version to that of Trajan. More unusually, he also bequeathed to posterity a book of personal meditations, written in Greek, much of which was composed in the field while campaigning against the Germanic tribes. His reflections particularly of his Stoic philosophy have influenced many writers and men of action, including Sir Thomas Browne, Matthew Arnold, and Cecil Rhodes.