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Who Were the Five Good Emperors?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Five Good Emperors were five Roman emperors who ruled consecutively from 96 to 180 CE. The reigns of these emperors were marked by a period of relative peace, stability, and prosperity for the Roman Empire, and some people think of this period as a sort of golden age for Roman society. During this period, the emperors participated in a number of projects ranging from the construction of public structures to reaching peaceful agreements with people in the far-flung parts of the empire, ensuring that they left an enduring legacy behind.

In order, the Five Good Emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. These men were distinctive because they were all adopted, earning the throne rather than inheriting it. Experts suggest that they gained popular support by working their way through the political ranks of Rome instead of simply inheriting the empire, and their moderate policies and defensive tactics helped maintain peace and stability in the Roman Empire. Since many Roman emperors who inherited the throne were famous for their corruption and eccentricity, and their rules were marked with political intrigue and chaos as people jostled for power. By being adopted, these five men sidestepped many of these issues.

The term was coined by Machiavelli, who wrote about the emperors in 1503, discussing the idea that they made the Roman empire stronger by consolidating its holding, establishing friendly relationships with the Roman Senate, and encouraging a flourishing of arts and culture. Since 1503, numerous other historians have studied these emperors and commented on their role in Roman history.

According to Machiavelli, the rule of these emperors was “good,” marking a departure from the often despotic and crazed doings of earlier rulers. Other historians support this idea, adding that the rule of the Five Good Emperors marked a period of virtuous and wise decisions that made the Roman Empire a more pleasant and productive place to live.

Unfortunately for the empire, the beginnings of immense turbulence marked the rule of Marcus Aurelius, and these problems only got worse after his death. Social unrest, political problems, and economic issues began to plague the Roman Empire, and neighboring regions began to prey on Rome, sensing blood in the water. In 476, the empire collapsed entirely, ending 500 years of Roman domination over Europe.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon945472 — On Apr 13, 2014

Julius Caesar was not an emperor!

By anon265359 — On May 01, 2012

You are right. Caesar was first.

By anon145077 — On Jan 21, 2011

Technically I believe that Julius Caesar was the first emperor, correct me if I am wrong. But I was always told that the "Five Good Emperors" were within the Pax Romana and that the first of the five was Octavius (Augustus), is there more than one way to look at it or is that not the case?

By anon76699 — On Apr 11, 2010

Is not about the five best emperors. It's a period in the Roman empire called the Five good emperors. Did you even bother reading or just commented on it?

By anon74026 — On Mar 30, 2010

re 65676, 71220: It seriously isn't important whether Julius Caesar IV was an emperor (he wasn't) or good (he was, sort of). Point is, "Five Good Emperors" specifically refers to an arbitrary list of people chosen by Machiavelli, and you don't get to argue with Machiavelli because he's dead.

By anon71220 — On Mar 17, 2010

Julius Caesar was never emperor. He was dictator.

By anon65676 — On Feb 15, 2010

Julius Caesar was a great Emperor so why didn't you put him in the best five Emperors?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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