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Who Were the Five Good Emperors?

The Five Good Emperors were a sequence of exceptional Roman leaders—Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius—whose reigns marked a golden era of prosperity, stability, and wise governance from 96 to 180 AD. Their collective wisdom set a high bar for leadership. Discover how their enlightened rule shaped the empire—what lessons could today's leaders learn from their legacy?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the Five Good Emperors and why are they referred to as "good"?

The Five Good Emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire from 96 to 180 AD. They are referred to as "good" because their reigns were marked by relative peace, prosperity, and good governance. They were known for their philosophical wisdom, just policies, and the expansion of the empire to its greatest territorial extent. Their succession was also unique because each emperor was chosen based on merit and adopted by the predecessor, rather than through hereditary succession.

What were some significant achievements during the reign of the Five Good Emperors?

Significant achievements during this period include vast territorial expansion under Emperor Trajan, with the empire reaching its maximum size; Hadrian's consolidation of the empire's boundaries, including the construction of Hadrian's Wall; and the flourishing of arts and culture. Additionally, there were advances in law and governance, such as the legal reforms of Emperor Hadrian and the philanthropic endeavors of Emperor Antoninus Pius, which contributed to the welfare of the citizens.

How did the Five Good Emperors contribute to the Roman legal system?

The Five Good Emperors made substantial contributions to the Roman legal system. Emperor Hadrian commissioned the creation of Hadrian's Rescript, a compilation of legal rulings that helped streamline judicial procedures. Moreover, the legal reforms under these emperors emphasized the principles of equity and fairness, with a focus on protecting the weak and the poor. Their reigns saw the development of the concept of "natural law," which would later influence Western legal thought.

What was the method of succession for the Five Good Emperors, and how did it differ from previous practices?

The method of succession for the Five Good Emperors was through adoption. Each emperor, starting with Nerva, chose his successor based on competence and merit rather than familial ties. This was a significant departure from the hereditary succession that had often led to instability and power struggles in the past. The practice of adopting capable heirs ensured a relatively smooth transition of power and maintained the stability of the empire during this period.

How did the reign of the Five Good Emperors come to an end?

The reign of the Five Good Emperors came to an end with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. His son, Commodus, succeeded him, marking a return to hereditary succession. Commodus' reign was characterized by political instability, corruption, and a decline in the virtues that had marked the governance of the Five Good Emperors. His rule is often seen as the beginning of the end of the Pax Romana, the period of peace and stability in the Roman Empire.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon945472

Julius Caesar was not an emperor!

anon265359

You are right. Caesar was first.

anon145077

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?

anon76699

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?

anon74026

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.

anon71220

Julius Caesar was never emperor. He was dictator.

anon65676

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

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