Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Five Good Emperors

The rule of the "Twelve Caesars" extended over nearly one hundred and fifty years. During the greater part of this time, the provinces suffered little from the cruelty of the emperors, but the history of the city is one long story of tyranny and bloodshed. It is a relief to read that these Twelve were followed by honest, faithful men, the "Five Good Emperors," who did all that they could for the best good of the empire.

The first of these five rulers was Nerva, a kind-hearted, elderly man. He recalled those who had been exiled; he lessened the taxes of the people; and he put an end to the wretched business of the informers, who were always on the watch to report the utterance of a word against the emperor. Indeed, he was so gentle and forgiving that one senator said, "It is ill to have a prince under whom no one may do anything; but worse to have one who lets everyone do as he will." The murderers of Domitian had not been punished, and now the praetorian guard took the matter into their own hands and put to death without a trial as many of them as could be found. Nerva was not able to punish this rebellion against his authority, and he decided to adopt an energetic young general of Spanish birth named Trajan, and let him share in the government. A few months later Nerva died.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Trajan was near the Rhine with the army when it was announced to him that he had become emperor. He went on fortifying the frontier, and a year passed before he appeared in Rome. Then he walked quietly and without guards to the palace of the Caesars.

Trajan proved to be an ideal emperor in the eyes of the Romans, and they gave him the title of Optimus, or best. He scorned the thought of paying tribute to the Dacians, as Domitian had done. He suppressed them; and in remembrance of his victories he laid out a new forum with one library for Latin books and another for Greek, a magnificent basilica, statues, and a triumphal arch. In the centre of this forum he placed a column about which wound a band of sculpture telling the story of the Dacian War. At the summit of the column was the statue of the emperor himself.

Trajan did not agree with Augustus that the empire was large enough. He carried on war in the East and made large conquests to the southeast of the Black Sea.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Under this vigorous ruler, baths, theatres, and other handsome structures were built not only in Rome, but scattered through the provinces. He looked out for the roads and bridges; he made arrangements for caring for poor children; and he loaned money at less than half the usual rates to landowners who wished to improve their property.

This many-sided emperor enjoyed being with literary men. Pliny the Younger, who wrote the account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was one of his correspondents. Plutarch, too, lived during the reign, and wrote his Lives, the biographies of forty-six Greeks and Romans, told so simply and naturally and with so many anecdotes that every generation since they were written has found them well worth reading.

The Romans would have been glad if Trajan had left a son to rule them as well as he had done. After his death his wife announced that in his illness he had adopted a young relative, named Hadrian, and he became emperor.

Hadrian believed that the empire was as large as could be well managed, and he even gave up some of the lands over-powered by Trajan in the East. Then he set out to become acquainted with every corner of his realm, and, followed by his legions, he traveled from one country to another. Sometimes he rode on horseback, but far oftener he marched with his soldiers. He drilled them severely, but he took care for their rights; and whatever came to them as rations, cheese, bread, and sour wine, he always tasted for himself. On through Gaul he journeyed, then to Britain. There he found a flourishing province with plenty of grain for home use and for export, with potteries, roads, cities, handsome villas, and elaborate baths. He built a wall south of Agricola's, running from near the mouth of the Tyne River to Solway Firth, close to what is now the dividing line between England and Scotland. On this wall there were watchtowers, and at intervals of every four miles a fort. Leaving Britain, Hadrian passed southward through Gaul again, then visited Spain; northern Africa, the countries beyond the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Athens, Carthage, and so back to Rome. He had gone to Athens when a boy of ten and had spent five years there in study. He must have had pleasant recollections of the city, for he seemed eager to do something for it. In other places on his way he had erected public buildings, temples, and theatres; but in Athens he not only reared many of these, but completed a superb temple to Jupiter, begun long before, which became wonderfully beautiful with his lavish gifts of statues, paintings, and decorations of gold and ivory. He also erected a famous arch which is still standing.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The greater part of fifteen years Hadrian spent in journeying about his empire. Before his time the provincials had been obliged to provide post-wagons free for the use of the government; but Hadrian saw how heavy a burden this was, and he paid his own traveling expenses.

The founding of a colony on the former site of Jerusalem aroused the Jews to make a desperate struggle against their conquerors. After they were subdued, he forbade their entering the city save on one day in each year, the anniversary of its overthrow.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Hadrian spent his last years in Rome, or at a splendid villa which he had built a few miles outside the city. He built also temples and a vast mausoleum for his own tomb. This was around building faced with white marble, and encircled by rows of pillars and statues. It is now known as the Castle of Saint Angelo. He adopted as his son and successor a Gaul named Antoninus, and bade him adopt Marcus Aurelius, a young man of seventeen, and also a little boy, Lucius Verus, who was ten years younger. Antoninus was so respectful to the memory of Hadrian that the Romans gave him the title of Pius, that is, the dutiful; and he is known in history as Antoninus Pius. For twenty-three years he reigned, or rather he and the young Marcus Aurelius reigned together. He was kind and dignified as a private citizen; and he did not change when he became emperor. His one care seemed to be how to secure the best good of his subjects.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


At the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus became emperor. He shared his rule with Verus until the death of the latter. For nineteen years he reigned, and the greater part of the time, this student who would have been so glad to spend the years in reading and thinking was obliged to spend them at the head of the army. The barbarians along the frontiers of the empire were pushed upon by other barbarians beyond them, and they were pressing toward Italy. The soldiers returning from the East brought pestilence with them. The land was filled with sickness and the treasury was low. There was no strength to subdue the barbarians; the most that could be done was to try to check their advance. From one part of the frontier to another the weary emperor went, always planning how to protect his realm and how to rule it well. He was a student of Epictetus, and he himself was a philosopher. When he had a moment of leisure, he often occupied it in writing thoughts that would help him to keep good and true in the troubles that thronged about him. When he was in camp near the Danube, he found a few minutes to write how much he had learned from Antoninus Pius, how much from each of those who taught him as a boy, and in how many things he found himself singularly fortunate. He wrote many wise and sensible thoughts like the following

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


"What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.

"Consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves at which we are angry and vexed.

"The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrong-doer."

Through the reign of the Five Good Emperors, eighty-four years, there had been good government in Rome; but if earnest, faithful Marcus Aurelius could have looked forward a few years, he might well have feared for the future of the empire.


The "Twelve Caesars" were followed by the "Five Good Emperors." The first of the five was Nerva, who was upright and kind, but not strong enough to rule. Trajan was called Optimus by his people. He suppressed the Dacians, erected buildings, and conquered the lands lying southeast of the Black Sea. Among his literary friends were Pliny the Younger and Plutarch. Hadrian traveled over his realm. In Britain, he built the wall called by his name. Elsewhere he reared handsome buildings, particularly in Athens. He suppressed a revolt of Jews and forbade their entering Jerusalem.

After Trajan came Antoninus Pius, and then Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The latter was a student and philosopher.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • Two persons talk together of Nerva and Trajan.
  • Hadrian talks of his visit to Britain.
  • Which do you think is the best of the three sayings quoted from Marcus Aurelius? Why?