The Five Good Emperors have gone down in history as the five best rulers that Rome ever produced, standing at the apex of Roman civilization. After the death of Marcus Aurelius and the ascension of his son Commodus the Empire would never be the same, and even the relatively stable reign of Septimius Severus was merely a prelude to the chaos and bloodshed of the Crisis of the Third Century (which resulted after the assassination of his great-nephew Alexander Severus). The Five Good Emperors, thus, ruled over a time of unrivaled peace and prosperity, during which time the Empire flourished and attained a stability it would never again enjoy during its centuries-long existence.
Nerva-The first of these men, Nerva, was a man of Senatorial rank who rose to prominence during the reign of the Flavian Dynasty, including the Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Upon Domitian’s assassination (in which Nerva might have had a part), he was elevated to the purple. He was an old man, however and, faced with a revolt of the Praetorians (the emperor’s personal bodyguard), he adopted a popular general named Trajan. When he died shortly thereafter, power passed peacefully into the hands of his successor.
Trajan-Trajan is one of the few Roman emperors whose reputation has remain largely unchanged between the past and the present. Widely regarded as one of (if not the) best of the Roman emperors, he was very active militarily, leading successful military excursions against the Dacians (celebrated on the famous Trajan’s Column), and against the Parthians. Under him the Empire reached its greatest territorial extent, and he came as close as any Roman Emperor to finally ending the threat from the East once and for all. However, during his last campaign he fell ill and, with his wife Plotina beside him, he died (possibly of a stroke).
Hadrian-Although Trajan had been notoriously ambiguous about who was to succeed him, Hadrian was lucky enough to have the dowager Empress on his side, and she helped him to ascend to the purple. Once there, he set about organizing the Empire, withdrawing from several of Trajan’s conquests, instead setting boundaries to Rome’s territorial expansion. He was also an active builder and a heartfelt Philhellene (lover of Greek culture). He is also well-known for his abiding and powerful love for the Bithynian boy Antinoos, who perished by drowning in the Nile. Faced with illness and imminent death, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius as his heir, with the understanding that his young cousin Marcus Aurelius would succeed him.
Antoninus Pius-Like his predecessor, Antoninus Pius preferred peace to war, and he mostly ruled from Rome (in contrast to Hadrian, who spent a large part of his reign traveling to different parts of his vast domains). He was also known for his devotion to his predecessor’s memory, insisting on his deification over the Senate’s opposition. His reign was known as a peaceful one, and the succession passed without incident to his adopted son Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (who would die of a stroke not long into his reign).
Marcus Aurelius-Few emperors have as good a reputation as Marcus Aurelius, famous as much for his philosophy as for his achievements as an Emperor. He would resume the militaristic activities of other Roman Emperors who preceded him, in particular against the Germanic tribes. With his wife Faustina he produced an enormous brood of children, including a son, Commodus. For all of his much-vaunted wisdom, Marcus Aurelius fell into the trap of assuming that a dynasty based on a bloodline was a good idea, and so the throne passed to Commodus, whose reign would be marred by his eccentricity and his bad ruling. The rule of the Five Good Emperors had come to an end.
Although the reign of the Five Good Emperors saw the height of Roman glory and power in the ancient world, their achievements would, alas, prove all too ephemeral as a result of the foolishness of their successors, they should nevertheless be accorded their share of praise for ensuring that the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did.
Sources and Further Reading
Anthony Everitt, Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome.
Michael Grant, The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition.
Frank McLynn. Marcus Aurelius: A Life.