The Roman Principate: The Adoptive Dynasty
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco & P. Dionysius Mus

Nerva: Immediately after Domitianus' assassination, a new princeps was appointed from within the ranks of the Senate: the old Marcus Cocceius Nerva. One of his forebears had been a friend of Tiberius' during the latter's voluntarily exile on Capri, while his aunt was a great-granddaughter of the aforementioned emperor. He himself had been Consul under the rule of Vespasianus - the only instance where a non-Flavian held the office. Earlier, he had also been pivotal in discovering the conspiracy of Piso against Nero, and had later been an advisor of Domitianus' until he had fallen out of grace in his later years.

His policies were moderate, but largely continued the lines of the Flavians: healthy economising was one of his positive points. He also had free food delivered to the poorer people, and arranged for land loans for Italic citizens. He did abolish many types of sacrifices and games, and also ignored the Senate in quite a number of matters, which gained him some opponents, although not nearly as much nor as vehement as those of Domitianus, whose former opponents were brought back from exile or reinstated. He renamed Domitianus' Forum and House, and took the first steps in his damnatio memoriae, a posthumous sentence the murdered emperor had received from the Senate.

Some of his opponents had hoped to see him die quickly, because he had no noteworthy progeny that could claim the throne after his death. However, not long before his death, he appointed Marcus Ulpius Traianus, a legion commander in Germania Inferior, as his heir and successor, after having fought alongside him in Pannonia against the Germans. After a stroke, Nerva died in 98, having been emperor for about 2 years, and having attained the age of 68.

Traianus: For being one of the most known - and accredited - emperors, few sources on Traianus' early life and reign have survived. It is known that he and his family came from Hispania, the region of Baetica, and to be more precise the veterans' colony of Italica. His father pursued a senatorial career with success, and might have served under various emperors in various military campaigns. At any rate, Traianus was the first emperor to come from one of the provinces, and would surely not be the last one.

After he had been appointed and installed as Nerva's successor, he didn't immediately travel to Rome, but chose to finish his campaigns in Germania first, which already showed his military determination. He then moved on to the Danube, after having spent a year in Rome, and crossed it, to settle affairs with the renegade king Decebalus. He defeated Decebalus' forces and had the Dacian king swore obedience, and increased the number of legions to thirty, the largest amount ever achieved in the empire.

It wasn't long until Traianus was called to Dacia again; Decebalus clearly wasn't keeping his promises. In a long, exhausting campaign, aided by the renowned architect Apollodoros from Syria, he eventually managed to defeat the Dacians for good. Decebalus committed suicide. The victory was celebrated with expensive and great games, and veterans' colonies were planted in the territories of Dacia. It would be the last real province of Rome. As the first (and last) Roman emperor to ever do so, he also reached the Persian Gulf, and added Arabia to the empire after another campaign in the east. With the fresh supplies of gold that had flown in from the new province, Traianus was able to renovate or erect a lot of buildings and new colonies all over the empire, but especially in Rome itself (his columns, his forum, his baths, his name only a few examples).

Unlike Domitianus, he was able to establish good relationships with the Senate and the aristocracy, which made him respected and loved. Even the generally pessimistic historian Tacitus comments on this, and states that Traianus held a principate where individual liberty and one-man rule were well combined. The administrative emphasis of the empire also shifted from freedmen and close advisors to equestrians and (former) military commanders, who were often awarded with high promotions and honours. He also devoted substantial amounts of money to children and education.

In his personal life, he had a lot of respect for his sister, his niece and his wife. All of them received the title Augusta sooner or later, and were deified upon their death. One of his female relatives married Hadrianus, which would provide an excellent link for the latter to be adopted shortly before Traianus' death in 117. A lot of historians say that Traianus' wife Pompeia Plotina had a significant hand in this. This theory has been elaborated and "literised" by Marguerite Yourcenar in her famous fictive Memoirs of Hadrian. At any rate, Traianus died with his last military campaigns unfinished in the east; he had won the territories of Parthia and Armenia, and reached the Persian Gulf, but the territories proved to be very difficult to control, and were in a constant turmoil. While returning to Italia, Traianus died from illness. He had been emperor for 18 years.

Hadrianus: Whether or not Publius Aelius Hadrianus' ascent to the throne was plotted by Traianus' wife, it is clear that at that time, Hadrianus was the most logical - and best - choice in the empire to be the next emperor. His was an entirely different character from Traianus' and this has divided quite some historians. Usually those with a strong liking for Traianus will consider Hadrianus as his lesser, while his fervent supporters of course say the opposite. I personally think that one cannot compare apples to pears.

Hadrianus was also a Spaniard from Baetica, like Traianus, and married his cousin Sabina. He had a lot of respect for his wife but she appeared to loathe him. Partly, this might be because of his homo- or bisexual tendencies but also because of his hostile relation with the Senate (at the beginning of his reign, four consulars were executed, although this happened at the command of the praetorian prefect rather than the emperor himself). It is clear, at any rate, that he had a strong love for the boy Antinoös, who died early and unexpectedly. After his death, Hadrianus turned his dead lover into a cult object: a lot of busts or statues have been found all over the empire, depicting him as a divinity or associating him with one (such as Osiris in Egypt).

Hadrianus was a master of Realpolitik. After Traianus' death, Parthia, Armenia and Arabia were given up as provinces, as they proved too difficult to control. Instead, Hadrianus focused on enforcing the borders, the most famous example of this being the Vallum Hadriani, the wall that was to separate Britannia from Scotland and its tribes. He also made travels throughout the whole empire, and was especially active in the cultural field. Being a confirmed Hellenist, Hadrianus did a lot of effort to renovate or expand Greek cities, especially Athens, for which Hadrianus was granted the honorary title of archon by the Athenian people. This meant a great deal, given that the Hellenistic parts of the empire were never really Romanised, and usually only indifferently accepted the Roman rulership. For these obvious reasons mentioned above, they did love Hadrianus.

He also had frequent exchanges with the famous Syrian architect Apollodoros. While the architect was not always enthusiastic about the emperor's interference in his domain, the emperor did, in turn, respect his advice. Many buildings erected under the rule of Hadrianus have been built by Apollodoros, or renovated, such as Agrippa's Pantheon. He was also an amateur poet and writer, but alas only a few words of this have survived. In another domain, he ordered the jurist Salvius Iulianus to make a clear legal corpus of the praetorian and aedilician edicts. Certain is that his artistic tastes were often strange and disputed: he preferred Ennius to Vergilius, didn't like Homèros nor Plato, and built a strange potpourri of a villa at Tivoli.

In 138, in bad health, and having lost most people whom he loved, he adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus, after a short-lived adoption of another man earlier. He forced him in turn to adopt Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. In July of that year, he died. The Senate tried to condemn him to damnatio memoriae, which was successfully stopped by Antoninus Pius.

Antoninus Pius: The emperor-to-be was born in Lavinium in 86, an old Latin city in Rome's neighborhood, and both his father and grandfather had held consulships. He himself also pursued a public career, and could have retired in 135, if it weren't for Hadrianus' adoption and his ascent as emperor.

As much as Hadrianus differed from Traianus, so did Antoninus Pius (who earned this nickname probably because of his successful battle for deification of Hadrianus in the Senate) differ from Hadrianus. He did not travel around the empire, but remained in the area of Rome instead, delegated military tasks to his legates, and waited in Rome for messengers to come from all over the empire. Indeed, his policies were fairly italocentric. In a series of commemorative coins, he honoured Aeneas, Romulus, Numa Pompilius and Augustus. He is said to have been the last emperor to maintain a true centralised unity in the Imperium.

One of the reasons why he is not as known as (for example) Marcus Aurelius or Traianus in the line of the boni, the Five Good Emperors, is the fact that, as noted earlier, he was not as clearly visible as the rest. Also, rather than making new additions to the impressive series of buildings erected by his predecessors, he chose to renovate or finish earlier works instead, and did the same for a great number of roads. He was modest when it came down to ludi or circenses, but freely distributed food among the people, or paid for repairs himself when Rome or any other area of the empire was struck by a natural calamity.

Although his rule was generally peaceful, there were frequent incursions between the Roman legions and other troops of all sorts: Dacians, Britons, Germans and also the usual battles in the east. On his command, a second line of defense in the north of Britannia was built, the Vallum Antonini.

The emperor died in 161 at the age of 75. Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius were his designated successors, and immediately built a column to honour his memory and that of his wife. Marcus Aurelius especially would remember him as an example to follow.

Marcus Aurelius: Marcus Aurelius concludes the apex of the Roman empire in many ways. He and his co-ruler Lucius Verus spent most of his reign fighting defensive wars against hostile tribes and peoples, which would be the heavy task of a great many of his successors as well. He also introduced the monarchist element again, by appointing his own son, Commodus, as his successor. The later structures of the Tetrarchy and Dominate were also introduced by means of the dual emperorship.

He came to be known as the emperor philosopher, and left the world some of his thinking in his Meditationes. He had a special liking for Stoicism and Platonism, and his circle of friends and acquaintances included notorious personalities such as the sophist Herodes Atticus and the orator Aelius Aristides. His teacher Fronto, and later Epictetus, also had a large impact on his personal beliefs.

While he and Verus nominally had equal powers, it was Marcus Aurelius who was really in charge. This was proved during the Parthian Wars, from 161 to 166, when he sent his colleague away on that mission. More due to the surrounding generals' capabilities than to Verus', the conflict was settled in favour of the Romans. Important cities like Ctesiphon had been destroyed, and the satellite kingdom of Armenia was safe from Parthian influence again. However, when Verus and his triumphant forces returned to Italia, they brought a plague, probably smallpox, with them, which wreaked havoc among the Roman people.

However, in 169, the Marcomanni and Quadi broke through the limes and invaded the north of Italia. It was the first time since Marius, a good two centuries earlier, that German forces had penetrated Italia, and it was a devastating shock for the people's morale, especially when the city of Aquileia was besieged. In that same year, Verus died. With firm determination, however, Marcus Aurelius undertook a steady campaign to drive the invaders out of Italia, and to defeat them on their own territories. He slowly defeated one tribe after another, and it's said that his final objective would have been the creation of two new trans-Danubian provinces, Marcomannia and Sarmatia. This objective was never realised before his death in 180, and Commodus' aborting of this military campaign.

In the meanwhile, in 175, the capable governor of Syria, Avidius Cassius, had attempted a short-lived usurpation. The uprising was quashed before Marcus Aurelius could arrive. It is said that his wife Faustina had an affair with Cassius (and with a number of gladiators). He, however, always defended her and his own family. This would eventually be his fatal error. By choosing Commodus as his successor, rather than a more dignified or skilled individual, he ruined all he had fought for, and the line of the boni came to a dramatic end.

On a cultural level, he continued the policies of Antoninus Pius: he left few impressive buildings, but those that have been preserved are well known: the column he erected in honour of his wife, and the victory over the German tribes, and the famous statue that has him seated on a horse, greeting the Roman people. The column mirrors that of Traianus in design, although it is inferior qua detail and craftsmanship. Religiously, despite the uncontrolled pogroms against Christians, he was fairly tolerant, and generally pious towards the traditional Roman religion.

Commodus: In 177 Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus was made co-ruler and heir to his father, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180). Lucius joined Marcus in his campaign against invading German tribes along the Danube, but after the death of Marcus (March 180) he quickly came to terms with the Germans. Soon after he became sole ruler, Lucius changed his name to Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus. In 182 Commodus' sister Lucilla conspired with a group of senators to assassinate him. The plot failed, and Commodus retaliated by executing a number of leading senators.

Thereafter, his rule became increasingly arbitrary and vicious. In 186 he had his chief minister executed in order to appease the army; three years later he allowed the minister's successor to be killed by a rioting crowd. Political influence then passed to the emperor's mistress and two advisers. Meanwhile, Commodus was lapsing into insanity. He gave Rome a new name, Colonia Commodiana (Colony of Commodus), and imagined that he was the god Hercules, entering the arena to fight as a gladiator or to kill lions with bow and arrow. Finally, when Commodus announced that he would assume the consulship on January 1st 193, dressed as a gladiator, the public became incensed. On December 31st 192, his advisers had him strangled by a champion wrestler. A grateful Senate proclaimed as emperor the city prefect, Publius Helvius Pertinax.
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