Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > Prosperity Of The Empire, A.D. 96. - Commodus, A.D. 180. - Reign Of M. Cocceius Nerva, A.D. 96-98

Prosperity Of The Empire, A.D. 96. - Commodus, A.D. 180. - Reign Of M. Cocceius Nerva, A.D. 96-98

This venerable man was sixty-four years old when he was proclaimed emperor upon the death of Domitian. He was a native of the town of Narnia, in Umbria, and his virtues had won him a general esteem. The Prætorians, who had not been consulted in his election, never looked upon him with favor, and Nerva was obliged to act with great caution. He stopped trials for high treason, pardoned political offenders, diminished taxes, recalled exiles, and strove by every honest art to attain popularity. But the Prætorians, becoming mutinous, not only put the murderers of Domitian to death, but forced the emperor to approve of their act publicly. This insult was deeply felt by Nerva, who now resolved to adopt a colleague, in order to increase his own authority. He therefore selected M. Ulpius Trajan, a distinguished general, who was in command of the army of Lower Germany.

We now enter upon the most pleasing period in the history of the Roman Empire. During the next eighty years a general prosperity prevailed. The emperors were all men worthy to command, and capable of giving tranquillity to their vast dominions. Several of them were of the purest morals, of high mental cultivation, and are still looked upon as ornaments of the human race; and while they could not check the decline of their people, these virtuous emperors prevented, for a time, the fall of the Roman Empire.

Nerva, in order to elevate the condition of his people, purchased lands, which he distributed among them, and he sought to make them feel the necessity of labor and of self-dependence. But it was too late to reform the manners of the indolent, licentious plebs, corrupted by the indulgence of their tyrants. Nerva died of a fever, January 27, A.D. 98.


Trajan, the first emperor who was not a native of Italy, was born at Italica, in Spain, and was about forty years of age at the death of Nerva. His memory was so much revered among the Romans, that, two hundred and fifty years later, the Senate hailed the accession of the new emperor with the prayer that he might be happier than Augustus, better than Trajan. He was free from every vice except an occasional indulgence in wine. His mind was naturally strong, his manners pleasing, his appearance noble and imposing. He desired only to restore the simple manners and virtuous habits of an earlier age.

Trajan, after his adoption by Nerva, entered upon his high office at Cologne, and then traveled toward Rome. In A.D. 99 he entered that city on foot, followed by a small retinue, and was received with general good will. He abolished the trials for high treason, judicia majestatis, which had made Rome so often a scene of terror, restored freedom of speech to the Senate, revived the Comitia for the election of magistrates, and bound himself by oath to observe the laws. He punished the principal informers, banishing many of them to the barren islands around Italy, while he at once, by severe measures, reduced the turbulent Prætorians to obedience. His wife Plotina, who was a woman of excellent character, with her sister Marcina, revived by their virtues the dignity of the Roman matron. The society of the city was purified, and the family of the emperor offered an example of propriety that produced an excellent effect upon the manners of the higher ranks.

Among the first acts of Trajan was the foundation of public schools for the education and maintenance of poor children in various parts of Italy. He founded, too, the Ulpian Library at Rome, and adorned every part of his empire with magnificent buildings, roads, bridges, and various useful improvements. He seemed to live, in fact, wholly for his people, and passed his life in devising and executing plans for their advantage.

Trajan's Pillar

When Decebalus, king of the Dacians, sent to demand the tribute which had been promised him by Domitian, Trajan refused to be bound by the disgraceful treaty, and, having levied an army of 60,000 men, marched against the Dacians, who had boldly advanced across the Danube. A terrible battle took place, in which the Romans were victorious; but so great was the slaughter that sufficient linen could not be obtained to dress the wounds of the soldiers, and Trajan tore up his imperial robes to supply their wants. He took the capital of the Dacian king, defeated him in various encounters, and compelled him (A.D. 102) to make peace, giving up a part of his territory. Having returned to Rome, Trajan received from the Senate the surname of Dacicus. But in A.D. 104 the Dacians again rose in arms, and the Senate declared Decebalus a public enemy. Trajan led an army in person against the barbarians, and, to provide for an easy access to their territory, built a stone bridge across the Danube of immense size and strength, fortified at each end with towers. He next advanced into the midst of the hostile country, took the capital of the Dacians, and reduced them to subjection. Decebalus, in despair, fell by his own hand. All Dacia, comprising the modern countries of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania, was made a Roman province; and several Roman colonies were planted among the barbarians, thus for the first time preparing for the spread of civilization in that savage country. Trajan now returned to Rome, to triumph a second time for his Dacian successes. He also began that famous Column in commemoration of his victories which still stands at Rome, and which shows in its rich sculpture the various captives and spoils of the Dacian war.

Arabia Petræa was also at this time added to the Roman Empire, after which a peace of several years succeeded. In A.D. 114, a Parthian war breaking out, Trajan hastened to the East, and, having passed the winter at Antioch, witnessed a severe earthquake, which shook that city as well as all Syria. He himself escaped with difficulty from a falling house. In the spring, at the head of his legions, he overran Armenia and formed it into a province. He next built a bridge across the Tigris, resembling that upon the Danube, and led his army into Assyria, a country never yet visited by a Roman general. He took Babylon and Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian kingdom, and, sailing down the Tigris, passed through the Persian Gulf, and annexed a large portion of Arabia Felix to his empire. The Jews, too, about this time revolted, but were subdued, after a brave resistance, and treated with great severity. His Eastern conquests, however, proved by no means secure, and his new subjects revolted as soon as his armies were gone. In A.D. 117 Trajan entered Southern Arabia to complete the subjection of that country, when he was seized with a dropsy and forced to return to Rome. He did not reach that city, but died, August 9th, A.D. 117, at Selinus, in Cilicia. His ashes were carried to Rome, and placed under the magnificent column which recorded his Dacian victories.

During Trajan's reign, the empire, already too extensive, was made more unwieldy by his various conquests. He was evidently ambitious of the fame of a conqueror, and possessed many of the qualities of an able general. He was also a skillful ruler of his immense dominions, leaving no portion unprotected by his vigilance. The only stain upon his fame is his persecution of the Christians, whom he continued to treat with severity even when convinced of their perfect innocence.

After the conclusion of the Dacian war he celebrated games and spectacles, which are said to have lasted through four months, and in which ten thousand gladiators fought and suffered for the entertainment of the people - a proof that the Romans were yet, in some respects, barbarians. Trajan, however, forbade the performance of indecent pantomimes. Trajan's bridge across the Danube is described by Dion Cassius as of greater importance than any of his other works. He designed it to form an easy access to his Dacian province. It was formed of twenty stone piers, distant about 170 feet from each other, and sixty feet wide: they were probably connected by arches of wood. Trajan also began to make roads across the Pontine Marshes, and founded several public libraries. Pliny the younger, who lived during this reign, was the most eminent literary man of the time, and wrote a fine panegyric upon his friend the emperor. Pliny saw the first eruption of Vesuvius, in which his uncle and adopted father, the elder Pliny, perished. He was a person of great wealth and uncommon generosity, having given 300,000 sesterces yearly to maintain the children of the poor in his native town of Comum. His letters to Trajan show that he was an excellent master, husband, and friend, and we may well believe that in this happy period many Romans resembled Trajan and his learned correspondent.


Hadrian, descended from a family of Hadria, in Picenum, was a military commander, distinguished for his courage and activity. His father had married an aunt of the late emperor, who, upon the father's death, was appointed one of Hadrian's guardians. Yet it is supposed Trajan made no nomination of a successor to the throne, and that his wife Plotina forged the will by which the world was made to believe that he had adopted Hadrian. This will was, however, published, and Hadrian entered upon his government at Antioch, August 11th, A.D. 117, and was there proclaimed emperor. The Senate, to whom he wrote a letter announcing his appointment, at once confirmed him in his power. He now made peace with the Parthians, and restored to Chosroes, their king, Assyria and Mesopotamia. He adopted the policy of Augustus, refusing to extend the limits of the empire. In A.D. 118 he returned to Rome, but was soon forced to march to the defense of the province of Mœsia, which had been invaded by the Sarmatæ and Roxolani. His object being merely to preserve the boundaries of the empire, he concluded a peace with the Roxolani, and probably purchased their submission. He was about to march against the Sarmatæ, when the news of a conspiracy at Rome was brought to him. He seems to have ordered the leaders to be put to death, although he afterward denied that he had done so. Having returned to Rome, he endeavored to win the affections of the people by donations, games, and gladiatorial shows. He also canceled a large amount of unpaid taxes, now due for fifteen years, and promised the Senators never to punish one of their body without their approval. He divided Italy into four regions, a Consular Magistrate being placed over each; and he introduced a new system of administration into the palace, the army, and the state, which lasted until the reign of Constantine the Great.

In A.D. 119 he began a journey through all the provinces of his empire, in order to examine into their condition, and to discover and amend any faults in the system of government. Hadrian, too, was fond of travel, and was never content to remain long in repose. A large part of his reign was occupied with this important journey. He first visited Gaul and Germany, and thence, in A.D. 121, passed over into Britain. Here he found the Britons already partially civilized, but unable to defend themselves from the incursions of their neighbors the Caledonians. To protect them from these forays, he built a wall across the island from the mouth of the Tyne to Solway, remains of which are still shown to the traveler. On his return he adorned the town of Nemausus (Nismes) with fine buildings, and then went into Spain, where he passed the winter. He returned to Rome A.D. 122, but soon after went to Athens, where he spent three years. During his residence in that city he began many magnificent buildings, and he seems to have looked upon Athens with singular affection and reverence. He visited Sicily, returned to Rome, set out for Africa, whence, after a brief visit, he once more visited Athens, to view the completion of his architectural designs. He finished the Temple of the Olympian Jupiter, the largest and most magnificent in the world, which had been commenced by Pisistratus, and left many other fine works behind him. Then he passed through Asia, inspecting the conduct of the provincial officers, and next traveled through Syria into Egypt, where his favorite Antinous, a beautiful youth, was drowned. This event seems to have filled him with a lasting grief. At length, in A.D. 131, he returned to Rome.

Mole of Hadrian restored
Mole of Hadrian restored

Here he published the Edictum Perpetuum, a codification of the edicts of the Roman Prætors, which was composed by Salvius Julianus, an eminent lawyer. The design of this work was to condense the vast body of the law into a convenient form.

A revolt broke out among the Jews, Hadrian having established a colony called Ælia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem, and, not content with introducing pagan worship into the holy city, had even issued an edict forbidding the practice of circumcision. These imprudent measures produced a revolt among the Jews, who, under their leader Barcochab, fought with their usual courage and desperation. The war continued for several years, during which more than half a million of Jews are said to have perished. At length Julius Severus came from Britain to lead the Roman armies, and the rebellion was suppressed. The Jews were now forbidden to live in Jerusalem or its neighborhood, and the nation was scattered over the habitable world.

A war which seemed about to break out with the Albanians and Iberians in the East was prevented by Hadrian, who, with his usual policy, sent large presents to his enemies, and thus converted them into friends. He now returned from his travels to Rome, where he built his magnificent villa at Tibur, the extensive ruins of which may still be seen; and he passed the remainder of his life either at Tibur or in Rome. His health had been affected by his incessant labors, and in A.D. 135 he was seized with dropsy. Having no children, he adopted L. Ceionius, under the name of L. Ælius Verus, a young noble, who, however, died on the first day of the year A.D. 138. Hadrian then adopted Arrius Antoninus (afterward the Emperor Antoninus Pius), and presented him as his successor to the Senators assembled around his bed. At the same time he obliged him to adopt L. Commodus Verus, the son of the former Verus, and also M. Annius Verus, the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Ill health seems now to have fatally affected the mind and disposition of Hadrian. He became morose and cruel. He put many eminent nobles to death, and is said to have sunk into debauchery at his Tiburtine villa. His disease proving incurable, he several times attempted suicide; but having removed to Baiæ, hoping for some relief in that fine climate, he died there July 10th, A.D. 138, aged sixty-three. He was buried in the villa of Cicero, near Puteoli. When the Senate, enraged at his cruelties in the latter part of his life, wished to annul his acts, and would have refused him divine honors, Antoninus interposed, and excused his adopted father on the plea that ill health had disordered his mind. For this filial conduct he received the name of Pius. The Senate not only numbered Hadrian among the deities, but ordered temples to be erected in his honor. He left the empire prosperous and at peace. During his reign the Senate lost its importance in the administration of affairs, since Hadrian supplied its place by a Consistorium Principis, or council, composed of eminent men, presided over by a distinguished lawyer. Hadrian was fond of letters and the arts, and adorned every part of his empire with fine buildings or useful works. Wherever he traveled he did something for the benefit of his subjects.

Reverse of a brass Coin of Antoninus Pius
Reverse of a brass Coin of Antoninus Pius


This excellent man was born at Lanuvium, September 19th, A.D. 86, but his family came from the town of Nemausis (Nismes), in Gaul. Soon after his accession to the empire he married his daughter Faustina to Marcus Aurelius, procured for him the tribunitian and proconsular power from the Senate, and made him his associate in the labors of the government. His tranquil and prosperous reign is the most pleasing period in the history of the Roman Empire. The world enjoyed a general peace, and the emperor endeavored, by every wise measure, to secure the prosperity of his subjects. Like Numa, to whom he has often been compared, Antoninus was the peacemaker between distant nations, who were accustomed to submit their differences to him, and to abide implicitly by his award. He checked the persecutions to which the Christians had been exposed in former reigns, and to him Justin Martyr addressed his apology for Christianity. He watched carefully the conduct of the provincial governors, and applied the public revenues to founding schools, repairing roads and harbors, and encouraging every where industry and trade. When Asia and Rhodes were devastated by an earthquake, Antoninus expended large sums in relieving the sufferers by that calamity, as well as those who were reduced to indigence by the great fires which nearly destroyed Carthage, Narbonne, and Antioch, in A.D. 153. He appointed teachers of rhetoric in various cities of the empire, conferred honors and emoluments upon men of letters, and in A.D. 141 founded a charity-school for orphan girls, whom he styled Puellæ Alimentariæ Faustinianæ, in memory of his wife Faustina, who had died the year before. Faustina, however, does not seem to have merited his esteem, and the emperor was well acquainted with her faults; yet he generously overlooked them while she lived, and upon her death paid unusual honors to her memory. His piety, his devotion to the national religion, and his various virtues, seem to have won for him universal love and veneration, and his successors during the next century assumed the name of Antoninus as their worthiest title.

Antoninus made no attempt to extend the boundaries of the empire. The barbarous races who were now beginning to swarm upon the frontiers, the Germans and the Dacians, were held in check; and although the Brigantes made several inroads into Britain, they were defeated by A. Lollius, the Legate, in A.D. 141; and a wall of turf was raised beyond the former wall built by Agricola to check the incursions of the Caledonians. This peaceful reign, however, seems to have increased the general indolence of the people, and the martial spirit of the Roman soldiers declined in the idleness of their stationary camps. After a reign of twenty-three years, Antoninus died, March 7th, A.D. 161, in his villa at Lorium, aged seventy-five years.


He was succeeded by Aurelius, who was born at Rome A.D. 121. This prince is known as the Philosopher; and the wish of Plato that philosophers might be kings, or kings philosophers, seems to have been fulfilled at his accession. Aurelius had been from his youth a lover of truth. His morals and his intellect were trained by the purest and wisest men of his age. He had studied under Herodes Atticus and Cornelius Fronto, two famous rhetoricians, and also under the Stoic philosophers Junius Rusticus and Apollonius; and he had been constantly employed by his adopted father Antoninus as an associate in all his useful and benevolent designs. His health was, however, delicate, and he now admitted to a share in the empire his adopted brother, L. Verus, who possessed a vigorous constitution, but was addicted to licentious pleasures.

The general peace which had prevailed during the reign of Marcus Antoninus was forever passed away, and the world was in future to be desolated by almost perpetual hostilities. The Parthian king Vologeses III. having invaded the eastern provinces, and cut to pieces a Roman legion, L. Verus was sent to oppose his advance; but upon arriving at Antioch, Verus remained there, plunged in dissipation, while his brave lieutenant Avidius Cassius drove back the Parthians, invaded Mesopotamia, destroyed Seleucia, and penetrated to Babylon. Another Roman general conquered Armenia, and restored the legitimate king Soæmus to his throne. At the close of the war, Verus, A.D. 166, returned to Rome, and triumphed. His army brought the plague with it from the East, which now desolated Italy and Rome. Many illustrious men died; but the famous physician Galen (Claudius Galenus), who had come from Pergamus to Rome, was now enabled to exhibit his uncommon professional skill. This pestilence lasted for several years.

Verus died of intemperance A.D. 171, and Aurelius prevailed upon the Senate to rank him among the gods. He now marched against the Marcomanni, but was defeated in a great battle, and, in order to provide a new army, sold the imperial plate and jewels. He now took up a position at Sirmium (Sirmich), and endeavored to wear out the barbarians by skirmishes and sudden attacks, without venturing far from his strong-hold. At length, however, upon one occasion, having been drawn into a defile, the Roman army was relieved by a fierce storm of thunder and rain, which terrified the barbarians. Tradition attributes this sudden storm to the prayers of a Christian legion. The barbarians now submitted, and withdrew beyond the Danube.

Soon after, an insurrection broke out in Syria, where Avidius Cassius, at the instigation, it is said, of the emperor's wife Faustina, had proclaimed himself emperor. But Cassius, by his severity, disgusted his own soldiers, and was assassinated by a centurion. Aurelius lamented this event, since it deprived him of an opportunity of showing clemency to an erring friend. He at once set out for the East, and there freely forgave all those who had conspired against him. He took the young family of Cassius under his protection, and ordered the papers of that officer to be destroyed, lest they might disclose the names of the conspirators. Faustina, who had accompanied her husband to Cilicia, died soon after, it is said, by her own hand.

It is remarkable that this philosophic emperor should have permitted a cruel persecution of the Christians in A.D. 177, perhaps at the instigation of the Stoic philosophers - the only blot upon his general humanity and benevolence. Among the victims of this persecution was Justin Martyr, the author of the Apologies for Christianity, addressed to Antoninus, as well as to Aurelius himself. Toward the close of his reign, having become convinced of the falseness of the charges made against the Christians, Aurelius became once more tolerant and philosophic.

In A.D. 176 the emperor triumphed at Rome for his various successes. He gave a donation of eight pieces of gold to every citizen, and made his son Commodus his colleague. In the mean time the barbarians in the interior of Europe, moved by a general impulse, began to press upon the frontiers of the empire, and from this time seem never to have ceased their inroads until the final destruction of the Roman power. Aurelius marched, A.D. 177, to the frontier, defeated the barbarians in various engagements, and had perhaps proved the savior and second founder of Rome, when he was seized with a fever at Vindobona (Vienna), A.D. 180, and died after a few days' illness. He was the last of the Roman emperors who labored for the welfare of his people. He was, no doubt, the greatest and wisest of them all, and he united the different talents of a man of learning, a fine writer, a skillful soldier, and a benevolent, judicious ruler. His "Meditations," which have made him known to posterity, are among the most delightful productions of the human intellect, while his private character seems to have been no less attractive than his writings.


The depraved Commodus succeeded his virtuous father at the age of twenty. He had been educated with singular care, but was wholly given up to coarse sensuality. The people, however, still hoped that he might be worthy of his father, and received him, upon his accession, with loud expressions of joy. For a short time he concealed his true disposition; but his sister Lucilla, jealous of her brother's wife Crispina, formed a conspiracy against him in A.D. 182, and he escaped with difficulty from the hand of the assassin. From this moment he threw off all disguise, and indulged his natural vices without restraint. He put to death the most illustrious men of the time, encouraged informers and false accusations, and filled Rome with terror. In the midst of these cruelties he often sang, danced, or played the buffoon in public, fought as a gladiator in the circus, and ordered the people to worship him as a second Hercules. His lieutenant Marcellus, in A.D. 184, defeated the Caledonians, after they had passed the long wall of Hadrian, and had ravaged the northern part of Britain; and in A.D. 191 an invasion of the Frisians was repelled. Commodus, however, paid no attention to the affairs of the empire. In A.D. 189 Italy suffered from a pestilence and famine, when the people of Rome rose against the emperor's præfect, Cleander, and tore him to pieces. Commodus still continued his murders, and was at last assassinated by the directions of his mistress, Marcia, whose death he had resolved upon. He died December 31st, A.D. 192. The Senate ordered his memory to be held infamous, and his body to be dragged by iron hooks through the streets, and then to be thrown into the Tiber; but his successor Pertinax prevailed that it should be placed in the mausoleum of Hadrian. Such was the son of Marcus Aurelius.


Roman Empire History

Copyright © 2007 All Rights Reserved.
Roman Empire | Sitemap | | Contact Us | Disclaimer & Credits