On the very day of the assassination of Domitian, the
Senate elected the new emperor: the choice fell on Marcus Cocceius Nerva, a senior member of
the Senate who had managed
to successfully hold important offices during the reigns of Nero, of
Vespasian and of Domitian.
Nerva managed to control the reaction of the supporters of Domitian and more in general he promoted a policy of reconciliation among the various factions into which the Roman society was divided. He was aware he needed the support of the army; at the age of 70 and without a military background, Nerva knew he could not obtain it in the battlefield and therefore he chose as his associate Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan), the commander of the Roman legions in southern Germany. He then adopted Trajan as his successor.
This was not a new practice, but for the first time the ruling emperor did not adopt a member of his family, but rather a person chosen for his background and his skills. Trajan did the same and the next two emperors felt obliged to follow this pattern; so Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180) are collectively known as the adoptive emperors.
They all ruled for approximately twenty years granting stability to the government of the empire; overall it was a period of peace (Pax Romana) and economic development, especially in the provinces where many cities flourished and were able to build new facilities such as aqueducts, fora, libraries, schools and stadiums not inferior to those of Rome.
Another interesting aspect related to the choice of Trajan as the new emperor is the fact that he was born in Spain from a family of Roman origin (and therefore had full citizenship rights). His becoming emperor meant that the accession to the highest position of the empire was no longer restricted to members of the Roman or Italian aristocracy.
In 98 after just two years of reign Nerva died and Trajan became the new emperor. During his military career he had been in several provinces of the empire and had a first hand knowledge of how the decisions taken in Rome were often poorly implemented there and how often they did not meet local needs. He therefore paid special attention to improving the logistics of the empire; he did so by improving roads, ports, aqueducts, markets and by establishing a net of local informatores who reported to him what happened in the provinces.
The improvement of Via Appia at Terracina, a new artificial harbour at Porto, an aqueduct from Bracciano (today known as Acqua Paola), well structured covered markets in Rome are just some of the initiatives taken by Trajan to implement his policies in Rome and its environs.
Basilica Ulpia and behind it Colonna Traiana
Trajan expanded the area of the Roman Fora by levelling to the ground Velia,
a hill between Campidoglio and Quirinale.
The main building of his forum was a large basilica called Ulpia after his family name. The
central section of the building can be seen thanks to the first modern archaeological
excavations in Rome, initiated by the French government at the beginning of the XIXth century
and completed by Pope Pius VII. The basilica was decorated with reliefs celebrating Trajan,
some of which were moved two centuries later to Arco di Costantino.
Trajan's forum was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, a Greek architect who also built for the emperor a gigantic bridge on the lower Danube and public baths in Rome.
Trajan led the Roman Empire to its maximum extent: his best known military campaigns are related to the Dacian wars, but Trajan made also a serious attempt to expand the empire in the Middle East. He conquered part of today's Kingdom of Jordan including the city of Petra. He then waged war against the Parthians; he defeated them in Armenia and Mesopotamia and in 116 he occupied Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthians located 20 miles south of Baghdad. From there, following the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Trajan reached the shores of the Persian Gulf. But these conquests were ephemeral; a vast rebellion from Mesopotamia spread to other eastern provinces and Trajan had to give up his attempts to further move eastwards; he precipitously returned to Syria where he died in 117.
Modern map showing the Roman Empire at the time of Trajan on the rear wall of
Basilica di Massenzio
Trajan adopted as his successor Publius Aelius Adrianus (Hadrian), another general born in
Spain and who was the proconsul of Syria at the emperor's death. Hadrian realized
that the recent acquisition of Mesopotamia was not defensible and chose to give back to the Parthians
the territories occupied by Trajan in return for a stable peace agreement.
Notwithstanding his military background, Hadrian refrained from new wars and devoted himself to making more effective the administration and in particular the judiciary system; he established that laws and decrees should be reviewed by a body of experts on law to ensure their consistency with other existing regulations.
He extensively visited the various provinces of the empire to show that the emperor was a good pater familias (father of the family) who cared for the wellbeing of his subjects and not a distant despot closeted in the imperial palace.
In one of these tours he recommended to strengthen the northern border of the province of Britannia by building a vallum, a rampart which stretched across the island.
In 124 Hadrian, while visiting the province of Bythinia (today's north-west Turkey), fell
in love with Antinous, a teenager of rare beauty. This kind of relationships between a man of a certain
age (Hadrian was then 48 and age patterns were different from those we are accustomed to nowadays) and
a much younger man (Antinous was fourteen) were not unusual in the Greek world and were tolerated
in the Roman one. They usually ended when the younger partner reached adulthood.
In 130 Antinous died by drowning in the Nile; the passion Hadrian had for him had not yet subsided and the emperor's grief was immense; he dedicated his last years to celebrate his lover by naming after him cities, sending statues with his effigy to all corners of the empire and even by dedicating temples and an obelisk to Antinous.
While the love affair had been regarded as a common practice, a sort of usual phase in man's life, the initiatives taken by Hadrian to celebrate Antinous were seen as extravagant and not in line with the traditional composure expected by a Roman emperor.
Hadrian spent his last years in isolation moving from one to the other imperial villas in the environs of Rome and Naples.
In 136 he appointed as his successor Lucius Aelius, a young senator with no military background; the choice has never been fully understood. Lucius Aelius however never became emperor as he died soon after having been chosen by Hadrian. The ailing emperor decided to appoint as his new successor a respected senator, Titus Aurelius Antoninus, on the condition that he in turn would appoint Lucius Verus (son of Lucius Aelius) and Marcus Aurelius (son of his wife's brother) as co-emperors. At the death of Hadrian in 138 the Senate made an attempt to deny the dead emperor the funerary celebrations for which he had built a gigantic mausoleum, but Antoninus insisted on not damaging Hadrian's memory.
Hadrian showed his interest for architecture by closely following the design of Villa Adriana, a countryside residence near Tivoli where he spent some of his last years. He also rebuilt the Pantheon, although he preferred to retain the old inscription celebrating Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus' son-in-law. In Rome the memory of Hadrian is also associated with Ponte Sant'Angelo, the bridge he built to facilitate the access to his mausoleum. There are monuments built by Hadrian in many other cities of the Roman Empire and in particular in Athens.
Antoninus ruled for 23 years: they were almost uneventful years:
he acted as a sort of constitutional monarch, returning to the Senate and to
the other Roman institutions most of their ancient decisional power.
He strengthened the defence of the empire by building in Britain a more advanced vallum on the Firth of Forth and by founding new Roman settlements in southern Germany. He chose to live in a villa he had in Lanuvio, rather than in the more luxurious imperial residences.
He complied with the commitment imposed on him by Hadrian to appoint as his successors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (the former in the meantime had become his son-in-law having married Annia Faustina Minor, Antoninus' daughter).
Tempio di Annia Faustina: detail of the entablature
The Senate gave to Antoninus the appellative (qualifying adjective) of Pius, in recognition
of his lifestyle, so respectful of the traditional Roman family values.
Antoninus, most likely to distance himself from Hadrian's behaviour, emphasized his attachment to these values by erecting several temples dedicated to his deceased wife Annia Faustina Maior and by founding charitable institutions for the assistance of young women, named after her puellae Faustinianae.
He built in the Roman Forum a large temple dedicated to her: its structure was so strong that it resisted all attempts to pull it down; its cipollino columns show the cuts made to place the ropes which were vainly used to cause the collapse of the portico. Antoninus also dedicated a temple to Hadrian, which too has at least partially escaped being pulled down.
Unlike Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had to
face continuous threats to the stability of the empire.
In 162 the Parthians invaded the eastern Roman provinces of Syria and Armenia;
Lucius Verus led the Roman armies to the counter-attack and in 164 the Romans
occupied again Ctesiphon, the enemy capital and briefly restored their rule over Mesopotamia;
the victory however brought an unexpected and bitter fruit: a pestilence
(now thought to have been a bubonic plague) developed among the Roman legionaries and
they brought it back with them at the end of the campaign; in the following years
the pestilence spread to the whole empire; a famine followed the disease and further weakened
and reduced the population.
The two emperors had just repelled the Parthians in the east, when a new threat arose in the west; the Marcomanni, a German tribe living in today's Bohemia, in association with other tribes (Quadi, Vandals and Sarmatians) attacked the Roman colonies along the Danube in Germany, Austria and Hungary. They were most likely forced to do this because they were in turn attacked by other tribes coming from Central Asia.
After the death of Lucius Verus in 169, Marcus Aurelius had to bear the full responsibility of defending the empire. Being a man of great culture, he would have preferred to have time for his philosophic studies, but he felt it was his duty to personally lead the many campaigns caused by the increasing pressure on the northern border of the empire.
He died in 180 in Vindobona (today's Vienna) where he was closely following the preparation of yet another campaign against the Marcomanni. Many historians set at his death the beginning of the decadence of the Roman Empire as some of its key causes made their appearance during the reign of Marcus Aurelius: a weakened economy, a substantial reduction in population and the first barbarian invasions, i.e. the irruption in Europe of nomadic peoples from Central Asia.
Bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius in Palazzi del Campidoglio - Musei Capitolini
In 166 the Senate gave Marcus Aurelius the appellative of Pater Patriae and
most likely to celebrate this title a bronze statue of the emperor was erected in his family
villa near today's S. Giovanni in Laterano. In the Middle Ages the
statue was called caballus Constantini (Constantine's horse) and this saved it from being melted, because
Constantine was regarded as the first Christian Roman emperor. In 2006 it was placed in a
covered courtyard inside Musei Capitolini; according to the tradition when the statue
loses its remaining gold leaf, Rome will perish (and with it the world).
Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus erected a column to Antoninus Pius near today's Piazza di Montecitorio; the column is lost, but the fine reliefs at its base are in the Vatican Museums.
The following external links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
Trajan's Justice by Eugene Delacroix (1840) at Musée des Beaux-Arts - Rouen - it opens in a separate window.
Bust of Hadrian at Museo Nazionale Romano - Rome - it opens in a separate window.
Statue of Antinous at Musei Capitolini - Rome - it opens in a separate window.
Bust of Antoninus Pius at Musei Capitolini - Rome - it opens in a separate window.
Relief portraying Marcus Aurelius at Musei Capitolini - Rome - it opens in a separate window.
Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Joseph-Marie Vien (1765).
X - A Century of Turmoil
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty