The Roman Empire stood for centuries, and remains one of the greatest empires to have existed to this day. During these years, there were good emperors, and there were bad emperors. During the periods that the former reigned, the empire seemed to flourish, and during the periods where the latter reigned the primary sources are fraught with stories of trials and tribulations, unhappy populations, and general unease.
The largest problem with an autocracy like the empire of Ancient Rome lies in the fact that the empire rests in the whims of one man. If he rules well, and can master his own greed and the corruption that the power brings with it, the people will be happy and relatively docile under his rule. If the lure of power is too much, the empire can easily crumble under his fist, and autocratic though it may be, a rebellion of the majority of a population can be too much to fight.
There were many emperors who were considered ‘good’ by those who recorded their histories, as well as far too many considered ‘bad.’ This paper, however, will cover just three of these good emperors, and will focus on why they went down in the texts of Rome, as well as modern day histories, as good emperors, as well as their major accomplishments, and why they are remembered. These three emperors are Augustus, the first emperor of Rome himself, Vespasian, and Trajan, respectively.
It makes the most sense to begin with Augustus, as he was the first emperor of Rome, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, and the man who laid the groundwork for the Roman Empire, fulfilling the transformation from republic to autocracy, the challenge that ultimately led to the assassination of his predecessor, and the consequent paranoia of the same for Augustus.
It was with Augustus that the beginnings of the Pax Romana can be attributed. He used the experiences of his adoptive father to guide his own, and learned from Caesar’s mistakes. By making himself appear humble yet powerful, Augustus was able to bring to fruition the empire that would grow to epic proportions. Because of his way with the people, something that Julius Caesar had not been quite able to grasp, he was able to earn the trust of the people along with the senate, and by only subtly taking the power into his own hands he was able to reign in the power of the empire. Whereas before him, Caesar had frightened and confused the people, the senate especially, with his attempts to take power while making it appear that he did not truly want it, Augustus was able to use the same tactic with more grace.
Augustus was able to take the power by appealing to the senses and pride of the people, as well as allowing the senate to think that they still held power. He stuck to a strict moral code, one that embodied the essence of what was early Roman pride- “Augustus did his best to get rid of adultery and keep marriages faithful to “encourage greater fertility among the upper class” (Mellor, 115). He adhered to an honor that was a basis of pride for Rome, even if it was something that people had, up to this point, begun to waver on. His Julian Laws were strict, but they embodied something that he could base his model on.
Augustus was able to lay down the framework for the military, even though he was not the military genius his predecessor was. He was able to set the stage for the upcoming Roman Empire, all the while doing a good job at placating those who still yearned for the republic that Caesar had toppled. Augustus was the sort of man that was necessary to transition from republic to empire, an excellent politician who knew how to gain the trust of the people as well as hold the empire with a firm grip.
Although Augustus was the first, he was obviously not the only good emperor that Rome had rule over it. Nero saw the ending of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and this ending was not on a happy note. Blamed for many of Rome’s problems, including the great fire that is to this day associated with his reign, Nero was not well liked. The eventual ascension of Vespasian to the throne, after some initial conflict with finding the next emperor to reign longer than a few months, signaled the end of the Julio-Claudians, and the beginning of the Flavian dynasty, which Vespasian, along with his son Titus, would lay a mark in history as a golden age for Rome (Alston, 166). Although this golden age would be short lived, ending when Vespasian’s other son, Domitian, acquires the throne, it is an age of prosperity that is marked by both building and military accomplishments.
Vespasian came into rule at a time when war with Judea, Britain and Germany was rampant. However, instead of crumbling under the pressure of warfare, Vespasian was able to use this to his advantage. After quelling the problems in Judea, he was able to fund building projects and fighting in Britain and Germany meant expansion in the west. With the help of Titus, Vespasian was able to bring most of this warfare under control.
It was also at this time, with funds from winning the conflict with Judea, that Vespasian was able to build what could easily be considered his biggest claim in history books. The Coliseum was more than just a place for the gladiatorial games to take place, it was a standing reminder of what Vespasian had done. It was a monument to conquering the armies of Judea, but by building it over the lake at Nero’s palace, it was also a marker to signify the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, and the reign of Nero himself. It marked an ushering in of a new sort of emperor, who did not necessarily have to be born into the highest class. Like Augustus before him, Vespasian was able to set up a sort of framework for those who followed.
Finally, the emperor Trajan took the empire to what could be considered its limits, boundary wise. Hadrian after him would build fortifications to try and hold the empire at this position, and further emperors would try and push the boundaries with little success.
Trajan was essentially one of the few untainted by the corrupt image of the reign of Domitian. His father has served in Judea with Titus, and Trajan himself had been away from Rome during the critical years of Domitian’s tyrannical rule giving him an outward appearance of trust and honesty, something the people of Rome would have needed after another poor ruler so soon after the death of Nero, even if Vespasian and Titus had ushered in a golden age before Domitian.
Like Vespasian and Trajan’s own father, Trajan was an apt military leader, and his purging of the Praetorian Guard showed he was not in the position to be disobeyed or stabbed in the back by his own soldiers. He built the Forum, a mark of his grandeur as Vespasian’s Coliseum before him and Hadrian’s Wall after. Most importantly, Trajan had the strength, the cunning, the expertise as well as the moral backbone to bring Rome back from the poor ruling of Domitian, and push it’s boundaries to the very limit.
When comparing these three emperors, it is hard to pick who ruled best, because even though each is considered to be one of Rome’s finest emperors, each also has his short comings, as well. However, Augustus was the first, with the iron will and cool cunning that brought together the entire basis for the Empire, and assured that the Republic would stay a thing of the past. He set the guidelines for the military, and also for his predecessors, none of whom it can be said with certainty would have been able to set this all up as Augustus himself had. Not only this, but with no previous experience to go from other than his adoptive father’s short comings, he managed to raise the empire and rule for a magnificently long time. Over all, he was the base that the future of Rome would stand on until its eventual demise.
Alston, Richard. Aspects of Roman History: AD 14-117. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Mellor, Ronald. Augustus and the Creation of the Roman Empire: a Brief History with
Documents. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2006.