The Good Emperors

A Case for Monarchy?

After the third of the three Flavians, Domitian, was assassinated as a tyrant, there was a succession of five good emperors–not perfect perhaps, but good. This was unique in Rome’s history, and–if we think of chief executives in general–rare or unmatched elsewhere as well. (Not even direct popular election seems to guarantee excellent results.) Their rule spanned 84 years and corresponds roughly with the second century. This is the period Edward Gibbon made famous by writing, “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

Coming podcasts will discuss various reminders of the Good Emperors, including:

  • The Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius
  • The Forum and Markets of Trajan
  • The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
  • The Temple of Faustina and Antoninus Pius
  • Sculpted panels on the Arch of Constantine and in the Capitoline Museums
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline hill.

Above is a model of the only bronze equestrian statue to have survived from antiquity. It survived the destruction meted out to other ancient monuments because it was thought to represent Constantine, a Christian emperor. Pre-Christian monuments did not enjoy the same protection. (Photo Blake Buchannan)

The original statue is in the Capitoline Museums, off to the right of this photo, and its true subject is Marcus Aurelius, known from the movie Gladiator as a good emperor with a terrible son. One thing that helped bring about the succession of five good emperors, which can make monarchy look attractive, is that the first four of them chose their successors and did not favor their own sons in their choices. In this regard, Marcus Aurelius did not follow suit, and his son Commodus proved a madman. We will learn more about him when we discuss the Colosseum, for Commodus was thrilled by gladiatorial combat and himself participated on the floor of the arena.

The End is Near