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Roman imperial dynasties
Nervan-Antonine dynasty
The Roman Empire in 125 AD
Chronology
Nerva 96 AD98 AD
Trajan 98 AD117 AD
Hadrian 117 AD138 AD
Antoninus Pius 138 AD161 AD
Marcus Aurelius 161 AD180 AD
Lucius Verus 161 AD169 AD
Commodus 180 AD192 AD
Family
Nerva-Antonine family tree
Category:Nerva-Antonine Dynasty
Succession
Preceded by
Flavian dynasty
Followed by
Year of the Five Emperors

The Nerva-Antonine dynasty is a dynasty of seven consecutive Roman Emperors, who ruled over the Roman Empire from 96 to 192. These Emperors are Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus.

Since the first five rulers – from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius – are seen as representing a line of virtuous and just rule, they also have been dubbed the Five Great Emperors.

A unique feature of these Emperors is their method of succession, under which an Emperor adopted the candidate of his choice to be his successor. Under Roman law, an adoption established a bond legally as strong as that of kinship. Because of this, these rulers are also called Adoptive Emperors.

This has often been considered[1] as a conscious repudiation of the principle of dynastic inheritance and has been deemed as one of the factors of the period's prosperity.[2] The naming by Marcus Aurelius of his son Commodus was considered to be an unfortunate choice and the beginning of the Empire's decline.[3]

However, adoptive succession is thought to have arisen because of a lack of biological heirs. All but the last of the adoptive emperors had no legitimate biological sons to succeed them. They were thus obliged to pick a successor somewhere else; as soon as the Emperor could look towards a biological son to succeed him, adoptive succession was set aside.

The dynasty may be broken up into the Nerva-Trajan dynasty (also called the Ulpian dynasty after their common nomen gentilis 'Ulpius') and Antonine dynasty (after their common name Antoninus).

Contents

Nerva-Trajan dynasty

Antonine dynasty

The Antonines are four Roman Emperors who ruled between 138 and 192: Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus and Commodus.

In 138, after a long reign dedicated to the cultural unification and consolidation of the empire, the Emperor Hadrian named Antoninus Pius his son and heir, under the condition that he adopt both Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Hadrian died that same year, and Antoninus began a peaceful, benevolent reign. He adhered strictly to Roman traditions and institutions and shared his power with the Roman Senate.

Marcus Aurelius succeeded Antoninus Pius in 161 upon that emperor's death and continued his legacy as an unpretentious and gifted administrator and leader. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 and was followed by his biological son Commodus.

Five Good Emperors

The term Five Good Emperors was coined by the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in 1503:

From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption; as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But so soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.[4]

Machiavelli argued that these adopted emperors, through good rule, earned the respect of those around them:

Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.[4]

The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, in his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, opined that their rule was a time when "the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue".[5] Gibbon believed these benevolent dictators and their moderate policies were unusual and contrast with their more tyrannical and oppressive successors (their predecessors are not covered by Gibbon).

Gibbon went so far as to state:

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. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.

More recent historians, while agreeing with many of the details of this analysis, would not entirely agree with Machiavelli and Gibbon's praise of this period. There were more people under the rule of these emperors than the few affluent individuals whose lives are mentioned or recorded in the historical record. A large fraction of the rest were farmers or their dependents, who lived their lives always at the whim of avaricious government officials, or unrestrained bandits, no less during the reign of these "Good Emperors" than before or after. The extent to which these people suffered or were happy continues to be a subject of historical debate.

Additionally, Machiavelli's theory that adoption, rather than birth, led to moderate rule is also questionable. A number of Roman Emperors that Machiavelli did not feel were good rulers were adopted including Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, although each of these also had a familial claim to rule.

Nerva–Antonine family tree

  • (1) = 1st spouse
  • (2) = 2nd spouse (not shown)
  • (3) = 3rd spouse
  • SMALL CAPS = posthumously deified (Augusti, Augustae, or other)
  • dotted lines indicate adoption or (in the case of Hadrian and Antinous) lovers
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Marcia
 
TRAJANUS PATER
 
NERVA (r. 96-98)
 
Ulpia
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
MARCIANA
 
TRAJAN, adoptive son (r. 98-117)
 
PLOTINA
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Aelius Afer
 
Paulina Major
 
 
 
 
 
 
Libo Rupilius Frugi (3)
 
 
MATIDIA
 
 
 
 
L. Vibius Sabinus (1)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Rupilia Annia
 
M. Annius Verus
 
Rupilia Faustina
 
SABINA
 
HADRIAN, adoptive son (r. 117-138)
 
ANTINOUS
 
Paulina Minor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Domitia Lucilla
 
M. Annius Verus
 
M. Annius Libo
 
FAUSTINA
 
ANTONINUS PIUS, adoptive son (r. 138-161)
 
Aelius, adoptive son
 
Julia Paulina
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Cornificia
 
MARCUS AURELIUS, adoptive son (r. 161-180)
 
FAUSTINA Iunior
 
Aurelia Fadilla
 
two infant sons
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Salinator
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
VERUS, adoptive son (r. 161-169)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Fadilla
 
Cornificia
 
COMMODUS (r. 177-192)
 
nine other children
 
Lucilla
 
 
 


Note that Lucius Verus, who reigned 161-169 as co-Emperor of Marcus Aurelius, does not appear in the timeline.

References

  1. ^ E.g., by Machiavelli and Gibbon.
  2. ^ "Adoptive Succession". http://www.unrv.com/five-good-emperors/adoptive-succession.php. Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  3. ^ "Decline of the Roman Empire". http://www.unrv.com/decline-of-empire/decline-of-empire.php. Retrieved 2007-09-18. 
  4. ^ a b Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, Book I, Chapter 10.
  5. ^ Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I.78.
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The Five Good Emperors is a term that refers to five consecutive emperors of the Roman Empire who represented a line of virtuous and just rule — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Their reigns lasted between AD 96 to 180. The term was coined by the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in 1503:

From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption; as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But so soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.[1]

Machiavelli claimed that these adopted emperors, through good rule, earned the respect of those around them:

Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.[1]

The rule of these five emperors was also analyzed by 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to Gibbon, their rule was a time when "the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue".[2] Gibbon believed these benevolent dictators and their moderate policies were unusual and contrast their more tyrannical and oppressive successors (their predecessors are not covered by Gibbon).

As noted by Machiavelli, the period of the five good emperors was particularly notable for the peaceful method of succession. Each emperor but the last chose his successor by adopting a hand-picked heir, which established a bond legally as strong as that of kinship and thus technically respected the customary—not constitutional—dynastic principle, thus preventing the political turmoil associated with the succession both before and after this period.[3] The naming by Marcus Aurelius of his son Commodus as heir proved to be an unfortunate choice, and is considered by some historians (notably Gibbon) to mark the start of the Empire's decline.[4]


From Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

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. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.

More recent historians, while agreeing with many of the details of this analysis, would not entirely agree with Machiavelli and Gibbon's praise of this period. There were more people under the rule of these emperors than the few affluent individuals whose lives are mentioned or recorded in the historical record. A large fraction of the rest were farmers or their dependents, who lived their lives always at the whim of avaricious government officials, or unrestrained bandits, no less during the reign of these "Good Emperors" than before or after. The extent to which these people suffered or were happy continues to be a subject of historical debate.

Additionally, Machiavelli's theory that adoption, rather than birth, led to moderate rule is also questionable. A number of Roman Emperors that Machiavelli did not feel were good rulers were adopted including Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, though these were all adopted in their capacity as close relatives to the ruler.

Timeline

Nerva-Antonine family tree

  • (1) = 1st spouse
  • (2) = 2nd spouse (not shown)
  • (3) = 3rd spouse
  • SMALL CAPS = posthumously deified (Augusti, Augustae, or other)
  • dotted lines indicate adoption or (in the case of Hadrian and Antinous) lovers
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Marcia
 
TRAJANUS PATER
 
NERVA (r. 96-98)
 
Ulpia Trajana
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
MARCIANA
 
TRAJAN, adoptive son (r. 98-117)
 
PLOTINA
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Aelius Afer
 
Paulina Major
 
 
 
 
 
 
Libo Rupilius Frugi (3)
 
 
MATIDIA
 
 
 
 
L. Vibius Sabinus (1)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Rupilia Annia
 
M. Annius Verus
 
Rupilia Faustina
 
SABINA
 
HADRIAN, adoptive son (r. 117-138)
 
ANTINOUS
 
Paulina Minor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Domitia Lucilla
 
M. Annius Verus
 
M. Annius Libo
 
FAUSTINA
 
ANTONINUS PIUS, adoptive son (r. 138-161)
 
Aelius, adoptive son
 
Julia Paulina
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Cornificia
 
MARCUS AURELIUS, adoptive son (r. 161-180)
 
FAUSTINA Iunior
 
Aurelia Fadilla
 
two infant sons
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Salinator
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
VERUS, adoptive son (r. 161-169)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Fadilla
 
Cornificia
 
COMMODUS (r. 177-192)
 
nine other children
 
Lucilla
 
 
 

References

  1. ^ a b Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, Book I, Chapter 10
  2. ^ Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I.78
  3. ^ "Adoptive Succession". http://www.unrv.com/five-good-emperors/adoptive-succession.php. Retrieved on 2007-09-18. 
  4. ^ "Decline of the Roman Empire". http://www.unrv.com/decline-of-empire/decline-of-empire.php. Retrieved on 2007-09-18. 
Roman Emperors by Epoch
see also: List of Roman Emperors · Concise list · Roman Empire · Family tree
Principate Crisis of the 3rd century Dominate Division Successors




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