The Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96-192 AD)

The Nerva-Antonine dynasty was the third Roman imperial dynasty consiting of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus and Commodus. They ruled the Roman Empire from 96 AD until 192 AD, when Commodus was assassinated. The first five emperors of this dynasty were known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’.

The Family Tree of the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty. (c) Imperium Romanum

The Nerva-Antonines rose to power when Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD and the Roman Senate elected M. Cocceius Nerva, a loyalist Flavian and advisor to Domitian, as emperor. The rulers of this dynasty adopted their heirs, as they did not have male heirs themselves, until Marucs Aurelius, who named his son Commodus as heir.

Under Nerva

Head of Nerva, 96-8 AD, from Tivoli. Palazzo Massimo.

Nerva had a short reign which was blemished by financial difficulties and his failure to assert his authority over the Roman Army. In 97 AD, the Praetorian Guard revolted which forced him to adopt an heir. Nerva chose to adopt M. Ulpius Traianus, the popular governor of Germania Superior, as his successor. Ancient authors praised him as a moderate and wise emperor. After less than two years as emperor, Nerva died of natural causes on 27th January 98 AD. He was succeeded by Trajan, who then deified him.

Under Trajan

Bust of Trajan, 108-117 AD. British Museum.

Trajan is viewed as one of the best Roman emperors, only second to Augustus. He was a military emperor, who presided over a great expansion of the Empire and led the Roman Empire to be at its greatest territorial extent at the time of his death. Trajan annexed the Kingdom of Nabataea in 106 AD and created the province of Arabia Petraea. He also conquered the Kingdom of Dacia in his famous Dacian Wars of 101-2 AD and 105-6 AD. Late in his reign, Trajan defeated the Parthian Empire, which ended with the sack of their capital Ctesiphon, and annexed Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria as Roman provinces. He also implemeted an extensive building programme, thanks to the newly acquired gold mines in Dacia, and built a new Forum in Rome and a new harbour called Portus next to Ostia. He also implemented a new social welfare programme.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent in 117 AD. (c) Tartaryn

In late 117 AD, while sailing back from the East, Trajan fell ill and died of a stroke in the city of Selinus in Cilicia. He was deified by the Senate and his ashes were laid to rest under Trajan’s Column in his new Forum. He was succeeded by his cousin Hadrian, whom Trajan supposedly adopted on his deathbed according to his wife Plotina.

Under Hadrian

Bust of Hadrian, 118-138 AD. Antikensammlung.

Hadrian is best known for reversing Rome’s policy of expansion, even relinquishing the new provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia and Assyria, and instead implementing one of building defensibile borders, the most famous of which is Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britannia. Although his legitimacy as emperor was approved by the Roman Senate and Army, four leading senators were put to death shortly after his ascension, which drove a wedge between Hadrian and the Senate. During his reign, he visited nearly every province in the Empire and invested in a big building programme, which included the rebuilding of the Pantheon in Rome and restoring Athens to its former glory. The only military conflict of his reign was the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-6 AD. He is also famous for his relationship with his favourite Antinous, who mysteriously drowned in the River Nile and was deified by Hadrian afterwards.

Section of Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Crags.

He died on 10th July 138 AD at his villa in Baiae and was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, whom he had adopted that year and in turn had made Antoninus adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

Under Antoninus Pius

Bust of Antoninus Pius, c. 140 AD, from the House of Jason Magnus, Cyrene. British Museum.

Antoninus Pius was given the cognomen ‘Pius’ shortly after he became emperor either because he had made the Senate deify Hadrian or because he had saved senators from death during the later stages of Hadrian’s reign. His reign is noteworthy for the peaceful state of the Empire, with no major military conflicts during this time. Although he did implement a successful military campaign in southern Scotland early in his reign, which resulted in the construction of the Antonine Wall. Antoninus was an effective administrator, who left his heirs a large surplus in the treasury, improved access to drinking water throughout the Empire, encouraged legal conformity and promoted the enfranchisement of freed slaves. He died of illness 7th March 161 AD and was succeeded by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as co-emperors.

Under Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius, c. 160-170 AD, from the House of Jason Magnus, Cyrene. British Museum.

Marcus Aurelius was known as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ and spent the majority of his reign on campaign on the Danube during the Marcommanic Wars of 166-180 AD, while his co-emperor Lucius Verus fought the Parthians in the East. The Antonine Plague broke out in 165 AD, contracted by soldiers fighting against th Parthians, and by 180 AD, had killed an estimated five to ten million people, including possibly Lucius Verus. Marcus Aurelius was also a Stoic philosopher, whose Meditations, a series of private notes to himself and ideas on Stoicism written whilst on campaign along the Danube, have been praised by fellow writers, philosophers, monarchs and politicians centuries after his death. Marcus declined to adopt an heir and instead chose his son Commodus as heir, whom he ruled jointly with from 177 AD. He died on the 17th March 180 AD at Vindobona whilst on campaign and was succeeded by his son Commodus.

Under Lucius Verus

Bust of Lucius Verus, c. 161-170 AD, from Rome. British Museum.

The majority of Lucius Verus’ reign was occupied by his war with Parthia from 161-166 AD, which ended in Roman victory and some territorial gains. He gained a reputation in Rome and while on campaign in Syria of debauchery and opulence. After initial involvement in the Marcomannic Wars, he fell ill and died in 169 AD, possibly of the Antonine Plague. He was deified by the Roman Senate.

Under Commodus

Bust of Commodus, c. 180-185 AD. Getty Museum.

Upon becoming emperor, Commodus concluded a peace treaty with the Marcomanni and Quadi to quickly wrap up the Marcomannic Wars before returning to Rome. His reign was fairly peaceful with no major military conflicts occuring. Unlike the rest of the Antonines, he did not seem interested in the administration of the Empire and instead left the day to day running of the state to court officials and his Praetorian Prefect. However after a multiple conspiracies and attempted coups, Commodus was forced to take a more hands on role, which became increasingly despotic. Although he was not popular with the Senate, the common people loved him, largely due to the fact that he staged lots of gladiatorial shows and even took part in them. Commodus was assassinated on the 31st December 192 AD in a palace plot. This marked the end of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty and led the Empire into a civil war known as the Year of the Five Emperors.

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