The Climax Of The Roman Empire

On the extinction of the Julian line, a new class of emperors succeeded,

by whom the prosperity of the empire was greatly advanced. We have now to

fall back on Niebuhr, Gibbon, and the Roman historians, and also make more

use of Smith's digest of these authors. But so much ground still remains

to go over, that we can only allude to salient points, and our notice of

succeeding emperors must be brief.

The e
pire was now to be the prize of successful soldiers, and

Galba, at the age of seventy-three, was saluted imperator by the legions

before the death of Nero, A.D. 68, and acknowledged by the Senate soon

after. There is nothing memorable in his short reign of a few months, and

he was succeeded by Otho, who only reigned three months, and he was

succeeded by Vitellius, who was removed by violent death, like Galba and

Otho. These three emperors left no mark, and were gluttons and

sensualists, who excited nothing but contempt; soldiers of fortune--only

respectable in inferior rank.

On the first of July, A.D. 69, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, of

humble family, arose, as general, to the highest honors of the State, and

was first proclaimed emperor at Alexandria, at the close of the Jewish

war, which he conducted to a successful issue. A brief contest with

Vitellius secured his recognition by the Senate, and the first of the

Flavian line began to reign--a man of great talents and virtues. On the

fall of Jerusalem, his son Titus returned to Rome, and celebrated a joint

triumph with his father, and the gates of the temple of Janus were

shut,--the first time since Augustus,--and universal peace was proclaimed.

One of the first acts of the new emperor was to purify the Senate,

reduced to two hundred members, soon followed by the restoration of the

finances. He rebuilt the capitol, erected the temple of Peace, the new

forum, the baths of Titus, and the Coliseum. He extended a generous

patronage to letters, and under his reign Quintilian, the great

rhetorician, and Pliny, the naturalist, flourished. It was in the ninth

year of his reign that an eruption of Vesuvius occurred, when Herculaneum

and Pompeii were destroyed, to witness which Pliny lost his life.

Vespasian had associated with himself his son Titus in the government, and

died, after a reign of ten years, exhausted by the cares of empire; and

Titus quietly succeeded him, but reigned only for two years and a quarter,

and was succeeded by his brother, Domitian, a man of some ability, but

cruel, like Nero. He was ten years younger than Titus, and was thirty

years of age when proclaimed emperor by the praetorians, and accepted by

the Senate, A.D. 81. At first he was a reformer, but soon was stained by

the most odious vices. He continued the vast architectural works of his

father and brother, and patronized learning.

It was during the reign of Domitian that Britain was finally

conquered by Agricola, who was recalled by the jealousy of the emperor,

after a series of successes which gave him immortality. The reduction of

this island did not seriously commence until the reign of Claudius. By

Nero, Suetonius Paulinus was sent to Britain, and under him Agricola took

his first lessons of soldiership. Under Vespasian he commanded the

twentieth legion in Britain, and was the twelfth Roman general sent to the

island. On his return to Rome he was made consul, and Britain was assigned

to him as his province, where he remained seven years, until he had

extended his conquests to the Grampian Hills. He taught the Britons the

arts and luxuries of civilized life, to settle in towns, and to build

houses and temples. Among the foes he encountered, the most celebrated was

Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, on the eastern coast, who led the incredible

number of two hundred and forty thousand against the Roman legions, but

was defeated, with the loss of eighty thousand,--some atonement for the

seventy thousand Romans, and their allies, who had been slain at

Londinium, when Suetonius Paulinus commanded.

The year of Agricola's recall, A.D. 84, forms the epoch of the

undisguised tyranny which Domitian subsequently exercised. The reign of

informers and proscriptions recommenced, and many illustrious men were

executed for insufficient reasons. The Christians were persecuted, and the

philosophers were banished, and yet he received the most fulsome flattery

from the poet Martial. The tyrant lived in seclusion, in his Alban villa,

and was finally assassinated, after a reign of fifteen years, A.D. 96.

On his death a new era of prosperity and glory was inaugurated, by

the election of Nerva, and for five successive reigns the Roman world was

governed with virtue and ability. It is the golden era of Roman history,

praised by Gibbon and admired by all historians, during which the eyes of

contemporaries saw nothing but to panegyrize.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva was the great-grandson of a minister of

Octavius, and was born in Umbria. He was consul with Vespasian, A.D. 71,

and with Domitian, in A.D. 90, and was far advanced in life when chosen by

the Senate. The public events of his short but beneficent reign are

unimportant. He relieved poverty, diminished the expenses of the State,

and set, in his own life, an example of republican simplicity. But he did

not reign long enough to have his character tested. He died in sixteen

months after his elevation to the purple. His chief work was to create a

title for his successor, for he assumed the right of adoption, and made

choice of Trajan, without regard to his own kin, then at the head of the

armies of Germany.

The new emperor, one of the most illustrious that ever reigned at

Rome, was born in Spain, A.D. 52, and had spent his life in the camp. He

had a tall and commanding form, was social and genial in his habits, and

inspired universal respect. No better choice could have been made. He

entered his capital without pomp, unattended by guards, distinguished only

for the dignity of his bearing, allowing free access to his person, and

paying vows to the gods of his country. His wife, Plotina, bore herself as

the spouse of a simple senator, and his sister, Marciana, exhibited a

demeanor equally commendable.

The great external event of his reign was the war against the

Dacians, and their country was the last which the Romans subdued in

Europe. They belonged to the Thracian group of nations, and were identical

with the Getae. They inhabited the country which was bordered on the south

by the Danube and Moesia. They were engaged in frequent wars with the

Romans, and obtained a decided advantage, in the reign of Domitian, under

their king Decebalus. The honor of the empire was so far tarnished as to

pay a tribute to Dacia, but Trajan resolved to wipe away the disgrace, and

headed himself an expedition into this distant country, A.D. 101, with

eighty thousand veterans, subdued Decebalus, and added Dacia to the

provinces of the empire. He built a bridge over the Danube, on solid stone

piers, about two hundred and twenty miles below the modern Belgrade, which

was a remarkable architectural work, four thousand five hundred and

seventy feet in length. Enough treasures were secured by the conquest of

Dacia to defray the expenses of the war, and of the celebrated triumph

which commemorated his victories. At the games instituted in honor of this

conquest, eleven thousand beasts were slain, and ten thousand gladiators

fought in the Flavian Amphitheatre. The column on which his victories were

represented still remains to perpetuate his magnificence, with its two

thousand five hundred figures in bas-relief, winding in a spiral band

around it from the base to the summit--one of the most interesting relics

of antiquity. Near this column were erected the Forum Trajanum, and the

Basilica Ulpia, the former one thousand one hundred feet long, and the

basilica connected with it, surrounded with colonnades, and filled with

colossal statues. This enormous structure covered more ground than the

Flavian Amphitheatre, and was built by the celebrated Apollodorus, of

Damascus. It filled the whole space between the Capitoline and the

Quirinal. The double colonnade which surrounded it was one of the most

beautiful works of art in the world.

On the conquest of Dacia, Trajan devoted himself to the internal

administration of his vast empire. He maintained the dignity of the

Senate, and allowed the laws to take their course. He was untiring in his

efforts to provide for the material wants of his subjects, and in

developing the resources of the empire, nor did he rule by oppressive


After seven years of wise administration, he again was called into

the field to extend the eastern frontier of the empire. His efforts were

directed against Armenia and Parthia. He reduced the former to a Roman

province, and advanced into those Caucasian regions where no Roman

imperator had preceded him, except Pompey, receiving the submission of

Iberians and Albanians. To overthrow Parthia was now his object, and he

advanced across the Tigris to Ctesiphon. In the Parthian capital he was

saluted as imperator; but, oppressed with gloom and enfeebled by sickness,

he did not presume to reach, as he had aspired, the limits of the

Macedonian conquest. He was too old for such work. He returned to Antioch,

sickened, and died in Cilicia, August, A.D. 117, after a prosperous and

even glorious reign of nineteen and a half years. But he had the

satisfaction of having raised the empire to a state of unparalleled

prosperity, and of having extended its limits on the east and on the west

to the farthest point it ever reached.

Publius AElius Hadrian succeeded this great emperor, and was born

in Rome A.D. 76, and was a son of the first cousin of Trajan. He made

extraordinary attainments as a youth, and served honorably in the armies

of his country, especially during the Dacian wars. At twenty-five he was

quaestor, at thirty-one he was praetor, and in the following year was made

consul, for the forms of the old republic were maintained under the

emperors. He was adopted by Trajan, and left at the head of the army at

Antioch at the age of forty-two, when Trajan died on his way to Rome. He

was at once proclaimed emperor by the army, and its choice was confirmed

by the Senate.

He entered upon his reign with matured knowledge and experience,

and sought the development of the empire rather than its extension beyond

the Euphrates. He therefore withdrew his armies from Armenia, Mesopotamia,

and Parthia, and returned to Rome to celebrate, in Trajan's name, a

magnificent triumph, and by employing the spoils of war in largesses and

remission of taxes. Averse to the extension of the empire, he still aimed

to secure its limits from hostile inroads, and was thus led to repel

invasions in Dacia and Britain. He marched at the head of his legions,

bareheaded and on foot, as far as Moesia, and in another campaign through

Gaul to the Rhine, and then crossed over to Britain, and secured the

northern frontier, by a wall sixty-eight and a half miles in length,

against the Caledonians. He then returned to Gaul, passed through Spain,

crossed the straits to Mauritania, threatened by the Moors, restored

tranquillity, and then advanced to the frontiers of Parthia. He then

returned through Asia Minor, and across the AEgean to Athens, and commenced

the splendid works with which he adorned the intellectual capital of the

empire. Before returning to Rome, he visited Carthage and Sicily.

Five years later, he made a second progress through the empire,

which lasted ten years, with some intervals, spent in his capital,

residing chiefly at Athens, constructing great architectural works, and

holding converse with philosophers and scholars. During this period he

visited Alexandria, whose schools were rivaled only by those of Athens,

studying the fantastic philosophy of the Gnostics, and probably examining

the Christian system. He ascended the Nile as far as Thebes, and then

repaired to Antioch, and returned to Rome through Asia Minor. In his

progress, he not merely informed himself of the condition of the empire,

but corrected abuses, and made the Roman rule tolerable.

His remaining years were spent at Rome, diligently administrating

the affairs of his vast government, founding libraries and schools, and

decorating his capital with magnificent structures. His temple of Venus at

Rome was the largest ever erected in the city, and his mausoleum, stripped

of its ornaments, now forms the Castle of St. Angelo. Next to the

Coliseum, it was the grandest architectural monument in Rome. He also

built a villa at Tivoli, whose remains are among the most interesting

which seventeen centuries have preserved.

This good emperor made a noble choice for his successor, Titus Aurelius

Antonius, and soon after died childless, A.D. 138, after a peaceful reign

of twenty-one years, in which, says Merivale, "he reconciled, with eminent

success, things hitherto found irreconcilable: a contented army and a

peaceful frontier; an abundant treasury with lavish expenditure; a free

Senate and stable monarchy; and all this without the lustre of a great

military reputation, the foil of an odious predecessor, or disgust at

recent civil commotions. He recognized, in theory, both conquerors and

conquered as one people, and greeted in person every race among his

subjects." He had personal defects of character, but his reign is one of

the best of the imperial series, and marked the crowning age of Roman


Antonius Pius, his successor, had less ability, but a still more

faultless character. He sprung from the ranks of the nobility; was consul

in the third year of Hadrian, and was prefect of Asia until his adoption,

when he took up his residence in Rome, and never left its neighborhood

during the remainder of his life. His peaceful reign is barren of external

events, but fruitful in the peace and security of his subjects, and the

only drawback in his happiness was the licentious character of his wife,

who bore him two sons and two daughters. The sons died before his

elevation, but one of his daughters married M. Annius Verus, whom he

adopted as his successor, and associated with him in the government of the

empire. He died after a reign of twenty-three years, and was buried in the

mausoleum of Hadrian, which he completed. His character is thus drawn by

his son-in-law and successor, Marcus Aurelius: "In my father, I noticed

mildness of manner with firmness of resolution, contempt of vainglory,

industry in business, and accessibility of person. He knew how to relax,

as well as when to labor. From him I learned to acquiesce in every

fortune, to exercise foresight in public affairs, to rise superior to

vulgar praises, to worship the gods without superstition, to serve mankind

without ambition, to be sober and steadfast, to be content with little, to

be no sophist or dreaming bookworm, to be practical and active, to be neat

and cheerful, to be temperate, modest in dress, and indifferent to the

beauty of slaves and furniture, not to be led away by novelties, yet to

render honor to true philosophers." What a picture of a heathen emperor,

drawn by a pagan philosopher!--the single purpose of ruling for the

happiness of their subjects, and realizing the idea of a paternal

government, and this in one of the most corrupt periods of Roman society.

Marcus Aurelius, like Trajan and Hadrian, derived his origin from

Spain, but was born in Italy. His features are the most conspicuously

preserved in the repositories of ancient art, as his name is the most

honorably enshrined on the pages of history--the noblest and most august

type of the ancient rulers of the world, far transcending any Jewish king

in the severity of his virtues, and the elevation of his soul. His life

was modeled on the strictest discipline of the stoical philosophy, of

which he was the brightest ornament. He was nearly forty years of age on

the death of his father-in-law, although for twenty-three years he had sat

side by side with him on the tribunals of the State. His reign, therefore,

was virtually a long one, and he was devoted to all the duties which his

station imposed. He was great as ruler, as he was profound as a


It was under his illustrious reign that the barbarians formed a

general union for the invasion of the Roman world, and struck the first of

those fatal blows under which the empire finally succumbed. We have but

little information of the long contest with Germans, Sarmatians,

Marcomanni, Quadi, and Alani, on the banks of the Danube, who were pressed

forward by the Scythian tribes. They were repelled, indeed, but they soon

after advanced, with renovated forces, when the empire was weakened by the

miserable emperors who succeeded Aurelius. And although this great prince

commemorated his victory over the barbarians by a column similar to that

of Trajan, still they were far from being subdued, and a disgraceful

peace, which followed his death, shows that they were exceedingly

formidable. He died at Sirmium, or Vindobona (Vienna), exhausted by

incessant wars and the cares of State, A.D. 180, in the fifty-ninth year

of his age, and twentieth of his reign. The concurrent testimony of

historians represents this emperor as the loftiest character that ever

wielded a sceptre among the nations of antiquity, although we can not

forget that he was a persecutor of the Christians.

His son, Commodus, succeeded him, and the thirteen years of his

inglorious reign are summed up in conflicts with the Moors, Dacians, and

Germans. Skillful generals, by their successes, warded off the attacks of

barbarians, but the character and rule of the emperor resembled that of

Nero and Domitian. He was weak, cruel, pleasure-seeking, and dissolute.

His time was divided between private vices and disgraceful public

exhibitions. He fought as a gladiator more than seven hundred times, and

against antagonists whose only weapons were tin and lead. He also laid

claim to divinity, and was addicted to debasing superstitions. He

destroyed the old ministers of his father, and decimated the Senate. All

who excited his jealousy, or his covetousness, were put out of the way. He

was poisoned by his favorite mistress, Marcia, and the Senate set the

brand of infamy on his name. Thus perished the last of the line of the

Antonines, even as the Julian line was ended by the assassination of Nero,

and the Flavian by that of Domitian, and the empire became once again the

prize of the soldier, A. D. 192.