5 of Rome’s Greatest Emperors

While the might of Rome became supreme around the 1st centuries BC and AD, it had some truly terrible rulers. However, the Empire would not have survived for nearly five centuries without some great men who were worthy of all the statues, triumphal arches, and amphitheatres that were raised in their name.

Most people’s first name of this list would be Julius Caesar. But Caesar was not an emperor, he was the last leader of the Roman Republic, appointed permanent dictator. After his assassination in 44 BC, his nominated successor Octavian fought off his rivals to achieve total power. When the Roman Senate named him Augustus in 27 BC he became the first RomanEmperor.

Here are five of the best of a very mixed bunch.

1. Augustus

The Prima Porta statue of Emperor Augustus of Rome

A statue of Emperor Augustus from the villa of his widow at Prima Porta. Photo by Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons.

Gaius Octavius (63 BC – 14 AD) founded the Roman Empire in 27 BC. He was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar.

Augustus’ enormous personal power, won though bloody struggle, meant he had no rivals. The 200-year Pax Romana began.

Augustus conquered Egypt and Dalmatia and its northern neighbours. The Empire grew south and east in Africa; north and east into Germania and south-west in Spain. Buffer states and diplomacy kept the frontiers safe.

An overhauled tax system paid for his new standing army and Praetorian Guard. Couriers carried official news quickly along his roads. Rome was transformed with new buildings, a police force, fire brigade and proper local administrators. He was generous to the people, paying vast sums to citizens and veterans, for whom he bought land to retire on.

His last words in private were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” His final public utterance, “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble,” was just as true.

2. Trajan 98 – 117 AD

Map of the Roman Empire under Trajan.

Trajan left the largest Empire in Rome’s history.

Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (53 –117 AD) is one of consecutive Five Good Emperors, three of whom are listed here. He was the most successful military man in Roman history, expanding the Empire to its greatest extent.

Trajan added gold-rich Dacia (parts of Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and Ukraine) to the empire, subdued and conquered the Parthian Empire (in modern Iran), and marched through Armenia and Mesopotamia to extend Rome’s reach to the Persian Gulf.

At home he built well, employing the talented Apollodorus of Damascus as his architect. A column recorded his victory in Dacia, while a forum and market in his name improved the capital. Elsewhere spectacular bridges, roads and canals improved military communications.

He devalued the silver denarius to finance the spending of his enormous war booty on public works, providing food and subsidised education for the poor as well as great games.

3. Hadrian 117 – 138 AD

Painting of Hadrian's Wall by William Bell Scott.

Hadrian’s Wall, imagined here by William Bell Scott, was just part of Hadrian’s frontier building.

Publius Aelius Hadrianus (76 AD –138 AD) is now best known for the magnificent wall that marked the northern frontier of the Empire in Britain. He was well travelled and educated, promoting Greek philosophy.

Uniquely among Emperors Hadrian travelled to almost every part of his Empire, initiating great fortifications both in Britannia and on the Danube and Rhine frontiers.

His reign was largely peaceful, he withdrew from some of Trajan’s conquests, strengthening the Empire from within by commissioning great infrastructure projects and inspecting and drilling the army on his travels. When he did fight he could be brutal, wars in Judea killed 580,000 Jews.

A great lover of Greek culture, Hadrian built up Athens as a cultural capital and patronised the arts and architecture; he wrote poetry himself. Among many spectacular building projects, Hadrian oversaw the rebuilding of the Parthenon with its magnificent dome.

The historian Edward Gibbon wrote that Hadrian’s reign was the “happiest era of human history”.

4. Marcus Aurelius 161 – 180 AD

Portrait bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

A portrait of the serious, philoshopical Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (121 –180 AD) was the Philosopher Emperor and the last of the Five Good Emperors.

Marcus’ reign was marked by tolerance for free speech, even when it was critical of the Emperor himself. He was even able to rule alongside Lucius Verus for the first eight years of his reign. The less accademic Lucius taking a lead in military matters.

Despite constant military and political troubles, Marcuss competent administration reacted well to crises like the flooding of the Tiber in 162. He reformed the currency intelligently in response to changing economic circumstances and picked his advisors well. He was praised for his mastery of the law and his fairness.

The depraved behaviour of Roman emperors could fill several websites, but Marcus was moderate and forgiving in his personal life and as Emperor.

Militarily he conquered the resurgent Parthian Empire and won wars against Germanic tribes that were threatening the Empire’s eastern frontiers.

The historian of his reign, Cassius Dio, wrote that his death marked a descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”

Marcus is still today considered an important writer on Stoic philosophy, which values duty to and respect for others and self-control. His 12 volume Meditations, probably written while campaigning and for his own use, was a bestseller in 2002.

5. Aurelian 270 – 275 AD

Porta Asinaria, a gate in Rome's Aurelian Walls

A gate in the Aurelian Walls built to defend an empire under threat from invaders.

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus (214 – 175 AD) ruled for just a short time, but he restored the Empire’s lost provinces, helping to end the Crisis of the Third Century.

Aurelian was a commoner, earning his power by rising through the military. The Empire needed a good soldier, and Aurelian’s message of “concord with the soldiers” made his purposes clear.

First he threw barbarians from Italy and then Roman territory. He defeated the Goths in the Balkans and wisely decided to step back from defending Dacia. Boosted by these victories he overthrew the Palmyrene Empire, which had grown from captured Roman provinces in North Africa and the Middle East, important sources of grain for Rome. Next were the Gauls in the west, completing a complete reunification of the Empire and earning Aurelian the title, “Restorer of the World.”

He didn’t just fight, bringing stability to religious and economic life, rebuilding public buildings, and tackling corruption.

Had he not been murdered by a conspiracy started by a secretary fearful of punishment for a minor lie, he might have left an even better legacy. As it was, Aurelian’s reign secured the future of Rome for another 200 years. The danger he faced is shown in the massive Aurelian Walls he built around Rome and which still stand in part today.

Colin Ricketts studied history at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 1992. He's a qualified librarian, a former journalist and currently a freelance writer and editor.

  • Michaël Taillard

    I would put Antoninus Pius instead of Marcus Aurelius in that list. Or Vespasianus, or Claudius. But please, not Marcus Aurelius! Yeah, it’s this “good philosopher”, “father of the evil Commodus”. But his will to copy Trajan (remember Aurelius column?) and gain a new province in the land of the Marcomanni, among other things, lead the empire to nowhere, it isn’t? What happened after his death was not only Commodus fault. Aurelius prepared the way himself.