The Sixth Good Emperor

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The Nervan-Antonine period of Roman history – spanning the years 96 CE to 180 CE – is often referred to as the time of the Five Good Emperors. This period saw brilliant military campaigns, little social unrest, few economic problems, and the decidedly boring reign of Antoninus Pius. This has resulted in most ancient historians viewing the reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius/Lucius Verus (that is, the Five Good Emperors) as the apogee of Roman civilization.

The other point most historians can agree on is that this prosperity came to a screeching halt during the sole reign of the emperor Commodus, son and successor to Marcus Aurelius. Most people will know Commodus as Russell Crowe’s counterpart in the 2000 film Gladiator, yet the real Commodus may have been even worse than Joaquin Phoenix’s deeply jealous, paranoid, and murderous portrayal. As Cassius Dio says, the history of the Romans “descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust” (Dio 72.36.4) upon the accession of Commodus.

Yet, while Cassius Dio and many other historians view the death of Marcus Aurelius as a watershed that leads to an interminable ‘decline’ of Roman society, the character of Commodus’ successor – Publius Helvius Pertinax – is often overlooked. Granted, the oversight is not surprising; Pertinax was emperor for less than three months and much of what he accomplished during his short reign was either reversed or ignored by his successors. Nevertheless, I believe he is an emperor worthy of the same praise as his Nervan-Antonine predecessors, and should be considered as a sixth Good Emperor.

Pertinax, born in 126, was an elder statesman by the time of his rise to the imperial purple in 192, and had served in many military and administrative offices under both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. His disposition, however, was more akin to the former than the latter. As a result, once he became emperor, Pertinax endeavoured to reverse many of the excesses of Commodus’ reign. He instituted strict military discipline, auctioned off most of the luxuries of the palace, recalled exiles, revalued the currency, and pursued both public and personal frugality. What’s more, he refused to give his son the title of Caesar because he was still a boy and had not yet earned it.

Ultimately, however, these reforms were to be his undoing; the harsh discipline grated on the Praetorian Guards, and those men who had enjoyed favour and financial gain under Commodus saw their lavish lifestyle greatly reduced. Consequently, three months after Pertinax was proclaimed emperor, a detachment of Praetorians entered the imperial palace and assassinated him. What followed was a tumultuous year of shifting allegiances that finally ended with the investiture of Septimius Severus in Rome.

Yet, with the establishment of the Severan dynasty, much of the earlier part of the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ – including Pertinax’s reign – is often overlooked or grouped together into a single, chaotic event. Such a characterization is misleading. As evidenced by Cassius Dio above, the reign of Commodus has been considered the point at which Roman history began to regress, yet the ambitious efforts of Pertinax to return Roman society to a moderate and far-sighted model ought to be acknowledged as more consistent with his predecessors during the time of the Five Good Emperors than those who came after and the Third Century Crisis.

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2 responses to “The Sixth Good Emperor

  1. It is amazing how quickly one bad leader can undo years (decades even) of good governance. It always has been, and always will be, difficult to create governmental processes that are robust enough to overcome the ‘one bad egg’ syndrome.

    Then again, maybe if someone strong had come forward after Publius Helvius Pertinax got the axe, the slide would have been arrested.

    • It’s interesting though that Pertinax’s eventual successor, Septimius Severus, was actually a very strong emperor. He consolidated the fractured pieces of the empire, conquered new territory in the east, and managed to reign for nearly twenty years. This strength, however, ultimately derived from the support of the army, which caused a number of problems for the long-term prosperity of the empire. So it’s not quite so easy to claim that a ‘strong’ emperor is necessarily a ‘good’ emperor.

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