The 200-year Pax Romana period consisted of four ages: the Augustus age (31 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), the Julio-Claudian dynasty age (14–69 c.e.), the Flavian dynasty age (69–96 c.e.), and the Five Good Emperors age (96–180 c.e.).
Age of Augustus, or The Principate
In 44 b.c.e. several members of the Roman Senate assassinated one of the greatest Roman rulers, Julius Caesar. This was just one month after he had declared himself dictator of the Roman world, abolishing the Roman Republic. Before his death Julius Caesar and two men, Gaius Cassius and Pompey, had formed the First Triumvirate, which did not have official support and did not rule.
Later, Octavian, who was Julius’s Caesar great-nephew and adopted son, learned that Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius, one of the members of the First Triumvirate, were guilty of assassinating Julius Caesar. Octavian, together with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who were Caesar’s principal colleagues, formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 b.c.e.
As years went by, political and personal differences grew between Antony and Octavian. Antony married Octavian’s sister but then abandoned her to be with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, with whom he had three children.
Meanwhile, Octavian built a network of allies in Rome and spread propaganda that Antony was becoming less than Roman because of his preoccupation with Egyptian affairs and traditions. These tensions finally resulted in a military conflict decided at the Battle of Actium, where Antony was defeated.
Octavian emerged as the sole master of the Roman world. In January 27 b.c.e. Octavian appeared before the Roman Senate and laid down his military supremacy over Egypt, which created the First Settlement between him and the Senate. Augustus closed the Temple of Janus for the first time in 200 years as a sign that peace had finally returned to the empire.
Besides giving him authority over the western half of the empire, the Senate also gave him the title augustus, an honorific title meaning majestic, and princeps, meaning first citizen among equals. According to the new Augustus, with his mandate, the Republic had been restored.
Augustus’s main achievement was to set up an empire that was able to maintain a peace for many centuries. Augustus Caesar initiated a public works program that gave citizens jobs and increased his popularity among the people of Rome. Since access to the provinces was essential for control, Augustus made sure that the roads were kept in repair and in some cases rebuilt.
He replaced the facades of many temples and state buildings with marble, completed many buildings that had been started by Julius Caesar, and built many new buildings on his own. Among these was the Forum of Augustus, including the temple of Mars Ultor.
Augustus’s interests lay in the administration and management of government. To this end he revised the layout of the city by dividing the metropolis into 14 regiones, or wards, with more than 250 precincts, and extended the limits of the pomerium (the sacred boundary of the city). He appointed a board of curatores to help oversee the maintenance of public buildings, roads, and the water supply.
An element that was key to his administration, as well as that of future emperors, was the development of the Praetorian Guard, the elite military unit of the Roman Empire. It was the only legion allowed in Rome and served not only as the police force for the city of Rome but the police force for the country of Italy as well.
Augustus used religion to reorganize the state and to establish his own rule. He assumed the title of pontifex maximus (head priest) and revived old religious traditions like the Lupercalia festival to further associate the emperor with the state cult.
He also promoted the cult of emperor as divine by building a temple to the Divine Julius. His views on morality extended to laws regarding adultery, unchastity, and bribery.
During Augustus’s age the empire developed an efficient postal service, fostered free trade among the provinces, and built many bridges, aqueducts, and buildings adorned with works of art created in the classical style. Literature flourished, with writers including Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy all living under the emperor’s patronage.
Age of The Julio-Claudian Dynasty
During this age Rome reached the height of its power and wealth; it may be seen as the golden age of Roman literature and arts, but it was also a period of imperial extravagance and notoriety. The Julio-Claudians were Roman nobles with an impressive ancestry, but their fondness for the ideals and lifestyle of the old aristocracy created conflicts of interest and duty.
The dynasty is so named from the nomina, or family names, of its first two emperors: Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus and Tiberius Claudius Nero. Octavianus was a descendant from the gens Julia (the Julian family), while Tiberius was a scion of the gens Claudia.
When Augustus died leaving no sons, his stepson Tiberius succeeded him. Tiberius’s government ruled from 14 to 37 c.e. and was the first of the Julio-Claudian emperors. His early years were peaceful, securing for Tiberius the power of Rome and enriching its treasury.
However, with time, having been blamed for the death of his nephew Germanicus, Tiberius began a series of treason trials, executions, and persecutions against those he believed to be traitors. Tiberius entered into a state of paranoia that lasted until his death in 37 c.e.
At the time of Tiberius’s death most who might have succeeded him had been brutally murdered. The logical successor (and Tiberius’s own choice) was his grandnephew, Germanicus’s son Gaius (better known as Caligula) who seized power in 37.
Caligula may have suffered from epilepsy and was probably insane, ordering many absurd actions. In 41 the commander of the guard Cassius Chaerea assassinated Caligula. The only member of the imperial family left to take charge was his uncle, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus.
Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, or Claudius, began his rule in 41. Unlike his uncle Tiberius or his nephew Caligula, Claudius was skilled at administering the empire’s affairs. He improved the bureaucracy and led the citizenship and senatorial rolls.
Claudius’s main achievement was to encourage the conquest and colonization of Britain and eastern provinces into the empire. He also ordered the construction of a winter port for Rome, at Ostia, thereby providing a place for grain from other parts of the empire to be brought in inclement weather.
Rome prospered during the reign of Claudius. He engaged in a vast program of public works, including aqueducts, canals, and the development of Ostia as the port of Rome.
Claudius married his niece Agrippina the Younger, whose son Lucius Domitius Nero, better known as Nero, became his successor at only 16 years of age, after the death of Claudius in 54. At first Nero left the rule of Rome to his mother and his tutors but became more ambitious and had his mother and tutors executed.
Under Nero’s rule, the frontiers of the empire were successfully defended and even extended. Nero was a patron of the arts; his coins and imperial inscriptions are among the finest ever produced in Rome.
After a great fire destroyed half of Rome in 64 he spent huge sums on rebuilding the city and a vast new imperial palace, the so-called Domus Aurea, or Golden House, whose architectural forms were as innovative as they were extravagant.
Nero antagonized the upper class, confiscating large private estates in Italy and putting many leading figures to death. His tendency toward despotism, as well as his failure to keep the loyalty of the Roman legions, led to civil strife and opposition to his reign.
Nero committed suicide in 69, a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors, with Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian ruling as emperors in quick succession. Nero was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Age of The Flavian Dynasty
The Flavians, although a relatively short-lived dynasty, helped restore stability to a declining empire. The reforms and rule of the three Flavian emperors helped create a stable empire that would last well into the third century c.e.
However, their background as a military dynasty led to further irrelevancy of the Senate, and the move from princeps, or "first citizen", to imperator, or "emperor", was finalized during their reign.
Seizing power at the age of 60, Vespasian became emperor in 69 c.e. Vespasian increased the number of senators from 200 to 1,000, most of the new senators coming not from Rome but from Italy and urban centers within the western provinces.
Vespasian liberated Rome from the financial burdens placed upon it by Nero’s excesses and the civil wars. To do this he not only increased taxes but created new forms of taxation. It was he who first commissioned the Roman Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater).
In addition, he allotted sizable subsidies to the arts. Perhaps the most important military reform he undertook was the extension of legion recruitment from exclusively Italy to Gaul and Spain, in line with the Romanization of those areas. He ruled until 79.
After Vespasian’s death, his eldest son, Titus—who had served as a general under his father—seized power in 79. He quickly proved his merit, even recalling many exiled by his father as a show of good faith.
However, his short reign was marked by disaster: In 79 Mount Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii, and in 80 a fire destroyed much of Rome’s population. His generosity in rebuilding after these tragedies made him very popular.
Titus died of an unknown illness and was succeeded by his younger brother, Titus Flavius Domitianus, or Domitian, in 81. After a series of catastrophes in Rome (the great fires of 64 and 80 c.e., and the civil wars of 68–69 c.e.), Domitian erected, restored, or completed more than 50 public buildings. As an administrator, Domitian soon proved to be a disaster.
The economy came to a halt and then went into recession, forcing him to heavily devaluate the denarius (silver currency of the Roman Empire). Taxes were raised and discontent soon followed. Domitian’s greatest passions were the arts and the games. He finished the Colosseum, started by his father, and implemented the Capitoline Games in 86.
Like the Olympic Games, they were to be held every four years, including athletic displays and chariot races, but they also included oratory, music, and acting competitions. He was also very fond of gladiator shows and added important innovations like female and dwarf gladiator fights.
In 85 Domitian made himself censor perpetuus, "censor for life", and thus took charge of the conduct and morals of Rome. He was not much of a military figure, and his campaigns were minor at best. In 96 he was murdered in a palace coup. That same day Nerva succeeded Domitian.
His reputation in the Senate aside, he kept the people of Rome happy through various measures, including donations to every resident of Rome, wild spectacles in the newly finished Colosseum, and continuing the public works projects of his father and brother.
He had the good fiscal sense of his father, because although he spent lavishly, his successors came to power with a well-endowed treasury. He was murdered in 96, closing the Flavian dynasty age.
Age of The Five Good Emperors
With Domitian’s death began what 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon called the Age of the Five Good Emperors, a long period that lasted from year 96 until 180 c.e. The succession was peaceful, though not dynastic, and the empire was prosperous. Under the Five Good Emperors the frontiers of the empire were consolidated to the north and to the east.
Under Emperor Trajan the empire’s borders briefly achieved their maximum extension, with provinces created in Mesopotamia in 117 c.e. The bureaucracy was opened up to all social classes, trade and agriculture flourished, and there was much public building.
Although things did seem to be getting better, there were problems on the horizon. Barbarian pressures were mounting. There was a considerable decline in the slave population, and the army was no longer large enough to maintain the frontier.
As a result, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Great Emperors, spent most of his time defending the frontier and spent very little time in Rome. Following his death in 180, the imperial office passed to his 19-year-old son, another Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus.
The first of the Five Good Emperors was Marcus Cocceius Nerva, also known as Nerva, who became Roman emperor in 96 and had a short ruling period until 98. He released those imprisoned for treason, banned future prosecutions for treason, restored much conﬁ scated property, and involved the Roman Senate in his rule.
He probably did so as a means to remain relatively popular (and therefore alive), but this did not completely aid him. In October 97 the Praetorian Guard laid siege to the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill and took Nerva hostage. Nerva then adopted Trajan, a commander of the armies on the German frontier, as his successor shortly thereafter in order to bolster his own rule.
After Nerva’s death, in 98 Marcus Ulpius Traianius, or Trajan, became the second good Roman emperor. Trajan was different from other emperors, being from Seville, in Spain. During his military career Trajan had won distinction in the Parthian, German, and Dacian campaigns. He spent most of his time away from Rome in military campaigns.
As a result, in 177 the Roman Empire reached its maximum territorial extent ever. His internal administration was sound, and he kept up a policy of public works across the empire. Perhaps the most ambitious military man since Julius Caesar, Trajan suffered a stroke and died in 117.
Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, also known as Hadrian, was Trajan’s successor. Despite his excellence as a military administrator, Hadrian’s reign was marked by a lack of major military conflicts. He surrendered Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia, considering them to be indefensible.
There was almost a war with Parthia around 121, but the threat was averted when Hadrian succeeded in negotiating a peace. His only military victory was obtained in Judaea when his army crushed a massive Jewish uprising in 132–135 c.e.
Hadrian’s policies were defensive, the most famous of these being the massive Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. The Danube and Rhine borders were strengthened with a series of mostly wooden fortifications, forts, outposts, and watchtowers, the latter improving communications and local area security. To maintain troop morale, Hadrian established intensive drill routines, and personally inspected the armies.
Hadrian also patronized the arts: Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur (Tivoli) was the greatest Roman example of an Alexandrian garden. In Rome the Pantheon built by Agrippa was enriched under Hadrian and took the form in which it remains to this day. Hadrian was famous for his love relationship with a Greek youth, Antinoüs.
While touring Egypt, Antinoüs mysteriously drowned in the Nile in 130. In his honor, Hadrian founded the Egyptian city of Antinopolis. Hadrian drew the whole empire into his mourning, making Antinoüs the last new god of antiquity.
Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus Pius, or Pius, followed Hadrian. His governing period spanned from 138 to 161. He built temples, theaters, and mausoleums, promoted the arts and sciences, and rewarded teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. His reign was comparatively peaceful; there were several military disturbances throughout the empire in his time, but none was serious
Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known as Marcus Aurelius, followed Pius and became the fifth and last of the Five Good Emperors. Aurelius was Pius’s nephew and adopted son.
Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war. Germanic tribes and others launched many raids along the long European border. Marcus Aurelius sent Verus to command the legions in the east.
Verus could command the full loyalty of the troops but was also powerful enough to have little incentive to overthrow Marcus. This plan succeeded, and commander Verus remained loyal until his death on campaign in 169. Marcus Aurelius probably sent out the first of several Roman embassies to China. Aurelius died in 180.
Marcus Aurelius’s successor, Commodus, was a political and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist. Many historians believe that the decline of Rome began under Commodus. For this reason Aurelius’s death is often held to have been the end of the Pax Romana.