The Rise and Fall of Rome, A Brief History – Part 3

The Good Five…Continued

July AD 138 marked the beginning of Antoninus Pius’s reign as Emperor. Even though the name “The Good Five” and the reputation of his predecessors invokes images of grandeur, Antoninus’s reign was surprisingly uneventful. He reigned for a long 23 years, where there were no wars, conquests, calamities, cruelty, extortions or any other meaningful event. Though not as impactful at statesmanship as Hadrian, Antoninus maintained the empire in a state of peace and prosperity. He was kind and virtuous to his subjects, and inferred to prevent the persecution of Christians in Athens and Thessalonica. It is to his credit that this period was uneventful. It is no simple feat to keep a people prosperous and united for 23 years.


One of the highlights of Antoninus’s reign was his influence on law and legislation. A maxim of his was that “While the forms of the law must not be lightly altered, they must be interpreted so as to meet the demands of justice”. As such he laid down the principle that everyone should be regarded as innocent, until proven guilty. He also mitigated the evils of slavery, and ruled that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another. Towards the end of Antoninus’s reign a great elementary treatise on the Roman law was created, this treatise was called the Institutes of Gaius. The Institutes was an introductory text book on legal institutions, divided into four books. The first book covered the treating of persons and the differences of the status they may occupy in the eye of the law. The second book was on things, and the modes in which rights over the may be acquired, including the laws relating to wills. The third covered interstate successions and obligations, and the fourth covers actions and their forms.


In the words of his son, Marcus Aurelius; “In my father I saw mildness of manners, firmness of resolution, and contempt of vain glory. He knew when to rest as well as to labour. He taught me to forbear from all improper indulgences, to conduct myself as an equal among equals, to lay on my friends no burden of servility. From him I learned to be resigned to every fortune and to bear myself calmly and serenely; to rise superior to vulgar applause, and to despise vulgar criticism; to worship the gods without superstition and to serve mankind without ambition. He was ever prudent and moderate; he looked to his duty only, and not to the opinions that might be formed of him. Such was the character of his life and manners—nothing harsh, nothing excessive, nothing rude, nothing which showed roughness and violence.” Antoninus died in AD 161 and Marcus Aurelius acceded.


The final Emperor to be known as part of the Good Five, Marcus Aurelius, was first and foremost a philosopher. He studied in the school of Stoics, and had embodied their principles, he was wise, brave, just and temperate. He acted with a sense of duty in everything he did, to the extent that his character as a man no doubt shadowed his ability as a statesman. His sense of duty was his strength, but also meant the wellbeing of the people wasn’t always put first. The starkest example of this was how he treated the Christians. As the religion spread through the eastern and western provinces it became despised by many. Popular tumults often occurred, with secret meetings between the Christians fueling scandalous stories about their practices. Calamities that occurred were often blamed on the Christians, with Marcus leading the charge. He believed the religion was dangerous to public peace, and ordered that those who denied their faith should be left alone. Those who confessed were to be put to death. In hindsight, not understanding why Rome was gripped by misfortune, his actions might be understandable.

Marcus’s problems didn’t end there however. His reign was filled with many misfortunes, with Rome being afflicted by a deadly plague and famine. From the east the plague spread across the provinces, leaving death and desolation in its wake. During this time the frontiers were also being threatened by invasions. These invaders were the Parthians on the east, and the Germans on the north. These were the two greatest frontier enemies of Rome. The Parthians were soon repelled, but the barbarians from the north, the Marcomanni and Quadi continued their attacks for fourteen years. Verus (Marcus’s adopted brother) had lead the defense in the east, upon his return though he had brought back a devastating plague. This new plague only added fuel to the fire. Verus later died in AD 169, speculated to be due to the plague.  In AD 169 the same Germanic tribes in the north had broken through the Roman defences, crossed the mountains into Italy, and laid siege to Aquileia.


At the same time the Costoboci, located in the Carpathian area, invaded Macedonia and Greece. The armies enfeebled by the plague ravaging the empire, struggled to reign control of the battle. Harsh conditions added to the dire situation. With one battle even occurring on the frozen surface of the river Danube in the deep of winter. Eventually control was won after many years of battle. In AD 175 illness befell Marcus during a campaign on the Danube. A rumour of his death quickly spread through the empire, and the opportunity was quickly seized by Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria. Cassius was hailed emperor by his troops. A mere 100 days later when it became apparent that Marcus was alive, he was killed by these same troops. In order to prevent such madness from occurring again he quickly named his son Commodus, as his co-emperor.


The wars in the north along the Danube had not ceased during this time. In AD 178 Marcus and Commodus led soldiers on a campaign to the north. Finally fortune had met with Marcus, and the Quadi were mauled in their own territory. The joy was short lived though, as Marcus became seriously ill during the battles. On the 17th of March AD 180, his tragic reign came to an end. Marcus Aurelius died in his camp in the Danube region. He was then deified and his body laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian.


The Mausoleum of Hadrian

About the Author:

Just a guy striving for his ideals.