A Brief History
On Friday, August 6, 2021, the popular YouTube channel UsefulCharts published a video counting down the top ten greatest ancient dynasties of all time. Our nomination for the “Greatest Ancient Dynasty of All-Time” has to be the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, specifically Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. After all, the Roman Senate bestowed the title “Optimus Princeps” or “The Best Ruler” on the second of these emperors, Trajan.
Ruling from 96 AD through 180 AD, their succession was of the “adoptive” variety, whereby each emperor would choose his heir by merit rather than by birth, and symbolically adopt that heir. Niccolò Machiavelli said of the adoptive heir idea, “From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus.”
Unlike many of the genetic heirs to the throne, the adoptive emperors tended to avoid the pitfalls of lavish self-aggrandizement, corruption, ill-advised military adventures, and paranoid slaughter of perceived enemies. For example, the relatively tolerant Trajan wrote to a provincial governor that “[Christians] are not to be sought out [for persecution].” Rome also reached its maximum breadth of territorial control under Trajan, who invaded Dacia and Parthia.
Other accomplishments came in the fields of architecture and literature. First, many of these emperor’s public works made Rome the premier builder of massive construction projects in the Western world, including Trajan’s Market, Trajan’s Column, Trajan’s Bridge at Alcantara, Hadrian’s Wall, The Antonine Wall, and The Column of Antoninus Pius. Second, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations still serves as an important work of Stoic philosophy.
In our assessment of the Five Good Emperors as the greatest of the ancient dynasties, we are joined by the esteemed author and historian, Edward Gibbon, who argued, “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
If you have not yet done so, I strongly encourage you to watch the full countdown of the top ten greatest ancient dynasties of all time on UsefulCharts’s channel.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which ancient dynasty do you consider to have been the greatest of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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I also want to thank Hipstorian and veritas et caritas for providing guest vocals on the video adaptation of our article.
For more information, please see…
Andrews, John and Matt Baker. Timeline of World History. Thunder Bay Press, 2020.
You can additionally purchase a Roman emperors family tree chart on UsefulCharts’s website. As a quick note, while I do have some of the charts sold on that site, I was neither asked nor paid to promote UsefulCharts’s website here. I prefer that my endorsements be genuine.
The featured image in this article, a composition of five images and surrounding by Aresmarte, has been released into the public domain worldwide by the copyright holder of this work. The five different parts of the image are licensed as follows: 1) the photograph by Jastrow of Nerva has been released into the public domain by its author; 2) the photograph by Thomas Ihle of Traianus is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; 3) the photograph by Ricardo André Frantz of Hadrianus is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; 4) the photograph by Zubro of Antoninus Pius is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; and 5) the photograph by Urban of Marcus Aurelius is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.