7 Major Emperors During the Rise of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire influenced many aspects of Western culture and civilization at large. For instance, many modern romance languages—including French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese—all stem from Roman Latin. Additionally, the Romans first introduced techniques utilized in modern infrastructure and transportation, such as paved roads, and they transformed architecture by introducing concepts such as arches, domes, and aqueducts. The Romans also provided a strong basis for the formation of Western government and legislation by introducing the concept of Republicanism, the inspiration behind many modern democracies, as well as legal concepts such as citizenship, the rights and duties of citizens, and protection of vulnerable groups.
At the height of the Roman Empire, a number of key emperors—including such notable names as Augustus and Marcus Aurelius—helped to elevate Rome, granting a lasting influence for centuries to come. It was these emperors who revolutionized the Roman Empire and ensured the continued growth and progress of Rome as a cultural and military institution. Therefore, it is vital for historians to study the lives and contributions of these political and military figures in order to accurately assess how the Roman Empire influenced Western civilization.
Augustus (27 BC-14 AD)
Born Gaius Octavius, Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar and reigned after Caesar’s death. He was highly regarded by the Senate, which eventually gave him the name of Augustus, and during four decades of rule (the longest of any Roman emperor), he helped transform the Roman Republic into a 1,400-year- long empire. Many have touted Augustus’s reign as bringing much-needed stability and prosperity after years of civil unrest and war throughout the Mediterranean region by instigating the famed Pax Romana—a relative peace that lasted 200 years. Since that time, the Pax Romana has served as a model of a peaceful, long-term reign, later emulated by the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana.
During his time as emperor, Augustus was idolized by many Romans for his efforts to rebuild much of Rome with projects such as roads, major highways, aqueducts and temples. Besides physical infrastructure, he was also instrumental in reforming administration by dividing Rome into fourteen administrative regions and 265 vici, or neighborhoods, permanently changing management of water supply and how tasks were delegated. Augustus also changed the laws of taxation so that they were fairer to all citizens; these taxes contributed to increased revenue and expanded trade during his reign. Augustus also pioneered the concept of citizenship, whereby Roman citizens had status, rights and duties that differed from those of noncitizens; a classification still present throughout the world today.
Claudius (41 AD-54 AD)
Claudius, born Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was crowned emperor later in life after being afflicted with an illness throughout his childhood. He is mostly known for expanding the Roman Empire to include Britain as a province. Claudius also had a keen interest in law and tried many cases during his reign, which led to arguably some of his greatest accomplishments—such as instituting reforms and edicts that protected slaves, which created the groundwork for future laws protecting minorities.
Vespasian (69 AD-79 AD)
Vespasian, born Titus Flavius Vespasian, was the ninth emperor of Rome and started the Flavian dynasty, which lasted twenty-eight years. He was known for his military accomplishments, especially in Britain, and for successfully subverting the Jewish revolts in Judea. He also instituted significant financial reforms and increased taxes while in power. Vespasian used funds gained from taxes for building projects such as the famed Colosseum, then known as the Flavian Amphitheater, which has inspired the building of many modern sports stadiums.
Trajan (98 AD-117 AD)
Appointed by Marcus Cocceius Nerva, Trajan (born Marcus Ulpius Traianus) was the second of the five emperors who led Rome during its Golden Age. Trajan expanded the Roman Empire to the east, pushing into the Sinai Peninsula and Romania (then known as Dacia) through the Dacian and Parthian Wars. He was also known for his many building projects and works, including Trajan’s Column, which celebrates the Dacian victories and is still admired to this day. Trajan also expanded Augustus’ financial aid and welfare outreach to citizens, constituting the basis for the modern welfare state.
Hadrian (117 AD-138 AD)
Born Publius Aelius Hadrianus, Hadrian was adopted by Trajan, who greatly respected the boy. Like Trajan, he was known for his building works and abhorred war, seemingly unconcerned with expanding the territories of the empire. Instead, Hadrian wanted to consolidate and secure the empire’s borders. He notably built a seventy-three-mile wall between the north and south of Britain, which showcased the Romans’ advanced technological and engineering skills and transformed building and defense. He also built Rome’s famed Pantheon, which revolutionized architecture through the use of innovative shapes built with concrete.
Antoninus Pius (138 AD-161 AD)
The reign of Antoninus Pius is known as one of the most peaceful in the empire. Like Hadrian, Antoninus Pius was not concerned with expansion and instead focused on increasing the prosperity of citizens through infrastructure and reforming Roman laws to ensure more equality among citizens. The equitability of the Roman legal system as innovated by Antoninus Pius was one of the main reasons it came to be adopted in subsequent time periods. Rome under Pius first introduced the use of “natural law” and the “law of nations” which later contributed to the development of individual legal systems in Britain, France and Germany.
Marcus Aurelius (161 AD-180 AD)
Marcus Aurelius is one of the most revered emperors in history, known for his intellectual prowess; his personal writings on stoicism are considered some of the most comprehensive of all time. While not a notable Western philosopher, Marcus Aurelius’ contributions centered on bridging the gap between theory and practice, as he advocated utilizing stoic philosophical concepts as a practical guideline for happiness and fulfillment. He also successfully fended off Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi attacks along the northeastern borders of the empire, during which time he is thought to have written his meditations.
While the Roman Empire might seem to be little more than a distant memory, the aforementioned emperors’ reigns contributed many foundational aspects to Western democracies and civilization, such as the concept of citizenship and definitions of the duties and rights of citizens. They reformed taxes to become more just, equitable and beneficial. They were able to contribute to architecture and built great monuments still revered today, and expanded the Roman Empire to include Romania, Britain and many other territories. Considering the full scope of modern society, it is difficult to pinpoint a field in which the Romans did not make a significant and lasting contribution. For this reason, students of history can benefit greatly from the in-depth study of Rome, its emperors and culture, and the ways in which the empire changed the course of human history.
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Marcus Aurelius: EMPEROR OF ROME, Encyclopedia Britannica
Hadrian, Ancient History Encyclopedia
Roman Emperor, Ancient History Encyclopedia
Five Good Emperors: ANCIENT ROME, Encyclopedia Britannica
L'Imperatore Trajano, alla caccia / Pinelli inv. e inc. Roma 1829., Library of Congress