(ROMAN EMPERORS, PROSPERITY and DECLINE – continued)
A new emperor had to be found, and Senators and palace officials, including those who had conspired against Domitian, hoped to avoid civil war. They sought consensus and joined together in selecting an interim ruler: a 66-year-old senior senator named Nerva, who had not taken part in the conspiracy against Domitian but had probably been aware of it. Nerva sought allies in army generals and was able to stay in power. And as these generals wished, he adopted one of their own as his son and successor, a forty-four year-old commander named Trajan. Two years later, Nerva died, and Trajan became emperor.
Similar to Vespasian, Trajan was a good soldier and a man of talent. He was also a man of tolerance and courtesy. He expanded the empire against the Parthians. He put down another rebellion by Jews. He favored applying the law against only those Christians about whom people complained, or Christians who had created disturbances, and he declared that the accused were to receive a proper trial in which they were able to face their accusers. During his nineteen years of rule he improved the empire's roads and harbors, he beautified Rome and he provided support for the children of Rome's poor. And although the Senate continued to have little real power, Trajan consulted it and maintained its good will. The historian Tacitus – who lived during Trajan's rule – praised Trajan for restoring Rome's "old spirit," including the feeling that one could express oneself freely.
Trajan, a "good" emperor.
Emperor Hadrian – a "good" man appointed by another "good" man. But it was destined not to last.
Before Trajan died he selected as his successor another soldier: Hadrian. And, like Trajan, Hadrian would be considered a good emperor. Hadrian traveled across the empire, stabilizing local governments. He patronized the arts and added to the beautification of cities. He continued Trajan's policy regarding law and the treatment of Christians. He penalized those who mistreated their slaves. He kept the army at peak efficiency through constant training and unannounced inspections. He strengthened the empire's frontiers by building walls.
Four generals disappointed by Hadrian's retreat from military aggression and imperial expansion plotted to overthrow him. But Hadrian learned of their conspiracy before they attacked, and he had the generals executed.
Hadrian ruled for 21 years, to the year 138, during which the empire prospered. The Roman Empire was the largest area in the world without internal customs barriers. Its roads had improved. Private industry was regulated but government did not interfere much in the economy. The empire had prospered from internal trade in agriculture and in crafted goods. From one end of the empire to the other were bountiful farms. Improvements had been made in medicine and public health, and across the empire were good hospitals. Trade from the empire reached as far east as China – the caravan route from Parthia to China having opened in the year 115. The empire's trade reached eastern Africa, and it passed out through the Strait of Gibraltar (between Mauritania and Spain) to as far north as Norway. Roman-ruled Gaul and Western Germany had become the workshop of Europe. Gaul was busy with metal working. The city of Cologne had a glass blowing industry. The eastern provinces of the empire, including Greece, exercised age-old skills in technology and trade, and Greek businessmen had become the wealthiest in the empire.
Some of Rome's common people still grumbled, while welfare allowed them to survive. Many still lived in tiny quarters on narrow streets, amid overcrowding, noise and dirt, but their tenement houses were now likely to be of concrete faced with brick, and they were proud to be Romans.
Rome's aristocrats were also proud, but this was not the same aristocracy that had been imagined to be the superior breed that had made Rome great. That aristocracy had disappeared through intermarriage and out-of-wedlock births. They and Rome's common people were becoming more of a blend. About four-fifths of Rome's plebeians carried some genes of former slaves. Around 140 years earlier, Emperor Augustus had laws passed that he hoped would reduce inter-breeding between Romans and non-Romans, laws prohibiting freed slaves from marrying Latins and prohibiting Senators from marrying freed women. But his attempt at what he saw as racial purity was by now a failure.
Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.