NGC Ancients: The Golden Age of Rome

Posted on 6/14/2016

Perhaps no epoch in history has been so admired as the Roman Empire of the 2nd Century A.D. – Rome’s ‘Golden Age’ – during which the Romans achieved a balance of political stability and economic and intellectual success that had never before existed.

Rome’s Golden Age is famously described by the historian Edward Gibbon. In his monumental six-volume work the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published from 1776 to 1781, he stated: “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 [A.D. 96] to the accession of Commodus [A.D.180]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.”

A gold aureus of Commodus.
Click image to enlarge.

Reigning over this period were Nerva (96 to 98), Trajan (98 to 117), Hadrian (117 to 138), Antoninus Pius (138 to 161), and Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180) with his co-emperor Lucius Verus (161 to 169). Remarkably, all of these men became emperor by adoption rather than by inheritance. Historians have long pointed to this unusual circumstance, noting that these emperors were chosen for their merits rather than their bloodlines.

Perhaps supporting the merits of that system is the fact that the first two family dynasties of the Roman Empire, the Julio-Claudians (27 B.C. to A.D. 68) and the Flavians (A.D. 69 to 96), ended ruinously. Also, the first emperor of the 2nd Century to be chosen for his family ties, Commodus (177 to 192), was one of Rome’s worst emperors. His murder on New Year’s Eve of 192 sparked a civil war that was followed by nearly three centuries of decline in the Roman world.

The coins of these seven emperors – notably their silver denarii – are readily available to collectors at modest cost, making them an ideal set to build.

A gold aureus of Nerva.
Click image to enlarge.

Nerva (96 to 98). This emperor came to power after his predecessor, Domitian (81 to 96), was murdered in a palace coup. In his case, the senate took the initiative by selecting this elderly lawyer and legislator. This fast-tracking, however, caused problems for Nerva with the army. Not only had the army been excluded from the ‘emperor-making’ process, but it had been a staunch supporter of Domitian.

Not surprisingly, Nerva was never secure as emperor, and there were several plots against his life. Finally, he adopted the general Trajan, then the governor of Upper Germany, as his successor in hopes it would calm the legions. Nerva died of natural causes at an advanced age, at which point he was succeeded by Trajan.

A silver denarius of Trajan.
Click image to enlarge.

Trajan (98 to 117). This long-reigning emperor is remembered for his building projects and his rather ambitious expansion of Roman territory through conquest. Indeed, by the end of his reign the size of the empire had reached its zenith.

Like Nerva, Trajan was childless, which allowed for the continuance of the sequence of adoptive emperors. In the end, Trajan chose a distant relative, Hadrian, as his successor. However, even that may not have been so: some ancient sources indicate Trajan did not want Hadrian to succeed him, but that it was, in fact, Trajan’s widow, Plotina, who orchestrated the succession by forging the adoption papers after her husband's death.

A gold aureus of Hadrian.
Click image to enlarge.

Hadrian (117 to 138). Whatever the circumstances of his adoption, Hadrian became Rome’s next emperor and ruled gloriously for more than two decades. He recognized that Trajan had conquered too much territory, so he immediately pulled back from the more remote regions and better fortified the empire’s borders. Hadrian is famous for his love of Greek culture, his extensive travels, and for some notable building projects, including his eponymous wall in Britain.

Toward the end of his life Hadrian adopted the nobleman Aelius (who it was rumored was his illegitimate son), but Aelius died unexpectedly on the first day of 138. Hadrian then chose two young men, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, as his successors. However, they were considered too young to reign, so Hadrian chose an older man, Antoninus Pius, to rule until his chosen successors were old enough to take on the responsibilities of empire.

A brass sestertius of Antoninus Pius.
Click image to enlarge.

Antoninus Pius (138 to 161). It is odd, to say the least, that this emperor reigned as a place-holder for Hadrian's intended heirs. What made it stranger still is that he reigned far longer than Hadrian probably had expected.

Antoninus Pius was of a very different temperament than his predecessor: while Hadrian loved Greek culture and traveled tirelessly throughout his reign, Antoninus Pius was a staunch supporter of Roman culture who did not set foot outside of Italy once he became emperor. It may be said that he reigned during the absolute peak of Rome’s prosperity and security.

A silver denarius of Marcus Aurelius.
Click image to enlarge.

Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180). Antoninus Pius died in the year 161, and power passed to Hadrian's intended heirs Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who ruled jointly until Verus died in 169. Initially their duties were divided, with Aurelius defending the northern frontiers of Europe and Verus marching east to confront the Persians.

Marcus Aurelius was dutiful and capable, but he reigned at a time when the empire was faced with many crises, including the plague, Persian aggressions, and an unprecedented rise in the power of the barbarian nations of Northern Europe.

Renowned as a philosopher-emperor, one can only assume that Marcus Aurelius was aware of the poor moral qualities of his chosen heir, his only surviving son, Commodus. It is a sad commentary on the allure of bloodlines that he could not summon the strength to find a more qualified successor.

A silver denarius struck for Lucius Verus after his death.
Click image to enlarge.

Lucius Verus (161 to 169). The joint reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus was unprecedented, but it was useful considering the many problems that faced the Roman world. The task of Lucius Verus was grim: he was to defend Roman territories in the East from an aggressive Persian army, which had captured Armenia and was threatening Syria.

He was accused of being addicted to luxury and leaving the duties of war to subordinates, but the truth of this is impossible to establish. In any case, his armies were so successful that they even managed to sack the Persian capital. Verus then returned to the West, where he and Marcus Aurelius defended the European borders until Verus died of illness in 169.

A bi-metallic medallion of Commodus on which he identifies himself with Hercules.
Click image to enlarge.

Commodus (177 to 192). The sad ending to the ‘Golden Age’ of Rome is the reign of Commodus, one of the most depraved emperors in Roman history. Unlike his father, Commodus left frontier warfare to his generals while he remained in Rome to indulge in the splendors of palace life and the spectacles of colosseum events and chariot races.

With such weak leadership, corruption flourished during the reign of Commodus. This bizarre chapter of Roman history came to an end on New Year's Eve, 192, when Commodus was murdered in a palace coup. This catastrophic event was followed by a civil war that lasted just more than four years, by which the next hereditary dynasty – that of the Severans – was established.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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