The Philosopher Kings of Rome – part 1

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 3, Caesar and Christ. Read more

The Philosopher Kings of Rome – Nerva to Hadrian

Hear Gibbon’s judgment:

  • “If a man were to be called upon 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 accession of Nerva (A.D. 96) to the death of Aurelius (180). Their united reigns are possible the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”

Ernest Renan agreed: The principle of royal adoption gave Rome “the finest succession of good and great sovereigns the world has ever had.”

That principle had been established by Augustus; it had been set aside after Nero’s death; it was restored by Nerva (A.D. 98) when he adopted Trajan as his successor. The Senate had accepted the principle on the assumption that the adoption would be of a man already known for administrative and military ability. The principle worked well because Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius had no son, and had time to study and train their choice.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva was sixty-six when the Senate appointed him princeps. He distributed land among the poor, annulled many taxes, freed the Jews from the tribute laid upon them, and strengthened the finances of the state by economy in his household and his administration. Three months before his death (98) he appointed, as his successor, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus.

Trajan loved the empire so well that he wanted more and more of it, and spent most of his mature life in protecting and expanding it. He conquered and absorbed Dacia (now Romania) as necessary to control the Danube as the best barrier to the multiplying “barbarians.” he gave Dacia a Latin language and took her gold mines in return.

Enriched, he distributed 650 denarii ($260?) to all Roman citizens who applied; he build the still-flourishing amphitheater in Verona, and vast Forum Traianum in Rome; there the triumphal arch, and the column with spiral carvings, commemorating his victories, stand to inspire Napoleon’s.

In 113 A.D. he set out again with his legions, hoping to conquer Parthis and open a commercial road to India. He made new provinces of Armenia, Mesopotamia and Parthis, and triumphantly reached the Red Sea. Then he suffered a paralytic stroke and died at Salinus in 117, after transmitting his imperial powers to his nephew, Publius Aelius Hadrianus.

Hadrian, like Trajan, was born in Spain, but differed from him in almost everything else. He disliked war, loved dogs, horses, hunting, literature, philosophy, and a half a dozen arts. He restored independence to Armenia, Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Parthia.

Returning to Rome, he reorganized the government, kept watch over every branch of it, and (like Napoleon, who learned much from Rome) astonished each administrative head by detailed knowledge of each field.

Over all departments he put an advocatus fisci, or “defender of the treasury,” to detect corruption of deceit. As the Empire’s supreme court he earned the reputation of a fair and learned judge, usually favoring the poor against the rich, the weak against the strong. Under his care, the Empire was better governed than ever before or afterward.

Restless and abounding with ideas, Hadrian set out to share with the provinces some of the wealth they had yielded to Rome. In Gaul he brought relief to localities stricken by inadvertent “acts of God.” At the German border he reinforced the line of defense against the ever-pressing “barbarians” – by which the Romans meant anyone outside of the Empire.

Sailing down the Rhine to the North Sea, he crossed into Roman Britain (A.D. 122), pacified it with benefits, and at its northern reach, arranged for the building of “Hadrian’s Wall” against the unconquered and incalculable Scots.

After a winter’s rest in Rome, he sailed to North Africa to regulate its flourishing cities. In 124 he visited the Hellenized Near East; at almost every stop he listened to complaints and petitions, and provided funds for temples, theaters and baths.

In 125 and 128 he spend the winters in Athens, mingling happily with scholars and philosophers, and building so wisely that the aging metropolis of the mind became cleaner, more beautiful, and more prosperous than ever before in known history.

In 130 he toured Egypt, felt the winds of theological or scholastic doctrine in Alexandria, and then moved leisurely up the Nile with his wife Sabina and his handsome and devoted boyfriend Antinous. On that trip the youth drowned. Hadrian, inconsolable, returned to Rome.

There he devoted himself to the further advancement of the capital: The Pantheon that Agrippa had built in 27 B.C. had been mostly destroyed by fires in A.D. 80 and 110; Hadrian had his architects and engineers replaced it (120-24) with a circular temple whose interior, 132 feet in diameter, dispensed with internal supports, and received its sole and sufficient light from a twenty-six foot wide oculus in the dome.

From that graceful cupola an architectural lineage descended to St. Peter’s in Rome – and to our Capitol in Washington.

The revolt of Judea in 135 embittered him; he mourned that it broke the long peace of his reign. In that year he was stricken by a lingering illness which broke his health and darkened his mind, even to occasional cruelty.

To end an incipient war of succession he adopted his friend Lucius Verus as his heir. Verus soon died. Hadrian replaced him with a man of national reputation for integrity and wisdom, Titus Aurelius Antoninus, and advised him to adopt and train two youths then at the court. One of these died before Antoninus; the other became Marcus Aurelius.

Hadrian died in the year 138, after only sixty-two years of life, but twenty-one of rule, and having provide the Empire, in action and foresight, with three reigns, all among the most beneficent in history.