The Five Good Emperors are so named because they ended the period of asperity under the reign of Diocletian. These five emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. They were part of the Nerva – Antonine dynasty (96 – 192 A.D.), which consisted of seven monarchs. The last ruler of this dynasty was Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius. One of the traditions of these benevolent emperors was to adopt a man as their heir and son. This custom started with Nerva.
Nerva had been a very popular senator before becoming emperor. He recalled the people who had been exiled by Domitian and lowered the extremely high tax rates.
His adopted heir was Trajan. Trajan is most known for his renown as a strong, unerring military commander. He also built great roads and aqueducts.
Hadrian was the ambitious monarch who is celebrated for the construction of a seventy-three mile long wall on the northern boundary of the Empire. The aspiring Hadrian also rebuilt the famous Pantheon.
Hadrian was succeeded by the generous and prodigal Antoninus Pius. It was after Antoninus saved the senators who had been sentenced to death by Hadrian that he earned the name of Pius (pious). On his deathbed, Pius adopted both Aurelius and Verus as his heirs and so, when Antoninus died, he was succeeded by two co-rulers.
Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 A.D.) ruled alongside his brother Lucius Verus until Verus died in 169 A.D. Marcus was a stoic philosopher. He wrote Meditations while on a military campaign. It was an eleven year campaign against Germanic peoples which commenced in 166 A.D. His successor was his natural son Commodus.
The end of this alleviation period came with the reign of the ruthless, unpitying Commodus (161 – 192 A.D.) He was an atrocious emperor who completely differed from the Five Good Emperors in behavior, attitude and intent.