The Emperors of Adoption were made up of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty rulers who passed the domination of Rome not to their own relatives but through adoption (as the name implies). This is listed on the Biblical Timeline with World History starting around 100 AD. Five of the seven emperors were adopted by the former emperor, with the exception of the first and last ones. This concept was not unique to this dynasty as Augustus adopted his son-in-law Tiberius and Claudius adopted his grand-nephew Nero during the rule of the Julian dynasty.
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Rome was prosperous during the reign of the Emperors of Adoption. The policy of adoption was widely credited for the stability the Romans experienced during this era. This, for the most part, was based on merit—an outright rejection of the Julian dynasty’s preference to blood relatives as next rulers which, most of the time, led to a bloody reign.
The assassination of Emperor Domitian became the end of the short-lived Flavian dynasty. He was replaced immediately by former consul Nerva. The Senate had done so because Nerva came from a family of senators and they wanted to prevent another civil war. However, his reign would be short-lived—less than two years—as some of the Praetorian Guards who remained loyal to Domitian threatened him with death. He was spared, but those who took part in the assassination of Domitian were not. Petronius, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard and Parthenius, the former emperor’s chamberlain, were both were quickly killed.
This event shook Nerva to the core; he decided to start the retreat into private life and adopted the governor of Upper Rhine, Trajan, as his heir since he had no sons of his own. Although his rule was too short and wracked with chaos during the earliest months, he was credited as the one who started Rome on the path to stability. On January 28, 98 AD, Nerva died from a fever and Trajan rose as Rome’s new emperor.
Trajan was stationed near the Rhine river in Germany when Nerva died. After the news had reached him of the death, he secured the northern borders of the empire before he journeyed back home. It took him eighteen months to wrap this up, and when he arrived in Rome, he ushered in the start of stability and prosperity that characterized the reign of the Emperors of Adoption.
Nerva’s choice was a good one as Trajan was one of the finest Emperors Rome ever had. He focused on the improvement of Rome’s roads, sewage system, and harbors. In addition, he extended the empire’s territories through military campaigns in Asia and Europe. This leadership endeared him to the Roman soldiers as well as its citizens. He was honored with the Trajan’s Column, which depicts his victory in the Dacian Wars. He respected the Roman Senate—the complete opposite of the autocratic Julian dynasty emperors, who frequently disregarded the opinions of the Senate.
The number of Christians rose during the time of Trajan, but so did the oppression of the Jewish population and the revolts that followed. Pliny the Younger, then governor of the provinces of Bythinia and Pontus, wrote to him about how he should deal with the Christians. Trajan’s policy was simple and more lenient than the previous emperors’ as shown by his response to Pliny:
“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”
He campaigned against Parthia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia, and quashed the Jewish rebellion in Palestine. It was during his time when Rome expanded to its fullest extent, but the brutal repression of the Jews marred his reputation as a good ruler. He personally led a military campaign as far as Ctesiphon against the Parthian empire. He then decided to withdraw his troops and go back to Rome. Trajan, however, would never see Rome again as he died in Cilicia from a stroke at the age of sixty-four.
Hadrian was the governor of Syria when Trajan died, and he hurried to Rome to secure his succession as the new emperor. The Roman Senate had no other choice, as Trajan adopted Hadrian years before. His path to succession was sufficiently greased with generous contributions to the Praetorian Guard.
Much of the Roman world experienced stability and prosperity during his reign, except for Judaea where another revolt boiled over. This was started after Hadrian attempted to build a temple of Jupiter on the grounds of the Second Temple. This revolt was led by Simon Bar Kokhba. However, he and the Jewish forces were up against the more powerful Roman legion. They were first deprived of food, and many were massacred. Then territories of Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria were combined into the province of Syria Palaestina.
The empire’s expansion stopped during the reign of Hadrian, and he had the Romans in Britain construct the famous Hadrian’s Wall to make a clear statement to the Picts and other Celtic tribes from the north. This set the boundary of Rome which should not crossed. It stood twenty feet high and took approximately ten years to finish.
Hadrian died at the age of 62 after a heart attack, but not before he adopted Antoninus Pius as his heir on the condition of the latter’s adoption of the future emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
The reign of Antoninus Pius was unexpectedly long—more than what Hadrian had bargained for when he adopted the middle-aged Antoninus Pius as a safer bet instead of his first choice: the younger Marcus Aurelius (who was just 16 at the time of Hadrian’s death). But to Roman citizens’ relief, his reign was generally peaceful though uneventful. With the exception of a big celebration of Rome’s 900th anniversary. He was also named as ‘Pius’ for his reverence to Hadrian and his wife, Faustina—both of whom he deified. Antoninus also smoothed Marcus Aurelius’ path to succession by his adopted son’s marriage to his daughter, Faustina the Younger. He died in 161 AD after a twenty-three-year reign.
Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus
Marcus Aurelius was already forty years old when Antoninus Pius died, and he came to the throne somewhat reluctantly. He had the heart of a philosopher and scholar who, it seemed, was pushed by his adoptive father, Hadrian, and the Roman Senate to take the position as emperor. He lacked the enthusiasm for the role, and he appointed as co-emperor his adoptive brother Lucius Verus.
Marcus Aurelius remained in Rome while Lucius Verus went off to war against Parthian king Vologases IV in Armenia. Lucius’ troops took back Armenia, captured the Parthian city of Ctesiphon, and marched back to Rome. They, however, brought home a more dangerous threat than the Parthians—the plague.
The Antonine plague (most likely smallpox) came with symptoms such as a sore throat, pustules, and fever. It raged in the city for three years and obliterated a great portion of the population including the Roman troops. The tribes on the other side of the Danube river used the opportunity to invade Roman territories in the north. Both emperors decided to head to the front and lead the troops themselves. However, the tribes were repelled even before they reached their destination, so they turned back home. Lucius Verus died on the way back, and Marcus Aurelius buried his adoptive brother with full honors in Rome before he returned to the Danube. It was there, in the chaotic Danube front, that he had the time to think about philosophy and wrote the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. There, he declared his unhappiness with the burden of being an emperor, but he bore it with saintliness and sense of responsibility that endeared him to the Romans.
Marcus Aurelius broke off the adoption policy that the emperors before him used to secure the succession and appointed his son Commodus as co-emperor at the age of fifteen. He died in 180 AD, possibly from cancer, on the German front.
If there’s one emperor who could compete with Caligula and Nero when it comes to madness and corruption, it would be Commodus, the son of the saintly Marcus Aurelius. He was the direct opposite of his father. It was rumored that Marcus Aurelius was not his father and that he was the product of his mother’s affair (of which there were many) with a gladiator.
As the son of an emperor, Commodus received the best possible education Rome could offer its citizens. But all the years of education was useless as he neglected Rome during his reign and gave the duties of the emperor to his favorites. He devoted his life to leisure and gladiatorial contests where he displayed excessive brutality to wounded soldiers, people with disabilities, and animals. It appeared that he sank deeper into insanity when he proclaimed that he was the reincarnation of Hercules, and he walked around the city dressed in a lion cloak with a club (just like the Nemean Lion of Hercules’ Twelve Labors). He also executed those who conspired to assassinate him in 182 AD, including his older sister Lucilla.
He neglected his duties and spent so much money on these gladiatorial contests that the Roman economy was strained during his reign. The people finally had enough and in 192 AD, he was poisoned by his concubine Marcia and his chamberlain Electus in his bath. When this failed, they brought in Narcissus, his wrestling partner and had Commodus strangled to death.
Picture By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43808385
“An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and Their Families.” Roman Emperors. Accessed May 28, 2016. http://www.roman-emperors.org/impindex.htm.
“The Historia Augusta.” LacusCurtius •. Accessed May 28, 2016. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/home.html
“Pliny and Trajan on the Christians.” Pliny and Trajan on the Christians. Accessed May 28, 2016. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html
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