Augustus’ rule restored morale in Rome after a century of discord and corruption and ushered in the famous pax Romana–two full centuries of peace and prosperity. He instituted various social reforms, won numerous military victories and allowed Roman literature, art, architecture and religion to flourish. Augustus ruled for 56 years, supported by his great army and by a growing cult of devotion to the emperor. When he died, the Senate elevated Augustus to the status of a god, beginning a long-running tradition of deification for popular emperors.
Augustus’ dynasty included the unpopular Tiberius (14-37 A.D.), the bloodthirsty and unstable Caligula (37-41) and Claudius (41-54), who was best remembered for his army’s conquest of Britain. The line ended with Nero (54-68), whose excesses drained the Roman treasury and led to his downfall and eventual suicide. Four emperors took the throne in the tumultuous year after Nero’s death; the fourth, Vespasian (69-79), and his successors, Titus and Domitian, were known as the Flavians; they attempted to temper the excesses of the Roman court, restore Senate authority and promote public welfare. Titus (79-81) earned his people’s devotion with his handling of recovery efforts after the infamous eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The reign of Nerva (96-98), who was selected by the Senate to succeed Domitian, began another golden age in Roman history, during which four emperors–Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius–took the throne peacefully, succeeding one another by adoption, as opposed to hereditary succession. Trajan (98-117) expanded Rome’s borders to the greatest extent in history with victories over the kingdoms of Dacia (now northwestern Romania) and Parthia. His successor Hadrian (117-138) solidified the empire’s frontiers and continued his predecessor’s work of establishing internal stability and instituting administrative reforms.
Under Antoninus Pius (138-161), Rome continued in peace and prosperity, but the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180) was dominated by conflict, including war against Parthia and Armenia and the invasion of Germanic tribes from the north. When Marcus fell ill and died near the battlefield at Vindobona (Vienna), he broke with the tradition of non-hereditary succession and named his 19-year-old son Commodus as his successor.