The Roman Emperors get a lot of bad press in the history books, thanks largely to such holders of the crown as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius (yes, he was not a nice guy after all), and Nero—not to mention some of the later occupants such as Commodus and Elagabalus. Still, there was a period of some eighty years when there was a sequence of five emperors who were actually outstanding both in terms of governance and as human beings.
Edward Gibbon’s 18th century The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with this paragraph:
In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
Earlier this month, I finished reading the complete surviving letters of Pliny the Younger, who was selected by Trajan to be the governor of Bithynia-Pontus and who maintained a regular correspondence with the emperor. Here is a typical exchange:
The citizens of Prusa [modern day Bursa in Turkey], my lord, have public baths which are filthy and out of date, and they think it important to have a new building. In my view you can show favour to their request, for there will be money to finance it. In the first place, there are the sums which I have already begun to recover and to exact from private citizens, and secondly, amounts which they habitually expend on olive oil they are ready to contribute towards the building of the baths. In general, both the prestige of the town and the splendour of your reign make this demand.
If the construction of the new baths is not going to impose a burden on the resources of the Prusians, we can grant this request, so long as no levy is imposed on them for that purpose, and that they do not have fewer resources available for necessary expenditure in the future.
The whole of Book X of Pliny’s letters consists of numerous missives to the emperor, followed by the emperor’s responses. To me, this was the most interesting section in the letters, as it shows a correspondence between a competent and honest governor and a caring Roman emperor.