Imagine having so much power that your word is law. Such was the power of emperors in the Roman Empire. Roman emperors had command of 26 legions, as well as the authority to veto the actions of the magistrates and control the imperial patronage. They even influenced the religion of the empire. The emperor could rebuild decaying temples and resurrect old religious ceremonies. In short, he could do just about anything. This resulted in both good and bad changes in Rome. While some great rulers benefited the Roman people, others did nothing but harm. Specifically, Commodus left the empire worse for wear, while Hadrian and Trajan had positive impacts on Rome.
Regrettably, the years Commodus spent in power were not good ones for the empire. Although his accession to the throne was initially greeted with general approval, it was met eventually with hostility as Commodus began to engage in self-indulgent and ego-maniacal behaviors. He was especially fond of gladiator fights. He enjoyed them so much, in fact, that he participated in them himself. However, Commodus was known to cheat by blunting his opponents’ swords. In addition, Commodus devalued Rome’s currency significantly by reducing the weight of the denarius and the purity of silver. It was the biggest reduction since Nero’s, and a huge blow to the empire. Not only that, but he lacked concern for political matters altogether. That, combined with a thirst for leisure, brought about what some consider a reign of terror. In fact, Commodus’ rule is regarded as the start of the fall of the Roman Empire. In the famous words of noted historian Dio Cassius, his lack of interest in political affairs was the starting point for the decline of the empire, leaving Commodus responsible for initiating Rome’s plunge “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”
On the other hand, Trajan was one of the best emperors Rome ever saw. He was a good soldier and a man of talent, tolerance, and courtesy. During his nineteen years of rule, Trajan improved the empire’s roads and harbors as well as provided support for the children of Rome’s poor. Furthermore, he conquered the area of Mesopotamia and started a healthcare-like system for the Plebeians. Although the Senate had little power, Trajan treated them with respect, consulted them, and maintained the Senate’s good will. Some historians say that by doing this, he brought back the “old spirit” of Rome. So, with all of these good deeds under his belt, it’s no wonder that Trajan was the second of Rome’s 5 Good Emperors.
Similarly, Hadrian was considered one of Rome’s Good Emperors as well. Like Trajan, he was a soldier and a strong man. His goal was to give Rome a good start for the future. Hadrian oversaw many building projects and built Hadrian’s Wall, which strengthened the Roman frontier and still exists today. Another one of his building projects was repairing the Pantheon, which had been destroyed in a fire. It, too, still stands. Hadrian also traveled across the empire and stabilized local governments, as well as added to the beautification of Rome. He established cities in Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece, too. Even better, Hadrian penalized those who mistreated their slaves. Finally, he kept the army in peak condition through constant training and surprise inspections. However, though Hadrian was a brilliant emperor, some may point out that he ordered a public burning of the Torah, and was therefore closed-minded. However, while other emperors persecuted Christians, Hadrian respected their beliefs. So, in that way, he was one of the more open-minded emperors. In the end, Hadrian was a remarkable emperor who made a lasting good impact on Rome as a whole.
Ultimately, while Commodus’s rule led to the decline of Rome, Trajan and Hadrian changed the empire for the better. During his reign, Commodus was brutal and lazy. Eventually, he led a reign of terror that initiated the fall of Rome. Meanwhile, Trajan brought back some of the old ways of Rome through his treatment of the Senate. He contributed to the beautification of the empire and to the welfare of the commoners. Hadrian was much the same. He led numerous successful building projects, and strengthened the empire through his training of the army and cities he established. But while emperors like Hadrian and Trajan had positive influences, the overall system of the empire was not a good one, as it eventually collapsed. Hopefully, though, we can learn from the mistakes of the Romans and use them to make better choices for our future.