The Roman emperors were the designated ruler of Roman empire which started after the end of Roman republic: the period of ancient roman civilization that began with the end of roman kingdom. The legitimacy of an emperor’s rule was dependent upon his control of the army and the recognition by the Senate; an emperor would normally be proclaimed by his troops, or invested with imperial titles by the Senate, or both. But the Roman people regarded their emperors as equivalent of kings, even though the very first emperor Augustus the great absolutely refused to be taken as a monarch. The age of Roman Republic came to an end with the death of Julius Caesar and then Augustus marked the era of Roman empire that lasted from 27 BC to 476 AD. Throughout this period, a number of emperors ruled the Roman empire with their rules divided over a number of dynasties. Here is the list of top 10 emperors who had ever ruled in ancient Rome.
10. Justinian (482 AD – 14 November 565 AD)
Though the western Roman empire had already fallen to the barbarians by 476 AD, the eastern empire saw one last conquer under the rule of Justinian I, who ruled the east Roman empire (also called the Byzantine empire) from 526 AD – 565 AD. During his reign, Justinian sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the historical Roman Empire. Because of his restoration activities, Justinian has sometimes been called the “last Roman” in modern historiography. His great generals Belisarius and Narses reconquered many parts of the empire, including the city of Rome itself.
Justinian was well known for creating a unified code of laws – The Justinian Code, that took its excerpts from a collection of already used Roman laws. This code was then used as the basis of all the systems of laws in the western world. He also oversaw constructions of great buildings in his capital – the city of constantinople, the most remarkable of them being the church of Hagia Sophia, which later on became the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. But, then came the devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 540s which eventually marked the irreversible period of Roman decline from the history.
9. Constantine the Great (Feb 272 AD- May 337 AD)
His full name was Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus. This famous emperor, who went on to become the first christian emperor in the history, was a ruler of major historical importance. He reunited a divided empire under a single emperor and scored important wins against some ardent enemies like the Franks, Alamanni, Goths and Sarmatians. He also re-occupied some of the long lost Roman provinces. He created his own capital and named it after himself – Constantinople, which went on to be cradle of Byzantine empire for centuries. For that reason, he was also known as the founder of Byzantine.
He was more noticeably known to understand the inevitable need of christian support, whose number were in a significant rise. Eventually, he became a historical figure of christianity by becoming the first emperor to adorn it. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on his orders at the purported site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem, became the holiest place in Christendom. His decision went on to have significant impact in the religious preferences in the subsequent Byzantine empire.
8. Antoninus Pius (19 September, 86 AD – 7 March, 161 AD)
The adopted son and successor of emperor Hadrian, Antoninus Pius went to rule the Roman empire from 138 to 161 AD. His first act as an emperor was to grant honors to his adoptive father Hadrian. And as a part of deal, Antoninus adopted the future to-be-emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was one of the most peaceful ruler in the history of Roman empire. There were no records of any military related acts in his time. However, there were a few fickle conflicts here and there, but none of them caused any serious concern.
He also built temples, theaters, and mausoleums, promoted the roman arts and sciences, and bestowed honors and financial rewards upon the teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Antoninus was virtually unique among the roman emperors because he dealt with these crises without leaving Italy once during his reign. This style of government was highly praised by his contemporaries and later generations.
7. Vespasian (November, 9 AD – 23 June 79 AD)
A famous Roman emperor, Vespasian’s reign lasted from 69 AD – 79 AD. He founded the Flavian dynasty that went on to rule the Roman empire for 27 years. His rule started at one of the most troubled times in Roman history – the Romans were just recovering from the antics of infamous emperors like Nero and Caligula, and a civil war that saw four emperors in a single year. A down to earth man himself, and a competent general, who had proved his mettle in the battlefield, Vespasian was handed the task of bringing balance in Rome. And over his rule of 10 years, he did all that, sketching his name as one of the greatest Roman emperors.
In his reign, much money was spent on public works as well as on restoration and beautification of Rome. He initiated construction of the temple of peace, a number of public baths and one of the most majestic structures in ancient Rome – the Colosseum. Sadly by the time Colosseum was completed, he was dead. After his death in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus and thus became the first Roman Emperor to be directly succeeded by his own natural son and establishing the Flavian dynasty.
See Also, 10 Famous People of Ancient Rome
6. Hadrian (January, 76 AD – 10 July, 138 AD)
The famous Roman emperor from 117 to 138 AD, Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus to an ethnically Italian family. Even though his predecessor Trajan never officially designated him as his heir, but Trajan’s wife declared that he had appointed him the heir just before his death, thus paving his path to becoming Roman emperor. He travelled nearly every province in his rule, connecting to the public people at provincial level. A known admirer of Greece, he soughted to bring Greek architecture to its old glory. He rebuilt the Pantheon and constructed the temple of venus and Roma. He also built the Hadrian’s wall which marked the northern limit of Roman Britain.
Hadrian also spent a considerable time of his rule with the military, where he usually wore military attire and at times even dined and slept amongst the soldiers. An alert and responsive military was his biggest challenge, so, he would raise false alarms at times to test his army’s training, drilling and response to any sudden crisis. But despite his reputation as an efficient military administrator, his reign was marked by a general lack of major conflicts, apart from Second Roman-Jewish war, which he handled rather cunningly.
5. Claudius ( August 10 BC – 13 October 54 AD)
One of the first Roman emperors to have born outside Italy, his reign lasted from 41 AD to 54 AD. He was the son of Drusus and Antonia Minor, and the fact that he was afflicted with a limp and slight deafness – he was rather unfairly excluded from public office until his consulship by his family. But as it happens, this particularly infirmity directly or indirectly saved him from fate of Tiberius and Caligula, for potential enemies never saw him as a serious threat.
His rule was seen vulnerable by the eyes of nobility and senate for they thoroughly opposed his ascend to the throne, but he got his biggest support from the military. Claudius comes as a positive mishmash of conflicting characteristics: absent-minded, hesitant, muddled, determined, cruel, intuitive, wise and dominated by his wife and his personal staff of freedmen. But despite all these and his evident lack of experience, Claudius proved to be an able and efficient administrator. He was also an ambitious builder. He constructed many new roads, aqueducts, and canals across the Empire. During his reign the Empire began the conquest of Britain. Having a personal interest in law, he presided at public trials, and issued up to twenty edicts a day.
4. Tiberius (16 November 42 BC – 16 March 37 AD)
The Roman emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD, Tiberius Claudius Nero was son of Livia Drusilla, who later married Augustus in 39 BC, making him step-son of the Octavian. He was later adopted by Augustus as his heir, that is when he took the name Tiberius Julius Caesar, a name bearing the subsequent emperors after Tiberius would also take. Tiberius was one of Rome’s greatest generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and temporarily, parts of Germania – laying the foundations for the northern frontier. But he came to be remembered as a dark, reclusive, and sombre ruler who never really desired to be emperor, yet was thrusted upon with that responsibility.
Were he to have died prior to AD 23, a period marred by the purge, he might have been hailed as an exemplary ruler. Despite the overwhelmingly negative characterization left by Roman historians, Tiberius left the imperial treasury with nearly 3 billion sesterces upon his death. Rather than going in expensive conquests, he decided to build additional bases and use diplomacy over conflicts. All these innovative steps showed their colors when Rome became a stronger, more consolidated empire.
3. Marcus Aurelius (April 121 AD – 17 March 180 AD)
Considered as the last of the five good emperors, and one of the most stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire from 161 to 180. During his reign, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East, in central Europe, he fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, with the threat of the Germanic tribes beginning to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. A possible revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius might have caused serious issues if it had gained momentum, but Aurelius suppressed it immediately.
A remarkable philosopher and writer, Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic tome Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration. Marcus Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain after his death; both Dio and the biographer call him “the philosopher”.
2. Trajan ( September 53 AD – 8 August 117 AD)
Famously declared by the senate as the best ruler, optimus princeps which means “the best ruler”, he ruled the ancient Rome from 98 AD until he took his last breathe. Trajan is one of Rome’s most outstanding emperors. Under his rule, the empire reached its largest extent. He was remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He was respected by the common people, senate and the military alike, having made his name for his philanthropic rule that oversaw extensive public building programs and welfare policies.
As an emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured — he was one of the few rulers whose reputation has survived nineteen centuries. In the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon’s popularized notion of ‘Five Good Emperors’; Trajan was second. Every new emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano which meant “be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”.
1. Augustus ( September 63 BC – 19 August 14 AD)
At the top of the list is a very obvious choice – the founder of Roman empire himself, Augustus who has the longest reign of 41 years starting from 27 BC to 14 AD. Born by the name of Octavian, he was given the name ‘Augustus’ by the senate as an honour for his great achievements. He went on to avenge the death of Caesar together with Mark Antony, before falling out with him. He defeated Mark Antony together with the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra and thereafter, together with the senate of Rome, created a new constitution for the great empire.
The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace that was known as Pax Romana or The Roman Peace. Yes, there were several wars at Roman frontiers for expansion and a year long civil war too, but after the succession of Augustus into the throne, the Roman world was free of any large scale warfare for more than two centuries. Augustus stood at the head of this empire as the emperor. He used his ruled wisely and built roads, aqueducts and buildings. Not only was Augustus the first, but he was most certainly one of the best emperors Rome ever had.
Throughout its entire period, the Roman empire had a number of emperors who took over the rule. Many of them had a stable rule with considerably peaceful reign while at the time of crises, Rome also saw a single year with four emperors and another single year with none less than six emperors. And there were some rather infamous, in fact downright notorious ones such as Caligula and Nero whose reign led to biggest turmoils in the state. But all the emperors listed here had a minimum reign of 10 years each. They also had a significant contribution in expansion of Roman boundaries and also in representation of Roman culture. And one name that should not be missed is the famous statesman Julius Caesar. What he started by famously taking the state and senate in his hand led to a chain of sequences that made the rise of Roman empire possible.