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Top 7 Greatest Roman Emperors in History

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither were the legacies of its greatest emperors. In this article, we dive into the fascinating lives of the greatest 7 Roman emperors, exploring their major achievements, surprising facts you might not know, and their controversial actions. Discover the triumphs and challenges of these influential leaders who shaped the Roman Empire.

We have sorted these emperors in chronological order based on their reigns. This approach allows us to understand the progression of the Roman Empire and how each emperor built upon the accomplishments of their predecessors. By following this timeline, we can see how the Empire evolved and how each leader’s actions influenced the subsequent rulers and the overall history of Rome. For those who want to understand the selection criteria, we’ve included a detailed explanation at the end of the article.

For those eager to delve deeper, we’ve included links to comprehensive biographies of each emperor. Also, to make our article even more interesting, we’ve included little-known and controversial facts about each emperor, offering a deeper glimpse into the leaders who helped shape the Roman Empire. You’re welcome to explore these on Astrum People to learn more about the figures who have left a significant mark on history.

Ready to uncover the stories behind these legendary figures? Let’s get started!

Top 7 Greatest Roman Emperors in History

1. Augustus (27 BC – AD 14)

Augustus
Augustus

Augustus, originally named Octavian, became the first Roman emperor after the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He transformed Rome from a Republic to an Empire, bringing about an era of peace known as the Pax Romana. Augustus implemented essential reforms in taxation, infrastructure, and governance, laying the foundation for the Empire’s future prosperity.

Little-Known Fact: Augustus believed strongly in omens and prophecies. He reportedly carried a seal skin as a charm against lightning.

Controversial Action: His rise to power involved political cunning and brutal purges. During the proscriptions, he executed many senators and equestrians alongside Mark Antony.

2. Trajan (AD 98 – 117)

Trajan
Trajan

Trajan, born in what is now Spain, was the first Roman emperor from a province outside of Italy. He led the Empire to its greatest territorial extent, conquering Dacia and parts of the Parthian Empire. Trajan also focused on extensive public building programs, including Trajan’s Market, Trajan’s Forum, and Trajan’s Column.

Little-Known Fact: Trajan was born in a city now part of Spain, making him the first Roman emperor from a province outside of Italy.

Controversial Action: His campaigns, particularly in Dacia, led to massive displacement and enslavement of the Dacian population, which some historians consider akin to genocide.

3. Hadrian (AD 117 – 138)

Hadrian
Hadrian

Hadrian, a well-traveled and cultured emperor, focused on consolidating and securing the Empire’s borders. He is best known for building Hadrian’s Wall in Britain to keep out northern tribes. Hadrian also invested in architecture and the arts, promoting Hellenistic culture and initiating building projects across the Empire.

Little-Known Fact: Hadrian traveled extensively, visiting nearly every province in the Empire during his reign, a rare feat for a Roman emperor.

Controversial Action: His harsh suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt led to the deaths and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jewish rebels, and he renamed Judea to Syria Palestina to erase Jewish identity from the region.

4. Marcus Aurelius (AD 161 – 180)

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king, ruled during military conflict and plague. He is best remembered for his work Meditations, which reflects his Stoic philosophy and personal thoughts on leadership and duty. Despite his philosophical inclinations, Marcus Aurelius spent much of his reign defending the Empire against Germanic tribes and other threats.

Little-Known Fact: Despite his peaceful and philosophical demeanor, Marcus Aurelius spent much of his reign on military campaigns along the Roman frontiers.

Controversial Action: He led numerous military campaigns against Germanic tribes, increasing the Empire’s militarization and straining its resources.

5. Vespasian (AD 69 – 79)

Vespasian
Vespasian

Vespasian rose to power after the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors, restoring stability to the Empire. He initiated the construction of the Colosseum, which became a symbol of Roman engineering prowess and entertainment. Vespasian’s practical governance and financial reforms helped revitalize Rome’s economy and infrastructure.

Little-Known Fact: Vespasian started his career as a muleteer before rising through the ranks to become emperor.

Controversial Action: His ruthless suppression of the Jewish rebellion in Judea led to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, a sacred site to the Jewish people.

6. Constantine the Great (AD 306 – 337)

Constantine the Great
Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great significantly shaped the future of the Roman Empire by converting to Christianity and promoting it throughout his reign. He founded the city of Constantinople, which became a vital political and cultural center for centuries. Constantine’s policies laid the groundwork for the Byzantine Empire and the spread of Christianity in Europe.

Little-Known Fact: Constantine worshipped the Sun God Sol Invictus before converting to Christianity.

Controversial Action: Constantine’s promotion of a new religious orthodoxy included suppressing non-Christian religions and heretical Christian sects, leading to the confiscation of pagan temples and persecution of non-orthodox Christian sects.

7. Antoninus Pius (AD 138 – 161)

Antoninus Pius
Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius’s reign is often considered one of Roman history’s most peaceful and prosperous. He focused on legal reforms, fair governance, and public works, maintaining stability throughout the Empire. Antoninus Pius earned the Senate’s and the people’s respect, solidifying his legacy as a just and benevolent ruler.

Little-Known Fact: Antoninus Pius earned his name ‘Pius’ because he successfully lobbied the Senate to deify his adoptive father, Hadrian.

Controversial Action: Although generally seen as a benevolent ruler, his administration enforced the existing Roman class hierarchy, which could be harsh and oppressive, particularly towards enslaved people and lower classes.

Top 7 Greatest Roman Emperors in History: The Selection Criteria Explained

We’d like to explain why we chose these seven emperors and consider them the best. These top 7 greatest Roman emperors earned their place based on noteworthy contributions to the Roman Empire’s expansion, stability, and cultural development. Augustus established the Empire and initiated the Pax Romana. Trajan expanded Rome to its greatest territorial extent. Hadrian secured and consolidated the borders. Marcus Aurelius is celebrated for his philosophical writings amidst his military campaigns. Vespasian restored stability after a period of chaos. Constantine the Great played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity and the establishment of Constantinople. Antoninus Pius’s reign saw peace and prosperity. Their leadership, achievements, and the complex nature of their reigns make them stand out as the best Roman emperors.

Wrapping Up

The legacies of these best Roman emperors show just how complex and grand Roman history really is. Each of them made tremendous contributions that shaped the Empire uniquely, from Augustus establishing the Pax Romana to Constantine the Great spreading Christianity. Their reigns included remarkable achievements and controversial actions, reflecting the tough decisions and moral complexities of leadership. These stories remind us that greatness often comes with both successes and challenges. Looking back at their lives, we gain a deeper understanding of the powerful forces that built one of the most influential civilizations in history. This exploration of history’s top 7 greatest Roman emperors highlights why they are often considered the best, each leaving a lasting impact on the Empire and beyond.

Here’s a quick recap of the top 7 greatest Roman emperors in history:

Roman EmperorYears LivedMajor Achievement
Augustus63 BC – AD 14Established the Roman Empire, Pax Romana
TrajanAD 53 – 117Expanded Empire to greatest territorial extent
HadrianAD 76 – 138Built Hadrian’s Wall, secured borders
Marcus AureliusAD 121 – 180Wrote Meditations, led military campaigns
VespasianAD 9 – 79Restored stability, began Colosseum
Constantine the GreatAD 272 – 337Christianized the Empire, founded Constantinople
Antoninus PiusAD 86 – 161Peaceful and prosperous reign

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