Good Emperors, Good Economics?

the good emperors

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Analysing how the Historia Augusta and Cassius Dio’s Roman History evaluate the economic policies of the Good Emperors.

by Dan Crowley

Introduction and Source Analysis 

The emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius are commonly referred to as Rome’s ‘Good Emperors’. Under their control, the Roman Empire experienced a period of relative political stability in which it conquered new territories, consolidated its borders, and reformed its administrative structures. Cassius Dio’s Roman History (Dio) and the multi-authorial Historia Augusta (SHA) are two key sources that chart this period.  Below, their evaluation of the three facets of imperial economic leadership – monetary and fiscal policy, military spending, and the funding of public works – will be analysed.

Dio and SHA do not detail the period in whole – Dio omits Antoninus Pius and SHA begin with Hadrian – nor are they perfectly objective sources. For one, given Dio was born during the latter years of Pius’ reign and SHA wrote more than a century after the death of Aurelius, both rely on earlier, non-extant sources that cannot be verified. This issue is particularly pertinent to SHA who, according to modern scholars, likely relied on some spurious source material, incorporating gossip and rumour into their historical narrative in the model of Suetonius. Moreover, given Cassius Dio was a long-serving Roman senator, and the Historia Augusta was dedicated to emperors Constantine and Diocletian, the works are not representative of a broad cross-section of Roman society, voicing only the narrow socioeconomic perspective of its aristocracy. Cognisant of these limitations, the editorial decisions of these sources will be analysed and, where possible, their claims will be referenced against other primary evidence.

Fiscal and monetary policy: frugality and munificence

Dio and SHA both emphasise the simple, austere lifestyles of the Good Emperors. While, particularly in the case of Nerva (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 68.1-2) and Aurelius (Dio 71.108-9), this is done to contrast the extravagance of unpopular emperors like Domitian and Commodus. Frugality was also an important economic instrument, as it set a model for subjects to emulate. For instance, Nerva banning gold statues being made in his honour signalled to the public that the excesses of Domitian’s reign were over, and gave his efforts to reduce Domitian’s lavish spending legitimacy and authority (Dio 68.2). Similarly, Hadrian’s asceticism buttressed his plans to curb military expenses, with SHA noting that he wore the “commonest clothing” in the camp to “incite others by the example of his own soldiery spirit” (Hist. Aug. Life of Hadrian, x 3, xl). Notably, neither source records any significant backlash to Hadrian reforming military expenses nor Nerva ending Domitian’s spectacles; the emperors’ moral consistency, it is implied, had made periods of austerity more palatable to the Roman people. 

In keeping with their frugal lifestyles, the Good Emperors refocused the economic priorities of the state onto the public good, and away from the frivolous vanity projects of Nero and Domitian. Thus they became renowned for their generous fiscal and monetary policies: Nerva paid reparations to land-owners dispossessed by Domitian and gave land grants to poor Romans (Dio 68.2); Trajan generously distributed alimentia (‘child support welfare’, Dio 68.5) and oversaw hundreds of days of public games (Cass. Dio 68.16); Hadrian cancelled sixteen years’ worth of debts owed to the imperial treasury (Hist. Aug. Hadr. vii 4-7; Dio 69.8) and supplemented the income of “impoverished” senators (Hist. Aug. Hadr. vii 8); Antoninus Pius lent money at the historically low interest rate of 4% (Hist. Aug. Life of Antoninus Pius ii 7) and funded numerous public works (Hist. Aug. Ant. Pius iv); and Marcus Aurelius gave generous grants to struggling cities (Dio 71.104-5), and forgave an additional 45 years’ worth of debt (Dio 71.32). Such generosity was supposedly borne from deep moral conviction, and went beyond established precedent: Nerva supplemented public funds by selling his own possessions (Dio 68.2), Trajan took an “unusual” interest in the provision of welfare (Dio 68.5), Hadrian bestowed grants “not on his friends alone” but “on many far and wide” (Hist. Aug. Hadr. vii 8), Pius’ interest rate was “the lowest ever exacted” (Hist. Aug. Ant. Pius ii 7), and Aurelius gave economic aid “beyond the ordinary requirements” (Dio 71.105). 

While many of these policies are corroborated by surviving monuments, letters, and documents,
Dio and SHA examine them through a narrow lens, exulting the emperors at the expense of rigorous historical analysis. Firstly, they suggest that donatives were exclusively motivated by compassion and generosity, with Hadrian the only emperor accused by either source of using them for political ends (Hist. Aug. Hadr. vii 4-7). In reality, donatives had long been used by emperors as a political tool to buy support from key stakeholders, as in the case of Caligula (Dio 59.1-4) and Vespasian (Dio 66.10). Secondly, whereas the two senatorial sources claim that the Good Emperors sought only to enrich the public, the 2nd century CE actually saw emperors assume ownership of a growing number of provincial estates, drawing profits away from provincial landowners. Moreover, as indicated by reconstructed economic modelling by economic historian Walter Scheidel, “civilian spending” actually constituted a relatively small percentage of imperial expenditure, which was instead dominated by military spending, gifts to the emperor’s entourage, public games, and administrative costs. Dio and SHA’s claims about the Good Emperors’ economic generosity must therefore be viewed in this wider, more impartial context.

The military economic state 

During the reign of the Good Emperors, Rome fought wars in Gaul, Britain, Dacia and other fronts across the empire. War was thus a key component of the economies of the Good Emperors, both as a drain on spending, and as a source of revenue through plunder and spoils. Military economic policy was not uniform across the emperors. Trajan, on the one hand, spent “vast sums” of money on his Dacian wars, a pursuit he “delighted” in (Dio 68.7) His expenditure was often as symbolic as it was functional; his famous stone bridge over the Danube may have allowed his armies easy access to warring trans-Danubian populations, but at a height of 150 feet (Dio. 68.13), it also acted to signal the might and ubiquity of the Roman military. Dio himself notes something to this effect: “…the bridge is of no particular use to us. Merely the piers are standing, affording no means of crossing, as if they were erected for the sole purpose of demonstrating that there is nothing which human energy cannot accomplish” (Dio. 68.13). Trajan’s successor Hadrian took a more restrained approach. While still devoting significant resources to fortifications like his wall in Britain (Hist. Aug. Hadr. xi 2-7), Hadrian sought to restore financial discipline to his legions, curbing expenses that had grown under Trajan’s administration. His reforms were supposedly extensive, tightening conditions around leave from the camp, regulating “duties and expenses”, clearing camps of “banqueting-rooms, porticoes, grottos, and bowers”, banning tribunes from accepting gifts from soldiers, and honing accounting practises “to make good any deficit that might occur in any particular instance” (Hist. Aug. Hadr. ix-xl). 

Approaches to military spoils also varied between emperors. After his second victory over the Dacians, Trajan went to great lengths to impose economic dominance over the region, founding Roman cities and diverting the Sargetia river to excavate its bed for gold and silver (Dio 68.14). On his return to Rome, these spoils funded 123 consecutive days of celebratory spectacles, involving tens of thousands of animals and gladiators (Dio 68.15). Marcus Aurelius on the other hand, was far more restrained after his victory over the Celtae in Gaul, refusing his soldier’s petition for money (Dio 71.3). Investing this scene with great historical importance, Dio dramatizes Aurelius’ words to his soldiers: “Whatever excess they obtain above the customary amount will be wrung from the blood of their parents and their kinsmen. For respecting the fate of the empire Heaven alone can decide” (Dio 71.3). 

Dio and SHA’s analysis of the military economy can be considered more reliable than their analysis of public spending, as neither source seems to have a clear agenda here. Whereas tales of extreme generosity exalted the Good Emperors over their predecessors and defended them against contemporary criticism (Dio 69.32), neither Trajan’s hawkish approach nor Hadrian and Aurelius’ more restrained approach is endorsed by the sources as the more prudent or moral  mode of military governance. It should be noted however that, although these two sources note differences in the emperors’ handling of the military economy, modern modelling of rates of military pay in the second century CE suggests that military spending actually remained relatively constant. Hadrian’s economic management of the military may therefore not have differed as sharply from Trajan’s as SHA suggests. 

Public works

The Good Emperors made lasting contributions to Rome’s economy through the construction of large-scale public works. These works served many purposes. Some were merely aggrandising, like Trajan’s celebratory column in the Roman forum (Dio 68.16), while others served the aims of Roman foreign policy, asserting imperial dominance over restive provinces like Jerusalem, where Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter in place of the former Hebrew temple (Cass. Dio 69.12; Hist. Aug. Hadr. xiv 2-7). Still, many serviced areas of genuine economic need, and works could be simultaneously functional and aggrandising: Trajan, for instance, erected stone pillars over the Pontine marshes to make them “traversable”, while still glamourising the project with “most magnificent bridges” (Dio 69.12). The scale of the Good Emperors’ works was supposedly immense, including harbours, bridges, roads, aqueducts, temples, fortifications for garrisons, and theatres. Notably, these projects were dispersed across the provinces of the empire, not just concentrated in Rome. Hadrian in particular took an interest in provincial infrastructure, touring districts of the empire “no other emperor had even set eyes upon” to assess the strength of the empire’s garrisons and fortifications, and to equip provincial cities with works like aqueducts, harbours and granaries (Dio 69.5,9; Hist. Aug. Hadr. xi-xiii). As well as boosting economic growth and development, bolstering provincial infrastructure served an important political purpose, consolidating and fortifying the frontiers of the empire. Hadrian’s commitment to provincial building was thus consistent with his administration’s efforts to monumentalise Rome’s borders. 

As in the case of civil spending, the Good Emperors’ public work programs are likely emphasised to draw favourable comparisons with reviled emperors like Caligula, Nero and Domitian. These comparisons are occasionally made explicit; Dio for instance notes that Trajan “drained no one’s blood for these [building projects]” (Dio 68.7), a reference to Domitian “murdering numbers of men” because he “had no resources for his expenditures” (Dio 67.4). While archaeological and other textual evidence confirms the existence of many of the specific works referenced, it is possible that Dio and SHA overemphasise the Good Emperors’ funding of public works, giving an exaggerated impression of infrastructure spending as a percentage of imperial expenditure. Indeed, Scheidel’s aforementioned modelling suggests that, despite large numbers of actual projects, imperial spending on these projects may in fact have been modest. Dio and SHA’s accounts of the emperors’ largesse should be assessed with this countervailing consideration in mind. 


Dio and the Historia Augusta’s evaluation of the economic policies of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius are seminal sources for our understanding of the Good Emperors. These two sources are extremely complimentary of their private frugality and public largesse, and it has attributed some of this praise to a desire on the authors’ part to contrast the magnanimous Good Emperors with their more avaricious predecessors and successors. It has also revealed a slight divide in military economic policy between Trajan, who expended vast sums on his foreign campaigns, and his heirs, who governed the Roman military with more economic discipline. Importantly, it has also engaged with the limitations of Dio and the Historia Augusta as works of economic history, providing a broader, more objective perspective from which these sources are best understood.


Primary Sources

Foster, Herbert Baldwin. Dio’s Rome: Volume V: Books 61-76. Online Publication: Project Gutenberg, 2004.

Magie, David. The Scriptores Historiae Augustae: Volume 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921.

Lewis, Napthali and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilisation. Selected Readings. Volume 2: The Empire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

“The early reforms and economic policies of Hadrian”, Ancient History Encyclopedia, accessed August 2, 2020

Modern Commentaries

Hammond, Mason. “Economic Stagnation in the Early Roman Empire”, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 6 (May, 1946), pp.63-90.

Hock, Rudolph Paul. “Puns, Aelius Maurus, and the Composition of the Historia Augusta”, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), vol. 112 (1982), pp.107-113.

MacMullen, Ramsay. “The Roman Emperors’ Army Costs”, Latomus, T.43, Fasc. 3 (July-September 1984) pp.571-80.

Scheidel, Walter. “State revenue and expenditure in the Han and Roman empires”, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, April 2012.

Web Based Resources

‘Cassius Dio’,, last modified 1 June 2020.

‘Historia Augusta’,, last modified 16 April 2020.

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