Under Augustus (r. 31 BCE –14 CE) Rome had become one of the world’s greatest empires, which went on to enjoy some 200 years of unrivalled stability (the Pax Romana, or Roman peace). The dynastic struggles of Augustus’s heirs, the Julio-Claudian dynasty, were followed by the much more stable, expansionist rule of the Flavian and Nervan-Antonin Dynasties. During this period of increasing prosperity (96–192 CE) the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) presided over a socially cohesive empire and gradually consolidated its borders. When Marcus Aurelius, a practitioner of Stoicism and a much-admired philosopher, died in 180 CE it was said that this fateful year marked the descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron’. Marcus Aurelius was an able leader who defeated the Germanic tribes in the Marcomannic Wars (166–80 CE) and suppressed a number of revolts and uprisings on Rome’s eastern frontier. However, the growing centralization of Rome’s administration and the accompanying weakness of the provinces made the empire’s borders increasingly vulnerable; Marcus Aurelius’s struggles with the Germanic tribes were a portent of the troubles to come.
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