Between the death of Nero, which marked the end of Julio-Claudian dynasty, and the rule of Emperor Hadrian, Rome had undergone considerable transformations, mostly in the negative sense of the word. By the time Nero committed suicide, Rome had been in a serious state of moral decline, which would weaken the empire. His death, and the end of the Julio-Claudian line, was followed by the Flavian Dynasty, which ran from A.D. 69 to A.D. 96 – a relatively brief period of time for a “dynasty,” but the fact that Rome was ravaged by catastrophic natural disasters during this period, most prominently, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, but also the spread of the plague and a massive fire, all of which contributed to the utter destruction of major population centers, including Pompeii, meant that the well-intentioned efforts of the Flavian emperors (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian) never really had a chance to consolidate its hold on the power. The troubles in regions like Palestine, where the Jewish revolt diverted resources and attention, also contributed to the difficulties experienced during this period of Roman history. By the end of the Flavian period, palace intrigues and conspiracies against the emperor saw Rome once again on the precipice of final collapse. While Domitian had enjoyed a relatively long reign, his eventual assassination, driven in no small part due to his severely autocratic methods of governing, marked the end of the Flavian Dynasty.
This was the context into which the Roman Empire transitioned into the period known as “The Five Good Emperors.” Whereas the Julio-Claudian dynasty was characterized by a complex series of marriages, murders, incestuous relationships (courtesy of Caligula), and other bizarre and often violent occurrences, the “Five Good Emperors” were each a product of adoptions, which comprised the system or methodology by which heirs to the throne were selected. Hadrian, of course, was the third of the five, following Nerva and Trajan. Called “good” because of their far more benevolent approaches to ruling over the city and its far-flung empire, these Emperors all focused their attentions more on improving Rome and its environs than on the endless and deadly palace intrigues that tended to characterize their predecessors. Trajan (A.D. 98 to A.D. 117) marked a very significant transformation in Roman governance and its approach to the empire by virtue of his Spanish, rather than Roman or Italian, heritage. His was a particularly enlightened rule, with the relationship of the center (Rome) to its outer branches (the empire) more equitable. This did not mean Trajan was a humanist with respect to foreign policy; on the contrary, under his rule, the expanse of the empire increased considerably. Hadrian, Trajan’s adopted son (as Trajan had been adopted by Nerva), continued to rule in the relatively munificent manner of his predecessor and father. The significance of Hadrian, however, was in his interestingly anti-imperialist views. Whereas the empire expanded under Trajan, it contracted under Hadrian, who withdrew from many of his father’s conquests, including Mesopotamia and Assyria. Hadrian’s emphasis was on improving and reforming the empire as it existed many years prior to his rule rather than on continuing to expand its frontiers to further and further environs.
The major distinction, then, between the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the rule of Hadrian was in the latter’s antipathy towards the process of empire-building.