THE FIRST CHALLENGE 176-185 A.D.: Conspicuous State, Rome; Conspicuous Rival, Marcomanni-Quadi.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE was clearly the dominant European political entity during the first few centuries of the Christian era. During the second century it had reached its maximum in territorial extent, in population, and in material prosperity. Edward Gibbon stated, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian A.D. 96 to the accession of Commodus [ A.D. 180 ]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors whose character and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, as the accountable ministers of the laws. [p. 78]
Even during its period of greatest power, however, the Romans were not without enemies, and it was during the randomly selected decade from 176 to 185 that the Germanic tribes to the north of the imperial borders began their first effective challenge to Roman dominance. The problems the Romans had in meeting this challenge were repeated with ever-increasing severity in the third century, and even though temporarily halted for a period in the fourth century, eventually brought about the dissolution of the Empire.