Donald L. Wasson
published on 25 June 2013
When Roman Emperor Hadrian died on July 10, 138 CE, he left, as did his predecessors, an adopted son as his successor, Antoninus Pius (138 – 161 CE). Antoninus - whose last name means dutiful - was a just and compassionate man, well-liked and respected by the common people as well as those in government. For the next 23 years his reign (second only in length to Augustus) would be one of relative peace, assuring him a place among the Five Good Emperors.
In actuality Antoninus Pius was not Hadrian’s initial choice; he wasn’t even his second. In 136 CE, with Hadrian in failing health and on the verge of suicide, he realized that without sons of his own his only option was to adopt. He chose a consul, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his heir. The newly adopted Lucius was immediately dispatched to Pannonia to serve as governor but unfortunately for both men, Lucius died of tuberculosis in January of 138 CE. Hadrian was at a crossroad. While he wanted the much younger Marcus Aurelius (he was only 16) to succeed him, the dying emperor realized Marcus was far too young and chose instead the highly valued and elderly Antoninus who was thought to be “safe” until the young Marcus matured.
To everyone’s surprise not only did Antoninus live a lot longer than anyone expected, but he also proved to be a capable, if not dedicated, emperor. In the words of the historian Cassius Dio, “Antoninus is said to have been of an enquiring mind and not to have held aloof from careful investigation of even small and commonplace matters.” He added, “Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects...”
Although his family originally came from southern Gaul, Antoninus Pius was born in Lanuvium, 20 miles south of Rome, on September 19, 86 CE as Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boinus Arrius Antoninus, a name he shared with his father. His mother was Arria Fadilla, daughter of two-time consul Arrius Antoninus. Both his father and paternal grandfather had served as consuls. The young Antoninus was raised on a large estate at Lorium, first by his paternal grandfather and later by his maternal grandfather. The property he inherited - where he would later build a palace - made him extremely rich and even though he had no military experience, he ably served as consul, praetor, and quaestor, as well as governor in Asia Minor from 135 to 136 CE.
Little information about Antoninus and his time in power has survived. Most of what is known comes from his biographer Julius Capitolinus who wrote, “
In personal appearance he was strikingly handsome, in natural talents brilliant, in temperament kindly; he was aristocratic in countenance and calm in nature, a singularly gifted speaker and an elegant scholar, conspicuously thrifty, a conscientious landholder, gentle, generous, and mindful of other’s rights. He possessed all these qualities, moreover, in the proper mean and without ostentation, and, in fine, was praiseworthy in every way and, in the minds of all good men.
On January 24, 138 CE Emperor Hadrian announced that he intended to adopt the 51 year old Antoninus as his son and heir, and on February 28, 138 CE the adoption took place. The adoption, however, came with a “condition.”. Capitolinus wrote,
The manner of his adoption, they say, was somewhat thus: At any rate, when Hadrian announced a desire to adopt him, he was given time for deciding whether he wanted to be adopted. This condition was attached to his adoption, that as Hadrian took Antoninus as his son, so he in turn should take Marcus Antoninus, his wife’s nephew, and Lucius Verus.
This dual ceremony allowed Marcus to be groomed as Antoninus’s successor. Later, Marcus’s claim to the throne became even more secure when he married Antoninus’s daughter and only surviving child, Faustina the Younger.
On July 10, 138 CE the even-tempered Antoninus Pius assumed the reins of the Roman Empire with the assumption that he would simply carry on the policies of Hadrian. Although the reason behind his last name varies, “Pius” was a name given to him by the Senate supposedly because of his loyalty to the memory of Hadrian. One of his first priorities was to have his “father” Hadrian deified, something the Senate reluctantly approved. While there were minor disturbances in Mauretania, Germany, and Egypt, he trusted his commanders to handle the situation and he never left the safety of Rome (some believe it was too expensive to leave), ruling instead from the city or his estate.
As expected he carried on many of Hadrian’s policies; however, Antoninus still left his imprint on the city and empire. He insisted that the administration of the law be fair and impartial, even freeing many of the men the former emperor had imprisoned (he convinced the Senate that this had been Hadrian’s wish). Trade and commerce flourished and his strict control of finances allowed for a state surplus by the time of his death. His one extravagance was the celebration of the 900th anniversary of Rome. He completed many of Hadrian’s construction projects and he built monuments which included the Temple of the Deified Hadrian and, in memory of his wife, the Temple of the Deified Faustina. He also repaired many public buildings, including the decaying Colosseum. In Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned and a new one, the Antonine Wall, was built 40 miles to the north from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth - this wall would later be abandoned and the Roman’s would retreat to Hadrian’s Wall. His biographer wrote, “He gave largess to the people, and, in addition, a donation to the soldiers….Besides all this, he helped many communities to erect new buildings and to restore the old. “
On March 9, 161 CE Antonius died of a fever, supposedly after a meal of Alpine cheese. His reign would be remembered as one of relative peace. He was laid to rest in Hadrian’s Mausoleum next to his wife and sons. The reins of power were handed over to his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
- Boak, Arthur and Sinnegen, William. A History of Rome to AD 565. MacMillian and Co., 1995.
- Capitolinus, Julius. The Life of Antoninus Pius.
- Cassius Dio. Roman History.
- Hornblower, Simon ed.. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Potter, David. The Emperors of Rome. Metro Books, 2007.
- Scarre, Chris. Chronicles of the Roman Emperors. Thames and Hudson, 1995.