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Dignity of a Bygone Age - The Life of Antoninus Pius

Posted August 3rd, 2014 at 03:54 PM by Salah

"Remember his qualities, so that when your last hour comes your conscience may be as clear as his"

-Marcus Aurelius, on Antoninus Pius

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius never intended to publish his Meditations. This does not come as a surprise - he recorded his thoughts with an alarming frankness, even vulnerability. No other figures in Greco-Roman Antiquity have afforded us such an intimate glimpse into their minds.

At the beginning of his writings, Marcus lists the people whom he credits with a positive influence on his life. He speaks at length of his adoptive father. Antoninus Pius taught Marcus, among other things, "gentleness" and "putting a stop to the homosexual love of young men". The esteem in which Marcus held his predecessor was hardly unique. Antoninus Pius was widely hailed as one of the personally greatest men to ever rule the Roman Empire.

Despite his illustrious reputation, Antoninus Pius is an obscure figure. Even for many students of history, he is little more than a name, filling up space between the more eventful reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. This obscurity is unfortunate, but can be understood as a consequence of Antoninus' quiet reign. The Roman Empire was not devoid of violence or controversy in the middle decades of the 2nd Century CE, but Antoninus Pius and his subjects enjoyed the Pax Romana perhaps more than any generation before or after.


The man we call Antoninus Pius experienced a number of name changes throughout his life. For most of his life, he was known as Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus. During the final months of Hadrian's reign, he went by Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus. He received the cognomen Pius - "the Loyal" - early in his reign as emperor, due to his determination to honor his predecessor. Since his death, he has been identified almost invariably as Antoninus Pius.

Antoninus was born in September of 86 CE, when the last Flavian, Domitianus, was emperor. Both his father and his grandfather were named Titus Aurelius Fulvus. They hailed from Nemausus, in southern Gaul, but had relocated the family to central Italy. As with the other emperors of the 2nd Century, it is unclear as to whether Antoninus was descended from Roman settlers, or Romanized provincials. Regardless, both his father and his grandfather became prominent men, each attaining a consulship in Rome.

The future emperor spent his childhood at Lorium, near a village in Etruria not far from Rome. He was to fondly regard Lorium as his home for the rest of his life; during his reign, he built a palace there. His early life was wracked by tragedy, however, upon the premature death of his father. The date and the circumstances of Aurelius Fulvus' death are lost to history, but it is known that the boy's maternal and paternal grandfathers jointly attended to his education.

The path to power and influence in ancient Rome was traditionally a blending of political and military posts. Nonetheless, Antoninus does not appear to have ever commanded any soldiers. As a young man, he was involved in the politics of Rome herself, and this culminated in a consulship in 130. By this point, Antoninus was married. His wife was Annia Galeria Faustina, the aunt of the future emperor Marcus Aurelius. Despite later rumors, the marriage was probably a happy one. It produced two daughters - Faustina minor, and Aurelia Fadilla.

By the early 130s, Antoninus was a prominent senator and a trusted favorite of Emperor Hadrian. He spent several years serving as a circuit judge in Etruria and Umbria, the central Italian regions that would remain close to his heart all of his life. In the middle of the decade, he received a provincial posting, serving as a proconsul in Asia. This appears to have been his only post outside of Italy. It may well have been the only time in his life that he saw the world outside of Italy.


The issue of succession troubled Hadrian in the final decade of his life. The Emperor's relationship with his wife, Vibia Sabina, had been stormy and probably sexless; at any rate, she died before her husband. Initially, Hadrian planned to give the throne to his elderly brother-in-law, Julius Ursus Servianus. In 136, however, the Emperor executed Servianus and his grandson Salinator, apparently on the suspicion that they were plotting against him. He instead chose the prominent senator Lucius Ceionius Commodus to succeed him, but was thwarted again when Commodus died suddenly in January of 138.

A month after the death of Commodus, Hadrian chose Antoninus to succeed him. By this point, Antoninus was a member of the Emperor's intimate circle - he was also well-known and respected amongst his fellow senators. Hadrian ordered Antoninus to adopt his nephew and the orphaned son of Commodus, who would be subsequently groomed as his own successors. These boys, aged seventeen and seven respectively, are now known as Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Marcus was loathe to be brought into the public spotlight. How his own adoptive father felt about Hadrian's choice is unclear.

The final months of Hadrian's life were miserable. Antoninus effectively controlled the government, but also kept a close eye on the Emperor's failing health. At one point, Antoninus narrowly thwarted Hadrian's attempt at suicide. The suffering Emperor finally succumbed in July of 138, leaving Antoninus in control of the Roman Empire.

Hadrian had not been popular with the Senate, and Antoninus spent much of the early energy of his reign campaigning to have him declared a god. Here, his own popularity with his fellow senators proved to be a key asset. Not only was Hadrian declared a god, Antoninus was also awarded the titles of Pius and Pater Patriae.

Tragedy struck Antoninus' life again, early in his reign as emperor. Late in 140 or early in 141, his wife Faustina died. The widowed Emperor never remarried, and does not appear to have taken any lovers. His grief for the empress appears to have been genuine, and he celebrated her life with acts of charity. Shortly after her death, the Emperor built an orphanage for the poor young women of Rome, to save them from lives of prostitution and squalor.

The orphanage built to honor Faustina was representative of a wider trend in Antoninus' reign. The new Emperor had no interest in wars or foreign adventures - he never even set foot outside of Italy during his reign. He spent money lavishly, though not frivolously, with the intention of bettering life for his subjects, particularly those in Rome herself. Few subsequent emperors would ever take such a personal interest in the Mother City.

Contrary to popular depictions, however, the reign of Antoninus Pius was hardly without bloodshed. Warfare raged in the province of Britain throughout his reign; under the supervision of the governor Lollius Urbicius, territory north of Hadrian's Wall was occupied. The new series of fortifications were known as the Antonine Wall, but were evacuated later in the century. Raiding in north Africa was a particular problem during the 150s, and there was also small uprisings in Egypt, Judea, Dacia, and most bizarrely, even in Greece. Antoninus was also the subject of two plots organized by ambitious senators. In both cases, the ringleader suffered the consequences, but Antoninus refused to partake in any witch-hunt amongst their fellow senators. This was in stark contrast to most emperors, both before and after.

Antoninus Pius died in March of 161, leaving the Empire jointly to his adoptive sons Marcus and Verus. It was the first time in Imperial Roman history that an emperor had left the purple to multiple heirs - fortunately, they proved capable of cooperation with one another. The deceased Emperor himself was widely respected for his humility, gentility, and his apparently genuine concern for his subjects. No doubt, in the plagues, wars, and pogroms of the nobility that followed in the next several decades, many in the Roman Empire must have looked back on his seventeen year reign with nostalgic longing.

Primary Sources and Further Reading:

Marcus Aurelius - Meditations
Anthony Everitt - Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome
Michael Grant - the Roman Emperors
Historia Augusta
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  1. Old Comment
    Love it. Meditations was also very pretty.
    Posted August 5th, 2014 at 07:02 PM by Elise Sultanov Elise Sultanov is offline
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