Antoninus Pius (AD 138 – 161)
(Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius)
The reign of Antoninus Pius was characterised by considerable peace on the borders and a calm and effective administration within the empire. A period that most scholars believe to truly represent the ideal of the ‘Pax Romana’ at its heyday.
Antoninus Pius was born in Lanuvium near Rome in AD 86, but his family, the Aurelii, were originally from Nimes in Gaul. Both his father and grandfather had been consuls as was his maternal grandfather G. Arrius Antoninus, who actually raised Antoninus Pius, following the early death of the boy’s father. Antoninus married Annia Galeria Faustina, whose mother was the sister of Sabina, the wife of the future emperor Hadrian. This was a very successful marriage and Faustina was remembered as an intelligent and cultured woman, who devoted much of her life to charity work, helping the poor and destitute of Rome.
Photo: Steve Coe (British Museum)
An outgoing and friendly person, Faustina shared in much of the public life of her husband and consequently the Senate voted her the title of ‘Augusta‘ or Empress. Antoninus and Faustina had two sons and two daughters, but only one daughter was still surviving when Antoninus became emperor in AD 138. This daughter, Faustina the younger, was to marry the future emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Faustina the elder died in AD 141 and was greatly mourned by her husband, who persuaded the Senate to deify her. He created a fund for orphaned girls, and an ‘alimenta’ (grain dole) in her memory and built a temple in her honour in the Forum. After Antoninus’s death and subsequent deification, the temple was re-dedicated to include him as well. The temple subsequently became a Christian church and is still in use today.
Photo: Steve Coe (Roman Forum)
The Succession after Hadrian
Through his marriage to Faustina, who was the daughter of Rupilia Faustina, the half-sister of the Emperor’s wife Sabina, Antininus’s connection to the imperial family probably secured him the position of consul in AD 120. In any event, his administrative talents were recognised by Hadrian and as Proconsul, he became governor of provinces, including the important and wealthy province of Asia. Following the untimely death of Aelius Verus, who had been the adoptive son and heir apparent of the childless emperor Hadrian, Antoninus became the next choice of the ailing emperor. However, he was adopted on the express condition that he in turn adopt his wife’s nephew Marcus Aurelius and also Lucius Verus the son of the late Aelius Verus. By this act, Hadrian had thus fixed the succession for the next two generations.
Hadrian, although very talented and a good administrator was unpopular with the Senate in his later life, as he had become morose and reclusive after the death of his young lover Antinous. He had also been guilty of abusing his power by taking several unjust and arbitrary actions against people who crossed him and condemning men to death without due judicial process. Accordingly on his death the Senate did not wish to vote him the customary honours, but Antoninus demanded that his adoptive father be granted the rites of deification. This demonstration of loyalty, earned him the epithet ‘Pius’. He also endeared himself to the Senate and people by releasing men condemned to death by Hadrian.
Antoninus Pius’s reign was characterised by substantial peace throughout the Roman provinces, with no major incursions or wars on the borders, although there were minor outbreaks, but these were isolated and quickly contained. Antoninus was no soldier and in contrast to an Emperor such as Trajan, seems to have had little or no no ambition for military glory and rather prefered to preserve the status quo. Nevertheless, his general Lollius Urbicus did have some success in further stabilising the Northern part of Britain and under his direction the border was pushed northwards from Hadrians Wall. Rome thus acquired part of southern Scotland and established a new demarcation – the Antonine Wall, which stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Clyde.
In other regions, the ‘Limes’ established by Hadrian in Germania were further strengthened, but no military adventurism was condoned. Antoninus was fortunate that he never had to deal with any substantial military threat in his lifetime, as the military genius of Hadrian had left him in a very strong strategic position. However it could well be that a more active military policy from Antoninus, simply to demonstrate Roman strength abroad, might well have increased respect for Rome’s influence and thereby reduced the grave threats that were subsequently to so trouble the reign of his successor, Marcus Aurelius.
Arts of Peace
Although known to be frugal with money and never ostentatious, Antoninus was actually a very generous ruler, who used his great personal wealth judiciously to alleviate the lot of the poor and destitute. Unlike his predecessor Hadrian, during Antoninus’s long reign, he never travelled very far from Rome, as he said that he did not want to burden the Provinces with the cost of supporting him and his retinue. Antoninus was a builder of public works and supporter of civic institutions. He particularly took great interest in the law and sponsored the work of several great Jurists. He insisted that the law become more humane, to both freemen and slaves and established the principle that a person was to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Antoninus Pius died of fever on a country estate, just outside Rome in AD 161, leaving behind a secure succession and a tradition of good and benign governance. That there was little for the history books to report of his reign, should not be considered a criticism, but rather something of a compliment to a benign and wise leader, who did not seek military glory or abuse his subjects. It was during such periods of calm and peace that the true and lasting strengths of Roman institutions found the space to most firmly root themselves into the consciousness of mankind, both at Rome and in the provinces, and so entrench the traditions of good governance and rule of law that lasted to inspire and shape the free Western world that we experience today.