Emperor Antoninus Pius

Life: AD 86 – 161

Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus Pius
  • Name: Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus
  • Born on 19 September AD 86 at Rome.
  • Consul AD 120, 139, 140, 145.
  • Became emperor on 10 July AD 138.
  • Wife: Annia Galeria Faustina ‘the elder’ (two sons – Marcus Aurelius and Marcus Galerius; two daughters – Aurelia Fadilla, Annia Galeria ‘the younger’).
  • Died at Lorium on March 7 AD 161.

Early Life

Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus was born on 19 September AD 86 at Lanuvium (ca. 20 miles south of Rome). His family had long before come from the city of Nemausus (Nïmes) in southern Gaul, but for a long time, since they had been a prominent and distinguished family in Rome.

Antoninus’ father, Titus Aurelius Fulvus, had held the office of consul once in AD 89, while his grandfather had even held it twice. As a boy, Antoninus grew up at the family estate at Lorium in southern Etruria, roughly 10 miles to the west of Rome. He was raised first by his paternal grandfather, as his father died when he was still young. On the death of this grandfather, the maternal grandfather took charge of him.

Inheriting the wealth of both his grandfathers made Antoninus one of the richest men in Rome. He embarked on the traditional career for a senator, climbing the ladder of various offices, achieving the post of quaestor, then praetor, and, alas, in AD 120, becoming consul under emperor Hadrian. After this, Hadrian chose him to be one of the four high judges who administered the administered law in Italy.

Raising Through the Ranks

He served as governor of the province of Asia from AD 135 to 136. Most likely, on the basis of the very good reputation he had made for himself as governor of Asia, Antoninus when he returned to Rome, was made a member of the imperial council, a body of advisors to the emperor.

Emperor Antoninus Pius
Source: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World from New York, United States of America, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite his consulship and remarkable conduct as governor of Asia, Antoninus’ experience of government was fairly limited. More still, he possessed no knowledge of any military matters whatsoever, and other than his stay in the province of Asia, he had never been beyond the borders of Italy. So, it was clearly his impressive person – honorable, sound, and clearheaded – that won him the respect of the senate and the emperor.

Next in line to be an Emperor

Then, on his 62nd birthday (24 January AD 138), Hadrian, by now of failing health, announced he was to adopt Antoninus Pius. The adoption ceremony was held a month later, on 25 February AD 138. The ceremony revealed Hadrian’s plans for the empire. In adopting Antoninus, Hadrian just sought a safe pair of hands into which to trust the empire for the immediate future. But 51 years old at the time and childless, Antoninus was not to be the main aim of Hadrian’s intentions.

For the ceremony in which Hadrian adopted Antoninus, simultaneously had Antoninus adopt Marcus Annius Verus (Marcus Aurelius), Hadrian’s young nephew, and Lucius Ceionius Commodus, the young son of the deceased Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who had been Hadrian’s first choice as heir.

If, however, Hadrian had thought that the relatively old Antoninus Pius would not reign for long before his death would hand power to the heirs he intended, then he was wrong. It was because Antoninus was to live to the ripe old age of 74 (almost as old as Augustus), ruling longer than Trajan or Hadrian.

The Virtues of Antoninus

Following the example of Hadrian, Antoninus was also a bearded emperor. Tall and handsome, physically strong, he possessed a calm and kind nature, though with a stern, aristocratic air. He represented many of the virtues the Romans sought to see in their emperor. An accomplished speaker, sound in morals, incorruptible by the temptations of easy living, not given to flaunting his wealth, he was dedicated to his duties.

Compared to his predecessors, Antoninus was clearly not an ambitious emperor. But then, he most likely understood himself as the custodian of an empire that was to be passed on to the young heirs chosen by Hadrian. And so he sought to maintain rather than to make his own mark.

Emperor Antoninus Pius
Source: kladcat, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But there is no doubt that Antoninus possessed a willful, even determined side. For when he began to bend with old age, he wore a truss made of splints of lime wood to allow him to walk erect. For, evidently, it was his decision that Romans should have an emperor who should walk upright.

Antoninus had no surviving sons. His only surviving daughter, Faustina the Younger, eventually married Marcus Aurelius, further strengthening the succession intended by Hadrian. The reason for the addition of ‘Pius’ (meaning ‘dutiful’ or ‘respectful’) to his name is something that appears unclear even to Roman historians. Several different possibilities are known:

– he used to support his frail and elderly father-in-law with his arm when attending the senate

– he pardoned those whom Hadrian embittered by ill health had sentenced to death

– he insisted on great honors being bestowed on Hadrian despite general opposition

– he guarded Hadrian against killing himself when the emperor despaired at his illness

– he was a truly compassionate and kind emperor who ruled with great care and moderation

Becoming an Emperor

At the death of Hadrian on 10 July AD 138, Antoninus’ succession to the throne was a seamless, peaceful event. There was no opposition. The officials of Hadrian’s government remained largely unchanged. Antoninus, if already respected before his accession, quickly won the goodwill of the senators for being a moderate ruler who was respectful of the ancient institution of the senate.

However, all should not go smoothly at first. Namely, the deification of Hadrian, which Antoninus demanded, was vehemently opposed. Hadrian had been unpopular, even hated. Worse still, he had executed some senators. But it was to be a battle of wills, which Antoninus won.

He clearly understood it as his duty to have divine status conferred upon the man – his adoptive father! – to whom he owed the throne. To have failed in this duty would not only have questioned the honor of Hadrian but so too that of Antoninus himself. And so, even if deeply unpopular and bitterly opposed by the senate at that early time of his reign, Antoninus’ reasons were still much understood and respected.

The Mild Rule of Antoninus

With these initial problems behind him, Antoninus was renowned for being a mild and compassionate ruler. He established new laws, protecting slaves from cruelty and abuse. During his reign, two treason trials were conducted, yet not, like in previous reigns, blindly following the whims and allegations of an emperor, but according to law. Also, Antoninus avoided any witch-hunts to find co-conspirators. As a consequence of such a style of rule, Antoninus was a popular emperor.

Emperor Antoninus Pius
Source: Johnnie Shannon, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Antoninus did not travel the empire like his predecessor, and in fact, he hardly ever left the capital at all during his 23-year rule. And if he left, he would never move much further away from Rome than Campania or Etruria. He said he worried about the expenses an emperor and his court might incur upon a province if he chose to travel.

If Antoninus’ reign is much known for its peace and tranquility, it is due to the calm of the man – rather than due to there being true peace along the borders of the empire. Southern Scotland was conquered, with Hadrian’s wall being abandoned and a new defense – the Antonine Wall – being built ca. 40 miles further north.

Dealing with Rebellions

Brigands caused trouble in Mauretania (AD 150), the next trouble arose in Germany, an uprising took place in Egypt (AD 154), and rebellions flared up in Judaea and Greece. Another rebellion arose in Dacia (AD 158), and conflicts ensued with the Alans.

But Antoninus was at times able to convince an opponent of the futility of war merely by threatening it. Knowing of the renown of the Roman legions, he sent a letter to the king of Parthia, Vologaeses, telling him of Rome’s willingness to intervene should he decide to attack Armenia. Vologaeses thought better of it and dropped his plans for an attack.

Death of Emperor Antoninus

Emperor Antoninus Pius
Mausoleum of Hadrian

Alas, Antoninus died after a very short illness in his sleep, having handed the reins of government to his adopted son Marcus Aurelius on that very day, 7 March AD 161. Antoninus died a very popular man and was deified by the senate without opposition.

His body was laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, together with the body of his wife and sons, who had died much earlier. Antoninus’ famous successor, Marcus Aurelius, paid this tribute to him: ‘Remember his qualities, so that when your last hour comes, your conscience may be as clear as his.’

People Also Ask:

Emperor Antoninus Pius

What was Antoninus Pius best known for?

Antoninus Pius was a good emperor because he avoided wars, had a conservative financial policy that promoted saving instead of spending, and because he revised laws to make them less harsh.

Did Antoninus Pius adopt Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus’s father died when he was three, and he was raised by his mother and paternal grandfather. After Hadrian’s adoptive son, Aelius Caesar, died in 138, Hadrian adopted Marcus’s uncle Antoninus Pius as his new heir. In turn, Antoninus adopted Marcus and Lucius, the son of Aelius.

Is Antoninus Pius a good leader?

Antoninus Pius was a Roman emperor from AD 138 to 161. Mild-mannered and capable, he was the fourth of the “five good emperors” who guided the empire through an 84-year period (96–180) of internal peace and prosperity.

Did Antoninus Pius leave Italy?

As well as piety, Antoninus is well known as a Roman emperor for his peaceful approach to imperial management. Whether or not it was a cause or a consequence of his decision never to leave Italy, the period of his reign – from AD 138 to 161 – was the most peaceful in all of Rome’s imperial history.

Who was the most peaceful Roman emperor?

Antonius Pius led during the most peaceful time in Rome and did not command an army within his rule. This ancient Roman leader used his power to support building public works and arts. He built a wall of his own, named Antonine’s Wall, in modern-day Scotland, though it was half the size of Hadrian’s.

What did Emperor Pius do?

He became an adviser to Hadrian and, in 138, was made Hadrian’s heir. On accession, he had the deceased emperor declared a god; for such dutiful acts, he was named Pius (“Pious”). He quelled rebellions in Britain and other provinces and built the Antonine Wall.