4 – Antoninus Pius (138 – 161)
Antoninus Pius was born in Lanuvium on September 19, 86 AD, and while he was only Hadrian’s second choice, the decision proved to be an excellent one. Antoninus received the nickname ‘Pius’ due to the respect he paid to the memory of his adopted father. He served as consul in 120 AD during the reign of Hadrian and was renowned for being mild-mannered and extremely capable. The emperor trusted him with the governorship of the province of Asia in 134 AD, and he was then selected as one of Hadrian’s most important advisors. As well as adopting Antoninus in 138 AD, Hadrian went one step further by specifying that Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus would be next in line after Antoninus.
Once he became Emperor, he persuaded the Senate to offer divine honors to Hadrian. When his wife died in 140/141 AD, Antoninus founded the Puellae Faustinianae, a charity for daughters of the poor, in her memory. While he wasn’t on Hadrian’s level regarding statesmanship, he was an outstanding ruler as he ensured the Empire remained stable, peaceful and prosperous. Antoninus even stepped in to prevent the persecution of Christians in Thessalonica and Athens.
It appears as if Antoninus’ reign was relatively peaceful with few noteworthy events. However, it could be due to the lack of information from primary sources of the era. There is mention of a rebellion in Roman Britain which was successfully suppressed and revolts in Dacia, Egypt, Germany, and Mauretania. In 142 AD, the Antonine Wall was built to extend the frontier 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain.
The main military action that took place during his reign occurred in Britain as governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus invaded southern Scotland and won some important battles. However, the Antonine Wall was decommissioned in the 150s and completely abandoned in the 160s. Antoninus never commanded an army during his reign as he preferred to remain in Rome and trust his generals.
The emperor made his mark in the field of law and apparently laid down the notion that everyone was innocent until proven guilty. Antoninus also declared that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another man. He also decreed that slaves could be forcibly taken from their masters and sold if consistently mistreated. Many scholars believe that Rome’s imperial government reached its zenith during Antoninus’ reign as he came closer than anyone else to achieving the goal of becoming the embodiment of the state. He was a promoter of equality, justice, and peace and ensured his government existed solely for the purpose of the people.
It would be remiss to suggest Antoninus was the perfect ruler. For example, he extended the use of torture to gain evidence for pecuniary cases. He also spent a fortune in 148 AD celebrating the 900th anniversary of Rome’s foundation. It was a magnificent festival by all accounts, but it drained the treasury to such a degree that the emperor was forced to devalue the denarius. He changed the amount of silver in the coins from 89% to 83.5%. It was the beginning of what was an extraordinary level of currency debasement over the next couple of centuries.
Antoninus was in his seventies as his reign drew to a close and in his later years, he had to nibble on dry bread to help him summon the energy to stay awake during morning meetings. Marcus Aurelius was the heir apparent and began to take on a greater role in terms of administrative duties. On the night of March 6, 161 AD, Antoninus was gravely ill so on the following day, he summoned the imperial council and named Marcus as his successor while also giving his daughter to the future emperor. Antoninus died on March 7; his place in Roman history as one of its finest leaders secure.