March 7, 2016, by Will Leveritt
On this day in AD 161, the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius died
Text by Mike Welbourn
Image by Sarah Jordan
Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Antoninus was born on 19 September, 86 on the family estate at Lanuvium, in Italy. However, his family came originally from Nemausus (modern-day Nîmes) in the province of Transalpine Gaul. Both sides of his family were of consular rank.
About his early political career we know very little. He was quaestor around 111, then praetor (perhaps around 116), before reaching the consulship in 120. Under Hadrian, Italy had been split into four quasi-provinces governed by ex-consuls and after his consulship Antoninus was appointed to one of these positions.
The Historia Augusta states that he was given control of the area in which most of his own land was situated, a mark of both the esteem in which he was held by Hadrian and of the trust the emperor had in him, for there was clearly the potential for conflicts of interest in his administration of the region.
Antoninus’ final post before becoming emperor came around 134 or 135, when he was awarded the high-profile governorship of the province of Asia, which we are told he ruled in a just and upright manner.
In 136, shortly after Antoninus’ return from the East, Hadrian, whose health had started to fail him, began looking for an heir and successor. He settled first on a senator named Lucius Ceionius Commodus, whom he adopted. Commodus became Lucius Aelius Caesar.
However, in January 138, Aelius died suddenly and Hadrian was obliged to seek a new heir. It was now that the ailing emperor chose Antoninus. Before adopting him, Hadrian obliged Antoninus to adopt both Commodus’ young son, and the grandson of Antoninus’ own father-in-law. These boys would become the emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, respectively.
Hadrian died in July 138. With some exceptions, the normal response to the death of an emperor involved the granting of posthumous honours and deification. But Hadrian’s relationship with the Roman senate had been strained from the beginning and there was resistance to the idea.
Antoninus, however, seems to have pushed for Hadrian to be granted these honours and granted they were. This is one of several possible explanations offered in the sources for why the senate subsequently gave Antoninus the additional, honorific name of Pius (‘faithful’ or ‘dutiful’).
At 23 years, Antoninus’ reign was one of the longest. It was also one of the most stable and peaceful. That is not to say it was entirely without military activity: we hear of rebellions in Egypt and Greece, and actions against some Germanic and Dacian tribes.
A campaign in Britain seems to have been a little more serious, insofar as it prompted Antoninus to construct the Antonine Wall, some 99 miles north of Hadrian’s. But at no point during his reign did the Roman Empire experience a major invasion, or launch a major offensive.
Domestically, the picture painted by our sources is of a diligent, conscientious, mild-mannered, just, prudent, moderate, and generally highly competent ruler. This portrait is in line with the equally hagiographic descriptions of Antoninus the man: he was apparently handsome, intelligent, even-tempered, a gifted speaker, restrained in his appetites, generous, friendly, and utterly without ostentation. In short, he seems to have been the perfect Roman noble.
Antoninus’ long and prosperous reign came to its end on 7 March, 161. He was 75 years old. It seems he had caught a fever from which he never recovered. His final word, given to the Praetorian guardsman then on duty, was the watchword for the day, ‘equanimity’. He was afterwards deified.
He died at his country estate outside the town of Lorium, in Italy. In stark contrast to his predecessor Hadrian, Antoninus had never left Italy (save for his turn as governor of Asia), nor been to the frontier or interacted with the legions stationed there. Antoninus’ policy of avoiding warfare as far as possible may, however, have been an error to some degree.
Almost as soon as Marcus Aurelius (who had married Antoninus’ daughter, Faustina Minor) and Lucius Verus ascended the throne as co-emperors, a major conflict with the neighbouring Parthian Empire erupted in the East. Almost as soon as this war was won, another broke out in the north against various Germanic tribes. Beating them back would consume the remainder of Marcus’ time as emperor.
The Historia Augusta says that on his deathbed Antoninus talked about the anger he felt towards certain foreign kings. We might wonder if these are the Parthian and German rulers who would make trouble for his successors, and whether some pre-emptive action under Antoninus might have spared his heirs much trouble.