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Antoninus Pius

Roman Emperor, reigned 138-161 (86-161)

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Antoninus Pius (Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius), Roman Emperor (138-161), b. September 18, A.D. 86, at Lanuvium, a short distance from Rome; d. at Lorium, March 7, 161. Much of his youth was spent at Lorium, which was only twelve miles from Rome. Later on he built a villa there, to which he would frequently retreat from the cares of the empire, and in which he died, in his seventy-fifth year. His early career was that usually followed by the sons of senatorial families. He entered public life while quite young and after exercising the office of praetor, became consul in 120, at the age of thirty-four. Shortly after the expiration of his consulate he was selected by Hadrian as one of the four men of consular rank whom he placed over the four judicial districts into which Italy was then divided. The duration of this office and its character cannot be decided with accuracy. Antoninus was afterwards proconsul in Asia, where his remarkable administrative qualities attracted the attention of the Emperor, who admitted him to the “Consilium Principis” on his return to Rome. After the death of Lucius Aelius Commodus Verus, Hadrian adopted Antoninus as his successor, on condition that he, in turn, would adopt as his sons and successors M. Annius Verus (Marcus Aurelius) and Aelius Lucius Verus. On his adoption (February 25, 138) Antoninus changed his name to Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus. He shared the imperial power with Hadrian until the death of the latter, July 10, 138, when he became sole ruler. Historians, generally speaking, are unanimous in their praise of the character of Antoninus and of the success and blessings of his reign (for a rather unfavorable estimate, see Schiller, Geschichte der rom. Kaiserzeit, II, 138). His conception of the duties of his office was high and noble, and his exercise of the almost unlimited power placed in his hands marked him as a man thoroughly devoted to the interests of humanity. In his private life and in the management of his court he followed true Stoic simplicity, entirely removed from excess or extravagance. His reign was unquestionably the most peaceful and the most prosperous in the history of Rome. No wars were undertaken, except those necessary to guard the frontiers of the Empire against invasion or to suppress insurrections. The conflicts with the Berbers in Africa and some of the German and Tauro-Scythian tribes on the Danube were merely punitive expeditions to prevent further encroachments on Roman soil. The short-lived insurrection in Egypt and that of the Jews in Armenia and Palestine were quickly suppressed. For years the Pax Romana prevailed over the entire Empire, and brought blessings and happiness to probably 150,000,000 people, whose interests and whose safety were safeguarded by an army of 350,000 soldiers. The only extension of the Roman territory in the reign of Antoninus was in Britain, where a new wall was built at the foot of the Caledonian mountains between the Forth and the Clyde, considerably farther north than the wall of Hadrian.

The internal peace and prosperity were no less remarkable than the absence of war. Trade and commerce flourished; new routes were opened, and new roads built throughout the Empire, so that all parts of it were in close touch with the capital. The remarkable municipal life of the period, when new and flourishing cities covered the Roman world, is revealed by the numerous inscriptions that record the generosity of wealthy patrons or the activity of free burghers. Despite the traditional hostility of Rome to the formation of clubs and societies, guilds and organizations of all conceivable kinds, mainly for philanthropic purposes, came into existence everywhere. By means of these associations the poorer classes were in a sense insured against poverty and had the certainty that they would receive decent burial. The activity of the Emperor was not confined to merely official acts; private movements for the succour of the poor and of orphans received his unstinted support. The scope of the alimentary institutions of former reigns was broadened, and the establishment of charitable foundations such as that of the “Puellae Faustinianae “is a sure indication of a general softening of manners and a truer sense of humanity. The period was also one of considerable literary and scientific activity, though the general artistic movement of the time was decidedly of the “Rococo” type. The most lasting influence of the life and reign of Antoninus was that which he exercised in the sphere of law. Five great Stoic jurisconsults, Vinidius Verus, Salvius Valens, Volusius Miecianus, Ulpius Marcellus, and Diavolenus, were the constant advisers of the Emperor, and, under his protection, they infused a spirit of leniency and mildness into Roman legislation which effectually safeguarded the weak and the unprotected, slaves, wards, and orphans, against aggressions of the powerful. The entire system of law was not remodeled in the reign of Antoninus, but an impulse was given in this direction which produced the later golden period of Roman jurisprudence under Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Alexander Severus.

In religion Antoninus was deeply devoted to the traditional worship of the Empire. He had none of the scepticism of Hadrian, none of the blind fanaticism of his successor. Perhaps as a consequence superstition and the worship of new deities multiplied under his administration. In his dealings with the Christians Antoninus went no further than to maintain the procedure outlined by Trajan, though the unswerving devotion of the Emperor to the national gods could not fail to bring the conduct of the Christians into unfavorable contrast. Very few indications of the Emperor’s attitude towards his Christian subjects are to be found in contemporary documents. The most valuable is that of the Christian Bishop Melito of Sardes (Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., IV, xxvi, 10). In his “Apology” to Marcus Aurelius he speaks of “letters” addressed by Antoninus Pius to the Larissaeans, the Thessalonians, the Athenians, and to all the Greeks, forbidding all tumultuous outbreaks against the Christians. The edict found in Eusebius (op. cit., IV, 13) is now looked on by most critics as a forgery of the latter half of the second century. In the past, Tillemont, and in the present, Wieseler stand for its genuineness. “It speaks in admiring terms of the innocence of the Christians, declares unproved the charges against them, bids men admire the steadfastness and faith with which they met the earthquake and other calamities that drove others to despair, ascribes the persecutions to the jealousy which men felt against those who were truer worshippers of God than themselves.” This temper of mind was entirely in conformity with the spirit of the existing legislation as laid down by Trajan and interpreted by Hadrian: that extrajudicial action on the part of the people against the Christians should not be tolerated by the authorities. The death of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, which took place in 155 or 156, shows how a Roman proconsul, though he knew his duty, still permitted himself to be swayed by popular clamor. In the case of the proconsul Prudens (Tertull., Ad. Scap., ix) we see how ineffectual popular outcries were in the face of strong administration, and how efficiently the interests of the Christians were safeguarded, except in the case of actual evidence in an open court. There can be no doubt, however, that persecution did take place in the reign of Antoninus, and that many Christians did suffer death. The pages of the contemporary apologists, though lacking in detail, are ample proof that capital punishment was frequently inflicted. The passive attitude of Antoninus had no small influence on the internal development of Christianity. Heresy was then rampant on all sides; consequently, in order to strengthen the bonds of discipline and morality, and to enforce unity of doctrine, concerted action was called for. The tolerant attitude of the Emperor made possible a broad and vigorous activity on the part of the Christian bishops, one evidence of which is the institution of synods or councils of the Christian leaders, then first held on an extensive scale, and described at some length by Eusebius in his Church History. In this way, it may be said, the Emperor contributed to the development of Christian unity.


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