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Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius was Roman emperor from 138 to 161 CE. When Roman emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) died on July 10, 138 CE, he left, as did his predecessors, an adopted son as his successor, Antoninus Pius. Antoninus - whose last name means dutiful - was a just and compassionate man, well-liked and respected by the common people as well as those in the Roman government. For the next 23 years, his reign (second only in length to Augustus) would be one of relative peace, assuring him a place among the Five Good Emperors.

Early Life

In actuality Antoninus Pius was not Hadrian's initial choice; he was not even his second. In 136 CE, with Hadrian in failing health and on the verge of suicide, he realized that without sons of his own his only option was to adopt. He chose a consul, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his heir. The newly adopted Lucius was immediately dispatched to Pannonia to serve as governor, but unfortunately for both men, Lucius died of tuberculosis in January of 138 CE. Hadrian was at a crossroads. While he wanted the much younger Marcus Aurelius (he was only 16) to succeed him, the dying emperor realized Marcus was far too young and chose instead the highly valued and elderly Antoninus who was thought to be “safe” until the young Marcus matured.

Antoninus Pius proved to be a capable, if not always dedicated, emperor.

To everyone's surprise, not only did Antoninus live a lot longer than anyone expected but he also proved to be a capable, if not dedicated, emperor. In the words of the historian Cassius Dio, “Antoninus is said to have been of an enquiring mind and not to have held aloof from careful investigation of even small and commonplace matters.” He added, “Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects...”

Although his family originally came from southern Gaul, Antoninus Pius was born in Lanuvium, 20 miles south of Rome, on September 19, 86 CE as Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boinus Arrius Antoninus, a name he shared with his father. His mother was Arria Fadilla, daughter of two-time consul Arrius Antoninus. Both his father and paternal grandfather had served as consuls. The young Antoninus was raised on a large estate at Lorium, first by his paternal grandfather and later by his maternal grandfather. The property he inherited - where he would later build a palace - made him extremely rich, and even though he had no military experience, he ably served as consul, praetor, and quaestor, as well as governor in Asia Minor from 135 to 136 CE.

Little information about Antoninus and his time in power has survived. Most of what is known comes from his biographer Julius Capitolinus who wrote:

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In personal appearance he was strikingly handsome, in natural talents brilliant, in temperament kindly; he was aristocratic in countenance and calm in nature, a singularly gifted speaker and an elegant scholar, conspicuously thrifty, a conscientious landholder, gentle, generous, and mindful of others' rights. He possessed all these qualities, moreover, in the proper mean and without ostentation, and, in fine, was praiseworthy in every way and, in the minds of all good men.

On January 24, 138 CE Emperor Hadrian announced that he intended to adopt the 51-year-old Antoninus as his son and heir, and on February 28, 138 CE the adoption took place. The adoption, however, came with a condition. Capitolinus wrote,

The manner of his adoption, they say, was somewhat thus: At any rate, when Hadrian announced a desire to adopt him, he was given time for deciding whether he wanted to be adopted. This condition was attached to his adoption, that as Hadrian took Antoninus as his son, so he in turn should take Marcus Antoninus, his wife's nephew, and Lucius Verus.

This dual ceremony allowed Marcus to be groomed as Antoninus' successor. Later, Marcus' claim to the throne became even more secure when he married Antoninus' daughter and only surviving child, Faustina the Younger.


On July 10, 138 CE the even-tempered Antoninus Pius assumed the reins of the Roman Empire with the assumption that he would simply carry on the policies of Hadrian. Although the reason behind his last name varies, “Pius” was a name given to him by the Roman Senate supposedly because of his loyalty to the memory of Hadrian. One of his first priorities was to have his “father” Hadrian deified, something the Senate reluctantly approved. While there were minor disturbances in Mauretania, Germany, and Egypt, he trusted his commanders to handle the situation and he never left the safety of Rome (some believe it was too expensive to leave), ruling instead from the city or his estate.

As expected he carried on many of Hadrian's policies; however, Antoninus still left his imprint on the city and empire. He insisted that the administration of the law be fair and impartial, even freeing many of the men the former emperor had imprisoned (he convinced the Senate that this had been Hadrian's wish). Trade and commerce flourished and his strict control of finances allowed for a state surplus by the time of his death. His one extravagance was the celebration of the 900th anniversary of Rome.

He completed many of Hadrian's construction projects and he built monuments which included the Temple of the Deified Hadrian and, in memory of his wife, the Temple of the Deified Faustina. He also repaired many public buildings, including the decaying Colosseum. In Scotland, Hadrian's Wall was abandoned and a new one, the Antonine Wall, was built 40 miles to the north from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth - this wall would later be abandoned and the Romans would retreat to Hadrian's Wall. His biographer wrote, “He gave largess to the people, and, in addition, a donation to the soldiers….Besides all this, he helped many communities to erect new buildings and to restore the old. “

On March 9, 161 CE Antonius died of a fever, supposedly after a meal of Alpine cheese. His reign would be remembered as one of relative peace. He was laid to rest in Hadrian's Mausoleum next to his wife and sons. The reins of power were handed over to his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE) and Lucius Verus (r. 161-169 CE).

Antoninus Pius

The rise of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, more simply known as Antoninus Pius, could be considered an unlikely yet fortunate turn of events. His reign as Roman emperor, though far from one of perpetual peace as has often been described, was one of political stability, economic prosperity and consistent military strength. Antoninus was born in September, AD 86 in the city of Lanuvium, very near to Rome.

Despite his family heritage originating from Narbonensis (the southern coast of Gaul), his grandfather (Titus Aurelius Fulvus) had risen to the consulship twice and his father (Aurelius Fulvus) had served once in the same capacity. To further cement the prestige and aristocratic lineage of his family, the future emperor's maternal grandfather Arrius Antoninus had also served two consulships. When his father died at a young age Antoninus was left in the care of his grandfathers. His mother, Arria Fadilla, remarried yet another man of consular rank, Julius Lupus.

Unfortunately, like his predecessors Trajan and Hadrian, there are few surviving written accounts for the life of Antoninus. For example, Cassius Dio's work is terribly fragmented, essentially leaving us with roughly six short paragraphs of unrelated (though still valuable) material. The main source for Antoninus, the Historia Augusta, credited to Julius Capitoninus, provides much more detail but has long been debated by scholars for its accuracy. As such, little is known of the life of Antoninus prior to his accession. He was married to Annia Galeria Faustina, with whom he had four children (2 sons and 2 daughters). Though three of the children did not figure in imperial affairs, one daughter, Faustina the Younger was later to marry Antoninus' nephew and adopted heir Marcus Aurelius. Antoninus seemingly rose in a typical fashion for a young man with his familial legacy, serving as quaestor and praetor before reaching the consulship under Hadrian around AD 120.

Antoninus' rise under Hadrian continued with an appointment as one of four consular administrators of Italy, which included the territory encompassing Hadrian's own estates. By the early 130's AD, Antoninus' Senatorial career reached its pinnacle, when he was appointed governor of the prestigious Roman province of Asia Minor. While the relationship between Hadrian and Antoninus is largely unknown, the course of the relationship took a decided and unexpected turn with the death of Hadrian's heir Lucius Ceionius Commodus in AD 138. Antoninus' position as a distinguished and respected proconsular Senator made him an attractive alternative, an alternative that would prove invaluable to uninterrupted succession and Hadrian's legacy (including his deification). Hadrian named Antoninus as his second choice for adopted heir with the condition that he in turn adopt his own nephew Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus (later Marcus Aurelius) and the son of Hadrian's first named heir Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (later Lucius Verus). Antoninus was given time to consider the proposition (reflective of both his and Hadrian's effectiveness as leaders), before finally agreeing to the terms. Hadrian's new heir was effectively given joint imperial power, proconsular imperium and tribunician authority, allowing him to learn "on the job" before Hadrian passed away in July of the same year (AD 138).

Antoninus succeeded Hadrian at the age of 51 years old, likely not having been expected to reign for long (hence partly explaining the desire for him to succeed Hadrian with pre-determined heirs in place). Unlike Hadrian, who succeeded Trajan under a cloud of uncertain legality regarding his adoption and with some political opposition, Antoninus' position had been sufficiently secured through the public adoption process. Despite his complete absence of military experience (at least as far as the historical record provides) Antoninus would rule the empire for 23 prosperous and largely peaceful years (coupled with the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and his son/successor Commodus the peaceful uninterrupted succession would total some 55 years).

Unlike his predecessors, Trajan who campaigned for extended periods in Dacia, Armenia and Parthia, and Hadrian who toured the provinces of the entire empire, Antoninus governed the empire almost exclusively from the city of Rome and the surrounding regional territory of central Italy. A career politician and aristocrat, Antoninus seemed to be "at home" within reach of Senatorial peers and launched a reign consisting of conservative fiscal policy, diplomatic appeasement rather than aggression and continued social welfare programs.

Top 10 Roman Emperors: Antoninus Pius, The “Working From Home” Emperor

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Working from home has been the cool thing to do during the COVID-19 era. But let’s not pretend it’s a new thing, because Antoninus Pius did it before it was cool.

That’s silly, you might say, how can someone work from home in Ancient Rome? Antoninus was about 1900 years away from the invention of the internet!

Well, Antoninus ruled the Roman Empire from the comfort of his palace in his 20+ years as emperor, he never left Italy, and successfully ruled Rome during its Golden Age.

Antoninus was the fourth of the Five Good Emperors, and the first of these that shows up on this list. The Five Good Emperors, also known as the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, are a line of successful emperors that ruled from 96-180.

For the most part, the Five Good Emperors were either related by blood or through political marriages. Each was adopted as a son by the sitting emperor to inherit the throne.

Sound like nepotism? Well it’s not, actually. Each of these emperors adopted a highly qualified individual from within his ranks. Sensible, right? Shouldn’t the most qualified person run state affairs? Looking at you, America.

Adopted Into Being a GOAT

Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius was born in modern-day Lanuvio, Italy (a town a few miles south of Rome) to a family of senatorial rank. His grandfather achieved elite status serving under Vespasian when he campaigned for the throne during the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD.

Hadrian (ruled 117-138), Antoninus’s predecessor, adopted Antoninus as a son in 138 after gaining an excellent reputation in high-ranking public office positions. Hadrian’s health had been in decline, and as a result was very unpredictable and attempted suicide many times. Antoninus stopped him from killing himself on many occasions. Eventually, Hadrian gave up and left Rome for his private villa in modern-day Naples to live out the rest of his life indulging in food and drink.

Am I the only one wondering why he didn’t just indulge in food and drink without trying to kill himself? I mean, that sounds like a nice way to live your final days on Earth.

Antoninus was at Hadrian’s side on his deathbed. When Hadrian died, Antoninus pardoned everyone whom Hadrian had sentenced to death. Hadrian wasn’t mentally all there his last few years on the throne and gave out unjust death sentences to many.

One of the people he pardoned was the Roman rapper named Lil’ Caesar. He was vital to Roman pop culture. That’s probably where Trump got the idea to pardon Lil’ Wayne. Wow, Roman traditions really do live in the modern day!

Putting In That Work, From Home

During Antoninus’s reign, there were hardly any revolts to put down and very few disturbances from outside invaders. Rome’s top generals commanded the army on behalf of Antoninus some historians say that Antoninus never commanded an army in his life! So with this in mind, can you blame him for never leaving his palace? Boy was living that good life!

Despite this, Antoninus was no slouch, because even though he didn’t visit every single province like Hadrian did, he was always hard at work in Rome and ran the empire from the capital. How did he do this? He hosted various Zoom calls with his provincial governors to discuss business…

No, actually, he communicated effectively through letters with his various provincial governors. You know how some work meetings can just be e-mails? Yeah, Antoninus would send you a letter rather than a Zoom invite. What a guy!

Early on in his reign, he sent a military command to Britain to push north towards Scotland, effectively expanding the territory that Rome already had on the island. The cost of maintaining the acquired land didn’t produce many benefits though, so historians question why Antoninus pushed for this conquest in the first place.

People today do anything to go viral. In Ancient Rome, emperors would do anything to prove their legitimacy.

Many believe he ordered this campaign to get a quick military “victory” early in his reign and prove his legitimacy. He made sure to publicize this “victory” across the empire, as coins minted around this time mention a military victory in Britannia. You could say, then, that Antoninus “conquered” Britain just to flex for the ancient ‘Gram.

Administratively, Antoninus continued to be effective in the highest office of Rome. He built aqueducts across the empire which gave citizens better access to free drinking water. He also built numerous temples and public buildings, improved upon the bridges and roads across the empire, and promoted the arts and sciences.

Despite all of his projects, he still left a pretty THICC treasury for his successors. This is quite the accomplishment when you add that Antoninus halted taxation in provinces that were victims of disasters, such as fires that scorched Rome and earthquakes that devastated Greek cities. Greek-speaking citizens of the empire were very fond of Antoninus because of this. So sure Rome didn’t send any stimulus checks during crisis, but I don’t have to pay taxes? @US Government you taking notes?

Finally, Antoninus greatly influenced Roman Law. His main focus in applying Roman Law was to make sure everyone was treated humanely slaves were afforded more rights under the eyes of the law and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” made one of its first appearances in a law code.

So no, the US did NOT invent this concept with the 11th Amendment to its Constitution. Chalk up another L to American Exceptionalism.

Passing the Torch to Another GOAT

Throughout the duration of Antoninus’s reign, the Roman people knew that Marcus Aurelius would be his successor. Marcus was like the LeBron James of Rome, everyone knew his potential and how great he’d be. “Is he on this list?” you might ask. Well, I guess I can give you a spoiler and say yes, I will be posting about him soon.

Marcus had so much potential, that apparently Hadrian had wanted him to be his successor. But at the time, Marcus was only 17 years old, too young to be given that much power. The worst Roman Emperors up to this point, Caligula and Nero, had been given the throne at a young age.

The intention was for Antoninus to be a transitional emperor he would groom Marcus for the throne so that he wasn’t inexperienced when Antoninus died. I guess Kanye was right when he said, “no one man should have all all that power… stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power.” Well, no one wanted Marcus tripping off the power of Roman Emperor.

But Antoninus ended up living forever by ancient standards. As he grew senile, Marcus began to take more imperial responsibilities. Antoninus died of natural causes at the age of 75, obviously a rare feat back in that day. He achieved the second-longest reign (at that point in time) by a Roman Emperor, just shy of 23 years.

Don’t worry, our boy Marcus did get his turn and ruled the empire for two decades as well.

To use a sports analogy, Antoninus was to Rome what Steve Kerr was to the Golden State Warriors during their championship runs. Antoninus ruled during Rome’s Golden Age, and the Warriors assembled arguably the best team in NBA history when Kerr was their coach.

This isn’t to discredit both of them. Antoninus played a key role in keeping the empire stable, while Kerr had to put all the pieces together to actually win those championships. Running a superpower effectively certainly deserves a lot of props!

The typical Roman Emperor on this list would be one that has commanded an army and thus has traveled to different parts of the empire. If not, then some emperors, like Antoninus’s predecessor Hadrian, will travel to various parts of the empire to show their face and show the locals that their emperor really does care about them.

Antoninus didn’t do any of this. When he took over the throne, the empire was at its peak. He can thank his predecessors, Trajan (ruled 98-117) and Hadrian for leaving the empire in peak shape.

So Antoninus did what anyone would’ve done in his situation: work from home! While some may call his reign “boring” for the lack of action, there’s a lot he deserves credit for. Even during good times, an emperor’s odds of getting overthrown may be low, but they’re never zero. Lasting over 20 years in such an insecure position and keeping the empire running like a well-oiled machine deserves a ton of credit.

More importantly, as Marcus Aurelius took over the throne, Antoninus left the empire in a strong position to deal with the hardships that the empire would face over the next 20 years.

Antoninus is calling you via Zoom. Will you pick up?

ANTONINUS PIUS (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus):

Roman emperor born in the year 86 died in 161 ruled from 138 until his death. The reign of this just and humane emperor came like a blessing to the Jews, particularly to those of Palestine. The religious persecutions of Hadrian had devastated the country, depopulated the cities, and made the intellectual development of the Jews impossible. Had these conditions lasted much longer, there would have been an end to the Jewish people in the Roman empire. As soon as the Jews knew of the change of rulers, they sent an embassy, with R. Judah b. Shamu'a at its head, to Rome to negotiate for improvement in their condition (Meg. Ta'anit, xii.). Through the intercession of an influential matron they succeeded in procuring milder treatment. On the fifteenth of Ab (Aug., 138 or 139) the emperor permitted the burial of the Jewish soldiers and martyrs who had fallen in battle against the Romans, and whose interment had been put under severe penalty (Yer. Ta'anit, iv. § 5, 69a Ta'anit, 31a). Half a year later (March, 139 or 140) Antoninus repealed the edicts of Hadrian —which had prevented the Jews from exercising their religion—on the condition that they should not receive proselytes (Meg. Ta'anit, xii. "Digesta" of Modestinus, xlviii. 8, 11). Moreover, they were forbidden, on penalty of death, to enter Jerusalem. Those Jews who had fled to foreign countries in order to escape the persecutions of Hadrian gradually returned to their homes. The intellectual stagnation of the Jewish people came to an end and the disciples of Akiba founded a new center of Jewish culture at Usha, whither the patriarch Simon b. Gamaliel II. also repaired.

Curious Picture of Antoninus Plus from the Yiddish "Yosippon," Fürth, 1768.

It is stated to have been in Antoninus' reign that the Jews were deprived of the right to have their own courts, which prerogative was by the Pharisees considered essential to religion (Yer. Sanh. vii. § 2, 24b). Those that dared to criticize the measures of the emperor were banished or put to death (Shab. 33b). It is not surprising, then, that even under Antoninus the Jews attempted to throw off the Roman yoke ("Scriptores Historiæ Augustæ, Antoninus Pius," ch. v.). The strained relations existing between the Parthians and the Romans may have encouraged the Jews to revolt and to expect assistance from the Parthians. But such assistance was not rendered, and the revolt was probably nipped in the bud: Jewish sources do not even allude to it. See also Antoninus in the Talmud Simon b. Yoḥai Varus.

Peace And Prosperity: Antoninus, The Army And The Economy

Gold Aureus of Hadrian with obverse portrait of Antoninus Pius and reverse depiction of seated Concordia with statuette of Spes (Hope) to the left , 138 AD, via American Numismatic Society, New York

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 . No foreign wars of rapacious conquest or punitive justice were waged against Rome’s neighbors during these 23 years. Although there were several instances of violent disturbances in the empire, these were usually focused on competition between ambitious Roman administrators, rather than against external threats.

Such was the style of Antoninus’ government that even in the instance of attempted usurpation, the emperor allowed the members of the Senate to dispense justice against those who had attempted to seize power. Elsewhere, there were no great uprisings, such as Hadrian had to quash in Judaea, and Antoninus chose to respect the imperial strategy of his predecessor and recognized the limits of the empire.

Decursio scene from the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius , 161 AD, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City

The armies of the empire, distant from Italy, were kept informed of their new emperor through his presentation on coinage. He may he opted not to travel to the imperial frontiers to meet with them in person, but they would certainly have been made aware of the emperor and his ideas through his numismatic representation. In fact, the economy and coinage were central to Antoninus’ reign. Despite his extensive building projects around the empire and in the capital, he still managed to leave a substantial surplus – around two and a half million sesterces – in the imperial treasury at the time of his death. Nevertheless, he was not avaricious in taxation, famously suspending it in those cities who suffered the misfortune of a natural disaster.

Roman Religion Gallery

Another element in the Roman state religion was what is generally referred to as the imperial cult. This cult regarded emperors and members of their families as gods.

On his death, Julius Caesar was officially recognised as a god, the Divine ('Divus') Julius, by the Roman state. And in 29 BC Caesar's adopted son, the first Roman emperor Augustus, allowed the culturally Greek cities of Asia Minor to set up temples to him. This was really the first manifestation of Roman emperor-worship.

While worship of a living emperor was culturally acceptable in some parts of the empire, in Rome itself and in Italy it was not. There an emperor was usually declared a 'divus' only on his death, and was subsequently worshipped (especially on anniversaries, like that of his accession) with sacrifice like any other gods.

Emperor-worship was a unifying factor in the Roman world, practiced not only by army units spread throughout the empire but also by individuals in the provinces, where there were collective imperial cult centres at places such as Lyons (Gaul), Pergamon (Asia) and (probably) Colchester (Britain).

The imperial cult helped to focus the loyalty of provincials on the emperor at the centre of the empire, and in some regions (such as Gaul), there is evidence that Roman authorities took the initiative in setting it up, presumably for that very reason.

The image shown here is that of a sculpted relief from the base of the column of the emperor Antoninus Pius, probably to be dated to AD 161. It shows the apotheosis (transformation into gods) of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina.

They are shown by the portrait busts at the top of the frame, flanked by eagles - associated with imperial power and Jupiter - and were typically released during imperial funerals to represent the spirits of the deceased.

Antoninus and Faustina are being carried into the heavens by a winged, heroically nude figure. The armoured female figure on the right is the goddess Roma, a divine personification of Rome, and the reclining figure to the left - with the obelisk - is probably a personification of the Field of Mars in Rome, where imperial funerals took place.

Aurelius, Marcus

Aurelius, Marcus (121�), Roman emperor 161�. The adopted successor of Antoninus Pius, he was occupied for much of his reign with wars against invading Germanic tribes. His Meditations , a collection of aphorisms and reflections, are evidence of his philosophical nature.

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In Talmud and Aggadah

A Roman emperor named Antoninus forms the subject of a number of aggadic statements, dialogues, and stories in the Talmud and the Midrashim, in all of which he is described as in the company of R. *Judah ha-Nasi. The talmudic sources refer to more than one emperor they distinguish, for instance, between Antoninus senior and Antoninus junior (Eccl. R. 10:5), but the attempts of scholars to fit these accounts into the historic framework of the period of the Antonines have proved unsuccessful. The discussions with Antoninus include dialogues on the relationship between the body and the soul, the power of the evil inclination, and matters of state. They contain no data by which it would be possible to determine with certainty the attitude of the dialogists to the problems that were constantly discussed in the philosophical schools in the period of the Antonines. In the dialogues and stories, the Jewish patriarch excels the Roman emperor in wisdom and in moral stature, but the two are good friends and show complete trust in, and respect for, each other. Antoninus' attitude to Judaism is one of reverence. A rabbinic dictum has also been preserved according to which Antoninus would be the first righteous proselyte to be accepted in the messianic era (tj, Meg. 3:2, 74a).

Underlying the talmudic and midrashic stories there is undoubtedly an element of historic truth they testify to the good relations that were established for a time in the period of the Antonines between the Roman authorities in Palestine and the Jewish sages. The form of government in the Roman Empire, which in the second century c.e. was to a certain extent federal, made it possible for the people of the different countries of the Empire to express their views before the emperor not only on the form of government, but also on religious and ethical questions.

The tales about Antoninus and R. Judah ha-Nasi were widely current among the people. A number of them, as, for example, the parable of the lame man and the blind (Sanh. 91a–b) are found in comparatively early works of Jewish literature (see the Ezekiel Apocryphon 1 cf. James, in: jts, 15 (1914), 236) and are derived from the treasury of folk wisdom. Accounts of disputations and conversations of a similar nature (between other rabbis and Roman dignitaries) have been preserved in talmudic and midrashic literature. There are also extant (non-Jewish) Greco-Roman texts containing disputations and dialogues of this type between various individuals and Roman emperors.


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Commodus, in full Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, original name (until 180 ce ) Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, (born August 31, 161 ce , Lanuvium, Latium [now Lanuvio, Italy]—died December 31, 192), Roman emperor from 177 to 192 (sole emperor after 180). His brutal misrule precipitated civil strife that ended 84 years of stability and prosperity within the empire.

What was Commodus’s family like?

Commodus’s father was Marcus Aurelius, an emperor who presided over what has been regarded as one of ancient Rome’s golden ages. His mother was Annia Galeria Faustina, a member of the Roman nobility and the daughter of the emperor Antoninus Pius.

What was Commodus’s early life like?

Commodus was made coruler when he was just 16 years old, and he was emperor before he turned 19. Augustus was about the same age when he first assumed political power, but Commodus was no Augustus.

What did Commodus accomplish?

Commodus brought an end to his father's campaign against the Germans. After a failed assassination attempt in 182, however, his rule became erratic and brutal, and he imagined himself to be Hercules.

What is Commodus’s legacy?

Commodus was a terrible ruler by virtually any standard. His fictionalized depiction as a mad emperor in the film Gladiator actually plays down some of his less believable excesses while giving him a nobler death.

In 177 Lucius was made coruler and heir to his father, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161–180). Lucius joined Marcus in his campaign against invading German tribes along the Danube, but after the death of Marcus (March 180) he quickly came to terms with the Germans.

Soon after he became sole ruler, Lucius changed his name to Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus. In 182 Commodus’s sister Lucilla conspired with a group of senators to assassinate him. The plot failed, and Commodus retaliated by executing a number of leading senators. Thereafter his rule became increasingly arbitrary and vicious. In 186 he had his chief minister executed in order to appease the army three years later he allowed the minister’s successor to be killed by a rioting crowd. Political influence then passed to the emperor’s mistress and two advisers.

Meanwhile, Commodus was lapsing into insanity. He gave Rome a new name, Colonia Commodiana (Colony of Commodus), and imagined that he was the god Hercules, entering the arena to fight as a gladiator or to kill lions with bow and arrow. On December 31, 192, his advisers had him strangled by a champion wrestler, following his announcement the day before that he would assume the consulship, dressed as a gladiator. A grateful Senate proclaimed a new emperor—the city prefect, Publius Helvius Pertinax—but the empire quickly slipped into civil war.

Justin Martyr and Antoninus Pius

By the second century the number of Christians throughout the Roman Empire was growing and their refusal to worship both the gods of Rome and successive Roman Emperors, posed a considerable challenge. Though many emperors chose actively to seek out and persecute those who practised Christian rituals, the Emperor Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161) instead extended the policy of his predecessor and adoptive father, the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138). Christians were to be left alone, unless they committed an actual crime. Antoninus goes further to argue that those who bring false accusations should themselves be punished. It must be noted, however, that the authenticity of this epistle has been questioned, as has its origin. Eusebius, one of our key sources of information on Christianity in this era, first identifies Antoninus as the author, but later attributes it to his son, Marcus Aurelius. We do know that this epistle was preserved in The Apology of Justin Martyr, a work that was addressed directly to the Emperor and which defended the Christian faith against the most common accusations of the time. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 CE) had studied a number of philosophical traditions – including those of the Stoics and Platonists – prior to his conversion to Christianity in the 130s. The date of his apology is disputed, with most accounts placing it somewhere between the years 139 and 150. This was a time of relative peace in the empire – indeed, the reign of Antoninus Pius, was one of the most peaceful recorded in the late Empire despite latent problems, readily identifiable in hindsight.

The Apology of Justin Martyr for the Christians to Antoninus Pius

1. To the Emperor Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Cæsar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the son of (Ælius Verus) Cæsar by birth, and of Pius by adoption, the lover of learning and to the sacred Senate, and to all the Roman people, in behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and persecuted I Justin, the son of Priscus, and grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis of Syria Palestine, being myself on of those (who are so unjustly used) off this address and supplication.

2. Reason herself dictates that those, who can with propriety be denominated Pious and Philosophers, should love and honour truth alone, and refuse to follow the opinions of the ancients, if plainly erroneous . For right reason not only forbids us to assent to those who are unjust, either in practice or in principle, but commands the lover of truth by all means, to choose that which is just in word and deed, even in preference to his own live, and under the threatened danger of immediate death ….

3. … [W]e entreat that the charges against Christians may be examined and if they be proved to be well founded, we are willing that they should be punished as they deserve, or even to punish them ourselves. But if no one has any proof to bring against them, right reason requires that ye should not, in consequence of an evil report, injure innocent men, or rather yourselves, since your decisions would be influenced not by judgment but by passion…. From a mere name [Christian] neither praise nor blame can justly arise, unless something either good or bad can be proved by actions.

5. Ye judge not righteous judgment, but under the excitement of unreasonable passion, and lashed on by the scourges of evil demons, ye punish without judgment and without thought. For the truth must be spoken. Evil demons, in times of old, assuming various forms, went in unto the daughters of men, and committed other abominations and so astonished the minds of men wit the wonders which they displayed, that they formed not a rational judgment on what was done, but were hurried away by their fears so that, not knowing them to be evil demons, they styled them gods, and addressed them by the name which each demon imposed upon himself.

16. With respect to the charge of impiety [levelled against Christians]: what man of consideration will not confess that this accusation is falsely alleged against us? since we worship the Creator of this Universe, declaring, as we have been taught, that he requires not sacrifices of blood, and libations, and incense and praise him to the utmost of our power, with words of prayer and thanksgiving, for all things which we enjoy. For we have learned, that the only honour which is worthy of him is, not to consume with fire what he hath given us for our nourishment, but to distribute them to ourselves and to those who have need: and that our thankfulness to him is best expressed, by the solemn offering of prayers and hymns. Moreover we pour forth our praises for our creation, and every provision for our well-being for the various qualities of all creatures, and the changes of seasons and (for the hope) of rising again in incorruption, through faith which is in him. Again we have learned, that he who taught us these things, and for this end was born, even Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, was the Son of him who is truly God, and we esteem him in the second place. And that we with reason honour the prophetic Spirit, in the third place, we shall hereafter show. For upon this point they accuse us of madness, saying that we give the second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things, to a man who was crucified (and this they do) being ignorant of the mystery which is in this matter to which we exhort you to take heed while we explain it.

17. For we have forewarned you to beware lest those demons, whom we have before accused, should deceive you, and prevent you from reading and understanding what we say. For they strive to retain you as their slaves and servants, and sometimes by revelations in dreams, and at other times again by magical tricks, enslave those who strive not at all for their own salvation. In like manner as we also, since we have been obedient to the Word, abstain from such things, and, through the Son, follow the only unbegotten God. We, who once delighted in fornication , now embrace chastity only: we, who once used magical arts, have consecrated ourselves to the good and unbegotten God: we, who loved above all things the gain of money and possessions, now bring all that we have into one common stock, and give a part to every one that needs: we, who hated and killed one another, and permitted not those of another nation, on account of their different customs, to live with us under the same roof, now, since the appearing of Christ, live at the same table, and part for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who unjustly hate us that they also, living after the excellent institutions of Christ, may have good hope with us to obtain the same blessings, with God the Lord of all.

90. If now what we have advanced appears to be reasonable and true, honour it accordingly and if it appears folly, despise it as foolish, but pass not sentence of death against those who have done no evil, as if they were enemies. For we have already forewarned you, that ye shall not escape the future judgment of God, if ye continue in unrighteousness. And we shall exclaim, What God wills, let that come to pass. Although we might demand of you, from the epistle of the most great and illustrious Cæsar Adrian [1] , your father, that which we require, that ye should command right judgment to be made, we have yet preferred that this should not take place because it was so ordained by Adrian [2] , but have made this address and explanation to you, knowing that we demand what is just….

Figure 3: Antoninus Pius

The Emperor Cæsar, Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Pontifex Maximus, fifteenth time Tribune, thrice Consul, Father of his Country, to the Common Assembly of Asia, sends greeting.

I am well assured, that the gods themselves will take heed that men of this kind shall not escape: for it is much more their interest to punish, if they can, those who refuse to worship them. Whereas ye trouble them, and accuse the opinions which they hold as if the were Atheists: and bring many other charges of which we are able to discover no proof. Nay, it would be in their estimation a great advantage to die for that of which they are accused: and they conquer you, by throwing away their own lives, rather than comply with what you require them to do.

With respect to earthquakes, which either have happened or do happen, it is not fitting that ye should regard them with despondency , whatever they may be, comparing your own conduct with theirs, and observing how much more confident they have towards God, than ye. Ye, in fact, at such periods, appear to forget the gods, and neglect your sacred rites .And ye know not the worship which belongs to God whence ye envy those who do worship him, and persecute them even unto death. Respecting such men, certain other of the rulers of provinces wrote to my Father of blessed memory [Antoninus Pius was the adopted son of the Emperor Hadrian] to whom also he wrote in reply, that they should in no wise trouble men of that kind, unless they were shown to be making any attempt against the dominion of the Romans. Many too have given information respecting such men to me also, to whom I answered, in conformity with my father’s opinion. If then any one shall bring any charge against one of these men, simply as such, let him who is so accused be released, even if he should be proved to be one of this kind of men: and let the accuser himself be subject to punishment.

Watch the video: Antoninus Pius - The Good Emperor #15 Roman History Documentary Series (January 2022).