Antoninus Pius: Facts, Quotes & Accomplishments

Instructor: Richard Weil

Richard teaches an online world geography class, he holds a doctorate in the field.

Antoninus Pius lived from 86 to 161. He was the 15th Roman emperor. Ruling as a just and gentle man, under him, Rome reached its peak of peace and prosperity.

Have you ever watched a criminal trial? Though you may find it hard to believe, the rights of the defendant were guaranteed by a Roman who lived over 1800 years ago.

Early life

Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus was born in the year 86 in the Italian town of Lanuvium. From a noble family, he entered the Senate and took the usual career path of Roman leaders, moving from minor offices to provincial governor. Antoninus then became a trusted advisor to Emperor Hadrian. The emperor had adopted Lucius Aelius as his successor, but when Aelius died, Antoninus was chosen. In 138, Hadrian's heart gave out and Antoninus became emperor.

There is not much known about Antoninus' reign because its only historical accounts were written long afterwards. His time was too peaceful for historians to have much to say, so most of what we have is from public records.

Bust of Antoninus in the Glyptothek Museum, Munich
Bust of Antoninus

A Good Ruler

The Senate gave him the title ''Pius'' (meaning ''dutiful'') either because he had Hadrian declared a god, or because he freed Senators whom Hadrian had planned to execute. He may not have even wanted the job of emperor, as he took time to accept it. After becoming ruler, when his wife Faustina said he was too stingy, Antoninus replied, ''Foolish woman, now that we have gained an empire, we have lost even what we had before.'' He then returned most of the gold given to him as gifts.

In fact he was very frugal, and people called him a ''cumin splitter'' because he checked his officials to make sure they wasted nothing. He stayed near Rome and read reports about how they governed the provinces, and heard complaints citizens brought against his officers. While he told his governors to go easy on tax rates, they did prove efficient, and under his rule, Rome's treasury filled with gold. Antoninus claimed that the money wasn't his, and he posted accounts of how it was spent.

Some funds were used to build roads, bridges and good water systems. When cities were hit by fires or earthquakes, he sent them relief and forgave their taxes. After a famine, Antoninus paid for food out of his own money. Faustina aided orphaned girls, and after she died, Antoninus founded a school for them in her memory. In 148, to celebrate Rome's 900th anniversary, he held big games in the Colosseum, paid for by cutting the silver content of the coinage.

Romans Fought the Picts in Scotland
Pict Warrior

Antoninus preferred diplomacy to fighting, and peacefully settled conflicts with Persia, although that gave Persia time to rearm for a later war. He met ambassadors from India; and a Roman trade mission even got to China. Although there were small uprisings in Dacia (Romania), Egypt, Germany and Mauretania that his generals put down, the only war was a small one against the Scottish tribes while Rome occupied the Lowlands. The Antonine Wall was then built across Scotland to protect Roman Britain; its ruins can still be seen.

Law Reformer

Antoninus had good lawyers work on updating the Roman laws. Slaves and women were given some more rights, torture of prisoners was (mostly) eased up, and the police were told not to mistreat suspects. One important command he sent to all judges was to assume prisoners were innocent until proven guilty; another was that Roman law was to be applied equally throughout the empire.

Antoninus carried through these ideas of fairness in his own life, and was mild and friendly to everyone. He did not persecute Christians. Only one man was caught conspiring against him; rather than be put to death, he committed suicide, and Antoninus wouldn't allow investigation as to who else was involved.

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