XIII. The Five Good Emperors: Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius

A bust of Marcus Aurelius. Remembered as one of the most able, temperate and conscientious of Rome’s emperors, Marcus was also an accomplished Stoic philosopher.


For over twenty years, Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire with wisdom, diligence and a firm, steady hand. However, like Trajan before him, Hadrian had no sons of his own. By about 136 AD the emperor’s health was in decline, and so Roman politics turned yet again towards the question of the imperial succession.


At first the childless Hadrian had sought to follow Nerva’s example by adopting a son to succeed him as emperor, Lucius Aelius Caesar. However, Lucius died of a hemorrhage in January, 138 AD just a few months before his adoptive father. The next young man Hadrian wanted to adopt as his heir was Marcus Aurelius, but Marcus was still a teenager at the time, too young and inexperienced to rule.


Finally, Hadrian decided to settle the succession by adopting an older senator, Antoninus Pius with the understanding that Antoninus, also having no sons of his own, would then in turn adopt as his sons both Marcus and another young man, Lucius Verus. An arrangement designed to secure the imperial succession for the next few decades was made: Antoninus would succeed Hadrian as Rome’s emperor, and be succeeded in turn by either Marcus and Lucius together or by Marcus alone. Forced by his deteriorating health to spend his last years in a state of pseudo-retirement on the southern Italian coast, Hadrian died at his coastal villa on 10 July, 138 AD. Antoninus was confirmed as his successor by the Senate the following day.


Unfortunately, the available ancient accounts of the events of Antoninus Pius’ 23-year tenure as Emperor of Rome are limited and somewhat unreliable when compared to the detailed accounts of the lives of emperors like Hadrian. Still, those that survive leave at least some understanding of the events of his life and reign. Antoninus was born in Italy in 86 AD. As the son of a Roman senator, Antoninus in turn soon began his own career in politics. After holding a few lesser offices Antoninus reached the consulship in 120 AD. Later, he served as governor of the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey) in 135 AD.


It was around this time that Emperor Hadrian began to take a closer interest in Antoninus’ career. After Hadrian’s adopted son and heir died in January, 138 AD the emperor offered to adopt Antoninus as his replacement, on the condition that Antoninus would himself adopt two boys, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. After careful consideration Antoninus accepted, and was formally adopted as Hadrian’s son in February, 138 AD. A few months later, Hadrian died and Antoninus Pius became emperor.


A bust of Antoninus Pius. Although few detailed accounts of this emperor’s life and reign survive, all of our few sources unanimously hold him in high esteem.


According to Marcus Aurelius, his adopted son and successor, Antoninus Pius was the epitome of the Augustan ideal; a virtuous citizen prince ruling through morality, concord and consent as the first among equals. A handsome man, calm and gentle in character but by no means weak, inept or unintelligent. He was well liked by the Senate who granted him the sobriquet Pius, meaning ‘dutiful’, at some point during his reign. However, even the ancient sources themselves admit they’re not exactly sure why and one of them, the Historia Augusta, offers multiple possible explanations.


Antoninus continued Hadrian’s frontier policy of consolidating the frontiers instead of expanding them as well as his dedication to ruling with wisdom and moderation. Unlike Hadrian, however, Antoninus did not travel constantly to far-flung regions of the empire. Instead, he spent his entire reign as emperor without ever once leaving Italy. The Roman army saw little significant action during his reign; for the most part the army was only kept busy suppressing a series of minor regional rebellions throughout the empire, all of which were quickly and easily put down. Strangely, there doesn’t seem to have been any significant fear that the Roman army would turn against this emperor that led no armies and promoted little expansion, very much unlike the situation during the reign of Nerva. Perhaps the soldiers too were beginning to grow accustomed to Hadrian’s anti-expansionist policies.


After a long and mostly peaceful reign, Antoninus Pius died quietly at the age of 74 on 7 March, 161 AD. This left Marcus Aurelius, now 39 years old the obvious candidate for the throne. Although both Antoninus and the Senate seem to have originally intended that Marcus alone would succeed to the throne, Marcus refused to take office unless his younger adopted brother, Lucius Verus, was granted the same titles and powers as his co-emperor. Though probably confused by this request the Senate nonetheless conceded to appease Marcus, and on 8 March, 161 AD Marcus and Lucius were acclaimed as joint emperors.


A bust of Lucius Verus, junior co-emperor and adopted brother of Marcus Aurelius. Though his talent for statecraft was limited, he remained a loyal and trustworthy friend to Marcus until his death in 169 AD. “Lucius verus” by ChrisO is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


Though Marcus was the obvious senior figure of the extraordinary arrangement, it was still the first time in the history of imperial Rome that two emperors were exercising joint rule of the empire. In any case where the two emperors in question didn’t get along, having them share the throne could’ve easily led to disaster. In this case, it didn’t. Although Lucius was never as talented or dedicated a ruler as Marcus he was a loyal friend and faithful supporter of his adopted brother, and until his death eight years later Lucius Verus did, to some degree, help to ease the burdens of ruling Rome that rested on the shoulders of Marcus Aurelius.


Marcus never shared his adopted brother’s fondness for games, races, parties and hard drinking. Even as a teenager he was a quiet, solemn young man, keenly aware of the heavy responsibilities he would one day be expected to shoulder. Even as Antoninus’ heir he never seemed especially enthusiastic about the idea of becoming emperor, but his strong sense of duty would not let him refuse the role he had been chosen to play.


His talents not limited to politics and government, Marcus Aurelius was also a widely-admired Stoic philosopher. The Meditations, a series of books written over the last decade of his life, reflect his belief in a school of thought which highlights both the importance of dedication to duty, morality and rationality, and the necessity of looking towards the natural world around oneself as a source of beauty and inspiration. The Meditations remain bestsellers to this day.


Marcus Aurelius would have to face many hardships during his 19 years as Roman Emperor, including another war with Parthia, a devastating plague that killed millions across the Roman world, and a war to stop barbarian tribes to the north from migrating into the empire that would consume the last 13 years of his life. Though the stresses of power often exhausted him, throughout it all he and his empire endured. Marcus Aurelius died on the Danube frontier in 180 AD, a tired man but a beloved and successful emperor. He was the only Antonine emperor to be succeeded by his own biological son, Commodus.


Commodus’ name is nowhere to be found among the Five Good Emperors, and for good reason. He might not have been quite as vicious as Caligula or cruel as Nero, but he would prove himself just as unbalanced and self-obsessed.


The doctrine of careful, conscientious leadership followed by the previous Antonines was a foreign concept to Commodus; he cared for little apart from whatever pleased or amused him. Ruling the empire responsibly required an emperor to be diligent and hardworking, but Commodus soon grew bored with his imperial obligations and happily abandoned them. Instead, he devoted himself entirely to his personal hobbies like watching, and even participating in, fights between gladiators. He left the duties of running the empire to a succession of unscrupulous courtiers and dishonest flatterers. He allowed the Praetorian Guard to sink into lethargy and ineptitude. He did nothing to curtail the political intrigue that ran rampant through his court.


A bust of Commodus, the last and worst of the Antonine emperors. His murder in 192 AD precluded a civil war similar to that which had followed the death of Nero. “Commodus as Hercules (detail) – Palazzo dei Conservatori – Musei Capitolini – Rome 2016” by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


As time went on his grip on sanity began to slip away. What was once vanity evolved into outright delusions of divinity as Commodus became convinced that he was Hercules reborn. He demanded that all the months of the year, the Roman Senate, every Roman legion and even the city of Rome itself all be renamed in his honour. Everywhere Commodus went the unhinged emperor insisted on being worshiped as a living god until finally, one of the numerous attempts on his life brought an end to his madness. On New Year’s Eve, 192 AD Rome’s last Antonine emperor was strangled in his private bath by an assassin. The dynasty of the Five Good Emperors, the imperial family that brought the Roman state to the highest point in its history, died with Commodus.


The Roman historian Cassius Dio may have said it best when he mourned the loss of the Five Good Emperors as the beginning of Rome’s decline ‘from a kingdom of gold and silver to one of iron and rust’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *