When ranking the Top 10 Best Roman Emperors there are many names that stand out. The more famous Emperors stand out such as Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. But these were not the only Emperors who did great things for their empire, or ruled in a way that could only be classified as a success. There are lesser known names who still made very important contributions to Roman Society and it is important to explore their contributions to understand why Rome was such a successful Empire.
The subject of this round of Best Roman Emperors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of will be Antoninus Pious. Antoninus Pius ruled from 138 CE to 161 CE. Antoninus Pius’s reign is saddled between the reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Both Emperors are more well known than Antoninus Pius, but such historical obscurity is part of what made Antoninus Pius so great. The reason Antoninus Pius was able to be saddled between two great emperors is because he was able to act as bridge between the two famous emperors. Antoninus Pius’s disposition allowed for a smooth transition of power from Hadrian to Antoninus, and then Antoninus to Marcus Aurelius.
Transition of power was never an easy endeavor for Rome. In fact often times the transition of power created great turmoil within the empire. In fact one of the key reasons Rome eventually fell was because of so much in fighting during transitional power struggles. Rome was at its greatest when power could easily and clearly be passed from one ruler to another. It was this characteristic that defined the peak of Roman power, an era that bears Antoninus Pius’s name, the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.
Antoninus Pius’s name provides a perfect a example of how he ensured a smooth transition of power in the wake of Hadrian’s death. Antoninus received his cognomen Pius, which means loyalty or the dutiful, because he pushed an unwilling Senate to deify his predecessor. Traditionally the Roman Senate would deify a successful and well liked Emperor after his death. Hadrian though had greatly displeased the Senate early in his reign by ordering the execution of four prominent Romans because of an alleged failed conspiracy plot against Hadrian. Rather than cut his ties with his adopted father, Antoninus dutifully ordered for Hadrian to be buried in his unfinished Mausoleum upon its completion. Visitors to Rome will know the Mausoleum of Hadrian as Castel Sant’Angelo. Antoninus Pius also threw a lavish ceremony in honor of Hadrian that was fashioned after the ceremony honoring the death of Augustus.
There are important implications resulting from Antoninus Pius’s decision to celebrate the will of his adopted father, Hadrian. Hadrian ordered that Antoninus could only ensure his spot as imperial successor by following certain conditions laid out by Hadrian. Hadrian had foreseen the prowess of a young Marcus Aurelius and preferred him to be his successor. Yet a common thread among failed emperors was when too much power was given to people who were too young. Caligula and Nero are often cited as model examples. At the time of Antoninu’s adoption, Marcus Auerlius was only 17 years old. Antoninus Pius, a 52 year old man at the time of his adoption, was old for Roman standards. Antoninus was meant to occupy the seat of Emperor until the young Marcus Aurelius grew into a mature adult who could handle the responsibilities of being Emperor. It was assumed that Antoninus Pius would not live for much longer and that Marcus Aurelius was on the cusp of becoming emperor.
A second condition Hadrian set for Antoninus was that he also had to adopt Lucius Verus as a successor. Hadrian’s plan was for Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to rule the empire together. The reason for this is prior to the adoption of Antoninus Pius, Hadrian had adopted another man to be his successor. Hadrian adopted his lover Lucius Ceionius Commodus to be his heir and renamed him to Lucius Aelius Caesar. Lucius Verus was the son of Lucius Aelius Caesar. Since Hadrian loved Lucius Aelius Caesar, he wanted to maintain his legacy by having his son ascend to the throne since his father could not. It is important to note that for Emperors in Ancient Rome adoption did not hold the same meaning it holds today. Adoption was a way for the Emperor to choose his successor while also giving him a legitimate claim to the throne through the paternal connection of the adopting father and adopted son. Lucius Aelius Caesar died in 138 CE and thus Hadrian needed to find a new successor until Lucius Verus came of age to co-rule.
The well respected and aged Antoninus served two purposes for Hadrian. Antoninus helped Hadrian’s image with the Senate by selecting someone they were in favor of, but also allowed for him to select someone who could manage the Empire until the ascension of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Hadrian also favored Antoninus because he was not a military man and did not show the drive towards conquests like previous Roman Emperors had. This was important because Hadrian was the first emperor to delineate the limits of the Roman Empire. Hadrian did not want to see his life’s work of maintaining the borders to go to waste upon his death. Hadrian’s decision to end Roman Expansion is what makes Hadrian’s reign stand out as so unique and successful. Long wars of conquest were becoming too expensive and too far reaching for Rome to handle. In Ancient Times travel took much longer so it was very difficult and costly to maintain and supply far reaching outposts that were outside of the immediate Mediterranean Coastal area. A series of uprisings and population unrest led Hadrian to pull back from most of the lands conquered by his predecessor Trajan in order to have a more manageable empire. Hadrian did not want to see his anti-expansionist legacy die with him, so Antoninus’s non-military background ensured it would not.
One common theme when discussing Antoninus Pius is that often times historians speak of Antoninus Pius in terms of the emperors who immediately preceded and succeeded him. Part of this is that there is not much literature on Antoninus Pius. Adding to this dearth of information is that he did not build grand structures like Trajan had with his Forum or Hadrian had with his Mausoleum. Although Antoninus did have to deal with some military incursions for the most part he maintained Hadrian’s goal of ending imperial expansion. Antoninus mostly kept things the way they were. The maintenance of the status quo was the whole point of his reign. He was not supposed to be the Emperor who rode into Rome with an Imperial triumph or to be a great builder, he was meant to be a keeper of the peace.
If there’s one thing that defines Antoninus Pius’s reign, it is the peace that existed under his rule. In fact so peaceful was his rule that the time period from the beginning of his reign to the end of his successor Marcus Aurelius’s reign was known as the Golden Age Of The Antonines. This era is considered the pinnacle of the most successful period in Roman history and it was all made possible because Antoninus kept things the way they were. His reign did not overturn the Roman order like those of Augustus or Diocletian. Instead he kept going with things that were going well. Being a respected Senator, his reign marks the last time the Emperor and the Senate worked hand in hand to rule the Empire.
The only truly notable act of Antonius’s reign was that he passed laws guaranteeing certain rights to slaves. But even this was an example of how steadfast Antoninus was to keeping things status quo. This was not some great emancipation to be revered like the emancipation of the Civil War is revered. Instead rights were guaranteed to slaves because Antoninus understood that slaves drove the Roman economy and needed to have some protection from their masters in order to optimize their productivity and ensure a stable economy.
Such peace allowed for Roman culture and the economy to flourish. A great quote that embodies what Antoninus’s reign was about comes from the podcast of The History Of Rome. “Antoninus is a man who wants tomorrow to be like today, and today to be like yesterday.” Rome could only taste the fruits of its greatness when there was peace. Turmoil drained the Empire of resources and directed the population away from cultivating their culture, and to focus on war. Antoninus Pius’s reign was so great because he created the climate for peace that allowed Rome to reach its fullest potential. By following Hadrian’s wishes rather than breaking from them, he allowed for seamless transitions from the reigns of Hadrian through Marcus Aurelius.
Antoninus ended up being one of the longest serving Emperors, surviving much longer than anyone had anticipated. His reign lasted an almost Augustan amount, 22 years and 239 days. Most emperors’ reign came no where near this long of a reign. Antoninus’s peaceful relationship with the Senate, the power brokers of the Empire, meant that they felt involved enough in the affairs of the Empire that killing off Antoninus would not be to their advantage. Furthermore the climate of peace that Antoninus created was so well respected and successful that it made no sense for the Emperors in waiting to kill Antoninus in order to ascend to the throne more quickly. The peace and consistency Antoninus Pius provided for the Empire was almost universally regarded as bringing out the best in Rome and that is why he is One Of The Best Roman Emperors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.