What was the impact of the Emperor Antonius Pius on the Roman Empire

A bust of Antonius Pius

The Roman Emperor Antonius Pius (86-161 AD) is not one of the better known Roman Emperors. However, he is regarded as one of the five good Emperors, whose reigns were in many ways the apogee of the Empire. The reign of Antonius was long, and it was in many ways uneventful, there were few rebellions, wars, and conspiracies. Indeed, this would partly explain the lack of primary sources relating to the life of this emperor.

However, Antonius reigned for over three decades and this period was important in Roman history. This article will discuss the policies of Antonius, his non-military reign, his administration, the legal reforms he initiated and the nature of his legacy. Antonius was progressive, humane and efficient, however, he failed to see the emerging threats that the Empire faced from the Germans and others. This meant that his successor was faced with an existential threat to Rome and its provinces.


Antonius Pius was born into an aristocratic family in Italy, whose origins lay in southern France. His birth name was Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus. His father served as consul in 90 AD, but he died while Antonius was a child and he was brought up by his maternal grandfather, a senator and a man of great culture. In about 110 AD he married Faustina the Elder, a famed society beauty, whom he reportedly loved deeply. Antonius served in a series of roles in Rome, including quaestor and praetor and he proved himself to be an able administrator. In 120 AD he was elected to the office of consul, once again he displayed great administrative ability and also political skills. Hadrian was impressed by the young aristocrat and he appointed him as one of the four administrators of Italy[1].

Later he appointed Antonius to the Province of Asia Minor, which had been misgoverned for some time. Unlike the majority of other Roman nobles, he did not have any real military experience beyond suppressing bandits. It seemed that Antonius became part of Hadrian’s inner circle and one of his most trusted lieutenants. As Hadrian aged and sickened, Antonius became even more influential. So much so that he was able to persuade an increasingly paranoid Hadrian not to execute, several senators on the charge of treason. The ailing emperor had no children, and his first adopted son, died and he adopted Antonius as his son and heir. However, Hadrian had Antonius adopt Marcus Aurelius as his son, who was the nephew of his Empress[2]. Upon the death of the Emperor, Antonius, coerced the Senate, despite their opposition to deify, his predecessor, whom they hated.

An arch built by Antonius Pius in North Africa

The reign of Antonius Pius

Antonius was given the title of Pius, by the Senate, because he had saved the lives of several senators and was considered to be religious. He did not make any changes to the previous administration and he left many officials in place. Antonius was keen to have better relations with the Senate than his predecessor and he was to have a generally positive relationship with the senatorial elite. However, his main allies were a series of aristocratic families who had been supporters of Hadrian. In general, especially in the early years of his reign, Antonius Pius followed the policy of Hadrian. Unlike that restless Emperor, Antonius Pius never left Italy during his reign and he appeared to have been content with being an administrator rather than a governor.

However, a Roman Emperor was expected to be also a soldier and to vanquish the enemies of Rome. Antonius Pius had to show that he was a martial Emperor to maintain his position and crucially the esteem of the senatorial elite. In the 130s conflict erupted on the northern frontier of Britannia. Antonius, who never personally commanded his legions in battle, appointed an experienced general to campaign in Scotland, beyond Hadrian’s Wall. A significant part of Scotland was annexed, and it was protected by another defensive wall, that became known as the Antonine Wall[3]. This area of Scotland was abandoned about 160 A.D for reasons unknown.

Antonius also built or repaired limes or defensive walls on the Rhine and Danuban frontiers. While Antonius Pius’ reign is often seen as perhaps the most tranquil and peaceful in Roman history. In reality, the Emperor was forced to suppress several revolts most notably in North Africa and Dacia. An invasion of Moesia by the Scythians was also defeated. In the main Antonius did not seek to expand the Empire and avoided military conflict. One of the highlights of his reign was the elaborate festivities to make the 900-year anniversary of the foundation of Rome. One of the features of Antonius Pius was the reception of diplomatic missions from China and some Indian kingdoms. There is some speculation that these led to increased trade links between the Roman Empire and these Asian states[4].

It seemed that sometime in the late 150s that Antonius Pius health began to decline, and he was unable to fully participate in public life. He continued to be the supreme authority in the Empire. In 160 AD Antonius died with the Empire at peace and stable[5].

The stone foundation of the Antonine Walls in Scotland

Domestic Policies of Antonius Pius

In many ways, Antonius continued the policies of Hadrian. He was as committed to urbanization as his predecessor and adopted father. He provided funds for public buildings and temples throughout the provinces[6]. When there was a natural disaster he would suspend the taxes and provide relief. When Ephesus and Rhodes were devastated by earthquakes, according to the ancient sources ‘the Emperor restored the cities in splendid fashion’ [7]

Antonius also continued the policy of integrating the Greek-speaking elite of the east into the Empire. He continued to support the Philhellion League, in order to promote self-government in the Hellenized provinces. Antonius financially supported Greek writers, philosophers, and orators to win elite support in the east. Unlike his great predecessor, he did not neglect Italy and Rome. He found a charity, named after his dead-wife, to support destitute girls. Antonius is also credited with making the Annona, or the supply of free grain to Roman citizens more efficient and equitable[8]. This did much to ensure social stability in Rome. It is also claimed in the Historia Augstae, the main source on Antonius life, that he also reformed and improved the Alimeta, the welfare scheme, initiated by Trajan to support the Italian poor[9].

Perhaps the Emperor’s greatest achievement was his commitment to improving the quality of drinking water in cities all over the Empire. The Imperial treasury funded the building of many aqueducts, throughout the provinces of the Empire. Antonius was a tolerant man and he generally tolerated Christians [10]. Indeed, in some Jewish sources, he is portrayed as a friend of the Jews, but he did enforce the law against circumcision. Antonius Pius also patronized the cults of the Great Mother and that of Mithras and possibly played a role in the growth in popularity of these religions. He was beloved by the common people after he spent his own money to alleviate a devastating famine in Rome[11].

Government of Antonius

The Emperor liked to portray himself as a Republican magistrate and this made him very popular with the senators, in reality, he was an autocrat. He developed a style of government that was much praised by later Roman commentators [12]. Antonius government was staffed by competent officials, promoted on merit and this led to a highly effective bureaucracy[13]. Antonius also encouraged his governors to observe the law and not to act in an arbitrary manner. This was much appreciated by many provincials who had long suffered from the corruption and cruelty of provincial governors.

Antonius also made important changes to the fiscal system of the Roman Empire. Previously the Imperial treasury had been identical to the private wealth of the Emperor and this has led to great waste and unnecessary extravagance. Antonius Pius divided the Imperial treasury into a public and private fund. This allowed for his officials to better manage the Imperial finances. Antonius was able to reduce taxation and also left his successor a full treasury.

Legal Reformer

Antonius Pius was very interested in legal reforms. He was very concerned that all the cities in the Empire adhered to the Roman law code. Previous to his reign many cities especially in the east had often continued to use their own traditional law codes. Antonius obliged them to use the Roman Code in all their courts. This was to lead to real improvements in the administration of justice in the provinces. The Emperor also insisted that all those accused of a crime be considered as innocent until proven guilty. He also asserted that the principles of clemency and humanity be central to the administration of justice [14].

Antonius while he did not radically change the legal code, helped to create a legal culture that was more humane than anything previous in antiquity. Antonius also used the law to improve social conditions and he encouraged an interpretation of the law that made it easier for slaves to become free. Under the Emperor, masters no longer had the power of life and death over their slaves and if they were mistreated they could be transferred to the ownership of another[15]. How effective these were in improving a lot of slaves is not known.

Consequences of his pacific policies

Antonius was commonly believed to have disliked war and preferred diplomacy to conflict [16]. This was often successful and in general, the Roman frontiers were for three decades very secure. Much of this was thanks to the efforts of his adopted father, Hadrian. Antonius Pius has been regularly criticized by historians for not being more proactive. Many believed that he was too committed to peace and that he should have been more aggressive. There is a school of thought that believes that he wasted many opportunities. There are scholars who argue that he should have built on the success of his successors and extended the frontiers, in order to strengthen them against external attacks.

In particular, they point to his passivity with regard to the growing threat from the great Marcomanni Confederation, a coalition of German tribes. During the reign of Antonius, they moved closer to the frontiers of the Empire and began to develop a strong state in central Europe. Many have criticized the Emperor for not seeing them as a threat earlier and acting against them. The Marcomanni began to form an anti-Roman alliance with other tribes, even enlisting the Sarmatians who had been long-term allies of the Romans. By 166 AD they were so powerful that they launched one of the fiercest invasions of the Empire in centuries.

The Marcomanni Wars, (166-180 AD) were compared by the Romans to the Punic War. The powerful confederation invaded Northern Italy and other tribes invaded other areas of the Empire. Such was the ferocity of the invasions that many feared for the future of Rome itself. Fortunately, Marcus Aurelius was able to stabilize the situation and beat back the invaders, after 18 years of fighting[17]. Some of the criticism of Antonius with regard to the challenges faced by the Empire after his death is unfair, but it cannot be denied that the Emperor could have been more aggressive earlier against the Marcomanni before they became strong enough to invade the Roman territory. This could have saved Rome from a crisis that gravely weakened it, militarily and economically [18].


Antonius Pius was in many ways an able and even enlightened ruler. His government of the empire was very efficient, and he placed it on a sound financial footing. The Emperor did much to make the lives of the ordinary people better, especially his policies of public works and urbanization. He was a progressive man and he was concerned with the welfare of his people. This is most apparent in his legal reforms and he helped to create a more humane legal system. His reign was one where religions were tolerated. Antonius' laws on slaves were progressive but they may have had little impact on the lives of the countless brutally oppressed slaves throughout the Empire.

In many ways, Antonius was a capable Emperor who followed the policies of his great predecessor, Hadrian. However, he was so committed to peace that he neglected, to heed the German growing threat on the frontiers. Antonius could have acted earlier, to stop the growing power of the Marcomanni. His failure to do so meant that the Roman Empire was to experience a devastating war, that almost threatened its existence and unity.

Recommended Reading

Bowman, Alan K. The Cambridge Ancient History: The High Empire, A.D. 70–192. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Bury, J. B. A History of the Roman Empire from its Foundation to the Death of Marcus Aurelius. (London, Harper. 1948).

Burrell, B., Neokoroi: Greek cities and Roman emperors (Vol. 9) (London, Brill. 1978).

Keresztes, P., 1971. Emperor Antonius Pius and the Christians. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 22(1), pp.1-18.


  1. Bowman, Alan K. The Cambridge Ancient History: The High Empire, A.D. 70–192. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), p 102
  2. Bowman, p 108
  3. Bowman, p 112
  4. Young, Gary K, Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 BC-AD 305 (London & New York: Routledge, 2001) pp 29-30
  5. Grant, Michael, The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (London, Routledge, 2006), pp. 14–23
  6. Sextus Aurelius Victor Epitome De Caesaribus, 23
  7. Historia Augustae, Life of Antonius Pius, ix
  8. Historia Augustae, 9
  9. Historia Augustae, 10
  10. Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 70, [11]
  11. Grant, p 118
  12. Sextus Aurelius Victor Epitome De Caesaribus, 23
  13. Grant, p 113
  14. Grant, p 111
  15. Grant, p 113
  16. Sextus Aurelius Victor Epitome De Caesaribus, 23
  17. McLynn, Frank. Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher (Emperor. London: Bodley Head, 2009), p 115
  18. Grant, p 111