Antoninus Pius was the adoptive son of the Emperor Hadrian, and became emperor himself after Hadrian finally died after a long drawn-out illness in AD 138. He would be remembered as one of the 5 good emperors, and he would reign longer than any previous emperor other than Augustus, 23 years.
His first act was to request that the senate deify Hadrian. One could say that Antoninus’ reign was all a continuation of what Hadrian put in place. Hadrian disliked war and unlike his predecessors, did not see the need to use it as a political tool. He felt that Rome’s borders were spread far enough, and he concentrated his efforts on making things better within the empire and along it’s borders. He even built a huge wall across Britain to keep northern invaders out and secure the border. All of this meant that Antoninus inherited an empire that was in pretty good shape. Like Hadrian, he resisted expanding the empire through waging war. This resulted in the longest period of peace that Rome had ever seen. Antoninus never traveled to Rome’s borders, and never led an army. In fact, he hardly ever left Rome in 23 years.
Very little is known about his biography from ancient writings, but evidence remains of his actions as emperor. We know from statues that he was bearded, a look made popular and passed down by Hadrian. By all accounts he was tall and handsome, calm and kind hearted. He was a perfect fit for what many Romans wanted in an Emperor. He was a good speaker, and he was not easily tempted (as many other Emperors were) with power and money. Instead, he seemed to understand that he was a custodian of the empire, and his only role was to keep things afloat and in good shape. He was not an overly ambitious emperor, and unlike others he was not consumed with leaving his mark on Rome. He died at the ripe-old age of 74, a hugely popular figure in Rome and was unanimously deified by the senate. His ashes were placed in Hadrian’s mausoleum, known today as the Castel St. Angelo. Today there is still a debate about Antoninus: Was he really a truly good emperor, or was his reign a lucky result of the peace brought about by Hadrian? There seems to be evidence of both- either way, Rome prospered.
Antoninus Pius was not the greatest of Roman builders, but a very important structure of his exists today in the Roman Forum. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina is a partial ruin that has been turned into a church, but you can still make out the impressive front steps and portico today. At one time, it looked like this model in the picture to the right. It was built in 141 by the Emperor and dedicated to his wife Faustina, who had died in 140 after 31 years of marriage. She was the niece of Hadrian and Antoninus’ link to the throne. After Antoninus died, his successor, Marcus Aurelius added his name to that of his wife in an inscription across the front. In the middle ages the temple ruin was converted to the Catholic Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. Today, it is one of the strangest churches anywhere. On the forum side, the steps and columns are still visible, as is the inscription to Antoninus and Faustina, with a church roof and entry on the opposite side. During the middle ages, the forum was all under 10-20 feet of earth, so today with the ground excavated you can see the church and what remains of the original structure undernieth and behind it. It’s a weird one.
In recent news, a giant head of Antoninus Pius’ wife Faustina was found in Turkey in 2008, along with a huge bust of Hadrian, evidence that she was perhaps remembered and celebrated there as well. Here’s a link to that story with photos.