The Golden Autumn

The Golden Autumn

Antoninus Pius

After the whirlwind that was Hadrian, Antoninus Pius was different. He rarely travelled and never left Italy, living much of the time in Rome and attending the Senate in person. Though commander in chief, he never came within 400 miles of a Legion. He married a beautiful wife, with whom he was deeply in love and with whom he had four children, none of whom survived him. But he did not have to worry about finding a successor, because Hadrian had done for him, telling him that he was to adopt Marcus Aurelius as his successor — he was already an outstanding young man. And in case Marcus did not survive, Hadrian told him that he was also to adopt his adoptive grandson Lucius Verus, which he did; both in fact succeeded him as joint emperors – a first — though Verus, the junior emperor soon died, and Aurelius was another huge success.

The frontier was moved north, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Antonine Wall.

Antoninus was an excellent administrator, but emperors are supposed to be military men, and right at the beginning, a military success was arranged for him, right here in Britain.  Hadrian had built a Wall – it was brand new – but the generals on the spot decided that it was in the wrong place, and a better wall could be built 80 miles to the north, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It would be only 35 miles long as against 80 miles and thus more defensible. Not that Antoninus came to Britain in person, but one of the top military men, Lollius Urbicus was sent out to do the job for him.

The Antonine  Wall snaking its way across lowland Scotland near Bar Hill.

The Antonine Wall, near Watling Lodge. The Antonine Wall was built of turf and timber, unlike Hadrian’s Wall, which was built of stone.

It was in a way more efficient than Hadrian’s Wall not only a mere 35 miles long, but instead of being built in stone, it was built of earth with forts placed along it.  The new emperor could be ‘blooded’ (in a purely metaphorical way) by building a new, better wall.

It was in a way more efficient than Hadrian’s Wall not only a mere 35 miles long, but instead of being built in stone, it was built of earth with forts placed along it.  The new emperor could be ‘blooded’ (in a purely metaphorical way) by building a new, better wall.

But Antoninus remained in Rome. He began by persuading the Senate to deify his predecessor Hadrian, which the Senate had been reluctant to do, remembering the four senators that Hadrian had put to death at the beginning of his reign. But Antoninus, the dutiful adopted son, was persuasive and Hadrian was made a god, and in return Antoninus was given the title Pius.

Antoninus Pius enjoyed an era of peace and proved to be an excellent administrator.

But he was an excellent administrator and tightened up the whole procedure of administration, which was run by a civil servants, of whom the crucial ones were the ab epistulis, that is dealing with letters which were the life blood of Roman administration. He made numerous improvements.  He expanded free access to drinking water throughout the Empire.

He encouraged legal conformity and helped slaves get their freedom. He also left his successor with a large surplus in the Treasury, a feat that no other emperor accomplished. He died of illness in 161 and was succeeded as Hadrian had ordered by his adopted son Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was one of the most impressive of all the great Roman emperors. He was certainly perhaps the most intellectual, being a distinguished Stoic philosopher, leaving behind his Meditations, which are still in print and selling well.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. This is the only full-scale equestrian statue to have survived from antiquity.

His mother was Domitia Calvilla, a very rich woman, who owned tile works which supplied bricks for many of the great buildings of Rome (tiles were by law stamped to guarantee their strength). Woman often owned substantial commercial enterprises, because it was not thought fit for men to engage in sordid trade, but their wives could own profitable enterprises for them. One of her works has been discovered at Bomarzo 50 miles north of Rome. They only had two furnaces, so it was a comparatively small establishment.

But if he had intended to follow in the steps of his predecessor and administer the Empire from Rome, he was to be disappointed. War broke out, one in the east, and one in the north – and what was worse than war – plague. The last dozen years of his life, when he was in his 50s, he had to become a warrior and he died whilst fighting the Germans

Column of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Colonna

In the east, the Parthians were giving trouble. In the early historic period, the Middle East was dominated by three great peoples:  the Achaemenids in the fifth century BC, who famously attacked the Greeks and were eventually knocked out by Alexander the Great. Then at the other end were the Sassanids; and in between were the Parthians, who from 247 BC to 224 A.D dominated the region, notably defeating the Romans in 54 BC at the battle of Carrhae.  The Parthians are rather boring, – their art is undistinguished – but they were always troublesome, and in the mid second century, a  new dynamic leader arose, Vologases IV.

The Parthians had begun by annexing Armenia, which was the crucial buffer state to their west.  The local Roman commander intervened with a legion, but the legion was slaughtered. Imperial intervention was needed, so it was decided to send out the junior emperor, Lucius Verus. He played it safe. He went out to the East, yes, but made his headquarters at Antioch in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean, a long way from Parthia, though he didn’t spend much time in the town itself, but in the suburb of Daphne,  where the views were beautiful and morals lax, and he spent his time with his beautiful mistress Panthea, while taking time out to marry Marcus’ daughter Lucilla, aged 14. He led his regiments from behind, leaving the fighting to his talented generals.

Map of the Parthian empire. The Parthians originally came from the north-eastern part of their empire, but the focus gradually moved westwards as they absorbed the Medes.

The generals were successful and Armenia was recaptured. But the Parthians then moved south into Mesopotamia, and captured Edessa. The Romans then recaptured Edessa, and  finally they captured the crucial cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon and honours were more or less even.

Then  a new, more powerful enemy made its appearance: plague. The great Antonine plague is one of the most devastating plagues in antiquity. It is often identified as being smallpox, which may have travelled along the Silk Road from China. It was a devastating disease as it had never reached Europe before. The great physician Galen describes its symptoms, with great blotches breaking out on the skin. When the second wave hit in A.D. 189,  the historian Cassius Dio recorded that there were 2000 deaths  a day in Rome alone. The impact on  close-packed Roman forts was devastating.          

Three tribes were involved the Marcomanni, the Quadi and the Iazuges, of whom the greatest threat was the Marcomanni, who had acquired a leader of genius, Ballomer. At the battle of Carnuntum, in eastern Austria, a Roman force 20,000 strong was massacred. The presence of the emperors was clearly essential, so both emperors set off, though sadly Lucius Verus soon died, and Marcus had to return to Rome to bury him: he then set off again, alone.

Map to show the position of the Marcomanni (top left) the Quadi (top centre0 and the Iazyges (middle centre), the tribes that were attacking the Roman empire.

Meanwhile, the Germans marched south and reached Aquilea, the main Roman city at the head of the Adriatic, 70 miles east of modern Venice.  This was the first time that an enemy had reached Italian soil for 400 years. Eventually the Romans forced the invaders back, but just as Marcus was trying to make permanent arrangements, another disaster occurred — rebellion in the East. A local commander, Avidius Cassius heard a false report that Marcus was dying, so decided to proclaim himself emperor, but when it became clear that Marcus was still very much alive, the rebellion fizzled out, and a centurion cut off the rebel emperor’s head. Eventually Marcus was able to make his way back to Rome.  He had been away for eight years —  a long campaign for a man in his 50s who had not previously been a soldier.

But this was not the end. The Marcomanni rebelled again, and Marcus Aurelius once again set out, and was busy trying to establish a new province when in 180 he died while on campaign,  either at Vienna or Sirmium.  A column celebrating his military events was set up in imitation of Trajan’s, but in a more dramatic style that foreshadows the art of Late Antiquity.

The Meditations

But the works for which Marcus Aurelius is best known are his Meditations.  These were a sort of personal note book that he wrote while campaigning in the North, in Germany and were not perhaps intended to be a work of philosophy but were nevertheless published as such, and are indeed still selling well in numerous translations.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor

Marcus Aurelius, by choice, a philosopher-king, by force of circumstance, a soldier.

He was introduced to philosophy by his tutor Fronto. Fronto came originally from North Africa, but once in Rome he established himself as the foremost orator of his day, much in demand, and he was appointed as tutor to Marcus Aurelius by his predecessor Antoninus Pius, and they remained good friends throughout.  Indeed Fronto’s letters were also published and became popular, and fragments of them were rediscovered in the 19th century overwritten by a later work of Christian piety. He introduced Marcus Aurelius into the philosophy of stoicism and the Meditations are often considered to be one of the major works of stoic philosophy.  Personally I find it a little cold — I would rather be an Epicurean and pursue pleasure.  But the great fascination of the Meditations is not that they are great philosophy but rather that it is fascinating to see a good man, who was also a great man, putting his pursuit of the good into action. 

But he had plenty of opportunity to put his philosophies into practice. As Emperor he devoted most of his time to administrative matters receiving petitions and hearing disputes.  He took great care in the theory and practice of legislation and was called the ‘Emperor most skilled in the law’.  He showed particular interest in three areas of the law: the freeing slaves, the guardianship of orphans, and the choice of city counsellors.

It is said that when he heard that Avidius Cassius, who had rebelled in the East, had been killed by his bodyguard, he was disappointed that Avidius had not been kept alive so he could forgive him.

The column of Marcus Aurelius, carved with scenes from the Germanic War. Click twice to see the details.

But he had plenty of opportunity to put his philosophies into practice. As Emperor he devoted most of his time to administrative matters receiving petitions and hearing disputes.  He took great care in the theory and practice of legislation and was called the ‘Emperor most skilled in the law’.  He showed particular interest in three areas of the law: the freeing slaves, the guardianship of orphans, and the choice of city counsellors.

Two great monuments to him have survived: firstly the great column of Marcus Aurelius in imitation of Trajan’s column, carved in a spiral relief.  It is less formal than Trajan’s perhaps, but more dramatic, showing the first traces of the artistic style of Late Antiquity. 

And then his equestrian statue has survived.  It is the only complete equestrian statue that has survived from antiquity, because it was thought, wrongly, to be a statue of Constantine who converted to Christianity, which was a very good reason to keep it. The statue stood till recently in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum, but it has now been moved inside, and the statue outside is a replica.  


Marcus Aurelius was followed by his son Commodus, who in common perception is usually considered to be the second worst Roman Emperor — after Nero.  People often wonder why Aurelius chose his son to succeed him instead of adopting his successor, as his predecessors had done, but the answer is that none of his predecessors had a son to succeed them, and so Aurelius was simply reverting to Augustan tradition.  This is a pity because he had already realised that his son was pretty useless,  but he made him co-Emperor, took him campaigning in the North, and it was at Carnuntum in Austria that Aurelius died and Commodus became sole emperor.

But Commodus was lazy.  The first thing he did was to end the war and make peace with the Germans.  Aurelius had been intending to form two new provinces, but his idea was given up and the Romans retreated on what turned out to be rather favourable terms.  When he arrived back in Rome he devalued the currency, but apart from that left the rule to his favourites.  One was inevitably the commander of the Pretorian prefects, but the others were freedmen who had done well.  They inevitably quarrelled with one another, so that murder follows murder. 

Commodus, dressed as Hercules

Commodus’s reign falls into two parts: the first ten years saw the rule of the favourites, but around 190,  Commodus returned to Rome and his megalomania took over.  Commodus was a strong, rather handsome man, so he decided he was really Hercules and dressed up with Hercules’s club, and put his lion skin over his head, and numerous statues were carved like this.  He also went on an orgy of renaming.  Rome was renamed Commodiana,  the legions were renamed Commodianae and all the months of the year were renamed.  Meanwhile he saw himself as being a gladiator and performed in the arena, killing wild beasts by the score: 100 lions, 20 elephants, and even a giraffe, which was considered to be a very odd beast indeed.  He even fought as a gladiator himself, winning all his fights – the film Gladiator is based loosely around some of his exploits.  Eventually it all became too much: plots were formed and his favourite mistress, who was Marcia, spiked his drink, but he vomited up the poison, so his wrestling partner, the strong man Narcissus was sent in to strangle him. For once this was a fight that the emperor lost.

The senate was much relieved and the ideal emperor was appointed : Pertinax.  Pertinax was the son of a freeman, who had a distinguished career both in Britain and in Syria and had been appointed Urban Prefect, the equivalent to the mayor of Rome.  He was a good man and could have been a good emperor, – he even managed briefly to increase the purity of the currency –  but he tried to reform too fast and failed to bribe the Praetorians sufficiently, so they murdered him.  He reigned for 83 days,  from 31st December 192 – 28th March 193. 

The Praetorians then decided to auction off the post of emperor.  The bidding was won by Didius Julianus who offered each praetorian 25,000 sesterces, which is the equivalent of 10 years wages –  each.  But the unseemly election was not popular and he lasted only 66 days from March to June 193.  Three rivals for the emperorship emerged, each distinguished generals with a formidable fighting force behind them.  From the north came Clodius Albinus, the Governor of Britain with three legions, from the East came Pescennius Niger, the Governor of Syria, and from the centre came the Governor of Pannonia, Septimius Severus with the biggest army of all, and the most ruthless ambition. He quickly made friends with Albinus offering him the post of Caesar.  He then marched to Rome and was proclaimed Emperor.  He then disinherited Albinus and defeated him, and eventually after two years of war he defeated Niger and eventually became a successful and powerful emperor.  His rule in a way marks a turning point.  Behind him was the golden age of Rome; the future would see the decline and fall of Rome. It is time to pause to consider this major turning point.

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