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Antoninus Pius


CAT 74. Engraved by George Cooke. Antoninus Pius. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 3. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1815. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Roman emperor, 138-161 (adopted son and successor to Hadrian). From HG 3: “The Emperor Antoninus, surnamed the Pious, was born at Lanuvium, in the year 86. He was, at first, Proconsul of Asia; and, in 120, appointed Consul, when he displayed that justice, goodness, and wisdom which rendered his memory consecrated by the friends of humanity. Adrian, not withstanding some vices which he possessed, had the merit to discover, and to honor, virtue, adopted Antoninus, and destined him for his successor.” Under the “wise and wholesome regulations” of Antoninus, “the surrounding barbarous countries were kept in due subjugation; and, what had rarely happened before this time, they suffered the empire to remain in peace during his government.” Antoninus Pius “diminished” taxes, “liberated criminals,” and “put an end to the rigorous prosecutions” of Christians. “At length, having, through his talents and moderation, kept Rome, and the greater part of the world in peace, during twenty-three years; he died, in 161, at the age of seventy-five, lamented, as a tender parent, by all orders of the state.” Antoninus arranged admirably for his succession “by adopting Marcus Aurelius, to whom he had given his daughter in marriage” (n.p.).

Antoninus Pius embodies a massive strength and elongated attentiveness in Cooke’s engraving of the bust in profile. Melville’s poem “The Age of the Antonines” honors two of the legacies for which Antoninus Pius is most remembered. One is peace: “When a pagan gentleman reigned, / And the olive was nailed to the inn of the world / Nor the peace of the just was feigned.” The other is religious tolerance: “Hymns to the nations’ friendly gods / Went up from the fellowly shrines, / No demagogue beat the pulpit-drum / In the Age of the Antonines!” (NN PP 286).  For Gibbon, the “Age of Antonines” reached its apogee during the successive rule of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, “possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government” (1: 68).