“His eyes shone like stars reflected in a ditch ”
Antoninus Pius (Full name: Togaborus Tedius Antoninus 'Pius' ) holds the record for being one of the most boring Roman Emperors ever to take the top office. Though he got plenty of praise from Edward Gibbon and others, Pius was the dullest of the dull.
Born in a chariot shelter in 86 AD, Antoninus Pius came from a long line of Roman senators who gained the reputation for mind numbing mediocrity. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, none of the Pius clan had come to a sticky end during the reigns of mad/bad emperors like Caligula, Nero or Domitian. They were 'Pius by name and Pious By nature' according to the inveterate wall scribbler Juvenile. So perhaps it is not surprising that until he became emperor, Antoninus had stayed out of the public eye working in a series of important if dull jobs. If really wanted a party to start with a dull thud, Antoninus was the perfect guest to invite.
Magical Tony's Box of Crap
It would be at least fair to say that as he worked in the Rome traffic department, issuing fines to citizens who left their chariots double parked all over the city, Antoninus slowly realised that this wasn't making him a prospective catch for any free, wealthy woman in the Roman empire. He had a healthy bank balance, no gambling debts or a trail of ex-slaves literally holding his babies. Dreary the family may be but Antoninus still had to do the dynastic duty and make sure he could father another generation of pious dullards. He still needed a wife so Antoninus finally summoned up his courage and chose a new hobby: Sorcery.
Rome was full of schools that dealt with magic. As long as you didn't predict that the current Roman emperor was going to 'have one of those days' in which he would be murdered, magicians and such like were usually classified with religious minorities like the Jews and Christians, except the latter were widely believed to be cannibals too with their talk of 'eating the body of Christ' which even by Roman standards really did put you out there with savage barbarians.
Antoninus eventually chose to enrol in the then prestigious 'Sorcery School of Simon Magus' in Rome to learn all the tricks of the trade. Antoninus managed to pick up a few iffy routines like producing a live rabbit from out under his toga and sawing a slave in half, though he needed a few slave market rejects to get this part of the act right.
Going out into the entertainment world as 'Magical Tony: Man of Mystery and Rabbits' the future emperor established himself as a 'safe act' at banquets in between the dancing girls and the orgy to follow. At one particular party, Antoninus met a rather severe looking Faustina who was interested enough in him to ask for a private show in her chambers. Claiming to be a mind reader, Antoninus said Faustina would marry someone who had the initials A.P. It was a hoary old trick but Faustina said 'yes' and the two got married within a week.
For a time Antoninus kept up his sorcery skills with Faustina with his granite faced assistant. Some appreciated the act but others referred to them as 'Mr and Mrs 'Yawn' on the senatorial dinner couch circuit. The happy couple also liked to play games of Latin Whist, Etruscan Dead Dog and Happy Ancient World Families to occupy them at nights. By then Antoninus had given up his party tricks and had boiled the last of his rabbits to 'finish off the old stock'. It was time to settle into the long twilight of married life.
Rising Without Trace
If Antoninus and Faustina had expected to disappear into obscurity, their destinies - and let's be honest here, no one would have bothered to have recorded any details about them - were changed by the decisions of Emperor Hadrian. His own chosen successor (and adopted son) to the imperial throne, Aelius Verus inconveniently popped his Roman sandals. With his own health visibly failing, Hadrian needed to make a quick decision. It was then that he saw a final demand letter concerning one of his imperial chariots that had broken down on a busy highway and hadn't been removed. The letter was signed 'A.Pius (Senator). Chariots, Wagons, Asses and Assorted Wheels Department'. Hadrian had his perfect candidate.
Addressing the Roman senate a few days later, Hadrian announced his decision. To the astonished senators gathered, Hadrian explained why he had chosen that funny couple who had bored the togas off everyone in the previous 20 years. The emperor defended his decision and said that he had been looking for someone who wasn't a dangerous homicidal maniac (the Imperial C.V. had been changed since Nero in attempt to weed out candidates like that). If Antoninus was dull, then Hadrian said it was better to be ruled by a bore than a bastard. The senate promptly gave Antoninus a sitting ovation.
Astonished at his promotion, Antoninus returned home to Faustina to break the news. To celebrate his salary increase, Antoninus went to bed at 10.00pm that night and requested an an extra strong cup of hot cocoa.
A few days later whilst repainting his bicycle clips, Antoninus got the message that Hadrian had died in a strange hairdressing accident. 'Ex-Magical Tony' was now the new Emperor!..but first he must finish off those last warning letters to bad drivers.
Just Say No to Orgies
The new Imperial couple arrived at the Palatine Palace to take over and were soon doing a lot of UnRoman things. They cancelled the usual Saturday Night Debauchery Dance and turned down invitations to go to wife swapping themed parties. Antoninus and Faustina instead preferred to have a few friends round for card games or 'imperial charades'. Though some of the pagan religious conservatives celebrated this return to old fashioned values, others at the the more depraved end of Roman society were really disappointed by the emperor. There was even a retrospective fondness for Caligula and Nero who though they had become killer sex maniacs were still at least known for adding colour to the historical narrative.
You Really Are The Picts !
Luckily for those few Roman historians who bothered to stay awake during this 'Age of Grey', some of the pluckier barbarians were happy to cause trouble on the borders. This at least kept the Roman army from relieving their own boredom by slipping away and heading to Rome to create trouble.
Not all of Rome's enemies were fast asleep, at least in Britannia there was a new enemy to contend with. A former enemy known as the Caledonians had got themselves rebranded - and re-tattooed - and now called themselves 'The Picts'. To show everyone how hard they were, the picts walked about with often just a coat of blue paint to keep the chill out.
Hadrian's wall should have kept them out but strikes, booze breaks and general slapdashery had meant it had some gaps so many picts were able to slip through the Roman defences and headed for wild nights out in Nova Castillium. Their raucous behavior included throwing a live haggis into a Tyneside taverna and then dropping their kilts to reveal a spotty backside with ginger hair in the crack.
Reports of this behavior led to Antoninus to send his legions north again to push away the pissed Picts and erect a new wall in the middle of what is now Scotland to keep the hairy bums further away. So a new wall was built out of anything the Romans could fine lying around : empty beer bottles, Loch Ness Monster, discarded shopping trolleys and broken down furniture and called it 'The Antonine Wall'.It was surprisingly effective until the Picts slept off their last hangover and threw down 'Tony's Trash Barrier' a few years later.
Dad - My boyfriend looks just like You !
It wasn't all cocoa and cards for Antoninus Pius. His wife Faustina lasted only a couple of years before she died of a heart attack in a game of Roman Whispers. This meant the emperor's daughter Faustina Junior had to look after the imperial household and to make sure her father bathed at least once a day. She was helped in task by her adopted brothers Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus 'The Haircut'. She liked men with beards so Marcus and Lucius threw away their shaving kits and let their respective facial hairs free to colonise the new imperial profiles . However Faustina decided that she liked Marcus's combination of beard and brains better than Lucius who seemed to her to prefer looking in a mirror all day and saying 'I Look Good Enough To Eat'. Well he wasn't - not least for Faustina. She had made a wise choice.
Is He Still There ??
And so this dullest of dull reigns continued. Everyone was happy except the slaves, Picts and of course, the Christians. The godly really wanted to be persecuted like mad again as they were sure it was good for the salvation business but Antoninus Pius seems to have just ignored them.
Wake Me Up When He's Dead
Besides remaining a crashing bore around Rome, Antoninus spent some money on repairing buildings and temples to keep the Gods happy but otherwise he still preferred playing solitaire in the imperial bedroom. By now the party invitations had long dried up and instead Antoninus was legally obliged to have arse aching discussions about the future of Rome with Marcus and Lucius. This education amounted to the best way to comb your beard what to do if your barber walked out and signed up to become a gladiator.
Antoninus appears to have died very suddenly though he was now well in his 70s. According to some writers (Juvenile, mostly) the emperor was found dead dangling naked over his old magician's box set . This would suggest either the old boy was a closet pervert or that he had been murdered. However other Roman historians dismiss this story as another one of 'Juvenile's Little Japes' and they say the Emperor died from drowning whilst snoring in the bath.
Antoninus Pius proved a point that you could be Very Very Dull in Rome and still succeed. However the old boy must have had some idea how to do it, none of his successors who would later aspire to 'Antonine Tedium' would last very long.
- Juvenile is our only source for much of this.
- Pius's mother had an eccentric taste in delivery rooms.
- Still around today - now called the Magic Circle.
- Cleopatra and Antony were the usual favourites.
- The Christians later claimed that every pope from St.Peter to the reign of emperor Constantine had died a martyr. Once in power, the Christians destroyed any document that contradicted this tradition. They were successful.
- So dull that their names and works are now lost