Celebrating the piety of Antoninus Pius (ILAlg 7688)

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Forum of Cuicul, Numidia.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
in situ. Djemila, Forum, Algeria.
156 CE Dec 10th to 157 CE Dec 9th
Physical Characteristics: 
Limestone block that has been worked on three sides, and set upon a moulded plinth. The front face of the block contains the inscription, which is in good lettering and set within a double incised frame. On the left side of the block is a moulded patera in relief, on the right a garland and a basket of fruits.

White limestone

Height: 103 cm
Width: 94 cm
Depth: 76 cm
ILAlg 7688 (= AE 1916, 17)
EDH: HD025929
This inscription was dedicated to the emperor Antoninus Pius in 156-157 CE, by the decurio of the small town of Cuicul in Numidia (Djemila, modern Algeria); it was set up in honour of his pietas, and reveals how the religiosity and moral sense of the emperor was celebrated as a key aspect of his imperial propaganda.
Antoninus had been adopted by Hadrian shortly before his death; he had not been Hadrian’s first choice of heir, but following the premature death of Lucius Ceionius Commodus (thereafter known as Lucius Aelius Caesar) in January 138 CE, he chose the long-serving member of his imperial council, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Antoninus as his successor. Antoninus immediately assumed the family names of his adoptive father, Titus Aelius, and received the title Augustus following Hadrian’s death in July of the same year (see Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian, 24). From the very beginning of his reign Antoninus Pius demonstrated the extreme religiosity that was to characterise his time in power; he immediately requested the deification of his predecessor and the ratification of his official actions, both of which were initially refused by the Senate, whose aristocratic sensibilities had been somewhat offended by Hadrian and his reduction of their authority (Grant, The Antonines, p. 11). The divinisation was eventually granted in early 139 CE, and shortly afterwards Antoninus was awarded the epithet Pius. The exact motivation for which he was given such an exceptional appellation are unclear; the Historia Augusta presents a number of possible reasons, including his physical support of Hadrian in the Senate when he was old and weak, which although interpreted as a sign of “great dutifulness” (magnae pietatis), was noted by the author as the kind of act that a man would be “undutiful” if he did not undertake (Historia Augusta, Life of Antoninus Pius, 2.3). Other reasons offered by the Life of Antoninus Pius include his prevention of Hadrian committing suicide when suffering ill-health, that he spared those men whom Hadrian had condemned to death in the last year of his life, the “unbounded and extraordinary honours decreed for him in spite of opposition from all” (quod Hadriano contra omnium studia post mortem infinitos atque inmensos honores decrevit) or Antoninus’s own generous and kindly nature, which led him to commit no crime or dishonour against anyone (Historia Augusta, Life of Antoninus Pius, 2.4-9). Cassius Dio repeats the claim that the epithet was given because of the speed and insistence with which he had claimed divine honours for his adoptive father (Roman History, Epitome of book 70.2), but it is likely that Pius was awarded to him on account of the combination of this occasion with his general piety and devotion to all religious matters.
This inscription is just one of a number of examples that attest to the considerable dedication of the emperor to religious rites; a base for a statue of the emperor that was dedicated in Rome recorded his “remarkable care and religious observance in relation to public ceremonies” (CIL VI, 1001: ob insignem erga / caerimonias publicas curam ac religionem), and numerous coin types were minted that celebrated pietas Augusti (e.g. RIC III, 110/617). Indeed, between 140-144 CE Antoninus minted a series of coins in celebration of Rome’s nine hundredth birthday, which featured images of religious and mythological origin (for detailed discussion of these coins, see Weigel, “The 'Commemorative' Coins of Antoninus Pius Re-examined,” p. 187-200; Toynbee, “Some Programme Coin-Types of Antoninus Pius,” p. 170-173). The coins proclaimed Rome’s legendary foundation and celebrated her connection with the Trojans, the Latins, Aeneas, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, and Augustus, which by implication promoted Antoninus as the successor to these four ideal Roman leaders.
The coins established the character of the birthday celebrations that were to come in 147/148 CE, and renewed the religious values and Rome’s relationship with the gods, who had protected both city and empire over the previous nine centuries, bringing success in both war and peace (Weigel, “The 'Commemorative' Coins of Antoninus Pius Re-examined”, p. 188-195). The association with the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who had established her most important religious institutions, was particularly strong; although all emperors since Augustus had promised to restore traditional religion to its most proper, moral form, it was not until the reign of Antoninus that the “atmosphere [was] so well adapted to a retrospective survey” (Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines, p. 466). Following Antoninus’s adoption of Marcus Aurelius as Caesar, medallions were also struck which depicted Aeneas and Ascanius sacrificing together, with the implicit equation of the emperor with Aeneas suggested by their shared designation Pius, with Marcus Aurelius associated with the dutiful son (see e.g. RIC III, 91, 615, 627).
The celebration of the pietas of the emperor in the city of Rome is perhaps not in itself exceptional; the coins minted there and the statues erected in his honour were part of a general commemoration of his religious observance in the most important religious site of the empire. This inscription, however, reveals the extent to which that religious observance was recognised and honoured across the provinces; Cuicul was a small, well-developed military colony in a stark, austere area of the Algerian mountains some 80 km from the provincial capital of Numidia at Cirta (for the history of Cuicul, see Février, Djemila, p. 1-23). Although further epigraphic sources attest to the loyalty and devotion of the community to the Imperial Cult at Cuicul, it was nonetheless a remote and unremarkable settlement, and one in which we might not expect to find such conspicuous statements of imperial propaganda. The image of the emperor and the particular characterisation of his pietas was identical to that in the empire’s capital, indicating the “spiritual synthesis” of Antoninus’s reign; his was an era of cultural and political unification across the Roman World, in which the exploitation of ancient traditions was used to emphasise the particular equilibrium and peace that the protection of the gods and observance of their rituals had brought to Rome and her people (Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines, p. 466-7). 

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 


Février, Paul-AlbertbookDjemilaAlgerMinistere de l'education nationale1968

The 'Commemorative' Coins of Antoninus Pius Reexamined

Weigel, Richard D.article-in-a-bookAncient Coins of the Graeco-Roman World: The Nickle Numismatic PapersW. Heckel, R. Sullivan187-200The 'Commemorative' Coins of Antoninus Pius ReexaminedWaterloo, OntarioWilfrid Laurier University Press 1984
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