Ephesus and Antoninus Pius’s Birthday

The city of Ephesus decides to celebrate Antoninus Pius’s birthday in exchange for the benefactions of the new emperor
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 

Local decree

Original Location/Place: 
Theatre of Ephesus
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
In situ
138 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
The text is inscribed in two blocks together with a letter of the provincial governor L. Venuleius Apronianus (see below). Paragraphs are indented.
The upper block measures 170 centimetres in height, 88 centimetres in width, and 88 centimetres thick. The bottom block is 205 centimetres high and 96 centimetres wide. Letters are between 3.5 and 1.8 centimetres tall.
Roman, Greek

Die Inschriften von Ephesos 21.I [OGIS 493]


In 138 CE Hadrian died and his adopted son Titus Aelius Antoninus (Antoninus Pius) acceded to the imperial throne. In the same year, the local institutions of Ephesus produced a decree (ψήφισμα/psêphisma) rejoicing in this dynastic succession and establishing local celebrations to commemorate the birthday (γενέθλιον/genethlion) of the Roman emperor.

The motion was introduced by L. Cerrinius Paetus, who had been designated secretary of the people, one of the most important posts in the civic life of Ephesus (see Schulte, Die Grammateis). He was about to substitute P. Carsidius Epiphanes, who is also attested as local eponymous magistrate (or prytanis) in another inscription (I.Eph. 1033). Cerrinius Paetus was equally honoured as prytanis and president of the local gymnasia (or gymnasiarch; I.Eph. 635), so there should be no doubt that both men were prominent members of the political landscape of a city which considered its institutions and citizens φιλοσέβαστοι/philosebastoi (“emperor-loving”). Following the procedural introduction, the inscribed text sets from line 16 the reasons for which this resolution is taken. Firstly, it indicates that Antoninus Pius had received his rule (βασιλεία/basileia) from an unnamed deified father; obviously Hadrian. While the latter originally came from Hispania, Antoninus was born in Italy and adopted following the much-praised meritocracy succession typical of the golden age of the empire (see Hekster, Emperors and Ancestors, p. 78-95). This adoption, however, only came on the 25 February 138 after Hadrian’s first designated heir, L. Aelius Caesar, died (HA, Antoninus Pius IV.6). On the 10July of the same year, Antoninus Pius was already commemorating the first day of his reign (or dies imperii; see Kienast, Kaisertabelle, p. 134). Given the reference to Hadrian’s deification, our Ephesian decree must date after this moment but probably not far from it. It was a well-established principle that cities in the empire celebrated the arrival of a new ruler and even sent corresponding embassies to the imperial court in order to show their loyalty and alliance as attested in an inscription from Aizanoi celebrating Septimius Severus’s accession (see Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 187-190). Even if the dispatch of such diplomatic mission is not mentioned in this document, we must infer that the Ephesians certainly made their decision known to the Roman authorities according to the letter of the provincial governor Venuleius Apronianus – attached to our inscription – in which he congratulated the city for its particular reverence (εὐσέβεια/eusebeia) towards Antoninus Pius. This procedure would likewise explain the emergence of the common vows (εὐχαί/euchai) across the empire mentioned in line 16. In other words, the Ephesians shared a universal consensus hoping that the new emperor was going to carry on with the salvation of the human race (ἀνθρώπων γένος/anthrôpôn genos).

Ephesus’s positive attitude towards Hadrian is clear from epigraphic sources in which the emperor was thanked for his many benefactions to the city. Our decree also tries to present the relationship with Antoninus Pius as a special one. This is based on the actions that the latter took while he was governor of Asia. As his most prominent international appointment, Antoninus Pius’s stay in the province was praised in both the Roman historiographical tradition (HA, Antoninus Pius III) and Greek authors such as Philostratus (Lives of the Sophists I.25.7, II.I.17). This term of office is also confirmed by an inscription from Ephesus commemorating the setting up of a statue of Sabina in 134/5 CE. Consequently, the citizens of the provincial capital could have a fresh memory of Antoninus Pius’s activities. Even though the nature of his benefactions is not detailed, they must be concerned with the grant (ἐπίδοσις/epidosis) of certain favours most likely connected to the city’s aspirations to achieve a higher rank of status, as shall be discussed below.

Once the motion has been justified, the decree proceeds with its precise contents from line 25. The day on which Antoninus was born – 19 September 86 – shall be celebrated (ἑορτάζειν/heortazein) with the distribution (διανέμειν/dianemein) of money to the citizens of Ephesus; one denarius on each of the five days comprising the festivities. In contrast with other local celebrations of the city such as the parades financed by C. Vibius Salutaris, the expenses accruing from this initiative were to be supplied directly from the public funds (δημόσια/dêmosia) dedicated to sacrifices. This type of imperial birthday commemoration is particularly interesting because it can be linked with the fact that Asia already celebrated Augustus’s birthday after the proposal of the provincial governor Paullus Fabius Maximus in 9 BCE. Furthermore, the calendar and common year of the province started from the 23 September, so this new resolution concerning Antoninus Pius confirms the prevalent presence of elements of imperial ideology and commemoration embedded in the daily lives of the provincial population. Indeed – and the decree is very clear about this point – Ephesus was not aiming to achieve an ephemeral remembrance but rather a perpetual celebration for which further procedural particulars were necessary. For this reason, the motion was said to be legally binding (κύριος/kyrios) for all time and, accordingly, the inscribed record was ordered (l. 35-36). In this sense, the last part of the decree is extremely relevant. The city of Ephesus acknowledged that this resolution was fundamental for clearly showing their favourable disposition (τρόπος/tropos) both in the present and the future towards benefactions (εὐεργεσίαι/euergesiai) received “from the gods”. Roman emperors were therefore presented as divine creatures capable of granting favours for which local communities were expected to express their reciprocal (ἀμειβόμενοι/ameibomenoi) gratefulness. This idea of reciprocity is consequently crucial for understanding the relations established between the imperial ruling authorities and their subjects, as well as for interpreting the communications and actions deriving from this constant exchange.

For example, when the proconsul Antonius Albus issued an edict (I. Eph. 23) concerning the problems of the Ephesian harbour (see Zabehlicky, “Preliminary Views”; and Pont, Orner, p. 199-200), he insisted in the shared preoccupation of Antoninus Pius for this local issue. The emperor is also known to have personally commended the most influential Ephesian benefactor, P. Vedius Antoninus, who elevated the building splendour of the city. In the same period, the citizens of Ephesus were fiercely competing for the right to be considered and called “first of Asia” (πρώτη τῆς Ἀσίας/prôtê). While the second neocorate (l. 2-3) is already present under Hadrian (see Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 66-70), this document is the earliest surviving attestation of the primacy titulature and supports Aelius Aristides’s subsequent concerns (Oration XXIII) about the lack of concord (ὁμόνοια/homonoia) with the other two central cities in the province: Pergamum and Smyrna (see Heller, Les Bêtises, p. 324-341). Antoninus Pius soon tried to solve quarrels “about titles” between them (I.Eph. 1489). At the beginning of his reign, however, Ephesus was already seeking to make a statement not only of its loyalty but also of its growing aspirations and ambitions. If these were to be fulfilled by the granting emperor, displays of devoted gratefulness such as this decree were to be recommended; a decree in which the consensus of the empire was followed, the saving power of Antonius Pius exalted and the everlasting continuation of the Roman rule with its divine favours presupposed in the future. Throughout his reign, Antoninus Pius was to be considered several times “founder” (κτίστης/ktistês)by the Ephesians (I.Eph. 282d, 1504, 2050; see Knibbe, “Ephesos vom Beginn”, p. 787-788). Nonetheless, this general sense of prosperity was not unique to the capital of Asia where the emperor once resided, as confirmed by another contemporary account of the Smyrna-resident Aelius Aristides in his celebrated To Rome (Oration XXVI).    

Bibliographical references: 

Preliminary Views of the Ephesian Harbor

Zabehlicky, Heinricharticle-in-a-bookEphesos: Metropolis of Asia: an Interdisciplinary Approach to its Archaeology, Religion, and CultureKoester, H. 201-215Preliminary Views of the Ephesian HarborCambridge, Mass.Harvard University Press2004
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