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The Greatest Roman Emperor You’ve Never Heard of

Antoninus Pius, while imperfect, for the most part ruled with prudence, restraint, and moderation.

In the book of Genesis, God agreed not to destroy Sodom if Abraham could find 10 righteous people there. Abraham failed, and God wiped the city from the face of the earth.

More recently (and much less importantly), my friend and former Foundation for Economic Education president Larry Reed issued a similar challenge: He asked me to identify one good Roman emperor—besides Marcus Aurelius. I immediately felt a bit like Abraham, frantically searching for a needle in a haystack. Thankfully, Larry didn’t threaten to destroy Rome if my quest failed.

Roman Emperors
But it was a difficult endeavor nonetheless because most Roman emperors, at least at certain points in their lives, were little more than murderous megalomaniacs too willing to spark wars for their own benefit and chip away at the Romans’ liberties. This is true even for the most revered emperors, including Augustus, Hadrian, and Constantine.

After accepting Larry’s challenge and ruminating over it, one emperor finally came to mind: Antoninus Pius. While imperfect, for the most part, Antoninus ruled with prudence, restraint, and moderation. He is known as one of the so-called “five good emperors,” but his name has survived in relative obscurity because history is often kinder to ambitious conquerors and great builders than to those who respect liberty and govern with a servant’s heart.

Born in 86 AD, Antoninus came from an influential, wealthy family. Early in his life, he enjoyed a successful career as a public administrator. But when then-Emperor Hadrian’s health began to fail, he named Antoninus his heir even though Antoninus may not have wanted the honor. In fact, Hadrian purportedly acknowledged that Antoninus was “far from desiring any such power” but nevertheless believed he would “accept the office even against his will.”…[ ]

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