Aelius Caesar – Forgotten Prince
Updated: Feb 18
“He was a man of joyous life and well versed in letters. In the palace his stay was but a short one but he was considerate of his family, well-dressed, elegant in appearance, a man of regal beauty, with a countenance that commanded respect, a speaker of unusual eloquence, deft at writing verse, and, moreover, not altogether a failure in public life.” – Historia Augusta
Aureus of Lucius Aelius Caesar, 137 CE
In the twilight years of his life, settled back in Rome after travelling the known world and becoming increasingly isolated and irascible, the aging Emperor Hadrian finally faced the question that stalks all ailing rulers: succession. Like his predecessors Nerva and Trajan, his marriage had given him no natural heirs, so in the praiseworthy tradition of the time he cast his eye about for the most worthy candidate for adoption. Hadrian’s decision was made all the more difficult due to his natural suspicion of all around him and persecution of many a worthy candidate.
Servianus, a three-time consul who had married into the imperial family had all the credentials but was now 90 years of age. Attention was duly turned to his grandson Fuscus who Hadrian promoted accordingly, until to everyone’s surprise and confusion, he was also dismissed by the emperor. Servianus and his grandson felt they had such a right to the throne they may have even attempted a coup; Hadrian quickly ordered both their deaths.
Platorius Nepos – former Governor of Britannia who oversaw the construction of Hadrian’s Wall – seemed the next logical candidate but he also displayed his ambitions too openly and also fell out of favour. It must have seemed that a suitable candidate would never be found as Hadrian “came to hate all those of whom he had thought of in connection with the imperial power.” It appears the ambition and political savvy necessary to gain the emperor’s notice were the very qualities that marked oneself out as an intolerable threat.
So it was that in 136 AD, with perhaps a hint of desperation, Hadrian settled on and publically adopted his chosen successor: a 35 year old senator named Lucius Ceionius Commodus. Lucius was as blue blooded as anyone could hope (his father was consul in 106) but remained a surprising choice. His father-in-law had been the great Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, trusted lieutenant of Trajan, whom Hadrian had executed less than a year into his reign on charges of treason. Lucius also lacked any type of military experience to his name. In a time of great tension at the borders of the empire, this must have been a hotly debated decision. Yet to the paranoid and envious mind of the emperor, the fact that Lucius was not a dazzling general was likely a point in his favour. Even if the future of the empire was at stake, Hadrian was not going to let himself be eclipsed.
Hadrian spent 300 million sesterces on publically celebrating the adoption with gifts to the public and military, as well as putting on lavish games in the circus. Lucius Ceionius Commodus became Lucius Aelius Caesar – the conferring of “Caesar” as a title was not yet standard protocol at the time and displays Hadrian’s determination to publically advertise the future of his Aelian dynasty.
Aelius was indeed a bright, young hope. Later historians mischievously remarked the deciding factor in his adoption was his “regal beauty”. Coin portraits of the time show a young man with a strong, handsome profile and a discerning stare, older than his years. The beard of the philosopher, brought back into fashion by Hadrian, is grown out even further, styled with ornate curls. His decadent appearance set the trend for the next 50 years, a clear precursor to the exaggerated opulent appearances of his son Lucius Verus and his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The imagery of his coinage (likely decided upon by Hadrian) celebrates notions of piety, security and harmony of a Roman world with a definite future.
Statue of Aelius, Louvre, with denarius of Aelius from author’s collection.
Yet Aelius’ major shortcoming as an heir quickly became apparent – sources are united in describing his “wretched health”. Even on the occasion of his adoption he was taken ill and unable to give his speech of thanks to the senate. A concerned Hadrian is said to have consulted the horoscope of his adopted son and been dismayed by his findings, remarking, “I seem to have adopted not a son, but a god”.
Neverthless, Aelius was made consul for 136 AD and packed off to Pannonia to cut his teeth with a governorship. He proved to be a competent statesman and an “average commander” whose decadent leanings were of a trivial nature and did not detract from his overall positive perception. He was by all accounts a fan of the luxurious recipes of Apicius, and enjoyed designing evermore luxurious dishes of his own. He slept on beds of flowers and enjoyed dressing his servants up as cupids; all pursuits that “while not creditable, did not bring about the destruction of the state”.
Author’s denarius of Lucius Aelius Caesar, heir of Hadrian, with Concordia holding patera and cornucopia, 137 AD.
Meanwhile, word of his continuing sickliness persisted back in Rome, causing Hadrian to remark that he had “leant on a tottering wall” in regards to Aelius and that it wasn’t just some property but the whole empire that was at stake. It seems these negative remarks found their way to Aelius’ ear, causing him to “grow worse every day from anxiety, as a man does who had lost hope.”
Aelius made it back to Rome from his province but following an overly large dose of medicine, died on January 1st 138 AD. The prevailing modern view is that Aelius had, in fact, been suffering from tuberculosis, one of the most dominant diseases in the ancient world and one that affected members of all classes.
Hadrian’s reactions to the death of his heir are complex; on one hand he gave him an “emperor’s funeral” and ordered that colossal statues of him be set up around the Roman world. Yet he was not deified, somewhat ironic considering Hadrian’s earlier remarks about adopting a god. It also seems an alternative arrangement for succession was being made whilst Aelius was alive. Hadrian put forward a remarkable new plan for the future of his dynasty, nominating not only his new successor – a mild-mannered senator named Antoninus – but also the two after that, who he demanded should rule concordantly, a first in the imperial age. One of these future hopes was of course Aelius’ son, Verus. “Let the Empire retain something of Aelius”, said Hadrian, somewhat poignantly.
Lucius Aelius Caesar is an interesting figure in the history of the time, largely ignored by writers. His brief touch with greatness afforded him little chance to make his mark on history but in him we can glimpse an intriguing alternate timeline. In what direction would Emperor Aelius have steered the empire? For better or for worse, his reign would surely have been filled with more incident than his ever-dependable replacement Antoninus Pius. Would the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius have still found his way to the throne? Such are the tantalising questions raised by the short but notable life of this forgotten prince.