Roman Empire

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Ancient Roman society institutionalized the adoption of adults. It was relatively common for a wealthy Roman couple to adopt an adult man, even a slave, as heir if they did not have any sons born to them, or their sons were unfit to inherit.

This practice extended to the emperors, and there are a number of Roman emperors and other high officials who were adopted as adolescents or adults, usually by relatives, specifically to provide a suitable and reliable heir.

For other cultures where this kind of adoption was practiced, see Pomare Dynasty, Chinese Qing Dynasty, India (Princely States), and Hawai'ian Royal Families.

Famous adopted Romans include:

  • Antoninus Pius, 86-161 (Emperor, 138-61). Antoninus Pius (also known as Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Antoninus) was the son of Aurelius Fulvius and Arria Fadilla, from a second-ranking official family at Lanuvium. He became a senator, quaestor and consul (in 120). He was proconsul of Asia from 133 to 136 and gained the attention of the emperor Hadrian (see below), who adopted him and appointed him as his successor in 138. He became effective ruler of the empire during Hadrian's last illness and succeeded him in 138, only a few months after his adoption. He ruled well and was greatly respected by the people. Also in 138 he himself adopted his wife's nephew, Marcus Aurelius (see below), who succeeded him as emperor, and Lucius Verus (Lucius Ceionius Commodus II), 130-169, who became a consul under Marcus Aurelius.
  • Augustus Caesar Octavius, 63 BCE-14 CE (Emperor, 31 BCE-14 CE). The Caesar Augustus of the Bible, also known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, whose decree taxing the world brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where Christ was born, was born into the imperial family. His mother, Atia, was Julius Caesar's niece, and his father was Caesar Octavius. But his father died in 59, leaving him to be brought up by his mother. When Caesar (his great-uncle) was assassinated in 31, his will revealed that he had secretly adopted Octavius and appointed him his successor. He ruled long and successfully, and was succeeded by his adopted son, Tiberius (see below) in 14. Augustus is remembered as one of the great emperors of Rome, for his role in fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, for his opposition to Antony and Cleopatra, and as the man for whom the month of August was named. After his death, he was deified by the Senate.
  • Constantius I, 250?-306 (Emperor, 305-06). Also known as Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus came from a humble family, but rose high in the army and civil service. He was adopted by the emperor Maximian, who appointed him governor of Gaul, and gave him his daughter, Theodora, to marry. In 293 he was sent to put down a rebellion in Britain. When Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305, Constantius became emperor of the western empire. He returned to Britain to subdue the Picts, and died at York. He was succeeded by his son, Constantine the Great.
  • Gaius Caligula, 12-41 (Emperor, 37-41). Caligula, also known as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, was born the son of Emperor Germanicus (see below) and Agrippina. His nickname Caligula, given to him by the imperial army, came from the miniature boots he wore as a little boy while on the Rhine with his parents. His father died in 19 and he was then brought up by his mother in Rome, until she was arrested in 29. He was eventually adopted by his great uncle, Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus (see below), along with his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. The Senate and the Praetorian Guard declared the emperor's will invalid, and Caligula assumed sole authority in 37. He at first himself adopted Gemellus, but then had him murdered. He became seriously ill in 37, which probably left him insane. In any case, after six months of good rule. He became a cruel despot, whose name is a byword for viciousness, and he was eventually assassinated by his own guards.
  • Gaius Marius the Younger, ca. 110-80 BCE. Marius was the adopted son of the consul Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE). He supported his father's republican-democratic party, and when his father died in 86 he assumed control. His father's great enemy, Sulla, eventually defeated him, and he committed suicide in his besieged fortress of Praeneste.
  • Germanicus Julius Caesar, 15 BCE-19 CE. Born Nero Claudius Germanicus, to general Nero Claudius Drusus and Agrippina, Germanicus was adopted by the Emperor Tiberius (see below), his mother's brother, in 4 CE. He became a popular general, especially in the German territories. Tiberius appointed him governor of the whole eastern empire in 17, but he offended Tiberius by traveling unauthorized to Egypt in 19. He died in mysterious circumstances, possibly poisoned on the orders of Tiberius, who was jealous of his popularity. His children included the later Emperor Gaius Caligula (see above) and the mother of the Emperor Nero (see below).
  • Hadrian, 76-138 (Emperor, 117-38). Also known as Publius Aelius Hadrianus, the Emperor Hadrian was born to Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afre and Domitia Paulina of Gades, in Spain or Rome. His father died in 85 and he became a ward of Marcus Ulpius Trainus (Trajan, see below), an uncle and later emperor. He advanced rapidly in the army and government when Trajan became emperor in 98. A day or so(?) before his death in 117, Trajan adopted Hadrian and appointed him his successor, but prior to this he had not shown any great sign, which led some at the time to claim the adoption was fictitious, but Hadrian was accepted by the army and the Senate. As emperor, he stopped Rome's territorial expansion and even retreated in some areas. He was popular with the common people, if less so with the elite, and made a point of traveling widely around the empire to see conditions for himself. The building of a pagan shrine on the site of the Temple at Jerusalem precipitated a revolt among the Jews, which he put down at the cost of half a million lives. Hadrian was also a patron of the arts, literature and architecture (the Pantheon, Castel Sant'Angelo), and wrote excellent Latin and Greek prose and poetry. In 136 he adopted Lucius Aelius (Lucius Ceionius Commodus I) as his successor, but Aelius died two years later. Just before he died he adopted Antoninus Pius (see above), who succeeded him as emperor.
  • Julian the Apostate, 332-363 (Emperor, 355-363). Julian (also known as Flavius Claudius Julianus), was a nephew of the Emperor Constantine, and orphaned in 337 when soldiers tried to destroy all possible rivals (except Constantine's own three sons) for the throne. He was brought up quietly, away from Rome, by the eunuch Mardonius. Although born a Christian he renounced that religion and became aggressively pagan. When he became emperor of the Western Empire in 355 he did everything short of open persecution to promote paganism and eliminate Christianity. In 361, on Constantine's death, he became emperor of the Eastern Empire as well. He was also a great military general and a prolific author.
  • Lucullus Marcus Terentius Varro, ca. 116-ca. 56 BCE. Lucullus was born to a noble plebian family and was adopted by Marcus Terentius Varro. Like his birth brother, Lucullus Licinius, he was a supporter of Sulla during the Civil War, and later became consul and governor of Macedonia, and helped put down the Spartacus Revolt.
  • Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 (Emperor, 161-80). Marcus Aurelius (also known as Marcus Annius Verus) was the son of a Spanish Roman official, but early in life he gained the attention of the Emperor Hadrian (see above), who had him educated. In 138 he was adopted by Antoninus Pius (see above), whom he succeeded in 161, and whose daughter he married. He was an effective and relatively humane emperor, but without vision. His Meditations are a famous compilation of his philosophical reflections.
  • Marcus Ulpius Trainus, 53?-117 (Emperor, 98-117). M. Ulpius Trainus, better known as Trajan, was born in Spain, probably to a Roman family. Although not from a major family, he advanced through the ranks of the army due to his outstanding ability, and was elected a consul in 91. In 97 he was adopted by the Emperor Nerva. When Nerva died the following year Nero succeeded him, although he did not return to Rome from the German frontier for several years. His reign was marked by great military successes, good government and some major public works projects. He is commemorated by the famous Trajan's Column in Rome, depicting his victories. He was succeeded by his nephew Hadrian (see above), whom he adopted a day or so before his death.
  • Nero Claudius Caesar, 37-68 (Emperor, 54-68). Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarus and Agrippina, who was Caligula's sister. His father died when he was a child, and his mother married the Emperor Claudius, who was her uncle, and who adopted Nero, changing his name to Nero Claudius Caesar. Agrippina assassinated Claudius in 54, and Nero succeeded him as emperor. He is remembered as the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned (a myth: the violin hadn't been invented yet), for persecuting Christians on a grand scale, his remarkable personal extravagance, great ruthlessness in maintaining power (he had his own mother assassinated), and as a patron of the arts. He is definitely not a rôle model, but he is included because of his great historical importance. He committed suicide during a revolt led by disaffected provincial governors and supported by his own praetorian guard.
  • Pliny the Younger, 62-113. Pliny (his birth name was Publius Caecilius Secundus; his adoptive name was Gaius Plinius Caecilius) was born in Novum Comum and studied in Rome under Quintilian, where he was a brilliant student. He was adopted by his uncle, Pliny the Elder, in 79. He rose through the ranks of the army and the government, becoming a consul in 100, and about 111 he was appointed governor of Bithynia. He is famous today mostly for his correspondence, published in nine books during his life and a further volume after he died.
  • Scipio Africanus Minor, 185-29 BCE. Scipio was born Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus, the son of Lucius Aemilianus Pallus, but was adopted by a relative, Scipio Africanus Major, when he was 16. He was a great general during the Spanish and Punic wars and became a military tribune in 148. His troops destroyed Carthage in 146 and Numantia in 133. He was also a famous patron of the arts. In 147 and again in 134 he was elected consul.
  • Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, 42 BCE-37 CE (Emperor, 14-37). Tiberias was born the son of Tiberias Claudius Nero and Livia and was adopted by Augustus Caesar Octavius (see above), his father-in-law, when he was 46. He was a great general and succeeded Augustus in 14. His reign was not very successful, however, and was marked by rebellions and family strife. He adopted Germanicus Julius Caesar (see above), his nephew, whom he had intended to succeeded him, but, Germanicus died first in 19, and Tiberias then adopted his son, Caligula (see above), who succeeded him in 37.


Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1987)
Bowerstock, G.W. Julian the Apostate. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)
Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, 1993-97
Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by M. Cary, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949)
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross. (London: Oxford University Press, 1957) ("Marcus Aurelius," " Nero")
de Bary, Edward. "The Age of the Antonines." Available at:
Berg, Meridith L. "The Five Good Emperors: 96-180." Available at:
Knapp, Jim, Jr. "Caesar Augustus: A Swell Guy." Available at:
Coppolino, Nina C. "De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors: Augustus (31 BC-14 AD)." [Includes portrait]. Available at:
Silverman, David L. "Nero." Available at:
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Roman Empire
Ancient and Classical Civilizations
1st to 10th Centuries Ce
Rulers, Nobles, Chiefs, Presidents, Prime Ministers
Adopted as an Adult
To Provide Heirs, As Protégés, etc.
Wealthy, Famous, Noble or Divine Adoptive or Foster Families
Customary or Traditional Adoption, Informal and Extra-Legal Care
Adoptees/Fosterees from Wealthy, Famous, Noble or Divine Birth Families
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