The Historical People of What Matters Most

What Matters Most cover

When faced with impossible choices, how do you decide what matters most?

The Historical People of What Matters Most

Many of the characters in What Matters Most are based on historical people. To the extent possible, I’ve stayed true to what is known of them in the historical records.

Special effort was made to get the historical details right for Hadrian and Turbo and for the men from consular families.

Several of the characters in What Matters Most have either served as consul or want to be consuls. Under the Republic, consul was the second-highest level of the cursus honorum, which was a sequence of political offices of increasing importance. Consuls had both military and political responsibilities, and all had military experience because they served as military tribunes before starting their political climb. The two consuls were elected by an assembly of the people to govern Rome and its provinces together for one year. One was in charge, and they alternated being in charge each month. After that, they served as the governor (proconsul) of a province.

After Augustus established the empire, most of the former responsibilities and power of the consuls were transferred to the emperor. Consuls were nominated by the emperor and then formally elected by an assembly of the people. Several consuls were selected each year, with the first pair of consuls serving that year (ordinary consuls) giving their names to that year in the Roman dating system. The consuls who served later in the year were suffect consuls. The ordinary consulship was more prestigious than the suffect because the year was named after them.

After finishing their few months as consul, the ex-consuls became governors of the provinces that were administered by the Senate. Egypt and the provinces on the frontier where legions were stationed were imperial provinces, and their governors were chosen by the emperor. The governor of an imperial province with one legion was usually the legion commander (legate). If there was more than one legion, their legates were subordinate to the provincial governor.

The four consuls that Titianus discussed with Turbo were executed by Praetorian Prefect Attianus for allegedly plotting and unsuccessfully attempting the assassination of Hadrian in AD 118. The prefect presented sufficiently convincing evidence to get the Senate to condemn them, but many in the Senate were angry that they were forced to do that. Hadrian claimed it was done without his authorization, but many senators suspected that he ordered it.

Upon his father’s death, Hadrian had been entrusted to the care of Trajan, who was his father’s cousin, and Attianus. Attianus was suspected of helping Trajan’s wife Plotina write Trajan’s will herself after Trajan had died of a fever he caught while campaigning in the East. In that will, Hadrian was officially adopted and made Trajan’s successor as emperor. Attianus had a personal attachment to Hadrian, so it’s easy to believe he might have acted on his own to protect his almost-son, but he also might have been following the orders of his emperor.

All four of the executed men had been highly regarded by Trajan and would have been potential contenders to become emperor if the succession had been murky because Hadrian wasn’t officially Trajan’s adopted son.

Hadrian’s relationship with the Senate remained strained for his entire reign. It’s likely that he appointed his trusted friend Turbo as Praetorian Prefect from AD 125 to 134 so someone loyal would be keeping an eye on the politically ambitious members of the Senate for him.

A. Cornelius Palma Frontonianus, consul ordinarius in AD 109.

C. Avidius Nigrinus, consul suffectus in AD 110, replaced as governor of Dacia by Turbo shortly before his arrest.

L. Publilius Celsus, consul ordinarius in AD 113.

Lusius Quietus, consul suffectus around AD 117, Roman Berber prince and general over the Moorish auxiliary cavalry. He was the governor of Judea in AD 117 who suppressed the Jewish Kitos rebellion before Hadrian replaced him shortly after Trajan’s death. Quietus died on his way home to Mauritania, and many suspected Hadrian had him murdered because of his popularity with the armies and his closeness to Trajan, making him a dangerous rival for the throne. After his death, a revolt broke out in Mauretania, Quietus’s home province, and was suppressed by Turbo.


Hadrian: Caesar Traianus Hadrianus, Emperor of Rome, AD 117 to AD 138

Turbo: Q. Marcius Turbo, trusted friend and general for Trajan and Hadrian, Praetorian Prefect AD 125 to 134. Directed the main Roman fleet during Trajan’s Parthian war, put down revolts in Egypt, Cyrene, and Mauritania, commanded the legions on the Danube, and governed first the two Mauritanias and then Dacia. For the last two years (What Matters Most is set in AD 127), Hadrian’s most trusted general had commanded the Praetorians, who served as imperial bodyguards and kept watch on any political unrest in Rome.

Saturninus: M. Lollius Paulinus D. Valerius Asiaticus Saturninus, consul AD 125, Urban Prefect AD 124-134.

M’. Acilius Glabrio or Aviola: suffect consul under Nero in AD 54; still alive when his son/grandson was executed in 95.

M’. Acilius Glabrio: consul in AD 91, exiled by Domitian and executed in AD 95 for treason for becoming a Christian.

M’. Acilius Glabrio, consul in AD 124, and proconsul of Africa in 139/140.

M’. Acilius Aviola, consul in AD 122, cousin to Acilius Glabrio.

M. Asinius Marcellus (deceased): consul in 54. According to Tacitus, he was an accomplice in illegally changing a will, a capital crime. His death sentence, pronounced in a Senate trial, was commuted by Nero because he was the great-grandson of Asinius Pollio, whom Nero admired.

M. Asinius Marcellus: consul in 104.

Q. Rammius Martialis: Prefect of Egypt AD 117-119 while Turbo served there as military prefect.

L. Aurelius Gallus: suffect consul sometime between AD 129 and 132.

A. = Aulus, D. = Decimus, L .= Lucius, M = Marcus, M’. = Manius, Q. = Quintus
(There were only 20 common first names in use at this time, so abbreviations were often used.)


Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (AD 35–95): celebrated orator, rhetorician, Latin teacher, and writer.

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan, AD 39-65) poet; writer of epic poem about the Julius Caesar-Pompey Civil War, friend then conspirator against Nero; forced to commit suicide.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace, 65-8 BC): leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.

Publius Papinius Statius (AD 46-96): composer of epic and shorter poems, including odes.

Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus, c. 254 – 184 BC) playwright whose comedies are the earliest complete Latin literary works.

Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BC): playwright of ancient Athens called the Father of Comedy.

For more about Hadrian and the Roman Empire under his rule:
Everitt, Anthony. Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome. USA: Random House, 2009.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby