5 Good Emperors
Marcus Aurelius

The Philosopher Emperor

Despite the turmoil caused by plague and war during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, his was a life strictly guided by philosophy. He has been largely associated with the idea of stoicism (perhaps most simply defined as a dedication to logic), but his own surviving works indicate a general intellectual devotion rather than strict adherence to a single thought process. Regardless, in the words of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Marcus Aurelius is accurately described as the “philosophic monarch” and may be the most relevant example of such in human history.

His work ‘Meditations’ provides the basis for his label as a philosopher. Though other works, particularly the biography in the Historia Augusta by Julius Capitolinus, label him as a philosopher as well; it’s his own words which have given him his lasting reputation. Originally written in Greek, Meditations serves many functions: it is a loose historical record of various people who played a part in Marcus Aurelius’ life, a guide to future emperors on how to conduct oneself and serves as a slight autobiographical account. Most importantly though it is a personal journal of the emperor, recorded while on the Danubian campaigns, that clearly portrays him as both a deep thinker and ardent supporter of Roman paganism.

He was dedicated to the imperial cult and largely open to the multiple faiths that by this time were reflective of such a vast and all encompassing empire. However, Christianity was not quite so fortunate. While the record of ‘persecution’ of Christians during his reign largely stems from two incidents, one in AD 166 and another large scale incident in Lugdunum in AD 177, is not truly reflective of the emperor’s rather disinterested attitude toward the fledgling religion, it did have an effect of influencing the historical record. In contrast to reports of persecution, Marcus Aurelius was largely tolerant and did not support any official policy targeting Christians (and had even been called a friend of Christianity by the author Tertullian) but he made no effort to protect Christians from those elements of society which used the oddity of the Christian cult as a scapegoat for various local and regional concerns. There has been arbitrary speculation that had Marcus Aurelius truly been aggressive in his approach to Christianity he may have stemmed the tide of its rapid growth and reenergized the idea of Roman paganism, but such notions are obviously highly speculative and impossible to prove.

Along with his dedication to philosophy, the sciences and related arts, Marcus Aurelius was noted for his attention to imperial administration. His long tenure as Caesar or heir to Antoninus Pius (some 23 years) not only allowed ample opportunity for a fine education but gave first hand perspective on running the empire. While Antoninus contrasted the wanderlust of Hadrian by spending the vast bulk of his own reign in or near Rome, Marcus Aurelius spent great stretches of his outside of Italy (even though much of this was predicated by military circumstance rather than travel). He paid careful attention to promoting able men to magisterial and administrative positions of import and deferred to those best suited to make proper recommendations. Judicial matters brought the personal focus of imperial attention and the emperor was well known for his diligence in affairs of trial and law. Cassius Dio relates that Marcus Aurelius was diligent in the extreme not only in an attempt to insure justice, but because he also believed it right that the emperor should not do anything hurriedly. It is this trait, associated with his stoic nature, that some argue made him incapable of properly dealing with various crises that affected the empire during his reign. In fact, a likely addiction to opium (the emperor freely encourages its use in ‘Meditations’) and generally poor health may have added to a perception of indecisiveness whether deserved or not.

Regarding monuments and construction of buildings, Marcus Aurelius was rather limited in comparison to his predecessors. If the dual emperors (Aurelius and Lucius Verus) were responsible for many works, there are very few that have been directly accredited and/or survive. At least two triumphal arches which have not survived intact did lend relief images to arch of Constantine and to other modern era displays. The column of Marcus Aurelius was built in similar fashion to that of Trajan’s Column and depicts the events of the Marcomannic and Sarmatian Wars although it lacks some of the splendor that makes Trajan’s version so famous. Perhaps the most famous surviving monument is that of the equestrian Marcus Aurelius which ironically only survived the middle ages because it was thought to be a representation of the later emperor Constantine, whose tolerance and acceptance of Christianity is well attested.

Contrary to portrayals of Marcus Aurelius in various epic films (“Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Gladiator”), the emperor was quite clear in his selection of heir and there was never any thought of a restored Republic. With his wife Faustina, Marcus had 13 (perhaps 14) children, most of whom apparently did not survive beyond young adulthood. When the youngest son Lucius Aurelius Commodus was only 5 years of age (AD 166), he was clearly designated as Caesar (or heir) on coinage. While this did not prevent the uprising of Avidius Cassius some nine years later in AD 175 upon the reported death of the emperor, it did lead directly to Commodus’ further promotion to co-Augustus shortly thereafter. As early as AD 177 (between the age of 16 and 17) Commodus was given co imperial power and accompanied his father on campaign along the Danube. This is significant in that it marks the first time in nearly a century that the method of adoptive succession was not applied. While Commodus had been clearly hand-selected and assuredly given as much of an education as a young man could be given in the art of rule, for all of his otherwise apparent wisdom, Marcus Aurelius ignored the pattern of success set by his four predecessors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus). Rather than selection of an heir from among a pool of qualified candidates, Marcus Aurelius chose to re-establish dynastic rule. While he cannot be blamed entirely for the later faults of his son, the retrospective error made in this decision is largely credited as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. The passing of Marcus Aurelius on March 17, AD 180 clearly marks the end of an era, and is more than likely attributed to years of plague exposure and continued poor health despite other inferences of Commodus’ direct involvment,. Cassius Dio described the passing of Marcus Aurelius thusly: “For our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.

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Stoics were initially disciples of a Greek philosopher named Zeno. Stoic philosophy is in many ways similar to the Taoist philosophy of China. Both teach one to attune with his/her inner nature, which the Romans called Reason and the Greeks the Logos.