Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180 AD)
Emperor: 161 - 180 AD
According to the Greek philosopher Plato, "There will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed of humanity itself, until philosophers become kings in this world, or until those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers." While Marcus Aurelius could indeed be considered Rome's first "philosopher King" (followed only perhaps by Julian), the irony is that his otherwise often considered exemplary reign also included a nearly constant state of war along the Danubian frontier.
Unfortunately, written ancient material on Marcus Aurelius is scattered among several sources or of dubious quality. Much like the history of his immediate predecessors, the history of Cassius Dio for this period is very fragmentary. The account in the Historia Augusta is extant but long debated for its accuracy and even the origin of its authorship. Later writings of Christian authors Tertullian, Eusebius and Orosius do provide additional and important information (though perhaps biased from a perspective of Christian persecution and martyrdom) along with the correspondence of Marcus' teacher Fronto. Of course, the emperor's own work "Meditations" provides intricate detail into the philosophy of the man but is less useful as a history of events.
Marcus Aurelius (originally Marcus Annius Catilius Severus) was born in Rome on April 26, AD 121 into a distinguished and wealthy family originating from Hispania. His great grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus was the first in the family to gain a Senate seat while also reaching the office of praetor. His grandfather was much revered by the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian) and had been enrolled as a Patrician in addition to serving a rare three consulships. His father, also Marcus Annius Verus, died young when the future emperor was only about 3 years old leaving the young Marcus to be raised by his esteemed grandfather. His paternal aunt Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina the Elder) was the wife of Antoninus Pius (and eventually Marcus' mother-in-law as well) and this familial connection certainly played a role in his eventual adoption by Pius. On his mother's side (Domitia Lucilla) Aurelius was related to other men of consular rank such as Catilius Severus (maternal great grandfather and hence his birth name) and Calvisius Tullus (maternal grandfather).
Though the nature of affiliation between the young Marcus and Hadrian is unknown, it is clear that Hadrian took an early interest in the boy's education. The emperor enrolled Marcus as an equestrian as early as his 6th year, made him a Salian priest at the age of eight and saw to his advanced education. Marcus was apparently so devoted to academic pursuits and his demeanor so serious and honest that Hadrian affectionately dubbed him 'Verissimus' meaning most truthful (which was later dropped with his "coming of age" around 15 years old and changed to Verus). His tutors were among the finest of the day and included Euphorion for literature, Geminus for drama, Andron for geometry, Alexander of Cotiaeum for Greek grammar, Trosius Aper, Pollio, and Eutychius Proculus of Sicca in Latin, Aninius Macer, Caninius Celer and Herodes Atticus in Greek oratory and Cornelius Fronto for Latin. Many honors were later bestowed upon these teachers, some with political office and others with wealth depending upon their social station. Perhaps a more important influence on Marcus Aurelius than these essentials of a Roman education, which also included such subjects as rhetoric and law, was the study of stoic philosophy. He became a dedicated student of the arts, learning directly from Apollonius of Chalcedon, and through the writings and lessons of men such as Aelius Aristides and especially Epictetus. His most in depth personal instruction seems to have come from one Junius Rusticus, who remained a trusted confidant of Marcus Aurelius as both teacher and imperial advisor.
Based on his education alone Marcus was clearly marked for imperial service of some sort by Hadrian, and this was reaffirmed when Hadrian named his first heir to the empire in AD 136. Marcus was previously engaged to the daughter (Ceonia Fabia) of this heir, one Lucius Ceionius Commodus, and certainly by no coincidence the young man was firmly entrenched as a member of the extended imperial family. However, the surprise passing of Commodus in January, AD 138 did little to supplant Marcus as an advancing political commodity. Hadrian was forced to find a new heir and turned to T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, later simply Antoninus Pius. As a prerequisite to his promotion, he adopted both the 17 year old Marcus and the 8 year old son of the recently passed heir, also named Lucius Ceionius Commodus (later to be known simply as Lucius Verus after his adoption into the family of his co-heir Marcus). It was upon this adoption to Antoninus Pius that Marcus Annius Verus officially took the name Marcus Aurelius as an adopted member of the Antonine family.
During the reign of Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius continued his educational preparation for the imperial throne. While the pursuit of stoicism continued, his duties under the peaceful 23 year reign of Antoninus included regular advancement through the political cursus honorum, but was surprisingly devoid of military experience (this particular exclusion could have been a tragic oversight considering the political power of the army, but the eventual succession went about completely unopposed). To further cement his bond to Antoninus Pius, the engagement to Ceonia Fabia was broken off and Marcus was married to his cousin Faustina the Younger (the emperor's daughter) in AD 145. She eventually bore him 13 children, most of whom died young, including a daughter Lucilla (the future wife of co emperor Lucius Verus, and son Commodus the eventual heir to the throne and the emperor often associated with the beginning of the imperial decline.
Lucius Verus and the Parthians
In AD 161, after a long and largely peaceful reign, Antoninus Pius died, leaving the 40 year old Marcus Aurelius to take his place. The Senate clearly favored the mature Marcus over his 31 year old joint heir Lucius Verus, who had an almost Neronian reputation for personal indulgence (such as cavorting with actors), and attempted to name Marcus as sole emperor to replace Antoninus. Marcus Aurelius however insisted on following the wills of both Hadrian and Antoninus by having his adopted brother Lucius Verus secured as "co-emperor". He married his daughter Lucilla to Verus to further cement the relationship in AD 164.
Despite the peaceful and easy transition from Antoninus to Aurelius and Verus, including an all important surplus treasury, the new emperors faced several immediate crises. The flooding of the Tiber River introduced a temporary famine that was overcome through the personal intervention of the emperors. In Britannia war loomed with restless tribes and along the Danube the Chatti crossed into Raetia, perhaps as a forebear of later Germanic incursions to come. These incidents were effectively managed by appointed legates, but in the east, old rivalries with Parthia would require far more attention. Disagreement between the two powers over accession issues in Armenia had been kindling since the later years of Antoninus reign and had in fact been a matter of contention dating back to the reign of Nero over a century earlier.
With the death of Antoninus, Vologaesus III king of Parthia may have viewed the establishment of a Roman diarchy as a sign of weakness. Compounding this issue may have been the fact that neither of the two emperors had acquired any military experience whatsoever. Whatever the case may have been, Vologaesus seized a perceived moment of Roman weakness and installed his own candidate upon the Armenian throne. Rome's response was swift but initially ineffective. A Roman legion under Severianus marched from Cappadocia into Armenia and was routed at Elegeia prompting the Parthians to invade Roman territory. The governor of Syria Attidius Cornelianus suffered defeats as well, pressuring the Romans for definitive personal involvement from the imperial family. Marcus Aurelius dispatched Lucius Verus to Parthia to oversee the war and to give it an air of heightened importance, but Verus was more inclined to enjoy himself on the trip than to prepare for war. As reported in the Historia Augusta, "Verus, after he had come to Syria, lingered amid the debaucheries of Antioch and Daphne and busied himself with gladiatorial bouts and hunting." Aurelius was fully aware of his "brother's" inadequacies and Verus' presence was more a statement indicating the importance of the campaign than an indication of military command.
Fortunately, despite Verus' indulgences, his legates were focused on the task at hand. Statius Priscus, Avidius Cassius and Martius Verus were entrusted with command of the legions while Marcus Aurelius conducted affairs of the state back in Rome. Though the details provided by the ancients are scant, the Historia Augusta credits Priscus with an invasion of Armenia that took the capital of Artaxata. Avidius Cassius was credited by Cassius Dio as having led the overall campaign. After withstanding the early attacks of Vologaesus, Cassius advanced deep into Mesopotamia, eventually razing Seleucia and the Parthian palaces in Ctesiphon. Though the involvement of Martius Verus is limited only to the mention of his name by the ancients, it was he who later as governor of Cappadocia interceded on behalf of Marcus Aurelius against the revolt of the afore-mentioned Avidius Cassius. This however was some years off, and for now, the 5 year campaign (161 - 166 AD) against Parthia proved to be as decisive as any war in recent Roman history. A Roman candidate once again sat the Armenian throne and Parthia had been thoroughly defeated.
Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius were both honored with the titles Armeniacus and Parthicus, as Verus returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. However, with the return of his army came a terrible plague (presumably smallpox thanks in large part to the descriptions of the ancient physician Galen) which spread throughout the empire. While the plagues devastating effects are debated (as far as total death toll) there is no question that the next few years were predominately focused on efforts to defeat it. Of its potentially 5 million victims over the course of the next 15 years its most notorious victim in the early stages was likely Lucius Verus himself. After both he and Aurelius had personally marched north to investigate Germanic incursions along the Danube, they found the plague was spreading rapidly among the legions. Returning to Italy in AD 169, Verus fell ill and at the age of 38 years the junior emperor died, leaving Rome once again with a single emperor: Marcus Aurelius.
The Germanic Wars
From the outset of his succession of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius was confronted by restless Germanic (chiefly Marcomanni and Qaudi) tribes north of the Danube. However, pressing matters from Parthia in the east required far more urgent intervention. Initially, the Germanic issues were handled by provincial governors and an uneasy peace was reached but while there is little surviving evidence of the reasons for the Marcomannic unrest (other than rather nondescript suggestions of migratory tribes), the situation steadily destabilized throughout the early reign of Aurelius.
Early in AD 169 outright war with the Marcomanni and Quadi finally broke out. They crossed the Danube en masse overrunning limited defenses between them and the Italian mainland. For the first time since the invasions of the Cimbri and Teutones some two and a half centuries earlier, a Germanic invasion once again threatened the interior of the empire. The joint emperors (Lucius Verus having recently returned from the Parthian campaigns) acted quickly to alleviate the threat and used extreme measures to do so. With the war in the east and the growing plague brought back by victorious legions and the recent famine caused by the flooding of the Tiber, the Romans were in dire need of manpower. Perhaps illustrating how grave the situation was, Marcus Aurelius turned to rather non traditional means of replenishing the military ranks. He recruited and armed "volunteer" slaves as well as gladiators and Germanic auxilia. (From the term voluntarii which was associated with the recruitment of the Volones in the second Punic War against Hannibal. This term evolved to mean the recruitment of any slaves or non citizens for military service.) Later these emergency recruits were to be supplemented by the formation of Legio I and II Italica.
While the Germanics besieged the important port of Aquileia on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, the freshly assembled Romans led by their joint emperors marched north to meet them. Perhaps an indication that the invasion was in part prompted by a perceived weakness of the Roman military machine, as word spread of the Roman advance the Germanics quickly marched back to the Danube seeking conciliatory terms. Marcus Aurelius intended to continue pressing north of the Alps, but the untimely death of Lucius Verus forced a brief respite to the offensive plans. Marcus returned to Rome to oversee the funeral of his adopted brother and son-in-law but soon returned north to settle matters more permanently. While the bulk of the Germanic campaigns were to be largely successful, the duration of the emperors presence (for the better part of his reign from AD 169 to 180 interrupted only briefly by an eastern revolt) was also an indication of the difficulty in the task.
The objective was a permanent peace along the Danube and perhaps the incorporation of new provinces to administer this peace. The Historia Augusta suggests that during the last years of the war Marcus Aurelius "waged war with the Marcomanni, the Hermunduri, the Sarmatians, and the Quadi, and had he lived a year longer he would have made these regions provinces." As was the norm in Roman campaigns against "barbarians" the strategy of divide and conquer was employed. It is difficult to determine what ultimate effect the campaigns could have had, despite the understanding that the Danube was secured from immediate threat for almost another century. If not for the revolt of one of the victorious legates of the Parthian war, Avidius Cassius, perhaps the Danubian settlement may have been even more effective than it was at first glance.
In the midst of the Marcommanic War circa AD 175, the governor of Syria Avidius Cassius claimed the empire for himself. The circumstances are unusual. Cassius had already been granted extraordinary power, or imperium, in the east likely stemming from Marcus Aurelius' occupation with the Germanic wars. At this time there was a rumor of Marcus Aurelius' death and Cassius seized an opportunity to wrest control from his certain heir, the 14 year old Commodus. There were also rumors that Cassius had been a lover of the empress Faustina, and that she was instrumental in encouraging Cassius upon the false news of her husband's death. Whether Cassius made a mistake in his assessment of the news or spread the rumor himself in a bid for power, we will likely never know, but the very much still living emperor responded quickly. He abandoned the Danubian campaigns and began the march east, but news of his impending arrival preceded him. Avidius Cassius and his fellow conspiring officers were killed by men loyal to the true emperor. Marcus Aurelius displayed the sort of stoicism that was his reputation and let the matter die with this act. He spent some time in the east confirming loyalty and settling provincial matters, but the revolt was little more than a distraction from the goal of settling the Germanic affair. However, as the situation unfolded the distraction proved to be enough to prevent the completion of the emperor's goals.
Marcus Aurelius returned to the Danube after stops in Greece and Rome, where his son Commodus (now 16 years old) was not only confirmed as his father's heir but was granted joint imperial power. Back along the northern frontier the joint emperors conducted the campaigns in earnest between AD 177 and 180. The Marcomanni, the Hermunduri, the Sarmatians, and the Quadi among several other lesser tribes were defeated in turn. Sarmatian cavalry was incorporated as auxilia and sent to Britannia where they would serve the empire well into the 5th century. However, by 180 AD Marcus Aurelius died at the age of 59, perhaps from years of exposure to plague. Before his death he urged his son to continue the war through to its completion (which according to the ancients may not have taken more than another year) but after 11 years of war and a debilitating plague, Commodus instead established a quick peace with Rome's Germanic adversaries to return to Rome and enjoy the luxuries of imperial office.
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."
Did you know...
The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the only example of this kind that has survived from ancient times. The reason for its survival was that the rider was misidentified as the emperor Constantine, protector of the Christians.
Did you know...
Lucius Verus' full name was Lucius Ceionius Commodus Verus.
Did you know...
For three years Carnuntum, the capital of Pannonia Superior, was Marcus Aurelius' main residence.
Did you know...
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.
Did you know...
Lasting from 96 to 180, the emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius ruled and their reign corresponds to the period known as the Pax Romana.