Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180) was a convinced Stoic philosopher, and at his accession there was widespread rejoicing that at last Plato's dream of a philosopher-king had become reality.
Born Marcus Annius Verus on April 26, 121, of a noble family originally Spanish, Marcus Aurelius grew up close to the center of power. When he was a child, the emperor Hadrian noticed him and punned on his name, Verus ("True"), calling him Verissimus ("Truest") for his uprightness. In his final arrangement Hadrian, who had difficulty in choosing a successor, destined Marcus for ultimate rule, for when he adopted Marcus's uncle by marriage, Antoninus (soon to be known as Antoninus Pius), he had Antoninus adopt Marcus Aurelius along with the young Lucius Ceionius Commodus, later called Lucius Verus.
Youth and Accession
Marcus Aurelius had an excellent education, numbering among his tutors M. Cornelius Fronto, the rhetorician; the very wealthy Herodes Atticus, whose Odeon still stands in Athens; Plutarch's grandson Sextus of Chaeronea; and Diognetus, the painter and Stoic philosopher. Under Diognetus's influence young Marcus became a precocious Stoic at the age of 11 and remained a devoted follower of stoicism for the rest of his life.
Antoninus Pius was that rarity among emperors, one who had his acknowledged heir beside him throughout his reign. He had the title Caesar conferred on Marcus in 139, only a year after his own accession, and betrothed him to his own daughter Faustina; Marcus and Faustina were married probably in 140. Through the reign of Antoninus (138-161) Marcus worked most closely with him.
Though Antoninus at his death seems to have designated Marcus as sole heir, Marcus insisted that his adoptive brother Verus also be given full power. Thus for the first time Rome had two exactly equal emperors, colleagues like the consuls of old. That this arrangement, which had sometimes caused trouble even with merely annual magistrates, did not produce friction between lifetime equals was due in large measure to the good nature of Verus and his deference to Marcus's seniority in years and judgment.
The reign opened with floods on the Tiber and a variety of other natural disasters, but the overshadowing problem was the Eastern question. Parthia, the only large, organized power that Rome faced, was always a rival for dominance in Armenia, and now, in 162, Parthia attacked, defeated the Romans in Cappadocia, and overran the rich province of Syria. Marcus Aurelius, for reasons which still are not entirely clear, remained at Rome and sent Verus to take charge of the war in the East. Verus was no soldier, but Marcus supplied him with able subordinates, and the war went well though slowly; the Roman counteroffensive did not get under way until 163, but then Armenia was occupied and a vassal king installed.
In 164 three Roman armies, one headed by the able Avidius Cassius, cleared northern Mesopotamia; in 165 southern Mesopotamia and the chief Parthian capitals were taken; finally, in 166, Media was overrun. But in late 165 a terrible plague broke out among the Roman troops, a plague which they were to carry back with them and which would carry off a quarter or more of the population of the empire. Rome recalled its armies with Parthia defeated but not conquered. Nevertheless, Marcus and Verus celebrated a magnificent triumph.
The Parthian War had ended none too soon, for the German War, which was to run with only the briefest of intervals for the rest of the reign, had already begun. Another of those great waves of unrest which occasionally troubled the barbarians beyond the frontier was setting the Germans in motion, and in 167 a group of tribes crossed the Danube, destroyed a Roman army, and actually besieged Aquileia in Italy. The danger was critical, for the plague was raging, particularly in the army camps, and the imperial treasury, always short of money, was worse off than usual.
Marcus raised new legions, even accepting slaves and gladiators, auctioned off furnishings from the imperial palaces to raise funds, and in 168 went with Verus to the front. Verus died in early 169, and Marcus was left to face the war alone. The barbarians were driven back, but still the war dragged on in a mixture of victories and defeats, with Marcus living mainly at the front, sometimes on the Danube, sometimes on the Rhine as the focus of crisis shifted. Gradually the Romans gained the upper hand, and by 175 we are told that Marcus was intending to annex the lands of the tribes nearest the frontier when he was suddenly forced to call off the war because of the revolt of Avidius Cassius in the East.
Revolt of Avidius Cassius
After distinguished service in the Parthian War, Avidius Cassius, himself a Syrian, had been made governor of Syria and, with the deepening of the German crisis, had gradually been raised to the position almost of viceroy for the entire East. In 175 Marcus grew sick, and rumor went round that he was dying or dead; partly for this reason Avidius was hailed emperor and accepted by most of the East, including Egypt—Rome's granary—thus threatening Rome itself with famine. Marcus had to break off the war in Germany with less than total victory and hurry eastward.
Cassius was murdered after only 3 months, and the immediate danger passed; but Marcus could not avoid showing himself in the East and making a fairly extended sojourn there. He exhibited his customary leniency in dealing with Cassius's supporters and returned to Rome in late 176, where he celebrated a splendid triumph with his son Commodus, who was soon given the title Augustus and made an equal sharer of power. Thus through his own act Marcus Aurelius ended his reign as he had begun it, with a partner his equal in power but not in virtue.
In 177 began a serious persecution of the Christians. Much ink has been spilled trying to reconcile Marcus's kindness and high principles with his evident hostility toward the Christians; but the fact remains that he considered the Christians to be dangerous fanatics, subversive alike of society and the state—and on the evidence available to him, how should he not? Then, too, if his persecution was more severe than those that went before, this was partly because the Christians were more numerous and more visible than before.
Renewed German War and Death
The German War erupted again in 177, and Marcus shortly returned to the front. Once again he had the war almost won; but his death, which occurred on March 17, 180, precluded final victory over the Germans. He was given a grand funeral and deified, and memorials of him are yet visible in Rome—the column celebrating his German victories in the Piazza Colonna and his equestrian statue where Michelangelo placed it on the Capitoline.
Marcus Aurelius's reign was marked by near, rather than complete, success and marred both by his fondness for sharing power with unworthy partners and by a willingness to forgive carried at times beyond the point of prudence in one responsible for the well-being of millions; but there can be no question of his personal goodness or of the greatness of his soul.
The reason for which Marcus Aurelius deservedly is most remembered is the collection of his thoughts or reflections, usually entitled the Meditations. Apparently jotted down from time to time as inclination or opportunity offered, the thoughts form no organized system of philosophy; rather, they are the record of a spirit whose principles were elevated above the somewhat grim rectitude of stoicism by a warm love of mankind and a philosophy closely akin to religion.
To Marcus, happiness was to be achieved by living "according to nature," in harmony with the principle which ordered the universe; the serenity of one who so lived could not be really affected by the buffetings of fate. Since the Meditations were composed in bits, they are best read so; they are to be savored rather than downed at a gulp.
There is no good surviving ancient treatment of Marcus Aurelius. His life is included in the collection known as The Scriptores Historiae Augustae (trans., 3 vols., 1921-1932), and his reign in the fragments of books 70-71 in the general history of Cassius Dio. Otherwise there are his own Meditations and the surviving letters he exchanged with his old tutor Fronto. Among modern works are Henry Dwight Sedgwick, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (1921); C. Clayton Dove, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: His Life and Times (1930); Arthur Spencer Loat Farquharson, Marcus Aurelius: His Life and His World (1951), a posthumous work dealing with Marcus's youth up to his accession; and Anthony Birley's full and interesting Marcus Aurelius (1966). □
Born: April 26, 121
Rome (now in Italy)
Died: March 17, 180
Vindobona (now Vienna, Austria)
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180) was a Stoic philosopher. Stoicism was a complex philosophy that advised people to find happiness by living in harmony with the universe and by doing their part to better the world—without worries about fate or about things they were unable to control. When Marcus Aurelius became emperor there was widespread celebration that Plato's dream of a philosopherking had become reality at last.
Born into privilege
Born Marcus Annius Verus on April 26, 121, of a noble family, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus grew up close to the center of power. When he was a child, the emperor Hadrian (76–138) noticed him and made a word play on his name, Verus (meaning "true"), by calling him Verissimus (meaning "truest") for his strong sense of morals. Hadrian had difficulty choosing an emperor to follow him, but placed Marcus on the path to rule. When he adopted Marcus's uncle by marriage, Antoninus Pius (86–161), he arranged for Antoninus to adopt Marcus Aurelius along with the young Lucius Verus (130–169).
Marcus Aurelius had an extraordinary education. Among his tutors was Diognetus, a painter and Stoic philosopher. Marcus studied subjects such as poetry and law, and generally was an excellent student. But philosophy was Marcus's main interest. Under Diognetus's influence, young Marcus became a Stoic at the age of eleven and remained a dedicated follower of stoicism for the rest of his life.
Rise to emperor
Antoninus Pius, only a year after he became emperor, had the title Caesar placed on Marcus in 139. His daughter Faustina probably married Marcus in 140. Throughout the reign of Antoninus (ruled 138–161), Marcus worked closely with him.
When Antoninus died and Marcus became emperor, he insisted that Verus also be given full power. Thus, for the first time, Rome had two equal emperors. The reason this arrangement did not produce conflict between lifetime equals was due in large part to the good nature of Verus and his acceptance of Marcus's seniority in years and judgment.
When Verus and Marcus first became joint emperors of Rome they faced the problem of war in the East. Parthia (located in present-day Iran) was always a rival for power in Armenia, and in 162 Parthia attacked. Marcus Aurelius remained in Rome and sent Verus to take charge of the war. Although Verus was not a trained soldier, the war carried on smoothly. But in late 165 a plague, or very contagious disease, broke out among the Roman troops. They carried it back with them and the plague killed a quarter or more of the population of the Roman Empire. Rome recalled its armies from Parthia, defeated but not conquered. Nevertheless, Marcus and Verus celebrated a great triumph.
The Parthian War had ended none too soon, for the German War had already begun. In 167 a group of tribes crossed the Danube River, destroyed a Roman army, and successfully conquered a city in Italy. The danger was critical, for the plague was raging, particularly in the army camps. Also, the Roman treasury, always short of money, was worse off than usual.
Marcus raised new armies and funds and in 168 went with Verus to the battlefront. Verus died in early 169, and Marcus was left to face the war alone. The Germans were driven back, but the war dragged on, with Marcus mainly at the battlefront. Gradually the Romans gained the upper hand. But by 175 Marcus had to call off the war because of the revolt of Avidius Cassius in the East.
Revolt of Avidius Cassius
After his service in the Parthian War, Avidius Cassius, a Syrian, had been made governor of Syria and held great power. In 175 Marcus grew sick and it was rumored that he was either dying or dead. Partly for this reason Avidius was hailed emperor and accepted by most of the East. Marcus had to break off the war in Germany and hurry eastward.
Cassius was murdered three months later and his body was sent back to Rome in late 176. The German War started again in 177, and Marcus returned to the battlefront. Once again he was winning the war. However, Marcus died on March 17, 180—never to see the final victory over the Germans.
Marcus Aurelius is most remembered for the collection of his thoughts or reflections usually entitled The Meditations. Apparently written down from time to time, the thoughts form no organized system of philosophy. Rather, they are the record of a person whose principles were noble, who had a warm love of humankind, and who had a philosophy similar to religion. To Marcus, happiness was to be achieved by living "according to nature," in harmony with the principle that ordered the universe; the peace of mind of such a person could not be affected by life's difficulties.
For More Information
Birley, Anthony. Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. Rev. ed. London: Routledge, 2000.
Farquharson, Arthur S. L. Marcus Aurelius: His Life and His World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.
Sedgwick, Henry Dwight. Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1921. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971.
Emperor, stoic philosopher
Student of Philosophy. Originally named Marcus Annius Verus, the future emperor called Marcus Aurelius was raised by his grandfather and mother. He was attracted to the study of philosophy when he was only twelve years old. Epictetus was a great influence on him, which is evident in his work commonly called the Meditations, though probably called by him Notes to Himself. This was probably a kind of philosophic diary, not intended for publication, which probably was written as an older man and possibly during his campaigns against the Germanic tribes. He seems also to have incorporated elements of Platonism. In fact, the diary was lost and recovered only in the fourth century c.e. Like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius was concerned with the making of moral choices in life and with the role of divine providence in events. He believed that one is to avoid those things that distract him from making correct choices, including power and glory, which are transitory anyway, and to forego his personal satisfaction for the sake of a greater good.
Philosopher Emperor. Aurelius became co-emperor, along with his half brother Lucius, when Antoninus died in 161. The new emperors were immediately faced with revolts in the borderlands and sent armies to quell the disturbances. Lucius, then known as Verus, died of plague while both emperors were leading Roman armies in Dacia. After several serious military setbacks, the Romans were able to push northern incursions out of Italy, but Aurelius had spent much treasure in the effort. He spent nearly the rest of his rule dealing with warfare in the borders, until his death in the north in 180.
Anthony Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
Mark Forstater, The Spiritual Exercises of Marcus Aurelius (New York: Harper-Collins, 2000).