MARCUS AURELIUS (A.D. 161-180)
Marcus Aurelius equine statue Marcus Aurelius (born A.D. 121, ruled 161-180) was the adopted son of Antonius Pius. He is regarded as a reflective philosopher-emperor and the last of the good emperors. He took the throne at a time when Rome's shortcomings and vulnerability were becoming apparent. The rich were hopelessly decadent, the middle class was disappearing, labor was performed mostly by slaves, and threats were present in the north and the east.
Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus succeeded the emperor Antoninus Pius in 161, (as joint emperor with adoptive brother Lucius Verus). He ruled alone from 169. He spent much of his reign in putting down various rebellions, and was a persecutor of Christians. His fame rest, above all, on his Meditations, a series of reflections, strongly influenced by Epictetus, which represent a Stoic outlook on life. He died in 180 and was succeed by his natural son, thus ending the period of the adoptive emperors.
Marcus Aurelius spent two decades fighting four wars and an outbreak of the plague. Germans invaded Italy in 167 and Parthians challenged Roman forces in the Middle East. After the death Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius adopted brother and co-ruler of Rome, Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time on the Danubian frontier fending off attacks from German and Gothic tribes.
Marcus Aurelius believed that the good of society had precedence over individual comforts. While he was fending off invaders, he passed many reforms, suppressed gladiator spectacles, passed laws protecting slaves.A lthough his philosophy dovetailed with many Christian doctrines he persecuted Christian because they were regarded as a threat to the empire. His image endures on a famous equestrian statue in Rome.
The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “No ruler ever came to power with higher ideals and purposes, but the reign was not a very prosperous one. The philosopher in the purple was afflicted by the widespread pestilences in the Empire, and by the dangerous wars on the frontiers. He struggled against the difficulties manfully, and overcame most of them; but his reign marks the beginning of the long slow decline of the Empire.” [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]
Marcus Aurelius was first of all a philosopher. He had studied in the school of the Stoics, and was himself the highest embodiment of their principles. He was wise brave, just, and temperate. In whatever he did he acted from a pure sense of duty. But his character as a man was no doubt greater than his ability as a statesman. So far as we know, Marcus Aurelius never shrank from a known duty, private or public; but it is not so clear that his sense of personal duty was always in harmony with the best interests of the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
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Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ;
“Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans;
The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ;
Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu;
De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org;
British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ;
Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art;
The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ;
Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Period of Five Good Emperors (A.D. 96 to 180)
With the death of Domitian in A.D. 96 the empire came back into the hands of wise and beneficent rulers. The “five good emperors,” as they are usually called, were Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian (who were related to one another only by adoption), and the two Antonines, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. The period of general prosperity which began under Vespasian continued under these emperors. It is during this time that we are able to see Roman civilization at its best, its highest stage of development. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org]
Describing the period between A.D. 96 to 180, when Rome was ruled, in succession, by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbons wrote, "If man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from [A.D. 96 to 180]." The rule of Trajan and Hadrian (A.D. 98-137) is generally regarded as the golden period of the Roman Empire. Peace and prosperity reigned as citizenship was granted to millions of people of different ethnic backgrounds from numerous provinces and gods and ideas moved across the Mediterranean and through the empire.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: This “period is known as the age of the "Five Good Emperors": Nerva (r. 96–98 A.D.), Trajan (r. 98–117 A.D.), Hadrian (r. 117–38 A.D.), Antoninus Pius (r. 138–61 A.D.), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–80 A.D.). It was a time when the distinction between provincials and Romans diminished as a greater number of emperors, senators, citizens, and soldiers came from provincial backgrounds and Italians no longer dominated the empire. [Source: Christopher Lightfoot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
“Successors to the emperor were chosen from men of tried ability, and not according to the dynastic principle. Trajan was the first Roman not born in Italy to become emperor; his family came from Spain. He had a distinguished military career before being elevated to the purple by Nerva. Under Trajan, along with consolidation of the empire, great efforts were expended on wars of conquest in Dacia and Parthia. His accession ushered in an era of confidence unattested since the reign of Augustus. Trade and commerce flourished between the Roman empire and its northern and eastern neighbors.\^/
“The provinces thrived and local aristocrats spent lavish sums on their cities. Latin literature flourished with the works of influential writers such as Martial, Juvenal, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, but at the same time a growing provincial influence was felt in every sphere, especially religion and sculpture. Under Trajan and Hadrian, new cities were founded and vast building programs initiated. \^/
Five Good Emperors (96–180 A.D.)
Nerva (96–98 A.D.)
Trajan (98–117 A.D.)
Hadrian (117–38 A.D.)
Antoninus Pius(5) (138–61 A.D.)
Marcus Aurelius (161–80 A.D.)
Adoptive Emperors (A.D. 96-192)
On “The Principle of Adoption”, Tacitus (b.56/57-after 117 A.D.) wrote in “Histories”: “Augustus had passed on the principate to members of his own family, who formed an odd sort of dynasty. Galba initiated what was perhaps the most successful method of transfer of power - the adoption as son by a reigning emperor of an adult male. Tacitus describes Galba's motives. In fact in 69 CE, it was Vespasian who emerged victorious, and he was succeeded by his two sons, Titus and Domitian. With Nerva's adoption of Trajan, the adoptive method was used for almost a century until Marcus Aurelius allowed his son Commodus to succeed him. [Source: Tacitus: Histories, Book 1., 15-16, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Slightly adapted. Full text online at http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/histories.html
“We are told that Galba, taking hold of Piso's hand, spoke to this effect: "If I were a private man, and were now adopting you by the Act of the Curiae before the pontiffs, as our custom is, it would be a high honour to me to introduce into my family a descendant of Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus; it would be a distinction to you to add to the nobility of your race the honours of the Sulpician and Lutatian houses. As it is, I, who have been called to the throne by the unanimous consent of gods and men, am moved by your splendid endowments and by my own patriotism to offer to you, a man of peace, that power, for which our ancestors fought, and which I myself obtained by war. I am following the precedent of the Divine Augustus, who placed on an eminence next to his own, first his nephew Marcellus, then his son-in-law Agrippa, afterwards his grandsons, and finally Tiberius Nero, his stepson. But Augustus looked for a successor in his own family, I look for one in the state, not because I have no relatives or companions of my campaigns, but because it was not by any private favour that I myself received the imperial power. Let the principle of my choice be shown not only by my connections which I have set aside for you, but by your own. You have a brother, noble as yourself, and older, who would be well worthy of this dignity, were you not worthier. Your age is such as to be now free from the passions of youth, and such your life that in the past you have nothing to excuse. Hitherto, you have only borne adversity; prosperity tries the heart with keener temptations; for hardships may be endured, whereas we are spoiled by success. You indeed will cling with the same constancy to honor, freedom, friendship, the best possessions of the human spirit, but others will seek to weaken them with their servility. You will be fiercely assailed by adulation, by flattery, that worst poison of the true heart, and by the selfish interests of individuals. You and I speak together to-day with perfect frankness, but others will be more ready to address us as emperors than as men. For to urge his duty upon a prince is indeed a hard matter; to flatter him, whatever his character, is a mere routine gone through without any heart.
“"Could the vast frame of this empire have stood and preserved its balance without a directing spirit, I was not unworthy of inaugurating a republic. As it is, we have been long reduced to a position, in which my age confer no greater boon on the Roman people than a good successor, your youth no greater than a good emperor. Under Tuberous, Chairs, and Claudius, we were, so to speak, the inheritance of a single family. The choice which begins with us will be a substitute for freedom. Now that the family of the Julii and the Claudii has come to an end, adoption will discover the worthiest successor. To be begotten and born of a princely race is a mere accident, and is only valued as such. In adoption there is nothing that need bias the judgment, and if you wish to make a choice, an unanimous opinion points out the man. Let Nero be ever before your eyes, swollen with the pride of a long line of Caesars; it was not Vindex with his unarmed province, it was not myself with my single legion, that shook his yoke from our necks. It was his own profligacy, his own brutality, and that, though there had been before no precedent of an emperor condemned by his own people. We, who have been called to power by the issues of war, and by the deliberate judgment of others, shall incur unpopularity, however illustrious our character. Do not however be alarmed, if, after a movement which has shaken the world, two legions are not yet quiet. I did not myself succeed to a throne without anxiety; and when men shall hear of your adoption I shall no longer be thought old, and this is the only objection which is now made against me.
“Nero will always be regretted by the thoroughly depraved; it is for you and me to take care, that he be not regretted also by the good. To prolong such advice, suits not this occasion, and all my purpose is fulfilled if I have made a good choice in you. The most practical and the shortest method of distinguishing between good and bad measures, is to think what you yourself would or would not like under another emperor. It is not here, as it is among nations despotically ruled, that there is a distinct governing family, while all the rest are slaves. You have to reign over men who cannot bear either absolute slavery or absolute freedom." This, with more to the same effect, was said by Galba; he spoke to Piso as if he were creating an emperor; the others addressed him as if he were an emperor already.
“It is said of Piso that he betrayed no discomposure or excessive joy, either to the gaze to which he was immediately subjected, or afterwards when all eyes were turned upon him. His language to the Emperor, his father, was reverential; his language about himself was modest. He showed no change in look or manner; he seemed like one who had the power rather than the wish to rule.”
Roman Empire in the A.D. 1st and 2nd Centuries
It can be argued that the fall of the republic and the establishment of the empire were generally positive things that greatly benefitted to Rome. In place of a century of civil wars and discord which closed the republic, we see more than two centuries of internal peace and tranquillity. Instead of an oppressive and avaricious treatment of the provincials, we see a treatment which is with few exceptions mild and generous. Instead of a government controlled by a proud and selfish oligarchy, we see a government controlled, generally speaking, by a wise and patriotic prince. From the accession of Augustus to the death of Marcus Aurelius (31 B.C. —A.D. 180), a period of two hundred and eleven years, only three emperors who held power for any length of time—Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian—are known as tyrants; and their cruelty was confined almost entirely to the city, and to their own personal enemies. The establishment of the empire, we must therefore believe, marked a stage of progress and not of decline in the history of the Roman people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
But in spite of the fact that the empire met the needs of the people better than the old aristocratic republic, it yet contained many elements of weakness, Some say the Roman people themselves possessed the frailties of human nature, and the imperial government was not without the imperfection of all human institutions. The decay of religion and morality, it has been argued, was a fundamental cause of their weakness and ruin, with this including the selfishness of classes; the accumulation of wealth, not as the fruit of legitimate industry, but as the spoils of war an of cupidity; the love of gold and the passion for luxury; the misery of poverty and its attendant vices and crimes; the terrible evils of slave labor; the decrease of the population; and the decline of the patriotic spirit. These were moral diseases, which could hardly be cured by any government. \~\
One of the great defects of the imperial government was that its power rested with the military basis, and not upon the rational will of the people. It is true that many of the emperors were popular and loved by their subjects. But behind their power was the army, which knew its strength, and strongly asserted its claims to the government.
Nerva (A.D. 96-98)
Marcus Cocceius Nerva (ruled A.D. 96-98) was considered a great Roman ruler even though he ruled only a short time. He was a Flavian supporter and advisor and founder of the long-lived Nervan-Antonian dynasty that included Trajan and Hadrian.
Nerva was chosen neither by the praetorians nor by the legions, but by the senate. Within the brief time that he sat upon the throne, he could do little except to remedy the wrongs of his predecessor. He forbade the practice of delation, recalled the exiles of Domitian, relieved the people from some oppressive taxes and was tolerant to the Christians. His wise and just reign is praised by all ancient writers. In order to prevent any trouble at his death, he adopted Trajan as his successor and gave him a share in the government. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org]
One of the characteristic features of Nerva’ s short reign was his attempt to relieve the poor. In the first place, he bought up large lots of land from the wealthy landlords, and let them out to the needy citizens. It is noteworthy that he submitted this law to the assembly of the people. In the next place, he showed his great interest in the cause of public education. He set apart a certain fund, the interest of which was used to educate the children of poor parents. This interest in providing for the care and education of the poorer classes was continued by his successors. \~\
Antonine Dynasty (138–193)
Marcus Aurelius was the second ruler in the Antonine dynasty. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Antonine rule commenced with the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 138–61 A.D.), and included those of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–80 A.D.), Lucius Verus (r. 161–69 A.D.), and Commodus (r. 177–92 A.D.). The Antonine dynasty reflects the connections between wealthy provincial and Italian families. Antoninus Pius restored the status of the Senate without compromising his imperial power and quietly furthered the centralization of government. Upon his death, imperial powers for the first time were fully shared between his adoptive sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Incessant warfare and the threat of invasion along the northern frontier eventually drained imperial revenues. Marcus Aurelius chose his son, Commodus, as his successor, a choice that reverted to dynastic principle. It was Commodus who successfully made peace on the northern frontier, but in the end his misrule and corruption were devastating for the empire. His death ushered in a new period of civil wars. \^/
Antonine Dynasty (138–93 A.D.)
Antoninus Pius (138–61 A.D.)
Marcus Aurelius (with Lucius Verus6, 161–69 A.D.) (161–80 A.D.)
Commodus (with Marcus Aurelius, 177–80) (177–92 A.D.)
Pertinax (193 A.D.)
Didius Julianus (193 A.D.)
Pescennius Niger (194 A.D.)
The Antonine dynasty reflects the connections between wealthy provincial and Italian families. They were successors of Trajan (r. 98–117 A.D.) and Hadrian (r. 117–38 A.D.), both from respectable provincial families in Spain; Hadrian had secured the line with the adoption of Antoninus Pius, who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art,Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
“Marcus Aurelius' devotion to duty, protecting the frontiers of the empire, was in marked contrast to the behavior of his son, Commodus. In 180 A.D., Commodus abruptly abandoned the campaigns on the German frontier and returned to Rome. There, however, he alienated the Senate by resorting to government by means of favorites and identifying himself with the semidivine hero Hercules. By the time of his assassination in 192 A.D., Rome was in a chaotic state of affairs. \^/
Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161)
Antoninus Pius (born A.D. 86, reigned 138-161) was Hadrian's adopted son. His long reign was marked by stability and peace. There were only minor wars. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Antoninus Pius, who was from southern Gaul, restored the status of the Senate without compromising his imperial power. With succession assured, he quietly furthered the centralization of government. In addition to his own knowledge of law, he surrounded himself with a coterie of legal experts. One result of their revision of Roman law was the ruling that a man must be considered innocent until proven guilty. Antoninus Pius was the last emperor to reside permanently in Rome; his reign was relatively peaceful and benevolent. Military campaigns, such as the one that led to the construction of the Antonine wall in Scotland in the 140s A.D., were conducted by imperial legates, not by the emperor in person. Temples were erected in honor of Antoninus and his wife Faustina, in Rome and throughout the provinces, and many statues and portraits of the imperial couple were produced. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
Antoninus Pius was regarded as virtuous and of noble character. The description given of him by his son, Marcus Aurelius, is a worthy testament of this:“In my father, I saw mildness of manners, firmness of resolution, contempt of vain glory. He knew when to rest as well as to labor. He taught me to forbear from all improper indulgences, to conduct myself as an equal among equals, to lay on my friends no burden of servility. From him I learned to be resigned to every fortune and to bear myself calmly and serenely; to rise superior to vulgar applause, and to despise vulgar criticism; to worship the gods without superstition and to serve mankind without ambition. He was ever prudent and moderate; he looked to his duty only, and not to the opinions that might be formed of him. Such was the character of his life and manners—nothing harsh, nothing excessive, nothing rude, nothing which showed roughness and violence.”
William Stearns Davis wrote: “Antoninus Pius had a singularly untroubled reign, although there is reason to believe that the forces which later ruined the Roman world were allowed by him to work unchecked. No one, however, has questioned the purity of his life and the simplicity and nobility of his character. His personality is described by his adopted son - the famous Marcus Aurelius. It is a high tribute to the ancient civilization and the Stoic philosophy that they could produce two such characters and bestow on them successively the government of the world.” [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]
“The “Reign without Events.”—The reign of Antoninus, although a long one of twenty-three years, is known in history as the uneventful reign. Since much that is usually called “eventful” in history is made up of wars, tumults, calamities, and discords, it is to the greatest credit of Antoninus that his reign is called uneventful. We read of no conquests, no insurrections, no proscriptions, no extortions, no cruelty. His reign is an illustration of the maxim, “Happy is the people which has no history.” Although not so great a statesman as Hadrian, he yet maintained the empire in a state of peace and prosperity. He managed the finances with skill and economy. He was kind to his subjects; and interfered to prevent the persecution of the Christians at Athens and Thessalonica. \~\
Legal and Administrative Improvements Under Antoninus Pius
His Influence upon Law and Legislation: If we should seek for the most distinguishing feature of his reign, we should doubtless find it in the field of law. His high sense of justice brought him into close relation with the great jurists of the age, who were now beginning to make their influence felt. With them he believed that the spirit of the law was more important than the letter. One of his maxims was this: “While the forms of the law must not be lightly altered, they must be interpreted so as to meet the demands of justice.” He laid down the important principle that everyone should be regarded as innocent until proved guilty. He mitigated the evils of slavery, and declared that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another. It was about the close of his reign that the great elementary treatise on the Roman law, called the “Institutes” of Gaius, appeared. \~\
Roman Jurisprudence: Some one has said that the greatest bequests of antiquity to the modern world were Christianity, Greek philosophy, and the Roman law. We should study the history of Rome to little purpose if we failed to take account of this, the highest product of her civilization. It is not to her amphitheaters, her circuses, her triumphal arches, or to her sacred temples that we must look in order to see the most distinctive and enduring features of Roman life. We must look rather to her basilicas—that is, her courthouses where the principles of justice were administered to her citizens and her subjects in the forms of law. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
The Government and Administration: It was during the period of the Antonines that the imperial government reached its highest development. This government was, in fact, the most remarkable example that the world has ever seen of what we may call a “paternal autocracy”—that is government in the hands of a single ruler, but exercised solely for the benefit of the people. In this respect the ideals of Julius and Augustus seem to have been completely realized. The emperor was looked upon as the embodiment of the state, the personification of law, and the promoter of justice, equality, and domestic peace. Every department of the administration was under his control. He had the selection of the officials to carry into execution his will. The character of such a government the Romans well expressed in their maxim, “What is pleasing to the prince has the force of law.”
Marcus Aurelius on the Character of Antoninus Pius
Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations I.16: “The Character of Antoninus Pius."In my father [Antoninus Pius] I observed his meekness; his constancy without wavering in those things which, after due examination, he had determined. How free from all vanity he carried himself in matters of honor and dignity (as they are esteemed); his laboriousness and assiduity, his readiness to hear any man that had aught to say tending to any common good! how generally and impartially he would give every man his due: his skill and knowledge when rigor or extremity, when indulgence or moderation were in season. His moderate condescending to other men's occasions as an ordinary man, neither absolutely requiring his friends that they should wait on him at his ordinary meals, nor that they should of necessity accompany him in his journeys. His sociability, his gracious and delightful conversation never reached satiety, his care of his body was within bounds and measures, not as one who did not wish to live long, or overstudious of neatness and elegancy; yet not as one that did not regard it, so that through his own care of his health he seldom needed any medicine. [Source: Marcus Aurelius (b.121- r.161-d.180), “On the Virtue of Antoninus Pius” (r. 138-161CE), William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]
“He was not easily moved and tossed up and down, but loved to be constant, both in the same places and businesses; and after his great fits of headache he would return fresh and vigorous to his wonted affairs. He was very discreet and moderate in exhibiting public sights and shows for the pleasure and pastime of the people; in public buildings, congiaria [i.e. general distribution of money or corn doles], and the like. He did not use the baths at unseasonable hours. He was never curious or anxious about his food, or about the style or color of his clothes, or about any mere matter of external beauty. In all his conversation, he was far from all inhumanity, boldness, incivility, greediness, or impetuosity; never doing anything with such earnestness and intention that a man could say of him, that he flew into a heat about it, but contrariwise, all things distinctly, as at leisure, without trouble, orderly, soundly, and agreeably. A man, in short, might have applied to him what is recorded of Socrates.
“Remember Antoninus Pius' constancy in things that were done by him in accordance with reason, his equability in all things; how he would never give over a matter until he understood the whole state of it fully and plainly; and how patiently and without any resentment he would bear with them that did unjustly condemn him; how he would never be overhasty in anything, nor give ear to slanders or false accusations, but examine and observe with the best diligence the several actions and dispositions of men. He would easily be content with a few things---mere lodgings, bedding, the ordinary food and attendance. He bore with those who opposed his opinions and even rejoiced if any man could better advise him, and finally he was exceedingly religious without superstition.
Marcus Aurelius Become Emperor
Marcus Aurelius was the adopted son of Antoninus Pius, and came to the throne at his father’s death. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “After Antoninus' death, imperial power was for the first time shared between two co-emperors, his adoptive sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Verus waged a successful war against Parthia and captured Ctesiphon, but died early in 169 A.D. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Hadrian determined upon Marcus Aurelius for the succession while he was still a child. Marcus was the nephew of Faustina and her husband Antoninus Pius, who succeeded Hadrian. On the death of Hadrian, Marcus married their daughter.” [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011]
Marcus Aurelius as Emperor
While he was fending off invaders, Marcus Aurelius passed many reforms, suppressed gladiator spectacles and passed laws protecting slaves. Although his philosophy dovetailed with many Christian doctrines he persecuted Christian because they were regarded as a threat to the empire.
The period of Marcus Aurelius’s rule was a time of great misfortunes. Rome was afflicted by a deadly plague and famine, the most terrible in her history. From the East it spread over the provinces, carrying with it death and desolation. One writer affirms, with perhaps some exaggeration, that half the population of the empire perished. The fierce barbarians of the north were also trying to break through the frontiers, and threatening to overrun the provinces. But Marcus Aurelius met all these dangers and difficulties with courage and patience. \~\
Marcus Aurelius increased social mobility by promoting army officer and civil administrators on merit and ability, rather than on birth and class. Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “The increasing employment of the middle classes had begun under Hadrian. Marcus refined the process, appointing capable people to posts most suited to their abilities. Usually he elevated them in rank also, so that senatorial feathers were not ruffled. By this means he laid the foundations of social mobility and broadened the recruitment base for the armies, allowing for greater future flexibility. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011]
Column of Marcus Aurelius
Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: “The Column of Marcus Aurelius stands in the Piazza Colonna in Rome and was both modelled on - and improved upon - the earlier Trajan's Column. A helical frieze depicts the Marcomannic Wars of Marcus Aurelius (168 - 175 A.D. and 178- 180 AD), waged against Germanic and steppe nomad tribes across the middle Danube. [Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“There are fewer windings of the frieze, fewer human figures, less scenery, more deeply carved relief and reduced sculptural detail than on Trajan's Column. The result is that the visual impact is more effective for the viewer below. While this makes for a more effective propaganda monument, there is also far less of an historical framework or an attempt to depict specific historical events. This frustrates historians wanting to use the reliefs as a source for the Antonine period. |::|
“The wars are depicted as the brutal extermination of barbarian peoples without the magnanimous treatment of the defeated seen on the earlier column. No inscription or pedestal reliefs survive, and the date of the Marcus Column is unsure, but it was certainly a posthumous monument to the achievements of Marcus Aurelius. |::|
Marcus Aurelius Battles on Rome’s Frontiers
Marcus Aurelius spent two decades fighting four wars and an outbreak of the plague. Germans invaded Italy in 167 and Parthians challenged Roman forces in the Middle East. After the death Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius adopted brother and co-ruler of Rome, Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time on the Danubian frontier fending off attacks from German and Gothic tribes.
Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “A few years after his accession in 161 A.D. Marcus was plunged into warfare on the northern frontiers, where it was essential that the emperor himself led the campaigns. Here he wrote his philosophical meditations. Before he could bring these wars to a satisfactory conclusion, he was forced to go to the east where his general Avidius Cassius had raised rebellion. He was back on the Danube by 178 A.D. and remained there till his death in 180 AD. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011]
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The reign of Marcus Aurelius “was marked by incessant warfare with the Germanic tribes along the Upper Danube frontier, later known as the Marcomannic Wars (167–75 A.D.). The theme of victory became dominant in official art, as conquests were commemorated by triumphal arches and monumental columns erected in Rome to celebrate the military achievements of the dynasty. The constant campaigns, however, eventually drained imperial revenues.” [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
The two great frontier enemies of Rome were the Parthians on the east and the Germans on the north. The Parthians were soon repelled. But the barbarians from the north, the Marcomanni and Quadi, continued their attacks for fourteen years. Pressed by the Slavonians and the Turanians on the north and east, these tribes were the forerunners of that great migration of the northern nations which finally overran the empire. With courage and a high sense of his mission Marcus Aurelius struggled against these hordes, and succeeded for the most part in maintaining the northern frontier. He died in his camp at Vienna, at his post of duty. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Eutropius on the Reign of Marcus Aurelius
Eutropius (A.D. 4th Century) wrote in “The Reign of Marcus Aurelius”: “Marcus Aurelius was trained in philosophy by Apollonius of Chalcedon: in the Greek language by Sextus of Chaeronea, the grandson of Plutarch, while the eminent orator Fronto instructed him in Latin literature. He conducted himself towards all men at Rome, as if he had been their equal, being moved by no arrogance by his elevation to the Empire. He exercised prompt liberality, and managed the provinceswith the utmost kindness and indulgence. [Source: Eutropius (A.D. 4th Century), The Reign of Marcus Aurelius, 161-180 CE, from Compendium of Roman History, 8:.12-14 ,William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]
“Under his rule affairs were successfully conducted against the Germans. He himself carried on a war with the Marcomanni, which was greater than any in the memory of man (in the way of wars with the Germans)---so that it was compared to the Punic Wars, for it was exceedingly formidable, and in it whole armies were lost; especially as in this reign, after the victory over the Parthians there occurred a great pestilence so that at Rome, and throughout Italy and the provinces a large fraction of the population, and actually the bulk of the regular troops perished from the plague.
“With the greatest labor and patience he persevered for three whole years at Carnutum [a strategically located fortress town in Pannonia], and brought the Marcomannic war to an end; a war in which the Quadi, Vandals, Sarmatians, Suevi and all the barbarians in that region, had joined the outbreak of the Marcomanni. He slew several thousand men, and having delivered the Pannonians from bondage held a triumph at Rome. As the treasury was drained by the war, and he had no money to give his soldiers; and as he would not lay any extra tax on the provinces or Senate, he sold off all his imperial furniture and decorations by an auction held in the Forum of Trajan, consisting of gold and cups of crystal and precious stone, silk garments belonging to his wife and to himself, embroidered---as they were---with gold, and numbers of jeweled ornaments. This sale was kept up through two successive months and a great deal of money was raised by it. After his victory, however, he refunded the money to such purchasers as were willing to restore what they had bought, but was by no means troublesome to those who wished to keep their purchase.
“After his victory he was so magnificent in his display of games he is said to have exhibited in the arena one hundred lions at once. Having then at last rendered the state happy by his excellent management and gentleness of character, he died in the eighteenth year of his reign, in the sixty-first of his life. He was enrolled among the gods, all the Senate voting unanimously that he should have such honor.”
Marcus Aurelius: the Philosopher
Marcus Aurelius followed the stoic philosophy. He dressed plainly and lived frugally and wrote a book on philosophy called “Meditations” that is still quoted today. In regard to his position, Marcus Aurelius wrote: "As the Emperor, Rome is my homeland; but as a man, I am a citizen of the world...Asia and Europe are mere dots on the map, the ocean is a drop of water, Mount Athos is a grain of sand in the universe."
Marcus Aurelius believed that the good of society had precedence over individual comforts. Meditations is a treatise on the Stoic philosophy extolling the importance of virtue. In modern China, after Premier Wen Jiabao claimed he had read Marcus Aurelius's Meditations nearly 100 times the work became a top seller in China, reaching No. 5 on the bestseller list.
Marcus Aurelius studied in the school of the Stoics, and was himself the highest embodiment of their principles. He was wise brave, just, and temperate. In whatever he did he acted from a pure sense of duty. But his character as a man was no doubt greater than his ability as a statesman. So far as we know, Marcus Aurelius never shrank from a known duty, private or public; but it is not so clear that his sense of personal duty was always in harmony with the best interests of the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Marcus Aurelius expressed in his life and writings the highest ideas of Roman philosophy. The Romans cannot, however, be said to have shown any originality in their philosophical systems. These they derived almost entirely from the Greeks. The two systems which were most popular with them were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed that happiness was the great end of life. But the high idea of happiness advocated by the Greek philosophers became degraded into the selfish idea of pleasure, which could easily excuse almost any form of indulgence. In Rome we see this idea of life exercising its influence especially upon the wealthy and indolent classes. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the end of life was to live according to the highest law of our nature. This doctrine tended to make strong and upright characters. It could not well have a degrading influence; so we find some of the noblest men of Rome adhering to its tenets—such men as Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic philosophy also exercised a great and beneficial influence upon the Roman jurists, who believed that the law of the state should be in harmony with the higher law of justice and equity. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
Marcus Aurelius’s Persecution of Christians
Although his philosophy dovetailed with many Christian doctrines Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christian because it is said they were regarded as a threat to the empire. This is perhaps the most striking example of the fact that the emperor’s sense of duty was not always in harmony with the highest welfare of people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]
By Marcus Aurelius’s time, Christianity had found its way throughout the eastern and western provinces. It was at first received by the common people in the cities. As it was despised by many, it was the occasion of bitter opposition and often of popular tumults. The secret meetings of the Christians had given rise to scandalous stories about their practices. They were also regarded as responsible in some way for the calamities that inflicted the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. \~\
Since the time of Nero, the policy of the rulers toward the new sect had varied. But the best of the emperors had hitherto been cautious like Trajan, or tolerant like Hadrian, or openly friendly like Antoninus. But Marcus Aurelius sincerely believed that the Christians were the cause of the popular tumults, and that the new sect was dangerous to the public peace. He therefore issued an order that those who denied their faith should be let alone, but those who confessed should be put to death. The most charitable judgment which can be passed upon this act is that it was the result of a great mistake made by the emperor regarding the character of the Christians and their part in disturbing the peace of society. \~\
CommodusCommodus (ruled A.D. 177- 192, co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius from 177-180) was the vainglorious son of Marcus Aurelius who was assassinated in 192, ending the Antonine dynasty. He fancied himself as a great gladiator and battled opponents armed with lead swords that bent when they struck the emperor. Not surprisingly he ran up an impressive string of victories. Commodus finally lost on New Year's Eve, when he was strangled to death by a wrestler who had been dispatched by his rivals.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Marcus Aurelius' devotion to duty, protecting the frontiers of the empire, was in marked contrast to the behavior of his son, Commodus. In 180 A.D., Commodus abruptly abandoned the campaigns on the German frontier and returned to Rome. There, however, he alienated the Senate by resorting to government by means of favorites and identifying himself with the semidivine hero Hercules. By the time of his assassination in 192 A.D., Rome was in a chaotic state of affairs. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
Edward Gibbons called him a man of “monstrous vices” and “unprovoked cruelty” and wrote: “His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of every rank, and of every province; and whenever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence." Fearing for their lives, members of Commodus's court decided he had to go. A concubine slipped some poison into his wine and then a wrestler strangled him.
Commodus: the Gladiator
Commodus was the emperor depicted in the film Gladiator. He occasionally appeared in the arena during gladiator battles. He never put his life in danger and battled gladiators; instead he liked to decapitate ostriches with crescent-headed arrows. The crowds liked the show. They cheered and roared with laughter as the ostrich continued to run around after their heads were cut off. Once Commodus chopped off the head of an ostrich, and brandished its bloodied head and told senators the same fate awaited them if they went against him. Commodus enjoyed slaughtering other animals. He reportedly killed more than 100 bears in a single day.
Andrew Fitzgerald wrote for Listverse: “Commodus enjoyed battling gladiators as often as possible. A narcissistic egomaniac, Commodus saw himself as the greatest and most important man in the world. He believed himself to be Hercules—even going so far as to don a leopard skin like that famously worn by the mythological hero. But in the arena, Commodus usually fought against gladiators who were armed with wooden swords, and slaughtered wild animals that were tethered or injured. [Source: Andrew Fitzgerald, Listverse April 2, 2013 ]
“As you could guess, most Romans therefore did not support Commodus. His antics in the arena were seen as disrespectful, and his predictable victories made for a poor show. In some instances, he captured disabled Roman citizens, and slaughtered them in the arena. As a testament to his narcissism, Commodus charged one million sesterces for every appearance—although he was never exactly “invited” to appear in the arena. Commodus was assassinated in AD 192, and it is believed that his actions as a “gladiator” encouraged his inner-circle to carry out the assassination.
In the movie Gladiator Marcus Aurelius was played by Richard Harris and Commodus was played by Joaquin Phoenix. Contrary to impression given by the movie, Aurelius did no try to restore the republic, he had no general name Maximus (the Russell Crow character) and he was not killed by his son Commodus although the historian Cassius Dion said he was killed by doctors who wanted to “do a favor” for Commodus (most historians believe he died of an illness).
Film: "Gladiator", directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Gladiator images, Pinterest
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018