Marcus Aurelius - Biography, Meditations and Death

Marcus Aurelius - Biography, Meditations and Death

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Known for his philosophical interests, Marcus Aurelius was one of the most respected emperors in Roman history. He was born into a wealthy and politically prominent family. Growing up, Marcus Aurelius was a dedicated student, learning Latin and Greek. But his greatest intellectual interest was Stoicism, a philosophy that emphasized fate, reason, and self-restraint. Discourses, written by a former slave and Stoic philosopher Epictetus, had a great deal of influence over Marcus Aurelius.

Early Life

His serious and hard-working nature was even noticed by Emperor Hadrian. After his earlier choice for a successor died, Hadrian adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (who would be known as Emperor Pius Antonius) to succeed him as an emperor. Hadrian also arranged for Antoninus to adopt Marcus Aurelius and the son of his earlier successor. Around the age of 17, Marcus Aurelius became the son of Antoninus. He worked alongside his adopted father while learning the ways of government and public affairs.

Entry into Politics

In 140, Marcus Aurelius became consul, or leader of the senate – a post he would hold two more times in his lifetime. As the years passed, he received more responsibilities and official powers, evolving into a strong source of support and counsel for Antoninus. Marcus Aurelius also continued his philosophical studies and developed an interest in law.

Along with his burgeoning career, Marcus Aurelius seemed to have a contented personal life. He married Faustina, the emperor’s daughter, in 145. Together they had many children, though some did not live for long. Best known are their daughter Lucilla and their son Commodus.

Becoming Emperor

After his adoptive father died in 161, Marcus Aurelius rose to power and was officially then known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. While some sources indicate that Antoninus selected him as his only successor, Marcus Aurelius insisted that his adopted brother served as his co-ruler. His brother was Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus (usually referred to as Verus). Unlike the peaceful and prosperous rule of Antoninus, the joint reign of the two brothers was marked by war and disease. In the 160s, they battled with the Parthian empire for control over lands in the East. Verus oversaw the war effort while Marcus Aurelius stayed in Rome. Much of their success in this conflict has been attributed to the generals working under Verus, especially Avidius Cassius. He was later made governor of Syria. Returning soldiers brought some type of disease back with them to Rome, which lingered for years and wiped out a portion ofthe population. As the Parthian War ended, the two rulers had to face another military conflict with German tribes in the late 160s. German tribes crossed the Danube River and attacked a Roman city. After raising the necessary funds and troops, Marcus Aurelius and Verus went off to fight the invaders. Verus died in 169 so Marcus Aurelius pushed on alone, attempting to drive away the Germans.

Challenges to His Authority

In 175, he faced another challenge, this time for his very position. After hearing a rumor about Marcus Aurelius being deathly ill, Avidius Cassius claimed the title of emperor for himself. This forced Marcus Aurelius to travel to the East to regain control. But he did not have to fight Cassius as he was murdered by his own soldiers. Instead Marcus Aurelius toured eastern provinces with his wife, re-establishing his authority. Unfortunately, Faustina died during this trip.

While once again battling the German tribes, Marcus Aurelius made his son Commodus his co-ruler in 177. Together they fought the northern enemies of the empire. Marcus Aurelius even hoped to extend the empire’s borders through this conflict, but Marcus Aurelius did not live long enough to see this vision to completion.Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180. His son Commodus became emperor and soon ended the northern military efforts. Marcus Aurelius, however, is not best remembered for the wars he waged, but for his contemplative nature and his rule driven by reason. A collection of his thoughts have been published in a work called The Meditations. Based on his Stoic beliefs, the work is filled with his notes on life.

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1. The Evil That Men Do Harms You Only if You Do Evil in Response

Marcus reminded himself to not be upset by the misdeeds of others and to correct them if possible, but if they were stubborn and would not change, to accept it. In reacting to such people, we must never allow our own principles to be violated. Moreover, we should never be surprised by the wicked deeds of others, and avoid wishing that men are not as they are (prone to evil acts) because then we are wishing for the impossible. He believed that people do bad things out of ignorance of what is good and evil, and that we should forgive them for their errors, even when they harm us. Marcus stresses that social animals such as humans are meant to live in harmony.

He likened his relation to bad people to them being different body parts of the same person. Good and bad people are both part of the same universal nature and they are meant to interact and cooperate. Marcus Aurelius—and indeed all the Stoics—believed that we were part of an inner-connected organism. That you couldn’t hurt one person without hurting them all. “What injures the hive, injures the bee,” he said. “The best revenge,” he said, “is not to be like that.” Meaning: When you hurt others, you hurt the group and you hurt yourself.

It is against nature to despise evil people and try to avoid them. When we find ourselves judging others, we ought to consider our own faults first. Then we will find that we are less prone to blaming them. Rather than judge and be disturbed by others, which sets us up for disappointment and distress, we ought to focus on self-improvement. Marcus said,

“It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.”

Or as another translation would put it,

“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”

And today, in a hyperconnected, information driven world, compared to Marcus’s time, we also know a lot about other people. We know about the comings and goings of celebrities and politicians. We get real time updates on everything our friends do. We see what they say on social media and we get their texts and photos.

There’s no question that this has increased the amount of so-called drama in our lives. We have opinions on whether so-and-so should have done this and we watch the media chatter about it. We get offended when our friends say this or that. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear gossip or speculation about someone we know.

This is a trap. This is a distraction. Even 2,000 years ago Marcus knew this. “Other people’s mistakes?” he reminded himself, should be left to their makers.

Forget what other people are doing, forget what they’re doing wrong. You’ve got enough on your plate. Focus on yourself—focus on what you might be doing wrong. Fix that. Keep an eye fixed on your own life. There’s no need—and frankly, there’s not enough time—to waste a second spying on other people.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius reigned as Roman emperor from 161 to 180 CE and is best known as the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome (following Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius) and as the author of the philosophical work Meditations. He has long been respected as embodying the Platonic concept of the Philosopher King as articulated in Plato's Republic: a ruler who does not seek power for his own sake but to help his people. He was introduced to philosophy at a young age and his Meditations, composed while on campaign in his fifties, make clear that he held a deeply philosophical, specifically Stoic, view throughout his life.

His reign, in fact, is defined by the Stoic view and he is referred to as “the philosopher” by the later historian Cassius Dio (c. 155-235 CE) and the author (or authors) of the Historia Augusta (4th century CE), a history of Roman emperors. His Stoic outlook is expressed throughout his Meditations and his view of one's responsibility to others is made clear in a line from Book VIII.59: “People exist for the sake of one another teach them, then, or bear with them.”


He lived his philosophy in both his private and public life in that he consistently placed the needs of the people before his own desires or visions of glory and worked for the common good. It is among history's ironies, however, that his reign is characterized by incessant warfare and the persecution of the new religious sect of Christianity. Even so, he successfully conducted campaigns in Germania and managed the affairs of the empire efficiently. He died of natural causes following an illness in 180 CE and was instantly deified.

In the modern-day, he is probably best known from the popular film Gladiator (2000 CE) as the father of Commodus (r.177-192 CE) whose decision to pass over his son as successor serves as the point of departure for the film's plot. Contrary to his depiction in the film, Aurelius was not killed by Commodus and, in fact, Commodus would co-rule with his father from 177-180 CE and succeeded him without opposition though he would prove to be one of the worst rulers Rome would have to endure and his reputation suffered further by comparison with his father.


Early Youth

Marcus Aurelius was born in Spain on 26 April 121 CE to an aristocratic patrician family. His birth name was Marcus Annius Verus, after his father of the same name. His grandfather and great-grandfather on his father's side were senators and his mother, Domitia Lucilla (known as the minor, c. 155-161 CE), also came from a wealthy and politically connected family. Aurelius' father died in c. 124 CE and he was raised primarily by nurses and his grandfathers.

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Events from his early life are suggested by comments he makes in his Meditations (especially in Book I), from correspondence between himself and his teacher Fronto, and from the Historia Augusta which, though often considered unreliable, is still cited by scholars when certain passages seem probable. Details of his younger years, therefore, are scarce but it is assumed he would have been brought up in accordance with traditional patrician practices, learned Greek at the same time he was learning Latin, and would have been groomed for a public life in rhetoric and oratory.

When he was in his early teens, around 132 CE, a teacher named Diognetus introduced him to philosophical texts. These were most likely works of the Cynic Philosophers who sought to live in the simplest way and disregarded all social conventions as artifice. Aurelius seems to have been quite impressed with this outlook as he then affected a typically Cynic lifestyle of dressing in a rough woolen cloak and sleeping on the ground or the floor of his room instead of his bed. He mentions this in Meditations Book I.6 in referencing how he chose “the Greek lifestyle – the camp-bed and the cloak” after his association with Diognetus.


He most likely would have also adopted the Cynic approach to simple, coarse food, few possessions, and neglect of basic hygiene. Although it is unclear, it seems that his mother forced him to stop his philosophical pursuits and focus on what she saw as a more respectable career path.

Sometime after this, he received new tutors in oratory and rhetoric and among these were Herodes Atticus (l. 101-177 CE) and Marcus Cornelius Fronto (d. late 160's CE) whose reputations for excellence in their arts were highly respected and commanded a high price. Fronto and Aurelius would become life-long friends and both he and Atticus would exert significant influence over the young Aurelius. He was shortly after betrothed to Ceionia Fabia, daughter of the respected politician Lucius Ceionius Commodus (d. 138 CE) and sister of Aurelius' future co-emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161-169 CE).

Adoption by Antoninus & Rise to Power

In 136 CE, the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) selected Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor for reasons which are unclear. Commodus was married to Marcus Aurelius' aunt Faustina and it is probable that Hadrian chose Commodus as a kind of place-holder for the teen-age Aurelius who would then succeed him later. Commodus died in 138 CE, however, and Hadrian then chose Aurelius Antoninius (later known as Anoninus Pius (r. 138-161 CE) as successor with one stipulation: he had to adopt Marcus and Lucius Verus as his sons and successors. Antoninus agreed and young Marcus took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and was groomed as the next emperor.


Antoninus Pius was an extremely effective monarch and an important role model for his successor. Aurelius devotes a long passage of praise to his adopted father in his Meditations in which he lists the emperor's impressive qualities (Book I.16). Antoninus had Aurelius' betrothal to Ceionia Fabia annulled and arranged a marriage between him and Antoninus' daughter Anna Galeria Faustina (known as Faustina Minor or Faustina the Younger, c. 130-175 CE).

Antoninus groomed his successor in almost every aspect of becoming an efficient ruler (though he neglected to instruct him in military matters) and, although Aurelius complied, his tastes ran more toward philosophical introspection than the mundane duties of court life. He lived where Antoninus instructed him to in order to further his reputation as one of the elite and also for practical purposes in fulfilling his responsibilities but it seems clear he would have preferred a simpler life elsewhere. He may have consoled himself at this time through philosophy – as he would do throughout his life – and later writes:


The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. Color it with a run of thoughts like these: Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one. Lives are led at court – so then good ones can be. (Meditations V.16)

In his letters to Fronto he complains about his tutors at the time and his duties, which were essentially secretarial, as well as court life in general. His philosophical bent would have made such duties seem fairly meaningless. Scholar Irwin Edman comments on this:

At the age of eleven, Aurelius dedicated himself to religion, for philosophy all his life was with him a kind of religion, the true inward religion that lay behind the rites and ceremonies of the imperial religion which he was careful and content to observe. He studied law and he studied arms. He had the education of an imperial gentleman, but of a gentleman who felt something missing in the outward show and in the outer world and felt ultimately that peace, if not happiness (which was impossible) lay in oneself. (Edman, Long, 5)

At about this time he was introduced to two new teachers who were brought to court by Antoninus to tutor Aurelius in philosophy. These were Apollonius of Chalcedon (dates unknown) and Quintus Junius Rusticus (c. 100-170 CE), one of the greatest Stoic philosophers of his day. In his Meditations, Aurelius praises both men highly and lists the many important lessons he learned from them.

In writing on Rusticus he thanks him “for introducing me to Epictetus' lectures – and loaning me his own copy” (I.7) and, regarding Apollonius, says he learned, “independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos” (I.8). Both entries have to do with Stoic philosophical principles and strongly suggest that it was not until this time that Aurelius became acquainted with the Stoic outlook.

Epictetus (l. c. 50-130 CE) was the author of the Discourses and Enchiridion, famous lectures on Stoic principles and practice and the logos was the binding force in the universe which caused all things to be and kept all running harmoniously. If one concentrated one's focus on the logos, the Stoics claimed, one could live peacefully because one would realize that everything which happens is natural it is only one's interpretation of an event which makes it “good” or “bad”.

Although Fronto strongly objects to Aurelius' interest in Stoicism in his letters, his former student embraced the philosophy fully and would put the principles he learned from his teachers into effect once he came to power.

Aurelius the Emperor

In March of 161 CE, Antoninus Pius died and the senate looked to Aurelius as the new emperor in keeping with Hadrian's original designs, however, Aurelius refused the honor unless Lucius Verus was elevated as co-emperor with him. His request was granted and Aurelius and Verus began their reign by instituting programs to help the poor and rewarding the military with more pay and greater honor. They encouraged free speech, the arts, education, and boosted the economy – at least for a time – by debasing the currency the two emperors quickly became immensely popular with the people.

Aurelius continued to hold fast to his Stoic principles as emperor but Verus, who had always been more extravagant, indulged himself through lavish parties and expensive gifts to friends. The Historia Augusta records one such “especially notorious” party at which Verus gave out “gold, silver, and gemmed bowls…golden vases in the shape of perfume boxes…carriages with silver harnesses” as well as many more luxuriant gifts and the entry concludes, “the cost of this dinner party has been estimated as six million sestertii [around $60 million]. When Marcus heard about this party he is said to have groaned and wept for the fate of the world” (Harvey, 280).

In late 161 CE, the Parthian king Vologases IV (r. 147-191 CE) invaded Armenia, which was under Rome's protection, and the Roman province of Syria revolted. Verus had more military experience than Aurelius and so took charge of the campaigns in the east personally. It is also thought that Aurelius may have manipulated Verus into going to curtail his extravagant parties. The Parthian Wars would last until 166 CE and concluded with a Roman victory. This success was due not so much to Verus but to the general Gaius Avidius Cassius (l. 130-175 CE) who brilliantly deployed the troops and devised the tactics.

While Verus was away on campaign, Aurelius remained at Rome and, by all accounts, performed his duties with distinction. He adjudicated court cases, reviewed and passed laws which benefited all the classes of Rome, and dealt with the various requests and difficulties that came in from the provinces. It is also during this time (c.162-c.166 CE) that he persecuted the new sect of Christianity which refused to honor the state religion and disrupted the social order. Although these persecutions were later condemned once Christianity triumphed, at the time they would have been considered necessary in keeping the peace.

By 166 CE, the Christian problem seemed to be resolved and it looked as though the war with Parthia would be won. Aurelius had married Faustina in 145 CE and they had a number of children over the years. Even though some of these died young, Aurelius still had every reason to believe the gods could be smiling upon him with good fortune.

As the Parthian war concluded, however, the Marcomanni tribe of Germania invaded Roman provinces on the Danube in an alliance with the Persian Sarmatians. In 167 CE, Aurelius joined Verus in the field to drive back these invasions and restore order. It is possible, even likely, that Aurelius was advised in his campaign by the experienced military leader and consul Marcus Nonius Macrinus (d. c. 171 CE), whose early career and close relationship with Aurelius inspired aspects of the character of Maximus Decimus Meridius in the film Gladiator.

In 169 CE, Verus died – most likely of the plague his troops had brought back to Rome from campaign – and Aurelius ruled alone. He would devote most of his remaining reign to campaigns in Germania where he would write his Meditations.

The Meditations

Aurelius' Meditations is his true legacy to the world, far out-stripping any achievements of his reign, however notable they may have been. The work is a private journal of the emperor's thoughts written to encourage himself in living the best life possible. Scholar Gregory Hays comments:

The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? (xxiv-xxv)

The Meditations is far from a philosophical treatise, however it is one man's thoughts on life and the struggle to remain at peace with one's self in a world which constantly threatens such peace. Aurelius' answer to the problem is not an answer but a course of discipline in denying one's self the luxury of self-pity. In accordance with the Stoic view, everything that happens in life is natural – sickness/health, satisfaction/disappointment, joy/sadness, even death – and it is only one's interpretation of events which can trouble a person. The logos, which controls all things, controls one's fate as well but, even so, a human being still has the freedom to choose how to respond to circumstance. Hays elaborates:

According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. (xix)

The universe, to Aurelius and the Stoics, is good and only has the best intentions for humanity it is an individual's choice to interpret those intentions correctly and find peace or to choose to cling to one's impressions and suffer. Aurelius writes:

If it is good to you, O Universe, it is good to me. Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early. What the turn of your seasons brings me falls like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you, return to you. (IV.23)

Although he would lose children, friends, and even his wife, Aurelius remained faithful to this vision of a world governed by a natural, and benign, intelligence which ran through all things, bound all things together, and dispersed all things in time. There was, then, no concept of tragedy in Aurelius' philosophy because everything that happened was a natural occurrence and nothing in nature could be interpreted as tragic. He writes:

Fear of death is fear of what we may experience: nothing at all or something quite new. But if we experience nothing, we can experience nothing bad. And if our experience changes, then our existence changes with it – change, but not cease. (IV.58)

Death & Legacy

Between 170-180 CE, Marcus Aurelius campaigned against the Germanic tribes and toured the eastern provinces of his empire. In 175 CE, his general Cassius rebelled in Syria, proclaiming himself emperor, before he was assassinated by a subordinate. Faustina accompanied Aurelius on campaigns 170-175 CE and went with him to Syria, Egypt, and Greece. She died in the winter of 175 CE.

In 178 CE, Aurelius defeated the Germanic tribes on the Danube and retired to winter quarters at Vindobona. He would die there two years later in March of 180 CE and was succeeded by Commodus. Although he had tried to groom his son in the same steady way that Antoninus Pius had him, he seems to have realized that he had failed. Commodus' self -indulgence and cruelty marked a reign which could not have been more different from his father's and proved true another of Aurelius' maxims from his Meditations IV.57: “What does not transmit light creates its own darkness.”

What happened to the Meditations after Aurelius' death is unknown but they somehow survived and copies were made and preserved. The text is mentioned in the 4th century CE by the orator Themistius (Hays, xliv) and in the Historia Augusta. No further mention of it is made until the 10th century CE when the cleric Arethas mentions copying it in a letter to a friend.

Arethas' copy may be responsible for preserving Meditations which is thought to have been among the books rescued from the library of Constantinople in 1453 CE when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks. These books were carried west where they were copied and, by 1559 CE, the first printed edition of the work was available. It has long since become a source of inspiration for people around the world who know Aurelius first as a philosopher and only second as an emperor which is probably how Marcus Aurelius himself would have wanted it.

History vs. Gladiator

Is the story of Maximus the Gladiator true?

The movie Gladiator is not quite accurate historically. While most of the story is fictional, some parts reflect the actual events from Roman history.

The moviemakers modeled Maximus on Pompeianus, a senior commander in the Roman army during its wars against the Parthian and the Marcomannic tribes. Like Maximus, Pompeianus rose from humble origins and became a distinguished general and a trusted advisor to Marcus Aurelius.

Did Maximus and Lucilla have a relationship?

In the movie, Lucilla and Maximus had a romantic relationship while they were both young. It ended and both married separately. Lucilla later became a widow after having a son, while Maximus had a son from his wife, and they lived back in Spain.

As in the movie, Lucilla was the daughter of Marcus Aurelius and the sister of Commodus. In reality, when Lucilla was between 11 and 13 years old, Marcus married her off to his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus. At 19 years, she became a widow when Verus suddenly died while returning from the war.

A little later, Marcus Aurelius arranged her second marriage to Pompeianus.

As in the movie, Marcus had offered to name Pompeianus as his immediate heir and successor to the throne till Commodus was mature enough to assume emperorship. But Pompeianus declined for reasons unknown.

So Marcus promoted him to the post of his chief general in the Marcomannic War. From his deathbed, Marcus asked Commodus to stay at the front to uplift the army’s morale, and Pompeianus to watch over Commodus.

But soon after Marcus’ death, Commodus left the camps, and it was Pompeianus who lead the army from then on. Lucilla was there at the battle front when Marcus died.

After returning to Rome, Lucilla started her life as a private citizen. In 182, Commodus implicated her as an accomplice to a nephew of Pompeianus for a failed assassination attempt. Commodus banished her to the Italian island of Capri, and sometime later, sent a centurion to kill her. She was about 33 years old.

However, unlike the movie, Marcus Aurelius never wanted to restore Rome to a republic state, as before Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor from 27 BCE to 14 CE.

There was another general who was close to Marcus Aurelius in his youth, Claudius Maximus. This Maximus was a Stoic philosopher and was one of Marcus’ teachers. Marcus mentions him in Meditations:

From Maximus [I learned]:

Self-control and resistance to distractions.
Optimism in adversity—especially illness.
A personality in balance: dignity and grace together.
Doing your job without whining.
Other people’s certainty that what he said was what he thought, and what he did was done without malice.
Never taken aback or apprehensive. Neither rash nor hesitant—nor bewildered, or at a loss. Not obsequious—but not aggressive or paranoid either.
Generosity, charity, honesty.
The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.
That no one could ever have felt patronized by him—or in a position to patronize him.
A sense of humor.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.15

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Marcus Aurelius

Born in Rome in the year 121, he was initially given the name of Marcus Annius Verus. As he grew up, the Emperor Hadrian quickly took note of this young man, who was already a budding philosopher and writer. As he was too young to properly succeed Hadrian, the Emperor named Antonius Pius as his heir on the condition that he made Marcus and Lucius Verus his own heirs to the throne.

When Marcus ascended to the throne, he proved himself to be the more serious and studious of the two emperors, as the younger Lucius preferred to party and go on campaigns against the enemies of the Empire, including Parthia.

Early on in Marcus' reign, he was tested by one of the greatest crises to yet face the Empire- the Antonine Plague, a smallpox pandemic that wiped out a tenth of the population and as many as one in three legionaries who contracted it. This, in turn, lead to the weakening of the Northern border defenses along the Danube, allowing the Marcomanni Germs under Bellomar and their allies such as the Quadi, the Vandals, and the Sarmatians to invade the Empire en mass and begin the incredibly destructive conflict known as the Marcomannic Wars, making it the first time when an enemy army invaded Italy since the Cimbrian War over three centuries prior. Marcus would spend the rest of his life fighting the barbarian hordes, composing his life work *Meditations* along the way- a book of philosophy still widely studied and referenced today,

Sadly, he was murdered by Commodus, who seized the throne and attempted to execute Maximus along with his family.

Marcus Aurelius and The Art of Choosing Your Perspective

The Stoics believe that everything in life depends on the perspective you take on it. As Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it, ‘life itself is but what you deem it’.

Part of their philosophical therapy involves learning to choose a wise or skillful perspective on events that are causing you emotional disturbance. Think of it like being a good film director, choosing the right angle and the right lens to frame the action.

Here are five perspective-techniques the Stoics used, all illustrated with examples from Marcus Aurelius’ personal notebook, Meditations:

A favourite technique of the Stoics — also popular with Platonists and Epicureans — is to zoom out from your personal situation and see the Big Picture.

Marcus often tells himself to look up and contemplate the night sky and the stars, as a way of getting a perspective on his troubles. It’s sort of astro-therapy:

Survey the circling stars, as though yourself were in mid-course with them. Often picture the changing and re-changing dance of the elements. Visions of this kind purge away the dross of our earth-bound life.

Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity.

Think of it as a ‘cognitive distancing’ technique: rather than zooming in and making a ‘mountain out of a molehill’, you zoom out, and make a molehill of every little mountain in your life.

The same technique appears in other ancient philosophers’ works. Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, for example, imagines a near-death experience of Scipio, a Roman general. Cicero describes Scipio’s soul leaving his body and ascending, seeing the battlefield, then his country, then the continent, the Earth and finally the whole of space, and feeling freed from all his earthly cares.

We can practice this visualization exercise as well — it’s been called the ‘View From Above’. We can contemplate the night sky, or images of the cosmos, or imagine our soul rising through space. Even reading science fiction can give us a sort of ‘cognitive distancing’ from our present concerns — I found reading Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker emotionally relaxing for this reason.

Marcus also contemplates the universe to remind himself how everything is connected, and to shift from an egocentric to an ecocentric view, in which his life is but one strand in the Greater Whole. As a Stoic, he believed the universe was guided by providence, by the divine wisdom of the Logos, so we should accept everything that happens to us.

But even if we don’t believe in the Logos, we can contemplate the interconnectedness of all things as a way to shift beyond attachments and aversions. From a cosmic perspective, everything is connected. Beyond polarities like Good / Bad, Life / Death, Ugly / Beautiful, it’s all One.

Asia and Europe: tiny corners of the Cosmos. Every sea: a mere drop. Mount Athos: a lump of dirt. The present moment is the smallest point in all eternity. All is microscopic, changeable, disappearing. All things come from that faraway place, either originating directly from that governing part which is common to all, or else following from it as consequences. So even the gaping jaws of the lion, deadly poison, and all harmful things like thorns or an oozing bog are products of that awesome and noble source. Do not imagine these things to be alien to that which you revere, but turn your Reason to the source of all things.

Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.

Frequently consider the connection of all things in the Universe. … Reflect upon the multitude of bodily and mental events taking place in the same brief time, simultaneously in every one of us and so you will not be surprised that many more events, or rather all things that come to pass, exist simultaneously in the one and entire unity, which we call the Universe. … We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a Citizen of the Universe’.

You notice how he reminds himself of this cosmic perspective, over and over? You need to repeat a perspective, to ingrain it and make it habitual.

2) Micro-Cam — zooming in to overcome attachments to externals

An alternative perspective to zooming out is to zoom in, really close, in order to critically examine something you might be overly attached to.

For example, you might be overly attached to other people’s approval (I know I am). Marcus tells himself:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.

You can do this with anything you’re overly attached to. Are you obsessed over the body — yours or someone else’s? Zoom in, consider all its imperfections, its transience, its decomposition (Buddhists used to meditate on decomposing corpses, like this). Marcus constantly reminds himself that his body is just a bag of skin and bones, so don’t get hung up on it. This might seem gross to you. That’s OK. These are just suggestions for perspectives, you don’t have to use one if you don’t like it.

3) Time lapse — stretching time to see things from a long-term perspective

Marcus likes to see events against a backdrop of what we might call Deep Time or Big History. Again, it’s a distancing technique to let go and accept the present:

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.

That’s pretty interesting, from an emperor — to remind yourself that empires rise and fall. It didn’t mean Marcus stopped fighting to preserve and protect the Roman Empire. But he never fell for the idea it was eternal.

This map from the 1930s is a good illustration of the ‘river of time’ as applied to empires:

Marcus uses this ‘river of time’ technique to overcome any anxieties he has about his reputation (in fact, he has a pretty good historical reputation). He says to himself:

is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region it takes place. The whole earth a point in space — and most of it uninhabited.

He uses the ‘river of time’ perspective to remind himself how many have lived and died before him, all those billions of lives, so intense, so full of highs and lows. They came and went in a flash, like the lives of moths:

Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they were themselves immortal. How many whole cities have met their end: Helike, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others. And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. One who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and then the man who buried him — all in the same short space of time. In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.

Again, this perspective may be sound a bit harsh to you. You may say, OK, human life is brief. But that doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. It’s poignant that our brief lives are so full of emotion and drama and yet so brief.

I agree with this. Still, that Deep Time perspective can be useful if you’re really struggling with anxiety over your failings. It doesn’t matter that much, you’re just a blink in eternity. Relax, take it easy, enjoy the show, you’re a miniscule and temporary part of it.

4) Slow mo — focus on the present moment

This is an alternative technique, which is also very useful in different situations. Rather than ruminating on the past or possible future, you wake yourself up from this compulsive rumination or day-dreaming, and bring your focus sharply to the present moment, stretching out the Eternal Now like a slow mo shot.

Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.

Again, he warns himself to keep control of the ego’s tendency to fantasize about the future:

Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present — and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.

This may sound contradictory to the last technique. But the point is to find the right perspective for the right moment. Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine Deep Time, sometimes you need to focus on the here and now.

5) Pan-cam — remind yourself that everyone goes through tough times

Pan-cam is basically a technique to pan round and see how, in the words of REM, ‘everyone hurts’ — in the video for that song, inspired by Fellini’s 8 ½, the camera pans along a traffic jam and we get to see in to people’s inner thoughts and sufferings.

Marcus also reminds himself, when life is tough and he may feel self-pity or bewilderment, that this is the way the world is. Don’t be surprised if it hurts sometimes. Everybody hurts, not just you. That can help you let go of your attachment to your unique drama, and realize it’s not your suffering, it’s just suffering, the human condition.

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life

Though you break your heart, men will go on as before.

There are other techniques like this, to lessen our attachment to our particular suffering, and open our hearts to others going through hard times. There’s a Buddhist meditation technique called Tonglen, for example. When you suffer a particular hardship — losing your job, say — rather than getting wrapped up in egotistical self-pity, you can open your heart to all others who have gone through this pain, and wish both yourself and all of them compassion and liberation.

So there you go, five techniques, five lenses or camera angles. There are of course many more, we haven’t even got into God-Cam (visualizing an all-loving deity) or other such angles.

We are the director of our lives — we get to choose the angle and the lens through which we frame events.

As a final bonus lens…I woke up this morning at 3am, filled with object-less anxiety. My problem-solving mind started racing around, and I found myself thinking what my goals were at the moment. Did I even have an over-arching life goal? I didn’t seem any closer to starting a family. I wasn’t part of a spiritual community, nor did I even follow much of a daily practice. I am working on a book, but that’s not much of a life goal, just putting out book after book. What was I living for? I felt a gnawing sense of emptiness and dread.

Suddenly, into my head popped the thought: practice with what is happening now. Welcome the anxiety. Breathe into it. Ride it.

I realized the dharma — the path, the practice — is always there with me. It’s not a God, nor a guru. It’s a wisdom which is greater than any being. It’s the nature of consciousness. And it never goes away. We can reconnect with it any moment. It’s not something we have to achieve. As the poet Hakuin says: ‘This very land is the Lotus land. This very body is the Buddha’. It doesn’t have to involve grand plans for the future. It can be as easy as breathing, noticing, and accepting whatever is arising.

So that helped me this morning. Dharma Cam: whatever is arising is the practice.

If you want to discover more about how people follow Stoicism today, check out my award-winning book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.

Death of Marcus

Troubled by these thoughts, Marcus summoned his friends and kinsmen. Placing his son beside him and raising himself up a little on his couch, he began to speak to them as follows:

“That you are distressed to see me in this condition is hardly surprising. It is natural for men to pity the sufferings of their fellow men, and the misfortunes that occur before their very eyes arouse even greater compassion. I think, however, that an even stronger bond of affection exists between you and me in return for the favors I have done you, I have a reasonable right to expect your reciprocal good will.

And now is the proper time for me to discover that not in vain have I showered honor and esteem upon you for so long, and for you to return the favor by showing that you are not unmindful of the benefits you have received from me. Here is my son, whom you yourselves have educated, approaching the prime of youth and, as it were, in need of pilots for the stormy seas ahead. I fear that he, tossed to and fro by his lack of knowledge of what he needs to know, may be dashed to pieces on the rocks of evil practices.

You, therefore, together take my place as his father, looking after him and giving him wise counsel. No amount of money is large enough to compensate for a tyrant’s excesses, nor is the protection of his bodyguards enough to shield the ruler who does not possess the good will of his subjects.

The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.

When a man holds absolute power, it is difficult for him to control his desires. But if you give my son proper advice in such matters and constantly remind him of what he has heard here, you will make him the best of emperors for yourselves and for all, and you will be paying the greatest tribute to my memory. Only in this way can you make my memory immortal.”

At this point Marcus suffered a severe fainting spell and sank back on his couch, exhausted by weakness and worry. All who were present pitied him, and some cried out in their grief, unable to control themselves. After living another night and day, Marcus died, leaving to men of his own time a legacy of regret to future ages, an eternal memorial of excellence.

When the news of his death was made public, the whole army in Pannonia and the common people as well were grief-stricken indeed, no one in the Roman empire received the report without weeping. All cried out in a swelling chorus, calling him “Kind Father,” “Noble Emperor,” “Brave General,” and “Wise, Moderate Ruler,” and every man spoke the truth.

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Marcus’ Letter to the Asian Provinces

We do, however, have a surviving edict attributed to Marcus and entitled Letter of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia, which appears to provide evidence that he actively intervened to prevent the persecution of Christians. It is dated 161 AD, and issued from Marcus as Emperor, which suggests it was one of his first actions shortly after being acclaimed to the throne.

He explicitly refers to the problem of Christians who are regarded by Romans as atheists because they do not worship the conventional pagan gods. Marcus warns the provincial authorities: “you harass these men, and harden them in their convictions, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists”. He states that provincial governors had many times written to his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose response was always “not to molest such persons“, unless they were actually making attempts to undermine the Roman government. Marcus says he has also frequently repeated this non-harassment policy to them himself, as Emperor. He actually goes so far as to say: “And if any one persist in bringing any such [Christian] person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.” In other words, he suggests that provincial authorities may be punished by Rome for persecuting Christians solely on the basis of their religion.

C.R. Haines, who published this edict as an appendix to his Loeb translation of The Meditations, included an essay entitled “Note on the Attitude of Marcus Toward the Christians.” He begins “Nothing has done the good name of Marcus so much harm as his supposed uncompromising attitude toward Christians” and concludes:

As a matter of fact, Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds. The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition. So is the known character of Marcus.

He goes on to argue that the retrospective claim of Eusebius about myriads of Christians being persecuted and horribly tortured to death throughout the Roman Empire two centuries earlier is also inconsistent with numerous historical facts – often cited by Eusebius himself and other Christian authors. For example, the presence of a bishop at the head of a community of Christians was tolerated in Rome itself, there were multiple Christians serving in Marcus’ own household, and probably even Christians in the Roman Senate. According to Eusebius and three other Christian sources, for instance, the Senator Apollonius of Rome was condemned to death, under Commodus. However, that implies that during Marcus’ reign Apollonius was permitted to serve on the Senate, despite being a Christian. Several sources, including Tertullian, attest that the Thunderbolt Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) commanded by Marcus on the northern frontier was composed largely of Christian soldiers.

Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout The Meditations. However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors. Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation. Latin authors typically used the word humanitas (kindness) to describe his character in Greek the word philanthropia (love of mankind) was favoured.

Haines therefore also finds it implausible that someone so universally regarded as a man of exceptional kindness and clemency would have “encouraged mob-violence against unoffending persons, ordered the torture of innocent women and boys, and violated the rights of citizenship”. Indeed, as we’ve seen, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Marcus was actually responsible for the persecution of Christians. The weight of evidence, rather, suggests that he was, as Tertullian claims, a “protector” of Christians, and tried to prevent provincial authorities from persecuting them.

We can also look to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Marcus’ adoptive father and predecessor as emperor for evidence. From the time Marcus was appointed Caesar in 140 AD until Antoninus Pius’ death in 161 AD, for over twenty years, Marcus was his right-hand man and virtually co-ruler alongside him. Indeed, Marcus helped Antoninus Pius rule for longer than he reigned himself, as he died in 180 AD, after only nineteen years on the throne. They were in agreement on all matters, as far as we know, and about a decade after his death, in The Meditations, Marcus still reminds himself to live like a “disciple of Antoninus”.

According to the epitome of Cassius Dio’s Roman History made by Xiphilinus:

Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects instead, he showed the Christians great respect and added to the honour in which Hadrian had been wont to hold them.

Historia Romana

It would seem highly remarkable, therefore, if Marcus (of all people!) who had been the right-hand man in this administration of Antoninus, had suddenly performed a dramatic policy u-turn regarding the Christians and started actively persecuting them on a massive scale instead.

As it happens, the fastest growing form of Christianity during Marcus’ reign was Montanism. We know that the Montanists were eradicated from history not because they were persecuted by Marcus Aurelius or the Roman authorities, however, but because they were persecuted and excommunicated by other Christians, possibly including the leaders of the orthodox church in Lyons.

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2. The Meditations

Marcus’ reputation as a philosopher rests upon one work, the Meditations. The Meditations take the form of a personal notebook and were probably written while Marcus was on campaign in central Europe, c. AD 171-175. The entries appear to be in no particular order and may simply be in the original order of composition. The repetition of themes and the occasional groups of quotations from other authors (see e.g. Med. 4.46, 11.33-39)add to this impression. Book One, however, is somewhat different from the rest of the text and may well have been written separately (a plan for it may be discerned in Med. 6.48).

The first recorded mention of the Meditations is by Themistius in AD 364. The current Greek title – ta eis heauton (‘to himself’) – derives from a manuscript now lost and may be a later addition (it is first recorded c. AD 900 by Arethas). The modern text derives primarily from two sources: a manuscript now in the Vatican and a lost manuscript (mentioned above), upon which the first printed edition (1558) was based.

Beyond the Meditations there also survives part of a correspondence between Marcus and his rhetoric teacher Fronto, probably dating from earlier in Marcus’ life (c. AD 138-166), discovered as a palimpsest in 1815. However, although this interesting discovery sheds some light on Marcus as an individual, it adds little to our understanding of his philosophy.


The major sources depicting the life and rule of Marcus are patchy and frequently unreliable. The most important group of sources, the biographies contained in the Historia Augusta, claimed to be written by a group of authors at the turn of the 4th century AD, but it is believed they were in fact written by a single author (referred to here as 'the biographer') from about 395 AD. [3] The later biographies and the biographies of subordinate emperors and usurpers are unreliable, but the earlier biographies, derived primarily from now-lost earlier sources (Marius Maximus or Ignotus), are much more accurate. [4] For Marcus's life and rule, the biographies of Hadrian, Antoninus, Marcus, and Lucius are largely reliable, but those of Aelius Verus and Avidius Cassius are not. [5]

A body of correspondence between Marcus's tutor Fronto and various Antonine officials survives in a series of patchy manuscripts, covering the period from c. 138 to 166. [6] [7] Marcus's own Meditations offer a window on his inner life, but are largely undateable and make few specific references to worldly affairs. [8] The main narrative source for the period is Cassius Dio, a Greek senator from Bithynian Nicaea who wrote a history of Rome from its founding to 229 in eighty books. Dio is vital for the military history of the period, but his senatorial prejudices and strong opposition to imperial expansion obscure his perspective. [9] Some other literary sources provide specific details: the writings of the physician Galen on the habits of the Antonine elite, the orations of Aelius Aristides on the temper of the times, and the constitutions preserved in the Digest and Codex Justinianeus on Marcus's legal work. [10] Inscriptions and coin finds supplement the literary sources. [11]

Name Edit

Marcus was born in Rome on 26 April 121. His name at birth was supposedly Marcus Annius Verus, [13] but some sources assign this name to him upon his father's death and unofficial adoption by his grandfather, upon his coming of age, [14] [15] [16] or at the time of his marriage. [17] He may have been known as Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, [18] at birth or some point in his youth, [14] [16] or Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus. Upon his adoption by Antoninus as heir to the throne, he was known as Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar and, upon his ascension, he was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus until his death [19] Epiphanius of Salamis, in his chronology of the Roman emperors On Weights and Measures, calls him Marcus Aurelius Verus. [20]

Family origins Edit

Marcus's paternal family was of Roman Italo-Hispanic origins. His father was Marcus Annius Verus (III). [21] The gens Annia was of Italian origins (with legendary claims of descendance from Numa Pompilius) and a branch of it moved to Ucubi, a small town south east of Córdoba in Iberian Baetica. [22] [23] This branch of the Aurelii based in Roman Spain, the Annii Veri, rose to prominence in Rome in the late 1st century AD. Marcus's great-grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (I) was a senator and (according to the Historia Augusta) ex-praetor his grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (II) was made patrician in 73–74. [24] Through his grandmother Rupilia, Marcus was a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty the emperor Trajan's sororal niece Salonia Matidia was the mother of Rupilia and her half-sister, Hadrian's wife Sabina. [25] [26] [note 1]

Marcus's mother, Domitia Lucilla Minor (also known as Domitia Calvilla), was the daughter of the Roman patrician P. Calvisius Tullus and inherited a great fortune (described at length in one of Pliny's letters) from her parents and grandparents. Her inheritance included large brickworks on the outskirts of Rome – a profitable enterprise in an era when the city was experiencing a construction boom – and the Horti Domitia Calvillae (or Lucillae), a villa on the Caelian hill of Rome. [29] [30] Marcus himself was born and raised in the Horti and referred to the Caelian hill as 'My Caelian'. [31] [32] [33]

The adoptive family of Marcus was of Roman Italo-Gallic origins: the gens Aurelia, into which Marcus was adopted at the age of 17, was a Sabine gens Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father, came from the Aurelii Fulvi, a branch of the Aurelii based in Roman Gaul.

Childhood Edit

Marcus's sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, was probably born in 122 or 123. [34] His father probably died in 124, when Marcus was three years old during his praetorship. [35] [note 2] Though he can hardly have known his father, Marcus wrote in his Meditations that he had learned 'modesty and manliness' from his memories of his father and the man's posthumous reputation. [37] His mother Lucilla did not remarry [35] and, following prevailing aristocratic customs, probably did not spend much time with her son. Instead, Marcus was in the care of 'nurses', [38] and was raised after his father's death by his grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (II), who had always retained the legal authority of patria potestas over his son and grandson. Technically this was not an adoption, the creation of a new and different patria potestas. Lucius Catilius Severus, described as Marcus's maternal great-grandfather, also participated in his upbringing he was probably the elder Domitia Lucilla's stepfather. [16] Marcus was raised in his parents' home on the Caelian Hill, an upscale area with few public buildings but many aristocratic villas. Marcus's grandfather owned a palace beside the Lateran, where he would spend much of his childhood. [39] Marcus thanks his grandfather for teaching him 'good character and avoidance of bad temper'. [40] He was less fond of the mistress his grandfather took and lived with after the death of his wife Rupilia. [41] Marcus was grateful that he did not have to live with her longer than he did. [42]

From a young age, Marcus displayed enthusiasm for wrestling and boxing. Marcus trained in wrestling as a youth and into his teenage years, learned to fight in armour and led a dance troupe called the College of the Salii. They performed ritual dances dedicated to Mars, the god of war, while dressed in arcane armour, carrying shields and weapons. [43] Marcus was educated at home, in line with contemporary aristocratic trends [44] he thanks Catilius Severus for encouraging him to avoid public schools. [45] One of his teachers, Diognetus, a painting master, proved particularly influential he seems to have introduced Marcus Aurelius to the philosophic way of life. [46] In April 132, at the behest of Diognetus, Marcus took up the dress and habits of the philosopher: he studied while wearing a rough Greek cloak, and would sleep on the ground until his mother convinced him to sleep on a bed. [47] A new set of tutors – the Homeric scholar Alexander of Cotiaeum along with Trosius Aper and Tuticius Proculus, teachers of Latin [48] [note 3] – took over Marcus's education in about 132 or 133. [50] Marcus thanks Alexander for his training in literary styling. [51] Alexander's influence – an emphasis on matter over style and careful wording, with the occasional Homeric quotation – has been detected in Marcus's Meditations. [52]

Succession to Hadrian Edit

In late 136, Hadrian almost died from a hemorrhage. Convalescent in his villa at Tivoli, he selected Lucius Ceionius Commodus, Marcus's intended father-in-law, as his successor and adopted son, [53] according to the biographer 'against the wishes of everyone'. [54] While his motives are not certain, it would appear that his goal was to eventually place the then-too-young Marcus on the throne. [55] As part of his adoption, Commodus took the name, Lucius Aelius Caesar. His health was so poor that, during a ceremony to mark his becoming heir to the throne, he was too weak to lift a large shield on his own. [56] After a brief stationing on the Danube frontier, Aelius returned to Rome to make an address to the Senate on the first day of 138. However, the night before the speech, he grew ill and died of a hemorrhage later in the day. [57] [note 4]

On 24 January 138, Hadrian selected Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus's aunt Faustina the Elder, as his new successor. [59] As part of Hadrian's terms, Antoninus, in turn, adopted Marcus and Lucius Commodus, the son of Lucius Aelius. [60] Marcus became M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, and Lucius became L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus. At Hadrian's request, Antoninus's daughter Faustina was betrothed to Lucius. [61] Marcus reportedly greeted the news that Hadrian had become his adoptive grandfather with sadness, instead of joy. Only with reluctance did he move from his mother's house on the Caelian to Hadrian's private home. [62]

At some time in 138, Hadrian requested in the senate that Marcus be exempt from the law barring him from becoming quaestor before his twenty-fourth birthday. The senate complied, and Marcus served under Antoninus, the consul for 139. [63] Marcus's adoption diverted him from the typical career path of his class. If not for his adoption, he probably would have become triumvir monetalis, a highly regarded post involving token administration of the state mint after that, he could have served as tribune with a legion, becoming the legion's nominal second-in-command. Marcus probably would have opted for travel and further education instead. As it was, Marcus was set apart from his fellow citizens. Nonetheless, his biographer attests that his character remained unaffected: 'He still showed the same respect to his relations as he had when he was an ordinary citizen, and he was as thrifty and careful of his possessions as he had been when he lived in a private household'. [64]

After a series of suicide attempts, all thwarted by Antoninus, Hadrian left for Baiae, a seaside resort on the Campanian coast. His condition did not improve, and he abandoned the diet prescribed by his doctors, indulging himself in food and drink. He sent for Antoninus, who was at his side when he died on 10 July 138. [65] His remains were buried quietly at Puteoli. [66] The succession to Antoninus was peaceful and stable: Antoninus kept Hadrian's nominees in office and appeased the senate, respecting its privileges and commuting the death sentences of men charged in Hadrian's last days. [67] For his dutiful behaviour, Antoninus was asked to accept the name 'Pius'. [68]

Heir to Antoninus Pius (138–145) Edit

Immediately after Hadrian's death, Antoninus approached Marcus and requested that his marriage arrangements be amended: Marcus's betrothal to Ceionia Fabia would be annulled, and he would be betrothed to Faustina, Antoninus's daughter, instead. Faustina's betrothal to Ceionia's brother Lucius Commodus would also have to be annulled. Marcus consented to Antoninus's proposal. [71] He was made consul for 140 with Antoninus as his colleague, and was appointed as a seviri, one of the knights' six commanders, at the order's annual parade on 15 July 139. As the heir apparent, Marcus became princeps iuventutis, head of the equestrian order. He now took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar. [72] Marcus would later caution himself against taking the name too seriously: 'See that you do not turn into a Caesar do not be dipped into the purple dye – for that can happen'. [73] At the senate's request, Marcus joined all the priestly colleges (pontifices, augures, quindecimviri sacris faciundis, septemviri epulonum, etc.) [74] direct evidence for membership, however, is available only for the Arval Brethren. [75]

Antoninus demanded that Marcus reside in the House of Tiberius, the imperial palace on the Palatine, and take up the habits of his new station, the aulicum fastigium or 'pomp of the court', against Marcus's objections. [74] Marcus would struggle to reconcile the life of the court with his philosophic yearnings. He told himself it was an attainable goal – 'Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace' [76] – but he found it difficult nonetheless. He would criticize himself in the Meditations for 'abusing court life' in front of company. [77]

As quaestor, Marcus would have had little real administrative work to do. He would read imperial letters to the senate when Antoninus was absent and would do secretarial work for the senators. [78] But he felt drowned in paperwork and complained to his tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto: 'I am so out of breath from dictating nearly thirty letters'. [79] He was being 'fitted for ruling the state', in the words of his biographer. [80] He was required to make a speech to the assembled senators as well, making oratorical training essential for the job. [81]

On 1 January 145, Marcus was made consul a second time. Fronto urged him in a letter to have plenty of sleep 'so that you may come into the Senate with a good colour and read your speech with a strong voice'. [82] Marcus had complained of an illness in an earlier letter: 'As far as my strength is concerned, I am beginning to get it back and there is no trace of the pain in my chest. But that ulcer [. ] [note 5] I am having treatment and taking care not to do anything that interferes with it'. [83] Never particularly healthy or strong, Marcus was praised by Cassius Dio, writing of his later years, for behaving dutifully in spite of his various illnesses. [84] In April 145, Marcus married Faustina, legally his sister, as had been planned since 138. [85] Little is specifically known of the ceremony, but the biographer calls it 'noteworthy'. [86] Coins were issued with the heads of the couple, and Antoninus, as Pontifex Maximus, would have officiated. Marcus makes no apparent reference to the marriage in his surviving letters, and only sparing references to Faustina. [87]

Fronto and further education Edit

After taking the toga virilis in 136, Marcus probably began his training in oratory. [88] He had three tutors in Greek – Aninus Macer, Caninius Celer, and Herodes Atticus – and one in Latin – Fronto. The latter two were the most esteemed orators of their time, [89] but probably did not become his tutors until his adoption by Antoninus in 138. The preponderance of Greek tutors indicates the importance of the Greek language to the aristocracy of Rome. [90] This was the age of the Second Sophistic, a renaissance in Greek letters. Although educated in Rome, in his Meditations, Marcus would write his inmost thoughts in Greek. [91]

Atticus was controversial: an enormously rich Athenian (probably the richest man in the eastern half of the empire), he was quick to anger and resented by his fellow Athenians for his patronizing manner. [92] Atticus was an inveterate opponent of Stoicism and philosophic pretensions. [93] He thought the Stoics' desire for apatheia was foolish: they would live a 'sluggish, enervated life', he said. [94] In spite of the influence of Atticus, Marcus would later become a Stoic. He would not mention Herodes at all in his Meditations, in spite of the fact that they would come into contact many times over the following decades. [95]

Fronto was highly esteemed: in the self-consciously antiquarian world of Latin letters, [96] he was thought of as second only to Cicero, perhaps even an alternative to him. [97] [note 6] He did not care much for Atticus, though Marcus was eventually to put the pair on speaking terms. Fronto exercised a complete mastery of Latin, capable of tracing expressions through the literature, producing obscure synonyms, and challenging minor improprieties in word choice. [97]

A significant amount of the correspondence between Fronto and Marcus has survived. [101] The pair were very close, using intimate language such as 'Farewell my Fronto, wherever you are, my most sweet love and delight. How is it between you and me? I love you and you are not here' in their correspondence. [102] Marcus spent time with Fronto's wife and daughter, both named Cratia, and they enjoyed light conversation. [103]

He wrote Fronto a letter on his birthday, claiming to love him as he loved himself, and calling on the gods to ensure that every word he learnt of literature, he would learn 'from the lips of Fronto'. [104] His prayers for Fronto's health were more than conventional, because Fronto was frequently ill at times, he seems to be an almost constant invalid, always suffering [105] – about one-quarter of the surviving letters deal with the man's sicknesses. [106] Marcus asks that Fronto's pain be inflicted on himself, 'of my own accord with every kind of discomfort'. [107]

Fronto never became Marcus's full-time teacher and continued his career as an advocate. One notorious case brought him into conflict with Atticus. [108] Marcus pleaded with Fronto, first with 'advice', then as a 'favour', not to attack Atticus he had already asked Atticus to refrain from making the first blows. [109] Fronto replied that he was surprised to discover Marcus counted Atticus as a friend (perhaps Atticus was not yet Marcus's tutor), and allowed that Marcus might be correct, [110] but nonetheless affirmed his intent to win the case by any means necessary: '[T]he charges are frightful and must be spoken of as frightful. Those in particular that refer to the beating and robbing I will describe so that they savour of gall and bile. If I happen to call him an uneducated little Greek it will not mean war to the death'. [111] The outcome of the trial is unknown. [112]

By the age of twenty-five (between April 146 and April 147), Marcus had grown disaffected with his studies in jurisprudence, and showed some signs of general malaise. His master, he writes to Fronto, was an unpleasant blowhard, and had made 'a hit at' him: 'It is easy to sit yawning next to a judge, he says, but to be a judge is noble work'. [113] Marcus had grown tired of his exercises, of taking positions in imaginary debates. When he criticized the insincerity of conventional language, Fronto took to defend it. [114] In any case, Marcus's formal education was now over. He had kept his teachers on good terms, following them devotedly. It 'affected his health adversely', his biographer writes, to have devoted so much effort to his studies. It was the only thing the biographer could find fault with in Marcus's entire boyhood. [115]

Fronto had warned Marcus against the study of philosophy early on: 'It is better never to have touched the teaching of philosophy. than to have tasted it superficially, with the edge of the lips, as the saying is'. [116] He disdained philosophy and philosophers and looked down on Marcus's sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon and others in this circle. [101] Fronto put an uncharitable interpretation of Marcus's 'conversion to philosophy': 'In the fashion of the young, tired of boring work', Marcus had turned to philosophy to escape the constant exercises of oratorical training. [117] Marcus kept in close touch with Fronto, but would ignore Fronto's scruples. [118]

Apollonius may have introduced Marcus to Stoic philosophy, but Quintus Junius Rusticus would have the strongest influence on the boy. [119] [note 7] He was the man Fronto recognized as having 'wooed Marcus away' from oratory. [121] He was older than Fronto and twenty years older than Marcus. As the grandson of Arulenus Rusticus, one of the martyrs to the tyranny of Domitian (r. 81–96), he was heir to the tradition of 'Stoic Opposition' to the 'bad emperors' of the 1st century [122] the true successor of Seneca (as opposed to Fronto, the false one). [123] Marcus thanks Rusticus for teaching him 'not to be led astray into enthusiasm for rhetoric, for writing on speculative themes, for discoursing on moralizing texts. To avoid oratory, poetry, and 'fine writing''. [124]

Philostratus describes how even when Marcus was an old man, in the latter part of his reign, he studied under Sextus of Chaeronea:

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, ' it is good even for an old man to learn I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.' And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, ' O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.' [125]

Births and deaths Edit

On 30 November 147, Faustina gave birth to a girl named Domitia Faustina. She was the first of at least thirteen children (including two sets of twins) that Faustina would bear over the next twenty-three years. The next day, 1 December, Antoninus gave Marcus the tribunician power and the imperium – authority over the armies and provinces of the emperor. As tribune, he had the right to bring one measure before the senate after the four Antoninus could introduce. His tribunician powers would be renewed with Antoninus's on 10 December 147. [126] The first mention of Domitia in Marcus's letters reveals her as a sickly infant. 'Caesar to Fronto. If the gods are willing we seem to have a hope of recovery. The diarrhea has stopped, the little attacks of fever have been driven away. But the emaciation is still extreme and there is still quite a bit of coughing'. He and Faustina, Marcus wrote, had been 'pretty occupied' with the girl's care. [127] Domitia would die in 151. [128]

In 149, Faustina gave birth again, to twin sons. Contemporary coinage commemorates the event, with crossed cornucopiae beneath portrait busts of the two small boys, and the legend temporum felicitas, 'the happiness of the times'. They did not survive long. Before the end of the year, another family coin was issued: it shows only a tiny girl, Domitia Faustina, and one boy baby. Then another: the girl alone. The infants were buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, where their epitaphs survive. They were called Titus Aurelius Antoninus and Tiberius Aelius Aurelius. [129] Marcus steadied himself: 'One man prays: 'How I may not lose my little child', but you must pray: 'How I may not be afraid to lose him'. [130] He quoted from the Iliad what he called the 'briefest and most familiar saying. enough to dispel sorrow and fear': [131]

the wind scatters some on the face of the ground
like unto them are the children of men.

Another daughter was born on 7 March 150, Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla. At some time between 155 and 161, probably soon after 155, Marcus's mother Domitia Lucilla died. [132] Faustina probably had another daughter in 151, but the child, Annia Galeria Aurelia Faustina, might not have been born until 153. [133] Another son, Tiberius Aelius Antoninus, was born in 152. A coin issue celebrates fecunditati Augustae, 'to Augusta's fertility', depicting two girls and an infant. The boy did not survive long, as evidenced by coins from 156, only depicting the two girls. He might have died in 152, the same year as Marcus's sister Cornificia. [134] By 28 March 158, when Marcus replied, another of his children was dead. Marcus thanked the temple synod, 'even though this turned out otherwise'. The child's name is unknown. [135] In 159 and 160, Faustina gave birth to daughters: Fadilla and Cornificia, named respectively after Faustina's and Marcus's dead sisters. [136]

Antoninus Pius's last years Edit

Lucius started his political career as a quaestor in 153. He was consul in 154, [137] and was consul again with Marcus in 161. [138] Lucius had no other titles, except that of 'son of Augustus'. Lucius had a markedly different personality from Marcus: he enjoyed sports of all kinds, but especially hunting and wrestling he took obvious pleasure in the circus games and gladiatorial fights. [139] [note 8] He did not marry until 164. [143]

In 156, Antoninus turned 70. He found it difficult to keep himself upright without stays. He started nibbling on dry bread to give him the strength to stay awake through his morning receptions. As Antoninus aged, Marcus would take on more administrative duties, more still when he became the praetorian prefect (an office that was as much secretarial as military) when Marcus Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157. [144] In 160, Marcus and Lucius were designated joint consuls for the following year. Antoninus may have already been ill. [136]

Two days before his death, the biographer reports, Antoninus was at his ancestral estate at Lorium, in Etruria, [145] about 19 kilometres (12 mi) from Rome. [146] He ate Alpine cheese at dinner quite greedily. In the night he vomited he had a fever the next day. The day after that, 7 March 161, [147] he summoned the imperial council, and passed the state and his daughter to Marcus. The emperor gave the keynote to his life in the last word that he uttered when the tribune of the night-watch came to ask the password – 'aequanimitas' (equanimity). [148] He then turned over, as if going to sleep, and died. [149] His death closed out the longest reign since Augustus, surpassing Tiberius by a couple of months. [150]

Accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161) Edit

After Antoninus died in 161, Marcus was effectively sole ruler of the Empire. The formalities of the position would follow. The senate would soon grant him the name Augustus and the title imperator, and he would soon be formally elected as Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the official cults. Marcus made some show of resistance: the biographer writes that he was 'compelled' to take imperial power. [151] This may have been a genuine horror imperii, 'fear of imperial power'. Marcus, with his preference for the philosophic life, found the imperial office unappealing. His training as a Stoic, however, had made the choice clear to him that it was his duty. [152]

Although Marcus showed no personal affection for Hadrian (significantly, he does not thank him in the first book of his Meditations), he presumably believed it his duty to enact the man's succession plans. [153] Thus, although the senate planned to confirm Marcus alone, he refused to take office unless Lucius received equal powers. [154] The senate accepted, granting Lucius the imperium, the tribunician power, and the name Augustus. [155] Marcus became, in official titulature, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Lucius, forgoing his name Commodus and taking Marcus's family name Verus, became Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus. [156] [note 9] It was the first time that Rome was ruled by two emperors. [159] [note 10]

In spite of their nominal equality, Marcus held more auctoritas, or 'authority', than Lucius. He had been consul once more than Lucius, he had shared in Antoninus's rule, and he alone was Pontifex Maximus. It would have been clear to the public which emperor was the more senior. [159] As the biographer wrote, 'Verus obeyed Marcus. as a lieutenant obeys a proconsul or a governor obeys the emperor'. [160]

Immediately after their senate confirmation, the emperors proceeded to the Castra Praetoria, the camp of the Praetorian Guard. Lucius addressed the assembled troops, which then acclaimed the pair as imperatores. Then, like every new emperor since Claudius, Lucius promised the troops a special donative. [161] This donative, however, was twice the size of those past: 20,000 sesterces (5,000 denarii) per capita, with more to officers. In return for this bounty, equivalent to several years' pay, the troops swore an oath to protect the emperors. [162] The ceremony was perhaps not entirely necessary, given that Marcus's accession had been peaceful and unopposed, but it was good insurance against later military troubles. [163] Upon his accession he also devalued the Roman currency. He decreased the silver purity of the denarius from 83.5% to 79% – the silver weight dropping from 2.68 g (0.095 oz) to 2.57 g (0.091 oz). [164]

Antoninus's funeral ceremonies were, in the words of the biographer, 'elaborate'. [165] If his funeral followed those of his predecessors, his body would have been incinerated on a pyre at the Campus Martius, and his spirit would have been seen as ascending to the gods' home in the heavens. Marcus and Lucius nominated their father for deification. In contrast to their behaviour during Antoninus's campaign to deify Hadrian, the senate did not oppose the emperors' wishes. A flamen, or cultic priest, was appointed to minister the cult of the deified Divus Antoninus. Antoninus's remains were laid to rest in Hadrian's mausoleum, beside the remains of Marcus's children and of Hadrian himself. [166] The temple he had dedicated to his wife, Diva Faustina, became the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. It survives as the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. [163]

In accordance with his will, Antoninus's fortune passed on to Faustina. [167] (Marcus had little need of his wife's fortune. Indeed, at his accession, Marcus transferred part of his mother's estate to his nephew, Ummius Quadratus. [168] ) Faustina was three months pregnant at her husband's accession. During the pregnancy she dreamed of giving birth to two serpents, one fiercer than the other. [169] On 31 August, she gave birth at Lanuvium to twins: T. Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. [170] [note 11] Aside from the fact that the twins shared Caligula's birthday, the omens were favorable, and the astrologers drew positive horoscopes for the children. [172] The births were celebrated on the imperial coinage. [173]

Early rule Edit

Soon after the emperors' accession, Marcus's eleven-year-old daughter, Annia Lucilla, was betrothed to Lucius (in spite of the fact that he was, formally, her uncle). [174] At the ceremonies commemorating the event, new provisions were made for the support of poor children, along the lines of earlier imperial foundations. [175] Marcus and Lucius proved popular with the people of Rome, who strongly approved of their civiliter ('lacking pomp') behaviour. The emperors permitted free speech, evidenced by the fact that the comedy writer Marullus was able to criticize them without suffering retribution. As the biographer wrote, 'No one missed the lenient ways of Pius'. [176]

Marcus replaced a number of the empire's major officials. The ab epistulis Sextus Caecilius Crescens Volusianus, in charge of the imperial correspondence, was replaced with Titus Varius Clemens. Clemens was from the frontier province of Pannonia and had served in the war in Mauretania. Recently, he had served as procurator of five provinces. He was a man suited for a time of military crisis. [177] Lucius Volusius Maecianus, Marcus's former tutor, had been prefectural governor of Egypt at Marcus's accession. Maecianus was recalled, made senator, and appointed prefect of the treasury (aerarium Saturni). He was made consul soon after. [178] Fronto's son-in-law, Gaius Aufidius Victorinus, was appointed governor of Germania Superior. [179]

Fronto returned to his Roman townhouse at dawn on 28 March, having left his home in Cirta as soon as news of his pupils' accession reached him. He sent a note to the imperial freedman Charilas, asking if he could call on the emperors. Fronto would later explain that he had not dared to write the emperors directly. [180] The tutor was immensely proud of his students. Reflecting on the speech he had written on taking his consulship in 143, when he had praised the young Marcus, Fronto was ebullient: 'There was then an outstanding natural ability in you there is now perfected excellence. There was then a crop of growing corn there is now a ripe, gathered harvest. What I was hoping for then, I have now. The hope has become a reality.' [181] Fronto called on Marcus alone neither thought to invite Lucius. [182]

Lucius was less esteemed by Fronto than his brother, as his interests were on a lower level. Lucius asked Fronto to adjudicate in a dispute he and his friend Calpurnius were having on the relative merits of two actors. [183] Marcus told Fronto of his reading – Coelius and a little Cicero – and his family. His daughters were in Rome with their great-great-aunt Matidia Marcus thought the evening air of the country was too cold for them. He asked Fronto for 'some particularly eloquent reading matter, something of your own, or Cato, or Cicero, or Sallust or Gracchus – or some poet, for I need distraction, especially in this kind of way, by reading something that will uplift and diffuse my pressing anxieties.' [184] Marcus's early reign proceeded smoothly he was able to give himself wholly to philosophy and the pursuit of popular affection. [185] Soon, however, he would find he had many anxieties. It would mean the end of the felicitas temporum ('happy times') that the coinage of 161 had proclaimed. [186]

In either autumn 161 or spring 162, [note 12] the Tiber overflowed its banks, flooding much of Rome. It drowned many animals, leaving the city in famine. Marcus and Lucius gave the crisis their personal attention. [188] [note 13] In other times of famine, the emperors are said to have provided for the Italian communities out of the Roman granaries. [190]

Fronto's letters continued through Marcus's early reign. Fronto felt that, because of Marcus's prominence and public duties, lessons were more important now than they had ever been before. He believed Marcus was 'beginning to feel the wish to be eloquent once more, in spite of having for a time lost interest in eloquence'. [191] Fronto would again remind his pupil of the tension between his role and his philosophic pretensions: 'Suppose, Caesar, that you can attain to the wisdom of Cleanthes and Zeno, yet, against your will, not the philosopher's woolen cape'. [192]

The early days of Marcus's reign were the happiest of Fronto's life: Marcus was beloved by the people of Rome, an excellent emperor, a fond pupil, and perhaps most importantly, as eloquent as could be wished. [193] Marcus had displayed rhetorical skill in his speech to the senate after an earthquake at Cyzicus. It had conveyed the drama of the disaster, and the senate had been awed: 'Not more suddenly or violently was the city stirred by the earthquake than the minds of your hearers by your speech'. Fronto was hugely pleased. [194]

War with Parthia (161–166) Edit

On his deathbed, Antoninus spoke of nothing but the state and the foreign kings who had wronged him. [195] One of those kings, Vologases IV of Parthia, made his move in late summer or early autumn 161. [196] Vologases entered the Kingdom of Armenia (then a Roman client state), expelled its king and installed his own – Pacorus, an Arsacid like himself. [197] The governor of Cappadocia, the frontline in all Armenian conflicts, was Marcus Sedatius Severianus, a Gaul with much experience in military matters. [198]

Convinced by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus that he could defeat the Parthians easily and win glory for himself, [199] Severianus led a legion (perhaps the IX Hispana [200] ) into Armenia, but was trapped by the great Parthian general Chosrhoes at Elegeia, a town just beyond the Cappadocian frontiers, high up past the headwaters of the Euphrates. After Severianus made some unsuccessful efforts to engage Chosrhoes, he committed suicide, and his legion was massacred. The campaign had lasted only three days. [201]

There was threat of war on other frontiers as well – in Britain, and in Raetia and Upper Germany, where the Chatti of the Taunus mountains had recently crossed over the limes. [202] Marcus was unprepared. Antoninus seems to have given him no military experience the biographer writes that Marcus spent the whole of Antoninus's twenty-three-year reign at his emperor's side and not in the provinces, where most previous emperors had spent their early careers. [203] [note 14]

More bad news arrived: the Syrian governor's army had been defeated by the Parthians, and retreated in disarray. [205] Reinforcements were dispatched for the Parthian frontier. P. Julius Geminius Marcianus, an African senator commanding X Gemina at Vindobona (Vienna), left for Cappadocia with detachments from the Danubian legions. [206] Three full legions were also sent east: I Minervia from Bonn in Upper Germany, [207] II Adiutrix from Aquincum, [208] and V Macedonica from Troesmis. [209]

The northern frontiers were strategically weakened frontier governors were told to avoid conflict wherever possible. [210] M. Annius Libo, Marcus's first cousin, was sent to replace the Syrian governor. His first consulship was in 161, so he was probably in his early thirties, [211] and as a patrician, he lacked military experience. Marcus had chosen a reliable man rather than a talented one. [212]

Marcus took a four-day public holiday at Alsium, a resort town on the coast of Etruria. He was too anxious to relax. Writing to Fronto, he declared that he would not speak about his holiday. [214] Fronto replied: 'What? Do I not know that you went to Alsium with the intention of devoting yourself to games, joking, and complete leisure for four whole days?' [215] He encouraged Marcus to rest, calling on the example of his predecessors (Antoninus had enjoyed exercise in the palaestra, fishing, and comedy), [216] going so far as to write up a fable about the gods' division of the day between morning and evening – Marcus had apparently been spending most of his evenings on judicial matters instead of at leisure. [217] Marcus could not take Fronto's advice. 'I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off', he wrote back. [218] Marcus Aurelius put on Fronto's voice to chastise himself: ''Much good has my advice done you', you will say!' He had rested, and would rest often, but 'this devotion to duty! Who knows better than you how demanding it is!' [219]

Fronto sent Marcus a selection of reading material, [221] and, to settle his unease over the course of the Parthian war, a long and considered letter, full of historical references. In modern editions of Fronto's works, it is labeled De bello Parthico (On the Parthian War). There had been reverses in Rome's past, Fronto writes, [222] but in the end, Romans had always prevailed over their enemies: 'Always and everywhere [Mars] has changed our troubles into successes and our terrors into triumphs'. [223]

Over the winter of 161–162, news that a rebellion was brewing in Syria arrived and it was decided that Lucius should direct the Parthian war in person. He was stronger and healthier than Marcus, the argument went, and thus more suited to military activity. [224] Lucius's biographer suggests ulterior motives: to restrain Lucius's debaucheries, to make him thrifty, to reform his morals by the terror of war, and to realize that he was an emperor. [225] [note 15] Whatever the case, the senate gave its assent, and, in the summer of 162, Lucius left. Marcus would remain in Rome, as the city 'demanded the presence of an emperor'. [227]

Lucius spent most of the campaign in Antioch, though he wintered at Laodicea and summered at Daphne, a resort just outside Antioch. [228] Critics declaimed Lucius's luxurious lifestyle, [229] saying that he had taken to gambling, would 'dice the whole night through', [230] and enjoyed the company of actors. [231] [note 16] Libo died early in the war perhaps Lucius had murdered him. [233]

In the middle of the war, perhaps in autumn 163 or early 164, Lucius made a trip to Ephesus to be married to Marcus's daughter Lucilla. [234] Marcus moved up the date perhaps he had already heard of Lucius's mistress Panthea. [235] Lucilla's thirteenth birthday was in March 163 whatever the date of her marriage, she was not yet fifteen. [236] Lucilla was accompanied by her mother Faustina and Lucius's uncle (his father's half-brother) M. Vettulenus Civica Barbarus, [237] who was made comes Augusti, 'companion of the emperors'. Marcus may have wanted Civica to watch over Lucius, the job Libo had failed at. [238] Marcus may have planned to accompany them all the way to Smyrna (the biographer says he told the senate he would), but this did not happen. [239] He only accompanied the group as far as Brundisium, where they boarded a ship for the east. [240] He returned to Rome immediately thereafter, and sent out special instructions to his proconsuls not to give the group any official reception. [241]

The Armenian capital Artaxata was captured in 163. [242] At the end of the year, Lucius took the title Armeniacus, despite having never seen combat Marcus declined to accept the title until the following year. [243] When Lucius was hailed as imperator again, however, Marcus did not hesitate to take the Imperator II with him. [244]

Occupied Armenia was reconstructed on Roman terms. In 164, a new capital, Kaine Polis ('New City'), replaced Artaxata. [245] A new king was installed: a Roman senator of consular rank and Arsacid descent, Gaius Julius Sohaemus. He may not even have been crowned in Armenia the ceremony may have taken place in Antioch, or even Ephesus. [246] Sohaemus was hailed on the imperial coinage of 164 under the legend Rex armeniis Datus : Lucius sat on a throne with his staff while Sohaemus stood before him, saluting the emperor. [247]

In 163, the Parthians intervened in Osroene, a Roman client in upper Mesopotamia centred on Edessa, and installed their own king on its throne. [248] In response, Roman forces were moved downstream, to cross the Euphrates at a more southerly point. [249] Before the end of 163, however, Roman forces had moved north to occupy Dausara and Nicephorium on the northern, Parthian bank. [250] Soon after the conquest of the north bank of the Euphrates, other Roman forces moved on Osroene from Armenia, taking Anthemusia, a town southwest of Edessa. [251]

In 165, Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia. Edessa was re-occupied, and Mannus, the king deposed by the Parthians, was re-installed. [252] The Parthians retreated to Nisibis, but this too was besieged and captured. The Parthian army dispersed in the Tigris. [253] A second force, under Avidius Cassius and the III Gallica, moved down the Euphrates, and fought a major battle at Dura. [254]

By the end of the year, Cassius's army had reached the twin metropolises of Mesopotamia: Seleucia on the right bank of the Tigris and Ctesiphon on the left. Ctesiphon was taken and its royal palace set to flame. The citizens of Seleucia, still largely Greek (the city had been commissioned and settled as a capital of the Seleucid Empire, one of Alexander the Great's successor kingdoms), opened its gates to the invaders. The city was sacked nonetheless, leaving a black mark on Lucius's reputation. Excuses were sought, or invented: the official version had it that the Seleucids broke faith first. [255]

Cassius's army, although suffering from a shortage of supplies and the effects of a plague contracted in Seleucia, made it back to Roman territory safely. [256] Lucius took the title Parthicus Maximus, and he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again, earning the title 'imp. III'. [257] Cassius's army returned to the field in 166, crossing over the Tigris into Media. Lucius took the title 'Medicus', [258] and the emperors were again hailed as imperatores, becoming 'imp. IV' in imperial titulature. Marcus took the Parthicus Maximus now, after another tactful delay. [259] On 12 October of that year, Marcus proclaimed two of his sons, Annius and Commodus, as his heirs. [260]

War with Germanic tribes (166–180) Edit

During the early 160s, Fronto's son-in-law Victorinus was stationed as a legate in Germany. He was there with his wife and children (another child had stayed with Fronto and his wife in Rome). [265] The condition on the northern frontier looked grave. A frontier post had been destroyed, and it looked like all the peoples of central and northern Europe were in turmoil. There was corruption among the officers: Victorinus had to ask for the resignation of a legionary legate who was taking bribes. [266]

Experienced governors had been replaced by friends and relatives of the imperial family. Lucius Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, a distant relative of Hadrian, was in Upper Pannonia, succeeding the experienced Marcus Nonius Macrinus. Lower Pannonia was under the obscure Tiberius Haterius Saturnius. Marcus Servilius Fabianus Maximus was shuffled from Lower Moesia to Upper Moesia when Marcus Iallius Bassus had joined Lucius in Antioch. Lower Moesia was filled by Pontius Laelianus's son. The Dacias were still divided in three, governed by a praetorian senator and two procurators. The peace could not hold long Lower Pannonia did not even have a legion. [267]

Starting in the 160s, Germanic tribes, and other nomadic people launched raids along the northern border, particularly into Gaul and across the Danube. This new impetus westwards was probably due to attacks from tribes further east. A first invasion of the Chatti in the province of Germania Superior was repulsed in 162. [268]

Far more dangerous was the invasion of 166, when the Marcomanni of Bohemia, clients of the Roman Empire since 19 AD, crossed the Danube together with the Lombards and other Germanic tribes. [269] Soon thereafter, the Iranian Sarmatian Iazyges attacked between the Danube and the Theiss rivers. [270]

The Costoboci, coming from the Carpathian area, invaded Moesia, Macedonia, and Greece. After a long struggle, Marcus managed to push back the invaders. Numerous members of Germanic tribes settled in frontier regions like Dacia, Pannonia, Germany, and Italy itself. This was not a new thing, but this time the numbers of settlers required the creation of two new frontier provinces on the left shore of the Danube, Sarmatia and Marcomannia, including today's Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Some Germanic tribes who settled in Ravenna revolted and managed to seize possession of the city. For this reason, Marcus decided not only against bringing more barbarians into Italy, but even banished those who had previously been brought there. [271]

Legal and administrative work Edit

Like many emperors, Marcus spent most of his time addressing matters of law such as petitions and hearing disputes, [272] but unlike many of his predecessors, he was already proficient in imperial administration when he assumed power. [273] He took great care in the theory and practice of legislation. Professional jurists called him 'an emperor most skilled in the law' [274] and 'a most prudent and conscientiously just emperor'. [275] He showed marked interest in three areas of the law: the manumission of slaves, the guardianship of orphans and minors, and the choice of city councillors (decuriones). [276]

Marcus showed a great deal of respect to the Roman Senate and routinely asked them for permission to spend money even though he did not need to do so as the absolute ruler of the Empire. [277] In one speech, Marcus himself reminded the Senate that the imperial palace where he lived was not truly his possession but theirs. [278] In 168, he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity from 79% to 82% – the actual silver weight increasing from 2.57–2.67 g (0.091–0.094 oz). However, two years later he reverted to the previous values because of the military crises facing the empire. [164]

Trade with Han China and outbreak of plague Edit

A possible contact with Han China occurred in 166 when a Roman traveller visited the Han court, claiming to be an ambassador representing a certain Andun (Chinese: 安 敦), ruler of Daqin, who can be identified either with Marcus or his predecessor Antoninus. [279] [280] [281] In addition to Republican-era Roman glasswares found at Guangzhou along the South China Sea, [282] Roman golden medallions made during the reign of Antoninus and perhaps even Marcus have been found at Óc Eo, Vietnam, then part of the Kingdom of Funan near the Chinese province of Jiaozhi (in northern Vietnam). This may have been the port city of Kattigara, described by Ptolemy (c. 150) as being visited by a Greek sailor named Alexander and lying beyond the Golden Chersonese (i.e. Malay Peninsula). [283] [note 17] Roman coins from the reigns of Tiberius to Aurelian have been found in Xi'an, China (site of the Han capital Chang'an), although the far greater amount of Roman coins in India suggests the Roman maritime trade for purchasing Chinese silk was centred there, not in China or even the overland Silk Road running through Persia. [284]

The Antonine Plague started in Mesopotamia in 165 or 166 at the end of Lucius's campaign against the Parthians. It may have continued into the reign of Commodus. Galen, who was in Rome when the plague spread to the city in 166, [285] mentioned that 'fever, diarrhoea, and inflammation of the pharynx, along with dry or pustular eruptions of the skin after nine days' were among the symptoms. [286] It is believed that the plague was smallpox. [287] In the view of historian Rafe de Crespigny, the plagues afflicting the Eastern Han empire of China during the reigns of Emperor Huan of Han (r. 146–168) and Emperor Ling of Han (r. 168–189), which struck in 151, 161, 171, 173, 179, 182, and 185, were perhaps connected to the plague in Rome. [288] Raoul McLaughlin writes that the travel of Roman subjects to the Han Chinese court in 166 may have started a new era of Roman–Far East trade. However, it was also a 'harbinger of something much more ominous'. According to McLaughlin, the disease caused 'irreparable' damage to the Roman maritime trade in the Indian Ocean as proven by the archaeological record spanning from Egypt to India, as well as significantly decreased Roman commercial activity in Southeast Asia. [289]

Death and succession (180) Edit

Marcus died at the age of 58 on 17 March 180 [290] of unknown causes in his military quarters near the city of Sirmium in Pannonia (modern Sremska Mitrovica). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome, where they rested in Hadrian's mausoleum (modern Castel Sant'Angelo) until the Visigoth sack of the city in 410. His campaigns against Germans and Sarmatians were also commemorated by a column and a temple built in Rome. [291] Some scholars consider his death to be the end of the Pax Romana. [292]

Marcus was succeeded by his son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and with whom he had jointly ruled since 177. [293] Biological sons of the emperor, if there were any, were considered heirs [294] however, it was only the second time that a "non-adoptive" son had succeeded his father, the only other having been a century earlier when Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus. Historians have criticized the succession to Commodus, citing Commodus's erratic behaviour and lack of political and military acumen. [293] At the end of his history of Marcus's reign, Cassius Dio wrote an encomium to the emperor, and described the transition to Commodus in his own lifetime with sorrow: [295]

[Marcus] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him. This matter must be our next topic for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.

–Dio lxxi. 36.3–4 [295]

Dio adds that from Marcus's first days as counsellor to Antoninus to his final days as emperor of Rome, "he remained the same [person] and did not change in the least." [296]

Michael Grant, in The Climax of Rome, writes of Commodus: [297]

The youth turned out to be very erratic, or at least so anti-traditional that disaster was inevitable. But whether or not Marcus ought to have known this to be so, the rejections of his son's claims in favour of someone else would almost certainly have involved one of the civil wars which were to proliferate so disastrously around future successions. [297]

Marcus acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain after his death both Dio and the biographer call him 'the philosopher'. [298] [299]

Christians such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Eusebius also gave him the title. [300] The last-named went so far as to call him "more philanthropic and philosophic" than Antoninus and Hadrian, and set him against the persecuting emperors Domitian and Nero to make the contrast bolder. [301]

The historian Herodian wrote:

"Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life." [302]

Iain King explains that Marcus's legacy was tragic:

"[The emperor's] Stoic philosophy – which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others – was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death." [303]

In the first two centuries of the Christian era, it was local Roman officials who were largely responsible for the persecution of Christians. In the second century, the emperors treated Christianity as a local problem to be dealt with by their subordinates. [304] The number and severity of persecutions of Christians in various locations of the empire seemingly increased during the reign of Marcus. The extent to which Marcus himself directed, encouraged, or was aware of these persecutions is unclear and much debated by historians. [305] The early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, includes within his First Apology (written between 140 and 150 A.D.) a letter from Marcus Aurelius to the Roman senate (prior to his reign) describing a battlefield incident in which Marcus believed Christian prayer had saved his army from thirst when "water poured from heaven," after which, "immediately we recognized the presence of God." Marcus goes on to request the senate desist from earlier courses of Christian persecution by Rome. [306]

Marcus and his cousin-wife Faustina had at least 13 children during their 30-year marriage, [126] [307] including two sets of twins. [126] [308] One son and four daughters outlived their father. [309] Their children included:

  • Domitia Faustina (147–151) [126][138][310]
  • Titus Aelius Antoninus (149) [129][308][311]
  • Titus Aelius Aurelius (149) [129][308][311] (150 [132][310] –182 [312] ), married her father's co-ruler Lucius Verus, [138] then Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, had issue from both marriages (born 151), [134] married Gnaeus Claudius Severus, had a son
  • Tiberius Aelius Antoninus (born 152, died before 156) [134]
  • Unknown child (died before 158) [136] (born 159 [310][136] ), [138] married Marcus Peducaeus Plautius Quintillus, had issue (born 160 [310][136] ), [138] married Marcus Petronius Sura Mamertinus, had a son
  • Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus (161–165), elder twin brother of Commodus [311] (Commodus) (161–192), [313] twin brother of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, later emperor, [311][314] married Bruttia Crispina, no issue (162 [260] –169 [307][315] ) [138]
  • Hadrianus [138] (170 [311] – died before 217 [316] ), [138] married Lucius Antistius Burrus, no issue

Except where otherwise noted, the notes below indicate that an individual's parentage is as shown in the above family tree.

  1. ^ Sister of Trajan's father: Giacosa (1977), p. 7.
  2. ^ Giacosa (1977), p. 8.
  3. ^ ab Levick (2014), p. 161.
  4. ^ Husband of Ulpia Marciana: Levick (2014), p. 161.
  5. ^ ab Giacosa (1977), p. 7.
  6. ^ abcDIR contributor (Herbert W. Benario, 2000), "Hadrian".
  7. ^ ab Giacosa (1977), p. 9.
  8. ^ Husband of Salonia Matidia: Levick (2014), p. 161.
  9. ^ Smith (1870), "Julius Servianus". [dead link]
  10. ^ Suetonius a possible lover of Sabina: One interpretation of HA Hadrianus11:3
  11. ^ Smith (1870), "Hadrian", pp. 319–322. [dead link]
  12. ^ Lover of Hadrian: Lambert (1984), p. 99 and passim deification: Lamber (1984), pp. 2–5, etc.
  13. ^ Julia Balbilla a possible lover of Sabina: A. R. Birley (1997), Hadrian, the Restless Emperor, p. 251, cited in Levick (2014), p. 30, who is sceptical of this suggestion.
  14. ^ Husband of Rupilia Faustina: Levick (2014), p. 163.
  15. ^ abcd Levick (2014), p. 163.
  16. ^ abcd Levick (2014), p. 162.
  17. ^ abcdefg Levick (2014), p. 164.
  18. ^ Wife of M. Annius Verus: Giacosa (1977), p. 10.
  19. ^ Wife of M. Annius Libo: Levick (2014), p. 163.
  20. ^ abcde Giacosa (1977), p. 10.
  21. ^ The epitomator of Cassius Dio (72.22) gives the story that Faustina the Elder promised to marry Avidius Cassius. This is also echoed in HA"Marcus Aurelius" 24.
  22. ^ Husband of Ceionia Fabia: Levick (2014), p. 164.
  23. ^ abc Levick (2014), p. 117.
  • DIR contributors (2000). "De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and Their Families" . Retrieved 14 April 2015 .
  • Giacosa, Giorgio (1977). Women of the Caesars: Their Lives and Portraits on Coins. Translated by R. Ross Holloway. Milan: Edizioni Arte e Moneta. ISBN0-8390-0193-2 .
  • Lambert, Royston (1984). Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. New York: Viking. ISBN0-670-15708-2 .
  • Levick, Barbara (2014). Faustina I and II: Imperial Women of the Golden Age. Oxford University Press. ISBN978-0-19-537941-9 .
  • William Smith, ed. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.

While on campaign between 170 and 180, Marcus wrote his Meditations in Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. The original title of this work, if it had one, is unknown. 'Meditations' – as well as other titles including 'To Himself' – were adopted later. He had a logical mind and his notes were representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Meditations is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty. According to Hays, the book was a favourite of Christina of Sweden, Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and Goethe, and is admired by modern figures such as Wen Jiabao and Bill Clinton. [317] It has been considered by many commentators to be one of the greatest works of philosophy. [318]

It is not known how widely Marcus's writings were circulated after his death. There are stray references in the ancient literature to the popularity of his precepts, and Julian the Apostate was well aware of his reputation as a philosopher, though he does not specifically mention Meditations. [319] It survived in the scholarly traditions of the Eastern Church and the first surviving quotes of the book, as well as the first known reference of it by name ('Marcus's writings to himself') are from Arethas of Caesarea in the 10th century and in the Byzantine Suda (perhaps inserted by Arethas himself). It was first published in 1558 in Zurich by Wilhelm Xylander (ne Holzmann), from a manuscript reportedly lost shortly afterwards. [320] The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy is in the Vatican library and dates to the 14th century. [321]

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome is the only Roman equestrian statue which has survived into the modern period. [323] This may be due to it being wrongly identified during the Middle Ages as a depiction of the Christian emperor Constantine the Great, and spared the destruction which statues of pagan figures suffered. Crafted of bronze in circa 175, it stands 11.6 ft (3.5 m) and is now located in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. The emperor's hand is outstretched in an act of clemency offered to a bested enemy, while his weary facial expression due to the stress of leading Rome into nearly constant battles perhaps represents a break with the classical tradition of sculpture. [324]

A close up view of the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museums

A full view of the equestrian statue

Marcus's victory column, established in Rome either in his last few years of life or after his reign and completed in 193, was built to commemorate his victory over the Sarmatians and Germanic tribes in 176. A spiral of carved reliefs wraps around the column, showing scenes from his military campaigns. A statue of Marcus had stood atop the column but disappeared during the Middle Ages. It was replaced with a statue of Saint Paul in 1589 by Pope Sixtus V. [325] The column of Marcus and the column of Trajan are often compared by scholars given how they are both Doric in style, had a pedestal at the base, had sculpted friezes depicting their respective military victories, and a statue on top. [326]

The Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna. The five horizontal slits allow light into the internal spiral staircase.

The column, right, in the background of Panini's painting of the Palazzo Montecitorio, with the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius in the right foreground (1747)