Marcus Aurelius

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman emperor (r. 161-180 c.e.){$I[g]Roman Empire;Marcus Aurelius} Although renowned as the last of Rome’s “good emperors,” Marcus Aurelius is also remembered for his simply written private notes that reflect the emperor’s daily efforts to achieve the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king and are the last great literary statement of Stoicism.

Early Life

Marcus Aurelius (MAHR-kuhs oh-REHL-yuhs) Antoninus was born Marcus Annius Verus in Rome. His father was Annius Verus, a magistrate, and his mother was Domitia Calvilla, also known as Lucilla. The emperor Antoninus Pius was, by virtue of his marriage to Annia Galeria Faustina, the sister of Annius Verus, the boy’s uncle. The emperor, who had himself been adopted and named successor by Hadrian, eventually adopted Marcus Annius Verus. The young man then took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. The name Aelius came from Hadrian’s family, and Aurelius was the name of Antoninus Pius. The young man took the title of Caesar in 139 and, on becoming emperor, replaced his original name of Verus with Antoninus. Hence, he is known to history as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Marcus Aurelius was well brought up and well educated. Later, he would write of what a virtuous man and prudent ruler his uncle and adoptive father had been. To the fine example set by the emperor was added the dedicated teaching of excellent masters. Letters exist that attest the boy’s industry and the great expectations engendered by his performance as a student. He studied eloquence and rhetoric, and he tried his hand at poetry. He was also trained in the law as a preparation for high office. Above all, Marcus Aurelius’s interest was in philosophy. When only eleven years of age, he adopted the plain, coarse dress of the philosophers and undertook a spartan regimen of hard study and self-denial. In fact, he drove himself so relentlessly that for a time his health was affected. He was influenced by Stoicism, a sect founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium in the fourth century b.c.e.

Life’s Work

Antoninus Pius became emperor on the death of Hadrian in July, 138. He adopted not only Marcus Aurelius but also Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who came to be called Lucius Aurelius Verus. The adoptive brothers could scarcely have been more different. Verus was destined to rule alongside Marcus Aurelius for a time, despite his manifest unworthiness. He was an indolent, pleasure-loving man, whereas Marcus Aurelius was proving himself worthy of more and more responsibility. The year 146 was a highly significant one, for it was at about that time that Antoninus Pius began to share with him the government of the Empire. Further, the emperor gave him Faustina, his daughter and the young man’s cousin, in marriage. A daughter was born to Marcus Aurelius and Faustina in 147.

At the death of Antoninus Pius in March, 161, the senate asked Marcus Aurelius to assume sole governance of the Empire. However, he chose to rule jointly with Verus, the other adopted son. For the first time in its history, Rome had two emperors. Apparently, and fortunately for the Empire, Verus was not blind to his inadequacies. He deferred to Marcus Aurelius, who was in turn tolerant of him. Marcus Aurelius cemented their relationship by giving his daughter Lucilla to Verus as wife. That their joint rule lasted for eight years was really a credit to them both.

The first major problem to be faced by the joint rulers was the war with Parthia. Verus was sent to command the Roman forces but proved ineffectual. Fortunately, his generals were able, thus achieving victories in Armenia and along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The war was concluded in 165, but as soon as Marcus Aurelius and Verus received their triumph—a huge public ceremony honoring the victors in war—Rome was struck by a virulent pestilence. As the plague spread throughout Italy and beyond, the loss of life was great.

At this time, barbarians from beyond the Alps were threatening to invade northern Italy. Although Marcus Aurelius was able to contain them, they would periodically renew their efforts. For the rest of the emperor’s life, much of his time and effort was spent in holding these warlike people at bay.

Verus died suddenly in 169, and Marcus Aurelius became the sole emperor of Rome. His reign continued as it had begun, beset by difficulties on every front. He was almost constantly in the field, campaigning against one enemy or another. He was on the Danube River for three years, prosecuting the German wars, and by 174 he had gained a series of impressive victories.

In 175, Avidius Cassius, who commanded the Roman legions in Asia, led a...

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Marcus Aurelius

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Marcus Aurelius successfully defended the Roman Empire despite ongoing attacks on all fronts. Although he did little to change the organization of the Roman army, he exemplified Roman generalship.

Marcus Aurelius, born Marcus Aurelius Verus, is considered one of the great soldier-emperors of Rome and the last great stoic writer in antiquity. Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180, his strategy was to clear the enemy from the provinces behind the empire’s frontiers, stabilize the frontiers, then press into barbarian lands. He demonstrated the usefulness of a mobile force when he assembled the best troops from around the empire to help defend depleted frontier garrisons.

The Parthian War (162-165) began when Vologases III of Parthia invaded Syria. Marcus Aurelius stayed in Antioch while Avidius Cassius defeated the Parthians and occupied Armenia and Mesopotamia. Roman troops returned from the campaign with the plague, which ravaged the empire from 166 to 167.

In 166-180, a series of wars, including the Marcomannic Wars (166-173, 173-180), were fought on the Danube frontier. The Marcomanni, Langobardi, and Quadi tribes crossed the Danube into what became modern Austria, and Teutons crossed the Alps into Italy and reached Verona. Marcus Aurelius subdued the Marcomanni by 171 and allowed many members of the group to settle lands depopulated by the plague. The Quadi and other tribes were defeated by 174.

In approximately 174, the Sarmatians crossed the lower Danube into Moesia, and further unrest broke out along the Danube in Germany. Marcus Aurelius marched on Germany and sent subordinates to deal with Moesia. He then marched on Syria to defeat the revolt of legate Avidius Cassius in 175. In 179, he returned to successfully defend the Danube frontier with his son Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus. He died the following year.

Further Reading:

Birley, Anthony Richard. Marcus Aurelius. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Rutherford, R. B. The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.