Roman Emperor - Marcus Aurelius
121 - 180 AD
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus born in Rome in 121 AD, was the son of a patrician family, his father, Annius Verus, who was of Spanish extraction, had been elevated to patrician rank by Vespasian.
Marcus Aurelius was groomed for public office from his youth by the emperor Hadrian and received a thorough education in Greek literature and philosophy. Educated privately by the rhetoricians Herodes Atticus and Marcus Cornelius Fronto, he abandoned the study of literature (circa 146) for that of philosophy and law under the Stoics Rusticus and Maecianus respectively. Stoicism, in fact, tempered by a naturally gentle disposition, remained the dominant influence of his life.
He was adopted by Antoninus Pius on the suggestion of the dying Emperor Hadrian, who apparently intended either 17-year-old Marcus or young Lucius Ceionius Commodus (better known as Lucius Aurelius Verus), also adopted by Antoninus, to become emperor within a few years on the assumption that middle-aged Antoninus would not live long. Antoninus, however, confounded these plans by living and ruling for over 20 years. Marcus did not, therefore, succeed until he was 40 and on his accession insisted that Verus be named co-emperor.
Aurelius' Meditations, a series of observations on the conduct of the moral life, is an outstanding work in the Stoic philosophical tradition. According to Aurelius, the cultivation of four chief virtues, wisdom, justice, fortitude, and moderation, leads to the truly moral life, the goal of which is a serene state of mind.
His administration from the first was beset with difficulties. War, pestilence, and famine occurred to tax the spirit of the new emperor who, however, met all such disasters with the fortitude and courage born of his early acquaintance with the tenets of the Stoic philosophers. The joint reign of Marcus and Verus began with troubles on the eastern frontier, Rome's long-time enemy Parthia invaded the buffer state of Armenia and broke into Syria, inflicting great losses on Roman troops and garrisons. Under Avidius Cassius, the Romans re-established their influence in Armenia and went on to capture the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. However, sickness forced the Romans to retreat, and the Parthians regained the advantage. The returning Roman soldiers brought back a plague that ravaged the empire.
His entire reign was a struggle to protect the Roman frontiers. During the year 167-68 Marcus Aurelius and Verus were engaged in hostilities against the Marcomanni in Noricum and Pannonia. In 169 Verus died; the Marcomanni resumed hostilities, and were not driven from Pannonia until 172. During these three years Marcus Aurelius had his headquarters at Carnuntum, and in 174 he won the victory of 'the thundering legion' over the Quadi.
A false rumour of the death of Marcus in 175 led Avidius Cassius (who held the real command in the Parthian war) to proclaim himself emperor.
Believing a rumour that Marcus Aurelius had died on the Danube, the commander in chief of the armies and provinces of the eastern Mediterranean, marched on Italy to seize Commodus, Marcus Aurelius' son and heir.
Once the rumour was disproved, Cassius was killed by one of his own officers.
Marcus Aurelius returned to Italy by way of Athens, where he did much to foster the intellectual life of the city, and celebrated a triumph at Rome in 176. It is uncertain what part, Marcus Aurelius played in the persecution of Christians which occurred in 177. In this latter year he once more took the field against the Germans. His efforts were on the whole successful, but he fell ill and died in Vindobona (now Vienna, Austria) died in 180 AD before achieving final victory. His otherwise successful reign was marred by the choice of his son Commodus to succeed him.
Aurelius followed a wise domestic policy and improved the welfare of his people. He endowed schools, hospitals, and orphanages, increased civil liberties, abolished cruel criminal laws, and determined that men were chosen for public service according to merit rather than social position.
Marcus is one of the few Roman emperors to have left a record of his thoughts and beliefs. His Meditations reveals his leanings towards Stoicism with its ideal of service to the state. These concepts allowed the reflective, philosophic Marcus to rule the empire ably although not willingly. It is ironic that through most of his reign he was involved in war when, by temperament and learning, he was a man of peace.