Who is Marcus Aurelius?
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was a Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE, deemed as the best of the last Five Good Emperors of Rome, that is, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and his predecessor Antoninus Pius for after his reign, civil war descended upon the generations of the West.
His reputation precedes him as a ruler under the guidance of wisdom and virtue, isolating him from other rulers, before and after his reign, led by lusts for wealth and power. Being the most powerful man in the world as his position bestowed upon him, historians consider him worthy of his position as he sought power to help his people.
He represented the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, an age of peace and stability. It is however ironic that his reign was characterized by ceaseless warfare and the persecution of a new religious denomination of Christianity.
Marcus was a renowned philosopher characterized by Stoicism and popularly known for his Meditations – notes on the troubling day-to-day political thoughts he experienced during his challenging reign.
Birth and Origin
Originally known as Marcus Annius Verus, he was born on April 26, 121 CE in Rome, Italy during the reign of Hadrian. He was born in a prominent Roman family for his grandfather and great-grandfather from his paternal side were senators and his mother, Domitia Lucilla, was also from a wealthy and politically connected family. His father’s demise – 124 CE – left him to be raised by nurses and his grandfathers.
His teacher, Diognetus, introduced him to philosophical texts in his early teenage years. He was highly impressed by the Cynic lifestyle displayed to him and is likely to have adopted the approach in his works. He was later introduced to other tutors but his mother banished him from his philosophical ventures and encouraged him to focus on more worthy activities that would later influence his career. Nonetheless, little is known from his childhood but he was a young man who took pleasure in wrestling, boxing, and hunting.
Rise to Power
Marcus’ father’s sister, Faustina, was married to a man destined to become the next Roman Emperor known as Commodus for unknown reasons. As Hadrian approached death and was childless, he had to choose his successor. In 136 CE, Hadrian selected Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor to sit in the place Aurelius, who was recently engaged to Commodus’s daughter, Ceionia Fabia.
However, Commodus died in 138 CE and Hadrian adopted Aurelius Antoninus, who was a senator, to succeed him. Antoninus was also childless and had to adopt Marcus and Commodus’ son, Lucious Verus following Hadrian’s condition. This was when Marcus’ name changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Verus. It was therefore obvious that Marcus was next in line as emperor.
Antoninus Pius groomed Marcus in every aspect of becoming a coherent ruler – but neglected to teach him military affairs. He had the privilege of studying under Herodes Articus, a rhetorician from Athens, and his Latin instructor, Cornelius Fronto. He was intelligent, studious, and serious-minded while his adopted brother was extravagant and indulgent.
Antonius demise led to the end of his rule in 161 CE and had Marcus appointed as the Emperor of the Roman Empire. He co-ruled with his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, as Marcus had declined the honor unless Lucius was to co-emperor with him.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Both Marcus and Lucius set off their reign by instigating programs to aid the poor and reinforcing great honor to the military as well as rewarding them with increased pay. The boosted the economy by debasing their currency – though only for a short while – encouraged the freedom of speech, and sponsored arts and education. In a short while, they gained popularity among the people of the West.
Marcus spent much of his time solving disputes and gearing petitions. He took great preference in legislative works and jurists often called him ‘an emperor most skilled in the law’. His major areas of interest were; servitude – the manumission of slaves, choice of city councilors, and the guardianship of minors and orphans as well.
He respected the law, even though he was above it. He also showed great respect to the Roman Senate and often sought a permit for the use of funds even though he need not to do it.
However, most of the government serious works were conducted ad headed by Marcus. It is rather unfortunate that this work was done amidst challenges such as military crises and plagues.
War with Parthia (161 – 166 CE)
Also called the Parthian War of Lucius Verus, it was fought between the Roman and Parthian Empires and involve Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia.
In 161 on Emperor Antoninus’ deathbed, he spoke to Marcus about his political foes – kings who would jeopardize the state of his empire. One of them was Vologases IV of Parthia who, as Antoninus had predicted, launched an attack on the empire in the early autumn of 161. Vologases invaded the Kingdom of Armenia, ousted its king from power, and appointed Pacorus who was an Arsacid like himself. During the eviction, Lucius Attidius Corneliunus, the governor of Syria, was retained past his term to keep the Parthians from overthrowing this replacement.
Their front-line warrior, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, the governor of Cappadocia, was located in the east, far from the Empire. A prophet named Alexander who carried a snake named Glycon with him convinced Severianus than he could conquer the Parthians and win glory for himself.
Severianus, therefore, led a troop into Armenia but was trapped by the general of Parthian. Upon yielding, he committed suicide and his troop was massacred. On receiving the bad news, Marcus made the necessary arrangements to have Marcus Statius Priscus replace Severianus.
A rebellion broke out in Syria in the winter of 161-62 and a decision to have Lucius direct the Parthian war was reached by the senate. He was deemed stronger and healthier than Marcus and would then be most suited for military activity.
Lucius’ convoy consisted of a praetorian prefect, a pair of senators, and a detachment of the praetorian guard. He also brought along his favorite freedmen. On his voyage, he fell ill with a mild stroke at Canosa and took to bed. Marcus, who had followed him as far as Capua, made prayers to the gods and hurried east to see him.
Once he recovered, Lucius proceeded eastward and led his legions against the Parthians. He was victorious, capturing the Armenian capital, Artaxata. Upon his return, he was awarded a triumph and a celebration of both emperor’s families. Marcus later proclaimed two of his sons, Annius and Commodus, as his rightful heirs.
War with the German tribes (166 – 180 CE)
Also known as Marcomannic wars, these were a series of wars ranging over a dozen years, starting 166 to 180 AD. These wars involved the Roman Empires and the Germanic Marcomanni, the Quadi, and the Sarmatian lazyges. There were also regular conflicts from other barbarian tribes from both sides of the whole length of the Roman Empire’s northeastern European border. These wars occupied the major part of Marcus Aurelius’ reign.
The condition in the northeastern frontiers was seemed grave as all people of central and northern Europe were in turmoil. The officials were corrupt and took bribes and nepotism was highly practiced in political positions for accomplished governors were replaced by friends and relatives of the royal family.
The beginning of 162 through 165 saw the repulsion of the Chatti and Chauci invasion from the provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior. In the late 166 and early 167, 6000 invaders of Langobardi and Lacringi captured Pannonia. Luckily, local troops vanquished this invasion with ease but marked this the beginning of greater warfare.
Following this victory, a truce, that saw the Marcomannic king Ballomar as the mediator, was agreed upon with 11 tribes which withdrew from the Roman territory. These negotiations were instigated by the military governor of Pannonia, Marcus Iallius Bassus.
In 168, a plague ravaged the empire and not much could be done. Marcus and Lucius Verus set out for Rome and established headquarters at Aquileia. They reorganized Italy’s and Illyricum’s defense, formed two new legions, and crossed the Alps into Pannonia. By then, the Marcomanni and Victuali had crossed the river Danube into the province. However, the march of the imperial army to Carnuntum was sufficient to persuade them to withdraw.
The two emperors headed back to Aquileia but on the way, in the winter of January 169, Lucius succumbed to death. Marcus returned to Rome to bury his co-emperor. He then set out with his son-in-law, Claudius Pompeianus, and their legions to subdue the independent tribes who lived between the Danube and the province of Dacia. But the lazyges seized the throne and killed the Roman governor of Lower Moesia.
At the end of 171, Marcus had dispatched the forces against Ballomar and formed a new military command to safeguard the roads into Italy and strengthened the Danubian legions. Also, Aquileia was repulsed and invaders of the Roman territory evicted.
In 172, the Romans invaded the Marcomannic territory and defeated the Marcomanni and their allies, the Cotini and the Naristi or Varistae.
In 173, the ravaged the Quadi for breaking their treaty and allying with the enemy. However, the Quadi rebelled by expelling their Roman king, Furtius, and appointing their own, Ariogaesus who was rejected by Marcus and exiled in Alexandria. They fully subjugate the Quadi by the end of 174.
Afterward, the Romans pursued the lazyges and defeated some while others opted for a treaty. In nearly 8 years, the emperor returned to Rome and celebrated the victory with his son, Commodus.
Outbreak of plague
The Antonine plague started at the end of Lucius campaign against the Parthians in 165 and 166, in Mesopotamia. It was characterized by fever, diarrhea, inflammation of the pharynx, and dry or pustular eruption of the skin after nine days.
The plague was considered to be smallpox and may have extended to the reign of Commodus. As the Romans developed their trade with the Han empire of China, as they started a new era of the Roman Far East Trade, something more troubling started as well.
It is stated that the plague caused irreversible damage to Roman commercial activities at large. Additionally, archeologists have recorded this plague to have spanned from Egypt to India.
Death and Succession
On March 17, 180, Emperor Marcus Aurelius died at 58 due to natural causes in Vindobona – present-day Vienna. His ashes were immediately returned to Rome and stored in Hadrian’s mausoleum until the Visigoth sack of the city, 410.
Marcus was succeeded by his son, Commodus, named after Caesar. This marked the second time in the history of millennials that a biological son succeeded the emperor.