Marcus Aurelius


Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus 161- 180

Being forced by the senate to assume the government of the state after the death of the Deified Pius, Marcus made his brother his colleague in the empire, giving him the name Lucius Aurelius Verus Commodus and bestowing on him the titles Caesar and Augustus. They began to rule the state on equal terms, and then it was that the Roman Empire first had two emperors, when he shared with another the empire left to him. Historia Augusta Life of Marcus VII

Thus, with one minor inaccuracy (for Verus dropped the name Commodus on his accession), does the imperial biographer describe the joint rule of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. In the event, it was a partnership which survived only until the latter’s death in 1 69, a period of less than eight years. The device of shared rule, however, was destined to become a regular feature of imperial government in the troubled later centuries of the Roman Empire.

The reign of Marcus Aurelius was marked by bitter and near-continuous warfare, first on the eastern, then on the northern frontier, exacerbated by plague, invasion and insurrection. The sequence of calamities is reflected in the bleak stoicism of Marcus’s Meditations. These, the bedside jottings of a philosopher-king, forced by his imperial destiny to spend most of his energies campaigning on the Danube, are dominated by thoughts of death and the transitoriness of human experience. Rarely do we get such an insight into an emperor’s true character as the glimpse which these writings provide. They are not the work of a happy man, but they testify to a certain grandeur of spirit. Indeed, historians such as Cassius Dio made Marcus Aurelius a model for later generations: ‘In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power.’

Marcus Aurelius spent a longer apprenticeship than any previous emperor since Tiberius. He was born Marcus Annius Verus into a family originally from Ucubi, near Corduba, in the south Spanish province of Baetica. Their wealth may have derived from olive oil, and they prospered politically, too. Both Marcus’s grandfathers became consul, and his father’s sister, Annia Galeria Faustina, married Antoninus Pius. This was a distinguished ancestry by any account, but Marcus’s early years were passed without any intimation of what was to come. He was born at Rome on 26 April 121, in his mother’s garden villa on the Caelian Hill. Little is known of Marcus’s father, another Marcus Annius Verus, save that he died relatively young, probably when Marcus was only three years old. The boy was then adopted by his grandfather, the thrice consul Marcus Annius Verus, and spent most of his childhood in his grandfather’s palatial residence on the Lateran.

The inexplicable feature of these early years is the way Marcus so soon caught the attention of the reigning emperor Hadrian. They may have been related but there is no clear evidence. The Historia Augusta tells us: ‘He was reared under the eye of Hadrian, who called him Verissimus, and did him the honour of enrolling him in the equestrian order when he was six years old.’ Ten years later, in 1 36, he was betrothed at Hadrian’s wish to Ceionia Fabia, the daughter of Lucius Ceionius Commodus. Within a few months Commodus had been adopted by the emperor as his son and chosen successor. As son-in-law of the heir-apparent, Marcus was rocketed into the forefront of Roman political life.

New arrangements were made when Commodus died and Antoninus became the chosen successor. As part of the plan, Antoninus adopted Marcus along with Commodus’s orphaned son, also named Lucius Ceionius Commodus. The ceremony took place on 25 February 138, when Marcus was 16 and his new adoptive brother seven.

The able lieutenant

Marcus became deeply attached to Antoninus, and quickly began to assume a share in the burdens of office. In 139 he was given the title ‘Caesar’, and the following year became consul at the age of 18. It was a peaceful partnership: ‘For three and twenty years Marcus conducted himself in his [adoptive] father’s home in such a manner that Pius felt more affection for him day by day, and never in all these years, save for two nights on different occasions, remained away from him . ‘One of Antoninus’s first acts was to break off Marcus’s earlier engagement to Ceionia Fabia and betroth him instead to his own daughter, Annia Galeria Faustina the younger. The wedding took place in April or May 145. Faustina was to bear no fewer than 14 children for Marcus during their 31 years of marriage.

Lucius Ceionius Commodus meanwhile was receiving less rapid advancement. Born at Rome 15 December 130, he was several years younger than Marcus, too young to occupy any of the senior positions during the early part of Antoninus’s reign. There is no doubt, however, which of the two the emperor most favoured. Whereas Marcus was appointed consul at the age of 18, Lucius had to wait until he was 24. Furthermore, in betrothing Faustina to Marcus, Antoninus broke off her earlier engagement to Lucius. This early experience was to cast a shadow over later relations between the two adoptive brothers.

The dual succession

The death of Antoninus Pius on 7 March 161 may have been expected for some months. Marcus Aurelius had already arranged that he and Lucius Verus hold the consulate jointly that year. Antoninus seems to have had no intention of placing the two on an equal footing, but that was what Marcus did immediately after his death. Marcus himself adopted the usual imperial titles ‘ Augustus’ and ‘Pontifex Maximus’, and took the additional name ‘Antoninus’ out of respect for his predecessor. At the same time he prevailed upon the senate to confer upon Lucius also the imperial titles ‘Caesar’ and ‘ Augustus’. For some reason he also gave Lucius the name ‘Verus’, which had been part of Marcus’s own family name. Finally, the two were jointly acclaimed ‘Imperator’ by the Praetorian Guard, and coins were issued bearing the proclamation ‘Concordia Augustorum’, the ‘Harmony of the Emperors’.

It may have been the desire to have time for his philosophical pursuits which persuaded Marcus to elevate Verus to the status of joint ruler. If so, the respite was short-lived. For the peaceful opening to the reign was soon broken by flood and famine at Rome itself, then by serious trouble on the eastern frontier.

The Parthian War

Whether through adept diplomacy or simple good fortune, Antoninus Pius had managed to avoid major warfare throughout his long reign. By contrast, there were scarcely four of Marcus’s 20 years of reign without fierce fighting on either the northern or eastern frontier. The Parthian War arose out of a long-standing quarrel over control of Armenia, which Trajan had made a Roman protectorate. In 1 6 1 the Parthians hit back, expelling the pro-Roman ruler of Armenia, installing their own nominee, and defeating the four-legion garrison of Syria. The crisis called for determined action, and the emperors decided that Verus must travel east to direct operations in person.

Verus and his staff arrived in Syria in 162. The following year, the Roman forces entered Armenia and captured the capital, Artaxata, installing a Roman puppet-king. Meanwhile another general, Avidius Cassius, was operating on the Mesopotamian front. In 165 Cassius captured the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and destroyed the palace of the Parthian king. It was a notable success, but one for which Verus himself was given little credit. The work was done by his generals, it was said, while the emperor was enjoying himself in the garden suburb of Daphne (outside Antioch) or wintering on the Mediterranean coast. He was also criticized for taking up with Panthea, a lady from Smyrna renowned for her beauty. He even shaved off part of his beard to satisfy her whim.

No one could deny, however, that the Parthian War had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The troops returned from the east in 166, and in October of that year a magnificent triumph was celebrated at Rome. To his credit, Verus insisted that Marcus share the triumph with him, and accept the official titles ‘Armeniacus’, ‘Parthicus Maximus’ and ‘Medicus’. It was in fact the first triumph to be celebrated for almost 50 years, since Trajan’s famous victories in the east.

Plague and invasion

As luck would have it, along with the Parthian spoils, the soldiers returning from the east had also brought the plague. This broke out in full scale epidemic with devastating effect in 167. Rome, as a major centre of population, was especially badly affected. It was the first outbreak of its kind for several centuries, and was still raging at Rome over la years later, recurring in the reign of Commodus.

Alongside disease the emperors had to confront a new danger from Germanic invaders on the Danube frontier. A first attack in 166 or early 167 was driven off by the local commander, but further invasions followed, and stronger measures were needed. Together the two emperors left Rome for the north in the spring of 168, but arrived at Aquileia to find most of the fighting over, and the Germanic war-bands already in retreat. Verus was all for returning to Rome, but Marcus insisted that they press on over the Alps. After settling the situation in the frontier provinces they retired to Aquileia for the winter. Early next spring they were travelling south in a carriage when Verus suffered a stroke. Unable to speak, he was taken to Altinum, a small town on the north side of the Venetian lagoon, where he died three days later. Verus’s body was taken back to Rome and laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, along with his true father, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, and his adoptive father Antoninus Pius.

Marcus Aurelius did not long remain in Rome, but by the end of 169 was back campaigning in the north. He spent the next five years fighting against the Quadi and Marcomanni, Germanic peoples living north of the middle Danube. In 170 these peoples broke through the frontier and invaded northern Italy, laying siege to Aquileia. It was only towards the end of 171 that the Roman forces began to gain the upper hand, but the fighting was protracted and the conditions harsh. One battle was fought in the depth of winter on the frozen surface of the Danube, another in baking summer on the plains of Hungary, where the legions were pushed to the brink by heat and thirst. Throughout these campaigns, however, Marcus continued to find time for the ordinary practice of government, hearing law-suits and settling the business of the empire. It was also during these years that he began to write the Meditations, the first book is subscribed ‘ Among the Quadi, on the River Gran’.

The revolt of Cassius

Marcus was still heavily engaged on the Danube when news reached him in spring 175 of a revolt in the east. The leader of the revolt was Gaius Avidius Cassius, governor of Syria, a man who had taken a prominent part in the Parthian War under Lucius Verus. Marcus held him in high regard, and had given him command of the east while he himself was campaigning against the Germans.

The whole episode seems indeed to have been a tragic error, stemming from a false rumour that Marcus was dead. Had that been true it would have led at once to a power struggle, since Marcus’s son Commodus was only 13 at the time. The empire might well have devolved instead upon Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a distinguished senator who had married Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla, Marcus’s eldest surviving daughter and the widow of Lucius Verus. The empress Faustina, however, had entered into conspiracy with Avidius Cassius. It is unlikely that Avidius Cassius had any intention of deposing Marcus Aurelius, but once he had been proclaimed emperor by the troops there was no turning back. At first, things went well for him. He was Alexandrian by birth, and the eastern provinces supported him with enthusiasm. By the beginning of May, Egypt and Alexandria had come over to his side. But there the dream ended, and just as he was setting out for Rome, Avidius Cassius was assassinated by soldiers loyal to Marcus.

Final years

The emperor was careful not to mount a witch-hunt, aware perhaps of Cassius’s mistaken motives and the involvement of Faustina. He nonetheless took measures to avoid any future attempt at revolt. Commodus was proclaimed heir-apparent, and Marcus and he set out to tour the rebellious eastern provinces. When they eventually returned to Rome in the autumn of 176, Marcus had been absent from the capital for almost eight years. On 23 December they celebrated a belated triumph for the German victories, which were further commemorated by the Aurelian Column, carved with a spiralling frieze in the manner of Trajan’s Column half a century earlier.

But the war in the north was not finished, and on 3 August 1 78 Marcus and Commodus set out once more for the Danube frontier. The year 179 saw a vigorous campaign against the Quadi, but by 180 Marcus was seriously ill. He had been intermittently unwell for several years with stomach and chest troubles, and cancer is one possibility. Cassius Dio tells us ‘it was never his practice to eat during the daytime, unless it was some of the drug called theriac. This drug he took, not so much because he feared anything, as because his stomach and chest were in bad condition; and it is reported that this practice enabled him to endure both this and other maladies.’ Theriac contained opium, and the failing Marcus Aurelius may well have been a drug addict.

The final illness lasted only a week. Dying, he berated his friends for their emotion: ‘Why do you weep for me, instead of thinking about the plague, and about death which is the common lot of us all? ‘Marcus Aurelius died near Sirmium, on 1 7 March 180. The body was buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. The senate pronounced deification; and though the northern wars were broken off, and the provinces which he had hoped to establish abandoned, his legacy survived in the Meditations, the musings of a stoic prince. The final word may be left to Cassius Dio: ‘He 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.’


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