Marcus Aurelius on Campaign

Marcus Aurelius on Campaign

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Criticisms of Marcus Aurelius from Roman Histories

NB: This is a draft. I’ll tidy it up and make revisions over time, adding some additional content along the way.

When we’re talking about Marcus Aurelius in relation to Stoicism we inevitably focus on ways his life might illustrate Stoic concepts and practices. However, sometimes people object that might lead to idealizing him. Now, it has to be said that overall the surviving histories do paint a consistently very admiring picture of Marcus’ personal character, and we can find many pieces of circumstantial evidence to support the view of him as a good emperor and a good Stoic. However, there are many criticisms of Marcus to be found in the ancient sources. So for the sake of balance I wanted to present them here as a “negative” history of Marcus. I’ll keep my comments to a minimum and try to present the claims made, although most of them are questionable, and in some cases I’ll point out additional information that’s relevant.

On Marcus Aurelius and the 'Five Good Emperors'

The 'Five Good Emperors' ruled the Roman Empire between 96 and 180 CE they include Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Edward Gibbon claimed that this era was a 'golden age of mankind', and perhaps it was - if one is content to ignore the hundreds of thousands of slaves and poor laborers across the Empire.

What actually made these emperors "good"? The most simplistic answer is that they weren't Domitian. Nerva was the successor to the last Flavian, a paranoid and unattractive personality who had become profoundly unpopular with the Senate. All five of these emperors seem to have enjoyed predominately cordial relationships with the Senate and ruling families of Rome, and this must have a lot of influence on their favorable portray in contemporary sources. Only Hadrian seems to have gotten mixed reviews from the Senators.

Nerva was a dry, sickly old man, who may have played a role in the demise of Domitian. Trajan was a military hero both before and after his ascension he was possibly homosexual. It was thanks to his military adventures in Dacia and Mesopotamia that the Empire reached its greatest territorial extent. Hadrian was a Hellenophile with a tempestuous personality, who was one of the few Roman emperors who actually traveled to the distant lands he ruled. Antoninus Pius stands out for having perhaps the most boring, peaceful reign of any emperor.

Yet it was Marcus Aurelius who faced the twin challenges of plague and 'barbarian invasion'. The famous 'Antonine Plague' ravaged the Empire during his reign, decimated the ranks of the legions. He spent most of his reign driving back Germanic and Sarmatian raiding parties, some of which penetrated the borders as far as Ravenna.

On this forum and elsewhere, Marcus Aurelius has been criticized on various grounds. Some have claimed that he spent more time writing philosophy than he did defending his Empire - a claim so ludicrous as to be insulting. Indeed, Marcus opens his famous Meditations by informing us that he was 'on campaign amongst the Quadi'.

Marcus has also been criticized, even mocked for allowing his supposedly degenerate son Commodus to succeed him. We have no favorable or unbiased accounts of Commodus' life and reign however, even if he was as 'bad' as we are told, these negative traits might not have revealed themselves before his ascension. There is little to suggest that he enjoyed a close relationship with his father - who must have been busy and 'stressed' to an extreme throughout his son's youth.

Even if Marcus recognized that his son was unfit to rule the Empire, what was he to do? If Marcus had 'adopted' a successor like his predecessors had, he would have been sowing the seeds of discord. Either the adoptee would execute Commodus, or else there would have been the constant risk of the nobility or the legions proclaiming Commodus as an alternative ruler. Likely enough, Commodus had not yet revealed his bad traits, or else Marcus had neglected to discern them. And again, this is if we assume that Commodus - who managed to keep the Empire in one peace for twelve, long years - was really such a monster.

The Five Good Emperors are alternatively known as the 'Adoptive Emperors', because all of them except Nerva were adopted by their predecessors. It is worth pointing out that these adoptions were not a deliberate policy they occurred simply due to the failure of the previous emperor to produce a male heir. Often overlooked is Lucius Verus (born Lucius Ceionius Commodus), who was adopted by Antoninus along with Marcus in 138. He shared the Empire with Marcus from 161 to 166, and won a series of victories against Parthia. Unfortunately, he became the first prominent victim of the devastating Antonine Plague.

Who is Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled from 161 CE until his death in 180 CE. He was the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, five men who became famous for their leadership of the Roman Empire. In addition to being a unique Roman leader, Marcus Aurelius was also an accomplished historian and Stoic philosopher. His book Meditations continues to be translated into a wide assortment of languages and read today.

Aurelius was born in 121 CE to a prominent Roman family. Because his aunt was the wife of the emperor Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius attracted attention at an early age, and when Hadrian designated Antonius Pius as his successor, he indicated that he expected Pius to adopt Marcus Aurelius as his son, probably in hopes that the boy would live to be the Emperor at some point. In 161, when Marcus Aurelius succeeded to the throne, he insisted on sharing the position with his adopted brother, Lucius Aurelius Verus, who later died while on a military campaign in the East.

The rule of Marcus Aurelius was marked by a number of progressive social reforms, including laws which changed the positions of women and slaves in Roman society, giving them more rights and protections. He also engaged in other progressive political acts, and like the other Five Good Emperors, he had a cordial relationship with the Senate and with Roman society in general. He also spent a great deal of time traveling throughout the Roman Empire, dealing with rising social unrest in the East and from the German tribes this unrest later contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Marcus Aurelius was married to Faustina the Younger, and the two produced 13 children. Unfortunately, as was common during this period, only a handful of these children made it to adulthood, including most notably his son Commodus, who succeeded him on the throne. Little is known about Faustina, except for the fact that she notably accompanied her husband on military campaigns, and she was accused of poisoning people and ordering executions despite these rather unpleasant traits, it would appear that she was very much loved by her husband.

The death of Marcus Aurelius marked a radical shift in Roman society. Uncertain about the succession, Aurelius confirmed that his son should take the throne, in the hopes that a firm decision about an heir would reduce the risk of civil war. However, Commodus turned out to be a poor choice of emperor, displaying the megalomania and questionable strategy exhibited by earlier and often deeply corrupt emperors. With the accession of Commodus, the Pax Romana, a 200 year period of relative peace for Rome, came to an end.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.


Marcus Aurelius Quintillus was the younger brother of Claudius II Gothicus.
He had been left in command of troops in northern Italy, while Claudius II was on campaign against the Goths in the Balkans, to prevent any invasion across the Alps by the Alemanni.

And so at the emperor’s death he was based in Aquileia. No sooner was the news of his brother’s death received, then his troops hailed him emperor. Shortly after the senate confirmed him in this position.

Both the army and the senate appeared reluctant to appoint the more obvious candidate Aurelian, who was understood to be a strict disciplinarian.

There are conflicting views as to whom Claudius II had intended as his successor. On one hand it is suggested that Aurelian, over whom Claudius II had been chosen, was the emperor’s rightful heir. On the other hand it is said that the late emperor had declared that Quintillus, who, unlike himself, had two sons, should be his successor.

Quintillus’ first act of state was to request the senate to deify his late brother. A request which was granted at once by a sincerely mourning assembly.

But in a fatal error, Quintillus remained for some time at Aquileia, not moving immediately to the capital to consolidate his power and gain vital support among the senators and the people.

Before he had chance to make any further mark on the empire, the Goths caused trouble again in the Balkans, laying siege to cities. Aurelian, the fearsome commander on the Lower Danube intervened decisively. At his return to his base at Sirmium his armies alas hailed him emperor. Aurelian, if truthfully or not is unknown, made claim that Claudius II Gothicus had meant him to be the next emperor.

Quintillus’ desperate attempt to contest Aurelian’s claim to the throne lasted only a few days. By the end he was completely abandoned by his soldiers and committed suicide by slitting his wrists (September AD 270).

The exact length of the hapless Quintillus’ reign is unknown. Although varying accounts suggest that it lasted between two or three months and only 17 days.


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 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. [290] Some scholars consider his death to be the end of the Pax Romana. [291]

Marcus was succeeded by his son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and with whom he had jointly ruled since 177. [292] Biological sons of the emperor, if there were any, were considered heirs [293] 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. [292] 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: [294]

[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 [294]

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." [295]

Michael Grant, in The Climax of Rome, writes of Commodus: [296]

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. [296]

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'. [297] [298]

Christians such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Eusebius also gave him the title. [299] 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. [300]

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." [301]

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." [302]

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. [303] 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. [304] 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. [305]

Marcus and his cousin-wife Faustina had at least 13 children during their 30-year marriage, [126] [306] including two sets of twins. [126] [307] One son and four daughters outlived their father. [308] Their children included:

  • Domitia Faustina (147–151) [126][138][309]
  • Titus Aelius Antoninus (149) [129][307][310]
  • Titus Aelius Aurelius (149) [129][307][310] (150 [132][309] –182 [311] ), 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 [309][136] ), [138] married Marcus Peducaeus Plautius Quintillus, had issue (born 160 [309][136] ), [138] married Marcus Petronius Sura Mamertinus, had a son
  • Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus (161–165), elder twin brother of Commodus [310] (Commodus) (161–192), [312] twin brother of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, later emperor, [310][313] married Bruttia Crispina, no issue (162 [260] –169 [306][314] ) [138]
  • Hadrianus [138] (170 [310] – died before 217 [315] ), [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. [316] It has been considered by many commentators to be one of the greatest works of philosophy. [317]

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. [318] 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. [319] The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy is in the Vatican library and dates to the 14th century. [320]

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome is the only Roman equestrian statue which has survived into the modern period. [322] 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. [323]

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. [324] 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. [325]

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)

Youth and apprenticeship

When he was born, his paternal grandfather was already consul for the second time and prefect of Rome, which was the crown of prestige in a senatorial career his father’s sister was married to the man who was destined to become the next emperor and whom he himself would in due time succeed and his maternal grandmother was heiress to one of the most massive of Roman fortunes. Marcus thus was related to several of the most prominent families of the new Roman establishment, which had consolidated its social and political power under the Flavian emperors (69–96), and, indeed, the ethos of that establishment is relevant to his own actions and attitudes. The governing class of the first age of the Roman Empire, the Julio-Claudian, had been little different from that of the late Republic: it was urban Roman (despising outsiders), extravagant, cynical, and amoral. The new establishment, however, was largely of municipal and provincial origin—as were its emperors—cultivating sobriety and good works and turning more and more to piety and religiosity.

The child Marcus was thus clearly destined for social distinction. How he came to the throne, however, remains a mystery. In 136 the emperor Hadrian (reigned 117–138) inexplicably announced as his eventual successor a certain Lucius Ceionius Commodus (henceforth L. Aelius Caesar), and in that same year young Marcus was engaged to Ceionia Fabia, the daughter of Commodus. Early in 138, however, Commodus died, and later, after the death of Hadrian, the engagement was annulled. Hadrian then adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (the husband of Marcus’s aunt) to succeed him as the emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned 138–161), arranging that Antoninus should adopt as his sons two young men—one the son of Commodus and the other Marcus, whose name was then changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. Marcus thus was marked out as a future joint emperor at the age of just under 17, though, as it turned out, he was not to succeed until his 40th year. It is sometimes assumed that in Hadrian’s mind both Commodus and Antoninus Pius were merely to be “place warmers” for one or both of these youths.

The long years of Marcus’s apprenticeship under Antoninus are illuminated by the correspondence between him and his teacher Fronto. Although the main society literary figure of the age, Fronto was a dreary pedant whose blood ran rhetoric, but he must have been less lifeless than he now appears, for there is genuine feeling and real communication in the letters between him and both of the young men. It was to the credit of Marcus, who was intelligent as well as hardworking and serious-minded, that he grew impatient with the unending regime of advanced exercises in Greek and Latin declamation and eagerly embraced the Diatribai (Discourses) of a religious former slave, Epictetus, an important moral philosopher of the Stoic school. Henceforth, it was in philosophy that Marcus was to find his chief intellectual interest as well as his spiritual nourishment.

Meanwhile, there was work enough to do at the side of the untiring Antoninus, with learning the business of government and assuming public roles. Marcus was consul in 140, 145, and 161. In 145 he married his cousin, the emperor’s daughter Annia Galeria Faustina, and in 147 the imperium and tribunicia potestas, the main formal powers of emperorship, were conferred upon him henceforth, he was a kind of junior coemperor, sharing the intimate counsels and crucial decisions of Antoninus. (His adoptive brother, nearly 10 years his junior, was brought into official prominence in due time.) On March 7, 161, at a time when the brothers were jointly consuls (for the third and the second time, respectively), their father died.


The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul, supposedly around 177 AD. The one and only piece of evidence for this incident comes from the Christian historian Eusebius, who quotes a rather odd letter in his Ecclesiastical History, describing the events as follows:

The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded. For with all his might the adversary [Satan] fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever. But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.

And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.’ [Romans 8:18 7]. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch [garrison commander?] and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.

The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that can appear somewhat excessive and colourful. Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.

Moreover, there are several very striking problems faced by those who want to try to use this letter as evidence for the claim that Marcus persecuted Christians:

  1. Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, well over a hundred years after the alleged incident took place. There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was actually written. However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born. He therefore had no first-hand knowledge of them but depended entirely on the account given in the letter cited, the authenticity of which, as we’ll see, is highly doubtful.
  2. Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and dramatic nature. It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident. Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.
  3. The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution. And yet, he makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of this momentous event having happened in his own city. In fact, on the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).
  4. The church father Tertullian, was aged around twenty at the time the incident at Lyon supposedly happened. As we’ll see, although he was actually alive at the time, he also makes no mention of the persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians.
  5. The letter quoted by Eusebius begins by blaming the actions of the mob on “the adversary” or “Evil One”, by which the authors clearly meant Satan. It goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched on the rack, and even raised from the dead. This adds a supernatural or implausible element to the account, which many (if not all) modern readers may find indicative of fabrication or embellishment.
  6. The letter actually concludes by blaming the mob and city of Lyon authorities – it does not attribute personal responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to the Roman Senate. When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
  7. In contrast, we have the surviving text of an Imperial edict from Marcus that provides evidence he actually tried to prevent the persecution of Christians by provincial authorities (see below).
  8. Finally, and bizarrely, Eusebius himself several times admitted that his church history contained deliberate “falsehoods” or pious fraud. He’s often therefore seen as a very unreliable source for this kind of information.

Edward Gibbon, for instance, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, liked to point out that Eusebius admitted employing deliberate misinformation to promote the Christian message. One of Eusebius’ chapter headings was: “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.” The historian Jacob Burckhardt therefore described Eusebius as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to refer to him as a Christian propagandist rather than historian.

In summary, for these and other reasons, Eusebius is considered an extremely unreliable source by many modern scholars. His accounts of Christian martyrdom refer to events several generations before he was even born, as we’ve seen, and are embellished with extravagant details that have the air of fiction about them. For example, persecution is not portrayed as sporadic but inflicted by Satan on myriads of Christians throughout the empire. The scale and severity of this persecution is totally out of keeping with the testimony of other Christian authors alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the general silence about these remarkable events. Moreover, Eusebius includes many supernatural claims that undermine the credibility of his accounts in the eyes of modern readers. For example, he elsewhere states as fact miracles such as that Christian martyrs survived inside the stomachs of lions after being eaten or levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, by the grace of God. As noted above, the letter itself also describes the miraculous healing of grievously wounded martyrs at Lyon, and even their resurrection from death. If we question these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter to take seriously.

Eusebius is also proven to be particularly unreliable with regard to this era of Roman history because, remarkably, at various points he actually confuses Marcus Aurelius both with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, and with his adoptive father Antoninus Pius. That, of course, makes it impossible to take his dating of such events at face value.

Moreover, it is often the case that the documents (letters, etc.) quoted in ancient sources are found unreliable by scholarship because many forgeries circulated then and ancient authors often lacked the resources to authenticate them. Scholars have, in fact, already identified numerous documents quoted in the writings of Eusebius as obvious forgeries. In this particular letter, unusually, no date is given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis Eusebius could have arrived at the conclusion that it was intended to refer to events during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The letter itself only employs the generic title Caesar, for the Emperor. Eusebius may just be guessing the date, and that the Caesar in question is Marcus Aurelius, although frankly it seems likely that the whole letter is a forgery. As noted above, however, this document is the one and only piece of alleged evidence for the persecution at Lyon.

The Plague that Killed the Emperor

Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? Can you take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? Can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? Can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change?” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius seemed destined for greatness from the beginning. Although his father died when he was very young, his family focused a great amount of effort on him, schooling him at home with tutors as was normal for prosperous families at the time.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Emperor of the Roman Empire and plague victim.

The future emperor became immersed in philosophy almost from the beginning of his schooling, a strong forecast of the Stoic philosopher-king he would become. And Marcus Aurelius kept up his habit of learning through his entire life. As an older man he responded to someone asking him where he was going by saying, “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.

Marcus Aurelius’s reign, although marked by plague, war, and persecution of Christians, was looked back upon with great fondness as a golden period in Roman history. No less an eminent historian than Edward Gibbon , who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , described the time as, “…the happiest and most prosperous period.” Nor was that the opinion of someone centuries removed and wearing rose-colored glasses. The historian Herodian, writing directly after Marcus Aurelius’s death, described him thus, “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.

It is interesting that the past and Marcus Aurelius’s reign is viewed in a nearly hagiographical manner by almost all past and present historians, as it was in his reign that the Antonine Plague struck Rome. And the plague was devastating although estimates for the amount of dead vary, none of the numbers are small. At the lowest end, the Antonine Plague killed 10% of Romans. The upper end of death estimates is even more horrifying – up to 30% of the empire succumbed. At the height of the first wave of the plague 2000 people were dying per day in Rome alone.

The Angel of Death Striking a Door in Antonine Plague ravaged Rome

The societal results were staggering. The Roman army, a model of efficiency and efficacy, was decimated. Desperate to make up manpower shortages as the unrest amongst the Gauls on the border took hold, Marcus Aurelius began to lower recruiting standards. He drafted farmers and lower petty bureaucrats, as well as pulling from trained gladiators.

Not only did this affect the actually fighting ability of the Roman forces, it had serious ripple-down effects within Rome itself. Fewer farmers meant that less land was cultivated, leading to shortages of food. Fewer bureaucrats mean that infrastructure was neglected and crime rates rose. Fewer gladiators meant that a nation under intense stress was left without the outlet of entertainment just when they needed it most. And fewer people meant that government revenue declined sharply just when it was needed most to defend the borders of the empire and sponsor programs to blunt the ripple effects the plague was creating.

In short, although the Gibbon’s seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire dates the fall to the Plague of Justinian , it was the Antonine Plague that upended the very foundations of the empire and started the walls to crumbling.

As with the most recent pandemic, the Antonine Plague – thought by most historians to be the emergence of smallpox – most likely came to the Roman Empire from China. It was brought back by the army from engagements in Mesopotamia, and explained by two slightly different stories. In the first one, the Roman general Lucus Verus opened a closed tomb in Seleucia during the sacking of the city, releasing the contagion on the world as a punishment by the gods for violating a vow not to sack the city. In the second story, a Roman soldier opened a golden casket in the Temple of Apollo in Babylon, allowing the plague to escape.

In both instances, the arrival of the plague was seen as a punishment by the gods. Roman society was no stranger to diseases carrying off members of society, but the Antonine Plague roared into their world with a virulence that even they could not process other than to pin the blame on divine anger.

And not only were the numbers of dead staggering, the manner in which they died was terrifying. Within three weeks a victim would go from perfect health to vomiting, black diarrhea, and a disfiguring rash over their entire body. If they survived, and modern analysis of smallpox death rates place the survival figure at around 70%, victims would carry immunity for the rest of their lives. They also likely carried severe scarring, as evidenced by the extreme pockmarks exhibited by no less than the French revolutionary Robespierre scarring so deep it is visible even on his death mask.

The very visible scars from a previous smallpox infection on a twentieth century man.

Fear of the plague was so profound in Roman society that archaeologists working in areas settled during the plague times frequently encounter amulets and prayers meant to ward off the contagion. Archaeology has also confirmed that the death counts were so high that ordinary funeral rights were abandoned in the interest of disposing of bodies as quickly and efficiently as possible.

There is not a lot of information about the Antonine Plague, but not because there were no records kept. The Roman Empire was nothing if not a stickler for paperwork. Other than the descriptions of the physician Galen , most of the records relating to the plague were destroyed in subsequent centuries as wars wracked the Empire from every direction. However, Galen’s descriptions were marvelous bases for epidemiological historians to begin.

There was another interesting consequence of the Antonine Plague: the rise of Christianity. In line with the reaction of many Romans of the day, Marcus Aurelius began a persecution of the Christians. The belief was that, by refusing to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, the Christian community had angered them and brought the divine wrath of the plague down upon the world.

The ampitheater in Carthage, a site of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire.

The difference in this persecution was in the Christian reaction to the plague. Rather than fleeing, as many of their neighbors did, the Christian community stayed put and extended themselves feeding, sheltering, and nursing plague victims. A tremendous amount of goodwill was built amongst the pagan community toward those who served on the front lines of the plague. As well, Christian beliefs in the afterlife and the promise of salvation after death appealed to many pagan Romans during the apocalyptic scenes of death and decay. Conversions to Christianity increased with such rapidity that it became the official religion of the Roman empire less than 150 years after Marcus Aurelius’s death.

So, coming full circle back to Marcus Aurelius, it is perhaps no surprise to anyone that he himself succumbed to the plague while on campaign in March 180. The location of his death is a bit contested – most historians believe he died in what is now Vienna, but there is some indication he may have died in what is now Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia.

And it is a testament to the leadership of this Emperor, the last of the Stoic philosophers, that even though the Roman Empire was being decimated by plague and the fallout from the plague’s effects, his rule is still considered a Roman golden age. Roman citizens, looking back at the bleak times of death, saw it as a time when they came together to develop new ways of forging ahead in the unique challenges the first world pandemic presented.

Perhaps Marcus Aurelius said it best himself, in his journal Meditations, “The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.” Survival during the horrors of the Antonine Plague required iron self control, fortunately modeled for all to see by a Stoic emperor.

The reign of terror of smallpox largely ended where it began. In 1972 the last European outbreak of the disease cropped up in what was then Yugoslavia , 2000 years after the same territories had been a vital center of the plague-ridden Roman Empire. With decisive action, the government of Yugoslavia acted immediately: martial law was declared, hospitals were readied for thousands of victims, and the entire population of Yugoslavia was vaccinated within weeks.

Smallpox vaccine being administered in Yugoslavia during the 1972 outbreak.

It worked. While 175 people were infected and there were 35 deaths, the toll was far less than the best day under the Antonine Plague.

Within eight years, approximately 1700 years after the first smallpox pandemic , the disease was declared completely eradicated from the world.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Apart from sources written about Marcus Aurelius, his own thoughts can be found in one of his works known as The Meditations . This piece of writing is in the form of a personal notebook, and is speculated to have been written whilst the emperor was on a military campaign in central Europe. It was due to this piece of work that Marcus received a reputation as a philosopher. Marcus’ Stoic philosophy can be seen in phrases such as these:

“Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”

“A cucumber is bitter. - Throw it away. - There are briars in the road. - Turn aside from them. - This is enough. Do not add, And why were such things made in the world?”

“But fortunate means that a man has assigned to himself a good fortune: and a good fortune is good disposition of the soul, good emotions, good actions.”

Lucius Verus, Marcus' co-emperor from 161 to Verus' death in 169 (Metropolitan Museum of Art lent by Musée du Louvre). ( CC 1.0 )

Although Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of the greatest Roman emperors, it may be pointed out that it was during his reign that the empire was constantly threatened by external forces, namely the Parthians and the Germanic tribes. The emperor and his generals, however, were mostly able to successfully counter these threats.

However, the emperor’s biggest mistake, perhaps, was the appointment of his son, Commodus, as co-emperor in 177 AD. Commodus became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire when his father died in 180 AD, and is often regarded as a bad emperor. Moreover, his reign is regarded as the end of Rome’s golden age as Commodus failed to follow in his father’s famous footsteps.

Featured image: The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. Photo source: Public Domain .