The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180) was a convinced Stoic philosopher, and at his accession there was widespread rejoicing that at last Plato's dream of a philosopher-king had become reality.
Born Marcus Annius Verus on April 26, 121, of a noble family originally Spanish, Marcus Aurelius grew up close to the center of power. When he was a child, the emperor Hadrian noticed him and punned on his name, Verus ("True"), calling him Verissimus ("Truest") for his uprightness. In his final arrangement Hadrian, who had difficulty in choosing a successor, destined Marcus for ultimate rule, for when he adopted Marcus's uncle by marriage, Antoninus (soon to be known as Antoninus Pius), he had Antoninus adopt Marcus Aurelius along with the young Lucius Ceionius Commodus, later called Lucius Verus.
Marcus Aurelius had an excellent education, numbering among his tutors M. Cornelius Fronto, the rhetorician; the very wealthy Herodes Atticus, whose Odeon still stands in Athens; Plutarch's grandson Sextus of Chaeronea; and Diognetus, the painter and Stoic philosopher. Under Diognetus's influence young Marcus became a precocious Stoic at the age of 11 and remained a devoted follower of stoicism for the rest of his life.
Antoninus Pius was that rarity among emperors, one who had his acknowledged heir beside him throughout his reign. He had the title Caesar conferred on Marcus in 139, only a year after his own accession, and betrothed him to his own daughter Faustina; Marcus and Faustina were married probably in 140. Through the reign of Antoninus (138-161) Marcus worked most closely with him.
Though Antoninus at his death seems to have designated Marcus as sole heir, Marcus insisted that his adoptive brother Verus also be given full power. Thus for the first time Rome had two exactly equal emperors, colleagues like the consuls of old. That this arrangement, which had sometimes caused trouble even with merely annual magistrates, did not produce friction between lifetime equals was due in large measure to the good nature of Verus and his deference to Marcus's seniority in years and judgment.
The reign opened with floods on the Tiber and a variety of other natural disasters, but the overshadowing problem was the Eastern question. Parthia, the only large, organized power that Rome faced, was always a rival for dominance in Armenia, and now, in 162, Parthia attacked, defeated the Romans in Cappadocia, and overran the rich province of Syria. Marcus Aurelius, for reasons which still are not entirely clear, remained at Rome and sent Verus to take charge of the war in the East. Verus was no soldier, but Marcus supplied him with able subordinates, and the war went well though slowly; the Roman counteroffensive did not get under way until 163, but then Armenia was occupied and a vassal king installed.
In 164 three Roman armies, one headed by the able Avidius Cassius, cleared northern Mesopotamia; in 165 southern Mesopotamia and the chief Parthian capitals were taken; finally, in 166, Media was overrun. But in late 165 a terrible plague broke out among the Roman troops, a plague which they were to carry back with them and which would carry off a quarter or more of the population of the empire. Rome recalled its armies with Parthia defeated but not conquered. Nevertheless, Marcus and Verus celebrated a magnificent triumph.
The Parthian War had ended none too soon, for the German War, which was to run with only the briefest of intervals for the rest of the reign, had already begun. Another of those great waves of unrest which occasionally troubled the barbarians beyond the frontier was setting the Germans in motion, and in 167 a group of tribes crossed the Danube, destroyed a Roman army, and actually besieged Aquileia in Italy. The danger was critical, for the plague was raging, particularly in the army camps, and the imperial treasury, always short of money, was worse off than usual.
Marcus raised new legions, even accepting slaves and gladiators, auctioned off furnishings from the imperial palaces to raise funds, and in 168 went with Verus to the front. Verus died in early 169, and Marcus was left to face the war alone. The barbarians were driven back, but still the war dragged on in a mixture of victories and defeats, with Marcus living mainly at the front, sometimes on the Danube, sometimes on the Rhine as the focus of crisis shifted. Gradually the Romans gained the upper hand, and by 175 we are told that Marcus was intending to annex the lands of the tribes nearest the frontier when he was suddenly forced to call off the war because of the revolt of Avidius Cassius in the East.
After distinguished service in the Parthian War, Avidius Cassius, himself a Syrian, had been made governor of Syria and, with the deepening of the German crisis, had gradually been raised to the position almost of viceroy for the entire East. In 175 Marcus grew sick, and rumor went round that he was dying or dead; partly for this reason Avidius was hailed emperor and accepted by most of the East, including Egypt—Rome's granary—thus threatening Rome itself with famine. Marcus had to break off the war in Germany with less than total victory and hurry eastward.
Cassius was murdered after only 3 months, and the immediate danger passed; but Marcus could not avoid showing himself in the East and making a fairly extended sojourn there. He exhibited his customary leniency in dealing with Cassius's supporters and returned to Rome in late 176, where he celebrated a splendid triumph with his son Commodus, who was soon given the title Augustus and made an equal sharer of power. Thus through his own act Marcus Aurelius ended his reign as he had begun it, with a partner his equal in power but not in virtue.
In 177 began a serious persecution of the Christians. Much ink has been spilled trying to reconcile Marcus's kindness and high principles with his evident hostility toward the Christians; but the fact remains that he considered the Christians to be dangerous fanatics, subversive alike of society and the state—and on the evidence available to him, how should he not? Then, too, if his persecution was more severe than those that went before, this was partly because the Christians were more numerous and more visible than before.
The German War erupted again in 177, and Marcus shortly returned to the front. Once again he had the war almost won; but his death, which occurred on March 17, 180, precluded final victory over the Germans. He was given a grand funeral and deified, and memorials of him are yet visible in Rome—the column celebrating his German victories in the Piazza Colonna and his equestrian statue where Michelangelo placed it on the Capitoline.
Marcus Aurelius's reign was marked by near, rather than complete, success and marred both by his fondness for sharing power with unworthy partners and by a willingness to forgive carried at times beyond the point of prudence in one responsible for the well-being of millions; but there can be no question of his personal goodness or of the greatness of his soul.
The reason for which Marcus Aurelius deservedly is most remembered is the collection of his thoughts or reflections, usually entitled the Meditations. Apparently jotted down from time to time as inclination or opportunity offered, the thoughts form no organized system of philosophy; rather, they are the record of a spirit whose principles were elevated above the somewhat grim rectitude of stoicism by a warm love of mankind and a philosophy closely akin to religion.
To Marcus, happiness was to be achieved by living "according to nature," in harmony with the principle which ordered the universe; the serenity of one who so lived could not be really affected by the buffetings of fate. Since the Meditations were composed in bits, they are best read so; they are to be savored rather than downed at a gulp.
There is no good surviving ancient treatment of Marcus Aurelius. His life is included in the collection known as The Scriptores Historiae Augustae (trans., 3 vols., 1921-1932), and his reign in the fragments of books 70-71 in the general history of Cassius Dio. Otherwise there are his own Meditations and the surviving letters he exchanged with his old tutor Fronto. Among modern works are Henry Dwight Sedgwick, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (1921); C. Clayton Dove, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: His Life and Times (1930); Arthur Spencer Loat Farquharson, Marcus Aurelius: His Life and His World (1951), a posthumous work dealing with Marcus's youth up to his accession; and Anthony Birley's full and interesting Marcus Aurelius (1966).