Marcus Aurelius

(AD 161 – 180)

(Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus)


Marcus Aurelius was not only a dedicated emperor who stubbornly defended Rome’s borders against an ever- increasing tide of would-be barbarian invaders, but was also an important Stoic philosopher and diarist in his own right. Marcus Aurelius was a sensitive and upright man who, in spite of a delicate constitution and constant bouts of serious illness, was a great military commander and  civic administrator, who always  gave everything of himself unstintingly to his duty to Rome.


It is through great providence that we can still read this benign ruler’s innermost thoughts, put down in his very own words, even after an interval of some two thousand years. His great literary masterpiece “The Meditations” has fortunately been carefully preserved for posterity and so we have rare proof of one emperor’s great personal integrity and commitment to the highest ethical standards of administration.

Succession to the Purple

In accordance with an arrangement, contrived by the previous emperor Hadrian, Marcus was groomed for the position of emperor from an early age. Antoninus Pius was adopted by Hadrian, who was already on his death bed and on Hadrian’s instructions, Antoninus  then adopted Marcus Aurelius, together with Lucius Verus, the son of one of Hadrian’s favourites. To strengthen the bond Marcus had to wed Antoninus’s daughter Faustina. Both young men were given first rate educations, given administrative duties from an early age and were in time were appointed consuls. However Marcus far outshone Lucius, who had a marked preference towards enjoying the pleasures of palace life, whilst Marcus was of a much more serious disposition and took his duties very seriously

Of a studious disposition and never of robust health, Marcus Aurelius had not wanted to be emperor and had tried to refuse the appointment, when approached by the Senate. However he eventually accepted the position, provided Lucius was appointed co-emperor with him. As a committed Stoic, Marcus felt that he had to do his duty, irrespective of personal preference or anxieties. For the following eight years, Marcus shared the rule of the empire  with his adoptive brother, until Lucius’s death in AD 169. However he was always acknowledged to be the senior partner – an arrangement that seems to have more than suited the easy-going Lucius.

Parthian War

Early in the joint reign of the two emperors, war broke out against the Parthians  in AD 161 and the Roman governor of Cappadocia, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, was defeated with the loss of his entire legion. The wealthy Roman  province of Syria was threatened and so Lucius Verus was sent to Syria in 162 with strong reinforcements.


Lucius Verus was supposed  to take command of all the Eastern forces, but there is not much evidence that he personally did very much. However,  due to the efforts of competent subordinates, the tide of the war was turned and by AD 166 all the major Mesopotamian cities had been taken by the brilliant Roman commander Avidius Cassius. A satisfactory settlement was reached, with client kings allied to Rome providing a buffer against further Parthian threat, but the returning troops brought a devastating plague with them, which eventually took the life of Lucius Verus in AD 169.

Marcomannian Wars

Marcus now ruled alone, but had already been  faced with a major threat along the borders of the German and Danubian provinces. Germanic tribes such as the Chatti, Quadi and Marcomanni made severe incursions – even reaching into Northern Italy. Further east, the Sarmatians crossed the Danube and other tribes invaded the Balkans and Greece . Marcus was forced to take personal charge of the armies and spent virtually the entire last decade of his life campaigning on the borders, which were stabilised along along a line of fortifications called the ‘Limes’ .


Marcus Aurelius fell seriously ill in AD 175 and a false rumour broke out of his death. So Avidius Cassius, the  successful commander in the Parthian War, had himself declared emperor. Ancient sources say that this was at the instigation of Faustina, Marcus’s wife, who fearing that Marcus was about to die, had sought to protect her young family by giving him her support. Marcus recovered, but the die was cast and Avidus Cassius had to press on with his revolt, but lost support, when it was known that the emperor was alive and well and the usurper was eventually assassinated (against Marcus’s express wishes).

End of a Golden Age

Marcus wrote his ‘Meditations‘, over several years whilst on campaign against the German invaders. He wrote it in Greek, in a form that was addressed to himself. It is a major work of Stoic philosophy and tells a great deal of the man himself. Marcus fell ill again in AD 180 and died at Vienna. He was iommediately succeeded by his son Commodus, who had already been made co-emperor in AD 177. It is strange that a wise and temperate man such as Marcus Aurelius should have chosen to break the benign tradition of ‘adoptive’ emperors to place such an unsuitable person in a position of power, simply because he was his son. However, given the obvious egotistical character of Commodus, it may well have been that Marcus feared that should his son be bypassed, he would have had no hesitation in dragging the empire into a disastrous civil war to prevent his ambitions being circumvented. Or possibly, Marcus was just another doting father – always busy with affairs of state and absent on campaign much of the time, he may have been entirely blind to his son’s faults. We will never know – but the result was that Rome lost more than a good emperor with the passing of Marcus Aurelius – it was the end of a golden era. The subsequent misrule of Commodus paved the way to a century marked by tumultuous struggles for power and civil war.


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