Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was Roman Emperor from
161 to his death. He was born Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, and
at marriage took the name Marcus Annius Verus. When he was named
Emperor, he was given the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He was
the last of the Five Good Emperors.
He was Antoninus Pius' nephew and the son of Hadrian's brother-in-law.
Therefore, on the death of Hadrian's first adopted son Aelius
Verus, Hadrian made it a precondition of making Antoninus his
successor that Antoninus would adopt Marcus (then called Marcus
Annius Verus) and Lucius Verus (Aelius Verus' son), and arrange
for them to be next in the line. This Antoninus did, adopting
and designating them as his successors on February 25, 138, when
Marcus was only seventeen years of age.
When Antoninus died on March 7, 161, Marcus accepted the throne
on the condition that he and Verus were made joint emperors (Augusti),
with Verus partly subordinate. This was partly because the two
were Antoninus' joint heirs.
joint succession may have also been motivated by military exigences,
since, during his reign, Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly
at war with various peoples outside the empire. A highly authoritative
figure was needed to command the troops, yet the emperor himself
could not defend both the German and Parthian fronts at the same
time. Neither could he simply appoint a general to lead the legions;
earlier popular military leaders like Julius Caesar and Vespasian
had used the military to overthrow the existing government and
install themselves as supreme leaders.
Aurelius solved the problem by sending Verus to command the legions
in the east. He was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty
of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little
incentive to overthrow Marcus. The plan succeeded—Verus
remained loyal until his death on campaign in 169.
joint emperorship was faintly reminiscent of the political system
of the Roman Republic, which functioned according to the principle
of collegiality and did not allow a single person to hold supreme
power. Joint rule was revived by Diocletian's establishment of
the Tetrarchy in the late 3rd century.
and the Danube
Germanic tribes and other peoples launched many raids along the
Northern border, particularly into Gaul and across the Danube—
Germans, in turn, may have been under attack from more warlike
tribes farther east. His campaigns against them are commemorated
on the Column of Marcus Aurelius.
In Asia, a revitalized Parthian Empire renewed its assault. Marcus
Aurelius sent his joint emperor Verus to command the legions in
the east to face this threat. On the return from the victorious
campaign, Verus was awarded with a triumph; the parade was unusual
because it included Verus, Marcus Aurelius, their sons and unmarried
daughters as a big family celebration.
While on campaign between 170 and 180, Aurelius wrote his Meditations
as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. He had
been a priest at the sacrificial altars of Roman service and was
an eager patriot. He had a logical mind though his notes were
representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Meditations
is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service
and duty. It has been praised for its "exquisite accent and
its infinite tenderness" and "saintliness" being
called the "gospel of his life." They have been compared
by John Stuart Mill in his Utility of Religion to the Sermon on
book itself was first published in 1558 in Zurich, from a manuscript
copy that is now lost. The only other surviving complete copy
of the manuscript is in the Vatican library.
Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180 during the expedition
against the Marcomanni and Quadi in the city of Vindobona (modern
Vienna). His ashes were returned to Rome and rest in Hadrian's
mausoleum (modern Castel Sant'Angelo). He was also commemorated
by a column in Rome.
and historical legacy
He was able to secure the succession for his son Commodus, whom
he made co-emperor in his own lifetime (in 177), though the choice
may have been unknowingly unfortunate. Commodus was a political
and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist. Many historians
believe that the decline of Rome began under Commodus. For this
reason, Aurelius' death is often held to have been the end of
the Pax Romana.
in art and modern popular culture
A well preserved bronze equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius,
which, during the Middle Ages, had stood in the Lateran Palace
in Rome, was relocated in 1538 to the Piazza del Campidoglio (Capitoline
Hill). Currently, the original is on display in an exhibition
room designed especially for this purpose in the Palazzo dei Conservatori
of the Musei Capitolini, while a copy has replaced it in the square.
was standard practice to melt down bronze statues for reuse as
coin or new sculptures (eg in the late empire, following Rome's
conversion to Christianity, to make new statues for the new Christian
churches), and that is why so few bronze statues, let alone statues
of emperors, survive. The reason this one was not melted down
was that, when in late antiquity or the early medieval period
its turn came, it was incorrectly thought to portray the 'christianising'
Emperor Constantine. Indeed, it is the only fully surviving bronze
statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor and so survived.
to accounts from medieval times, a small figure of a bound barbarian
chieftain once crouched underneath the horse's front right leg.
In addition, it was one of the few Roman statues to remain on
public view during the Middle Ages. Such an image was meant to
portray the Emperor as an always victorious all-conquering lord
of the earth. However, shown without weapons or armor, Marcus
Aurelius seems to be a bringer of peace rather than a military
hero, for this is how he saw himself and his reign.
statue is such a trademark image that it is the subject of a €0.50
Italian euro coin designed by Roberto Mauri.
in modern literature
1. Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar.Mémoires
d'Hadrien (1951), a fictitious but plausible autobiography (in
form of a series of letters directed to his adoptive grandson
"Marcus") of one of his predecessors, Hadrian, by Marguerite
Yourcenar. It is one of the best-selling European novels of the
2. Household Gods (1999 novel), by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove.
1. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964 film), played by Alec Guinness
2. Gladiator (2000 film), played by Richard Harris
3. The movie The Silence of the Lambs publicized Marcus Aurelius'
principle, from Meditations: "For any particular thing, ask,
'What is it in itself? What is its nature?'"
Aurelius married Faustina the Younger in 145. During their 30-year
marriage Faustina bore thirteen children, most notably, his son
Commodus who would become later Emperor, and his daughter Lucilla,
who was wed to Lucius Verus to solidify his alliance with Marcus