Marcus Aurelius (/ɑːˈriːliəs/ or /ɑːˈriːljəs/; Latin: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; 26 April 121 – 17 March 180), called the Philosopher, was a Roman emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and Stoic philosopher. Marcus was the last of the rulers traditionally known as the Five Good Emperors. He is also seen as the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire. His personal philosophical writings, now commonly known as Meditations, are a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy. They have been praised by fellow writers, philosophers, and monarchs – as well as by poets and politicians – centuries after his death.
Marcus was born to Marcus Annius Verus, a praetor and the great-great-nephew of Emperor Trajan, and Domitia Lucilla, a wealthy noblewoman and heiress. After Marcus' father died in 124, his paternal grandfather raised him. He was educated at home, as children from Roman aristocratic families often were, and later credited his maternal step-great-grandfather Lucius Catilius Severus – who helped Marcus' grandfather to raise him – for his education. His tutors included the artist Diognetus, who may have sparked his interest in philosophy, and Tuticius Proclus. Marcus was betrothed to the daughter of Lucius Aelius, his relative Emperor Hadrian's first adopted son and heir. Aelius died in 138 and Hadrian chose as his new heir Antoninus Pius, the husband of Marcus' aunt, on the condition that Antoninus adopt Marcus and the son of Aelius, Lucius Commodus. Antoninus became emperor later that year upon Hadrian's death, and Marcus and Lucius became joint heirs to the throne. While imperial heir, Marcus studied Greek and Latin. His tutors included Herodes Atticus and Marcus Cornelius Fronto. He kept in close correspondence with Fronto for many years afterwards. Marcus was introduced to Stoicism by Quintus Junius Rusticus and perhaps by other philosophers such as Apollonius of Chalcedon. He was appointed as a quaestor, as the symbolic head of the equites (a social class), and three times as consul: with Antoninus in 140 and 145 and with Lucius in 161. On 7 March 161, Antoninus died; Marcus and Lucius succeeded to the throne.
Marcus' reign was marked by military conflict. In the East, the Roman Empire fought successfully with a revitalized Parthian Empire and the rebel Kingdom of Armenia. Marcus defeated the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians in the Marcomannic Wars. However, these and other Germanic peoples began to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. Marcus modified the silver purity of the Roman currency, the denarius. Persecution of Christians is believed to have increased during his reign. The Antonine Plague that broke out in 165 or 166 devastated the population of the Roman Empire. It caused the deaths of five million people, a quarter of those it affected. Marcus never adopted an heir unlike some of his predecessors; he and his cousin-wife (Antoninus' daughter) Faustina, whom he married in 145, had at least thirteen children including Lucilla – who married Lucius Verus – and Commodus – whom Marcus named as his co-ruler in 177. Marcus became the first emperor to die with a living biological adult son since Titus succeeded his father Vespasian a century earlier, but Commodus is considered a disappointment as emperor and his succession has long been the subject of debate among both contemporary and modern historians. The Column and Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius still stand in Rome, where they were erected in celebration of Marcus' military victories.
A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at The Walters Art Museum
|Emperor of the Roman Empire|
|Reign||8 March 161 – 17 March 180|
|Born||Marcus Annius Verus|
26 April 121
|Died||17 March 180 (aged 58)|
Vindobona or Sirmium
|Spouse||Faustina the Younger|
|14, incl. Commodus, Annius, Antoninus and Lucilla|
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, claim to be written by a group of authors at the turn of the 4th century AD, but were in fact written by a single author (referred to here as 'the biographer') from about 395 AD. 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. For Marcus' life and rule, the biographies of Hadrian, Antoninus, Marcus, and Lucius are largely reliable, but those of Aelius Verus and Avidius Cassius are not.
A body of correspondence between Marcus' tutor Fronto and various Antonine officials survives in a series of patchy manuscripts, covering the period from c. 138 to 166. Marcus' own Meditations offer a window on his inner life, but are largely undateable and make few specific references to worldly affairs. 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. 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' legal work. Inscriptions and coin finds supplement the literary sources.
Marcus was born in Rome on 26 April 121. His name at birth was supposedly Marcus Annius Verus, but some sources assign this name to him upon his father's death and unofficial adoption by his grandfather, upon his coming of age, or at the time of his marriage. He may have been known as Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, at birth or at some point in his youth, 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; Epiphanius of Salamis, in his chronology of the Roman emperors On Weights and Measures, calls him Marcus Aurelius Verus.
Marcus was of Italic and Iberian origins, being the son of Domitia Lucilla (also known as Domitia Calvilla) and Marcus Annius Verus (III). His father traced his legendary pedigree to Numa Pompilius (second King of Rome) and Domitia traced hers to Mallenius, prince of the Messapians. Domitia was the daughter of the Roman patrician P. Calvisius Tullus and Domitia Lucilla and had 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.  Marcus himself was born and raised in the Horti and referred to the Caelian hill as "My Caelian".
Marcus' paternal family originated in Ucubi, a small town south east of Córdoba in Iberian Baetica. The family rose to prominence in the late 1st century AD. Marcus' 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 a patrician in 73–74. 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.[note 1]
Marcus' sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, was probably born in 122 or 123. His father probably died in 124, during his praetorship, when Marcus was three years old.[note 2] Though he can hardly have known his father, Marcus wrote in his Meditations that he had learnt 'modesty and manliness' from his memories of his father and from the man's posthumous reputation. His mother Lucilla did not remarry and, following prevailing aristocratic customs, probably did not spend much time with her son. Instead, Marcus was in the care of 'nurses', 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' maternal great-grandfather, also participated in his upbringing; he was probably the elder Domitia Lucilla's stepfather. Marcus was raised in his parents' home on the Caelian Hill, which he would affectionately refer to as 'my Caelian'. It was an upscale area with few public buildings but many aristocratic villas. Marcus' grandfather owned a palace beside the Lateran, where he would spend much of his childhood. Marcus thanks his grandfather for teaching him 'good character and avoidance of bad temper'. He was less fond of the mistress his grandfather took and lived with after the death of his wife Rupilia. Marcus was grateful that he did not have to live with her longer than he did.
Marcus was educated at home, in line with contemporary aristocratic trends; he thanks Catilius Severus for encouraging him to avoid public schools. One of his teachers, Diognetus, a painting master, proved particularly influential; he seems to have introduced Marcus Aurelius to the philosophic way of life. 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. A new set of tutors — the Homeric scholar Alexander of Cotiaeum along with Trosius Aper and Tuticius Proculus, teachers of Latin[note 3] — took over Marcus' education in about 132 or 133. Marcus thanks Alexander for his training in literary styling. Alexander's influence – an emphasis on matter over style and careful wording, with the occasional Homeric quotation – has been detected in Marcus' Meditations.
In late 136, Hadrian almost died from a hemorrhage. Convalescent in his villa at Tivoli, he selected Lucius Ceionius Commodus, Marcus' intended father-in-law, as his successor and adopted son invitis omnibus, 'against the wishes of everyone'. While his motives are not certain, it would appear that his goal was to eventually place the then-too-young Marcus on the throne. 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. 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. The night before the speech, however, he grew ill, and died of a hemorrhage later in the day.[note 4]
On 24 January 138, Hadrian selected Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus' aunt Faustina the Elder, as his new successor. As part of Hadrian's terms, Antoninus in turn adopted Marcus and Lucius Commodus, the son of Lucius Aelius. Marcus became M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, and Lucius became L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus. At Hadrian's request, Antoninus' daughter Faustina was betrothed to Lucius. 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.
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. Marcus' 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'.
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. His remains were buried quietly at Puteoli. 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. For his dutiful behaviour, Antoninus was asked to accept the name 'Pius'.
Immediately after Hadrian's death, Antoninus approached Marcus and requested that his marriage arrangements be amended: Marcus' betrothal to Ceionia Fabia would be annulled, and he would be betrothed to Faustina, Antoninus' daughter, instead. Faustina's betrothal to Ceionia's brother Lucius Commodus would also have to be annulled. Marcus consented to Antoninus' proposal. 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. 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'. At the senate's request, Marcus joined all the priestly colleges (pontifices, augures, quindecimviri sacris faciundis, septemviri epulonum, etc.); direct evidence for membership, however, is available only for the Arval Brethren.
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' objections. 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'—but he found it difficult nonetheless. He would criticize himself in the Meditations for 'abusing court life' in front of company.
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. 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'. He was being 'fitted for ruling the state', in the words of his biographer. He was required to make a speech to the assembled senators as well, making oratorical training essential for the job.
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'. 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'. 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. In April 145, Marcus married Faustina, legally his sister, as had been planned since 138. Little is specifically known of the ceremony, but it is said to have been 'noteworthy'. 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.
After taking the toga virilis in 136, Marcus probably began his training in oratory. 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 the day, 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. 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.
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. Atticus was an inveterate opponent of Stoicism and philosophic pretensions. He thought the Stoics' desire for a 'lack of feeling' foolish: they would live a 'sluggish, enervated life', he said. Marcus would 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.
Fronto was highly esteemed: in the self-consciously antiquarian world of Latin letters, he was thought of as second only to Cicero, perhaps even an alternative to him.[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.
A significant amount of the correspondence between Fronto and Marcus has survived. The pair were very close. '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'. Marcus spent time with Fronto's wife and daughter, both named Cratia, and they enjoyed light conversation.
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'. 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 — about one-quarter of the surviving letters deal with the man's sicknesses. Marcus asks that Fronto's pain be inflicted on himself, 'of my own accord with every kind of discomfort'.
Fronto never became Marcus' full-time teacher, and continued his career as an advocate. One notorious case brought him into conflict with Atticus. 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. Fronto replied that he was surprised to discover Marcus counted Atticus as a friend (perhaps Atticus was not yet Marcus' tutor), and allowed that Marcus might be correct, 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 which refer to the beating and robbing I will describe in such a way 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'. The outcome of the trial is unknown.
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'. 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. In any case, Marcus' 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' entire boyhood.
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'. He disdained philosophy and philosophers, and looked down on Marcus' sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon and others in this circle. Fronto put an uncharitable interpretation of Marcus' '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. Marcus kept in close touch with Fronto, but would ignore Fronto's scruples.
Apollonius may have introduced Marcus to Stoic philosophy, but Quintus Junius Rusticus would have the strongest influence on the boy.[note 7] He was the man Fronto recognized as having 'wooed Marcus away' from oratory. 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; the true successor of Seneca (as opposed to Fronto, the false one). 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.
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."
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' on 10 December 147. The first mention of Domitia in Marcus' 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. Domitia would die in 151.
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. 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. He quoted from the Iliad what he called the 'briefest and most familiar saying...enough to dispel sorrow and fear':
– Iliad vi.146
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' mother Domitia Lucilla died. Faustina probably had another daughter in 151, but the child, Annia Galeria Aurelia Faustina, might not have been born until 153. Another son, Tiberius Aelius Antoninus, was born in 152. A coin issue celebrates fecunditati Augustae, 'the Augusta's fertility', depicting two girls and an infant. The boy did not survive long; on coins from 156, only the two girls were depicted. He might have died in 152, the same year as Marcus' sister Cornificia. 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. In 159 and 160, Faustina gave birth to daughters: Fadilla and Cornificia, named respectively after Faustina's and Marcus' dead sisters.
Lucius started his political career as a quaestor in 153. He was consul in 154, and was consul again with Marcus in 161. 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.[note 8] He did not marry until 164.
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) as Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157. In 160, Marcus and Lucius were designated joint consuls for the following year. Antoninus may have already been ill.
Two days before his death, the biographer reports, Antoninus was at his ancestral estate at Lorium, in Etruria, about 19 kilometres (12 mi) from Rome. 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, 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). He then turned over, as if going to sleep, and died. His death closed out the longest reign since Augustus, surpassing Tiberius by a couple of months.
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. 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 that it was his duty.
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. Thus, although the senate planned to confirm Marcus alone, he refused to take office unless Lucius received equal powers. The senate accepted, granting Lucius the imperium, the tribunician power, and the name Augustus. Marcus became, in official titulature, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; Lucius, forgoing his name Commodus and taking Marcus' family name Verus, became Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus.[note 9] It was the first time that Rome was ruled by two emperors.[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' rule, and he alone was Pontifex Maximus. It would have been clear to the public which emperor was the more senior. As the biographer wrote, 'Verus obeyed Marcus...as a lieutenant obeys a proconsul or a governor obeys the emperor'.
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. 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. The ceremony was perhaps not entirely necessary, given that Marcus' accession had been peaceful and unopposed, but it was good insurance against later military troubles. 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).
Antoninus' funeral ceremonies were, in the words of the biographer, 'elaborate'. 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' 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' remains were laid to rest in Hadrian's mausoleum, beside the remains of Marcus' children and of Hadrian himself. 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.
In accordance with his will, Antoninus' fortune passed on to Faustina. (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.) 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. On 31 August she gave birth at Lanuvium to twins: T. Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus.[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. The births were celebrated on the imperial coinage.
Soon after the emperors' accession, Marcus' eleven-year-old daughter, Annia Lucilla, was betrothed to Lucius (in spite of the fact that he was, formally, her uncle). At the ceremonies commemorating the event, new provisions were made for the support of poor children, along the lines of earlier imperial foundations. 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'.
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. Lucius Volusius Maecianus, Marcus' former tutor, had been prefectural governor of Egypt at Marcus' accession. Maecianus was recalled, made senator, and appointed prefect of the treasury (aerarium Saturni). He was made consul soon after. Fronto's son-in-law, Gaius Aufidius Victorinus, was appointed governor of Germania Superior.
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. 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.' Fronto called on Marcus alone; neither thought to invite Lucius.
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. 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.' Marcus' early reign proceeded smoothly; he was able to give himself wholly to philosophy and the pursuit of popular affection. 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.
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.[note 13] In other times of famine, the emperors are said to have provided for the Italian communities out of the Roman granaries.
Fronto's letters continued through Marcus' early reign. Fronto felt that, because of Marcus' 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'. 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'.
The early days of Marcus' 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. 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.
On his deathbed, Antoninus spoke of nothing but the state and the foreign kings who had wronged him. One of those kings, Vologases IV of Parthia, made his move in late summer or early autumn 161. Vologases entered the Kingdom of Armenia (then a Roman client state), expelled its king and installed his own — Pacorus, an Arsacid like himself. The governor of Cappadocia, the frontline in all Armenian conflicts, was Marcus Sedatius Severianus, a Gaul with much experience in military matters.
Convinced by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus that he could defeat the Parthians easily and win glory for himself, Severianus led a legion (perhaps the IX Hispana) into Armenia, but was trapped by the great Parthian general Chosrhoes at Elegia, 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.
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. Marcus was unprepared. Antoninus seems to have given him no military experience; the biographer writes that Marcus spent the whole of Antoninus' twenty-three-year reign at his emperor's side and not in the provinces, where most previous emperors had spent their early careers.[note 14]
More bad news arrived: the Syrian governor's army had been defeated by the Parthians, and retreated in disarray. 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. Three full legions were also sent east: I Minervia from Bonn in Upper Germany, II Adiutrix from Aquincum, and V Macedonica from Troesmis.
The northern frontiers were strategically weakened; frontier governors were told to avoid conflict wherever possible. M. Annius Libo, Marcus' first cousin, was sent to replace the Syrian governor. His first consulship was in 161, so he was probably in his early thirties, and as a patrician, he lacked military experience. Marcus had chosen a reliable man rather than a talented one.
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. 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?' He encouraged Marcus to rest, calling on the example of his predecessors (Antoninus had enjoyed exercise in the palaestra, fishing, and comedy), 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. Marcus could not take Fronto's advice. 'I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off', he wrote back. 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!'
Fronto sent Marcus a selection of reading material, 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, 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'.
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. Lucius' biographer suggests ulterior motives: to restrain Lucius' debaucheries, to make him thrifty, to reform his morals by the terror of war, and to realize that he was an emperor.[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'.
Lucius spent most of the campaign in Antioch, though he wintered at Laodicea and summered at Daphne, a resort just outside Antioch. Critics declaimed Lucius' luxurious lifestyle, saying that he had taken to gambling, would 'dice the whole night through', and enjoyed the company of actors.[note 16] Libo died early in the war; perhaps Lucius had murdered him.
In the middle of the war, perhaps in autumn 163 or early 164, Lucius made a trip to Ephesus to be married to Marcus' daughter Lucilla. Marcus moved up the date; perhaps he had already heard of Lucius' mistress Panthea. Lucilla's thirteenth birthday was in March 163; whatever the date of her marriage, she was not yet fifteen. Lucilla was accompanied by her mother Faustina and Lucius' uncle (his father's half-brother) M. Vettulenus Civica Barbarus, who was made comes Augusti, 'companion of the emperors'. Marcus may have wanted Civica to watch over Lucius, the job Libo had failed at. 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. He only accompanied the group as far as Brundisium, where they boarded a ship for the east. He returned to Rome immediately thereafter, and sent out special instructions to his proconsuls not to give the group any official reception.
The Armenian capital Artaxata was captured in 163. 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. When Lucius was hailed as imperator again, however, Marcus did not hesitate to take the Imperator II with him.
Occupied Armenia was reconstructed on Roman terms. In 164, a new capital, Kaine Polis ('New City'), replaced Artaxata. 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. 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.
In 163, the Parthians intervened in Osroene, a Roman client in upper Mesopotamia centred on Edessa, and installed their own king on its throne. In response, Roman forces were moved downstream, to cross the Euphrates at a more southerly point. Before the end of 163, however, Roman forces had moved north to occupy Dausara and Nicephorium on the northern, Parthian bank. 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.
In 165, Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia. Edessa was re-occupied, and Mannus, the king deposed by the Parthians, was re-installed. The Parthians retreated to Nisibis, but this too was besieged and captured. The Parthian army dispersed in the Tigris. A second force, under Avidius Cassius and the III Gallica, moved down the Euphrates, and fought a major battle at Dura.
By the end of the year, Cassius' 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' reputation. Excuses were sought, or invented: the official version had it that the Seleucids broke faith first.
Cassius' army, although suffering from a shortage of supplies and the effects of a plague contracted in Seleucia, made it back to Roman territory safely. Lucius took the title Parthicus Maximus, and he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again, earning the title 'imp. III'. Cassius' army returned to the field in 166, crossing over the Tigris into Media. Lucius took the title 'Medicus', and the emperors were again hailed as imperatores, becoming 'imp. IV' in imperial titulature. Marcus took the Parthicus Maximus now, after another tactful delay. On 12 October of that year, Marcus proclaimed two of his sons, Annius and Commodus, as his heirs.
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). 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.
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' 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.
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.
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. Soon thereafter, the Iranian Sarmatians attacked between the Danube and the Theiss rivers.
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.
Like many emperors, Marcus spent most of his time addressing matters of law such as petitions and hearing disputes, but unlike many of his predecessors, he was already proficient in imperial administration when he assumed power. He took great care in the theory and practice of legislation. Professional jurists called him 'an emperor most skilled in the law' and 'a most prudent and conscientiously just emperor'. 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).
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. In one speech, Marcus himself reminded the Senate that the imperial palace where he lived was not truly his possession but theirs. 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.
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. In addition to Republican-era Roman glasswares found at Guangzhou along the South China Sea, 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 laying beyond the Golden Chersonese (i.e. Malay Peninsula).[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.
The Antonine Plague started in Mesopotamia in 165 or 166 at the end of Lucius' 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, 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. It is believed that the plague was smallpox. 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. 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.
Marcus died on 17 March 180 due to natural causes in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna). 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. Some scholars consider his death to be the end of the Pax Romana.
Marcus was succeeded by his son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and with whom he had jointly ruled since 177. Biological sons of the emperor, if there were any, were considered heirs; 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' erratic behaviour and lack of political and military acumen. At the end of his history of Marcus' reign, Cassius Dio wrote an encomium to the emperor, and described the transition to Commodus in his own lifetime with sorrow:
[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
Dio adds that from Marcus' 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.'
Michael Grant, in The Climax of Rome, writes of Commodus:
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.
Marcus acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain his after death; both Dio and the biographer call him 'the philosopher'. Christians such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Melito also gave him the title. 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. 'Alone of the emperors,' wrote the historian Herodian, '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'. Iain King concludes that Marcus' legacy is tragic, because 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'.
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. 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. 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 Aurelius believed Christian-prayer had saved his army from thirst when "water poured from heaven," after which, "immediately we recognized the presence of God." Aurelius goes on to request the senate desist from earlier courses of Christian persecution by Rome.
Marcus and his cousin-wife Faustina had at least 13 children during their 30-year marriage, including two sets of twins. One son and four daughters outlived their father. Their children included:
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. It has been considered by many commentators to be one of the greatest works of philosophy.
It is not known how widely Marcus' 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. 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' 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. The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy is in the Vatican library and dates to the 14th century.
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome is the only Roman equestrian statue which has survived into the modern period. This is perhaps due to it being wrongly identified during the Middle Ages as a depiction of the Christian emperor Constantine the Great and hence spared destruction, unlike some other statues associated with paganism. 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.
Marcus' 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. 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.
All citations to the Historia Augusta are to individual biographies, and are marked with a 'HA'. Citations to the works of Fronto are cross-referenced to C.R. Haines' Loeb edition.
Cadet branch of the Nerva–Antonine dynastyBorn: 26 April 121 Died: 17 March 180
| Roman Emperor
(with Lucius Verus 161–169 and Commodus 177–180)
Marcus Ceccius Justinus
and Gaius Julius Bassus
as suffect consuls
| Consul of the Roman Empire with Antoninus Pius
Quintus Antonius Isauricus
and Lucius Aurelius Flaccus
as suffect consuls
Lucius Marcius Celer Marcus Calpurnius Longus
and Decimus Velius Fidus
as suffect consuls
| Consul of the Roman Empire with Antoninus Pius
Lucius Plautius Lamia Silvanus
and Lucius Poblicola Priscus
as suffect consuls
Tiberius Oclatius Severus
and Novius Sabinianus
| Consul of the Roman Empire with Lucius Verus
Marcus Annius Libo and
Quintus Camurinus Numisius Junior
Caracalla (; Latin: Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus; 4 April 188 – 8 April 217), formally known as Antoninus, ruled as Roman emperor from 198 to 217 AD. He was a member of the Severan dynasty, the elder son of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. Co-ruler with his father from 198, he continued to rule with his brother Geta, emperor from 209, after their father's death in 211. He had his brother killed later that year, and reigned afterwards as sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Caracalla's reign featured domestic instability and external invasions by the Germanic peoples.
Caracalla's reign became notable for the Antonine Constitution (Latin: Constitutio Antoniniana), also known as the Edict of Caracalla, which granted Roman citizenship to nearly all free men throughout the Roman Empire. The edict gave all the enfranchised men Caracalla's adopted praenomen and nomen: "Marcus Aurelius". Domestically, Caracalla became known for the construction of the Baths of Caracalla, which became the second-largest baths in Rome; for the introduction of a new Roman currency named the antoninianus, a sort of double denarius; and for the massacres he enacted against the people of Rome and elsewhere in the empire. In 216, Caracalla began a campaign against the Parthian Empire. He did not see this campaign through to completion due to his assassination by a disaffected soldier in 217. Macrinus succeeded him as emperor three days later.
The ancient sources portray Caracalla as a tyrant and as a cruel leader, an image that has survived into modernity. Dio Cassius (c. 155 – c. 235) and Herodian (c. 170 – c. 240) present Caracalla as a soldier first and as an emperor second. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth started the legend of Caracalla's role as the king of Britain. Later, in the 18th century, the works of French painters revived images of Caracalla due to apparent parallels between Caracalla's tyranny and that ascribed to Louis XVI of France (r. 1774–1792). Modern works continue to portray Caracalla as a psychopathic and evil ruler, painting him as one of the most tyrannical of all Roman emperors.Carausius
Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Valerius Carausius (died 293) was a military commander of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. He was a Menapian from Belgic Gaul, who usurped power in 286, during the Carausian Revolt, declaring himself emperor in Britain and northern Gaul (Imperium Britanniarum). He did this only 13 years after the Gallic Empire of the Batavian Postumus was ended in 273. He held power for seven years, fashioning the name "Emperor of the North" for himself, before being assassinated by his finance minister Allectus.Carinus
Carinus (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Carinus Augustus; died 285) was Roman Emperor from 283 to 285. The elder son of emperor Carus, he was first appointed Caesar and in the beginning of 283 co-emperor of the western portion of the empire by his father. Official accounts of his character and career, which portray him as debauched and incapable, have been filtered through the propaganda of his successful opponent, Diocletian.Carus
Carus (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Carus Augustus; c. 222 – July or August 283) was Roman Emperor from 282 to 283, and was 60 at ascension. During his short reign, Carus fought the Germanic tribes and Sarmatians along the Danube frontier with success.
He died while campaigning against the Sassanid Empire, probably of unnatural causes, as he was reportedly struck by lightning. He was succeeded by his sons Carinus and Numerian, creating a dynasty which, though short-lived, provided further stability to the resurgent empire.Column of Marcus Aurelius
The Column of Marcus Aurelius (Latin: Columna Centenaria Divorum Marci et Faustinae, Italian: Colonna di Marco Aurelio) is a Roman victory column in Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy. It is a Doric column featuring a spiral relief: it was built in honour of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and modeled on Trajan's Column.Commodus
Commodus (; 31 August 161 – 31 December 192), born Lucius Aurelius Commodus and died Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, was Roman emperor with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 to his father's death in 180, and solely until 192.
During his father's reign, he accompanied Marcus Aurelius during the Marcomannic Wars in 172 and on a tour of the Eastern provinces in 176. He was made the youngest consul in Roman history in 177 and later that year elevated to co-emperor with his father. His accession was the first time a son had succeeded his biological father since Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79. He was also the first emperor to have both a father and grandfather (who had adopted his father) as the two preceding emperors. Commodus was the first (and until 337, the only) emperor "born in the purple", meaning during his father's reign.
During his solo reign, the Empire enjoyed a period of reduced military conflict compared with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, but intrigues and conspiracies abounded, leading Commodus to an increasingly dictatorial style of leadership that culminated in a God-like personality cult. His assassination in 192 marked the end of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty. He was succeeded by Pertinax, the first emperor in the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.Elagabalus
Elagabalus (), also known as Heliogabalus (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; c. 204 – 11 March 222), was Roman emperor from 218 to 222. A member of the Severan dynasty, he was Syrian, the second son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. In his early youth he served the god Elagabalus as a priest in Emesa, the hometown of his mother's family. As a private citizen, he was probably named Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus. Upon becoming emperor he took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. He was called Elagabalus only after his death.In 217, the emperor Caracalla was assassinated and replaced by his Praetorian prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus. Caracalla's maternal aunt, Julia Maesa, successfully instigated a revolt among the Third Legion to have her eldest grandson (and Caracalla's cousin), Elagabalus, declared emperor in his place. Macrinus was defeated on 8 June 218 at the Battle of Antioch. Elagabalus, barely 14 years old, became emperor, initiating a reign remembered mainly for sex scandals and religious controversy.
Later historians suggest Elagabalus showed a disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos. He replaced the traditional head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity Elagabalus, of whom he had been high priest. He forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity, over which he personally presided. Elagabalus was supposedly "married" as many as five times, lavishing favours on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers, and was reported to have prostituted himself in the imperial palace. His behavior estranged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and the common people alike. Amidst growing opposition, Elagabalus, just 18 years old, was assassinated and replaced by his cousin Severus Alexander on 11 March 222, who ruled for 13 years before his own assassination, which marked the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century. The assassination plot against Elagabalus was devised by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and carried out by disaffected members of the Praetorian Guard.
Elagabalus developed a reputation among his contemporaries for extreme eccentricity, decadence, and zealotry. This tradition has persisted, and with writers of the early modern age he suffers one of the worst reputations among Roman emperors. Edward Gibbon, for example, wrote that Elagabalus "abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury". According to Barthold Georg Niebuhr, "The name Elagabalus is branded in history above all others" because of his "unspeakably disgusting life".Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius is an ancient Roman statue in the Capitoline Hill, Rome, Italy. It is made of bronze and stands 4.24 m (13.9 ft) tall. Although the emperor is mounted, it exhibits many similarities to standing statues of Augustus. The original is on display in the Capitoline Museums, with the one now standing in the open air of the Piazza del Campidoglio being a replica made in 1981 when the original was taken down for restoration.Lucius Verus
Lucius Verus (; Latin: Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus; 15 December 130 – 23 January 169 AD) was the co-emperor of Rome with his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius from 161 until his own death in 169. He was a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. Verus' succession together with Marcus Aurelius marked the first time that the Roman Empire was ruled by multiple emperors, an increasingly common occurrence in the later history of the Empire.
The eldest son of Lucius Aelius Caesar, first adopted son and heir to Hadrian, Verus was born and educated in Rome where he held several political offices prior to taking the throne. After his biological father’s death in 138, he was adopted by Antoninus Pius, who was himself adopted by Hadrian. Hadrian died later that year, and Antoninus Pius succeeded to the throne.
Antoninus Pius ruled until 161 and was succeeded by Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. The majority of Verus’s reign was occupied by his direction of the war with Parthia which ended in Roman victory and some territorial gains. After initial involvement in the Marcomannic Wars, he fell ill and died in 169. He was deified by the Roman Senate as the Divine Verus (Divus Verus).Marcomannic Wars
The Marcomannic Wars (Latin: bellum Germanicum et Sarmaticum, "German and Sarmatian War") were a series of wars lasting over a dozen years from about 166 until 180 AD. These wars pitted the Roman Empire against, principally, the Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi and the Sarmatian Iazyges; there were related conflicts with several other barbarian peoples along both sides of the whole length of the Roman Empire's northeastern European border, the river Danube. The struggle against the Germans and Sarmatians occupied the major part of the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and it was during his campaigns against them that he started writing his philosophical work Meditations, whose book 1 bears the note "Among the Quadi at the Granua".Marcus Aurelius Marius
Marcus Aurelius Marius was emperor of the Gallic Empire in 269 following the assassination of Postumus.Maxentius
Maxentius (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius Augustus; c. 276 – 28 October 312) was Roman Emperor from 306 to 312. He was the son of former Emperor Maximian and the son-in-law of Emperor Galerius. The latter part of his reign was preoccupied with civil war, allying with Maximinus II against Licinius and Constantine. The latter defeated him at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, where Maxentius, with his army in flight, purportedly perished by drowning in the Tiber river.Meditations
Meditations (Medieval Greek: Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, romanized: Ta eis heauton, literally "things to one's self") is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. It is possible that large portions of the work were written at Sirmium, where he spent much time planning military campaigns from 170 to 180. Some of it was written while he was positioned at Aquincum on campaign in Pannonia, because internal notes tell us that the first book was written when he was campaigning against the Quadi on the river Granova (modern-day Hron) and the second book was written at Carnuntum.
It is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius ever intended the writings to be published and the work has no official title, so "Meditations" is one of several titles commonly assigned to the collection. These writings take the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs.Nerva–Antonine dynasty
The Nerva–Antonine dynasty was a dynasty of seven Roman Emperors who ruled over the Roman Empire from 96 CE to 192 CE. These Emperors are Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus.
The first five of the six successions within this dynasty were notable in that the reigning Emperor adopted the candidate of his choice to be his successor. Under Roman law, an adoption established a bond legally as strong as that of kinship. Because of this, all but the first and last of the Nerva-Antonine emperors are called Adoptive Emperors.
The importance of official adoption in Roman society has often been considered as a conscious repudiation of the principle of dynastic inheritance and has been deemed one of the factors of the period's prosperity. However, this was not a new practice. It was common for patrician families to adopt, and Roman emperors had adopted heirs in the past: the Emperor Augustus had adopted Tiberius and the Emperor Claudius had adopted Nero. Julius Caesar, dictator perpetuo and considered to be instrumental in the transition from Republic to Empire, adopted Gaius Octavius, who would become Augustus, Rome's first emperor. Moreover, there was a family connection as Trajan adopted his first cousin once removed and great-nephew by marriage Hadrian, and Hadrian made his half-nephew by marriage and heir Antoninus Pius adopt both Hadrian's second cousin three times removed and half-great-nephew by marriage Marcus Aurelius, also Antoninus' nephew by marriage, and the son of his original planned successor, Lucius Verus. The naming by Marcus Aurelius of his son Commodus was considered to be an unfortunate choice and the beginning of the Empire's decline.With Commodus' murder in 192, the Nerva-Antonine dynasty came to an end; it was followed by a period of turbulence known as the Year of the Five Emperors.Numerian
Numerian (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Numerius Numerianus Augustus; died 20 November 284) was Roman Emperor from 283 to 284 with his older brother Carinus. They were sons of Carus, a general raised to the office of praetorian prefect under Emperor Probus in 282.Probus (emperor)
Probus (; Latin: Marcus Aurelius Probus Augustus; c. 19 August 232 – September/October 282), was Roman Emperor from 276 to 282.
Probus was an active and successful general as well as a conscientious administrator, and in his reign of six years he secured prosperity for the inner provinces while withstanding repeated inundations of hostile barbarian tribes on almost every sector of the frontier.After repelling the foreign enemies of the empire Probus was forced to handle several internal revolts, but demonstrated leniency and moderation to the vanquished wherever possible. In his reign the facade of the constitutional authority of the Roman Senate was fastidiously maintained, and the conqueror who had carried his arms to victory over the Rhine professed himself dependent on the sanction of the Senate.Upon defeating the Germans Probus re-erected the ancient fortifications of emperor Hadrian between the Rhine and Danube rivers, protecting the Agri Decumates, and exacted from the vanquished a tribute of manpower to resettle depopulated provinces within the empire and provide for adequate defense of the frontiers. Despite his widespread popularity, Probus was killed in a mutiny of the soldiers while in the middle of preparations for the Persian war, which would be carried out under his successor Carus.Quintillus
Quintillus (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Claudius Quintillus Augustus; Died April 270) was Roman Emperor for a few months in 270.Roman–Parthian War of 161–166
The Roman–Parthian War of 161–166 (also called the Parthian War of Lucius Verus) was fought between the Roman and Parthian Empires over Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia. It concluded in 166 after the Romans made successful campaigns into lower Mesopotamia and Media and sacked Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital.Severus Alexander
Severus Alexander (; Latin: Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus; c. 208 – 19 March 235) was Roman Emperor from 222 to 235 and the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter's assassination in 222. His own assassination marked the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century—nearly 50 years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy, though this last part is now disputed.
Alexander was the heir to his cousin, the 18-year-old Emperor who had been murdered along with his mother Julia Soaemias, by his own guards, who, as a mark of contempt, had their remains cast into the Tiber river. He and his cousin were both grandsons of the influential and powerful Julia Maesa, who had arranged for Elagabalus' acclamation as emperor by the famous Third Gallic Legion. It was the rumor of Alexander's death that triggered the assassination of Elagabalus and his mother. His 13-year reign was the longest reign of a sole emperor since Antoninus Pius. He was also the second-youngest ever sole legal Roman Emperor during the existence of the united empire, the youngest being Gordian III.
As emperor, Alexander's peacetime reign was prosperous. However, Rome was militarily confronted with the rising Sassanid Empire and growing incursions from the tribes of Germania. He managed to check the threat of the Sassanids. But when campaigning against Germanic tribes, Alexander attempted to bring peace by engaging in diplomacy and bribery. This alienated many in the Roman Army and led to a conspiracy to assassinate and replace him.
Nerva–Antonine family tree
Except where otherwise noted, the notes below indicate that an individual's parentage is as shown in the above family tree.
27 BC – 235 AD
|Empire of Nicaea|
Italics indicates a co-emperor, while underlining indicates a usurper.