Marcus Aurelius


Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born on April 26th 121 in Rome. He came from an aristocratic family that had long made their mark in Spain. His father was Annius Verus. Marcus was destined for greatness. When only a small child, he caught the attention of the Emperor Hadrian, a fellow countryman and pedophile. He was appointed by the Emperor to priesthood in the year 129, and Hadrian also supervised his education, which was entrusted to the best professors of literature, rhetoric and philosophy of the time. 

Marcus Aurelius discovered Stoicism by the time he was 11 and from his early twenties he deserted his other studies for philosophy. The Emperor Antoninus Pius, who succeeded Hadrian, adopted Marcus Aurelius as his son in 138. "He never bathed at odd hours," Marcus Aurelius said of him in Meditations, "or took a passion for building; never set up for a table connoisseur, and expert on textures and tints, or an authority on good looks... One might fairly apply to him what is recorded of Socrates, that he could either enjoy or leave things which most people find themselves too weak to abstain from, and too self-indulgent to enjoy." Antoninus Pius treated Aurelius as a confidant and helper throughout his reign; Marcus Aurelius also married his daughter, Faustina, in 139. He was admitted to the Senate, and then twice the consulship. Around 147 is around the time he commenced composition of his Meditations, which he wrote in Greek in army camps. 

At the age of 40, in 161, Marcus Aurelius ascended the throne and shared his imperial power with his adopted brother Lucius Aurelius Verus. Useless and lazy, Verus was regarded as a kind of junior emperor; he died in 169. After Verus's death, he ruled alone, until he admitted his own son, Commodus, to full participation in the government in 177.

As an emperor Marcus Aurelius was just and conservative by Roman standards. He was beset by internal disturbances – famine, earthquakes, fires, and plague – and by the external threat posed by the Germans in the north and the Parthians in the east. However, Sir Edward Gobbon has praised the period of 'Five Good Emperors' – Narva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – of which Marcus' own life spanned almost three-quarters: 

Toward the end of his reign, in 175, Marcus Aurelius was faced with a revolt by Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria, who perhaps believed rumors that the Emperor had died. His head was sent to Marcus Aurelius. According to some sources, Faustina, Marcus' wife, may have been involved in this conspiracy. An epidemic of plague followed Cassius's army from the East. Year after year Aurelius tried to push barbarians back but witnessed the gradual crumbling of the Roman frontiers. In these times of disasters, he turned more and more to the study of Stoic philosophy.

The Latin writings of Marcus Aurelius, letters to a teacher, Fronto, are not interesting, but the "Writings to Himself", called Meditations, are remarkable. They are personal reflections and aphorisms, written for his own edification during a long career of public service, after marching or battle in the remote Danube. Meditations are valuable primarily as a personal document, what it is to be a Stoic. His opinions in central philosophical questions are very much similar to Epictetus's (c. 55-135 AD) teachings. Epictetus's two basic principles were: Endure and Abstain. He stressed that inner freedom is to be attained through submission to providence, and rigorous detachment from everything not in our power.

Roman Emperor and Stoic, the author of Meditations in twelve books. Its first printing appeared in English in 1634. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius the celebrated Pax Romana collapsed - perhaps this made the emperor the most forbearing of all Stoics. An important feature of the philosophy was that everything will recur: the whole universe becomes fire and then repeats itself.

Marcus Aurelius' melancholic writings reveal that the public duties depressed him and he wanted to retire to live a simple country life. Marcus Aurelius' reputation is shadowed by his persecution of Christians. A devout adherent of the Roman religion, Marcus Aurelius considered the Christians fanatics, who don't die with stoic dignity. "How lovely the soul that is prepared – when its hour comes to slough off this flesh – for extinctions, dispersion, or survival! But this readiness should result from a personal decision, not from sheer contrariness like the Christians..." Probably Marcus Aurelius knew very little about Christian beliefs. The fierce cruelty, with which the persecution was carried out in Gaul, was not consistent with his writings. However, Stoics had a profound influence upon both Neo-Platonism and Christianity. Besides Meditations Aurelius left behind among others two Roman monuments, the column which commemorates his victories in the Marcomannic Wars and the equestrian statue on the Capitol.

Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180, in the city of Vindobona (now Vienna, Austria). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome, and rested in Hadrian's mausoleum (today 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. Towards the end of his life, Marcus gave the succession of the empire to his only son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and made co-emperor in 177. This decision, putting an end to the series of "adoptive emperors", was highly criticized by later historians since Commodus was a political and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist with neurotic problems. 



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