Marcus Aurelius

Definition

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 28 April 2011
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 - 180 CE), known as the last of the good emperors (reigned 161 – 169 with Lucius Verus; 169 – 177 alone; 177 - 180 with Commodus), was born in Rome (or, according to other sources, Spain) to an aristocratic family. His birth name was Marcus Annius Verus which he held until adopted by his uncle (and Emperor Hadrian’s successor) Aurelius Anontinus Pius, which made young Marcus heir to the rule of the Roman Empire. In the year 161 Marcus ascended to rule and, against the advice of the senate, established his adoptive half-brother Lucius Aurelius Verus as co-emperor with whom he ruled until Lucius’ death in 169 CE. Though Marcus Aurelius had, early on, been trained in Stoic philosophy (first being educated by the esteemed orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto before turning wholly to philosophy) and sought to rule justly according to the precepts of Stoicism, his rule was marred by incessant warfare and the tiresome task of dealing with a new fanatical religious sect known alternately as Nazarenes or Christians who refused to take part in the festivals of Rome and, further, would not honor the gods of the state. Aurelius’ persecutions of the early Christians, though harsh to a modern-day understanding, were considered necessary by the emperor in order to keep the peace and maintain order in the city of Rome. As there was no separation of church and state in ancient Rome, a refusal to acknowledge the gods was the same as a refusal to accept the laws of the state. In spite of these constant problems, Aurelius sought to improve the lives of the citizens of Rome and also of those in the outlying regions of the Empire. He is recognized as the last of the good emperors in that he consistently placed the needs of the people before his own desires or visions of glory. In 168 the Germans invaded across the Danube and Marcus and Lucius marched from Rome again to meet them. In this campaign (which Lucius would not survive) and those which followed, Marcus Aurelius proved himself a skillful and competent General, even though he had no formal training in warfare. It was primarily during his campaigns in the Danube region that Marcus composed his famous work The Meditations, a kind of journal or diary in which he recorded his thoughts and feelings about life, a work he never intended for publication. Marcus Aurelius died in the Danube region, in his camp, on March 17, 180 CE. He was succeeded by his son, Commodus, whom he had designated his heir, and who would un-do most of the good accomplished by Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius has been prominently depicted as a philospher emperor in the film "Gladiator" (2000), directed by Ridley Scott. The events of the film are fictional, though, and do not depict the true events around Marcus Aurelius.

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