Marcus Aurelius: The emperor, philosopher, man.

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In the 18th century Edward Gibbon his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire considered the 2nd century AD ‘ a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines'(3) . These five emperors were known as the ‘five good emperors’ ushering in a period of relative peace and prosperity, this was the golden age of Rome, great monuments were built such as the Pantheon,Trajan’s Forum and Column and Hadrians wall. The Legions kept the Empire secure, and unlike earlier and later periods of Roman history  each emperor nominated adopted and named his successor prior to his death, thus ensuring a stable transition of power. The last of the five good emperors was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, his turbulent reign (161-180) included recurrent wars with the Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmatians from across the Danube river, which broke the relative peace and stability of the previous hundred years. His general Avidius Cassius defeated the Parthians who reigned in Persia and sacked their capital Ctesiphon(2). Initially Marcus ruled jointly with Lucius Verus until 169 when Varus died and he became sole emperor, Marcus Aurelius was a stoic philosopher his writings have come down do us in his Meditations, which he wrote on campaign. His character has often been portrayed in films such as Gladiator (2000) where he is shown as a deeply thoughtful and concerned man, his son Commodus has often been considered the complete opposite of his father, incompetent and tyrannical and the instigator of the decline of the Roman Empire. This  short post is a brief account of Marcus Aurelius, the man and the emperor.

Early Life

Spain in the 2nd century AD produced , several notable men such as the philosopher Seneca and Trajan who founded the Antonine dynasty. It was from this flourishing province that Marcus Aurelius’s family were descended from. Marcus was born in 121 AD in Rome, his father was Marcus Annius Verus (III) who married his mother Domitia Lucilla, but when his father died he was adopted by his grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (II). He was raised in the Caelian Hill area of Rome, these early figures  shaped his character.

The Philosopher King

Marcus philosophical thoughts were recorded in his meditations , these were written while on his many campaigns, probably at Sirmium in the province of Pannonia in modern Serbia(2). He was one of the last Stoic philosophers , Stoicism was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BC and Marcus seems to have followed this line of philosophical thought. He appears a troubled man, his meditations were a way of releasing his inner thoughts, they appear to have aided him (1);

as a man, as a Roman and as an emperor

His writings are important today as ever before, and are a source of inspiration today,  because his writings reveal a glimpse of the ordinary man not just the emperor to which he is known. He recognized the world around him was full of vice(1);

today I shall encounter the officious, the graceless, the arrogant, the treacherous, the envious, the selfish

he thought the reason why people had these characteristics were because they did not understand the difference between good and bad.

The Wars

Marcus alongside his co ruler Verus spent most of their reign fighting wars , in the 160’s war broke out with the Parthians in the east after the Parthians invaded and defeated the Romans in Armenia . Verus governed the east while his general Avidius Cassius oversaw the war, the Romans were successful in defeating the Parthians after Cassius invaded Mesopotamia and sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. However on the return the legions brought something back which would effect the whole of the empire, and begin its decline, either the plague or smallpox. This wiped out a large proportion of the population in the coming years(2).

In the 160’s the two rulers were forced to fight again as tribes had crossed the Danube and attacked a Roman city. In response to this the two rulers attacked the Marcomanni and Quadi, this was a long series of wars known as the Marcomannic wars, when Verus died in 169, the task fell to Marcus to finally defeat these tribes. These wars along with the the disease which the legions brought back wreaked havoc on the empire, and when Marcus died in 180, the decline of the empire began. When he died his body was brought back to Rome and his ashes placed in the Hadrian’s Mausoleum, where it rested until Rome was sacked in 410 AD.

His reign began when Rome was in the midst of its glory and ended with the empire exhausted by war, yet secure, but it was his son and successor Commodus who would really set the decline of the empire in motion.


Author:  Jeremy Hallatt


References and Further Reading

1.Aurelius. M. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. by George Long. Vol. II, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 5.

2.Rodgers. N and Dodge, H. 2006. Roman Empire. London: Lorenz Books. 36.

3.Womersley, D, 1994. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 3 vols, London and New York, Penguin. 4.


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