Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (April 26, 121 - March 17, 180) was Roman Emperor from 161 to his death in 180. 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; "Aurelius" means "golden."
His uncle Antoninus Pius adopted him as a son and designated him his successor on February 25, 138, when Marcus was only seventeen years of age. Antoninus also named Lucius Verus as his successor. When Antoninus died, Marcus accepted the throne on the condition that he and Verus were made joint emperors (Augusti), with Verus partly subordinate. The reasons for this are unclear.
The joint succession may have been motivated by military exigency. During his reign Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war with various peoples outside the Empire. Germanic and other peoples launched many raids along the long European border, particularly into Gaul. (They, in turn, may have been under attack from more warlike tribes farther east.) In Asia, a revitalized Parthian empire renewed its assault. A highly authoritative figure was needed to command the troops, yet the emperor himself could not defend both fronts at the same time. Neither could he simply appoint a general to lead one assault; earlier popular military leaders like Julius Caesar and Vespasian had used the military to overthrow the existing government and install themselves as supreme leaders.
Marcus 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 was successful - Verus remained loyal until his death on campaign in 169. This 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.
Aurelius married Faustina the Younger in 145. During their 30-year marriage Faustina bore 13 children, most notably son Commodus who would become Emperor and daughter Lucilla who was wed to Lucius Verus to solidify his alliance with Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180 during the expedition against the Marcomanni in the city of Vindobona (today Vienna). His ashes were returned to Rome and rest in Hadrian's mausoleum. He was able to secure the succession for his son Commodus, who he made co-emperor in his own lifetime (in 177), though the choice may have been 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.
Depictions in art
A well preserved bronze equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius is located in Piazza del Campidoglio , Rome. In fact, it is the only surviving bronze statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor- the reason being that following Rome's conversion to Christianity, when statues of Emperors were being melted down to make statues for the Christian churches, it was (incorrectly) thought that the statue was of the Emperor Constantine, who 'Christianised' Rome, and so it was left alone. This statue is the subject of a €0.50 Italian euro coin designed by Roberto Mauri .
Marcus Aurelius has a reputation, possibly exaggerated by history, as a Stoic philosopher. He wrote his well-known Meditations in Greek while on campaign, as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement . Those memos survive and continue to inspire others to this day. Some popular English translations include:
- Meditations, translated by Maxwell Stainforth. ISBN 0140441409.
- Meditations, translated by Gregory Hays. ISBN 0679642609.
- The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations, translated by Scot and David Hicks. ISBN 0743233832.
Appearances in film and literature
- The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964 film), played by Alec Guinness
- Household Gods (1999 novel), by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove. ISBN 0613351479.
- Gladiator (2000 film), played by Richard Harris
- Roman Empire
- List of Roman Emperors
- the Five Good Emperors, of which Marcus Aurelius is considered the last
- Marcus Aurelius entry at De Imperatoribus Romanis
- e-texts of Meditations
with Lucius Verus