The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Marcus Aurelius, an emperor that kept the empire safe from the Parthians and Germans but is best known for his intellectual pursuits.
Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher
Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 to a wealthy and politically prominent family. In 161, Aurelius took control of the Roman Empire along with his brother Verus, as war and disease was threatening Rome on all sides.
Known for his philosophical interests, Aurelius was one of the most respected emperors in Roman history. Growing up, he was a dedicated student, learning Latin and Greek, but his greatest intellectual interest was Stoicism, a philosophy that emphasized fate, reason and self-restraint. Discourses written by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, had a great deal of influence over Marcus Aurelius. His serious and hard-working nature was even noticed by Emperor Hadrian.
After his earlier choice for a successor died, Hadrian adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (who would be known as Emperor Pius Antonius) to succeed him as an emperor. Hadrian also arranged for Antoninus to adopt Marcus Aurelius, the son of his earlier successor. Around the age of 17, Marcus Aurelius became the son of Antoninus and worked alongside his adopted father while learning the ways of government and public affairs.
In 140, Aurelius became consul, or leader of the senate, a post he would hold two more times in his lifetime. As the years passed, he received more responsibilities and official powers, evolving into a strong source of support and counsel for Antoninus. Aurelius also continued his philosophical studies and developed an interest in law.
Along with his growing career, Aurelius seemed to have a contented personal life. He married Faustina, the emperor’s daughter, in 145. Together they had many children, though some did not live for long. Best known are their daughter Lucilla and their son Commodus.
After his adoptive father died in 161, Aurelius rose to power and was officially then known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. While some sources indicate that Antoninus selected him as his only successor, Aurelius insisted that his adopted brother served as his co-ruler. His brother was Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus, usually referred to as Verus.
Unlike the peaceful and prosperous rule of Antoninus, the joint reign of the two brothers was marked by war and disease. In the 160s, they battled with the Parthian empire for control over lands in the east. Verus oversaw the war effort while Aurelius stayed in Rome. Much of their success in this conflict has been attributed to the generals working under Verus, especially Avidius Cassius, who was later made governor of Syria. Returning soldiers brought disease back with them to Rome, which lingered for years and wiped out a portion of the population.
As the Parthian War ended, the two rulers had to face another military conflict with German tribes in the late 160s. The tribes crossed the Danube River and attacked a Roman city. After raising the necessary funds and troops, Aurelius and Verus went off to fight the invaders. Verus died in 169 so Aurelius pushed on alone, attempting to drive away the invading hordes.
In 175, he faced another challenge, this time for his very position. After hearing a rumor about Aurelius being deathly ill, Avidius Cassius claimed the title of emperor for himself. This forced Aurelius to travel to the east to regain control. But he did not have to fight Cassius, as he was murdered by his own soldiers. Instead, Aurelius toured eastern provinces with his wife, re-establishing his authority. Unfortunately, Faustina died during this trip.
While once again battling the German tribes, Aurelius made his son Commodus his co-ruler in 177. Together they fought the northern enemies of the empire. Aurelius even hoped to extend the empire’s borders through this conflict, but Aurelius did not live long enough to see this vision to completion.
Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180. His son Commodus became emperor and soon ended the northern military efforts. Marcus Aurelius, however, is not best remembered for the wars he waged, but for his contemplative nature and his rule driven by reason. A collection of his thoughts have been published in a work called “The Meditations” based on his Stoic beliefs and filled with his notes on life.