Who was Emperor Marcus Aurelius and what did he do?

For a man regarded as one of the world's great Stoic philosophers embracing a life of virtue, moral worth and tranquillity of mind, the dichotomy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius was that he spent much of his nineteen-year reign on the battlefield. Here is the remarkable story of Marcus Aurelius.

History Rulers
13 May 2023

The last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius was an exceptional figure who defied the norms of his time. He combined the wisdom of a great Stoic philosopher with the strategic acumen of a battle-hardened Roman emperor. His unwavering commitment to virtue, self-discipline, and inner peace stands in stark contrast to the years he spent waging war to defend the empire.

The reign of Marcus Aurelius took in Pax Romana, a period of peace and prosperity in ancient Rome that lasted around two hundred years. Indeed according to the historian Cassius Dio, the reign of Commodus, the tyrannical son of Marcus Aurelius who succeeded his father, turned Rome ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.’

Embodied in his profound work ‘Meditations,’ the philosophical insights of Marcus Aurelius have had a lasting influence on Western thought and continue to inspire.

Delve into the extraordinary life and enduring legacy of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a paragon of wisdom and fortitude amidst the tumultuous world of the politics of ancient Rome.

The Early Life of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius by Mino da Fiesole (Photo by © Arte & Immagini srl/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s believed Marcus Aurelius was born into a prominent Roman family in 121 AD and his birth name is sometimes given as Marcus Annius Verus, after his father who died when the future emperor was three.

It has also been suggested that his mother, Domitia Lucilla, didn’t spend much time with him and he was therefore raised by nurses and his paternal grandfather, who was a consul and prefect of Rome.

Like many prominent Romans, very little is known about the early years of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus with any degree of certainty. Recorded information on his early life is scattered among a number of sources, some more reliable than others. It’s believed he was well educated and developed a liking for boxing and wrestling. Around the age of eleven in 132 AD, he was introduced to the works of the Stoic Philosophers who lived a simple life of coarse food and few possessions, eschewing social conventions. It was these teachings that would shape his rule and legacy.

Around four years later in 136 AD, emperor Hadrian nominated Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his heir. However, after the latter died, the emperor adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus – later known as Emperor Antoninus Pius – to succeed him. In an unusual next step, Hadrian also arranged for Antoninus to adopt Marcus Aurelius.

At the age of seventeen or so, this adoption occurred and he took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. He worked alongside his adopted father, learning the complex machinations of Roman politics and was groomed as a wise and just future ruler.

In 145 AD, Marcus Aurelius married Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus and they had thirteen or fourteen children, the most famous of whom were daughter Lucilla and son Commodus.

The Reign of Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus

Lucius Verus (130-169 AD) (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Antoninus Pius died in 161 AD and Marcus Aurelius was named emperor. He also insisted his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, known as Emperor Verus, reigned as co-emperor. In reality, Verus was subservient to Aurelius.

During the first year of their joint rule, Aurelius and Verus endeared themselves to the people of Rome by instituting programs to aid the poor, giving pay rises to the army and encouraging free speech and commitments to the arts and education. This was a time known as felicitas temporum, or ‘happy times’, however it wasn’t long before they were at war.

The Roman-Parthian War 161 AD - 166 AD

Roman civilization,2nd century A.D. Relief portraying a scene from the Parthian War, Detail from the Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus monument in Ephesus. (Photo By DEA / MEYER/De Agostini via Getty Images)

In 161 AD, forces of Parthian king Vologases IV invaded Armenia, which was under the protection of Rome. While Emperor Marcus Aurelius stayed in Rome conducting the administrative business of the Empire, Verus – ably assisted by General Gaius Avidus Cassius – led the Roman troops to victory by 166 AD.

However the victory against the Parthians came at a considerable cost. It seems the soldiers brought back a devastating plague, known as the Antonine Plague, that wiped out millions of people, possibly including Lucius Verus in 169 AD. It lasted until around 180 AD.

Wars With the Germanic Tribes

As soon as the Roman-Parthian War ended, another began and lasted until the end of the emperorship of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This time, the wars were against Germanic tribes, most notably the Marcomanni tribe joined by the Sarmatians of Persia.

It’s believed Marcus Aurelius joined Verus in the Roman provinces of the Danube, the empire’s northeastern European border, to drive back the barbarian advances. They were successful, and it has been said that one of the emperor’s most experienced battlefield generals, Marcus Nonius Macrinus, provided the inspiration for the character of Maximus Decimus Meridius in the film featuring Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator.

The Legacy of Marcus Aurelius - Stoicism

Bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (Photo by Edoardo Fornaciari/Getty Images)

Thanks to Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius is one of the most famous of the Roman emperors. However, his achievements as an emperor largely pale into insignificance when compared to his writings, the most well-known of which is called ‘Meditations.’

The book is a collection of personal reflections and philosophical ideas written in Greek and it remains one of the most significant works of Stoic philosophy and is still widely read today.

Meditations explores themes such as self-improvement, resilience, virtue, and the impermanence of life. It serves as a practical guide for cultivating inner peace, moral character, and a rational perspective amidst the challenges of daily life. The enduring wisdom found in the book continues to resonate with readers, making it a timeless masterpiece of philosophical thought. Perhaps ironically, much of the book was written in military camps on campaigns.

The Later Years of Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Emperor Marcus Aurelius extends grace to the conquered. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

The final decade of his reign and indeed his life, was spent campaigning against a number of Germanic tribes and touring the eastern outposts of the empire. His wife of thirty years often accompanied her husband during these later years and she died in 175 AD.

In the same year, Avidus Cassius, the general who was so instrumental during the Parthian Wars, attempted a coup to seize the emperorship but was thwarted and murdered by his own men.

During one of his final battles in the northern reaches of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius named his son Commodus as his heir, a most unfortunate paradox given his son’s unquenchable lust for tyranny, cruelty and violence.

A philosopher first and emperor second, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus led an empire with virtue and wisdom. He died in 180 AD.

The Legacy of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius celebrating triumph, 176-180 A.D. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Emperor Marcus Aurelius remains an iconic figure in history, embodying the rare combination of a wise philosopher and a skilled ruler. His steadfast adherence to Stoic principles, despite the tumultuous times he faced, stands as a testament to the strength of his character.

Under his reign, Rome experienced both peace and war, and his leadership helped maintain the empire’s stability during challenging periods. The legacy of Marcus Aurelius extends beyond his military and political accomplishments, as his profound work, ‘Meditations,’ continues to inspire and influence. His life serves as an enduring example of wisdom, virtue, and resilience in the face of adversity, making him one of the most revered emperors in the annals of Roman history.


You May Also Like

Explore More