Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
Marcus Aurelius
Born 26 April 121
Birthplace Rome
Died 2 July 180 (50 years)
Title 16th Caesar of Rome
Coronation Curia Julia, Rome
Reign 8 March 161-169
(with Lucius)

169-2 July 180
Predecessor Antoninus Pius
Successor Sulla I
Dynasty Antonine
Children 14
Beliefs Stoicism & Polytheism

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (26 April 121 - 2 July 180) was the Caesar of Rome from 161 until his death in 180 CE. Ruling alongside co-emperor Lucius Verus until the latter's death in early 169, Marcus only ruled alone for the last eleven years of his reign. During this time, he faced the onslaught of a renewed Persia, a devastating plague, and repeated invasions by the tribes along the Danube. For these reasons, historians since Cassius Dio have lamented the tragedy of his reign, as a period rife with disaster despite the unimpeachable competence of the emperor himself.

His remarkable conduct in the Marcomannic Wars are honored in the doric column commissioned by his son in the year of his death. When he died, Marcus was buried alongside his illustrious predecessors in the Mausoleum Hadriani. His epitaph, chosen by his son out of the Illiad, reads, "the wind scatters some on the face of the ground, like unto them are the children of men."

Marcus Aurelius was quite unlike most men in his wisdom and justice, managing the state carefully and acting always out of concern for his duties and the welfare of the Roman people. For these reasons, he has earned a reputation among historians as a philosopher-king. His own philosophical writings, circulated shortly after his death, are a testament to this wisdom and to the general clarity of his thought.

Early Life

Originating from Baetica, Aurelius' family came to be influential members of the Senate in the first century CE. By 74, Marcus' grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus II, was made a patrician as son of a senator and ex-praetor Marcus Annius Verus I. Marcus Annius Verus III and his wife, Domitia Lucilla, gave birth to their first child, Marcus Aurelius on April 26, 121 CE. From his parents, Marcus claims to have learned his ideals of piety, simplicity, and modesty, among other lessons which greatly influenced his later philosophical outlook on life.

After his parents' death and his adoption by Verus II, Marcus became a prominent aristocrat, master of the Salii order of priests, and, later, praefectus urbi. His rise in influence was facilitated by Caesar Hadrian, who knew the boy as Verissimus (most true), and required of his successor, Aurelius Antoninus, that he adopt the young Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his own successors. On Hadrian's death, this arrangement was upheld but Antoninus had Marcus marry his daughter, Faustina.


On the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius had held imperium maius and tribunicia potestas for nearly fourteen years and his status as emperor, against his horror imperii, was assured. Despite having no equal, Marcus refused to accept his remaining powers unless Hadrian's wishes, that Lucius Verus govern alongside him, were fulfilled (despite having little love for Hadrian himself).

Although Marcus and Lucius were nominal equals, no one had any illusions about who had seniority of the same titles. True, Marcus held the additional office of pontifex maximus but, in general, it was recognition of his superior status (mere auctoritas alone) that marked a difference in their relative power in practice. A later historian would write "...[it is] as a lieutenant obeys his proconsul", describing their relationship. While there had been plans for joint rulers before - Octavian intended this for Gaius and Lucius, as did Tiberius for Germanicus and Drusus - this succession marked the first time that two men were simultaneously hailed as Augustus under the authority of the Senate.

The emperors' early rule garnered the full support of the Roman people, especially after provisions to assist poor children were granted in 161. Free speech continued to be respected by the government and very little fuss was made even when the writer Marullus criticized the emperors themselves. When the Tiber river flooded, damaging the capital and its food supply, the two emperors intervened personally to resolve the plight of their people, a type of act which Marcus Aurelius continued making throughout his reign, helping other areas with famines. As well, Aurelius was renowned for the great attention he gave to petitions and matters of law, earning him the praise from jurists of being "an emperor most skilled in the law".

Following the Parthian Wars, the returning Triumph of General Avidius Cassius and his soldiers brought a terrible thing back to Italia - the plague. Known by Galen as the Antonine Plague, it pervaded the region from 165 to 180 and has been attributed the deaths of both Marcus and Lucius. Further to the east, a Roman embassy sent by Antoninus finally arrived in Han China to trade with the great eastern empire. While the trade went well and the embassy returned safely, no further attempts at contact were sent by the emperors.

For most of the 160's and early 170's, Marcus toured the eastern provinces in between military campaigns along the Danube to repel and punish the rebellious Quadi, Marcomanni and Iazyges people. In the city of Athens in 173, he gave a speech on philosophy to a large crowd, among whom was a young boy aged only eight years. Afterward, the boy followed the emperor home and began asking him naively honest questions about his speech that day. Marcus learned that the boy was an orphan, and due to the emperor's propensity for helping the poor and young, adopted the precocious young Gaius Corellus Sulla before returning to the Danubian Frontier.

Aurelius raised Sulla the way he remembered his own parents raising him, and taught him the virtues which he himself held dear. Almost immediately, he realized that the boy was smarter than he even first thought, and deeply impressed by his continued academic progress, named Sulla his successor in 178, superseding the previous choice of his biological son Commodus. What happens next is a little unclear, but historians believe that Sulla's future wife, Polonia (then only a servant girl in the court), poisoned Commodus after learning from his sister that the man intended to kill the heir-apparent himself. At the time, neither Aurelius nor Sulla were aware of what had transpired and both of them attributed Commodus' untimely demise to the plague.

Two years later, on July 2nd, Marcus Aurelius finally gave in to his illness and died peacefully with Sulla and his four surviving daughters at his bedside. After the appropriate period of mourning, Gaius Corellus Sulla was proclaimed Caesar Sulla, emperor of Rome, by the Senate and Legion.

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