by Katherine_Kennedy
March 2020

from ClassicalWisdom Website

Italian version









Part I

March 04, 2020

A Man of Many Names

Marcus was born on the 26th of April, in Rome, in the year 121 A.D.


He bore many different versions of his name whilst growing up; these changed as his familial status was altered first by the death of his father, then his unofficial adoption by his grandfather, and finally his legal coming of age.


Some of the names he was known by include,

  • Marcus Annis Verus

  • Marcus Annis Catilius Severus

  • Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus

But, when Antoninus Pius formally adopted him, as Hadrian's successor, Marcus became heir to the empire, and his name was changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar.


This name would only change once more; when he became emperor.


His final, and full name - Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus - would last until his death.




Roman: Flesh and Blood

Marcus' family background was as noble as they came.


He was of Italo-Hispanic descent on his father's side and, as such, was a member of the Aurelii, who were based in Roman Spain. The Annia gens is also of Italian descent, with the Annii Veri having risen through the Roman ranks from the 1st century AD.


Marcus was related directly to Marcus Annius Verus (I), his great-grandfather, an ex-praetor, and Marcus Annius Verus (II), his grandfather and unofficial adoptive father, who was a patrician.

However, Marcus was also a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty courtesy of his grandmother, Rupilia. As such, Marcus was also connected directly to Emperors Trajan and Hadrian through Hadrian's wife Sabina.


She was his grandmother's half sister, with Sabina and Rupilia being daughters of Trajan's sororal niece, Salonia Matidia.


Domitia Lucilla

from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"


Marcus' mother, Domitia Lucilla, was notable historically, as she was immensely wealthy due to her inherited fortune.


As the daughter of a Roman patrician, P. Calvisius Tullus, her wealth was so great that it included brickworks on the outskirts of Rome - which was a boon in an age of rapid expansion - and Horti Domitia Calvillae/Lucillae, the villa on the Caelian hill of Rome, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome.


Marcus would later refer to this villa as 'My Caelian', as he was born and raised there, and always remembered it fondly.

Finally, Marcus adopted the gen. name Aurelia when he was chosen as an heir to Antoninus Pius; not just the Emperor, but his adoptive father, and part of the Aurelii Fulvi, who stemmed from the Sabine and were of Italo-Gallic origin.


But genes and family names do not an Emperor make.


Though Marcus Aurelius was born into noble families, it was his education that would shape the born-leader's mind and harness his abilities.




Educating an Emperor

Marcus' formal education was instilled through several private tutors as befits his aristocratic standing.


His adoptive father, Marcus Annius Verus (II), through patria potestas authority when Marcus Annius Verus (III) died around 124, oversaw his grandson's upbringing.


Marcus' education taught him to be of good character and to avoid bad temper, something he recognized as being of great value, and he thanked his grandfather for his wisdom.

"From my grandfather Verus I learned to relish the beauty of manners, and to restrain all anger."

Meditations, I.1

Diogenetus, a painting master, also had great impact on Marcus; as it appears it is he who introduced the young man to philosophy and a philosophic way of life.


This extended to Marcus taking up the robes and habits of a philosopher in the year 132.


This involved wearing a rough Greek cloak whilst studying, and he would sleep on the ground for a period, although the latter part he would give away after a time, due to the many frequent and vocal concerns of his mother.


Marcus Annius Verus

from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"


Amongst his other tutors were the Homeric teachers,

  • Alexander of Cotiaeum

  • Trosius Aper

  • Tuticius Proculus,

...all who taught him Latin, with Marcus thanking Alexander for teaching him literary styling, which can be seen in Marcus' Meditations.


From AD 136, Marcus had three Greek tutors,

  • Aninus Macer

  • Caninius Celer

  • Herodes Atticus

  • along with Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin

Late in 136 Marcus' life changed dramatically; he took the toga virilis and began his training in oratory.


After nearly dying, Emperor Hadrian, whilst convalescent in Tivoli, chose Marcus' intended father-in-law, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his successor.


Lucius took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar, making Marcus as Lucius' adoptive son, a direct successor to the throne.

However, Lucius did not live long enough for this to happen; instead, Lucius died the night before delivering his speech to the senate, in 138. Hadrian then selected a new heir.

Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus' aunt, Faustina the Elder.

In a bold move, and as part of the terms of this agreement between Hadrian and Antoninus, Antoninus was to adopt Marcus and Lucius' son Lucius Verus.


This once again implied that Emperor Hadrian had always kept Marcus in mind for the role of Emperor, eventually.

Upon the death of Hadrian, Antoninus was made Emperor, and Marcus' previous betrothal was annulled; Marcus would instead marry Antoninus' daughter, Faustina the Younger. In 140 Marcus was made consul, he was then appointed as a seviri and became the head of the equestrian order with the title princeps iuventutis.


As the heir apparent to the Empire, he also took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar; a title he would remind himself not to take too seriously with the following admonition:

"Take care that thou art not made into a Caesar, that thou art not dyed with this dye; for such things happen.


Keep thyself then simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts.


Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods, and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts.


Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus."

Meditations, VI.30


Faustina the Younger (130-175 AD).

Marble, ca. 161 AD. From the area of Tivoli.


Life and service under Antoninus saw Marcus rise through the ranks, and at the senate's request he joined all the priestly colleges, although there is only direct evidence of him joining the Arval Brethren.


Despite Marcus's objections, he was also required to adopt the habits of his position, the aulicum fastigium or 'pomp of the court'.


As such, he was also made to relocate his home to the House of Tiberius, the imperial palace on the Palatine, something he was loathed to do and which caused him some sadness.

The trappings of his position did not sit well with his philosopher's mind, and he would struggle to reconcile the two for the remainder or his life.


However, through the words,

'Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life; life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace', he was convinced the two could work together.

As quaestor, and under the tutelage of Fronto, Marcus received training for ruling the state. He gained practice by dictating dozens of letters, receiving oratory training giving speeches to the senators, and being educated in matters of State.


In 145 he was made consul for the second time, with Fronto urging him to rest well before his appointment as Marcus had complained of an illness previously.


This ongoing illness would haunt him for many years, especially as he had never been particularly healthy or strong.

Around 146-147, Marcus's health took a downward turn, historically it is unclear if this was physical, mental, or a combination of both, as he drifted away from his studies in jurisprudence, and he tired from his exercises in imaginary debates.


At this point, Marcus' formal education was ended, and his philosophic tendencies began to return to the fore.


Titlepage of an 1811 edition of

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,

translated by R. Graves.


Fronto had warned Marcus against philosophical studies, as he disdained both philosophy and philosophers.


He had contempt for Marcus' sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon, as it is probably he who introduced Marcus to Stoicism. Fronto's attitude would lead to a distance growing between master and student that would never be bridged.


Marcus would keep in touch with Fronto, but from here on he chose to ignore Fronto's opinions.




Domestic Joys and Heartbreak

In April of 145, Marcus and Faustina finally married, having been betrothed since 138.


During their marriage they would have at least 14 children over a 23-year period; including two sets of twins, and only one son and four daughters outliving their parents.


The first child, Domitia Faustina, was born in 147, and the next day Marcus received tribunician power and the imperium from Emperor Antoninus.

Although many of his children would not live past early childhood, Marcus' joy at each birth was celebrated with the minting of Imperial coins, many of which can be seen in museums today.


Sadly, this period also marked the deaths of his beloved mother, Domitia Lucilla, and Cornificia, his sister.


This period of emotional upheaval may have contributed to Marcus' downward spiraling health, and cemented his Stoic beliefs:

that Nature will always rule men.



Rise to Power

At this time, Lucius Verus began his political career, first as consul in 154, and again in 161, this time with Marcus.


Antoninus turned 70 in AD 156, and had grown physically weak; needing stays to keep him upright and nibbling dried bread to stay awake through morning receptions.


During this time, Marcus took on more and more administrative duties, including those of praetorian prefect when Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157.


Marcus and Lucius were both designated as joint consuls for the coming year in 160, as Antoninus was quite ill by this time.


Statue of Antoninus Pius

Palazzo Altemps



On 7th March, 161, Emperor Antoninus Pius died at his ancestral estate of Lorium, in Eturia.


Having summoned the imperial council, and having handed over the state and his daughter to Marcus, as evening fell and the night-watch came to ask the password, he uttered it before turning over as if to sleep - aequanimitas (equanimity).


So ended the rule of Anotnius Pius and began that of Marcus Aurelius.








Part II
March 06, 2020

One Empire, Two Emperors

Life changed drastically for Marcus Aurelius, and Rome in 161 when Antoninus Pius died, leaving Marcus effectively as the new Emperor.


However, although he was granted the name Augustus and the title imperator, and was elected Pontifex Maximus, Marcus appears to have taken these positions with some hesitation, having to be compelled to do so.

He may have been hesitant due to a literal fear of imperial power - horror imperii - or simply because he preferred the philosophic life. But, due to his training as a Stoic, he did not shrug off what he perceived as his duty and accepted the appointment.

It's important to reflect on Marcus' relationship with Hadrian, who was of course Antoninus' predecessor.


Although Marcus doesn't appear to have had any great sentiment for Hadrian, as he did not mention Hadrian in his Meditations, Marcus was no doubt aware of the former emperor's plans of succession, and ultimately chose to uphold them.

However, this is where Marcus displayed his sense of fairness, justice, and stoicism; he refused to take up office unless Lucius Verus was also granted equal powers.


The Senate capitulated, and two Emperors were now ruling Rome equally, working united, a first for the Empire.


Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus,

British Museum.


Or, at least that is how it appeared.


Marcus held more authority - auctoritas - as he had been consul more times than Lucius, and had been involved in Antoninus' rule and was Pontifex Maximus.


To the public eye, it was clear that Marcus was the senior partner in this joint rulership.

In an unexpected move, the joint rulers then made their way to Castra Praetoria, the Praetorian Guard's encampment, and Lucius addressed the troops, and made a declaration of a special 'donative' - a donation which was more than double that from previous emperors, almost several years pay.

With this address and monetary promise, the army immediately declared them as imperatores, and vowed to protect them.


This course of action, winning over the military, wasn't entirely necessary as with previous ascensions, however it was an effective way of solidifying support from the army to the Emperors against any future attacks.




Family Matters

To honor Antoninus, the Emperors held elaborate ceremonies, with his body being cremated at the Campus Martius, and both Marcus and Lucius nominating him for deification.


The remains of Antoninus Pius were interred with the remains of Marcus' beloved children, and former emperor Hadrian's remains in Hadrian's mausoleum.

Meanwhile, Faustina was pregnant, and she had dreamt that she would give birth to two serpents, with one stronger than the other. On 31 August (Caligula's birthday), Faustina gave birth to Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, and Lucius Aurelius Commodus.


The birth was celebrated widely, with coins being minted.


A denarius of Commodus.


Some time after both emperors' ascended, Annia Lucilla was betrothed to Lucius despite him formally being her uncle - as he was also adopted by Antoninus, but wasn't biologically related to her.


During the ceremonies, the Emperors made new provisions to support poor children, something akin to previous imperial foundations.




A New Roman Empire

This joint leadership was popular with the Romans, in part because both Emperors' were direct and lacked the pomp of former rulers.


They also earned favor by permitting free speech, something that had been lacking, with those who spoke out being subject to retribution. Marcus then proceeded to breath new life into the empire, by replacing major officials.


The first to change was the ab epistulis, or those in charge of the imperial correspondence. Next, one of Marcus' former tutors, Lucius Volusius Maecianus was appointed prefect of the treasury, due to his experience as prefectural governor of Egypt.


Finally, Gaius Aufidius Victorinus, Fronto's son-in-law, was made governor of Germania Superior.

At Marcus' accession to Emperor, Fronto returned from Cirta, and took up residence in his Roman townhouse.


Although Fronto did not dare to write to the emperors directly, he did reflect on how the boy he had known had grown into a great leader, and remarked,

'There was then an outstanding natural ability in you; there is now perfected excellence.


There was then a crop of growing corn; there is now a ripe, gathered harvest. What I was hoping for then, I have now. The hope has become a reality.'


Marcus Aurelius

Distributing Bread to the People

by Joseph-Marie Vien.


In these early days of his reign, a time when all things appeared to move smoothly and without any conflict, Marcus was able to embrace his philosophic nature.


Coinage from the era is stamped with the euphemistic words 'felicitas temporum' or 'happy times'.




Changing Tides

Sadly, these easy days were to end all too soon.


Late in 161 or early 162, the Tiber broke its banks and flooded much of Rome. This flooding took the lives of citizens and livestock alike, causing famine and disease to ravage the city.


Marcus and Lucius turned their personal attention to the dire situation, and provided for the communities from the Roman granaries to ease their suffering.

Fronto was obviously pleased with his student's actions, as he continued to write to Marcus throughout the early days of his reign.


He also noticed that, with this new prominence of position, that Marcus might have ,

'beginning to feel the wish to be eloquent once more, in spite of having for a time lost interest in eloquence',

...something Fronto was all too keen to assist with, but also reminded him of the differences between Marcus' personal life and his public one.

As a teacher, Fronto could be no prouder of his pupil:

Marcus was beloved by his subjects, he was proving to be a wise and capable emperor, and most of all, Marcus was as eloquent as his teacher could wish for.

With Fronto's words,

'Not more suddenly or violently was the city stirred by the earthquake than the minds of your hearers by your speech',

...he commended his student's rhetorical abilities when the Emperor addressed the Senate after an earthquake in Cyzicus.


It was clear to all who heard his words:

Marcus Aurelius was indeed the Emperor...







Part III
March 11, 2020


Parthian Attacks

With barely enough time to get comfortable in the Emperor's seat, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus' minds were turned to a ghost that haunted their predecessor.


As Emperor Antoninus Pius lay dying, his mind was often consumed by the actions of foreign kings. Such worries would turn out to not be unfounded, though Antoninus would (perhaps fortunately) not live long enough to see his fears justified.

In late summer or early autumn of 161, Vologases IV of Parthia invaded Armenia, removing and exiling its king before installing a king of his choosing, King Pacorus.


The governor at the time, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, an experienced military man and Gaul, was, unfortunately, mislead by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus.

It was the prophet who told the governor that he would easily defeat the Parthians and win glory for himself in the act.


Severianus was duped by the snake handler and lulled into a false sense of military superiority.


Coin (front and back) of

Vologases IV,

minted at Seleucia in 156.


Sadly, Severianus led a legion into Armenia to challenge the Parthians.


But, the Parthian general Chosrhoes trapped him near the head of the Euphrates River, at Elegia. Severianus attempted several engagements with the general but failed each time.


After three days he committed suicide, leaving his legion to be massacred by the Parthians.

In the winter of 161-162, it was decided that Lucius would take over and direct the Parthian war. As he was strong and healthy, this seemed a wise choice, rather than sending Marcus who had always suffered from bouts of illness.

Marcus may have had an ulterior motive for sending Lucius; as the lesser emperor had developed a taste for debauchery, and he hoped the terror of war would straighten him out and remind him that he, too, was an emperor.


Marble portrait of the co-emperor

Lucius Verus,

Roman Antonine period.


Thus, in the summer of 162, with the senate's blessing, Lucius left for the Parthian war.


He would spend much of his time in Antioch, wintering at Laodicea, and spending the summers at Daphne, enjoying what were to be his final days as a bachelor.


In the autumn of 163, or early 164, Lucius married Lucilla in Ephesus after Marcus moved up the marriage date; perhaps as a result of Lucius taking a mistress, Panthea.

Marcus did not attend the marriage of his 13 year-old daughter. Instead, he accompanied them as far as Brundisium, and returned immediately to Rome after they boarded the ship.


Some evidence suggests that he was not entirely happy with the arrangement, as he also sent word to his proconsuls not to give the company any official reception.

In the coming years, the war with the Parthians would continue back and forth, with both sides sustaining bitter defeats with heavy losses.


Eventually, in 165, the Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia, and after a series of skirmishes the Parthian army was routed at the Tigris River, before the Roman army continued on down the Euphrates River for another major victory.


Lucius and the Roman army then turned their sights on the cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia.

Where Ctesiphon occupied the left bank of the Tigris, Seleucia sat on the left, and despite offering no resistance to the invading army, Seleucia was ransacked.


At the end of 165 Ctesiphon was seized, and as the only city that had withstood the Romans, it then faced having the royal palace raised to the ground by fire.


Both of these pillaging conquests would leave a black mark on Lucius' honor and reputation.


Busts of the co-emperors

Marcus Aurelius (left) and Lucius Verus (right),

British Museum.


Upon the army's return to Rome, Lucius adopted the title Parthicus Maximus, and both he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again.


When the army returned, in 166, to Media, Lucius then added the extra title Medicus to his name, while Marcus chose to wait until then to include Parthicus Maximus to his list of honors.


The two emperors were then hailed as imperatores for the fourth time, and on 12th October Marcus announced his two sons as his heirs-apparent:

Annius and Commodus.



Rebellion On All Fronts

The Parthian War wasn't the only military matter that occupied Marcus' thoughts.


Indeed, much of the 160s were consumed with attacks on almost all of the Roman Empire's borders.


There were skirmishes,

  • in Britain

  • in Raetia (eastern and central Switzerland)

  • in Upper Germany

Marcus had been ill-prepared for inheriting such a calamitous state, and with very little military experience, he was guided by others.

In 166 the borders of the Roman Empire were broken in Upper Germany by the indigenous tribes of the area.


Unfortunately, Marcus had replaced capable leaders and governors with friends and relatives of the imperial family, and this nepotism would come back to haunt him.

Where the Roman army had so far succeeded in repulsing the advances of smaller bands of the Germanic tribes, in 168 they faced a much more dangerous combination of united tribes who crossed the Danube.


The Course of Empire

(series of paintings by Thomas Cole):

The Consummation of Empire (1836).


Attacking between the Danube and Theiss rivers, the Marcomanni of Bohemia, along with the Lombards, followed by the lazyges (one of the main tribes of the Samartians, an Iranian confederation) , invaded the empire's territory.


Lucius Verus, having recently defeated the Parthian leader Vologases, was quick to defend the Danubian border.

At the same time, the Costoboci from Carpathia invaded Macedonia and Greece. However, Marcus was able to repel this attack for the moment.


While fending off this advance, the Germanic tribes began settling in Dacia, Pannonia, Germany, as well as Italy.

Although this was not unheard of, the sheer numbers of tribes relocating there required the creation of new provinces; and with the overwhelming number of barbarians arriving, it caused Marcus to banish any and all barbarians who'd been brought to Italy previously, for fear of being overrun.

This onslaught of attacks would not be the worst thing Marcus would have to deal with.


While returning to Rome, Lucius became grievously ill with the symptoms of gastroenteritis, although some scholars believe it may have been the Antonine Plague, aka; smallpox.


Just three days later, he was dead.


The apotheosis of Lucius Verus,

2nd century relief plates from Ephesus,

on display at Humboldt University of Berlin


The death of his adoptive brother, and the husband of his 21 year-old daughter, caused Marcus a great deal of heartbreak. He escorted Lucius' body back to Rome.


The co-Emperor would be deified and then worshipped as Divus Verus, soon after the funeral games held in his honor.




Lawmaker and Administrator

Marcus proved to be a prudent ruler of the Empire.


Now, as the only ruler, he would spend much of his time in Rome, addressing matters of law. There he would decide over disputes and listen to petitions.


This is something that his predecessors had failed to do:

being competent in navigating imperial administration.

He also paid particular attention to,

  • the release of slaves

  • the welfare of orphans

  • how city councilors were selected

He was a shrewd businessman, seeking the senate's approval before spending money, even though he did not need to do so as Emperor.


During this period, Marcus potentially made contact with Han China, though this tenuous link is via a Roman traveler who claimed to represent the ruler of Daqin.


There is physical evidence to support this story, with Roman glassware being found at Huangzhou, which shares some coastline on the South China Sea, and golden Roman medallions have been found at Óc Eo, in Vietnam, which dates to Marcus' rule, or possibly earlier to Antoninus'.

At any rate, in 165/166 the Antonine Plague broke out in Mesopotamia, and possibly continued long after Marcus' time as Emperor.


The Antonine Plague is now suspected to have been smallpox, and was one of the plagues that afflicted the Han Empire at the time of Marcus' potential contact.


Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio,

with copy of equestrian statue of

Marcus Aurelius.

The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.


It is believed that during this contact, Roman subjects may have begun a new era of Roman-Far East trading.


However, this exchange of goods may also have instigated the wider spreading of the plague, and caused severe damage to Roman maritime trade in the Indian Ocean.


For instance, archaeological records spanning Egypt to India show decreased traffic, and this had a significant effect on goods going to Southeast Asia at this point.




End of Days

It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty, with heathen tribes surrounding the borders of Rome, and the Antonine Plague ravaging the Roman populous.


For much of the 170s, Marcus' rule was spent attempting to stem the onslaught, and in 177 he named Commodus as co-ruler (his other son, Annius, died in 169).

This decision caused quite a stir, as his appointment was only the second time in Roman history where an Emperor nominated his biological son as co-ruler, the first being Vespasian and his son Titus.

Perhaps Marcus hoped for a similar legacy for his family.

Whatever his intentions, Marcus would not live to see them bear fruit.


He passed away in 180, of natural causes, in Vindobona - modern-day Vienna. He was 58 years old, and his ashes were returned to Rome, and there placed in the mausoleum of Hadrian.


Upon his death, he was immediately deified, and eventually his efforts against the German tribes and the Sarmatians were acknowledged with a column and a temple in Rome.


Detail of a relief scene on the

Column of Marcus Aurelius (in Rome, Italy),

depicting a battle of the Marcomannic Wars,

 late 2nd century AD





Despite the tumultuous events that afflicted Rome throughout Marcus' reign, he is remembered today as the last emperor of the Pax Romana - the golden age of Rome.

Much of Marcus Aurelius' life was marred by illness, loss of loved ones.


Because of his stoic desire to live a quiet life he never sought the limelight of leadership, but when faced with ruling the empire, it was this same stoic attitude of his that allowed him to accept his fate.


It was his natural duty, and he abided by it...

Marcus' choice of an heir has been heavily criticized, as Commodus proved to be erratic, and lacked both military and political savvy. Though Marcus had done his best to raise the boy to be a capable man and future leader, Commodus would be a bitter disappointment to his father.

The death of Marcus and the reign of Commodus would come to mark the end of the Pax Romana.


As Cassius Dio wrote, in an encomium to Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on the transition to Commodus and to Dio's own times,

"…our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day."

The Course of Empire

(series of paintings by Thomas Cole):

Destruction (1836).


However, if nothing else, it's worth remembering Marcus's steadfastness.


As Dio also said of the man he knew,

"[Marcus] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign.


But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire."

Marcus' iconic stoicism, philosophic nature, and compassionate heart meant he constantly worked towards creating a better Roman world.


Marcus lived a life of constant challenges, overcoming them where possible, accepting those that he could not, and all the while striving for the betterment of all.

As he once so beautifully wrote in his Meditations,

"Upon every action that thou art about, put this question to thyself; How will this when it is done agree with me? Shall I have no occasion to repent of it?


Yet a very little while and I am dead and gone; and all things are at end.


What then do I care for more than this, that my present action whatsoever it be, may be the proper action of one that is reasonable; whose end is, the common good; who in all things is ruled and governed by the same law of right and reason, by which God Himself is."

Book 8. II.