Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius
Born: April 26, 121 in Rome
Died: March 17, 180 (at age 58) in Vindobona or Sirmium
Nationality: Roman
Famous For: 16th Emperor of the Roman Empire

Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome between 161 and 180 AD, although for the first six years he was co-emperor with Lucius Verus. He was considered to be the last in the line of Five Good Emperors, under whom the Roman Empire had enjoyed relative peace, stability, and prosperity.

It was under his rule that the Parthian Empire was defeated and its capital city sacked. Nevertheless, his reign also saw the early stirrings of what would one day become the downfall of the Western Empire: the awakening of the Germanic tribes. Marcus Aurelius was also a prominent philosopher of the Stoic school.

Childhood and Young Adulthood

Aurelius was born into a prosperous and influential family in Rome on April 26, 121. He was educationally gifted, quickly becoming fluent in Latin and Greek, but his real passion was philosophy. He was influenced by Discourses, a book by Epictetus on Stoicism, and he remained serious and dedicated all his life.

The then-Emperor, Hadrian, had adopted the man who would eventually succeed him as Pius Antoninus, who in his turn adopted Marcus as his son. The adoptive father and child worked closely together during Pius Antoninus’s reign.

Aurelius was made consul in 140, giving him great influence as the most important man in the Roman Senate. This was the first of three occasions on which he would hold this post. As time went on, his natural abilities and increasing influence allowed him more power and responsibility in his support of the Emperor.

Aurelius continued to study philosophy, but also started to take an interest in legal affairs. In 145, he married Faustina, the daughter of the Emperor, and the two of them had several children. One of these, Commodus, would eventually go on to become Emperor himself.

Imperial Leadership

Pius Antonius died in 161, after which Aurelius assumed the throne, with his brother Verus as co-ruler. They were almost immediately faced with the serious threat posed by the Parthian Empire in the East, but Verus’s adept management of his generals brought victory.

However, soldiers returning from the war are thought to have been responsible for a severe epidemic which caused the deaths of a significant proportion of Rome’s inhabitants. A few years later, a different military problem arose when tribes from Germanic regions attacked a Roman city after crossing the Danube. Verus died on the way to battle, so Aurelius continued his march.

More about Aurelius’s Leadership

In 175, Aurelius was confronted by the most serious internal threat to his authority when, in the East, Avidius Cassius – having heard a false rumor that Aurelius was on his deathbed – proclaimed himself Emperor. Aurelius was forced to travel eastward himself in order to reassert control, although Cassius had by that time been killed by his own troops.

It was also about this time that Faustina died while she was accompanying her husband on a tour of the eastern provinces. Aurelius appointed Commodus co-ruler in 177, but three years later the old Emperor was dead. Commodus proved to be a poor ruler, sharp relieving Aurelius’ thoughtful, reason-based rule.