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Who was Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius? - Biography & Death

Instructor: Brian Cunningham

Brian has completed his first year of a doctoral program in Classics, and has taught at the university level. He has been published for his historical research.

In this lesson you will learn about the life of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161-180 C.E. Topics in this lesson will include important biographical information, noteworthy contributions, cultural impact, and the aftermath for Roman society following his death.

The Philosopher Emperor

'What we do now echoes in eternity'. These were the words of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, first written in his famous work, Meditations, and reintroduced again for modern audiences in the 2000 movie, Gladiator. While the movie is far from historically accurate, the character of Marcus Aurelius was faithfully portrayed. Even in his lifetime he was known as a wise and noble leader who commanded the respect of virtually all of his subordinates, including the Senate and military. As emperor, he devoted his time to the study of philosophy, nature, and matters of administration. He is considered to be one of the so-called 'Five Good Emperors', the last before a major decline in Roman history began.

Statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

From Birth to Military Commander

Marcus Aurelius was born to a wealthy patrician (noble) family in Hispania, now modern-day Spain. His mother came from a distinguished lineage, while his father was an important political official. His father died while Marcus was very young, and his mother never remarried. At the age of fourteen Marcus was adopted by the emperor at that time, Antoninus Pius, along with Lucius Verus, the adopted grandson of the previous emperor, Hadrian. Adoption was commonly practiced in Ancient Rome to preserve a family's bloodline. Having come from this exceptional background, Marcus Aurelius received the best education and opportunities afforded to a Roman citizen. The young nobleman quickly developed an interest in Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, an intellectual ideology that focused on the moral and ethical implications of an individual's actions in alignment with the natural world. Due to his considerable skills and the assistance of his adopted father, he rapidly ascended through several key political offices, serving dutifully and taking his responsibilities seriously. Prior to the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus had been placed in command of several legions and had proven himself to be an able leader.

Co-rule With Lucius Verus, 161-169 C.E.

In accordance with Pius's will, rule over the empire was divided between Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, although Marcus was clearly the senior partner due to his greater experience in government. After the peaceful transition of power the two co-rulers quickly secured the loyalty of the army and the Praetorian Guard, the imperial bodyguard stationed in Rome. A substantial bonus, the equivalent of approximately several years pay, was given to members of the Guard to secure their loyalty.

The first major setback occurred in 165 C.E. As Marcus dealt with legal and administrative matters in Rome, Lucius completed a series of military victories against the Parthian Empire of the east. Close contact with foreign soldiers exposed the Roman legions to a particularly virulent form of plague. As a result, the returning soldiers carried the disease back to Roman territories and infected a large percentage of the populace. By some estimates, over a third of the population in the eastern provinces perished because of this calamity. The pandemic caused a series of cascading effects for the Empire. The most serious was an invasion by a massive force of three Germanic tribes on the northern borders, due to the loss of Roman defensive manpower.

War Along the Danube River And the 'Rain Miracle', 168-180 C.E.

In 169 C.E., en route to German territory, Lucius Verus fell ill and died, most likely a victim of the plague, leaving Marcus Aurelius as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. The majority of his sole reign as emperor was spent at war with a confederation of Germanic tribes, made up of the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians. Aurelius initially suffered several defeats, and the tribes pushed into Italian lands. Eventually, the Romans were able to repel the tribes back across the Danube River. One of the most famous events of the war occurred in 173 C.E. during the subsequent campaign against the Quadi. Exposed to extreme heat and thirst, the surrounded and outnumbered 12th Legion Fulminata ('lightning bringers') were rejuvenated from the waters of a sudden storm while lightning struck the Quadi. The Romans attributed this event to intervention from the gods. The wars ended in a conclusive, albeit short lived, victory for Rome. The events were later depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, a commemorative pillar found in Rome honoring Aurelius's campaign.

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