|Born: April 26, 121, Rome
Died: March 17, 180, Vienna
Claims to fame: Roman emperor, Stoic philosopher, persecutor of Christians
Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. Famous for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy, he is numbered among the "Five Good Emperors" and represents for many the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. In Christian history, however, he is also remembered as one of the emperors who persecuted Christians.
Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (April 26, 121 - March 17, 180) was Roman Emperor from 161 to his death in 180. He was born Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, and at marriage took the name Marcus Annius Verus. When he was named Emperor, he was given the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; "Aurelius" means "golden."
His uncle Antoninus Pius adopted him as a son and designated him his successor on February 25, 138, when Marcus was only seventeen years of age. Antoninus also named Lucius Verus as his successor. When Antoninus died, Marcus accepted the throne on the condition that he and Verus were made joint emperors (Augusti), with Verus partly subordinate. The reasons for this are unclear.
The joint succession may have been motivated by military exigency. During his reign Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war with various peoples outside the Empire. Germanic and other peoples launched many raids along the long European border, particularly into Gaul. (They, in turn, may have been under attack from more warlike tribes farther east.) In Asia, a revitalized Parthian empire renewed its assault. A highly authoritative figure was needed to command the troops, yet the emperor himself could not defend both fronts at the same time. Neither could he simply appoint a general to lead one assault; earlier popular military leaders like Julius Caesar and Vespasian had used the military to overthrow the existing government and install themselves as supreme leaders.
Marcus Aurelius solved the problem by sending Verus to command the legions in the east. He was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little incentive to overthrow Marcus. The plan was successful - Verus remained loyal until his death on campaign in 169. This joint emperorship was faintly reminiscent of the political system of the Roman Republic, which functioned according to the principle of collegiality and did not allow a single person to hold supreme power. Joint rule was revived by Diocletian's establishment of the Tetrarchy in the late 3rd century.
Aurelius married Faustina the Younger in 145. During their 30-year marriage Faustina bore 13 children, most notably son Commodus who would become Emperor and daughter Lucilla who was wed to Lucius Verus to solidify his alliance with Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180 during the expedition against the Marcomanni in the city of Vindobona (today Vienna). His ashes were returned to Rome and rest in Hadrian's mausoleum. He was able to secure the succession for his son Commodus, who he made co-emperor in his own lifetime (in 177), though the choice may have been unfortunate. Commodus was a political and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist. Many historians belive that the decline of Rome began under Commodus. For this reason, Aurelius' death is often held to have been the end of the Pax Romana.
Marcus Aurelius has a reputation, possibly exaggerated by history, as a Stoic philosopher. He wrote his well-known Meditations in Greek while on campaign as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. Those memos survive and continue to inspire others to this day.
Marcus Aurelius was emperor from A.D. 161 to 180. The policy adopted by Marcus Aurelius towards the Christian church cannot be separated from the education which led him to embrace Stoicism, and the long training which he had, after he had attracted the notice of Hadrian and been adopted by Antoninus Pius, in the art of ruling. In the former he had learned, as he records with thankfulness, from his master Diognetus (Medit. i. 6), the temper of incredulity as to alleged marvels, like those of seers and diviners. Under Hadrian and Antoninus Pius he had acquiesced, at least, in a policy of toleration, checking false accusations, requiring from the accusers proof of some other crime than the mere profession of Christianity.
It is, therefore, startling to find that he takes his place in the list of persecutors along with Nero and Domitian and Decius. The annals of martyrdom place in his reign the deaths of Justin Martyr at Rome (A.D. 166), of Polycarp at Smyrna (A.D. 167), of Blandina and Pothinus and the other sufferers at Lyons (A.D. 177). The last-named year seems indeed to have witnessed an outburst of popular fury against the new sect, and this could not have been allowed to rage without the emperor's sanction, even if there were no special edicts like those of which Melito speaks (Eus. H. E. iv. 26) directly authorizing new measures of repression. It was accordingly an era of Apologies; Justin had led the way under Antoninus Pius, and the second treatise that bears his name was probably written just before his own martyrdom under Aurelius. To the years 177 and 178 are assigned those which were written by Melito, Tatian, Athenagoras, Apollinaris, and Theophilus, perhaps also that of Miltiades.
The causes of this increased rigor are not difficult to trace:
(1) The upward progress of Christianity brought its teachers into rivalry with the Stoic philosophers who up to this time, partly for good and partly for evil, had occupied the position of spiritual directors in the families in which there was any effort to rise out of the general debasement. They now found themselves brought into contact with men of a purer morality and a nobler fortitude than their own, and with a strange mysterious power which enabled them to succeed where others failed. Just in proportion, therefore, as the emperor was true to his Stoicism was he likely to be embittered against their rivals.
(2) A trace of this bitterness is found in his own Meditations (xi. 3). Just as Epictetus (Arrian, Epict. iv. 7) had spoken of the "counterfeit apathy" which was the offspring not of true wisdom, but "of madness or habit like that of the Galileans," so the emperor contrasts the calm considerate preference of death to life, which he admired, with the "mere obstinacy (παραταξις) of the Christians." "The wise man," he says, "should meet death σεμνως και ατραγωδως." The last word has, there seems reason to believe, a special significance. Justin, towards the close of his second Apology, presented to this emperor, had expressed a wish that some one would stand up, as on some lofty rostrum, and "cry out with a tragic voice, Shame, shame on you who ascribe to innocent men the things which ye do openly yourselves. . . . Repent ye, be converted to the ways of purity and wisdom (Μεταθεσθε, σωφρονισθητε)." If we believe that his acts were in harmony with his words or that what he wrote had come under the emperor's eye, it is natural to see in the words in which the latter speaks so scornfully of the "tragic airs" of the Christians a reference to what had burst so rudely upon his serene tranquillity.
(3) The period was one of ever-increasing calamities. The earthquakes which had alarmed Asia under Antoninus were but the prelude to more serious convulsions. The Tiber rose to an unprecedented height and swept away the public granaries. This was followed by a famine, and that by a pestilence, which spread from Egypt and Ethiopia westward. Everywhere on the frontiers there were murmurs of insurrection or invasion. The year 166 was long known as the "annus calamitosus," and it was in that year that the persecution broke out and that Justin suffered. These calamities roused the superstition of the great mass of the people, and a wild fanaticism succeeded to an epicurean atheism. The gods were wroth, and what had roused their anger but the presence of those who denied them? "Christianos ad leones" seemed the remedy for every disaster. The gods might accept that as a piacular offering. On the other hand, the Christians saw in them signs of the coming judgment, and of the end of the world; and now in apocalyptic utterances, now in Sibylline books, uttered, half exultantly, their predictions of the impending woe (cf. Tertull. ad Scap. c. 3). All this, of course, increased the irritation against them to the white heat of frenzy (Milman's Hist. of Christianity, bk. ii. c. 7). They not only provoked the gods, and refused to join in sacrifices to appease them, but triumphed in their fellow-citizens' miseries.
Two apparent exceptions to this policy of repression have to be noticed. (1) One edition of the edict προς το κοινον της Aσιας, though ascribed by Eusebius (H. E. iv. 13) to Antoninus Pius, purports, as given by him, to come from Aurelius. But the edict is unquestionably spurious, and merely shows the wish of some Christians, at a later stage in the conflict, to claim the authority of the philosopher in favour of his brethren. (2) There is the decree mentioned by Eusebius (H. E. v. 5) on the authority of Tertullian (Apol. c. 5, ad Scap. c. 4, p. 208) and appended to Justin's first Apology, which purports to be addressed to the Senate, informing them how, when he and his army were in danger of perishing for want of water in the country of the Marcomanni, the Christians in his army had prayed to their God, and refreshing rain had fallen for them, and a destroying hail on their enemies, and bidding them therefore to refrain from all accusations against Christians as such, and ordering all who so accused them to be burnt alive. (Cf. Thundering Legion in D. C. B. 4-vol. ed.) The decree is manifestly spurious. An interesting monograph, M. Aurelius Antoninus als Freund und Zeitgenosse des Rabbis Jehudas ben Nasi, by Dr. A. Bodek (Leipz. 1868), may be noticed as maintaining that this emperor is identical with the Antoninus ben Ahasuerus, who is mentioned in the Talmud as on terms of intimacy with one of the leading Jewish teachers of the time. If this be accepted, it suggests another possible element in his scorn of Christianity. G. H. Rendal, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, to Himself, Eng. trans. with valuable Intro. (Lond. 1898).
A well-preserved bronze equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius is located in Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. In fact, it is the only surviving bronze statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor - because following Rome's conversion to Christianity, when statues of Emperors were being melted down to make statues for the Christian churches, it was incorrectly thought that the statue was of the Emperor Constantine, and so it was left alone. This statue is the subject of a €0.50 Italian euro coin designed by Roberto Mauri (left).
In film and literature:
- The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964 film), played by Alec Guinness.
- Household Gods (1999 novel), by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove.
- Gladiator (2000 film), played by Richard Harris.
- Henry Wace, A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies.This article incorporates some public domain text from this source.
- "Marcus Aurelius." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. This article incorporates some public domain text from this source. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Aurelius>
- "Marcus Aurelius." Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service, 2004). <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9050818>
- Birley, Anthony, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1987).
- Bunson, Matthew, Encyclopedia of The Roman Empire. 1st ed.; Vol. 1. (New York; Facts on File, 1994).