Marcus Aurelius: Was He The Greatest Roman Emperor?

Marcus Aurelius is canonized in the historical tradition as perhaps the greatest Roman emperor. But did this golden emperor unwittingly sow the seeds of political chaos?

Nov 5, 2020By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
marcus aurelius
Portrait bust of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, 161-70 AD, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; with View of the Campidoglio, Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1750, via Christie’s


By chance (and a sprinkling of confusion) Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the most well-known Roman emperor for visitors to the city today. In the center of Michelangelo’s wonderfully symmetrical redesign of the Capitoline Hill, the Piazza del Campidoglio, a colossal bronze equestrian statue of the emperor watches over the multitudes of visitors who process up the steps to the Capitoline Museums every year, hand outstretched seemingly in greeting. The real statue actually stands within the adjacent museum (the highlight of a collection bedecked with ancient masterpieces), carefully preserved. 


Erected in around AD 175, possibly after the completion of Marcus’ Sarmatian campaigns, the future of the statue could have been quite different. Mistakenly identified as representing the Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, the statue of Marcus was preserved from the fate that befell many other pagan bronzes – which were melted down and repurposed in Rome’s medieval period – only thanks to the misdirected faith of the city’s medieval residents. 


Today the burnished bronze of Marcus’ statue that stands watch on the Capitoline serves as an apt material metaphor for his reign and his legacy. Gilded bronze and equestrian grandeur still impress but beneath the surface, the corrosion of decay is observable…  


Adopted Imperial Heirs: Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Antoninus Pius

Portrait bust of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, ca. 138-61 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with Portrait bust of the Emperor Lucius Verus, ca. 161-70 AD, via the British Museum, London; and Portrait bust of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, 161-70 AD, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in AD 121 during the reign of Hadrian, right at the heart of the emperor’s court and well connected to the wider Roman aristocracy. His paternal grandfather had reached the pinnacle of a senatorial career, reaching the rank of consul for the second time and Prefect of Rome, whilst his maternal grandmother was a wealthy heiress. Closer to home, his father, Marcus Annius Verus, was the emperor’s nephew, and his uncle was Antoninus Pius, the future Roman emperor. His aristocratic ancestry was extensive, with his family – the gens Annia – claiming descent from Numa Pompilius, the fabled second King of Rome, and a celebrated legislator


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After Antoninus’ adoption by Hadrian in AD 138, following the death of Lucius Ceionius Commodus (also referred to as Lucius Aelius), it was decided that Antoninus should adopt Marcus, naming him as his heir. Marcus was not adopted alone, however, and Antoninus was compelled to adopt one Lucius Verus, the son of Aelius. Together the young men and imperial heirs would enjoy the very best education available to young Roman aristocrats, which included the Athenian politician and statesman Herodes Atticus and the Roman grammarian and rhetorician Marcus Cornelius Fronto. 


Accession and Early Rule 

Gold aureus with obverse laureate portrait of Antoninus Pius and reverse portrait of young Marcus Aurelius, Rome, ca. 140 AD, via the British Museum, London


Despite the shared adoption of Marcus and Lucius, the political realities upon the death of Antoninus Pius in AD 161 were quite different. It appears that the senate had initially planned to offer the rule of the empire to Marcus alone, but in accordance with a respect for the former emperor Hadrian’s wishes, Marcus refused power unless Lucius was given an equal share.


This was the first time that the Roman Empire would be ruled by two emperors, although sharing power in this way would become increasingly common in the centuries that followed. It was far from an equal share of power, however. Having been consul in 140, 145 and 161, he was significantly more politically experienced than his adopted brother, whilst his role as pontifex maximus – or chief priest – confirmed that the stewardship of the Roman state was his prerogative. As the biographer of Lucius Verus in the Historia Augusta makes clear: “Verus obeyed Marcus… as a governor obeys the emperor”.


Gold aureus with obverse laureate portrait of Marcus Aurelius, with reverse iconography of CONCORDIAE AUGUSTOR, or the union between the two Augustii, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, Rome, 161 AD, via American Numismatic Society


The accession of Marcus was followed by a re-organization of some of the highest officials in the empire. Whilst the court of Antoninus was populated with a relatively small number of Italian and Roman aristocrats, Marcus’ court included officials who hailed from diverse regions and careers. These included Sextus Volusianus, promoted to ab epistulis (responsible for the imperial correspondence), who hailed from the province of Pannonia, on the imperial frontiers. Despite the high regard in which the Roman emperors were held, the earliest years of their reign were marked by the indication that the wheel of fate was beginning to turn and the good fortune enjoyed by the Empire in the preceding six decades was beginning to waver. A tremendous flood in late 161 or early 162 caused the Tiber to burst its banks and wreak considerable damage, resulting in the death of much livestock and famine in the city.


Return To War: Lucius Verus And The Parthian War

Marble Portrait of co-emperor Lucius Verus, 161-69 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The historian Cassius Dio, who upheld Marcus Aurelius as the paradigm of imperial rule, was not so blinkered as to recognize the limitations of his imperial idol. Marcus was, by all accounts, rather frail, and accordingly devoted himself to matters of the mind. Lucius Verus, on the other hand, despite being the de facto junior partner in imperial rule, was better suited to military affairs. It was a result of his youthful energy that saw him sent to conduct the Parthian War. Antoninus Pius’ reign had been notable for its pacifism; the emperor had never even left Italy! However, on his deathbed, he reputedly lamented the way foreign kings had wronged him and Rome.


 In AD 161 the King of Parthia, Vologases IV, invaded the Roman client-kingdom of Armenia, removing the king and establishing his son as monarch and setting the state on course for war with Rome. Lacking military training of any kind – most other imperial heirs had spent extensive time in their youth on the military frontiers – Marcus was largely unprepared for the outbreak of war. As the situation deteriorated in the East with several substantial Roman setbacks, and threats of other uprisings stirred around the empire, Lucius was dispatched to lead the Parthian War in person in 162.



A silver tetradrachm with a portrait of Vologases IV, 164-65 AD, via the British Museum, London 


Following a meandering trip to the East – which included a culturally-enriching stay in Athens with Herodes Atticus – Lucius appears to have spent the majority of the Parthian campaign based in the city of Antioch. Much of his time spent at Antioch between 162 and 165 appears to have been dedicated to drilling the troops who had grown soft on the previously settled imperial borders. 


In around 163/4 Lucius left Antioch and traveled to Ephesus to marry Lucilla, the teenaged daughter of Marcus Aurelius, further cementing their relationship. The Roman counterattack had begun in earnest in 163, including the successful recapture of Artaxata, the capital of Armenia. A new king was chosen – one Gaius Julius Sohaemus, a Roman senator of necessary Arsacid descent. The successes in Armenia prompted the Parthians to turn their attention to Mesopotamia, where they overthrew the leader of Osroene, another client kingdom of Rome. 


A copper sestertius of Lucius Verus, featuring reverse iconography of the personification of Parthia seated on a pile of shields with a trophy adjacent, 164-65 AD, via the British Museum, London



By now, however, the initiative was with the Romans who marched south, crossing the Euphrates river. Although 164 passed by largely without event – a year of preparations – 165 saw the renewal of engagements, beginning with the Roman invasion of Mesopotamia. The Parthian cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia were both sacked, despite the latter opening its gates to the invaders. Vologases IV made peace with the Romans, with one of the terms of the settlement forcing the King to cede the territory of western Mesopotamia to the Romans. For his successes, Lucius was awarded the title Parthicus Maximus, whilst both he and Marcus were saluted once more as Imperatores (the reality was that most of the fighting was done through their generals).


An Educated Emperor: Marcus Aurelius and Fronto

The so-called head of a male, usually identified as Marcus Aurelius; a bronze portrait bust with inlaid jeweled eyes, 2nd Century AD, via Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


As a member of the Roman aristocracy and heir to the imperial throne, Marcus benefitted from the very best education on offer to a young Roman nobleman. This education was in effect training for the life at the heart of politics that awaited the young man. Accordingly, rhetoric and oratory were two of the most important skills he would learn. In this, he was fortunate enough to benefit from the expertise and talents of Herodes Atticus and Fronto, the two most celebrated orators of the period. 


In the Roman Empire, a cultural movement known as the Second Sophistic was blossoming, in which writers – predominately Greek (hence, Sophistic) – reintroduced and reinvigorated literary culture in the empire. In Marcus, this cultural flowering appears to have met a receptive mind, particularly with regard to the importance of education. Cassius Dio records how, even as emperor, Marcus, “showed no shame or hesitation in resorting to a teacher, becoming a pupil of Sextus, the Boeotian philosopher, and attending the lectures of Hermogenes on rhetoric.


Herodes was one of the richest men in the empire, and evidence of his architectural munificence in his native Athens still survives to this day; the most notable being the Odeon in Athens, built in 161 in memory of his wife. This enormous theatre dominates the southwest slope of the Athenian acropolis. What survives of Fronto is less ostentatious but no less significant. A considerable amount of the correspondence between Fronto and Marcus has survived and attests to the closeness of their relationship, with Marcus counting the rhetorician as much a friend as a tutor.


A Roman Emperor and Philosopher

Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius by Eugène Delacroix, 1844, via Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon


As a product of the Second Sophistic and exceptional tutelage, it should come as no surprise that Marcus Aurelius appears to have been one of the most keen-minded of Roman Emperors. During the course of his education, it appears that Marcus became increasingly captivated by Stoic philosophy (with Fronto’s Correspondence to Marcus suggesting that the young man was wooed away from rhetorical training towards the philosophical by one Quintus Junius Rusticus). 


As a philosophical school, Stoicism had its roots in 3rd century BC Athens and the teachings of Zeno of Citium. It is an approach to personal ethics which suggests that the path to one’s eudaimonia, or personal happiness, is found in accepting the moment as it appears; one should not allow themselves to be driven by wild emotions, but rather use logic to understand the world and one’s place in it.


Bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, 161-80 AD, via Musei Capitolini, Rome


Much of the modern understanding of Stoicism as a philosophical school comes in part from the writings of Marcus himself. Written whilst on a campaign against the Germanic tribes, his Meditations, are a series of personal reflection on his own Stoic beliefs, presented in 12 books. The writings present a keen interest in self-reflection in relation to one’s place in the universe and stressing the benefits of avoiding excesses of emotion and sensory pleasures (in effect, a way to distance the individual from the trials and tribulations of the material world). The theme of what it means to be a good man is recurrent throughout: “Put an end once and for all to this discussion of what a good man should be, and be one.” 


The Meditations are some of the most cherished works to have survived from antiquity and have contributed enormously to the golden reception of Marcus Aurelius, counting among its fans readers as diverse as Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, and Bill Clinton. Whereas other Roman emperors are remembered for their debaucheries, megalomania, and cruelties, Marcus is instead remembered as the philosopher. The idea has proved pervasive, with Delacroix’s presentation of Marcus’ final days drawing clearly on the imagery used in Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, 1787 (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).


At War: Marcus Aurelius and The Germanic Tribes

Relief from an honorary monument to Marcus Aurelius, the scene is identified as the submission of the Germans, indicated by the kneeling figures, 176-180 AD, via Musei Capitolini, Rome


At the same time as Lucius Verus was waging war in the East against Vologases and the Parthian incursions against the Empire, beyond the northern frontiers trouble was stirring. As large numbers of people began migrating in Central Europe, notably the Goths, pressure was placed on those living closer to the northern Roman imperial frontiers. As Germanic raids across the borders increased, Rome was once again embroiled in war. Generally known as the Marcomannic Wars, these were a series of protracted conflicts fought between the Romans and various Germanic tribes, including the Chatti, the Quadi, the Sarmatians and the Marcomanni. 


Although Verus, a veteran of the Parthian War, accompanied Marcus to the initial campaigns in Germany, he would not live to see the end of the war. Returning to Rome in 168, he fell ill whilst traveling and died in 169. Marcus grieved for the loss of his adoptive brother and imperial colleague, and the Senate confirmed the deification of Verus as the deceased emperor became a god: Divus Verus


Gold aureus of Marcus Aurelius, with reverse depiction of captured arms, shields and armor that are obviously German in origin. Reference to the Germanic campaign is made in the legend: GERM, 175-76 AD, via the British Museum, London


Returning to the frontier in 169, the Marcomannic wars entered their most violent phase. Using the Roman fight against the Sarmatian Iazyge people, several other German tribes invaded, including the Marcomanni. Crossing the Danube, they inflicted a heavy defeat on the Romans at the Battle of Caruntum, continuing onwards to the city of Aquileia in northern Italy: this was the first time a foreign enemy had besieged an Italian city since the Cimbri tribe were defeated by Gaius Marius, hero (or villain) of the Republic in 101 BC. The disaster prompted a re-focusing of Marcus’ strategies, and peace treaties were quickly sought with the Iazyges, allowing the Romans to focus on the Marcomannic threat. 


A counteroffensive against the Marcomanni in 172 was a success, prompting Marcus to be awarded the title Germanicus, whilst coins were minted in commemoration. A campaign against the Quadi in the following year led to one of the most celebrated incidents in the war: a Roman legion, surrounded and without water, was saved from certain annihilation by a miraculous downpour whilst their Quadi opponents were battered by the storm. Such was the importance of the ‘Miracle of the Rain’, that it is depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome itself. 


Engraving depicting the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1757, via the Royal Academy of Arts, London



The Roman salvation at the hand of the rains allowed them to continue campaigning and by late 174 they had completed the subjugation of the Quadi. Turning their full attention back to the Iazyges, the Romans sought an easier conclusion to the war than protracted conflict. A few victories achieved prompted the signing of a peace treaty favorable to the Romans, including the return of 100,000 Roman prisoners. By the time the emperor returned to Rome in 176, it was the first time he had seen the imperial capital in 8 years, and he celebrated a triumph. Considering his reputation as a peaceful emperor, he was now adorned with two triumphal titles – Germanicus was complemented by Sarmaticus following the defeat of the Iazyges. 


Pestilence and Politics: The Antonine Plague

Relief from an honorary monument to Marcus Aurelius, showing the emperor leading a sacrifice in front of the temple of Capitoline Jupiter, 176-80 AD, via Musei Capitolini, Rome 


Despite Marcus’ successes in the Marcomannic Wars, all was not right in the Roman World. A pestilence had swept through the empire from around 165, likely brought into the empire by troops returning from campaigning in the East, perhaps appearing during the siege of Seleucia as the Romans waged war in Mesopotamia. The famous doctor, Galen, recorded symptoms of the disease, now known as the Antonine Plague, that included fever, diarrhea, and skin pustules; modern scholars now tend to diagnose the plague as smallpox as a result. Cassius Dio, a contemporary of the plague, records that there were up to 2,000 deaths a day in Rome (although the historian was reporting on a later outburst of the plague). Modern historians estimate that the final death count may have been as high as 5 million, with Lucius Verus one of its potential victims! 


The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome engraving by J. G. Levasseur after J. Delaunay, 19th century, via the Wellcome Collection


Whilst the plague ripped through the Roman Empire, a rumor spread that Marcus himself had succumbed to a long-standing disease. Allegedly fearing for the security of the empire, Avidius Cassius – the governor of Egypt – declared himself emperor. A malicious historiographic trend claims that Avidius was tricked into this declaration by Faustina the Younger, wife of Marcus. Despite learning that he had been tricked by a rumor, Avidius remained committed to his course: he was now an attempted usurper. A reliable general and associate of the emperor, and a veteran of the Germanic campaigns, Marcus was devastated by the news of Avidius’ betrayal and entreated his friend to rethink his course of action. 


Despite strong support in the eastern provinces, Avidius’ revolt soon lost clout. News of Marcus’ plan to invade Egypt to bring an end to the uprising saw supporters begin to panic. A centurion beheaded Avidius and sent the head to Marcus in an act of supplication. The correspondence of Avidius was burnt, on the order of Marcus, meaning that those who supported the usurper would be absolved of their crime; under a less lenient emperor, many of these could have expected to be executed.


Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and The End of Rome’s Golden Age

Marble Portrait of Commodus as a young man, 172-73 AD, in the Ostia Archaeological Museum; with Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 180-93 AD, via Musei Capitolini, Rome 


One of the most important consequences of Avidius’ failed grab for power was the Marcus accelerated the promotion of his son, Commodus, as his heir. The young man, born in AD 161, was granted the rank of Imperator in 176, and in 177 he was recognized as Augustus; formally, if not in reality, he had the same status as his father. His prominence in the Roman state and his father’s succession planning was further confirmed in 177; on 1st January Commodus was made consul for the first time, the youngest consul in Roman history to that point. 


In 177, the Quadi rebelled once more and Marcus was summoned north again for a Second Germanic Campaign, accompanied by Commodus. Despite the Roman successes, notably the decisive victory at the Battle of Laugarico (modern Slovenia), Marcus grew weaker. He eventually died at Vindobona (modern Vienna) on 17th March 180. Deified and cremated, his ashes were sent to Rome and laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. 


Thanks to Marcus’ efforts, the succession of the empire was smooth. Commodus succeeded his father, becoming sole ruler; the first biological son born and raised to be emperor. Commodus’ succession represented a clear break with tradition; the 2nd century was characterized by adopted Roman emperors, men picked for their careers and qualities. The reign of Commodus soon proved the value of this approach. Rome’s golden age, the Pax Romana, had come to an end. This was the dawning of a new age: “This must be our next topic; for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust…”

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.