Marcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 121 – 180) was a Roman Emperor (the last of the “Five Good Emperors”) and philosopher of the Roman period. He is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.
Although, perhaps not a first-rank or original philosopher, his “Meditations” remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy. Looked at as a series of practical philosophical exercises intended to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, his works have had a profound influence over the centuries.
Marcus Aurelius was born on 26 April A.D. 121 in Rome (originally named Marcus Annius Catilius Severus at birth). His father was Marcus Annius Verus (of Spanish origin, served as a praetor and died when Marcus was just three years old); his mother was Domitia Lucilla (from a wealthy family of consular rank). He had no brothers and just one sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, who was about two years younger than he. After his father’s death, Marcus Aurelius was adopted and raised by his mother and paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus.
He had several family connections to various Roman emperors, mainly on his father’s side, and he had already attracted the attention of the ruling Emperor Hadrian as a young boy. He was made a member of the equestrian order when he was six. When Hadrian’s first adopted son died young, he adopted Anoninus Pius as his son and successor, on the precondition that Antoninus would in turn adopt both Marcus Aurelius (then called Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus) and his own grandson Lucius Aurelius Verus, and arrange for them to be next in line. Thus, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Verus were adopted by Anoninus Pius when he became Emperor in A.D. 138 and designated as his joint successors.
Marcus Aurelius received an education from some of the greatest scholars of his day: Euphorion for literature, Geminus for drama, Andron for geometry, Alexander of Cotiaeum for Greek, Caninius Celer and Herodes Atticus for Greek oratory and Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin. He was an intelligent, serious-minded and hardworking youth, and at quite an early age he became fond of the “Diatribai” (“Discourses”) of Epictetus, an important moral philosopher of the Stoic school.
He also started to have an increasing public role at the side of Antoninus, holding the position of consul three times in A.D. 140, A.D. 145 and A.D. 161, and increasingly involved in decisions. In A.D. 147 he received the proconsular imperium outside Rome and the tribunicia potestas, the main formal powers of emperorship. In A.D. 145, he married Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina the Younger), who was Antoninus’ daughter and Marcus Aurelius’ own paternal cousin, and they were to bear 13 children, although only one son (Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, who would succeed him) and four daughters would outlive their father. When he married, he took the name Marcus Annius Verus.
When Antoninus Pius died in A.D. 161, Marcus Aurelius (or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus as he was then officially named) and Lucius Verus became joint Emperors, as had been arranged previously by Hadrian, although Verus (ten years younger and less popular) was probably subordinate in practice. During his reign, Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war with various peoples outside the empire, and having joint emperorship was probably a practical boon as well: Verus was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little incentive to try to overthrow Marcus Aurelius, and he remained loyal until his death during a pandemic of smallpox or measles while on campaign in A.D. 169, at which time Marcus Aurelius assumed sole emperorship.
As Emperor, he continued on the path of his predecessors by issuing numerous law reforms, and maintaining the status of Christians as legally punishable, although rarely persecuted in practice. The war with the revitalized Parthian Empire in Asia was essentially won by the end of the A.D. 160s, but the continuing battles against various Germanic tribes and other nomadic peoples along the northern borderand into Gaul and across the Danube (as well as minor revolts by ambitious generals) plagued Marcus Aurelius for the greater part of his remaining life.
Together with his wife, Faustina, Marcus Aurelius toured the eastern provincesuntil A.D. 173, including a visit to Athens where he declared himself a protector of philosophy. He also establish four Chairs of Philosophy in Athens, one for each of the principal philosophical traditions of the time (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean).
After a triumph in Rome the following year, he marched again to the Danubian frontier, and a plan to annex Bohemia seemed poised for success after a decisive victory in A.D. 178, but was abandoned after Marcus Aurelius fell ill in A.D. 180.
Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March A.D. 180, in the city of Vindobona (modern-day Vienna, Austria). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome where they rested in Hadrian’s mausoleum (modern Castel Sant’Angelo) until the Visigoths sacked the city in A.D. 410. His campaigns against the Germans and Sarmatians were also commemorated by a column in Rome.
Marcus Aurelius’ death is often held to have been the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. He had named his son, Commodus, as Caesar in A.D. 166 and then as co-emperor with him in A.D. 177 (possibly just a pragmatic choice made out of Marcus Aurelius’ fear of succession issues and the possibility of civil war). But, as sole Emperor after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ instability, apathy and cowardice resulted in a series of crises and the start of the decline in imperial morals and attitudes.
Although his philosophical output was not large or original (unsurprising given the other calls on his time), the twelve books of his “Meditations”, written in Greek while on campaign between A.D. 170 and A.D. 180 as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement, remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy (although nowhere in the “Meditations” does Marcus Aurelius explicitly call himself a Stoic). The “Meditations” may be read as a series of practical philosophical exercises designed to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, and thereby to transform his own behaviour and his entire way of life.
Particularly important in his thought was his complete disbelief in an afterlife and the conviction that everything, even legends, will be turned into absolute oblivionand is already in the process of disintegrating and changing. In his opinion, to desirewas to be permanently disappointed and disturbed, since everything we desire in this world is “empty and corrupt and paltry”. Thus, death was desirable, because it would mark an end to all desires.
Despite his thoughts on life and death, Marcus Aurelius was an advocate of rational virtue, and had a kind of indifference towards the brutalities of life. He justified his deeds as an Emperor, such as his persecution of Christians and his frequent military campaigns, by pointing out the insignificance of worldly affairs. He showed no particular religious faith in his writings, but seemed to believe that some sort of logical, benevolent force organizes the universe in such a way that even “bad” occurrences happen for the good of the whole. He echoed Epictetus in his claims that all attributions of good or evil are the product of human judgements.
His Stoic ideas often revolved around the denial of emotion, a skill which, he says, can free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world, and he claimed that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. In a number of passages, Marcus Aurelius exhorts himself to overcome the limited perspective of the individual and experience the world from a cosmic perspective, sometimes evoking the Stoic physics of flux inherited from Heraclitus. He believed that once one has overcome false value-judgements (e.g. that wealth and social standing are valuable, and that one should compete for them against others), one will experience the cosmos as a single living being (identified with God) rather than as a site of conflict and destruction.