Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (c. 121-180)

(Bust of Marcus Aurelius c. Antonine period, AD 161-169, photographed by Ad Meskens, via Creative Commons)


Marcus Annius Verus was born in the year 121 into a family with a very long legacy of nobility. His family could trace their lineage all the way back to the second king of Rome, King Numa. Still a young child, Verus lost both of his parents, and was adopted by his grandfather. While under his grandfather’s care, Verus was introduced to Emperor Hadrian, who was immediately impressed with the young boy.

At the age of six, Hadrian promoted Verus to the rank of equestrian (or knight), and at eight, Verus was made a member of the Salian priests, devoted to the god, Mars.

Verus left the care of his grandfather and, for a second time, was adopted. He was adopted by his aunt and her husband, but this was no ordinary childless couple—his new adopted father was Antoninus Pius, emperor of Rome. Settled in a new family, Verus took a new name. He was now Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Under the tutors provided to him by his adoptive father, the emperor, Marcus Aurelius received a wide education. His curriculum also heavily featured athleticism and stoicism, the latter of which Marcus Aurelius clung to for the rest of his life.

In 140, at twenty-one years of age, Aurelius was appointed to the powerful political position of consul. Five years later, he was married to Emperor Antoninus Pius’ daughter, Faustina. Together, Marcus Aurelius and Faustina would have several children, but few would outlive their father.

Antoninus Pius died in 161, and Marcus Aurelius immediately took power. The transition went smoothly, with no civil wars immediately erupting, and Marcus Aurelius even felt secure enough to make Lucius Aurelius Verus (Marcus’ brother through adoption) a co-emperor of sorts, but Verus died a violent death in 169.

The reign of Marcus Aurelius was filled with warfare. Only a year after his ascension to the imperial throne, Vologeses III of Parthia launched a rebellion and invaded Roman Syria. At the northern and German borders of the empire, a coalition of the Marcomanni, Quadi, Sarmatian, Catti and Jazyges tribes were harassing Roman territory. Things could have become even worse for Marcus Aurelius, since Avidius Cassius, a governor of Rome’s Parthian holdings, openly declared himself to be emperor. Cassius, however, did not turn out to be a threat. He and his men had believed Marcus Aurelius to be dead, so when his men discovered the emperor to be very much alive, they assassinated Cassius. Nevertheless, Vologeses III and the northern tribe coalition were true threats. Marcus Aurelius and his legions, however, handily fought back the threats to Rome for decades.

While Aurelius was not occupied with war, he attempted to rule his empire in a just and humane way. He was charitable to provinces in need, and he generally tried to combat corruption and maltreatment. His greatest flaw in his pursuit of justice was the persecution of Christians that occurred during his reign. The massacres during his rule produced numerous well-known martyrs, such as Justin of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna.

In 180, just shy of sixty years old, Marcus Aurelius died. The only son of Aurelius left to take the throne was Commodus, who proved to be a poor leader. He would go on to lose much of the gains that his father made in war, and while his father was known as a man of justice, Commodus would become a cruel tyrant.



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