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This article covers the life of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius from his accession on 7 March 161 to his death on 17 March 180. Marcus' life before his accession is covered in Early life and career of Marcus Aurelius. This article focuses on personal and administrative matters; military matters are covered in more detail in Roman–Parthian War of 161–66 and Marcomannic Wars.
The major sources for the life and rule of Marcus Aurelius are patchy and frequently unreliable. The biographies contained in the Historia Augusta claim to be written by a group of authors at the turn of the 4th century, but are in fact written by a single author (referred to here as "the biographer") from the later 4th century (c. 395). The later biographies and the biographies of subordinate emperors and usurpers are a tissue of lies and fiction, but the earlier biographies, derived primarily from now-lost earlier sources (Marius Maximus or Ignotus), are much better. For Marcus' life and rule, the biographies of Hadrian, Pius, Marcus and Lucius Verus are largely reliable, but those of Aelius Verus and Avidius Cassius are full of fiction.
A body of correspondence between Marcus' tutor Fronto and various Antonine officials survives in a series of patchy manuscripts, covering the period from c. 138 to 166. Marcus' own Meditations offer a window on his inner life, but are largely undateable, and make few specific references to worldly affairs. The main narrative source for the period is Cassius Dio, a Greek senator from Bithynian Nicaea who wrote a history of Rome from its founding to 229 in eighty books. Dio is vital for the military history of the period, but his senatorial prejudices and strong opposition to imperial expansion obscure his perspective. Some other literary sources provide specific detail: the writings of the physician Galen on the habits of the Antonine elite, the orations of Aelius Aristides on the temper of the times, and the constitutions preserved in the Digest and Codex Justinianus on Marcus' legal work. Inscriptions and coin finds supplement the literary sources.
At the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus was effectively sole ruler of the Empire. The formalities of the position would follow: The senate would soon grant him the name Augustus and the title imperator, and he would soon be formally elected as Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the official cults. Marcus made some show of resistance: the biographer writes that he was "compelled" to take imperial power. This may have been a genuine horror imperii, "fear of imperial power". Marcus, with his preference for the philosophic life, found the imperial office unappealing. His training as a Stoic, however, had made the choice clear. It was his duty.
Although Marcus shows no personal affection for Hadrian (significantly, he does not thank him in the first book of his Meditations), he presumably believed it his duty to enact the man's succession plans. Thus, although the senate planned to confirm Marcus alone, he refused to take office unless Lucius received equal powers. The senate accepted, granting Lucius the imperium, the tribunician power, and the name Augustus. Marcus became, in official titulature, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; Lucius, forgoing his name Commodus and taking Marcus' family name, Verus, became Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus.[notes 1] It was the first time that Rome was ruled by two emperors.[notes 2]
In spite of their nominal equality, Marcus held more auctoritas, or "authority", than Lucius. He had been consul once more than Lucius, he had shared in Pius' administration, and he alone was Pontifex Maximus. It would have been clear to the public which emperor was the more senior. As the biographer wrote, "Verus obeyed Marcus...as a lieutenant obeys a proconsul or a governor obeys the emperor."
Immediately after their senate confirmation, the emperors proceeded to the Castra Praetoria, the camp of the praetorian guard. Lucius addressed the assembled troops, which then acclaimed the pair as imperatores. Then, like every new emperor since Claudius, Lucius promised the troops a special donative. This donative, however, was twice the size of those past: 20,000 sesterces (5,000 denarii) per capita, more to officers. In return for this bounty, equivalent to several years' pay, the troops swore an oath to protect the emperors. The ceremony was perhaps not entirely necessary, given that Marcus' accession had been peaceful and unopposed, but it was good insurance against later military troubles.
Pius' funeral ceremonies were, in the words of the biographer, "elaborate". If his funeral followed the pattern of past funerals, his body would have been incinerated on a pyre at the Campus Martius, while his spirit would rise to the gods' home in the heavens. Marcus and Lucius nominated their father for deification. In contrast to their behavior during Pius' campaign to deify Hadrian, the senate did not oppose the emperors' wishes. A flamen, or cultic priest, was appointed to minister the cult of the deified Pius, now Divus Antoninus. Pius' remains were laid to rest in the Hadrian's mausoleum, beside the remains of Marcus' children and of Hadrian himself. The temple he had dedicated to his wife, Diva Faustina, became the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. It survives as the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda.
In accordance with his will, Pius' fortune passed on to Faustina. (Marcus had little need of his wife's fortune. Indeed, at his accession, Marcus transferred part of his mother's estate to his nephew, Ummius Quadratus.) Faustina was three months pregnant at her husband's accession. During the pregnancy she dreamed of giving birth to two serpents, one fiercer than the other. On 31 August she gave birth at Lanuvium to twins: T. Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus.[notes 3] Aside from the fact that the twins shared Caligula's birthday, the omens were favorable, and the astrologers drew positive horoscopes for the children. The births were celebrated on the imperial coinage.
Soon after the emperors' accession, Marcus' eleven-year-old daughter, Annia Lucilla, was betrothed to Lucius (in spite of the fact that he was, formally, her uncle). At the ceremonies commemorating the event, new provisions were made for the support of poor children, along the lines of earlier imperial foundations. Marcus and Lucius proved popular with the people of Rome, who strongly approved of their civiliter ("lacking pomp") behavior. The emperors permitted free speech, evinced by the fact that the comedy writer Marullus was able to criticize them without suffering retribution. At any other time, under any other emperor, he would have been executed. But it was a peaceful time, a forgiving time. And thus, as the biographer wrote, "No one missed the lenient ways of Pius."
Marcus replaced a number of the empire's major officials. The ab epistulis Sextus Caecilius Crescens Volusianus, in charge of the imperial correspondence, was replaced with Titus Varius Clemens. Clemens was from the frontier province of Pannonia and had served in the war in Mauretania. Recently, he had served as procurator of five provinces. He was a man suited for a time of military crisis. Lucius Volusius Maecianus, Marcus' former tutor, had been prefectural governor of Egypt at Marcus' accession. Maecianus was recalled, made senator, and appointed prefect of the treasury (aerarium Saturni). He was made consul soon after. Fronto's son-in-law, Aufidius Victorinus, was appointed governor of Upper Germany.
Fronto returned to his Roman townhouse at dawn on 28 March, having left his home in Cirta as soon as news of his pupils' accession reached him. He sent a note to the imperial freedman Charilas, asking if he could call on the emperors. Fronto would later explain that he had not dared to write the emperors directly. The tutor was immensely proud of his students. Reflecting on the speech he had written on taking his consulship in 143, when he had praised the young Marcus, Fronto was ebullient: "There was then an outstanding natural ability in you; there is now perfected excellence. There was then a crop of growing corn; there is now a ripe, gathered harvest. What I was hoping for then, I have now. The hope has become a reality." Fronto called on Marcus alone; neither thought to invite Lucius.
Lucius was less esteemed by his tutor than his brother, as his interests were on a lower level. Lucius asked Fronto to adjudicate in a dispute he and his friend Calpurnius were having on the relative merits of two actors. Marcus told Fronto of his reading—Coelius and a little Cicero—and his family. His daughters were in Rome, with their great-great-aunt Matidia; Marcus thought the evening air of the country was too cold for them. He asked Fronto for "some particularly eloquent reading matter, something of your own, or Cato, or Cicero, or Sallust or Gracchus—or some poet, for I need distraction, especially in this kind of way, by reading something that will uplift and diffuse my pressing anxieties." Marcus' early reign proceeded smoothly. Marcus was able to give himself wholly to philosophy and the pursuit of popular affection. Soon, however, Marcus would find he had many anxieties. It would mean the end of the felicitas temporum ("happy times") that the coinage of 161 had so glibly proclaimed.
In the spring of 162,[notes 4] the Tiber flooded over its banks, destroying much of Rome. It drowned many animals, leaving the city in famine. Marcus and Lucius gave the crisis their personal attention.[notes 5] In other times of famine, the emperors are said to have provided for the Italian communities out of the Roman granaries.
Fronto's letters continued through Marcus' early reign. Fronto felt that, because of Marcus' prominence and public duties, lessons were more important now than they had ever been before. He believed Marcus was "beginning to feel the wish to be eloquent once more, in spite of having for a time lost interest in eloquence". Fronto would again remind his pupil of the tension between his role and his philosophic pretensions: "Suppose, Caesar, that you can attain to the wisdom of Cleanthes and Zeno, yet, against your will, not the philosopher's woolen cape." The early days of Marcus' reign were the happiest of Fronto's life: his pupil was beloved by the people of Rome, an excellent emperor, a fond pupil, and, perhaps most importantly, as eloquent as could be wished. Marcus had displayed rhetorical skill in his speech to the senate after an earthquake at Cyzicus. It had conveyed the drama of the disaster, and the senate had been awed: "not more suddenly or violently was the city stirred by the earthquake than the minds of your hearers by your speech". Fronto was hugely pleased.
On his deathbed, Pius spoke of nothing but the state and the foreign kings who had wronged him. One of those kings, Vologases IV of Parthia, made his move in late summer or early autumn 161. Vologases entered the Kingdom of Armenia (then a Roman client state), expelled its king and installed his own—Pacorus, an Arsacid like himself. The governor of Cappadocia, the front-line in all Armenian conflicts, was Marcus Sedatius Severianus, a Gaul with much experience in military matters. Convinced by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus that he could defeat the Parthians easily, and win glory for himself, Severianus led a legion (perhaps the IX Hispana) into Armenia, but was trapped by the great Parthian general Chosrhoes at Elegia, a town just beyond the Cappadocian frontiers, high up past the headwaters of the Euphrates. Severianus made some attempt to fight Chosrhoes, but soon realized the futility of his campaign, and committed suicide. His legion was massacred. The campaign had only lasted three days.
There was threat of war on other frontiers as well—in Britain, and in Raetia and Upper Germany, where the Chatti of the Taunus mountains had recently crossed over the limes. Marcus was unprepared. Pius seems to have given him no military experience; the biographer writes that Marcus spent the whole of Pius' twenty-three-year reign at his emperor's side—and not in the provinces, where most previous emperors had spent their early careers.[notes 6]
More bad news arrived: the Syrian governor's army had been defeated by the Parthians, and retreated in disarray. Reinforcements were dispatched for the Parthian frontier. P. Julius Geminius Marcianus, an African senator commanding X Gemina at Vindobona (Vienna), left for Cappadocia with detachments from the Danubian legions. Three full legions were also sent east: I Minervia from Bonn in Upper Germany, II Adiutrix from Aquincum, and V Macedonica from Troesmis. The northern frontiers were strategically weakened; frontier governors were told to avoid conflict wherever possible. M. Annius Libo, Marcus' first cousin, was sent to replace the Syrian governor. He was young—his first consulship was in 161, so he was probably in his early thirties—and, as a mere patrician, lacked military experience. Marcus had chosen a reliable man rather than a talented one.
Marcus took a four-day public holiday at Alsium, a resort town on the Etrurian coast. He was too anxious to relax. Writing to Fronto, he declared that he would not speak about his holiday. Fronto replied ironically: "What? Do I not know that you went to Alsium with the intention of devoting yourself to games, joking and complete leisure for four whole days?" He encouraged Marcus to rest, calling on the example of his predecessors (Pius had enjoyed exercise in the palaestra, fishing, and comedy), going so far as to write up a fable about the gods' division of the day between morning and evening—Marcus had apparently been spending most of his evenings on judicial matters instead of at leisure. Marcus could not take Fronto's advice. "I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off," he wrote back. Marcus put on Fronto's voice to chastise himself: "'Much good has my advice done you', you will say!" He had rested, and would rest often, but "—this devotion to duty! Who knows better than you how demanding it is!"
Fronto sent Marcus a selection of reading material, and, to settle his unease over the course of the Parthian war, a long and considered letter, full of historical references. In modern editions of Fronto's works, it is labeled De bello Parthico (On the Parthian War). There had been reverses in Rome's past, Fronto writes, but, in the end, Romans had always prevailed over their enemies: "always and everywhere [Mars] has changed our troubles into successes and our terrors into triumphs".
Over the winter of 161–62, as more bad news arrived—a rebellion was brewing in Syria—it was decided that Lucius should direct the Parthian war in person. He was stronger and healthier than Marcus, the argument went, more suited to military activity. Lucius' biographer suggests ulterior motives: to restrain Lucius' debaucheries, to make him thrifty, to reform his morals by the terror of war, to realize that he was an emperor.[notes 7] Whatever the case, the senate gave its assent, and, in the summer of 162, Lucius left. Marcus would remain in Rome; the city "demanded the presence of an emperor".
Lucius spent most of the campaign in Antioch, though he wintered at Laodicea and summered at Daphne, a resort just outside Antioch. Critics declaimed Lucius' luxurious lifestyle. He had taken to gambling, they said; he would "dice the whole night through". He enjoyed the company of actors.[notes 8] Libo died early in the war; perhaps Lucius had murdered him.
In the middle of the war, perhaps in autumn 163 or early 164, Lucius made a trip to Ephesus to be married to Marcus' daughter Lucilla. Marcus moved up the date; perhaps he had already heard of Lucius' mistress, the low-born and beautiful Panthea. Lucilla's thirteenth birthday was in March 163; whatever the date of her marriage, she was not yet fifteen. Marcus had moved up the date: perhaps stories of Panthea had disturbed him. Lucilla was accompanied by her mother Faustina and M. Vettulenus Civica Barbarus, the half-brother of Lucius' father. Civica was made comes Augusti, "companion of the emperors"; perhaps Marcus wanted him to watch over Lucius, the job Libo had failed at.
Marcus may have planned to accompany them all the way to Smyrna (the biographer says he told the senate he would); this did not happen. Marcus only accompanied the group as far as Brundisium, where they boarded a ship for the east. Marcus returned to Rome immediately thereafter, and sent out special instructions to his proconsuls not to give the group any official reception.
The Armenian capital Artaxata was captured in 163. At the end of the year, Verus took the title Armeniacus, despite having never seen combat; Marcus declined to accept the title until the following year. When Lucius was hailed as imperator again, however, Marcus did not hesitate to take the Imperator II with him.
Occupied Armenia was reconstructed on Roman terms. In 164, a new capital, Kaine Polis ('New City'), replaced Artaxata. A new king was installed: a Roman senator of consular rank and Arsacid descent, C. Iulius Sohaemus. He may not even have been crowned in Armenia; the ceremony may have taken place in Antioch, or even Ephesus. Sohaemus was hailed on the imperial coinage of 164 under the legend Rex armeniis Datus: Lucius sat on a throne with his staff while Sohamenus stood before him, saluting the emperor.
In 163, the Parthians intervened in Osroene, a Roman client in upper Mesopotamia centered on Edessa, and installed their own king on its throne. In response, Roman forces were moved downstream, to cross the Euphrates at a more southerly point. Before the end of 163, however, Roman forces had moved north to occupy Dausara and Nicephorium on the northern, Parthian bank. Soon after the conquest of the north bank of the Euphrates, other Roman forces moved on Osroene from Armenia, taking Anthemusia, a town south-west of Edessa.
In 165, Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia. Edessa was re-occupied, and Mannus, the king deposed by the Parthians, was re-installed. The Parthians retreated to Nisibis, but this too was besieged and captured. The Parthian army dispersed in the Tigris. A second force, under Avidius Cassius and the III Gallica, moved down the Euphrates, and fought a major battle at Dura. By the end of the year, Cassius' army had reached the twin metropolises of Mesopotamia: Seleucia on the right bank of the Tigris and Ctesiphon on the left. Ctesiphon was taken and its royal palace set to flame. The citizens of Seleucia, still largely Greek (the city had been commissioned and settled as a capital of the Seleucid empire, one of Alexander the Great's successor kingdoms), opened its gates to the invaders. The city got sacked nonetheless, leaving a black mark on Lucius' reputation. Excuses were sought, or invented: the official version had it that the Seleucids broke faith first.
Cassius' army, although suffering from a shortage of supplies and the effects of a plague contracted in Seleucia, made it back to Roman territory safely. Lucius took the title Parthicus Maximus, and he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again, earning the title 'imp. III'. Cassius' army returned to the field in 166, crossing over the Tigris into Media. Lucius took the title 'Medicus', and the emperors were again hailed as imperatores, becoming 'imp. IV' in imperial titulature. Marcus took the Parthicus Maximus now, after another tactful delay.
Most of the credit for the war's success must be ascribed to subordinate generals, the most prominent of which was C. Avidius Cassius, commander of III Gallica, one of the Syrian legions. Cassius was young senator of low birth from the north Syrian town of Cyrrhus. His father, Heliodorus, had not been a senator, but was nonetheless a man of some standing: he had been Hadrian's ab epistulis, followed the emperor on his travels, and was prefect of Egypt at the end of Hadrian's reign. Cassius also, with no small sense of self-worth, claimed descent from the Seleucid kings. Cassius and his fellow commander in the war, Martius Verus, still probably in their mid-thirties, took the consulships for 166. After their consulships, they were made governors: Cassius, of Syria; Martius Verus, of Cappadocia.
At Rome, Marcus was occupied with family matters. Matidia, his great-aunt, had died. Her will was invalid under the lex Falcidia: Matidia had assigned more than three-quarters of her estate to non-relatives; her clients had convinced her to include them in codicils to her will. Matidia had never confirmed the documents, but, as she lay unconscious, her clients had sealed them in with the original, making them valid. It was an embarrassing situation. Fronto urged Marcus to push the family's case; Marcus demurred. He was going to consult his brother, who would make the final call.[notes 9]
On the return from the campaign, Lucius was awarded with a triumph; the parade was unusual because it included the two emperors, their sons and unmarried daughters as a big family celebration. Marcus Aurelius' two sons, Commodus five years old and Annius Verus of three, were elevated to the status of Caesar for the occasion.
The returning army carried with them a plague, afterwards known as the Antonine Plague, or the Plague of Galen, which spread through the Roman Empire between 165 and 180. The disease was a pandemic believed to be either of smallpox or measles, and would ultimately claim the lives of two Roman emperors—Lucius Verus, who died in 169, and Marcus Aurelius, whose family name, Antoninus, was given to the epidemic. The disease broke out again nine years later, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day at Rome, one-quarter of those infected. Total deaths have been estimated at five million.
A possible contact with Han China occurred in 166 when a Roman traveller visited the Han court, claiming to be an ambassador representing a certain Andun (Chinese: 安敦), who can be identified either with Marcus Aurelius or his predecessor Antoninus Pius.
Like nearly all emperors, Marcus spent most of his time addressing petitions and hearing disputes—that is, on matters of law. Marcus took great care in the theory and practice of legislation. Professional jurists called him "an emperor most skilled in the law" and "a most prudent and conscientiously just emperor". He shows marked interest in three areas of the law: the manumission of slaves, the guardianship of orphans and minors, and the choice of city councillors (decuriones).
During the early 160s, Fronto's son-in-law Victorinus was stationed as a legate in Germany. He was there with his wife and children (another child had stayed with Fronto and his wife in Rome). The condition on the northern frontier looked grave. A frontier post had been destroyed, and it looked like all the peoples of central and northern Europe were in turmoil. There was corruption among the officers: Victorinus had to ask for the resignation of a legionary legate who was taking bribes. Experienced governors had been replaced by friends and relatives of the imperial family. L. Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, a distant relative of Hadrian, was in Upper Pannonia, succeeding the experienced M. Nonius Macrinus. Lower Pannonia was under the obscure Ti. Haterius Saturnius. M. Servilius Fabianus Maximus was shuffled from Lower Moesia to Upper Moesia when Iallius Bassus had joined Lucius in Antioch. Lower Moesia was filled by Pontius Laelianus' son. The Dacias were still divided in three, governed by a praetorian senator and two procurators. The peace could not hold long; Lower Pannonia did not even have a legion.
Starting in the 160s, Germanic tribes and other nomadic people launched raids along the Northern border, particularly into Gaul and across the Danube. This new impetus westwards was probably due to attacks from tribes farther east. A first invasion of the Chatti in the province of Germania Superior was repulsed in 162. Far more dangerous was the invasion of 166, when the Marcomanni of Bohemia, clients of the Roman Empire since 19, crossed the Danube together with the Lombards and other German tribes. At the same time, the Iranian Sarmatians attacked between the Danube and the Theiss rivers.
Due to the situation in the East, only a punitive expedition could be launched in 167. Both Marcus and Verus led the troops. After the death of Verus (169), Marcus led personally the struggle against the Germans for the great part of his remaining life. The Romans suffered at least two serious defeats by the Quadi and Marcomanni, who could cross the Alps, ravage Opitergium (Oderzo) and besiege Aquileia, the Roman main city of north-east Italy. At the same time the Costoboci, coming from the Carpathian area, invaded Moesia, Macedonia and Greece. After a long struggle, Marcus Aurelius managed to push back the invaders. Numerous Germans settled in frontier regions like Dacia, Pannonia, Germany and Italy itself. This was not a new thing, but this time the numbers of settlers required the creation of two new frontier provinces on the left shore of the Danube, Sarmatia and Marcomannia, including today's Bohemia and Hungary.
The emperor's plans were, however, prevented by a revolt in East, led by Avidius Cassius, which was prompted by false news of the death of Marcus after an illness. Of the eastern provinces, only Cappadocia and Bithynia did not side with the rebels. When it became clear that Marcus Aurelius was still alive, Cassius' fortunes declined quickly and he was killed by his troops after only 100 days of power.
Together with his wife Faustina, Marcus Aurelius toured the eastern provinces until 173. He visited Athens, declaring himself a protector of philosophy. After a triumph in Rome, the following year he marched again to the Danubian frontier. After a decisive victory in 178, the plan to annex Bohemia seemed poised for success but was abandoned after Marcus Aurelius again fell ill in 180.
Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March 180, in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna), his son and successor Commodus accompanying him. He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome, and rested in Hadrian's mausoleum (modern Castel Sant'Angelo) until the Visigoth sack of the city in 410. His campaigns against Germans and Sarmatians were also commemorated by a column and a temple built in Rome.
Marcus Aurelius was able to secure the succession for Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and made co-emperor in 177, though the choice may have been unknowingly unfortunate. This decision, which put an end to the fortunate series of "adoptive emperors", was highly criticized by later historians since Commodus was a political and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist with neurotic problems. For this reason, Marcus Aurelius' death is often held to have been the end of the Pax Romana.
At the end of his history of Marcus' reign, Cassius Dio wrote an encomium to the emperor, and described the transition to Commodus, to Dio's own times, with sorrow.
– Cassius Dio 71.36.3–4
...[Marcus] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his person in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him. This matter must be our next topic; for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.
It is possible that he chose Commodus simply in the absence of other candidates, or as a result of the fear of succession issues and the possibility of civil war. Michael Grant, in The Climax of Rome (1968), writes of Commodus: "The youth turned out to be very erratic or at least so anti-traditional that disaster was inevitable. But whether or not Marcus ought to have known this to be so, the rejections of his son's claims in favour of someone else would almost certainly involved one of the civil wars which were to proliferate so disastrous around future successions."