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Marcus Aurelius

On April 26, 121 AD, one of the most influential of Rome's emperors was born.  Marcus Aurelius Antoninus came from an aristocratic family long established in Spain.  While he was still a child, he attracted the attention of Emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138), a fellow countryman and a pedophile.  The Emperor appointed Aurelius to a priesthood in 129 and supervised his education, which was entrusted to the best professors of literature, rhetoric, and philosophy of the time.  When Aurelius' father died, the boy was raised by his grandfather, Annius Verus.

From his early twenties, Aurelius deserted his other studies for philosophy.  Emperor Antoninus, who succeeded Hadrian, adopted Marcus Aurelius as his son in 138.  He treated Aurelius as a confidant and a trusted aide throughout his reign.  Aurelius was admitted to the Senate and then to the consulship on two occasions.  In 147, he shared power with Antoninus. 

In the first pages of his 12-volume masterpiece, Meditations, he left an account, unique in antiquity, of his education by relatives and by distinguished tutors who inspired within him a sense of diligence, gratitude, and strength of character.  He was named emperor when Antoninus died in AD 161. 

Aurelius was one of the most intelligent and noble of all Roman emperors, but his tenure would be marked by poor judgment and even poorer consequences.  As the new emperor assumed power, the Roman Empire was experiencing a period of unmatched prosperity.  Known as the Pax Romana, or Time of Peace, it lasted for nearly 200 years.  The Empire of the Caesars was as large as it had ever been, stretching from Scotland in the north to the Arabian desert in the south. 

Most Roman citizens led undeniably comfortable lives.  They enjoyed access to products from all around the world.  Most cities had running water, sewage systems, roads for public transportation (and the quick deployment of Roman troops, when necessary), and public baths.  The most wealthy and powerful people lived in great villas with central heating systems.  They amused themselves with plays and gladiator contests.  Historian, Tacitus, wrote that it was a time of "rare happiness...when we may think what we please, and express what we think."

But nearly as soon as Marcus Aurelius became emperor, Rome met with a series of disasters.  During the twenty years that he ruled, the Empire witnessed plagues, famines, and the wars that invariably accompany such adversity.  His time in power was spent defending the Roman Empire against invaders.  In the north, Roman troops battled the Germans.  In the east, they went to war against the Parthians. 

In the middle of the chaos, Aurelius consoled himself by keeping a diary filled with philosophic meditations.  He had studied the Stoic philosophers, who believed in detaching oneself from everything in the universe that remains outside of human control.  He recorded bits of advice to himself.  "Thou wilt find rest from vain fancies if thou doest every act in life as though it were thy last"; "Love the little trade which thou hast learned, and be content therewith"; and "Very little is needed to make a happy life."

As Emperor, Aurelius was both conservative and just by Roman standards.  Toward the end of his reign in 175, he was faced with a revolt by Avidius Cassius, whom he praised and attempted to accommodate.  Faustina, Aurelius' wife, may have been involved in the conspiracy.  An epidemic of plague followed Cassius's army back home from the Eastern Front. 

Year after year, Aurelius struggled to push the barbarian hordes back from various empirical outposts, but each year witnessed the gradual crumbling of the empire's frontiers.  During these times of disaster, Aurelius turned increasingly to the study of Stoic philosophy.

He said, "Be not as one that hath ten thousand years to live; death is nigh at hand: while thou livest, while thou hast time, be good."

Although his Latin letters to teacher, Fronto, are uninspired, his Meditations are remarkable in their candor and revelations.  They are personal reflections and aphorisms, written for his own edification during a long career of public service and after marching or returning from battle in the remote Danube.  As such, they are valued most as a personal document, detailing what it means to be a Stoic.

Aurelius' opinions in central philosophical questions are very similar to those found in the teachings of Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD).  Epictetus' two basic principles were Endure and Abstain.  He stressed that inner freedom is to be attained through submission to providence, as well as to rigorous detachment from everything not within mankind's own power.  Aurelius' own work echoes the philosophy:

"He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation.  But if thou shalt have no sensation, neither wilt thou feel any harm; and if thou shalt acquire another kind of sensation, thou wilt be a different kind of living being and thou wilt not cease to live." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Aurelius' melancholic writings reveal a depressed and lonely man who longed to retire to a simpler way of life in the country.  His reputation as a ruler is shadowed by his persecution of Christians, whom he considered superstitious and immoral.  The fierce cruelty with which he persecuted them throughout Gaul was inconsistent with his writings.  Nonetheless, stoicism went on to have a profound influence upon both Neoplatonism and Christianity.

The last months of the reign of Marcus Aurelius were saddened by his realization that the once mighty Roman Empire was about to fall into unworthy hands when his son, Commodus, moved to the throne.  His predilections were right.  Commodus proved to be one of the most inept emperors in the history of Rome.

Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD at Vindobona or Sirmium in Pannonia.

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