Freedom of speech under Marcus Aurelius

Freedom of speech under Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher king, took steps toward free speech (wiki):

The emperors permitted free speech, evidenced 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.

At the same time he is considered partly responsible for an increase in the persecution of Christians, indicating that he had his reservations as to what could be said after all.

What is known about what was actually proposed or enforced as policies in regard to free speech during his reign? Note that I am not primarily interested in his own beliefs, but more interested in what the actual conditions were in Rome at that time and how they differed from the limitations on free speech by other emperors.

The notion of "free speech", as we understand it today did not exist in the Roman empire.

The authors you cite probably mean " crimen laesae majestatis", which English Wikipedia translates as "lese majeste". This was a law which was probably introduced under Augustus, and then revoked and re-introduced under various princepces. The first person who revoked it was Vespasian, if I remember correctly. It was not enforced under Marcus, and probably under his predecessors (Trajan, Hadrian, Antonine… ).

So you could say anything about the princeps (or even about his family) during the rule of these liberal princepces. Even in public performances.

Persecution of Christians is a very different matter. There was an established State religion, and established rituals. Refusal to perform them or to participate in them was considered a political act, kind of rejection of the Empire itself. It is not the personal beliefs or speech which was persecuted in this case. But a kind of denial of the supreme authority of the empire. The laws against Christians were not always strictly enforced (or even enforced at all).

A very typical is the attitude of Pliny the younger, who was a governor of a province under Trajan. He did not search for Christians. But those denounced he had to interrogate. If they persisted and refused to perform certain symbolic rituals for established gods, they were executed. (After a third warning and third refusal). Pliny himself says (in a letter to Trajan) that this weird superstition is harmless by itself. But a stubborn denial of the authority and of the established rites deserves a death sentence.

Free speech is a modern concept. There were no laws in Rome giving a right to speak without being punished. Conversely, there were not too many laws against speech either. There appear to have been some civil remedies against defamation, but the evidence for it is slight and by all appearances it was difficult to sue someone for libel or defamation (see "Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans" by Andrew M. Riggsby for more information).

We have only fragmentary remains of Roman law to go on and what can be gleaned from literature, so in many cases we don't know exactly what Roman law was or exactly how it was enforced (see Riggsby again). Other than the Augustan dicate against lese majeste, I don't know of any specific laws either allowing or outlawing speech. Even lese majeste itself, was not specifically about speech, but more about any act that would be insulting to the government.

Imperial Rome was a dictatorship and the emperor had the power to arrest or kill people without a trial, so laws were mostly meaningful only in a civil context. When it came to criminal matters, the Roman government apparatus just did whatever it wanted or what the emperor ordered, and this could change drastically from reign to reign. So, for example, Marcus Aurelius had much more moderate policies than some other emperors, but these were not laws; they were imperial policy.

The criminal authorities in Rome, called magistrates, could more or less do what they wanted. So, for example, if someone went around making speeches against the emperor, a magistrate could have him seized and beaten up or killed without any kind of trial. The magistrates sensed the will of the emperor, so when, for example, Marcus Aurelius made speeches about toleration, the magistrates would lighten up and not act against subversives as a result.

Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher Emperor or Philosopher-King?

It is very common to hear in both academic circles, as well as more close-knit Stoic circles, Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) being referred to as the philosopher king. This is not an idea that is heavily under contention. Marcus Aurelius was definitely an amazing individual. He was adopted first by the Emperor Hadrian (76 – 138 CE) and then later by Antoninus Pius (86 – 161 CE). Marcus was educated by the best teachers in rhetoric, poetry, Greek, Latin, and of course, philosophy. The latter is the subject that he prized above all and it is that which had the greatest influence on the young man. The second century Roman historian Cassius Dio (155 – 235 CE) said of Marcus that:

In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance…He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretense but to real excellence is clear for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus [Pius], and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretense. (Cas. Dio. Hist. Rom. 72. 34-35)

Marcus is most notably remembered for his surviving text now called The Meditations. It was the emperor's personal journal, which recounts all of his innermost thoughts. We see in The Meditations that Marcus used his knowledge of Stoic philosophy to modify his behavior he was literally engaging in what we now know as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The strength and grace of his character gained him both the respect of the upper classes as well as the plebeians.


Marcus' goal was to become the best – most virtuous – person that he was able to become. He saw himself and the world that he lived in – tumultuous as it was – from a cosmic perspective. Seeing that he had a fundamental duty to other human beings, like Socrates, he didn't see himself as simply the Emperor of Rome, nor a Roman citizen, nor a Latin citizen, but rather a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan in the truest sense.

Marcus' Stoicism was unique. Unlike his Stoic predecessors we see how the emperor was able to cope with the incredible difficulties that he was presented with. He was a sickly man, who had to confront constant political intrigue, war on the frontiers and difficult family affairs. In spite of all this he was still able to maintain his emotional control, to govern in an orderly and just manner and of course to cultivate his own virtue. Because of this Dio writes:


However, he 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. (Cas. Dio. Hist. Rom. 72. 36)

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of all of Rome, a king to hundreds of thousands of people, as well as a philosopher. He was Rome's philosopher king for nineteen years. But the question is, was Marcus Aurelius a philosopher king only in the most literal sense, or was he a philosopher-king, as described by Plato in his magnum opus, The Republic? When people call Marcus the Philosopher king it is difficult to discern which of these two types of philosophical monarchs they are referring to. This article will hopefully shed some light on the difference as well as accurately describe Marcus' philosophic reign.

The Philosopher-King Paradox

Sceptical attitudes regarding the virtues of philosophy really haven't changed much in over two thousand years. Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates for having his head in the clouds, and Plato relates the story of Thales falling into a well while preoccupied with stargazing. Even then, philosophers were considered nothing more than a verbose bunch of obscurantists who didn't know how to tie their own shoelaces. Or, to be less anachronistic, they were obscurantists who didn't wear shoes, as if to flaunt their poverty and lack of materialistic concern.

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When Plato insisted that the only way justice can exist is if a philosopher becomes a king, or vice versa, he was well aware of the public's negative perception of philosophy. Philosophy will teach children that it's okay to beat their parents. Philosophy will teach people that it's okay to murder because truth is relative. Philosophy will turn its practitioners against traditional religion. Philosophers will make you pay a hefty fee only to teach you how to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. Philosophy will make you a useless citizen.

The idea of a philosopher king was as repulsive then as it is now. Philosopher kings? What better rhetorical breeding grounds for tyrannical dictators like Hitler and Stalin? Few take the idea seriously. Even amongst many philosophers, the idea is repugnant.


Yet, Plato wasn't being facetious. Paradoxical, bold, maybe even in-your-face, but not facetious. For him, the practice of philosophy was something quite different from what was being called philosophy in his time. The true philosopher, we must remember, is an ideal. This person must have knowledge of the Good. In this case there is no fallibility, no human weakness to account for. If such a person were to exist, Plato predicted that no one would acknowledge the philosopher's expertise. Bringing about a truly just society is nearly impossible.

The true philosopher is likened to a captain of a ship who is viewed by his crew as a useless stargazer. An apt metaphor which plays off of the story of Thales. Plato handles the metaphor with an intentional equivocation: Navigation of course depends on stargazing, although in the captain's case there's presumably no metaphysical inquiries involved. Here, we see stargazing as techne, craftsmanship, a practical art. The captain's knowledge of the stars is like the doctor's knowledge of health, or the computer geek's knowledge of how to get that virus out of your computer. In these cases, we turn to experts for help because we know we don't know. In the ship metaphor, we the readers see the folly of the crew's dismissal of the captain's knowledge.

The point is, Plato's ideal philosopher king is an expert in statesmanship who actually knows how to bring about justice. If we could know that such a person exists, we'd automatically turn to this philosopher for help. There's the rub. We don't know. And how can we? In each case the proof is in the pudding.


Herein lies the paradox of the philosopher king: If everyone were experts in justice, we could recognize a philosopher king, but then we wouldn't need one. Since we're not experts, how do we know who among us is a philosopher king? Without knowledge of what's good (in Plato, the Good) we can't say. Do philosophers make good rulers? The most we can do is look to the past for an approximation, obliquely.

The Proof is in his Power

Treachery, plague and war despite all of these Marcus was able to summon the will to hold the delicate balance of power in check and preserve the empire. He maintained what is known as Rome's Silver Age and did what he could to make the lives of his citizenry as prosperous and stable as possible. It was said of Marcus' character that “he was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.” (Historia Augusta. 4. 5) His interactions with people of all strata were described in this way:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state. He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few. (Historia Augusta. 12. 1)

As a Stoic, Marcus had an unwavering sense of duty to those beneath him in the hierarchy he was a man of service and would do all that was necessary to see his purpose fulfilled. When the Germanic tribes began raiding the northern frontier borders, Marcus, rather than increase taxes on the public to fund the campaign, sold off all his imperial possessions to pay for the endeavor. He saw such an act not only as a necessary action, but one that was called for by his duty in being in such a position of wealth and power.


When it came to distributing punishment in the judicial system, Marcus' philosophical discipline also dictated his decisions. The Historia Augustus says of Marcus that:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending… He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes. He settled countless foreigners on Roman land. (Hist. Aug. 24. 1)

The Emperor lived his entire life as a true philosopher, he spoke like a philosopher and he ruled like a philosopher.

For Marcus' own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source. (Hist. Aug. 16. 3)

He was generous, lenient and embodied many modern notions of republicanism, while at the same time sat in the highest seat of imperial power.

A Philosophical Democracy

We value democracy because we have the power to push a tyrant off the throne. Democracy's realistic in human assessment: there will be as many if not more fraudulent philosopher kings as there are sheisty auto mechanics. Democracy lets us call them out, warn the others, put these impostors in their place. Freedom of speech is a crucial safeguard.

However, a democratic system relies on the assumption that we all know what's good for us, that the good can be brought about through our collective knowledge. Bad things will happen, but change is always on the horizon. “Change” is something we've become enamored with, but this political slogan relies on presumed general discontent and the assumption that change will be for the better.

But are we collectively experts in virtue and justice? If we're all driving the ship, where is it going? The winds push in one direction, then another. Education is of utmost importance in a democracy, but education is itself another element battered by the storm of opinions. There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

Democracy is a word that now has positive connotations, and for good reasons. But education was not meant to be democratized. A philosophical education would teach us at the very minimum how to distinguish empty rhetoric from sound arguments, how to spot informal fallacies. This is necessary when choosing our “captains,” and ought to be included in public education.

The Boy who would become a Philosopher

Marcus Aurelius was a true warrior, he did not dance with his life instead it was a constant boxing match. He did his best to keep his chin up and inspire those around him to become better than they were.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy. When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground. However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins. (Historia Augusta. 2. 6. )

In his final days we can see how even the army, whom he led into battle in the north, responded when they heard of his illness that would eventually take his life: “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.” (Historia Augusta. 28. 1) Even on his deathbed Marcus was unrelenting in his practice of Stoic virtue. Acting with indifference to inevitable demise, he said to the loved ones watching him, “do not cry for me, but think instead of the sickness and death of so many others.”(Historia Augusta. 28. 1)

The empire lived in synchronicity with Marcus the empire endured as long and as well as he did. His death marked the end of an era and the beginning of the empire's fall. Cassius Dio writes of the death of Marcus that, “… our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”(Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 36)

And now we finally come to the question addressed at the beginning of this article, was Marcus Aurelius Plato's philosopher-king?

The concept of Plato's Kallipolis and its ruling philosopher-king is deeply nuanced and embodies many strict notions such as the harmonization of the cardinal virtues of “wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and morality” (Plato, Republic 427e) as well as knowledge of the Good. Marcus may or may not fit the description. Marcus' life and reign would definitely have been a consolation to Plato in that a philosopher can be a king, and that such a ruler could live a philosophical lifestyle, and impart that wisdom on his public administration. Marcus, although perhaps not the philosopher-king of Plato's Kallipolis, was still a philosopher king in the most literal sense.

Of course the Stoic notion of the Sage and the Platonic notion of the harmonized soul differ, however they both agree that the key to a just society is a ruler who embodies their respective ideas of harmonized virtue. Edward Gibbon in his magnum opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saw the magnificence of the Antonine rule and stated:

If a man were called upon to fix that period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.” (Gibbon, 1909, p. 78)

Marcus may not be Plato's philosopher-king but he was undoubtedly the philosopher-emperor.


Many of the quotes used to justify the points made in this paper regarding the life, rule and character of Marcus Aurelius were taken from the ancient text known as the Historia Augusta, which is notoriously debated as being unreliable in many parts. Nonetheless, regardless of its validity, many of texts which mention his life, including Cassius Dio coherently match the character that the HA portrays of Marcus Aurelius.


The major sources depicting the life and rule of Marcus are patchy and frequently unreliable. The most important group of sources, the biographies contained in the Historia Augusta, claimed to be written by a group of authors at the turn of the 4th century AD, but it is believed they were in fact written by a single author (referred to here as 'the biographer') from about 395 AD. [3] The later biographies and the biographies of subordinate emperors and usurpers are unreliable, but the earlier biographies, derived primarily from now-lost earlier sources (Marius Maximus or Ignotus), are much more accurate. [4] For Marcus's life and rule, the biographies of Hadrian, Antoninus, Marcus, and Lucius are largely reliable, but those of Aelius Verus and Avidius Cassius are not. [5]

A body of correspondence between Marcus's tutor Fronto and various Antonine officials survives in a series of patchy manuscripts, covering the period from c. 138 to 166. [6] [7] Marcus's own Meditations offer a window on his inner life, but are largely undateable and make few specific references to worldly affairs. [8] 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. [9] Some other literary sources provide specific details: 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 Justinianeus on Marcus's legal work. [10] Inscriptions and coin finds supplement the literary sources. [11]

Name Edit

Marcus was born in Rome on 26 April 121. His name at birth was supposedly Marcus Annius Verus, [13] but some sources assign this name to him upon his father's death and unofficial adoption by his grandfather, upon his coming of age, [14] [15] [16] or at the time of his marriage. [17] He may have been known as Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, [18] at birth or some point in his youth, [14] [16] or Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus. Upon his adoption by Antoninus as heir to the throne, he was known as Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar and, upon his ascension, he was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus until his death [19] Epiphanius of Salamis, in his chronology of the Roman emperors On Weights and Measures, calls him Marcus Aurelius Verus. [20]

Family origins Edit

Marcus's paternal family was of Roman Italo-Hispanic origins. His father was Marcus Annius Verus (III). [21] The gens Annia was of Italian origins (with legendary claims of descendance from Numa Pompilius) and a branch of it moved to Ucubi, a small town south east of Córdoba in Iberian Baetica. [22] [23] This branch of the Aurelii based in Roman Spain, the Annii Veri, rose to prominence in Rome in the late 1st century AD. Marcus's great-grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (I) was a senator and (according to the Historia Augusta) ex-praetor his grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (II) was made patrician in 73–74. [24] Through his grandmother Rupilia, Marcus was a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty the emperor Trajan's sororal niece Salonia Matidia was the mother of Rupilia and her half-sister, Hadrian's wife Sabina. [25] [26] [note 1]

Marcus's mother, Domitia Lucilla Minor (also known as Domitia Calvilla), was the daughter of the Roman patrician P. Calvisius Tullus and inherited a great fortune (described at length in one of Pliny's letters) from her parents and grandparents. Her inheritance included large brickworks on the outskirts of Rome – a profitable enterprise in an era when the city was experiencing a construction boom – and the Horti Domitia Calvillae (or Lucillae), a villa on the Caelian hill of Rome. [29] [30] Marcus himself was born and raised in the Horti and referred to the Caelian hill as 'My Caelian'. [31] [32] [33]

The adoptive family of Marcus was of Roman Italo-Gallic origins: the gens Aurelia, into which Marcus was adopted at the age of 17, was a Sabine gens Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father, came from the Aurelii Fulvi, a branch of the Aurelii based in Roman Gaul.

Childhood Edit

Marcus's sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, was probably born in 122 or 123. [34] His father probably died in 124, when Marcus was three years old during his praetorship. [35] [note 2] Though he can hardly have known his father, Marcus wrote in his Meditations that he had learned 'modesty and manliness' from his memories of his father and the man's posthumous reputation. [37] His mother Lucilla did not remarry [35] and, following prevailing aristocratic customs, probably did not spend much time with her son. Instead, Marcus was in the care of 'nurses', [38] and was raised after his father's death by his grandfather Marcus Annius Verus (II), who had always retained the legal authority of patria potestas over his son and grandson. Technically this was not an adoption, the creation of a new and different patria potestas. Lucius Catilius Severus, described as Marcus's maternal great-grandfather, also participated in his upbringing he was probably the elder Domitia Lucilla's stepfather. [16] Marcus was raised in his parents' home on the Caelian Hill, an upscale area with few public buildings but many aristocratic villas. Marcus's grandfather owned a palace beside the Lateran, where he would spend much of his childhood. [39] Marcus thanks his grandfather for teaching him 'good character and avoidance of bad temper'. [40] He was less fond of the mistress his grandfather took and lived with after the death of his wife Rupilia. [41] Marcus was grateful that he did not have to live with her longer than he did. [42]

From a young age, Marcus displayed enthusiasm for wrestling and boxing. Marcus trained in wrestling as a youth and into his teenage years, learned to fight in armour and led a dance troupe called the College of the Salii. They performed ritual dances dedicated to Mars, the god of war, while dressed in arcane armour, carrying shields and weapons. [43] Marcus was educated at home, in line with contemporary aristocratic trends [44] he thanks Catilius Severus for encouraging him to avoid public schools. [45] One of his teachers, Diognetus, a painting master, proved particularly influential he seems to have introduced Marcus Aurelius to the philosophic way of life. [46] In April 132, at the behest of Diognetus, Marcus took up the dress and habits of the philosopher: he studied while wearing a rough Greek cloak, and would sleep on the ground until his mother convinced him to sleep on a bed. [47] A new set of tutors – the Homeric scholar Alexander of Cotiaeum along with Trosius Aper and Tuticius Proculus, teachers of Latin [48] [note 3] – took over Marcus's education in about 132 or 133. [50] Marcus thanks Alexander for his training in literary styling. [51] Alexander's influence – an emphasis on matter over style and careful wording, with the occasional Homeric quotation – has been detected in Marcus's Meditations. [52]

Succession to Hadrian Edit

In late 136, Hadrian almost died from a hemorrhage. Convalescent in his villa at Tivoli, he selected Lucius Ceionius Commodus, Marcus's intended father-in-law, as his successor and adopted son, [53] according to the biographer 'against the wishes of everyone'. [54] While his motives are not certain, it would appear that his goal was to eventually place the then-too-young Marcus on the throne. [55] As part of his adoption, Commodus took the name, Lucius Aelius Caesar. His health was so poor that, during a ceremony to mark his becoming heir to the throne, he was too weak to lift a large shield on his own. [56] After a brief stationing on the Danube frontier, Aelius returned to Rome to make an address to the Senate on the first day of 138. However, the night before the speech, he grew ill and died of a hemorrhage later in the day. [57] [note 4]

On 24 January 138, Hadrian selected Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus's aunt Faustina the Elder, as his new successor. [59] As part of Hadrian's terms, Antoninus, in turn, adopted Marcus and Lucius Commodus, the son of Lucius Aelius. [60] Marcus became M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, and Lucius became L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus. At Hadrian's request, Antoninus's daughter Faustina was betrothed to Lucius. [61] Marcus reportedly greeted the news that Hadrian had become his adoptive grandfather with sadness, instead of joy. Only with reluctance did he move from his mother's house on the Caelian to Hadrian's private home. [62]

At some time in 138, Hadrian requested in the senate that Marcus be exempt from the law barring him from becoming quaestor before his twenty-fourth birthday. The senate complied, and Marcus served under Antoninus, the consul for 139. [63] Marcus's adoption diverted him from the typical career path of his class. If not for his adoption, he probably would have become triumvir monetalis, a highly regarded post involving token administration of the state mint after that, he could have served as tribune with a legion, becoming the legion's nominal second-in-command. Marcus probably would have opted for travel and further education instead. As it was, Marcus was set apart from his fellow citizens. Nonetheless, his biographer attests that his character remained unaffected: 'He still showed the same respect to his relations as he had when he was an ordinary citizen, and he was as thrifty and careful of his possessions as he had been when he lived in a private household'. [64]

After a series of suicide attempts, all thwarted by Antoninus, Hadrian left for Baiae, a seaside resort on the Campanian coast. His condition did not improve, and he abandoned the diet prescribed by his doctors, indulging himself in food and drink. He sent for Antoninus, who was at his side when he died on 10 July 138. [65] His remains were buried quietly at Puteoli. [66] The succession to Antoninus was peaceful and stable: Antoninus kept Hadrian's nominees in office and appeased the senate, respecting its privileges and commuting the death sentences of men charged in Hadrian's last days. [67] For his dutiful behaviour, Antoninus was asked to accept the name 'Pius'. [68]

Heir to Antoninus Pius (138–145) Edit

Immediately after Hadrian's death, Antoninus approached Marcus and requested that his marriage arrangements be amended: Marcus's betrothal to Ceionia Fabia would be annulled, and he would be betrothed to Faustina, Antoninus's daughter, instead. Faustina's betrothal to Ceionia's brother Lucius Commodus would also have to be annulled. Marcus consented to Antoninus's proposal. [71] He was made consul for 140 with Antoninus as his colleague, and was appointed as a seviri, one of the knights' six commanders, at the order's annual parade on 15 July 139. As the heir apparent, Marcus became princeps iuventutis, head of the equestrian order. He now took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar. [72] Marcus would later caution himself against taking the name too seriously: 'See that you do not turn into a Caesar do not be dipped into the purple dye – for that can happen'. [73] At the senate's request, Marcus joined all the priestly colleges (pontifices, augures, quindecimviri sacris faciundis, septemviri epulonum, etc.) [74] direct evidence for membership, however, is available only for the Arval Brethren. [75]

Antoninus demanded that Marcus reside in the House of Tiberius, the imperial palace on the Palatine, and take up the habits of his new station, the aulicum fastigium or 'pomp of the court', against Marcus's objections. [74] Marcus would struggle to reconcile the life of the court with his philosophic yearnings. He told himself it was an attainable goal – 'Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace' [76] – but he found it difficult nonetheless. He would criticize himself in the Meditations for 'abusing court life' in front of company. [77]

As quaestor, Marcus would have had little real administrative work to do. He would read imperial letters to the senate when Antoninus was absent and would do secretarial work for the senators. [78] But he felt drowned in paperwork and complained to his tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto: 'I am so out of breath from dictating nearly thirty letters'. [79] He was being 'fitted for ruling the state', in the words of his biographer. [80] He was required to make a speech to the assembled senators as well, making oratorical training essential for the job. [81]

On 1 January 145, Marcus was made consul a second time. Fronto urged him in a letter to have plenty of sleep 'so that you may come into the Senate with a good colour and read your speech with a strong voice'. [82] Marcus had complained of an illness in an earlier letter: 'As far as my strength is concerned, I am beginning to get it back and there is no trace of the pain in my chest. But that ulcer [. ] [note 5] I am having treatment and taking care not to do anything that interferes with it'. [83] Never particularly healthy or strong, Marcus was praised by Cassius Dio, writing of his later years, for behaving dutifully in spite of his various illnesses. [84] In April 145, Marcus married Faustina, legally his sister, as had been planned since 138. [85] Little is specifically known of the ceremony, but the biographer calls it 'noteworthy'. [86] Coins were issued with the heads of the couple, and Antoninus, as Pontifex Maximus, would have officiated. Marcus makes no apparent reference to the marriage in his surviving letters, and only sparing references to Faustina. [87]

Fronto and further education Edit

After taking the toga virilis in 136, Marcus probably began his training in oratory. [88] He had three tutors in Greek – Aninus Macer, Caninius Celer, and Herodes Atticus – and one in Latin – Fronto. The latter two were the most esteemed orators of their time, [89] but probably did not become his tutors until his adoption by Antoninus in 138. The preponderance of Greek tutors indicates the importance of the Greek language to the aristocracy of Rome. [90] This was the age of the Second Sophistic, a renaissance in Greek letters. Although educated in Rome, in his Meditations, Marcus would write his inmost thoughts in Greek. [91]

Atticus was controversial: an enormously rich Athenian (probably the richest man in the eastern half of the empire), he was quick to anger and resented by his fellow Athenians for his patronizing manner. [92] Atticus was an inveterate opponent of Stoicism and philosophic pretensions. [93] He thought the Stoics' desire for apatheia was foolish: they would live a 'sluggish, enervated life', he said. [94] In spite of the influence of Atticus, Marcus would later become a Stoic. He would not mention Herodes at all in his Meditations, in spite of the fact that they would come into contact many times over the following decades. [95]

Fronto was highly esteemed: in the self-consciously antiquarian world of Latin letters, [96] he was thought of as second only to Cicero, perhaps even an alternative to him. [97] [note 6] He did not care much for Atticus, though Marcus was eventually to put the pair on speaking terms. Fronto exercised a complete mastery of Latin, capable of tracing expressions through the literature, producing obscure synonyms, and challenging minor improprieties in word choice. [97]

A significant amount of the correspondence between Fronto and Marcus has survived. [101] The pair were very close, using intimate language such as 'Farewell my Fronto, wherever you are, my most sweet love and delight. How is it between you and me? I love you and you are not here' in their correspondence. [102] Marcus spent time with Fronto's wife and daughter, both named Cratia, and they enjoyed light conversation. [103]

He wrote Fronto a letter on his birthday, claiming to love him as he loved himself, and calling on the gods to ensure that every word he learnt of literature, he would learn 'from the lips of Fronto'. [104] His prayers for Fronto's health were more than conventional, because Fronto was frequently ill at times, he seems to be an almost constant invalid, always suffering [105] – about one-quarter of the surviving letters deal with the man's sicknesses. [106] Marcus asks that Fronto's pain be inflicted on himself, 'of my own accord with every kind of discomfort'. [107]

Fronto never became Marcus's full-time teacher and continued his career as an advocate. One notorious case brought him into conflict with Atticus. [108] Marcus pleaded with Fronto, first with 'advice', then as a 'favour', not to attack Atticus he had already asked Atticus to refrain from making the first blows. [109] Fronto replied that he was surprised to discover Marcus counted Atticus as a friend (perhaps Atticus was not yet Marcus's tutor), and allowed that Marcus might be correct, [110] but nonetheless affirmed his intent to win the case by any means necessary: '[T]he charges are frightful and must be spoken of as frightful. Those in particular that refer to the beating and robbing I will describe so that they savour of gall and bile. If I happen to call him an uneducated little Greek it will not mean war to the death'. [111] The outcome of the trial is unknown. [112]

By the age of twenty-five (between April 146 and April 147), Marcus had grown disaffected with his studies in jurisprudence, and showed some signs of general malaise. His master, he writes to Fronto, was an unpleasant blowhard, and had made 'a hit at' him: 'It is easy to sit yawning next to a judge, he says, but to be a judge is noble work'. [113] Marcus had grown tired of his exercises, of taking positions in imaginary debates. When he criticized the insincerity of conventional language, Fronto took to defend it. [114] In any case, Marcus's formal education was now over. He had kept his teachers on good terms, following them devotedly. It 'affected his health adversely', his biographer writes, to have devoted so much effort to his studies. It was the only thing the biographer could find fault with in Marcus's entire boyhood. [115]

Fronto had warned Marcus against the study of philosophy early on: 'It is better never to have touched the teaching of philosophy. than to have tasted it superficially, with the edge of the lips, as the saying is'. [116] He disdained philosophy and philosophers and looked down on Marcus's sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon and others in this circle. [101] Fronto put an uncharitable interpretation of Marcus's 'conversion to philosophy': 'In the fashion of the young, tired of boring work', Marcus had turned to philosophy to escape the constant exercises of oratorical training. [117] Marcus kept in close touch with Fronto, but would ignore Fronto's scruples. [118]

Apollonius may have introduced Marcus to Stoic philosophy, but Quintus Junius Rusticus would have the strongest influence on the boy. [119] [note 7] He was the man Fronto recognized as having 'wooed Marcus away' from oratory. [121] He was older than Fronto and twenty years older than Marcus. As the grandson of Arulenus Rusticus, one of the martyrs to the tyranny of Domitian (r. 81–96), he was heir to the tradition of 'Stoic Opposition' to the 'bad emperors' of the 1st century [122] the true successor of Seneca (as opposed to Fronto, the false one). [123] Marcus thanks Rusticus for teaching him 'not to be led astray into enthusiasm for rhetoric, for writing on speculative themes, for discoursing on moralizing texts. To avoid oratory, poetry, and 'fine writing''. [124]

Philostratus describes how even when Marcus was an old man, in the latter part of his reign, he studied under Sextus of Chaeronea:

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, ' it is good even for an old man to learn I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.' And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, ' O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.' [125]

Births and deaths Edit

On 30 November 147, Faustina gave birth to a girl named Domitia Faustina. She was the first of at least thirteen children (including two sets of twins) that Faustina would bear over the next twenty-three years. The next day, 1 December, Antoninus gave Marcus the tribunician power and the imperium – authority over the armies and provinces of the emperor. As tribune, he had the right to bring one measure before the senate after the four Antoninus could introduce. His tribunician powers would be renewed with Antoninus's on 10 December 147. [126] The first mention of Domitia in Marcus's letters reveals her as a sickly infant. 'Caesar to Fronto. If the gods are willing we seem to have a hope of recovery. The diarrhea has stopped, the little attacks of fever have been driven away. But the emaciation is still extreme and there is still quite a bit of coughing'. He and Faustina, Marcus wrote, had been 'pretty occupied' with the girl's care. [127] Domitia would die in 151. [128]

In 149, Faustina gave birth again, to twin sons. Contemporary coinage commemorates the event, with crossed cornucopiae beneath portrait busts of the two small boys, and the legend temporum felicitas, 'the happiness of the times'. They did not survive long. Before the end of the year, another family coin was issued: it shows only a tiny girl, Domitia Faustina, and one boy baby. Then another: the girl alone. The infants were buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, where their epitaphs survive. They were called Titus Aurelius Antoninus and Tiberius Aelius Aurelius. [129] Marcus steadied himself: 'One man prays: 'How I may not lose my little child', but you must pray: 'How I may not be afraid to lose him'. [130] He quoted from the Iliad what he called the 'briefest and most familiar saying. enough to dispel sorrow and fear': [131]

the wind scatters some on the face of the ground
like unto them are the children of men.

Another daughter was born on 7 March 150, Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla. At some time between 155 and 161, probably soon after 155, Marcus's mother Domitia Lucilla died. [132] Faustina probably had another daughter in 151, but the child, Annia Galeria Aurelia Faustina, might not have been born until 153. [133] Another son, Tiberius Aelius Antoninus, was born in 152. A coin issue celebrates fecunditati Augustae, 'to Augusta's fertility', depicting two girls and an infant. The boy did not survive long, as evidenced by coins from 156, only depicting the two girls. He might have died in 152, the same year as Marcus's sister Cornificia. [134] By 28 March 158, when Marcus replied, another of his children was dead. Marcus thanked the temple synod, 'even though this turned out otherwise'. The child's name is unknown. [135] In 159 and 160, Faustina gave birth to daughters: Fadilla and Cornificia, named respectively after Faustina's and Marcus's dead sisters. [136]

Antoninus Pius's last years Edit

Lucius started his political career as a quaestor in 153. He was consul in 154, [137] and was consul again with Marcus in 161. [138] Lucius had no other titles, except that of 'son of Augustus'. Lucius had a markedly different personality from Marcus: he enjoyed sports of all kinds, but especially hunting and wrestling he took obvious pleasure in the circus games and gladiatorial fights. [139] [note 8] He did not marry until 164. [143]

In 156, Antoninus turned 70. He found it difficult to keep himself upright without stays. He started nibbling on dry bread to give him the strength to stay awake through his morning receptions. As Antoninus aged, Marcus would take on more administrative duties, more still when he became the praetorian prefect (an office that was as much secretarial as military) when Marcus Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157. [144] In 160, Marcus and Lucius were designated joint consuls for the following year. Antoninus may have already been ill. [136]

Two days before his death, the biographer reports, Antoninus was at his ancestral estate at Lorium, in Etruria, [145] about 19 kilometres (12 mi) from Rome. [146] He ate Alpine cheese at dinner quite greedily. In the night he vomited he had a fever the next day. The day after that, 7 March 161, [147] he summoned the imperial council, and passed the state and his daughter to Marcus. The emperor gave the keynote to his life in the last word that he uttered when the tribune of the night-watch came to ask the password – 'aequanimitas' (equanimity). [148] He then turned over, as if going to sleep, and died. [149] His death closed out the longest reign since Augustus, surpassing Tiberius by a couple of months. [150]

Accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161) Edit

After Antoninus died in 161, 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. [151] 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 to him that it was his duty. [152]

Although Marcus showed 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. [153] Thus, although the senate planned to confirm Marcus alone, he refused to take office unless Lucius received equal powers. [154] The senate accepted, granting Lucius the imperium, the tribunician power, and the name Augustus. [155] Marcus became, in official titulature, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Lucius, forgoing his name Commodus and taking Marcus's family name Verus, became Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus. [156] [note 9] It was the first time that Rome was ruled by two emperors. [159] [note 10]

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 Antoninus's rule, and he alone was Pontifex Maximus. It would have been clear to the public which emperor was the more senior. [159] As the biographer wrote, 'Verus obeyed Marcus. as a lieutenant obeys a proconsul or a governor obeys the emperor'. [160]

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. [161] This donative, however, was twice the size of those past: 20,000 sesterces (5,000 denarii) per capita, with more to officers. In return for this bounty, equivalent to several years' pay, the troops swore an oath to protect the emperors. [162] The ceremony was perhaps not entirely necessary, given that Marcus's accession had been peaceful and unopposed, but it was good insurance against later military troubles. [163] Upon his accession he also devalued the Roman currency. He decreased the silver purity of the denarius from 83.5% to 79% – the silver weight dropping from 2.68 g (0.095 oz) to 2.57 g (0.091 oz). [164]

Antoninus's funeral ceremonies were, in the words of the biographer, 'elaborate'. [165] If his funeral followed those of his predecessors, his body would have been incinerated on a pyre at the Campus Martius, and his spirit would have been seen as ascending to the gods' home in the heavens. Marcus and Lucius nominated their father for deification. In contrast to their behaviour during Antoninus's 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 Divus Antoninus. Antoninus's remains were laid to rest in Hadrian's mausoleum, beside the remains of Marcus's children and of Hadrian himself. [166] 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. [163]

In accordance with his will, Antoninus's fortune passed on to Faustina. [167] (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. [168] ) 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. [169] On 31 August, she gave birth at Lanuvium to twins: T. Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. [170] [note 11] Aside from the fact that the twins shared Caligula's birthday, the omens were favorable, and the astrologers drew positive horoscopes for the children. [172] The births were celebrated on the imperial coinage. [173]

Early rule Edit

Soon after the emperors' accession, Marcus's eleven-year-old daughter, Annia Lucilla, was betrothed to Lucius (in spite of the fact that he was, formally, her uncle). [174] At the ceremonies commemorating the event, new provisions were made for the support of poor children, along the lines of earlier imperial foundations. [175] Marcus and Lucius proved popular with the people of Rome, who strongly approved of their civiliter ('lacking pomp') behaviour. The emperors permitted free speech, evidenced by the fact that the comedy writer Marullus was able to criticize them without suffering retribution. As the biographer wrote, 'No one missed the lenient ways of Pius'. [176]

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. [177] Lucius Volusius Maecianus, Marcus's former tutor, had been prefectural governor of Egypt at Marcus's accession. Maecianus was recalled, made senator, and appointed prefect of the treasury (aerarium Saturni). He was made consul soon after. [178] Fronto's son-in-law, Gaius Aufidius Victorinus, was appointed governor of Germania Superior. [179]

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. [180] 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.' [181] Fronto called on Marcus alone neither thought to invite Lucius. [182]

Lucius was less esteemed by Fronto 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. [183] 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.' [184] Marcus's early reign proceeded smoothly he was able to give himself wholly to philosophy and the pursuit of popular affection. [185] Soon, however, he would find he had many anxieties. It would mean the end of the felicitas temporum ('happy times') that the coinage of 161 had proclaimed. [186]

In either autumn 161 or spring 162, [note 12] the Tiber overflowed its banks, flooding much of Rome. It drowned many animals, leaving the city in famine. Marcus and Lucius gave the crisis their personal attention. [188] [note 13] In other times of famine, the emperors are said to have provided for the Italian communities out of the Roman granaries. [190]

Fronto's letters continued through Marcus's early reign. Fronto felt that, because of Marcus's 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'. [191] 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'. [192]

The early days of Marcus's reign were the happiest of Fronto's life: Marcus was beloved by the people of Rome, an excellent emperor, a fond pupil, and perhaps most importantly, as eloquent as could be wished. [193] 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. [194]

War with Parthia (161–166) Edit

On his deathbed, Antoninus spoke of nothing but the state and the foreign kings who had wronged him. [195] One of those kings, Vologases IV of Parthia, made his move in late summer or early autumn 161. [196] Vologases entered the Kingdom of Armenia (then a Roman client state), expelled its king and installed his own – Pacorus, an Arsacid like himself. [197] The governor of Cappadocia, the frontline in all Armenian conflicts, was Marcus Sedatius Severianus, a Gaul with much experience in military matters. [198]

Convinced by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus that he could defeat the Parthians easily and win glory for himself, [199] Severianus led a legion (perhaps the IX Hispana [200] ) into Armenia, but was trapped by the great Parthian general Chosrhoes at Elegeia, a town just beyond the Cappadocian frontiers, high up past the headwaters of the Euphrates. After Severianus made some unsuccessful efforts to engage Chosrhoes, he committed suicide, and his legion was massacred. The campaign had lasted only three days. [201]

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. [202] Marcus was unprepared. Antoninus seems to have given him no military experience the biographer writes that Marcus spent the whole of Antoninus's twenty-three-year reign at his emperor's side and not in the provinces, where most previous emperors had spent their early careers. [203] [note 14]

More bad news arrived: the Syrian governor's army had been defeated by the Parthians, and retreated in disarray. [205] 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. [206] Three full legions were also sent east: I Minervia from Bonn in Upper Germany, [207] II Adiutrix from Aquincum, [208] and V Macedonica from Troesmis. [209]

The northern frontiers were strategically weakened frontier governors were told to avoid conflict wherever possible. [210] M. Annius Libo, Marcus's first cousin, was sent to replace the Syrian governor. His first consulship was in 161, so he was probably in his early thirties, [211] and as a patrician, he lacked military experience. Marcus had chosen a reliable man rather than a talented one. [212]

Marcus took a four-day public holiday at Alsium, a resort town on the coast of Etruria. He was too anxious to relax. Writing to Fronto, he declared that he would not speak about his holiday. [214] Fronto replied: '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?' [215] He encouraged Marcus to rest, calling on the example of his predecessors (Antoninus had enjoyed exercise in the palaestra, fishing, and comedy), [216] 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. [217] Marcus could not take Fronto's advice. 'I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off', he wrote back. [218] Marcus Aurelius 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!' [219]

Fronto sent Marcus a selection of reading material, [221] 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, [222] 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'. [223]

Over the winter of 161–162, news that a rebellion was brewing in Syria arrived and it was decided that Lucius should direct the Parthian war in person. He was stronger and healthier than Marcus, the argument went, and thus more suited to military activity. [224] Lucius's biographer suggests ulterior motives: to restrain Lucius's debaucheries, to make him thrifty, to reform his morals by the terror of war, and to realize that he was an emperor. [225] [note 15] Whatever the case, the senate gave its assent, and, in the summer of 162, Lucius left. Marcus would remain in Rome, as the city 'demanded the presence of an emperor'. [227]

Lucius spent most of the campaign in Antioch, though he wintered at Laodicea and summered at Daphne, a resort just outside Antioch. [228] Critics declaimed Lucius's luxurious lifestyle, [229] saying that he had taken to gambling, would 'dice the whole night through', [230] and enjoyed the company of actors. [231] [note 16] Libo died early in the war perhaps Lucius had murdered him. [233]

In the middle of the war, perhaps in autumn 163 or early 164, Lucius made a trip to Ephesus to be married to Marcus's daughter Lucilla. [234] Marcus moved up the date perhaps he had already heard of Lucius's mistress Panthea. [235] Lucilla's thirteenth birthday was in March 163 whatever the date of her marriage, she was not yet fifteen. [236] Lucilla was accompanied by her mother Faustina and Lucius's uncle (his father's half-brother) M. Vettulenus Civica Barbarus, [237] who was made comes Augusti, 'companion of the emperors'. Marcus may have wanted Civica to watch over Lucius, the job Libo had failed at. [238] Marcus may have planned to accompany them all the way to Smyrna (the biographer says he told the senate he would), but this did not happen. [239] He only accompanied the group as far as Brundisium, where they boarded a ship for the east. [240] He returned to Rome immediately thereafter, and sent out special instructions to his proconsuls not to give the group any official reception. [241]

The Armenian capital Artaxata was captured in 163. [242] At the end of the year, Lucius took the title Armeniacus, despite having never seen combat Marcus declined to accept the title until the following year. [243] When Lucius was hailed as imperator again, however, Marcus did not hesitate to take the Imperator II with him. [244]

Occupied Armenia was reconstructed on Roman terms. In 164, a new capital, Kaine Polis ('New City'), replaced Artaxata. [245] A new king was installed: a Roman senator of consular rank and Arsacid descent, Gaius Julius Sohaemus. He may not even have been crowned in Armenia the ceremony may have taken place in Antioch, or even Ephesus. [246] Sohaemus was hailed on the imperial coinage of 164 under the legend Rex armeniis Datus : Lucius sat on a throne with his staff while Sohaemus stood before him, saluting the emperor. [247]

In 163, the Parthians intervened in Osroene, a Roman client in upper Mesopotamia centred on Edessa, and installed their own king on its throne. [248] In response, Roman forces were moved downstream, to cross the Euphrates at a more southerly point. [249] Before the end of 163, however, Roman forces had moved north to occupy Dausara and Nicephorium on the northern, Parthian bank. [250] Soon after the conquest of the north bank of the Euphrates, other Roman forces moved on Osroene from Armenia, taking Anthemusia, a town southwest of Edessa. [251]

In 165, Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia. Edessa was re-occupied, and Mannus, the king deposed by the Parthians, was re-installed. [252] The Parthians retreated to Nisibis, but this too was besieged and captured. The Parthian army dispersed in the Tigris. [253] A second force, under Avidius Cassius and the III Gallica, moved down the Euphrates, and fought a major battle at Dura. [254]

By the end of the year, Cassius's 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 was sacked nonetheless, leaving a black mark on Lucius's reputation. Excuses were sought, or invented: the official version had it that the Seleucids broke faith first. [255]

Cassius's army, although suffering from a shortage of supplies and the effects of a plague contracted in Seleucia, made it back to Roman territory safely. [256] Lucius took the title Parthicus Maximus, and he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again, earning the title 'imp. III'. [257] Cassius's army returned to the field in 166, crossing over the Tigris into Media. Lucius took the title 'Medicus', [258] and the emperors were again hailed as imperatores, becoming 'imp. IV' in imperial titulature. Marcus took the Parthicus Maximus now, after another tactful delay. [259] On 12 October of that year, Marcus proclaimed two of his sons, Annius and Commodus, as his heirs. [260]

War with Germanic tribes (166–180) Edit

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). [265] 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. [266]

Experienced governors had been replaced by friends and relatives of the imperial family. Lucius Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, a distant relative of Hadrian, was in Upper Pannonia, succeeding the experienced Marcus Nonius Macrinus. Lower Pannonia was under the obscure Tiberius Haterius Saturnius. Marcus Servilius Fabianus Maximus was shuffled from Lower Moesia to Upper Moesia when Marcus Iallius Bassus had joined Lucius in Antioch. Lower Moesia was filled by Pontius Laelianus's 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. [267]

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 further east. A first invasion of the Chatti in the province of Germania Superior was repulsed in 162. [268]

Far more dangerous was the invasion of 166, when the Marcomanni of Bohemia, clients of the Roman Empire since 19 AD, crossed the Danube together with the Lombards and other Germanic tribes. [269] Soon thereafter, the Iranian Sarmatian Iazyges attacked between the Danube and the Theiss rivers. [270]

The Costoboci, coming from the Carpathian area, invaded Moesia, Macedonia, and Greece. After a long struggle, Marcus managed to push back the invaders. Numerous members of Germanic tribes 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 Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Some Germanic tribes who settled in Ravenna revolted and managed to seize possession of the city. For this reason, Marcus decided not only against bringing more barbarians into Italy, but even banished those who had previously been brought there. [271]

Legal and administrative work Edit

Like many emperors, Marcus spent most of his time addressing matters of law such as petitions and hearing disputes, [272] but unlike many of his predecessors, he was already proficient in imperial administration when he assumed power. [273] He took great care in the theory and practice of legislation. Professional jurists called him 'an emperor most skilled in the law' [274] and 'a most prudent and conscientiously just emperor'. [275] He showed 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). [276]

Marcus showed a great deal of respect to the Roman Senate and routinely asked them for permission to spend money even though he did not need to do so as the absolute ruler of the Empire. [277] In one speech, Marcus himself reminded the Senate that the imperial palace where he lived was not truly his possession but theirs. [278] In 168, he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity from 79% to 82% – the actual silver weight increasing from 2.57–2.67 g (0.091–0.094 oz). However, two years later he reverted to the previous values because of the military crises facing the empire. [164]

Trade with Han China and outbreak of plague Edit

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), ruler of Daqin, who can be identified either with Marcus or his predecessor Antoninus. [279] [280] [281] In addition to Republican-era Roman glasswares found at Guangzhou along the South China Sea, [282] Roman golden medallions made during the reign of Antoninus and perhaps even Marcus have been found at Óc Eo, Vietnam, then part of the Kingdom of Funan near the Chinese province of Jiaozhi (in northern Vietnam). This may have been the port city of Kattigara, described by Ptolemy (c. 150) as being visited by a Greek sailor named Alexander and lying beyond the Golden Chersonese (i.e. Malay Peninsula). [283] [note 17] Roman coins from the reigns of Tiberius to Aurelian have been found in Xi'an, China (site of the Han capital Chang'an), although the far greater amount of Roman coins in India suggests the Roman maritime trade for purchasing Chinese silk was centred there, not in China or even the overland Silk Road running through Persia. [284]

The Antonine Plague started in Mesopotamia in 165 or 166 at the end of Lucius's campaign against the Parthians. It may have continued into the reign of Commodus. Galen, who was in Rome when the plague spread to the city in 166, [285] mentioned that 'fever, diarrhoea, and inflammation of the pharynx, along with dry or pustular eruptions of the skin after nine days' were among the symptoms. [286] It is believed that the plague was smallpox. [287] In the view of historian Rafe de Crespigny, the plagues afflicting the Eastern Han empire of China during the reigns of Emperor Huan of Han (r. 146–168) and Emperor Ling of Han (r. 168–189), which struck in 151, 161, 171, 173, 179, 182, and 185, were perhaps connected to the plague in Rome. [288] Raoul McLaughlin writes that the travel of Roman subjects to the Han Chinese court in 166 may have started a new era of Roman–Far East trade. However, it was also a 'harbinger of something much more ominous'. According to McLaughlin, the disease caused 'irreparable' damage to the Roman maritime trade in the Indian Ocean as proven by the archaeological record spanning from Egypt to India, as well as significantly decreased Roman commercial activity in Southeast Asia. [289]

Death and succession (180) Edit

Marcus died at the age of 58 on 17 March 180 of unknown causes in his military quarters near the city of Sirmium in Pannonia (modern Sremska Mitrovica). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome, where they 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. [290] Some scholars consider his death to be the end of the Pax Romana. [291]

Marcus was succeeded by his son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and with whom he had jointly ruled since 177. [292] Biological sons of the emperor, if there were any, were considered heirs [293] however, it was only the second time that a "non-adoptive" son had succeeded his father, the only other having been a century earlier when Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus. Historians have criticized the succession to Commodus, citing Commodus's erratic behaviour and lack of political and military acumen. [292] At the end of his history of Marcus's reign, Cassius Dio wrote an encomium to the emperor, and described the transition to Commodus in his own lifetime with sorrow: [294]

[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 son 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.

–Dio lxxi. 36.3–4 [294]

Dio adds that from Marcus's first days as counsellor to Antoninus to his final days as emperor of Rome, "he remained the same [person] and did not change in the least." [295]

Michael Grant, in The Climax of Rome, writes of Commodus: [296]

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 have involved one of the civil wars which were to proliferate so disastrously around future successions. [296]

Marcus acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain after his death both Dio and the biographer call him 'the philosopher'. [297] [298]

Christians such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Eusebius also gave him the title. [299] The last-named went so far as to call him "more philanthropic and philosophic" than Antoninus and Hadrian, and set him against the persecuting emperors Domitian and Nero to make the contrast bolder. [300]

The historian Herodian wrote:

"Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life." [301]

Iain King explains that Marcus's legacy was tragic:

"[The emperor's] Stoic philosophy – which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others – was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death." [302]

In the first two centuries of the Christian era, it was local Roman officials who were largely responsible for the persecution of Christians. In the second century, the emperors treated Christianity as a local problem to be dealt with by their subordinates. [303] The number and severity of persecutions of Christians in various locations of the empire seemingly increased during the reign of Marcus. The extent to which Marcus himself directed, encouraged, or was aware of these persecutions is unclear and much debated by historians. [304] The early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, includes within his First Apology (written between 140 and 150 A.D.) a letter from Marcus Aurelius to the Roman senate (prior to his reign) describing a battlefield incident in which Marcus believed Christian prayer had saved his army from thirst when "water poured from heaven," after which, "immediately we recognized the presence of God." Marcus goes on to request the senate desist from earlier courses of Christian persecution by Rome. [305]

Marcus and his cousin-wife Faustina had at least 13 children during their 30-year marriage, [126] [306] including two sets of twins. [126] [307] One son and four daughters outlived their father. [308] Their children included:

  • Domitia Faustina (147–151) [126][138][309]
  • Titus Aelius Antoninus (149) [129][307][310]
  • Titus Aelius Aurelius (149) [129][307][310] (150 [132][309] –182 [311] ), married her father's co-ruler Lucius Verus, [138] then Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, had issue from both marriages (born 151), [134] married Gnaeus Claudius Severus, had a son
  • Tiberius Aelius Antoninus (born 152, died before 156) [134]
  • Unknown child (died before 158) [136] (born 159 [309][136] ), [138] married Marcus Peducaeus Plautius Quintillus, had issue (born 160 [309][136] ), [138] married Marcus Petronius Sura Mamertinus, had a son
  • Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus (161–165), elder twin brother of Commodus [310] (Commodus) (161–192), [312] twin brother of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, later emperor, [310][313] married Bruttia Crispina, no issue (162 [260] –169 [306][314] ) [138]
  • Hadrianus [138] (170 [310] – died before 217 [315] ), [138] married Lucius Antistius Burrus, no issue

Except where otherwise noted, the notes below indicate that an individual's parentage is as shown in the above family tree.

  1. ^ Sister of Trajan's father: Giacosa (1977), p. 7.
  2. ^ Giacosa (1977), p. 8.
  3. ^ ab Levick (2014), p. 161.
  4. ^ Husband of Ulpia Marciana: Levick (2014), p. 161.
  5. ^ ab Giacosa (1977), p. 7.
  6. ^ abcDIR contributor (Herbert W. Benario, 2000), "Hadrian".
  7. ^ ab Giacosa (1977), p. 9.
  8. ^ Husband of Salonia Matidia: Levick (2014), p. 161.
  9. ^ Smith (1870), "Julius Servianus". [dead link]
  10. ^ Suetonius a possible lover of Sabina: One interpretation of HA Hadrianus11:3
  11. ^ Smith (1870), "Hadrian", pp. 319–322. [dead link]
  12. ^ Lover of Hadrian: Lambert (1984), p. 99 and passim deification: Lamber (1984), pp. 2–5, etc.
  13. ^ Julia Balbilla a possible lover of Sabina: A. R. Birley (1997), Hadrian, the Restless Emperor, p. 251, cited in Levick (2014), p. 30, who is sceptical of this suggestion.
  14. ^ Husband of Rupilia Faustina: Levick (2014), p. 163.
  15. ^ abcd Levick (2014), p. 163.
  16. ^ abcd Levick (2014), p. 162.
  17. ^ abcdefg Levick (2014), p. 164.
  18. ^ Wife of M. Annius Verus: Giacosa (1977), p. 10.
  19. ^ Wife of M. Annius Libo: Levick (2014), p. 163.
  20. ^ abcde Giacosa (1977), p. 10.
  21. ^ The epitomator of Cassius Dio (72.22) gives the story that Faustina the Elder promised to marry Avidius Cassius. This is also echoed in HA"Marcus Aurelius" 24.
  22. ^ Husband of Ceionia Fabia: Levick (2014), p. 164.
  23. ^ abc Levick (2014), p. 117.
  • DIR contributors (2000). "De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and Their Families" . Retrieved 14 April 2015 .
  • Giacosa, Giorgio (1977). Women of the Caesars: Their Lives and Portraits on Coins. Translated by R. Ross Holloway. Milan: Edizioni Arte e Moneta. ISBN0-8390-0193-2 .
  • Lambert, Royston (1984). Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. New York: Viking. ISBN0-670-15708-2 .
  • Levick, Barbara (2014). Faustina I and II: Imperial Women of the Golden Age. Oxford University Press. ISBN978-0-19-537941-9 .
  • William Smith, ed. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.

While on campaign between 170 and 180, Marcus wrote his Meditations in Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. The original title of this work, if it had one, is unknown. 'Meditations' – as well as other titles including 'To Himself' – were adopted later. He had a logical mind and his notes were representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Meditations is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty. According to Hays, the book was a favourite of Christina of Sweden, Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and Goethe, and is admired by modern figures such as Wen Jiabao and Bill Clinton. [316] It has been considered by many commentators to be one of the greatest works of philosophy. [317]

It is not known how widely Marcus's writings were circulated after his death. There are stray references in the ancient literature to the popularity of his precepts, and Julian the Apostate was well aware of his reputation as a philosopher, though he does not specifically mention Meditations. [318] It survived in the scholarly traditions of the Eastern Church and the first surviving quotes of the book, as well as the first known reference of it by name ('Marcus's writings to himself') are from Arethas of Caesarea in the 10th century and in the Byzantine Suda (perhaps inserted by Arethas himself). It was first published in 1558 in Zurich by Wilhelm Xylander (ne Holzmann), from a manuscript reportedly lost shortly afterwards. [319] The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy is in the Vatican library and dates to the 14th century. [320]

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome is the only Roman equestrian statue which has survived into the modern period. [322] This may be due to it being wrongly identified during the Middle Ages as a depiction of the Christian emperor Constantine the Great, and spared the destruction which statues of pagan figures suffered. Crafted of bronze in circa 175, it stands 11.6 ft (3.5 m) and is now located in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. The emperor's hand is outstretched in an act of clemency offered to a bested enemy, while his weary facial expression due to the stress of leading Rome into nearly constant battles perhaps represents a break with the classical tradition of sculpture. [323]

A close up view of the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museums

A full view of the equestrian statue

Marcus's victory column, established in Rome either in his last few years of life or after his reign and completed in 193, was built to commemorate his victory over the Sarmatians and Germanic tribes in 176. A spiral of carved reliefs wraps around the column, showing scenes from his military campaigns. A statue of Marcus had stood atop the column but disappeared during the Middle Ages. It was replaced with a statue of Saint Paul in 1589 by Pope Sixtus V. [324] The column of Marcus and the column of Trajan are often compared by scholars given how they are both Doric in style, had a pedestal at the base, had sculpted friezes depicting their respective military victories, and a statue on top. [325]

The Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna. The five horizontal slits allow light into the internal spiral staircase.

The column, right, in the background of Panini's painting of the Palazzo Montecitorio, with the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius in the right foreground (1747)

Freedom of speech under Marcus Aurelius - History

Considered as a sovereign, Marcus-Aurelius was the embodiment of the liberal politician. Respect for mankind formed the basis of his conduct. He recognised that in the interest of good itself, we ought not to impose this good on others in an arbitrary manner, the free play of freedom being the first condition of human life. He desired the amelioration of mind and not merely physical obedience to the law he sought for the public felicity, but such felicity not to be procured through servitude, which is the greatest of errors. His ideal of government was wholly republican. The prince was the first subject under the law. He was only the lessee and tenant of the wealth of the State. He must indulge no useless luxury be strictly economical his charity real and inexhaustible easily accessible and affable of speech pursuing in everything the public good, and not public applause.

Some historians, more or less imbued with this polity, which was regarded as superior because it assuredly had no connection with any philosophy, have endeavoured to prove that a man so accomplished as Marcus-Aurelius could but be a bad administrator and a mediocre sovereign. It might be, indeed, that Marcus-Aurelius sinned more than once through being too indulgent. However, apart from the evils which it was absolutely impossible to foresee or to prevent, his reign stands out to us as being great and prosperous. The improvement in manners was considerable. Many of the secret aims which instinctively pursued Christianity were legally attained. The general political system had some grave defects but the wisdom of the good emperor covered all with a temporary palliative. It was a singular thing that this virtuous prince, who never once made the least concession to false popularity, was adored by the people. He was democratic in the best sense of the word. The old Roman aristocracy inspired him with antipathy. He had no regard for birth, nor even for education and manners he only looked to merit. As he could not find amongst the patricians fit subjects to second his ideas of wise government, he entrusted those functions to men whose only nobility was their honesty.

Public assistance, established by Nerva and Trajan, developed by Antoninus, reached, under Marcus-Aurelius, the highest point it had ever attained. The principle that the State has in some sort paternal duties to perform towards its members (a principle which ought to be remembered with gratitude, even when we have got beyond it)—that principle, I say, was proclaimed in the world for the first time in the second century. The education of children in a liberal manner had become, on account of the insufficiency of morals, and in 14 consequence of the defective economical principles upon which society reposed, one of the great pre-occupations of statesmen. Since the time of Trajan it had been endowed by hypothecating sums of money, the revenues from which were managed by the procurators. Marcus Aurelius made the procurators functionaries of the first rank he selected them with the greatest care from amongst the consuls and prætors, and increased their powers. His great private fortune rendered it easy for him to place these largesses on a secure basis. He himself created a great number of endowments for the succour of the youth of both sexes. The institute of the Young female Faustinas dated from Antoninus. After the death of the second Faustina, Marcus-Aurelius founded New female Faustinas. An elegant bas-relief represents these young women pressing around the empress, who drops wheat into a fold of their robes.

Stoicism, since the reign of Hadrian, had permeated the Roman law with its broad maxims and had made of it a natural law, a philosophical law, so that reason might conceive it as applicable to all men. The perpetual edict of Salvius Julianus was the first complete expression of that new law destined to become the universal law. It was the triumph of the Greek mind over the Latin mind. The strict law yielded to equity mildness turned the scale on severity justice seemed inseparable from beneficence. The great jurisconsulates of Antoninus, Salvius Valens, Ulpius Marcellus, Javolenus, Volusius Mœcianus continued the same work. The last was the master of Marcus-Aurelius in the matter of jurisprudence, and, to speak the truth, the work of the two holy emperors ought not to have been separated. From them dates the majority of the sensible and humane laws which modify the rigour of the ancient law and form, from 15 legislation primarily narrow and implacable, a code susceptible of being adopted by all civilised peoples.

The weak individual, in ancient societies, was somewhat dependent. Marcus-Aurelius constituted himself in a fashion the tutor of all those who had not one. The wants of the poor child and the sick child were assured. The tutelary Prætor was created to give guarantees for the orphaned. The civil law and the registration of births were commenced. A multitude of ordinances, completely just, introduced into the whole administration a remarkable spirit of mildness and of humanity. The expenses of the cures were diminished. Thanks to a better system of provisioning, famines in Italy were rendered impossible. In the order of judicature many reforms of an excellent character dated in like manner from the reign of Marcus. The regulation of manners, notably that which had reference to indiscriminate baths, was made more strict. It was to the slaves especially that Antoninus and Marcus-Aurelius showed themselves beneficent. Some of the greatest monstrosities of slavery were corrected. It was henceforward admitted that the master could commit an injustice to a slave. From the time of the new legislation corporal punishments were regulated. To kill a slave became a crime to treat him with excessive cruelty was a misdemeanour, and drew upon the master the necessity of selling the unfortunate whom he had tortured. The slave, in time, resorted to the tribunals, became a somebody, and a member of the city. He was proprietor of his own substance, had his family, and it was not allowable to sell separately husband, wife, and children. The application of the question to servile persons was limited. The master might not, except in certain cases, sell his slaves to make them fight with wild beasts 16 in the amphitheatres. The servant, sold under the condition ne prostituatur , was preserved from the bordelles. There was what was called favor libertatis in case of doubt, interpretation the most favourable to liberty was admitted. People placed humanity against the rigour of the law, often even against the letter of the statute. In point of fact, from the time of Antoninus, the jurisconsulate, imbued with Stoicism, considered slavery as a violation of the rights of nature, and were inclined to restrict it. Enfranchisement was favoured in every way. Marcus-Aurelius went further and recognised within certain limits the right of slaves to the goods of the master. If a person did not present himself to claim the heritage of a testator, slaves were authorised to divide the goods amongst themselves when one only or several were admitted to the adjudication the result was the same. The enfranchised person was in like manner protected by the most stringent enactments against slavery, which had a thousand different devices for seizing on him again.

The son, the wife, the minor were the objects of legislation at once intelligent and humane. The son was obliged to maintain his father, but ceased to be under his control. The most odious excesses, which the ancient Roman law regarded as quite natural to permit to paternal authority, were abolished or restrained. The father had duties towards his children, and could get nothing back for having fulfilled them the son, on his side, owed to his kindred alimentary succour, in proportion to his fortune.

The laws, up to this time, of tutelage and trusteeship had been most incomplete Marcus-Aurelius made them models of administrative foresight. By the ancient law the mother made hardly any part of the family of her husband and of her children. The Tertullian Senatus consultum (in the year 158), and 17 the Orphitian Senatus consultum (178) established to the mother the right of succession, from the mother to the child and from the child to the mother. Sentiment and natural law took precedence. The excellent laws in regard to banks, to the sale of slaves, to informers and slanderers, put an end to a multitude of abuses. The fiscal laws had always been severe, exacting. It was henceforward settled in principle that in doubtful cases it should be the treasury that was wrong. Imposts of a vexatious character were abolished. The length of processes was diminished. The criminal law became less cruel, and the inculpated person was given valuable guarantees still, it was the personal characteristic of Marcus-Aurelius to diminish, in application, the established penalties. In cases of folly punishment was remitted. The great stoical principle, that culpability resided in the motive, not in the deed, became the soul of laws.

Thus was definitely established that great marvel the Roman law, a sort of revelation in its way which ignorance has placed to the honour of the compilers of Justinian, but which in reality was the work of the great emperors of the second century, and admirably interpreted and continued by the eminent jurisconsulates of the third century. The Roman law had a less clamorous triumph than Christianity, but in a sense a more durable one. Wiped out first by barbarism, it was resuscitated about the close of the Middle Ages, was the law of the world of the Renaissance, and became once more in a modified form the law of modern peoples. It was hence that the great Stoical school in the second century attempted to reform the world, after having to appearance miserably failed, and achieved in reality a complete victory. Compiled by the classical jurisconsults of the times of Severus, mutilated and altered by 18 Tribonian, the texts survived, and these texts became later the code of the entire world. Now these texts were the work of the eminent legalists who, grouped about Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus-Aurelius, caused the law to enter definitely into its philosophic age. The labour was continued under the Syrian emperors the frightful political decadence of the third century did not prevent that vast edifice from continuing its slow and splendid growth.

It was not that Marcus-Aurelius made a parade of the innovating spirit. On the contrary, he conducted himself in such a manner as to give to the reforms a conservative appearance. He treated man always as a moral being he never affected, as did often the pretended transcendental politicians, to treat him as a machine or a means to an end. If he could not change the atrocious penal code of the times he mitigated it in its application. A fund was established for the obsequies of the poor citizens funeral colleges were authorised to receive legacies and to become civil societies, having the right to possess property, slaves, franchises. Seneca had said: “All men, if we go back to the origin of things, have gods for fathers.” On the morrow Ulpian will say: “By the law of nature all men are born free and equal.”

Marcus-Aurelius wished to suppress the hideous scenes which made the amphitheatres actual places of horror for whoever possessed a moral sense. But he did not succeed these abominable representations were a part of the life of the people. When Marcus-Aurelius armed the gladiators for the great Germanic war, there was almost a revolution. “He wishes to take away from us our amusements,” cried the multitude, “and to constrain us to philosophy.” The habitués of the amphitheatres were the only persons who did not love him. Compelled 19 to yield to an opinion which was stronger than he, Marcus-Aurelius protested nevertheless in every possible way. He brought some alleviation to evils he was not able to suppress we hear of rope-dancers having mattresses placed under them, and of people not being allowed to fight unless their arms were covered. The emperor visited the spectacles as seldom as he could help, and only out of complaisance. He affected during the representation to read, to give audiences, to sign despatches, without making himself the object of the raillery of the public. One day a lion that a slave had pricked for the purpose of devouring some men made so much of his master that on every side the public clamoured for his manumission. The emperor, who during this time had turned his head, responded with temper: “This man has done nothing worthy of liberty.” He issued several edicts to prevent precipitate manumissions, called for under the excitement of popular plaudits, which seemed to him a first reward for cruelty.

From Rusticus.

I.7. From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

Rusticus was one of, if not the, greatest influence for Stoicism upon Marcus. Rusticus was probably the grandson of a Stoic opponent of Domitian who had been killed by that cruel emperor. This “Stoic Opposition,” as termed by Anthony Birley, greatly influenced the Antoine emperors. Rusticus was much older than Marcus and was active in politics. He was not a formal teacher, but acted instead as an older friend and mentor of sorts. The Augustan History states explicitly that Marcus became Rusticus’ “disciple.”

…I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations… and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing…

This is a direct statement not only about Rusticus, but also about another influential person in Marcus’ life: Fronto. For a time Fronto and Rusticus seemed to have equal and opposite influence upon Marcus. Rusticus was the champion of philosophy, Fronto of rhetoric.

What is exciting is that we can see exactly when Marcus finally and decisively chose the path of philosophy espoused by Rusticus. As a teacher of rhetoric, Fronto had given Marcus a task to do: to debate both sides of a particular issue. In a letter to Fronto, Marcus writes: “[W]ith plenty of time on my hands I have not given an atom of it to the task you gave me to write. [The Stoic philosopher] Ariston’s books just now treat me well…” Marcus goes on to agree to finish the task Fronto gave him as his tutor, but refuses to follow the rhetorician’s way and argue both sides of the debate. The philosopher argues for what is right, he does not argue for the sake of arguing.

Marcus had made his choice for philosophy and refused rhetoric. Fronto later argued very persuasively for rhetoric, but to no avail. Rusticus had shown him a better way, a way so far above flowery words and flourishes that Fronto had no chance. Marcus was 25 years old when he made his final choice, some time in 146-147.

…nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display… and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind…

Again we return to modesty, as well as the reason behind the actions. We do benevolent actions because it is the right thing to do, not for the approbation of our peers.

…and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother

It is a shame that this letter does not survive, because it would be wonderful to compare this letter from Rusticus to those written by Fronto to Domita Lucilla. Fronto’s letters to her are anything from simple.

… and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled

Forgiveness is stressed in many religions and philosophies, but this is not a pacifistic “turn the other cheek” approach. Marcus was well aware that he had a responsibility as Emperor of the Romans. He had tough decisions to make, decisions not accepted by all of those under his power. When they were ready to reconcile, Marcus was ready as well. But he refused to forgive unconditionally, or to sacrifice his judgement only to avoid offense.

One of the best known examples of Aurelian clemency was the case of his old teacher Herodes. Herodes had been accused of attempting to defraud the people of Athens from a bequest in a will, so the Athenians proceeded to bring him to trial. Herodes was indignant and railed publicly against Marcus, accusing him of attempting to gratify his wife by the trial. Ignoring the praetorian prefect who threatened him with death, Herodes stalked out of the trial. Marcus was completely calm during the whole ordeal, and proceeded to continue the trial without attempting to defend himself or punish Herodes for his insolence. Marcus found Herodes’ freedmen guilty of the crimes accused, but completely ignored Herodes words and actions towards himself.

…and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book

Careful understanding of a theme, idea or person was stressed in Stoicism. We will come back to that in time.

…nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch

Marcus knew his role was to run the Roman commonwealth. Not only would he not give his energy to creating rhetorical flourishes, he also would not be convinced by them. He would not be swayed without careful weighing his decision.

…and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

Marcus was certainly familiar with Seneca Fronto mentions him in letters to Marcus. But Marcus’ true spiritual guide was Epictetus. He is quoted time and time again in the Meditations, either directly or paraphrased. Marcus takes the time to acknowledge that Rusticus was the one to introduce him to Epictetus.

Freedom of speech under Marcus Aurelius - History

It would be wonderful if history was a pleasant picture to look at.

Take Marcus Aurelius . When he was made emperor in 161 CE, he could not have helped but look back at his predecessors, most of whom had not stood up well to the duties of the office. It would have been nice to simply enjoy the pomp and glamor and traditions of the office, but to do that would have been to ignore its darker sides too. For instance, at an early age Marcus Aurelius was introduced to the inspiring examples of Cato , Thrasea , and Helvidius , the Stoics whose lives instructed in the importance of equality under the law, freedom of speech, and respecting individual rights. Yet it could not have escaped him that it was the emperors of the past who had brutally persecuted and taken the lives of these brave heroes.

It would have been easier not to think about this, but he had to. Lest he want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Lest he want to commit injustices himself. So Marcus wrestled with this. He looked uncomfortable truth in the face and tried to be made better for it. Was he perfect for this? No, of course not. Sadly, the persecution of Justin Martyr and other Christians under Marcus Aurelius was all too similar to the persecution of the Stoics under Nero and Domitian. But he tried. He moved the ball forward, if only a little.

Today, we must do the same. Whatever country we live in, whatever party we belong to, whatever generation we belong to. Are you, as an American, able to really sit and think about what it has been like for black people in this country—not just during slavery, but much more recently? Are you familiar with the history of redlining, lynching, poll taxes, jury nullification, Jim Crow, police harassment and brutality? Have you, as a German, really studied the Holocaust? Or as a British or French or Dutch person, do you understand the viciousness of colonialism? As a Turkish person, have you honestly looked at the Armenian Genocide? As a Chinese or Russian citizen, can you wrap your head around the extent of the enormous human suffering and loss during your revolutions in the 20th century? Horrible things have been done by good people. Horrible things have been done by bad people while good people looked on and told themselves it wasn’t up to them to stop (or that it wasn’t really that bad). Horrible things are still happening, the legacy of these things is still very much alive.

It’s not just race or nationality either: Doctors need to wrestle with the opioid crisis. The church with homophobia and abuse scandals. Former bullies need to wrestle with their school yard behavior. Football with concussions and player safety. Academics with their support of left wing dictators. Hollywood with the blacklists. Parents with the mistakes they made with their own children. And on and on.

We do this not to whip ourselves, of course, the Stoics know you cannot change the past . But you can learn from it. You can end what has gone on way too long. You can make amends. You can help us get a little bit closer to a more just society. We can’t ever be perfect, Epictetus said , but we can strive to be better.

We must wrestle with the past…so that we can make a better future. Starting today.

Freedom of speech under Marcus Aurelius - History

The philosophy, which had so thoroughly conquered the mind of Marcus-Aurelius, was hostile to Christianity. Fronton, his tutor, seems to have been full of prejudice against the Christians and we know that Marcus-Aurelius guarded like a religion the recollections of his youth, and the impression made by his teachers. In general, the Greek pedagogues as a class were opposed to the new culture. Proud in looking at himself as the father of his family, the preceptor considered himself injured by the illiterate catechists who acted as spies clandestinely upon his functions, and put their pupils on their guard against him. These pedants, in the world of the Antonines, enjoyed a perhaps exaggerated favour. Often the denunciations against the Christians came from conscientious teachers, who considered themselves bound to save the young people confided to their care from an indiscreet propaganda, opposed to the opinions of their families. Littérateurs of the style of Ælius Aristides did not show themselves less severe. Jews and Christians are to them impious people, who deny the gods, enemies of society, disturbers of the peace of families, intriguers who seek to intrude everywhere, to draw everything to themselves, tormenting, presumptuous, and malevolent brawlers. Some men like Galienus, of practical mind as well as philosophers or rhetoricians, showed less partiality, and without reserve praised the purity, the austerity, the pleasant manners of the inoffensive sectaries whom calumny had succeeded in transforming into odious malefactors.

The emperor’s principle was to maintain the ancient Roman maxims in their integrity. It could not therefore be but that the new reign should be little favourable to the Church. Roman tradition is a dogma for Marcus-Aurelius it incites him to virtue “like a man, like a Roman.” The prejudices of the Stoic doubled themselves with those of patriot, and it has been recorded that the best of men will commit the most awkward faults by excess of earnestness, of sedulousness and conservative mind. Ah! if he had possessed something of the thoughtlessness of Hadrian or the laughter of Lucian.

Marcus-Aurelius certainly knew many Christians. He had them among his servants he conceived little esteem for them. The kind of supernatural which formed the basis of Christianity was repugnant to him, and he had the feelings of all the Romans against the Jews. It does not appear that any edition of the Gospel text came under his eyes the name of Jesus was, perhaps, unknown to him that which struck him as a Stoic was the courage of the martyr. But one feature shocked him, that was their air of triumph, their way of acting in the face of death. This bravado against the law appeared hateful as chief of the state he saw in it a danger. Stoicism, besides, did not teach one to seek death, but to endure it. Had Epictetus not represented the heroism of the “Galileans” as the effect of an obdurate fanaticism? Ælius Aristides expressed himself nearly in the same manner. Those voluntary deaths appeared to the august moralist as little rational as the theatrical suicide of Peregrinus. We find this note among his memoranda of thoughts: “A disposition of the soul always ready to be separated from the body, whether to be annihilated, to be dispersed, or to continue. When I say ready, I mean that this should be the 33 effect of a proper judgment, not out of pure opposition, as among the Christians it must be a reflective act, grave, capable of persuading others, without any mingling of tragic display.” He was right, but the true liberal must refuse everything to fanatics, even the pleasure of being martyrs.

Marcus-Aurelius changed nothing of the established rules against the Christians. The persecutions were the result of the fundamental principles of the empire brought into combination. Marcus-Aurelius, far from exaggerating the former legislation, mitigated it with all his energy, and one of the glories of his reign is the extension he gave to the rights of colleges. His decree, pronouncing banishment on superstitious agitations, applied even more to political prophecies or to knaves who traded on the public credulity than to established religions. Yet he did not quite go to the root he did not completely abolish the laws against the collegia illicita , and there resulted from this some application of these in the provinces infinitely to be regretted. The reproach that might be brought against him is the very same that might be addressed to the sovereigns of our day, who do not suppress, by a stroke of the pen, all the restrictive laws concerning freedom of meeting, association, the press. At the distance we are removed from him, we can see that Marcus-Aurelius, in being more thoroughly liberal, was wiser. Perhaps Christianity, left free, would have developed in a less disastrous way the theocratic and absolute principle which was in it. But we cannot reproach a statesman with having promoted a radical revolution by a foresight of the events which should occur many years afterwards. Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus-Aurelius could not understand the principles of general history and political economy which have been realised only in the 19th 34 century, and which our last revolutions have revealed to us.

In any case as to the application of the laws, the mildness of the emperor was safe from all reproach. We have not, on this point, the right to be harder than Tertullian, who was, in infancy and youth, an eye-witness of this fatal struggle. “Consult your annals,” said he to the Roman magistrates, “and you will find that the princes who have been cruel to us are those whom it was held an honour to have as persecutors. On the contrary, of all princes who have known divine and human law, name one of them who has persecuted the Christians. We might even instance one of them who declared himself their protector, the wise Marcus-Aurelius. If he did not openly revoke the edicts against our brethren, he destroyed the effect of them by the severe penalties he instituted against their accusers.” The torrent of universal admiration carried away the Christians themselves. “Great” and “good”—these were the two words in which a Christian of the 3rd century summed up the character of this mild persecutor.

It is necessary to recollect that the Roman empire was ten or twelve times larger than France, and that the responsibility of the emperor for the sentences pronounced in the provinces was very small. It must be especially remembered that Christianity demanded nothing but freedom of worship all the other religions which were tolerated were quite free in the empire that which gave to Christianity, and formerly to Judaism, a distinct position was their intolerance, their spirit of exclusiveness. The liberty of thought was absolute. From Nero to Constantine, not a thinker, not a scholar was disturbed in his researches.

The law was the persecutor, but the people were even more so. The evil reports spread by the Jews 35 and kept up by malignant missionaries, a sort of commercial travellers of calumny, estranged the most moderate and sincere minds. The people held by their superstitions, and were irritated against those who attacked them by sarcasm. Even some enlightened people, such as Celsus and Apuleius, believed that the political feebleness of the age arose from the progress of unbelief in the national religion. The position of the Christians was that of a Protestant missionary settled in a very Catholic town in Spain and preaching against the saints, the Virgin, and processions. The saddest episodes of persecution under Marcus-Aurelius arose from the hatred of the people. At every famine, inundation, and epidemic, the cry “The Christians to the lion!” resounded like a gloomy menace. Never had a reign witnessed so many calamities the people believed the gods were angry, and redoubled their devotion they called over the expiatory acts. The attitude of the Christians, in the midst of all this, remained obstinately disdainful, or even provocative. Often they received their condemnation with an insult to the judge. Before a temple or an idol they breathed hard, as if to repulse an impure thing, or made the sign of the Cross. It was not rare to see a Christian stop before a statue of Jupiter or Apollo, and say to it as he struck it with his staff: “Ah well, you see, your god does not avenge you!” The temptation was strong in such a case to arrest the sacrilegious one and to crucify him, saying, “And does your god avenge you!” The Epicurean philosophers were not less hostile to these vulgar superstitions, and yet they did not persecute them. Never did one see a philosopher forced to offer sacrifice, to swear by the emperor, or to carry flambeaux . The philosopher could have consented to those vain formalities, and that was enough without more being asked.

All the pastors, all the grave men dissuaded the faithful from going to offer themselves as martyrs but they could not conquer a fanaticism which saw in condemnation the grandest triumph, and in punishment a kind of pleasure. In Asia this thirst for death was infectious, and produced certain phenomena analogous to those which, later on, were developed on a large scale among the “circoncellions” of Africa. One day the proconsul of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, having ordered certain rigorous proceedings against some Christians, beheld all the believers in the town present themselves in a body at the bar of his tribunal claiming the right of their co-religionists chosen for martyrdom Arrius Antoninus, furious, made them lead a small number to punishment, sending away the others with the words, “Be off then, you wretches! If you wish so much to die you have precipices and cords!”

When, in the heart of a great state, a faction has certain interests opposed to those of all the rest, hatred is inevitable. Now the Christians desired, at bottom, that everything should go on in the worst way. Far from making common cause with the good citizens, and seeking to exorcise dangers from their native land, the Christians rejoiced in these. The Montanists and the whole of Phrygia went to the extreme of folly in their malignant prophecies against the empire. They could imagine themselves gone back to the times of the grand Apocalypse of 69. These kinds of prophecies formed a crime forbidden by law Roman society felt instinctively that it was growing weaker it saw but vaguely the causes of this feebleness it laid them, not without some reason, on Christianity. It imagined that a return to the old gods would recall fortune. These gods had made the greatness of Rome they were supposed to be irritated now by 37 the blasphemies of the Christians. Was the way to appease them not to kill the Christians? No doubt these latter did not suspend their mockeries as to the inanity of sacrifices, and of the means they employed to ward off the plague. What would they think in England of a sceptic bursting with laughter in public on a day of feasting and prayer commanded by the Queen?

Some atrocious calumnies, some bloody scoffs were the revenge the Pagans took. The most abominable of the calumnies was the accusation of worshipping the priests by shameful embraces. The attitude of the penitent in confession gave rise to this disgraceful report. Some odious caricatures circulated among the public, and were placed on the walls. The absurd fable, according to which the Jews adored an ass, made people imagine that it was the same thing with the Christians. Here it was, the picture of a crucified person with an ass’s head receiving the adoration of a half-witted lad. In other details it was one with a long cloak and long ears, the feet in clogs, and he held a book with a devout air, while this epigram was beneath the representation, DEVS CHRISTIANORVM ONOKOITHC (the only-begotten God of the Christians). An apostate Jew, who had become an attendant in the amphitheatre, painted a great caricature at Carthage in the last years of the second century. A mysterious cock, having an aphallus for a beak, and with the inscription C Ω THP KOCMO Υ (Saviour of the world), had also a relation to the Christian beliefs.

The liking of the catechists for women and children afforded scope for a thousand jests. Opposed to the dryness of Paganism, the church produced the effect of a conventicle of effeminate persons. The tender feeling of every one towards another, showed in the aspasmos and glorified by martyrdom, created a kind of atmosphere of softness, 38 full of attraction for gentle souls, and of danger for certain others. This movement of good women concerned about the church, the habit of calling each other brother and sister, this respect for the bishop, shown by frequently kneeling before him, had something in it repulsive, and which provoked disagreeable interpretations. The grave preceptor, who saw himself deprived of his pupils by this womanish attraction, conceived for it a profound hatred, and believed that he was serving the State by seeking to revenge himself on it. Children, in fact, allowed themselves to be easily drawn by the words of mystic tenderness which reached them secretly, and sometimes this drew on them severe chastisements from their parents.

Thus persecution attained a degree of energy which it had not reached till now. The distinction between the simple fact of being a Christian and certain crimes connected with the name was forgotten. To say: “I am a Christian”—that was to sign a declaration whose consequence might be a sentence of death. Terror became the habitual condition of the Christian life. Denunciations came from all sides, especially from slaves, Jews, and Pagans. The police, knowing the days and the place when and where their meetings were held, made sudden incursions into the hall. The questioning of the inculpated persons furnished to the fanatics occasions of witticisms. The Acts of these proceedings were collected by the faithful as triumphal documents they circulated them they read them greedily they made out of them a kind of literature. The appearing before the judges became a pre-occupation for which they prepared with coquetry. The reading of these papers, when the best part always fell to the accused, exalted the imagination, provoked imitators, and inspired a hatred of civil society, and a condition of things where good 39 people could be treated thus. The fearful punishments of the Roman law were applied with all their severity. The Christian as humilior , and even as a wretch, was punished by the cross, beasts, fire, the rod. For death there was sometimes substituted condemnations to the mines, and transportation to Sardinia. Cruel mitigation! The judges, in “putting the question,” were guided by a thoroughly arbitrary disposition, and sometimes a perfect perversion of ideas.

There was here a wretched spectacle. No one suffered from it more than the true friend of philosophy. But what could be done? Two contradictory things could not exist at the same time. Marcus-Aurelius was a Roman, when he persecuted he acted as a Roman. For sixty years an emperor, as good-hearted, but less enlightened in mind than Marcus-Aurelius, Alexander Severus, shall carry out without regard to any Roman maxims the true principles of liberalism he shall grant complete freedom of conscience, and shall withdraw the laws restrictive of the liberty of meeting. We approve of that thoroughly. But Alexander Severus did this because he was a Syrian, and a stranger to the imperial tradition. He failed, besides, completely in his undertaking. All the great restorers of Roman affairs, who shall appear after him, Decius, Aurelian, Diocletian, shall return to the principles established and followed by Trajan, Antoninus, and Marcus-Aurelius. The perfect peace of conscience experienced by these men should not, therefore, surprise us it was evidently with absolute serenity of heart that Marcus, in particular, dedicates in the Capitol a temple to his favourite goddess “Goodness.”

Becoming Emperor

After his adoptive father died in 161, Aurelius rose to power and was officially then known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. While some sources indicate that Antoninus selected him as his only successor, Aurelius insisted that his adopted brother served as his co-ruler. His brother was Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus (usually referred to as Verus).

Unlike the peaceful and prosperous rule of Antoninus, the joint reign of the two brothers was marked by war and disease. In the 160s, they battled with the Parthian empire for control over lands in the East. Verus oversaw the war effort while Aurelius stayed in Rome. Much of their success in this conflict has been attributed to the generals working under Verus, especially Avidius Cassius. He was later made governor of Syria. Returning soldiers brought some type of disease back with them to Rome, which lingered for years and wiped out a portion of the population.

As the Parthian War ended, the two rulers had to face another military conflict with German tribes in the late 160s. German tribes crossed the Danube River and attacked a Roman city. After raising the necessary funds and troops, Aurelius and Verus went off to fight the invaders. Verus died in 169 so Aurelius pushed on alone, attempting to drive away the Germans.

Primary Sources

(1) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book I: Paragraphs 1-16

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. (1)

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. (2)

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. (3)

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. (4)

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind and to write my letters with simplicity&hellip I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection. (7)

From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion. (10)

From Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection. (11)

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice&hellip I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. (14)

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. (15)

In my father (Emperor Antoninus Pius) I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation and no vainglory in those things which men call honours and a love of labour and perseverance and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the commonweal and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys and he considered himself no more than any other citizen&hellip Besides this, he honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them. He was also easy in conversation, and he made himself agreeable without any offensive affectation. He took a reasonable care of his body's health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician's art or of medicine or external applications. He was most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts and he always acted conformably to the institutions of his country, without showing any affectation of doing so&hellip. His secrets were not but very few and very rare, and these only about public matters and he showed prudence and economy in the exhibition of the public spectacles and the construction of public buildings, his donations to the people, and in such things, for he was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man's acts. (16)

(2) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book II: Paragraphs 1-5

For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. (1)

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. (1)

There is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don't use it to free yourself it will be gone and never return. (4)

Yes, you can--if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. (5)

(3) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book III: Paragraphs 5-13

A man should be upright, not kept upright. (5)

Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect. (7)

Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. Short, therefore, is man's life, and narrow is the corner of the earth wherein he dwells. (10)

Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life. (11)

As surgeons keep their instruments and knives always at hand for cases requiring immediate treatment, so shouldst thou have thy thoughts ready to understand things divine and human, remembering in thy every act, even the smallest, how close is the bond that unites the two. (13)

(4) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book IV: Paragraphs 3-20

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul. (3)

If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do if this is so, there is a common law also if this is so, we are fellow-citizens if this is so, we are members of some political community if this is so, the world is in a manner a state. (5)

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon then again also they who have succeeded them, until the whole remembrance shall have been extinguished as it is transmitted through men who foolishly admire and perish. (20)

(5) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book V: Paragraphs 1-30

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: &lsquoI have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? (1)

People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they're really possessed by what they do, they'd rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort? (1)

Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren't, but they're still aware of it - still regard it as a debt. But others don't even do that. They're like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return. (6)

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. (16)

The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh--gentle and violent ones alike. (26)

The intelligence of the universe is social. (30)

(6) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book VI: Paragraphs 6-54

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy. (6)

If any man can convince me and bring home to me that I do not think or act aright, gladly will I change for I search after truth, by which man never yet was harmed. But he is harmed who abideth on still in his deception and ignorance. (21)

Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye, for it does happen. Keep yourself therefore, simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Reverence the gods, save men. Life is brief there is but one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighbourly acts. (30)

What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee. (54)

(6) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book VII: Paragraphs 8- 69

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present. (8)

To a rational being it is the same thing to act according to nature and according to reason. (11)

Is any man afraid of change? Why what can take place without change? (18)

It is man's peculiar duty to love even those who wrong him. (22)

Adorn thyself with simplicity and with indifference towards the things which lie between virtue and vice. Love mankind. Follow God. The poet says that Law rules all. And it is enough to remember that law rules all. (31)

This is a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place should look at them. a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries. (48)

Look within. Within is the fountain of the good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig. (59)

The art of life is more like the wrestler's art than the dancer's, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected. (61)

Very little is needed to make a happy life. (67)

To live each day as though one's last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing – here is perfection of character. (69)

(7) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book VIII: Paragraphs 16-59

To change your mind and to follow him who sets you right is to be nonetheless the free agent that you were before. (16)

In the constitution of that rational animal I see no virtue which is opposed to justice, but I see a virtue which is opposed to love of pleasure, and that is temperance. (39)

It is not fit that I should give myself pain, for I have never intentionally given pain even to another. (42)

He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life. (58)

Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them. (59)

(8) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book IX: Paragraphs 5-23

A wrongdoer is often a man who has left something undone, not always one who has done something. (5)

The happiness and unhappiness of the rational, social animal depends not on what he feels but on what he does just as his virtue and vice consist not in feeling but in doing. (16)

As thou thyself art a component part of a social system, so let every act of thine be a component part of social life. Whatever act of thine that has no reference, either immediately or remotely, to a social end, this tears asunder thy life, and does not allow it to be one, and it is of the nature of a mutiny, just as when in a popular assembly a man acting by himself stands apart from the general agreement. (23)

(9) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book X: Paragraphs 4-33

If a man is mistaken, instruct him kindly and show him his error. But if thou art not able, blame thyself. (4)

By remembering then that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be content with everything that happens. And inasmuch as I am in a manner intimately related to the parts which are of the same kind with myself, I shall do nothing unsocial, but I shall rather direct myself to the things which are of the same kind with myself, and I shall turn all my efforts to the common interest, and divert them from the contrary. (6)

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one. (16)

Only to the rational animal is it given to follow voluntarily what happens but simply to follow is a necessity imposed on all. (28)

And finally remember that nothing harms him who is really a citizen, which does not harm the state nor yet does anything harm the state which does not harm law and order and of these things which are called misfortunes not one harms law. What then does not harm law does not harm either state or citizen. (33)

(10) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book XI: Paragraphs 4 & 23

Have I done something for the general interest? Well then I have had my reward. Let this always be present to thy mind, and never stop doing such good. (4)

Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae, bugbears to frighten children. (23)

(11) Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (c 165-180) Book XII: Paragraphs 22 & 29

Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in thy power. (22)

Know the joy of life by piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them. (29)

Was Marcus Aurelius the first ruler to try to build a state centered around "free speech," "equality before the law," and government "which respects most of all the freedom of the governed", or merely someone carrying a torch of earlier reformers?

I was reading Meditations today and came across this passage:

"From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus. and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed"

Although Rome had long had law courts, they were famously partisan and classist at times. Free speech was certainly curtailed and punished by Rome's dictators and emperors. And I've rarely heard the sentiment that a government should respect most of all the freedom of its citizens used so early in the history of civilizations.

Although prior philosophers had touched on some of these topics, this was the first time Iɽ heard of a ruler or government trying to bring them about in a concerted manner. I tend to think of the adoption of these ideas as being the product of the enlightenment, not the classical era.

Was did Marcus's stated intent original among rulers, or were prior rulers supportive of the same goals? What does the historical progress of the implementation of these goals look like?

Marcus Aurelius almost certainly did not believe in these things in any meaningful sense if he did, he was not the first and regardless of whether or not he believed in them, he did not try to make them a reality.

The passage occurs in the opening of his Meditations (1.14.1), where he lists a number of other people who influenced his thinking. It'll be useful to see this passage in the original Greek, for reasons I'll explain below:

Παρὰ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ μου Σεουήρου (. ) φαντασίαν λαβεῖν πολιτείας ἰσονόμου, κατ̓ ἰσότητα καὶ ἰσηγορίαν διοικουμένης, καὶ βασιλείας τιμώσης πάντων μάλιστα τὴν ἐλευθερίαν τῶν ἀρχομένων:

From my brother Severus (. ) I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.

The first thing to note is that this single sentence is the whole of his thoughts on the matter. He doesn't have more to say on it here or elsewhere. He is simply listing ideas and traits he learned from other people Severus is credited with a long list of other things besides this, like love of family and commitment to philosophy, and none of these is afforded more weight than the others.

The second thing to note is that 'idea' is a pretty generous translation of the Greek word Marcus Aurelius used to describe a constitution based on equality and freedom of speech, which will sound familiar enough to English speakers: phantasia. The word tended to refer (then as now) to images, visions and apparitions - not real and tangible things. At best, our Marcus is saying that he learned from Severus to entertain this notion in the abstract, as a thought experiment. He never even says whether or not he thinks it has potential.

What did this thought experiment mean to him? Here's where the Greek really matters. Marcus Aurelius styled himself a Stoic - a philosopher adhering to a school of thought that had developed on the colonnades (stoas) of the Athenian market square (agora). This was a thoroughly Greek philosophical tradition, and we can take it for granted that Marcus Aurelius would have read and contemplated a great deal of Greek writing on philosophy and history. Generally, the Roman educated elite looked to the Greeks as masters of oratory and philosophy, and a considerable amount of any wealthy Roman's education would consist of reading Greek literary classics and thinking about the differences between Greek and Roman culture and society. This is why the very Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in the language of all philosophy worthy of the name: Greek, not Latin.

A convenient part of using Greek to describe an idea like the one above is that it already had the vocabulary to describe it. The words used in the passage above were well established in Greek historical and philosophical works: isonomia (equality before the law), isotês (equality), isegoria (literally "equality of the marketplace", but meaning freedom of speech), and eleutheria (freedom). Why did Greek have all these words? Because there had already been a society that defined itself entirely by these values: the democracy of Athens.

As a form of government, democracy first occurs in our sources under the name isonomia - equality before the law. The core principle of the democracy that was installed at Athens in 507 BC and fully established about 461 BC was that every adult male citizen had the same rights as all the others. There was no property requirement for voting or sitting on councils or acting as magistrate (with a few exceptions) no group was privileged in the law courts and the political system was designed in such a way that no single clan or faction could dominate the government of the state. It was this isonomia that set Athens aside from other Greek states, most of which excluded the poor from power. It was not until the end of the fifth century BC that this form of government came to be known by its famous name, demokratia - people power.

Greek authors of the Classical period gave much thought to the Athenian idea as it spread through the Greek world, and big names like Plato and Aristotle had a great deal to say on democracy and its guiding principles. It's not surprising, then, that Marcus Aurelius' musing on a constitution based on legal equality reads like a checklist of Athenian democratic ideology. Democratic Athens was a society built on the concept of equal rights for all, and one that could only function if all citizens had a protected right to speak (in the agora and the Assembly) rather than silently accepting the judgment of their social superiors, as was expected of the low-born in other Greek states. It was a form of government that assumed and defended the freedom of all its citizens rather than oppressing some for the benefit of others (or so they said they never questioned their systemic oppression women and enslaved people). The specific link between equal rights and freedom of speech is fundamental to Athenian democracy one could not exist without the other. There is even some evidence that Athenians frowned on and suspected people who never used their freedom to speak in public, since democracy could not survive if the people didn't contribute.

In short, all our Marcus is really saying is that, at Severus' suggestion, he spent some time reading up on Athenian democracy. To him, it was just one of the more quaint and radical experiments in government that had been tried in the distant past - suitable for a thought experiment, but not for real-life application. There are two key concepts notably absent from this paragraph: first, the proper name for this "polity of equal rights", that is, demokratia (democracy) and second, the infamous corollary of freedom of speech, parrhêsia. This word also means "freedom of speech" but more in the sense of bluntness, the assumed freedom to speak with no regard for propriety or respect, which is not what we mean by "freedom of speech" in a legal sense, but tends to be what we mean by it in everyday use. In the eyes of Greek authors, this parrhêsia was what made Athenian democracy particularly hard to stomach: who did these penniless Athenians think they were, shouting abuse at their betters, when in other states they would be little better than slaves? It's understandable that these are the two specific concepts missing from Marcus Aurelius' text. They are the more subversive elements of Athenian democratic ideology, and the parts least compatible with the rule of an emperor. Our Marcus is happy to consider equality, but stresses that it has to be under the stern eye of a king.

Interestingly, the word parrhêsia does occur in the Meditations, just a few paragraphs above the one we're discussing here. Among other wonderful things, such as not to believe in mystics and not to waste time raising quails, Diognetos taught Marcus Aurelius "to endure freedom of speech". Here the word is not isegoria but parrhêsia. The emperor, far from encouraging and establishing it, had to learn to endure it - to be patient when people surrounding him would just say what they thought instead of bearing in mind whose august presence they were in. This shows the more natural attidude of a Roman emperor to the idea of Athenian freedom of speech. Naturally, he could not do more than bear parrhêsia, and would never consider the sheer anarchy of a state in which it was protected by the law.

It is from the missing elements in his line about a constitution of equal rights that we can see his (and the general Roman) attitude to Greek democracy. From all Roman authors throughout the Republican and Imperial periods, we get a sense that Roman elites may have admired Athens for its cultural and scientific achievements, but that they despised and mistrusted its form of government. In their view, the people had far too much power and freedom in these democracies, and the result was a state of semi-anarchy that made them ineffective as states and unreliable as allies. In their dealings with Greek states, the Romans greatly preferred to work with oligarchies and wealthy individuals, rather than unruly and unpredictable assemblies. Freedom and equality were all well and good, but they had to have their limits the state had to be governed by those best suited to the task. The Greeks had democracy, but the Romans had the Republic, in which the poor had a voice, but the rich called the shots.

For centuries during the Classical and Hellenistic period, despite its endless wars and rapacious tyrants and kings, the Greeks knew democracy in one form or another. But by the time the Romans dominated the Mediterranean, all democratic systems of government were gone. By the first century BC, all Greek states were effectively run by narrow oligarchies of those wealthy men who could boast the closest ties and the greatest good will to Rome. In other words, it was the Romans who finally extinguished the spark of democracy it was their new supremacy that destroyed any alternatives to the type of government they preferred. The irony of Marcus Aurelius' idle musings on some carefully selected principles of Athenian democracy is that he was the emperor of the people who finally killed it, and whose legacy ensured that no one anywhere in the world would seriously consider democracy as a form of government for two thousand years.