Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180)– a philosopher on the imperial throne
Marcus Aurelius warned against hedonism, fame and riches, encouraged kindness towards others, however with a dose of skepticism. He also exhibited this skepticism in relation to sensuality and human corporeality. He prepared himself for becoming a ruler for nearly 23 years. During this time he got acquainted with the legal and administrative structure of the territorially inflated and still powerful empire, in which the Mediterranean Sea was an inland sea. He believed, that a ruler should not count on (as Plato had wanted) creating an ideal state, but rather set small goals for himself and strive for their accomplishment, regardless of the fact, how slight they may seem. He was at the same time, as historians confirm, hard-working, patient and humble.
He belonged to a group of emperors chosen in accordance with the principle of “adoption of the best” (adopted emperors), since he ascended to the throne, not due to a birthright, but rather choice, which was made by his predecessor – his uncle, and later his father-in-law – Emperor Antoninus Pius. He adopted the nephew of his wife, born in a senatorial family, who after the premature death of his father was raised by his mother and grandfather. Thanks to his character traits Marcus Aurelius, in the year 161 A.D., at the age of 40 years old, ascended to the imperial throne. He built a column for his predecessor Antoninus Pius, of which only the base remains until present-day, showing the apotheosis (the act of deification) of the emperor and his wife Faustina (the Elder).
Marcus Aurelius was not a born soldier, he travelled to the threatened borders of the empire out of necessity. Quite often these were revolts of the legionnaires themselves however most often uprisings and invasions of tribes neighboring the Roman limes (border), mainly the Parthians and Germanic tribes.
The times of his reign were plagued not only by constant wars, but also flooding of the Tiber, street riots, fires, a plague of locusts and an epidemic of the Bubonic plague, brought to Rome by legionnaires from the East, which caused widespread fear and chaos. When mass processions and animal sacrifices organized by the emperor with the aim of appeasing the gods, did not bring forth the expected results, there were riots of the populace troubled by diseases and hunger. Their victims often included infidels, especially Christians. They were the ones who were blamed for all kinds of misfortunes. This is how two waves of persecutions erupted, which happened during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was not their initiator, since in accordance with the policy of Emperor Trajan, he believed that Christians should not be subject to formal sanctions from the state, as long as they do not publically profess their faith. The religious practices and beliefs of the citizens of the empire were their own private matter. However, in face of numerous riots erupting now and again, which might in turn lead to a civil war, Marcus Aurelius legally sanctioned these persecutions. Every person who would not make sacrifices to the Roman gods, responsible for prosperity in the empire, and did not renounce his faith, was executed. The mass execution of Christians in the arena in the city of Lugdunum (Lyon) in the year 177 A.D., can serve as an example
Marcus Aurelius saw the foundations of his reign, built on cooperation with the Senate, in just law and efficiently functioning public offices. He reformed the legal system and the administration taking care not to forget the weakest – more than half of the laws issued by him concerned improving the lot of the poorest citizens of his state. Orphanages, schools, hospitals and shelters were built for these people, who were further exempt from paying taxes.
The emperor’s private life, predestined by his marriage with Faustina (the Younger) the daughter of his predecessor was quite proper. He had 13 children with her, yet only his son Commodus and four daughters survived him. Malicious rumors spoke of a rather frivolous sexual life of the emperor’s wife, with a weakness for gladiators, actors and sailors, yet this did not deter the emperor from showing her the respect she deserved and deifying her after her death.
The emperor died from the plague during a military expedition against the Marcomanni, most likely in the city of Vindobona (modern-day Vienna). As was customary for a stoic, when he sensed that his earthly journey was coming to an end, he refused meals, and peacefully awaited death.
He was an emperor, whose reign ended the greatest period of existence for the Roman Empire, started by Emperor Nerva. After him – as opposed to the tradition of “adopting the best” – his son Commodus ascended to the throne. The emperor’s ashes were brought to Rome and laid to rest in Mausoleum of Hadrian (Castle of the Holy Angel), while the Senate in recognition of his deeds, ordered a commemorative column to be built in his honor and immediately deified him.
Marcus Aurelius was respected and admired among his contemporaries. He was considered an ideal ruler, while subsequent Roman emperors, willingly pointed to him as a moral and an intellectual authority. Then he was forgotten. He “returned” during the Enlightenment, when not only philosophers (Voltaire), but also the then rulers (Frederic II) “brought back” his memory and his way of governing.
The emperor is well-known to those who visit Rome – not only through the magnificent Column of Marcus Aurelius, found at Piazza Colonna but also through an equestrian statue at the Capitol (The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius). For centuries this was thought to be the statue of Emperor Constantine the Great, who was very important for Christians, and that is why it was not destroyed as was the case with all the other equestrian statues of emperors, which were found in the city.
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