1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
MARCUS AURELIUS ANTONINUS (121–180), Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, was born in Rome A.D. 121, the date of his birth being variously stated as the 6th, 21st and 26th of April. His original name was Marcus Annius Verus. His mother Domitia Calvilla (or Lucilla) was a lady of consular rank, and the family of his father Annius Verus (prefect of the city and thrice consul), originally Spanish, had received patrician rank from Vespasian. Marcus was three months old when his father died, and was thereupon adopted by his grandfather. The moral training which he received from his grandfather and his mother must have been all but perfect. The noble qualities of the child attracted the attention of Hadrian, who, playing upon the name “Verus,” said that it should be changed to “Verissimus” (BHPICCIMOC on medals). Hadrian adopted, as his successor, Titus Antoninus Pius (uncle of Marcus), on condition that he in turn adopted both Marcus (then seventeen) and Lucius Ceionius Commodus, the son of Aelius Caesar, who had originally been intended by Hadrian as his successor, but had died before him. Marcus had been, at the age of fifteen, betrothed to Fabia, the sister of Commodus; the engagement was broken off by Antoninus Pius, and he was betrothed to Faustina, the daughter of the latter. In 139 the title of Caesar was conferred upon him and he dropped the name of Verus. The full name he then bore was Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus, Aelius coming from Hadrian’s family, and Aurelius being the original name of Antoninus Pius. In 140 he was made consul.
The education of Aurelius in his youth was minute (see Medit. i. 1-16). A better guardian than Antoninus Pius could not be conceived. Marcus himself says, “To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.” He was educated, not at school, but by tutors, Herodes Atticus and M. Cornelius Fronto (q.v.) in the usual curriculum of rhetoric and poetry; but at the age of eleven he became acquainted with Diognetus the painter and Stoic philosopher (Hist. script. aug. i. 305, notes), was fascinated by the philosophy he taught, assumed the dress of his sect, and ultimately abandoned rhetoric and poetry for philosophy and law, having among his teachers of the one Sextus of Chaeronea, grandson of Plutarch, and later Q. Junius Rusticus, and of the other L. Volusius Maecianus (or Metianus), a distinguished jurist. He went thoroughly into the practice as well as the theory of Stoicism, and lived so abstemious and laborious a life that he injured his health. From his Stoic teachers he learned to work hard, to deny himself, to avoid listening to slander, to endure misfortunes, never to deviate from his purpose, to be grave without affectation, delicate in correcting others, “not frequently to say to any one, nor to write in a letter, that I have no leisure,” nor to excuse the neglect of duties by alleging urgent occupations. Through all his Stoical training Aurelius preserved the natural sweetness of his nature.
During the reign of Antoninus Pius (138 to 161), the concord between him and Aurelius was complete; Capitolinus (c. 7) says “nec praeter duas noctes per tot annos mansit diversis vicibus.” The two were associated in the administration and in the simple country occupations of the seaside villa of Lorium, the birthplace of Pius, to which he loved to retire. It has been assumed on the strength of a passage in Capitolinus that Aurelius married Faustina in 146, but the passage is not clear, and other evidence points strongly to 140; at all events it seems certain that a daughter was born to him in 140. Antoninus Pius died in 161, having recommended as his successor Aurelius, then forty years of age, without mentioning Commodus, his other adopted son, commonly called Lucius Verus. It is believed that the senate urged Aurelius to take the sole administration. But he showed the magnanimity of his nature by at once admitting Verus as his partner, giving him the tribunician and proconsular powers, and the titles Caesar and Augustus. This was the first time that Rome had two emperors as colleagues. Verus, a weak, self-indulgent man, had a high respect for his adoptive brother, and deferred uniformly to his judgment. In the first year of his reign Faustina gave birth to twins, one of whom became the emperor Commodus.
The early part of the reign of Aurelius was clouded by national misfortunes. An inundation of the Tiber swept away a large part of Rome, destroying fields, drowning cattle, and causing a famine (162); then came earthquakes, fires and plagues of insects; the soldiers in Britain tried to induce their general Statius Priscus to proclaim himself emperor; finally, the Parthians under Vologaeses III. resumed hostilities, annihilated the Roman forces under Severianus at Elegia in Cappadocia, and devastated Syria. Verus, originally a man of considerable courage and ability, was sent to oppose the Parthians, but gave himself up to sensual excesses, and the Roman cause in Armenia would have been lost, and the empire itself, perhaps, imperilled, had not Verus had under him able generals, the chief of whom was Avidius Cassius (see Cassius, Avidius). By them the Parthian War was brought to a conclusion in 165, but Verus and his army brought back with them a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire. The people seem to have thought that the last days of the empire had come. The Parthians had at the best been beaten, not subdued; the Britons threatened revolt; there were signs that various tribes beyond the Alps intended to break into Italy. Indeed, the bulk of the reign of Aurelius was spent in efforts to ward off the attacks of the barbarians. He went himself to the wars with Verus in 167, first to Aquileia and then on into Pannonia and Noricum, wintering at Sirmium in Pannonia. Ultimately the Marcomanni, the fiercest of the tribes that inhabited the country between Illyria and the sources of the Danube, sued for peace in 168. In January or February 160 Verus died at Altinum, apparently of apoplexy, though some ventured to say that he was poisoned by Aurelius.
Aurelius was thenceforth indisputed master of the empire, during one of the most troubled periods of its history. His reign is well described by F. W. Farrar (Seekers after God): “He regarded himself as being, in fact, the servant of all. The registry of the citizens, the suppression of litigation, the elevation of public morals, the care of minors, the retrenchment of public expenses, the limitation of gladiatorial games and shows, the care of roads, the restoration of senatorial privileges, the appointment of none but worthy magistrates, even the regulation of street traffic, these and numberless other duties so completely absorbed his attention that, in spite of indifferent health, they often kept him at severe labour from early morning till long after midnight. His position, indeed, often necessitated his presence at games and shows, but on these occasions he occupied himself either in reading, in being read to, or in writing notes. He was one of those who held that nothing should be done hastily, and that few crimes were worse than the waste of time.” The comprehensiveness of his legal and judicial reforms is very striking. Slaves, heirs, women and children, were benefited, and he made serious attempts to deal with the steady fall in the birth-rate of legitimate children.
In the autumn of 169 two of the German tribes, the Quadi and the Marcomanni, with their allies the Vandals, Iazyges and Sarmatians, renewed hostilities and, for three years, Aurelius resided almost constantly at Carnuntum. In the end the Marcomanni were driven out of Pannonia, and were almost destroyed in their retreat across the Danube. In 174 Aurelius gained over the Quadi a decisive victory, which is commemorated by one of the sculptures on the column of Antonine. The story is that the Romans, entangled in a defile, were suffering from thirst. A sudden storm gave abundance of rain, while hail and thunder confounded their enemies, and enabled the Romans to gain an easy and complete victory. This triumph was universally considered at the time, and for long afterwards, to have been a miracle, and bore the title of “The Miracle of the Thundering Legion.” The pagan writers (e.g. Dio Cassius, lxx. 8–10) ascribed the victory to the magic arts of an Egyptian named Arnuphis who prevailed on Mercury and other gods to give relief, while the Christians attributed it to the prayers of their brethren in a legion to which, they affirmed, the emperor then gave the name of “The Thundering.” Dacier, however, and others who adhere to the Christian view of the miracle, admit that the appellation of “Thundering” or “Lightning” (κεραυνοβόλος, or κεραυνοφόρος) was given to the legion because there was a figure of lightning on their shields. It has also been virtually proved that it had the title even in the reign of Augustus.
Aurelius next marched to Germany. There news reached him that Avidius Cassius, the commander of the Roman troops in Asia, had revolted and proclaimed himself emperor (175). But after three months Cassius was assassinated, and his head was brought to Aurelius, who with characteristic magnanimity, persuaded the senate to pardon all the family of Cassius. It is a proof of the wisdom of Aurelius’s clemency that he had little or no trouble in pacifying the provinces which had been the scene of rebellion. He treated them all with forbearance, and it is said that when the correspondence of Cassius was brought him he burnt it without reading it. During his journey of pacification, Faustina, who had borne him eleven children, died. Dio Cassius and Capitolinus charge Faustina with the most shameless infidelity to her husband, who is even blamed for not paying heed to her crimes. But none of these stories rests on trustworthy evidence; on the other hand, there can be no doubt that Aurelius trusted her while she lived, and mourned her loss.
After the death of Faustina and the pacification of Syria, Aurelius proceeded, on his return to Italy, through Athens, and was initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, the reason assigned for his doing so being that it was his custom to conform to the established rites of the countries he visited. He gave large sums of money for the endowment of chairs in philosophy and rhetoric, with a view to making the schools the resort of students from all parts of the empire. Along with his son Commodus he entered Rome in 176, and obtained a triumph for victories in Germany. In 177 occurred that persecution of Christians, the share of Aurelius in which has been the subject of so much controversy. Meanwhile the German War continued, and the two Quintilii, who had been left in command, begged Aurelius once more to take the field. In this campaign Aurelius, after a series of successes, was attacked, according to some authorities, by an infectious disease, of which he died after a seven days’ illness, either in his camp at Sirmium (Mitrovitz), on the Save, in Lower Pannonia, or at Vindobona (Vienna), on the 17th of March 180, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. Other accounts are: (1) that he was poisoned in the interests of Commodus (Dio. Cass. lxxi. 33, 4), (2) that he died of a chronic stomachic disease; the latter is perhaps the most likely. His ashes (according to some authorities, his body) were taken to Rome. By common consent he was deified and all those who could afford the cost obtained his statue or bust; for a long time his statues held a place among the penates of the Romans. Commodus, who was with his father when he died, erected to his memory the Antonine column (now in the Piazza Colonna at Rome), round the shaft of which are sculptures in relief commemorating the miracle of the Thundering Legion and the various victories of Aurelius over the Quadi and the Marcomanni. A bronze equestrian statue was set up in the Forum, now on the Capitol.
Aurelius throughout his reign was hostile to Christianity. The Christians suffered from systematic persecution, and many historians, with a strange lack of historical insight, have poured denunciation upon him for an attitude which was the natural outcome of his convictions. During his reign the atmosphere of Roman society was heavily charged with the popular Greek philosophy to which, ethics apart, Christianity was diametrically opposed. Under Antoninus the “pursuit” of Christians was unknown; under Trajan and Hadrian it was forbidden (cf. Keim, Aus dem Urchrist, p. 99). But Aurelius was an eager patriot and a man of logical mind. From his earliest youth he had learned to identify the ritual of the Roman religion with the very essence of the imperial idea. He became a Salian priest at the age of eight, and soon knew by heart all the forms and liturgical order of the official worship, and even the sacred music. In the earliest statue we have he is a youth offering incense; he is a priest at the sacrificial altar in the latest triumphal reliefs. Naturally he felt that the prevalence of Christianity was incompatible with his ideal of Roman prosperity, and therefore that the policy of the Flavian emperors was the only logical solution of an important problem. Neumann argued that the recrudescence of active persecution was initiated by a deliberate ad hoc rescript issued probably in A.D. 176. Sir W. M. Ramsay, however, doubts this (The Church in the Roman Empire, London, 1893), and argues that it was due to a long series of instructions to provincial governors (mandata, not decreta) who interpreted their duty largely in conformity with the attitude of the reigning emperor. In other words the governors were ordered merely to punish sacrilege, and, under Aurelius, Christianity was regarded as such. In the second place, though it is true that the persecutions indicated by Celsus (Origen, Celsus, viii. 69), Justin, Melito (in Eusebius, H.E., iv. 26), Athenagoras (Libellus pro Christianis) and the Acts of Martyrs, were greatly in excess of those recorded in previous reigns, it must not be forgotten that it was only in this period that the Christians began to keep records. Thirdly, there can be no doubt that the Christians had recently assumed a much bolder attitude, and thus segregated themselves from the mass of those unorthodox sects which the Roman could afford to despise. Like the Druids in Gaul (cf. T. Mommsen, Prov. Rom. Emp., Eng. trans. i. 105, and V. Duruy, Rev. archéol., Apr. 1880), the Christians were particularly dangerous, inasmuch as they taught a unity which transcended that of the Roman Empire, and must, therefore, have been regarded as antagonistic to the existing political and social organism.
When, therefore, we remember that Aurelius knew little of the Christians, that the only mention of them in the Meditations is a contemptuous reference to certain fanatics of their number whom even Clement of Alexandria compares for their thirst for martyrdom to the Indian gymnosophists, and finally that the least worthy of them were doubtless the most prominent, we cannot doubt that Aurelius was acting unquestionably in the best interests of a perfectly intelligible ideal. He was “Roman in resolution and repression, Roman in civic nobility and pride, Roman in tenacity of imperial aim, Roman in respect for law, Roman in self-effacement for the service of the State” (G. H. Rendall).
Philosophy.—The book which contains the philosophy of Aurelius is known by the title of his Reflections, or Meditations, although that is not the name which he gave to it himself (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν). Of the genuineness of the work no doubts are now entertained. It is believed that he wrote also an autobiography, which has perished. The Meditations were written, it is evident, as occasion offered—in the midst of public business, and on the eve of battles on which the fate of the empire depended—hence their fragmentary appearance, but hence also much of their practical value and even of their charm. It is believed by many critics that they were intended for the guidance of Aurelius’s son, Commodus (q.v.); at all events they are generally considered as one of the most precious of the legacies of antiquity. Renan even called them “the most human of all books,” and they are described by J. S. Mill in his Utility of Religion as almost equal in ethical elevation to the Sermon on the Mount.
Aurelius throughout his life adhered to the Stoical philosophy. But, as Tenneman says, he imparted to it “a character of gentleness and benevolence, by making it subordinate to a love of mankind, allied to religion.” His thoughts represent a transitional movement, and it is difficult to discover in them anything like a systematic philosophy. From the manner, however, in which he seeks to distinguish between matter and cause or reason, and from the earnestness with which he advises men to examine all the impressions on their minds, it may be inferred that he held the view of Anaxagoras—that God and matter exist independently, but that God governs matter. There can be no doubt that Aurelius believed in a deity, although Schultz is probably right in maintaining that all his theology amounts to this—the soul of man is most intimately united to his body, and together they make one animal which we call man; and so the deity is most intimately united to the world or the material universe, and together they form one whole. We find in the Meditations no speculations on the absolute nature of the deity, and no clear expressions of opinion as to a future state. We may also observe here that, like Epictetus, he is by no means so decided on the subject of suicide as the older Stoics. Aurelius is, above all things, a practical moralist. The goal in life to be aimed at, according to him, is not happiness, but tranquillity, or equanimity. This condition of mind can be obtained only by “living conformably to nature,” that is to say, one’s whole nature, and as a means to that man must cultivate the four chief virtues, each of which has its distinct sphere—wisdom, or the knowledge of good and evil; justice, or the giving to every man his due; fortitude, or the enduring of labour and pain; and temperance, or moderation in all things. It is no “fugitive and cloistered virtue” that Aurelius seeks to encourage; on the contrary, man must lead the “life of the social animal,” must “live as on a mountain”; and “he is an abscess on the universe who withdraws and separates himself from the reason of our common nature through being displeased with the things which happen.” While the prime principle in man is the social, “the next in order is not to yield to the persuasions of the body, when they are not conformable to the rational principle which must govern.” This divinity “within a man,” this “legislating faculty,” which, looked at from one point of view, is conscience, and from another is reason, must be implicitly obeyed. He who thus obeys it will attain tranquillity of mind; nothing can irritate him, for everything is according to nature, and death itself “is such as generation is, a mystery of nature, a composition out of the same elements, and a decomposition into the same, and altogether not a thing of which any man should be ashamed, for it is not contrary to the nature of a reasonable animal, and not contrary to the reason of our constitution.”
The morality of Marcus Aurelius cannot be said to have been new when it was given to the world. Its charm lies in its exquisite accent and its infinite tenderness. But above all, what gives the sentences of Marcus Aurelius their enduring value and fascination, and renders them superior to the utterances of Epictetus and Seneca, is that they are the gospel of his life. His precepts are simply the records of his practice. To the saintliness of the cloister he added the wisdom of the man of the world; he was constant in misfortune, not elated by prosperity, never “carrying things to the sweating-point,” but preserving, in a time of universal corruption, unreality and self-indulgence, a nature sweet, pure, self-denying, unaffected.
Bibliography.—P. B. Watson’s M. Aurelius Antoninus (1884) contains a general account—life, character, philosophy, relations with Christianity—as well as a bibliography; see also art. in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie, s.v. “Annius” (No. 94), col. 2279. For special points see: (1) Historical: Authorities under Rome: Ancient History; S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to M. Aurelius (London, 1904). (2) Relations to Christianity: Sir W. M. Ramsay, op. cit.; W. Moeller, History of the Christian Church, A.D. 1-600 (Eng. trans., A. Rutherford, 1892); W. E. Addis, Christianity and the Roman Empire (1893); E. G. Hardy, Christianity and the Roman Government (1894), pp. 145 sqq., which criticizes both Neumann and Ramsay; Leonard Alston, Stoic and Christian of the 2nd century (1906); J. Dartigue-Peyrou, Marc-Aurèle dans ses rapports avec le christianisme (Paris, 1897). (3) Philosophical: Besides article Stoics, E. Renan, Marc. Antoninus et la fin du monde antique (Paris, 1882; Eng. trans., W. Hutchinson, 1904); W. Pater, Marius the Epicurean (London, 1888); Matthew Arnold’s Essays; C. H. W. Davis, Greek and Roman Stoicism (1903); editions of the Meditations (5, below). (4) Military: E. Napp, De rebus imperat. M. Aurel. Anton, in oriente gestis (Bonn, 1879); Conrad, Mark Aurels Markomannenkrieg (1889); Th. Mommsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire (Eng. trans., W. P. Dickson, London, 1886); for the Aurelius column, E. Petersen, A. von Domaszewski, and G. Calderini, Die Marcussäule (Munich, 1896), with historical introduction by Th. Mommsen. (5) The Meditations were published by Xylander in 1558; the best critical edition is that of J. Stich in the Teubner series (Leipzig, 1882; 2nd ed., 1903); textual emendations also in Journal of Philology, xxiii. 116-160 (G. H. Rendall); Classical Review, xix. (1905), pp. 18 sqq. (Herbert Richards), ibid., pp. 301 sqq. (A. J. Kronenberg). Translations exist in almost every language; that of George Long (London, 1862, re-edited 1900) has been superseded by those of G. H. Rendall (London, 1898, with valuable introduction) and J. Jackson (Oxford, 1906, with introduction by Charles Bigg). (6) For a full account of the correspondence of Aurelius and Fronto, see Robinson Ellis, Correspondence of Fronto and M. Aurelius (Oxford, 1904). (J. M. M.)
- Capitolinus states that he was originally called Catilius Severus after his mother’s grandfather; if so the name was early discarded.
- Aurelius has been severely criticized for sending Verus. Among various reasons, the most convincing is that the presence of Aurelius was required in Rome; moreover, the real leader was evidently Cassius.