Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

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AURELIUS ANTONINUS, Marcus, the noblest of pagans, the crown and flower of Stoicism, was born at Rome 121 A.D., the date of his birth being variously stated as the 21st and the 26th April. His original name was Marcus Annius Verus. His father, Annius Verus, died while he was prostor; his mother, who survived her husband, was Domitia Calvilla or Lucilla. By both his parents he was of noble blood, his mother being a lady of consular rank, and his father claiming descent from Numa Pompilius. Marcus was an infant when his father died, and was there upon adopted by his grandfather. The latter spared no pains upon his education, and the moral training which he received, both from his grandfather and from his mother, and to which he alludes in the most grateful and graceful terms in his Meditations, must have been all but perfect. The noble qualities of the child attracted the attention of the Emperor Hadrian, who, playing upon the name Verus, said that it should be changed to Verissimus. When Marcus reached the age of seventeen, Hadrian adopted, as his successor, Titus Antoninus Pius (who had married Annia Galeria Faustina, the sister of Annius Verus, and was consequently the uncle of Marcus), on condition that he in turn adopted both his nephew and Lucius Ceionius Commodus, the son of Ælius Cæsar, whom Hadrian, being childless, had originally intended as his successor, but who had died before him. It is generally believed that, had Marcus been old enough, Hadrian would have adopted him directly.

After the death of Hadrian, and the accession of Antoninus Pius to the throne, it became at once apparent that a distinguished future was in store for Marcus. He had been, at the age of fifteen, betrothed to the sister of Commodus; the engagement was broken off by the new emperor, and he was instead betrothed to Faustina, the daughter of the latter. In 139 A.D., the title of Cæsar was conferred upon him, and he dropped the name of Verus. The full name he then bore was Marcus Ælius Aurelius Antoninus, Ælius coming from Hadrian's family, and Aurelius being the original name of Antoninus Pius. He is generally known as Marcus Aurelius or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. In 140 A.D. he was made consul, and entered fully upon public life.

The education of Aurelius in his youth was so minute, and has been so detailed by himself, that it ought not to be passed over without notice. Professor Long says, with perfect truth, apparently, of the trainers and the trained, “Such a body of teachers, distinguished by their acquirements and their character, will hardly be collected again, and as to the pupil we have not had one like him since.” We have already alluded to the care bestowed upon him in youth by his mother and grandfather; a better guardian than that thoroughly good man and prudent ruler, 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 never attended any of the Roman public schools, and this he makes a matter for self-congratulation. He was trained by tutors, in whom, particularly in Rusticus, he appears to have been, very fortunate, and to whom he showed gratitude when he reached the throne by raising them to the highest dignities of the state. Like most of the young Romans of the day, he began his studies with rhetoric and poetry, his teachers being Herodes Atticus and M. Cornelius Fronto. But, at the early age of eleven, he entered upon another course of study, in which he may be said to have continued more or less till the end of his life. He became acquainted with Diognetus the Stoic, 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 Chæronea, and of the other L. Volusianus Marcianus, a distinguished jurist. He went thoroughly and heartily into the practice as well as the theory of Stoicism, and lived so abstemious and laborious a life, that he injured his health. It was from his Stoical teachers that he learned so many admirable lessons, 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 continually to excuse the neglect of ordinary duties by alleging urgent occupations. Through all his Stoical training, Aurelius preserved the natural sweetness of his nature, so that he emerged from it the most lovable as well as the saintliest of Pagans.

Antoninus Pius reigned from 138 to 161 A.D., and the concord between him and his destined heir was so complete, that it is recorded that during these twenty-three years Marcus never slept oftener than twice away from the house of Pius. It is generally believed that Aurelius married Faustina in 146, at all events a daughter was born to him in 147. The two noblest of imperial Romans were associated both in the administration of the state and in the simple country occupations and amusements of the sea-side villa of Lorium, the birthplace of Pius, to which he loved to retire from the pomp and the wretched intrigues of Rome.

Antoninus Pius died of fever, 161 A.D., at his villa of Lorium at the age of seventy-five. As his end approached, he summoned his friends and the leading men of Rome to his bedside, and recommended to them Marcus, who was then forty years of age, as his successor, without mentioning the name of Commodus, his other adopted son, commonly called Lucius Verus. It is believed that the senate agreed with what appeared to be the wishes of the dying emperor, and urged Aurelius to take the sole administration of the empire into his hands. But at the very commencement of his reign, Marcus showed the magnanimity of his nature by admitting Verus as his partner in the empire, giving him the tribunitian and proconsular powers, and the titles Cæsar and Augustus. This was the first time that Rome had two emperors as colleagues. Verus proved to be a weak, self-indulgent man; but he had a high respect for his adoptive brother, and deferred uniformly to his judgment. Although apparently ill-assorted, they lived in peace; and Verus married Lucilla, the daughter of Aurelius. In the first year of his reign Faustina gave birth to twins, one of whom survived to become the infamous Emperor Commodus.

The early part of the reign of Aurelius was clouded by various national misfortunes: an inundation of the Tiber swept away a large part of Rome, destroying fields, drowning cattle, and ultimately causing a famine; then came earthquakes, fires, and plagues of insects; and finally, the unruly and warlike Parthians resumed hostilities, and under their king, Vologeses, defeated a Roman army and devastated Syria. Verus, originally a man of considerable physical courage and even mental ability, went to oppose the Parthians, but, having escaped from the control of his colleague in the purple, he gave himself up entirely to sensual excesses, and the Roman cause in Armenia would have been lost, and the empire itself, perhaps, imperilled, had Verus not had under him able generals, the chief of whom was Avidius Cassius. By them the Roman prestige was vindicated, and the Parthian war brought to a conclusion in 165, the two emperors having a triumph for their victory in the year following. Verus and his army brought with them from the East a terrible pestilence, which spread through the whole empire, and added greatly to the horrors of the time. The people of Rome seem to have been completely unnerved by the universal distress, and to have thought that the last days of the empire had come. Nor were their fears without cause. The Parthians had at the best been beaten, not subdued, the Britons threatened revolt, while signs appeared 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 from the empire the attacks of the barbarians. To allay the terrors of the Romans, he went himself to the wars with Verus, his headquarters being Carnuntum on the Danube. 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. The following year Verus died, having been, it is said, cut off by the pestilence which he had brought from Syria, although in that wicked age there were not wanting gossips malignant enough to say even of Marcus that he hastened his brother's death by poison.

Aurelius was thenceforth undisputed master of the Roman empire, during one of the most troubled periods of its history. Mr Farrar, in his Seekers after God, thus admirably describes the manner in which he discharged his multifarious duties:—“He regarded himself as being, in fact, the servant of all. It was his duty, like that of the bull in the herd, or the ram among the flocks, to confront every peril in his own person, to be foremost in all the hardships of war, and most deeply immersed in all the toils of peace. 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.”

Peace was not long allowed the emperor. The year after the death of his partner, two of the German tribes, the Quadi and the Marcomanni, renewed hostilities with Rome, and, for three years, Aurelius resided almost constantly at Carnuntum. that he might effectually watch them. In the end, the Marcomanni were driven out of Pauuonia. and were almost destroyed in their retreat across the Danube. In 174 Aurelius gained a decisive victory over the Quadi, to which a superstitious interest is attached, and which is commemorated by one of the sculptures on the Column of Antonine. The story is that the Roman army had been entangled in a defile, from which they were unable to extricate themselves, while at the same time they suffered intensely from thirst. In this extremity a sudden storm gave them abundance of rain, while the hail and thunder which accompanied the rain 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 Gentile writers of the period ascribed the victory to their gods, 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 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 not given to the legion because the Quadi were struck with lightning, but 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.

Even after this Aurelius was not allowed to rest. From Rome, to which he had returned, he marched to Germany to carry on the war against the tribes which harassed the empire. There the alarming news reached him that Avidius Cassius, the brave and experienced commander of the Roman troops in Asia, had revolted and proclaimed himself emperor. But the rebellion did not last long. Cassius had only enjoyed his self-conferred honour for three months, when he was assassinated, and his head was brought to Marcus. With characteristic magnanimity, Marcus did not thank the assassins for what they had done; on the contrary, he begged the senate to pardon all the family of Cassius, and to allow his life to be the only one forfeited on account of the civil war. This was agreed to, and it must be considered as 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 he arrived in Syria, and the correspondence of Cassius was brought him, he burnt it without reading it. During this journey of pacification his wife Faustina, who had borne him eleven children, died. The gossiping historians of the time, particularly Dion 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 rest on evidence which can fairly be considered trustworthy; while, on the other hand, there can be no doubt whatever that Aurelius loved his wife tenderly, and trusted her implicitly while she lived, and mourned deeply for her loss. It would seem that Aurelius, after the death of Faustina and the pacification of Syria, 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 any country in which he happened to find himself. 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 caused great difference of opinion, and during which Attalus and others were put to death. Meanwhile the war on the German frontier continued, and the hostile tribes were defeated as on former occasions. In this campaign Aurelius led his own forces; and, probably on that account, he was attacked by some infectious disease, which ultimately cut him off, after a short illness, accord ing to one account, in his camp at Sirmium (Mitrovitz) on the Save, in Lower Pannonia, and, according to another, at Vindobona (Vienna), on the 17th March 180 A.D., in the fifty-ninth year of his age. His ashes (according to some authorities, his body) were taken to Rome, and he was deified. Those who could afford the cost obtained his statue or bust, and, for a long time, statues of him 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.

The one blemish in the life of Aurelius is his hostility to Christianity, which is the more remarkable that his morality comes nearer than any other heathen system to that of the New Testament. Attempts have been made to show that he was not responsible for the atrocities with which his reign is credited, but the evidence of Justin, of Athenagoras, of Apollinaris, and above all, of Melito, bishop of Sardia, and of the Church of Smyrna, is overwhelmingly to the effect that not only were there severe persecutions of Christians, in which men like Polycarp and Justin perished, but that the foundation of these persecutions was certain rescripts or constitutions issued by Aurelius as supplementary to the milder decrees of his predecessors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. In explanation, however, if not in extenuation, of the attitude of Aurelius towards Christianity, several circumstances should be taken into consideration. In the first place, it is evident that he knew little of the Christians, and absolutely nothing of Christian ethics. In his Meditations he makes only one reference (xi. 3) to the adherents of the new creed, and that of the most contemptuous character, showing that he confounded them all with certain fanatics of their number, whom even Clemens of Alexandria compares, on account of their thirst for martyrdom, to the Indian gymnosophists. How far this ignorance was culpable it is impossible at so remote a date to say. Further, it should be noted, in regard to the rescripts upon which the persecutions were founded, that, although they were in the name of the emperor, they may not have proceeded directly from him. There is no evidence that he was an active persecutor, except a passage in Orosius to the effect that there were persecutions of the Christians in Asia and Gallia “under the orders of Marcus;” and it should not be kept out of consideration that he was to some extent a constitutional monarch, and had to pay deference both to the consulta of the senate and the precedents of previous emperors. At the time there was a great popular outcry against the Christians on social and political, even more than on religious, grounds; and Aurelius may have been as much at the mercy of intriguers or fanatics when he gave his sanction to the butcheries of Christians in Asia Minor, as William III. was at the mercy of Stair and Breadalbane, the real authors of the massacre of Glencoe. Finally, it should be borne in mind that, in the reign of Aurelius, the Christians had assumed a much bolder attitude than they had hitherto done. Not only had they caused first interest and then alarm by the rapid increase of their numbers, but, not content with a bare toleration in the empire, they declared war against all heathen rites, and, at least indirectly, against the Government which permitted them to exist. In the eyes of Aurelius they were atheists and foes of that social order which he considered it the first of a citizen's duties to maintain, and it is quite possible that, although the most amiable of men and of rulers, he may have conceived it to be his duty to sanction measures for the extermination of such wretches. Still his action at the time must be considered, as John Stuart Mill puts it, as “one of the most tragical facts in all history.”

The book which contains the philosophy of Aurelius is known by the title of his Reflections, or his Meditations, although that is not the name which he gave to it himself, and of the genuineness of the authorship no doubts are now entertained. It is believed that the emperor also wrote an autobiography, which has perished with other treasures of antiquity. The Meditations were written, it is evident, as occasion offered, in the midst of public business, and even on the eve of battles on which the fate of the empire depended, hence their fragmentary appear ance, 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 in life of Aurelius's son, Commodus. If so, history records how lamentably they failed in accomplishing their immediate effect, for Commodus proved one of the greatest sensualists, buffoons, and tyrants that disgraced even the Roman purple. But they have been considered as one of the most precious of the legacies of antiquity, as, in fact, the best of non-inspired reflections on practical morality. They have been recognised as among the most effectual stimuli to strugglers in life, of whatever class and in whatever position, in the field of speculation as in that of action. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were, with Machiavelli's Art of War, the daily study of Captain John Smith, the real founder of the United States. They are placed by Mr Mill in his posthumous essay on the Utility of Religion as almost equal in ethical elevation to the Sermon on the Mount.

Aurelius early embraced, and throughout life adhered to, the Stoical philosophy, probably because he considered it as the sternest and most solid system to oppose to the corruption of his time. 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.” In the Meditations it is difficult to discover anything like a systematic philosophy, which, indeed, means, as he used the word, tranquillity, or a serene habit of mind. From the manner, however, in which he seeks to distinguish between matter (λη) and cause or reason (αἰτία, λόγος), and from the Carlylean earnestness with which he advises men to examine all the impressions on their minds (φαντασίαι), it may be inferred that he held the view of Anaxagorasthat 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 attained 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” (τὸ ἡγεμονικόν) 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, far less can it be said to be systematic. Compared, indeed, with elaborate treatises on ethics, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are as tonic medicine to succulent food. The charm of his morality lies in its exquisite accent and its infinite tenderness. Where can the connoisseur in morals find anything finer than such sentences as this?—“The pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all;” or where can a more delicate rebuke to the Pharisaism which lurks in the breast of every man be obtained than this?—“One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down to his account as a favour conferred. Another is not ready to do this, but still, in his own mind, he thinks of the man as his debtor, and he knows what he has done. A third in a manner does not even know what he has done, but he is like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks for nothing more after it has once produced its proper fruit. So a man when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season.” But above all, what gives the sentences of Marcus Aurelius their enduring value and fascination, what renders them superior to the utterances of other moralists of the same school, such as Epictetus and Seneca, is that they are the gospel of his life. His practice was in accordance with his precepts, or rather 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; constant in misfortune, not elated by prosperity, never “carrying things to the sweating point;” preserving, in a time of universal corruption, unreality, and self-indulgence, a nature sweet, pure, self-denying, unaffected, Marcus Aurelius has given to the world one of the finest examples of the possibilities of humanity.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius have been translated into English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. The two chief English translations are those of Jeremy Collier (1702) and of George Long; the last may be considered final. The text most commonly used is the Greek one edited by J. M. Schultz (republished by Tauchnitz in 1821). Many books have been written on the life and times of Aurelius, and the essays on his Meditations are innumerable. One of the best estimates of him is contained in Mr F. W. Farrar's Seekers after God, 1868. A scholarly work issued in 1874 by M. Gaston Boissin, entitled La Religion Romaine d'Auguste aux Antonines, gives, perhaps, the most interesting existing account of the state of society under the Antonines.