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
- 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.