Marcus Aurelius, who became emperor of Rome in A.D. 161, had a lifelong interest in philosophy*. Two important works commemorating his life have lasted to the present. One is a triumphal column, a monument erected in Rome to celebrate his military victories. Carved scenes showing events from his campaigns cover the column. The other is his deeply personal and philosophical diary, now known as the Meditations. The two works present a startling contrast. The column depicts a powerful ruler who defended the empire against invasion. The diary reveals a thoughtful individual who pondered the meaning of human life.
Raised by his grandfather, who was a friend and relative of the emperor Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius studied with some of the most celebrated teachers of his day. Early in his education, he began to show an interest in philosophy. He was fluent in both Greek and Latin, as were most educated Romans of his day. When Marcus was in his late teens, Hadrian’s adopted son Antoninus Pius adopted Marcus. Antoninus Pius became emperor in A.D. 137 and in the years that followed, Marcus received official powers in the Roman government, indicating that he would be the next emperor.
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* co-emperor emperor who shares office with another emperor
* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease
The Ruler. In A.D. 161, Antoninus died, and Marcus Aurelius prepared to take his place. He decided that he would share the imperial* title and power with his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, and quickly arranged for Lucius to become co-emperor*. This was the first time that the Roman Empire had two rulers.
The brothers faced considerable unrest on the empire’s frontiers— in Europe, Britain, and Asia Minor. Before long, the Roman army suppressed the British and Asian threats (although the soldiers returning from Asia brought with them an epidemic of the plague*). However, Germanic tribes of northern Europe succeeded in crossing the Alps into Italy. This, the worst crisis for Rome in more than 200 years, was also the first of the challenges that eventually would destroy the Western Roman Empire.
Lucius Verus died in A.D. 169 during the war against the northern tribes. Marcus Aurelius and his generals, however, were able to drive most of the Germans out of Italy and back across the Danube River. One strategy that Marcus used was to invite certain tribes to settle on undeveloped land in the empire. This divided some Germanic forces, making it easier to defeat the others.
The emperor’s military troubles did not end here, though. Africans invaded Spain, and tribes from Hungary invaded Greece. One of the most powerful Roman generals joined a rebel group and had himself declared emperor. But Marcus Aurelius survived these challenges—the army fought off the invasions and the rebellion failed. He then faced the problem of choosing his successor. During the Roman Empire, the position of emperor did not pass automatically to the emperor’s son. The Roman Senate had to grant power to the next ruler. Four years before his death, Marcus Aurelius made his own son Commodus co-emperor, ensuring an orderly succession*.
The Philosopher. The surviving manuscript of Marcus’s diary, written in Greek, is simply titled “Notes to Himself,” although today the work is commonly known as Meditations. Historians believe that he wrote the diary late in his life, some of it during his celebrated German campaigns. Yet his words are humble, resigned, and accepting. He was clearly influenced by Stoicism, a philosophy that promoted acceptance of whatever life brought. The Stoics believed the spirit (or mind) was divine, while the body led to corruption. Therefore, they thought they should concern themselves only with things they could control—their own thoughts and feelings. Marcus and some of the Stoics were particularly concerned with ethics, the principles of doing what is right and just in relation to others. Acting justly was especially important because they believed all human beings belonged to one universal spirit, to which they would return after death. In his diary, Marcus takes comfort in the idea that life is short, and that death will reunite him with the rest of the universe.
In the first section of his diary, Marcus notes what he has learned from various teachers and family members. In later sections, he examines questions about life and individual responsibility. In one passage, Marcus describes how difficult he finds waking up in the morning. He reminds himself that every creature—from an ant, to a spider, to a human being— was made by the creator to do some particular work. Therefore, he should rise and do the work he is meant to do. Marcus’s writings reveal the sensitive nature of a man who was one of the most powerful rulers of the ancient world. (See also Barbarians; Colonies, Roman; Rome, History of.)
* succession transmission of authority on the death of one ruler to the next