Interesting Facts About Marcus Aurelius: A Philosopher King

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius (26 April 121 – 17 March 180 AD) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180, ruling jointly with Lucius Verus until Verus’ death in 169 and jointly with his son, Commodus, from 177. He was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
He was a practitioner of Stoicism, and his untitled writing, commonly known as Meditations, is a significant source of our modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy. It is considered by many commentators to be one of the greatest works of philosophy.
During his reign, the Roman Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East: Aurelius’ general Avidius Cassius sacked the capital Ctesiphon in 164. In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, although the threat of the Germanic peoples began to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. A revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius failed to gain momentum and was suppressed immediately. Persecution of Christians increased during his reign.
His death in 180 is considered the end of the Pax Romana and the increasing instability in the west that followed has traditionally been seen as the beginning of the eventual Fall of the Western Roman Empire.
In this post, we will look at some interesting facts about Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher king.
1. Like many emperors, Marcus spent most of his time addressing matters of law such as petitions and hearing disputes; but unlike many of his predecessors, he was already proficient in imperial administration when he assumed power. Marcus took great care in the theory and practice of legislation. Professional jurists called him “an emperor most skilled in the law” and “a most prudent and conscientiously just emperor”. He shows marked interest in three areas of the law: the manumission of slaves, the guardianship of orphans and minors, and the choice of city councilors (decuriones). In 168 he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity from 79% to 82%—the actual silver weight increasing from 2.57 grams to 2.67 grams. However, two years later Marcus reverted to the previous values because of the military crises facing the empire.
2. While on campaign between 170 and 180, Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. The original title of this work, if it had one, is unknown. “Meditations” as well as others, including “To Himself” were adopted later. He had a logical mind and his notes were representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Meditations is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty. The book was a favourite of Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and Goethe. Modern figures such as Wen Jiabao, Bill Clinton, and James Mattis are admirers of the book.
3. Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March 180, in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna). He was deified immediately and his ashes were returned to Rome, and rested in Hadrian’s mausoleum (modern Castel Sant’Angelo) until the Visigoth sack of the city in 410. His campaigns against Germans and Sarmatians were also commemorated by a column and a temple built in Rome.
4. Marcus Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain his after death; both Dio and the biographer call him “the philosopher”. Christians such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras and Melito gave him the title, too. The last named went so far as to call Marcus Aurelius “more philanthropic and philosophic” than Antoninus Pius and Hadrian, and set him against the persecuting emperors Domitian and Nero to make the contrast bolder.
5. Marcus was taught at home, in line with contemporary aristocratic trends; Marcus thanks Catilius Severus for encouraging him to avoid public schools. One of his teachers, Diognetus, a painting-master, proved particularly influential; he seems to have introduced Marcus to the philosophic way of life. In April 132, at the behest of Diognetus, Marcus took up the dress and habits of the philosopher: he studied while wearing a rough Greek cloak, and would sleep on the ground until his mother convinced him to sleep on a bed.

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