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Did the philosopher-king live up to expectations?
In Plato’s Republic (c. 375 BCE), Socrates says that his vision of the ideal state could not exist “until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy…”
Here he was at last, more than five hundred years later, rarer even than the Ethiopian phoenix, the fabled philosopher king—and not just any vassal or kinglet, but the Emperor of Rome.
So, how did it work out?
How Marcus became emperor
Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 CE as Marcus Annius Verus, into a prominent senatorial family with intimate imperial ties. He began from an early age to evince signs of virtue, so that the emperor Hadrian noticed him and even punned on his name, Verus [‘True’], calling him ‘Verissimus’ [‘The Truest’].
In 136, Hadrian, having no male heir, adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who now became Lucius Aelius Caesar. But Lucius died in 138, and Hadrian had to choose again.
This time, Hadrian adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt Faustina the Elder, on condition that Antoninus in turn adopt Marcus and the son of the late Lucius, also Lucius.
The intricacy of these machinations suggests that Hadrian intended Antoninus as a simple placeholder for Marcus, and the much younger Lucius as a spare.
Whatever the case, by the age of 17, Marcus had already been marked out as a future emperor.
Childhood and education
Whereas most would have been overjoyed, Marcus was not.
In 132, under the influence of Diognetus, the eleven-year-old Marcus had taken up the dress and habits of a philosopher, and his mother had had to talk him out of sleeping on the floor. In the Meditations, the grown-up Marcus thanks Diognetus, a Stoic and painter, for introducing him to “the Greek lifestyle—the camp-bed and the cloak.”
His other tutors came to include the lawyer and orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto, the rhetorician Herodes Atticus, and Plutarch’s grandson, Sextus of Charonea.
As an orator, Fronto was second only to Cicero, and had something of the Cicero about him when he purchased the fabled Gardens of Maecenas. Much of the extensive and years-long correspondence between Marcus and Fronto is still with us.
Herodes Atticus, one of the richest men in the empire, funded several public works including, in Athens, the Panathenaic Stadium and the odeon known as the Herodeon, both of which, remarkably, are still in use.
But although Marcus had for tutors the greatest men of his age, it is the dog-eared copy of Epictetus that he received from the Stoic Junius Rusticus that made the greatest impression upon him.
Marriage and children
In 136, Marcus had been betrothed to the daughter of Lucius Aelius Caesar.
But after the death of Hadrian, the engagement was annulled, and Antoninus, the new emperor, bethrothed him to his daughter Faustina (even though Marcus and Faustina were legally brother and sister).
Marcus married Faustina seven years later, in 145, while serving out his second term as consul.
After the birth of their first child, a daughter, in 147, Antoninus gave Marcus the imperium and the tribunicia potestas, thereby elevating him, in effect, to the rank of junior emperor.
Faustina the Younger would bear Marcus at least thirteen more children, including two sets of twins, over the next 23 years.
Relationship with his co-emperor
As Antoninus began to age and ail, Marcus took over more of his responsibilities, so that he was already well worn in upon his accession to the imperial throne in 161.
He could easily have ruled alone, but instead insisted upon making his adoptive brother Lucius co-emperor.
In truth, Marcus would rather have remained a philosopher, or private citizen, but considered it his Stoic duty to take up the purple. In the Meditations, he compares philosophy and the court to a mother and stepmother: “you would pay your respects to your stepmother, yes… but it’s your real mother you’d go home to. The court… and philosophy. Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrance. It’s all that makes the court—and you—endurable.”
In practice, Lucius—now Lucius Verus—deferred to Marcus, who was ten years older and, by experience and temperament, better suited to the role.
The Antonine Plague
But now Marcus’ luck would run out.
Towards the end of 161, the Tiber broke its banks and flooded much of Rome, bringing about a famine.
At around the same time, the Parthians invaded the client state of Armenia and began destabilizing the East.
Lucius nominally led the Roman response from Antioch, assisted by able generals such as the Assyrian Roman, Gaius Avidius Cassius.
As the war wore on, Lucius made a trip to Ephesus to wed Marcus’ daughter Lucilla.
The Romans prevailed, but the returning armies brought back a plague, possibly of smallpox. The so-called Antonine plague raged for many years throughout the empire and quite literally decimated [killed one in every ten] the population.
The Marcomannic Wars
In 167 or 168, Marcus and Lucius set out on a punitive expedition across the Rhine and Danube, while a horde of German tribes invaded Italy from behind their backs.
In 169, Lucius suddenly died, perhaps of a stroke, or from the plague.
Marcus battled on for three more years to secure the north-eastern border, while other parts of the empire suffered smaller scale rebellions or invasions. It is at around this time that he kept the diary which we now know as The Meditations.
Threat to his throne
By 175, Avidius Cassius had taken control of the East, including Egypt, the granary of Rome.
In that year, he heard rumours of Marcus’ death and proclaimed himself emperor.
Marcus set off for the East, rejecting offers of assistance from some of the German tribes. But three months after his proclamation, Cassius was murdered by one of his own centurions.
His head was sent to Marcus, but the philosopher-king refused to see it, and pardoned Cassius’ co-conspirators in the Senate.
Marcus then felt obliged to shore up the East, visiting Antioch, Alexandria, and Athens, where he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
In Athens, he endowed the first ever university chairs, one for each of the four major schools of philosophy, the Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Stoic, and Epicurean.
His beloved Faustina, who had come with, died in Cappadocia, and he honored her service by having her deified.
Death and succession
In 177, Marcus proclaimed his 16-year-old son Commodus co-emperor, breaking with the Nerva-Antonine dynasty’s remarkably successful practice of succession by the best man available—a tradition which, in truth, owed more to necessity than to enlightened principle.
This, with the benefit of hindsight, or even without, was a grave error, but what else could Marcus have done short of planting the seed of a civil war, or ordering the throttling of his own son?
In 180, Marcus, who had been sickly all his life, possibly with a stomach ulcer, passed away at his military headquarters in Sirmium, Pannonia, thereby bringing to an end the long period of relative peace and prosperity now known as the Pax Romana (27 BCE—180 CE).
In 192, Commodus was strangled in the bath by his wrestling partner Narcissus, acting in concert with other palace insiders, and with the retrospective approval of the Senate.
The demise of Commodus brought the Nerva-Antonine dynasty to a close, to be followed by the chaotic Year of the Five Emperors.
I’ll leave the last word on Marcus to the historian Cassius Dio, who lived through his entire reign:
[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him. This matter must be our next topic; for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.