M. Aure'lius Antoni'nus
commonly distinguished by the epithet of " the philosopher," was born at Rome, on the Coelian hill, on the 20th of April, A. D. 121. From his paternal ancestors, who for three generations had held high offices of state and claimed descent from Numa, he inherited the name of M. Annius Verus, while from his great-grandfather on the mother's side he received the appellation of Catilius Severus.
The principal members and connexions of the family are represented in the followirg table:--
N.B. M. Aurelius and Faustina seem to have had several children in addition to the above. Three daughters were still alive after the death of Commodus (Lamprid. Commod.
18; Herodian. 1.12), and one of these was put to death by Caracalla in 212. We find in an inscription the names of his sons, T. Aurelius Antoninus, and T. Aelius Aurelius, both of whom were, it is probable, older than Commodus, and died young. (See Tillemont.)
The father of young Marcus having died while praetor, the boy was adopted by his grandfather, Annius Verus, and from a very early period enjoyed the favour of Hadrian, who bestowed on him the honours of the equestrian order when only six years old, admitted him as a member of the fraternity of the Salian priests at the age of eight, and as a tribute to the sincerity and truthfulness of his disposition, was wont in playful affection to address him not as Verus
At the age of fifteen he received the manly gown, and was betrothed to the daughter of Aelius Caesar, the heir apparent to the throne.
But not long after (138), in consequence of the sudden death of his intended father-in-law, still more brilliant prospects were suddenly opened up to the youth. For, according to the arrangement explained under ANTONINUS PIUS, both he and L. Ceionius Commodus, son of Aelius Caesar, were adopted by Antoninus Pius, immediately after the latter had been himself adopted by Hadrian.
He was now styled M. Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar, and was immediately chosen to fill the office of quaestor for the following year.
The proposed union with the daughter of Aelius Caesar was set aside, on account, it was alleged, of disparity in age, and Faustina, the daughter of Pius, who had been previously destined by Hadrian for young Ceionius Commodus, was fixed upon as the future wife of Marcus Aurelius. Their nuptials, however, were not celebrated until after a lapse of seven years. (145.) In 140 he was raised to the consulship, and in 147, after the birth of a daughter by Faustina, was permitted to share the tribunate, and was invested with various other honours and privileges befitting his station. From this time forward he was the constant companion and adviser of the monarch, and the most perfect confidence subsisted between the son and his adopted father until the death of the latter, which happened on the 7th of March, 161.
The first act of the new ruler was the admission of Ceionius Commodus to a full participation in the sovereign power, and these emperors henceforward bore respectively the names of M. Aurelius Antoninus and L. Aurelius Verus. When the double adoption by Antoninus Pius took place, it was settled that the son of Aelius Caesar should be considered as the younger brother. Thus, on the coins struck before the death of Pius, M. Aurelius alone bears the appellation of Caesar, to him alone Pius committed the empire with his dying breath, and to him alone did the senate formally offer the vacant throne. Hence his conduct towards L. Verus was purely an act of grace.
But the alliance promised to prove advantageous both to the parties themselves, and also to the general interests of the state. Marcus was weak in constitution, and took more delight in philosophy and literary pursuits than in politics and war, while Lucius, young, active, and skilled in all manly exercises, was likely to be better fitted for the toils of a military life. His aptitude for such a career was soon put to the proof.
The war, which had been long threatening the east, at length burst forth. Verus, after being betrothed to Lucilla, the daughter of his colleague, was despatched in all haste to the Parthian frontier towards the end of 161, while M. Aurelius remained in the city to watch an irruption of the Catti into the Rhenish provinces and a threatened insurrection in Britain.
Vologeses III., who had been induced to abandon a meditated attack upon Armenia by the remonstrances of Antoninus Pius, thinking that a fitting season had now arrived for the execution of his long-cherished schemes, had destroyed a whole Roman legion quartered at Elegeia, and advancing at the head of a great army, had spread devastation throughout Syria. Lucius having collected his troops, proceeded to Antioch, where he determined to remain, and entrusted the command of his army to Cassius and others of his generals. Cassius compelled the Parthians to retreat, invaded Mesopotamia, plundered and burnt Seleuceia, razed to the ground the royal palace at Ctesiphon, and penetrated as far as Babylon; while Statius Priscus, who was sent into Armenia, stormed Artaxata, and, rescuing the country from the usurper, reinstated the lawful but dethroned monarch Soaemus. Vologeses was thus constrained to conclude an ignominious peace, in virtue of which Mesopotamia was ceded to the Romans.
These events took place in 162 and the three following years. In 166, Lucius returned home, and the two emperors celebrated jointly a magnificent triumph, assuming the titles of Armeniacus, Parthicus Maximus,
But although this campaign had terminated so gloriously, little praise was due to the commanderin-chief. Twice he was unwillingly prevailed upon to advance as far as the Euphrates, and he made a journey to Ephesus (in 164) to meet his bride on her arrival from Italy; but with these exceptions he passed his winters at Laodiceia, and the rest of his time at Daphne or at Antioch, abandoning himself to gaming, drunkenness, and dissolute pleasures of every kind. All the achievements of the war were performed by his legates, and all the general arrangements conducted by M. Aurelius at Rome.
A still heavier danger was now impending, which threatened to crush Italy itself.
A combination had been formed among the numerous tribes, dwelling along the whole extent of the northern limits of the empire, from the sources of the Danube to the Illyrian border, including the Marcomanni, the Alani, the Jazyges, the Quadi, the Sarmatae, and many others.
In addition to the danger from without, the city was hard pressed by numerous calamities from within. Inundations had destroyed many buildings and much property, among which were vast granaries with their contents, the poor were starving in consequence of the deficiency thus caused in the supplies of corn, and numbers were perishing by a fearful pestilence, said to have been brought from the east by the troops of Verus. So great was the panic, that it was resolved that both emperors should go forth to encounter the foe. Previous to their departure, in order to restore confidence to the populace, priests were summoned from all quarters, a multitude of expiatory sacrifices were performed, many of them according to strange and foreign rites, and victims were offered to the gods with the most unsparing profusion.
The contest which had now commenced with the northern nations was continued with varying success during the whole life of M. Aurelius, whose head-quarters were generally fixed in Pannonia; but the details preserved by the historians who treat of this period are so confused and so utterly destitute of all chronological arrangement, that it becomes impossible to draw up anything like a regular and well-connected narrative of the progress of the struggle. Medals are our only sure guide, and the information afforded by these is necessarily meagre and imperfect.
It would appear that the barbarians, overawed by the extensive preparations of the Romans and by the presence of the two Augusti, submitted for a time and sued for peace, and that the brothers returned to Rome in the course of 168. They set out again, however, in 169, but before they reached the army, L. Verus was seized with apoplexy, and expired at Aetinum, in the territory of Veneti. Marcus hastened back to Rome, paid the last honours to the memory of his colleague, and returned to Germany towards the close of the year.
He now prosecuted the war against the Marcomanni with great vigour, although from the ravages caused by the plague among the troops, he was forced to enrol gladiators, slaves, and exiles, and, from the exhausted state of the public treasury, was compelled to raise money by selling the precious jewels and furniture of the imperial palace.
In consequence of the success which attended these extraordinary efforts, the legends Germanicus
and Germania Subacta
now appear upon the coins, while Parthicus, Armeniacus,
are dropped, as having more especially appertained to L. Verus. Among the numerous engagements which took place at this epoch, a battle fought on the frozen Danube has been very graphically described by Dio Cassius (72.7); but by far the most celebrated and important was the victory gained over the Quadi in 174, which having been attended by certain circumstances believed to be supernatural, gave rise to the famous controversy among the historians of Christianity upon what is commonly termed the Miracle of the Thundering Legion.
Those who may desire to investigate this question will find the subject fully discussed in the correspondence between King and Moyle. (Moyle's Works,
vol. ii. Lond. 1726.)
There is an excellent summary of the whole argument in Lardner's "Jewish and Heathen Testimonies" (chap. xv.), and many useful remarks are to be found in Milman's History of Christianity (chap. vii.), and in the Bishop of Lincoln's "Illustrations, &c. from Tertullian" (p. 105).
An attempt has been made recently to restore the credit of the supposed miracle, in the essay by Mr. Newman, prefixed to a portion of Fleury's " Ecclesiastical History," published at Oxford in 1842.
Whatever opinion we may form upon the subject of debate, we may feel certain of the fact, that the Romans were rescued from a very critical situation by a sudden storm, and gained an important victory over their opponents.
That they attributed their preservation to the direct interposition of heaven is proved by the testimonies of the ancient historians, and also by the sculptures of the Antonine column, where a figure supposed to represent Jupiter Pluvius is seen sending down streams of water from his arms and head, which the Roman soldiers below catch in the hollow of their shields.
This success, and the circumstances by which it was accompanied, seem to have struck terror into the surrounding nations, who now tendered submission or claimed protection.
But the fruits were in a great measure lost, for the emperor was prevented from following up the advantage gained, in consequence of the alarm caused by unexpected disturbances which had broken out in the East, and had quickly assumed a very formidable aspect. Faustina had long watched with anxiety the declining health of her husband, and anticipating his speedy death, was filled with alarm lest, from the youth and incapacity of her son Commodus, the empire might pass away into other hands.
She had, therefore, opened a correspondence with Avidius Cassius, who had gained great fame in the Parthian war commemorated above, who had subsequently suppressed a serious insurrection in Egypt, and had acted as supreme governor of the Eastern provinces after the departure of Lucius Verus. Her object was to persuade him to hold himself in readiness to aid her projects, and she offered him her hand and the throne as his rewards. While Cassius was meditating upon these proposals, he suddenly received intelligence that Marcus was dead, and forthwith, without waiting for a confirmation of the news, caused himself to be proclaimed his successor.
The falseness of the rumour soon became known, but deeming that his offence was beyond forgiveness, he determined to prosecute the enterprise; within a short period he made himself master of all Asia within Mount Taurus, and resolved to maintain his pretensions by force.
A report of these transactions was forthwith transmitted to Rome by M.Verus, the legate commanding in Cappadocia. Aurelius, who was still in Pannonia, summoned his son to his presence in all haste, and bestowed on him the manly gown, intending to set out instantly for the seat of war.
But in the midst of active preparations for a campaign Cassius was assassinated by two of his own officers, after having enjoyed a nominal sovereignty for three months and six days. His son soon after shared the same fate.
The conduct of Marcus throughout the whole of this rebellion can scarcely fail to excite the warmest admiration.
In the mournful address delivered to his soldiers, he bitterly deplores that he should be forced to engage in a contest so revolting to his feelings as civil strife. His chief dread was that Cassius, from shame or remorse, might put an end to his own life, or fall by the hand of some loyal subject--his fondest wish, that he might have an opportunity of granting a free pardon. Nor did this forgiving temper exhaust itself in words. When the head of the traitor was laid at his feet, he rejected with horror the bloody offering, and refused to admit the murderers to his presence. On repairing to the East, where his presence was thought necessary to restore tranquillity and order, he displayed the greatest lenity towards those provinces which had acknowledged the usurper, and towards those senators and persons of distinction who were proved to have favoured his designs. Not one individual suffered death; few were punished in any shape, except such as had been guilty of other crimes; and finally, to establish perfect confidence in all, he ordered the papers of Cassius to be destroyed without suffering them to be read. During this expedition, Faustina, who had accompanied her husband, died in a village among the defiles of Taurus.
According to some, her end was caused by an attack of gout; according to others, it was hastened by her own act, in order to escape the punishment which she feared would inevitably follow the discovery of her negotiations with Cassius. Her guilt in this matter is spoken of by Dion without any expression of doubt; is mentioned by Capitolinus as a report only, and positively denied by Vulcatius ; but the arguments employed by the latter are of no weight.
After visiting Egypt, the emperor set out for Italy, touched at Athens on his homeward journey, reached Brundusium towards the end of the year 176, and celebrated a triumph along with Commodus, now consul elect, on the 23rd of December. Scarcely was this ceremony concluded, when fresh tumults arose upon the Danube, where the presence of the emperor was once more required. Accordingly, after concluding somewhat earlier than he had intended the nuptials of Commodus and Crispina, he quitted Rome along with his son, in the month of August (177), and hastened to Germany. During the two following years his operations were attended with the most prosperous results. The Marcomanni, the Hermanduri, the Sarmatae, and the Quadi, were repeatedly routed, their confederacy was broken up, and everything seemed to promise that they would at length be effectually crushed.
But the shattered constitution of Marcus now sunk beneath the pressure of mental and bodily fatigue.
He died in Pannonia, either at Vindobona (Vienna) or at Sirmium, on the 17th of March, 180, in the 59th year of his age and the 20th of his reign.
A strong suspicion prevailed that his death had been accelerated by the machinations of his son, who was accused of having tampered with the physicians, and persuaded them to administer poison.
The leading feature in the character of M. Aurelius was his devotion to philosophy and literature. When only twelve years old he adopted the dress and practised the austerities of the Stoics, whose doctrines were imparted to him by the most celebrated teachers of the day--Diognotus, Apollonius, and Junius Rusticus.
He studied the principles of composition and oratory under Herodes Atticus and Cornelius Fronto, and by his close and unremitting application laid the foundation of the bad health by which he was so much oppressed in after life. While yet Caesar he was addressed by Justin Martyr (Apolog.
i. init.) as Verissimus
" the philosopher," an epithet by which he has been commonly distinguished from that period down to the present day, although no such title was ever publicly or formally conferred. Even after his elevation to the purple, he felt neither reluctance nor shame in resorting to the school of Sextus of Chaeroneia, the descendant of Plutarch, and in listening to the extemporaneous declamations of Hermogenes. From his earliest youth he lived upon terms of the most affectionate familiarity with his instructors, as we may gather from his correspondence with Fronto [FRONTO]; the most worthy were, through his influence, promoted to the highest dignities; after their death he placed their images in the chapel of his lares, and was wont to strew flowers and offer sacrifices on their graves. Nor was his liberality confined to his own preceptors, for learned men in every quarter of the world enjoyed substantial proofs of his bounty. Philosophy was the great object of his zeal, but the other branches of a polite education were by no means neglected; music, poetry, and painting, were cultivated in turn, and the severer sciences of mathematics and law engaged no small portion of his attention.
In jurisprudence especially, he laboured throughout life with great activity, and his Constitutions are believed to have filled many volumes.
These are now all lost, but they are constantly quoted with great respect by later writers. (See Westenberg, Dissertationes ad Constitutiones M. Aurelii Imperatoris,
Lug. Bat. 1736.)
With the exception of a few letters contained in the recently discovered remains of Fronto, the only production of Marcus which has been preserved is a volume composed in Greek, and entitled Μάρκου Ἀντωνίνου τοῦ αὐτυκράτορος τῶν εἰς ἑαυτὸν βιβλία ιβ́
It is a sort of common-place book, in which were registered from time to time the thoughts and feelings of the author upon moral and religious topics, together with striking maxims extracted from the works of those who had been most eminent for wisdom and virtue.
There is no attempt at order or arrangement, but the contents are valuable, in so far as they illustrate the system of self-examination enjoined by the discipline of the Stoics, and present a genuine picture of the doubts and difficulties and struggles of a speculative and reflecting mind.
The education and pursuits of M. Aurelius exercised the happiest influence upon a temper and disposition naturally calm and benevolent.
He succeeded in acquiring the boasted composure and self-command of the disciples of the Porch, without imbibing the harshness which they were wont to exhibit.
He was firm without being obstinate; he steadfastly maintained his own principles without manifesting any overweening contempt for the opinions of those who differed from himself; his justice was tempered with gentleness and mercy; his gravity was devoid of gloom.
In public life, he sought to demonstrate practically the truth of the Platonic maxim, ever on his lips, that those states only could be truly happy which were governed by philosophers, or in which the kings and rulers were guided by the tenets of pure philosophy.
In general policy, both at home and abroad, he steadily followed in the path of his predecessor, whose counsels he had shared for more than twenty years.
The same praise, therefore, which belongs to the elder may fairly be imparted to the younger Antonine; and this is perhaps the most emphatic panegyric we could pronounce. No monarch was ever more widely or more deeply beloved.
The people believed, that he had been sent down by the gods, for a time, to bless mankind, and had now returned to the heaven from which he descended. So universal was this conviction among persons of every age and calling, that his apotheosis was not, as in other cases, viewed in the light of a mere empty form. Every one, whose means permitted, procured a statue of the emperor. More than a century after his decease, these images were to be found in many mansions among the household gods, and persons were wont to declare, that he had appeared to them in dreams and visions, and revealed events which afterwards came to pass.
The great, perhaps the only, indelible stain upon his memory is the severity with which he treated the Christians; and his conduct in this respect was the more remarkable, because it was not only completely at variance with his own general principles, but was also in direct opposition to the wise and liberal policy pursued by Hadrian and Pius.
The numerous apologies published during his reign would alone serve to point out that the church was surrounded by difficulties and dangers; but the charge of positive persecution is fully established by the martyrdom of Justin at Rome, of the venerable Polycarp, with many others, at Smyrna (167) in the early part of his reign, and by the horrible atrocities perpetrated at Vienne and Lyons several years afterwards. (177.)
It would be but a poor defence to allege, that these excesses were committed without the knowledge of a prince who on all other occasions watched with such care over the rights of his subjects in the most remote provinces.
But, in so far as the proceedings in Gaul are concerned, we have clear evidence that they received his direct sanction; for when the Roman governor applied for instructions, an answer was returned, that all who confessed themselves to be Christians should suffer death.
It is probable that his better feelings were in this instance overpowered by the violence of evil counsellors; for had he followed the dictates of his own nature, he would have been contented to moralise upon and lament over what he viewed as ignorant and obstinate adherence to a vain superstition. (See Med.
But this calm contempt by no means satisfied the active hate of the crowd of real and pretended Stoics, whom his patronage had attracted. Many of these were bigots of the worst class, and cherished sentiments of the most malignant animosity towards the professors of the new religion. Accustomed to regard all other sects with self-satisfied disdain, they could ill brook the freedom with which their follies and fallacies were now attacked and exposed; they regarded with jealous rage a code of morals and a spotless purity of life far superior to aught they had ever practised, or taught, or imagined; and least of all could they forgive the complete overthrow of their own exclusive pretensions to mental fortitude and calm endurance of bodily suffering.
Although no other serious charge has been preferred against M. Aurelius, for the rumour that he poisoned L. Verus never seems to have obtained or deserved the slightest credit, we may perhaps by a close scrutiny detect a few weaknesses.
The deep sorrow expressed upon the death of Faustina, and the eagerness with which he sought to heap honours on the memory of a wicked woman and a faithless wife, who rivalled Messalina in shameless and promiscuous profligacy, if sincere, betoken a degree of carelessness and blindness almost incredible; if feigned, a strange combination of apathy and dissimulation. Nor can we altogether forgive his want of discernment or of resolution in not discovering or restraining the evil propensities of his son, whose education he is said to have conducted with the most zealous care. Making every allowance for the innate depravity of the youth, we can scarcely conceive that if he had been trained with judicious firmness, and his evil passions combated and controlled before they became fully developed, he would ever have proved such a prodigy of heartless cruelty and brutal sensuality.
Our chief authorities for this period of history are the life of M. Aurelius by Capitolinus, a mass of ill-selected and badly arranged materials, and the 71st book of Dio Cassius, a collection of awkwardly patched fragments. Some facts may be extracted from the minor Roman historians, and from Aristeides (Orat.
ix.), Herodian, Joannes Antiochenus, and Zonaras.
The editio princeps of the Meditations was published by Xylander (Tigur. 1558, 8vo.)
, and republished with improvements by the same scholar ten years afterwards. (Basil. 1568, 8vo.) The next in order was superintended by Merick Casaubon (Lond. 1643, 8vo.)
, followed by the edition of Gataker (Cantab. 1652, 4to.)
, reprinted at London (1697) with additional notes from the French of And. Dacier, and his life of M. Aurelius translated into Latin by Stanhope.
This last edition must, upon the whole, be still considered as the most useful and ample.
A new recension of the text, accompanied by a commentary, was commenced by Schulz, at the beginning of the present century (Slesvic. 1802, 8vo.)
, but the work is still imperfect, one volume only having appeared.
There are numerous translations into most of the European languages. In English, the best, though indifferent, is that published at Glasgow in 1749 and 1764
; in French, that of Madame Dacier (Paris, 1691)
; in German, that of Schulz. (Sleswick, 1799.)
For further information with regard to the instructors of this emperor and his various literary compositions, see Fabric. Bibl. Graec.
vol. v. p. 500.