Marcus Aurelius: Remarkable Life, Legacy & Struggle Of The Creative Gladiator

Marcus Aurelius: Life and legacy of the last of the five good Roman Emperors

Marcus Aurelius, one of the most revered emperors in Roman history, was well-known for his intellectual pursuits. Born into a wealthy and politically famous family, he has a long history of success in both business and politics.

Marcus Aurelius studied Latin and Greek as a young man. The philosophy of Stoicism, which focuses on fate, reason, and restraint, was his most cherished intellectual pursuit. Epictetus, a former slave and Stoic philosopher had a profound impact on Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy.

More importantly, he put the needs of the people ahead of his personal wants or fantasies of glory, demonstrating the philosophy he preached in his public and private life. It’s an irony of history that his reign is marked by constant fighting and persecution of the fledgling Christian religious movement. In spite of this, he was able to carry out effective military operations in Germania and skilfully govern the affairs of the Empire. Following an illness in 180 CE, he died and was immediately elevated to sainthood.

When it comes to modern-day audiences, he’s arguably best remembered as the father of Commodus, whose choice to give up the throne to his son serves as the film Gladiator’s starting point. Accurately portraying the events of Commodus’s reign as depicted in the film would be an understatement. Commodus did not kill Aurelius as depicted in the film but rather co-ruled with his father from 177-180 CE and succeeded him without opposition, though his reputation was further damaged by comparison with his father.

The early life of Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius was born Marcus Annius Verus, and he was the son of a Roman noble family. Emperor Hadrian (117-138), Marcus’ adoptive grandfather, was the first step in his rise to power in Rome. Verissimus, or “The Truthful One,” was the moniker given to Marcus by Hadrian, who envisioned him becoming Emperor one day.

Hadrian adopted Lucius Aelius Caesar as his heir apparent as part of his succession planning. Hadrian was forced to look for a new successor to Aelius a year later when he unexpectedly died. Lucius Verus, the first Roman co-emperor, was the son of Aelius.

Antoninus Pius, a 51-year-old revered senator and Marcus’ uncle was chosen as Hadrian’s heir apparent. Moreover, Roman emperors’ average life span was 53 years, so Hadrian didn’t anticipate Pius to rule for long. After Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were chosen as the next emperors by the puppeteer.

Marcus Aurelius was the second in line to the throne, so Hadrian had Marcus follow him carefully. The fact that Marcus married Pius’s daughter Faustina the Younger solidified his claim to the throne even further.

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After the death of Hadrian in 138, Pius became the next Emperor. To Hadrian’s surprise, Pius ruled for 23 years, despite his advanced age and the expectations of the Emperor. There was also a great deal of tranquility during his reign.

After the death of Pius, Marcus became the Emperor and established Lucius Verus as his adopted brother as co-emperor. It was for the first time in Roman history that the Empire was ruled by two emperors who shared authority.

Marcus was left in charge of the Empire after Lucius Verus died in 169, only eight years into their reign as co-emperors. Lucius’s admiration for Marcus and his realization that Marcus had more power, despite the fact that they were both emperors, made their equal reign work in part.

The son of Marcus Aurelius afterward followed his father carefully to master the art of empire-building. In 177, Aurelius elevated Commodus to the position of co-emperor, restoring Rome to a two-emperor system.

The life of Aurelius as the Emperor

When Antoninus Pius died in March of 161 CE, the Senate looked to Aurelius as the future Emperor. However, Aurelius denied the honor unless Lucius Verus was promoted as co-emperor with him, in keeping with Hadrian’s initial objectives. Upon receiving the go-ahead, Aurelius and Verus began their reign by implementing programs to aid the impoverished and rewarding the troops with increased pay and greater recognition. Their policies of currency devaluation helped the economy for a brief while, and as a result, the two emperors enjoyed enormous popularity among the populace.

Challenges to Marcus Aurelius’ authority

Marcus Aurelius was challenged in 175. Avidius Cassius assumed the Emperor’s throne after hearing a rumour that Marcus Aurelius was dying. In order to retake authority, Marcus Aurelius was required to travel to the East. Even if Cassius had to be killed by his own soldiers, he did not have to face him. With his wife, Marcus Aurelius went on a tour of the eastern provinces to re-establish his power. Faustina passed away tragically on her journey.

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Marcus Aurelius appointed his son Commodus as co-ruler in 177 while engaged in yet another battle with Germanic tribes. They joined forces to take on the Empire’s northern foes. The Empire’s frontiers could even be expanded under Marcus Aurelius, but he did not live to see his dream come true. Commodus, his son, became Emperor and quickly terminated the northern military effort. Even though he waged wars, Marcus Aurelius is best remembered for the contemplative quality of his rule and governance based on reason.

The Meditations is a book-length collection of his writings. His observations on life are sprinkled throughout the book, which he wrote down in accordance with his Stoic philosophy.

Difference between Lucius Versus and Marcus Aurelius

Verus had always been more frivolous and participated in extravagant parties and sent costly gifts to friends. However, Aurelius stuck to his Stoic values as an Emperor. It is recorded in the Historia Augusta that one such “especially notorious” party was held at which Verus distributed “gold, silver, gemmed bowls and much more.

The cost of this party has been estimated at six million sestertii [around $60 million]. According to legend, when Marcus learned about the event, he broke down in tears, lamenting the state of the world.

Roman provinces of Syria and Armenia were under the protection of Rome in late 161 CE when Vologases IV (r. 147-191 CE) invaded Armenia. The eastern campaigns were under the command of Verus, who had more military experience than Aurelius. Aurelius is also suspected of manipulating Verus into limiting his lavish celebrations. The Romans won the Parthian Wars in 166 CE after a long and bloody conflict.

The Romans had Aurelius in charge while Verus was gone on campaign, and he is said to have done so admirably. When it came to resolving disputes, he was well-versed in all of Rome’s social strata. He also dealt with all of the provinces’ demands and problems. During this time period (c.162-c.166 CE), he also prosecuted a nascent Christian sect that refused to acknowledge the state religion and so caused social unrest. In spite of the fact that these persecutions were eventually denounced, at the time, they would have been seen as essential to maintaining peace.

Married life of Marcus Aurelius

There appeared to be no longer a religious conflict between Rome and Parthia in 166 CE. Aurelius married Faustina in 145 CE, and they had several children over the course of the next decades. Even if some of these died young, Aurelius had every reason to believe that the gods were smiling down on him.

The invasion of the Marcomanni tribe of Germania

The Marcomanni tribe of Germania invaded Roman regions on the Danube in collaboration with the Persian Sarmatians as the Parthian war came to an end. Aurelius joined Verus in the field in 167 CE to repel these assaults and re-establish law and order in the city-states.

In the film Gladiator, the role of Maximus Decimus Meridius was loosely based on Marcus Nonius Macrinus (d. c. 171 CE), an experienced military leader and consul who had a strong association with Marcus Aurelius in his early career.

Life after the death of Lucius Versus

Upon Verus’s death in 169 CE, most likely as a result of the plague that his soldiers had brought back from the campaign, Aurelius became the sole ruler of Rome. He would spend most of the remainder of his reign in Germania, where he would pen his Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius’ attitude towards Christians

Roman officials in the first two centuries of the Christian era were the primary perpetrators of persecution against Christians. Emperors viewed Christianity as a matter for their subordinates to handle. During Marcus Aurelius’ reign, it appears that the number and severity of persecutions of Christians around the Empire rose. Historians disagree on whether or not the Emperor personally directed, promoted, or knew about these persecutions.

A letter from Marcus Aurelius to the Roman Senate (written before his reign) describes a battlefield incident in which Marcus believed Christian prayer had saved his army’s thirst, and afterward, “immediately we recognized the presence of God.” Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, includes this letter in his First Apology (written between AD 140 and 150).

Marcus asks the Senate to stop the persecution of Christians by Rome, which he believes is unjust. Martyr included three letters from Roman Emperors, two of which are regarded as spurious (including the Aurelius letter).

Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic philosophy

Since the period of Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, our understanding of Stoicism has evolved significantly. A Stoic’s hardness of character, a life of austerity, and an unnatural coldness toward family, power, reputation, fortune, and health marked them in the past.

To be a Stoic, Marcus Aurelius had to adhere to the principles of Stoicism (someone indifferent to pain and pleasure). Only after his death did he receive the title of “Stoic philosopher” to acknowledge his contributions to Stoicism.

Marcus was exposed to Stoicism at a young age and had been practicing it ever since. As Epictetus would have done, he tried to live his life as a philosopher and a Stoic in order to follow in his footsteps. He admitted that he struggled to achieve the right balance between his role as an emperor and his role as a philosopher. Meditations, according to some, was a personal notebook in which he tried to become a better Stoic philosopher via self-reflection and self-awareness.

The balance between desire and action is essential for true Stoics. Although they are unflappable in the face of life’s setbacks, their commitment to doing well for society remains unwavering.

In the face of “ungrateful, hostile, treacherous, malevolent” people, Marcus lived the Stoic philosophy, reminding himself to be a good man and never whining about his trials.

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According to Marcus Aurelius, humans were made by nature to cooperate with one another. Like feet and hands and eyelids and rows of upper and lower teeth, we were born for cooperation,” he wrote. Throughout Meditations, he refers to the wise man as one who is humble and honest and who has a deep love for his fellow man.

Marcus held that virtue was the sole real good in human existence, leading one to qualities such as justice, moderation, courage, and liberty, which are universally praised.

To live each day as if it were his last, he attempted to do everything he could to do so “without frenzy, apathy, pretence.”

Even though he ignored the teachings of the Stoic sages and masters, Marcus never lost sight of Nature or Wisdom. The intellectual underpinnings of Stoicism, physics, logic, and ethics were more important to him than diving into the practice of Stoicism itself.

He was aware that sin was the sole evil that should be avoided at all costs. Marcus had a hard time managing his rage, so he would frequently remind himself of the dangers and futility of acting on it.

Marcus was greatly influenced by the Stoic principle of perseverance in pursuit of social and political justice. Every day, he embraced the opportunity to help his fellow Romans while recognizing their flaws. He steadfastly sought out chances in the midst of difficulties. To put it another way, he was aware of his own mortality at all times.

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Any accomplishments made by Aurelius during his reign are little compared to the legacy he left behind in the form of Meditations. The Emperor kept this journal as a motivational tool to help him live his best life.

Rather than a philosophical dissertation, The Meditations are the reflections of a single individual on life and the battle to find inner peace in the midst of a world that continuously threatens it.

What Aurelius proposes is not an answer but a path of self-discipline in avoiding self-pity. Sickness/health, happiness/disappointment, and even death are all-natural phenomena according to the Stoic philosophy. Furthermore, it is only one’s interpretation of these events that can cause a person distress. Even if the logos, which governs all things, determines one’s fate, a human being still has the ability to choose how to respond to adversity.

In the view of Aurelius and the Stoics, the cosmos is good and only wants the best for humanity; it is up to each individual to choose whether or not to correctly interpret these intentions and thus find serenity.

However, Aurelius held fast to this view of a cosmos controlled by a natural and benevolent intellect that ran through all things connected them and then scattered them over time. Aurelius believed that nothing could be regarded as tragic in the natural world, so his philosophy did not include a concept of tragedy in his writings.

Legacy of Marcus Aurelius

Choosing his sole surviving son as his successor has long been considered a tragic paradox by many. However, two things must be kept in mind: the ancient sources show that emperors are good or bad depending on whether or not they satisfy the senatorial governing class, and Commodus’ rapid call off of the northern campaigns may well have been wiser than his father’s obsessive and costly expansionism.

Critics of Marcus’s role in Commodus’s rise to power often believe he was returning to a more primitive kind of “dynastic succession” that had been successful for a lengthy period of time. This has always been unworkable. As a result, Marcus had no other option but to name Commodus as his successor or to have him executed.

Marcus may have been a statesman, but he wasn’t truly a sage. According to history, he is an overestimated figure who presided over an empire that was already riddled with ruin. His self-abnegation and self-sacrifice stand out even under the harshest inspection. Moreover, he meticulously calculated the price; however, he refused to back down.


Marcus Aurelius: Life and legacy of the last of the five good Roman Emperors 2

The early life of Marcus Aurelius 2

The life of Marcus Aurelius as the Emperor 3

Challenges to Marcus Aurelius’ authority. 3

Difference between Lucius Versus and Marcus Aurelius 4

Married life of Marcus Aurelius 4

The invasion of the Marcomanni tribe of Germania. 4

Life after the death of Lucius Versus 5

Marcus Aurelius’ attitude towards Christians 5

Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic philosophy. 5

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius 6

Legacy of Marcus Aurelius 7

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