All good things must come to an end. And so did the Pax Romana, a 200-year-long period of time that represented the Roman Empire at its most glorious and most powerful. It started with the formation of the empire under Augustus and ended with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
Marcus Aurelius earned the sobriquet “The Philosopher King” because he personified the concept devised by Plato of a ruler who was a lover of wisdom and who applied the ideas he learned in his exercise of power. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic who believed that reason and virtue led to eudaimonia or blessedness.
Despite this, his reign as emperor was far from enlightened or peaceful. During his rule, Rome had to contend with two major wars, a rebellion, and a plague that ravaged his empire.
Early Years & Rise to Power
Marcus Aurelius was born on April 26, 121 AD, to Marcus Annius Verus III and Domitia Lucilla. His name at birth may have also been Marcus Annius Verus just like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather but, to avoid confusion, we’ll just call him Marcus Aurelius from the start. His family was wealthy and relatively influential. According to Cassius Dio, one of our main sources for the reign of Marcus Aurelius, his family was somehow related to Emperor Hadrian. Aurelius’s father was a politician who held the office of praetor, but he died young when Marcus was just a child. We’re not sure on the exact date, but it would have been around 124 AD while he was still in office.
Later, Marcus Aurelius wrote that, while he did not remember much of his father, from what little memory he had of him plus what other people have said, he characterized his father by “modesty and manliness,” traits that he sought to emulate. As far as his mother was concerned, Aurelius said that from her he learned “religious piety, generosity, not only refraining from wrongdoing but even from thoughts of it, simplicity in diet, and to be far removed from the ways of the rich.” After his father’s death, Marcus Aurelius and his sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, were adopted by their paternal grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus II, who had been made patrician during the reign of Vespasian.
His father had been a praetor and his grandfather served three times as consul so, naturally, it was expected for Marcus Aurelius to follow in their footsteps. In 127 AD, when he was just six years old, he was enrolled in the equestrian order by nomination of Emperor Hadrian himself. Other than that, we do not have much information about the early years of the future emperor, apart from the names of some of his teachers such as Diognetus and Alexander of Cotiaeum. Later on, he was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the man who introduced him to Stoicism, the philosophy that deeply influenced all aspects of his life.
The story of Marcus Aurelius’s rise to power is a bit convoluted, but I think we can get there. He was born during the reign of Hadrian, who had no children of his own. Therefore, when the emperor fell ill in 136 AD, he thought it would be a good idea to appoint an heir. He adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus who, as emperor-in-waiting, took the name Lucius Aelius. However, this turned out to be an ill-fated choice, as Aelius died at the start of 138 AD. Next up, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius as his heir, who became emperor later that same year after Hadrian died on July 10. As it happened, Antoninus was also Marcus Aurelius’s uncle as he married Faustina, his father’s sister.
Hadrian’s adoption of Antoninus came with a few conditions. In turn, Antoninus had to adopt the surviving son of his predecessor, a seven-year-old boy also named Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as well as his own nephew, Marcus Aurelius. All of a sudden, Aurelius was the eldest son of the emperor, which meant that he was next in line for the throne. Some historians have speculated that this had been Hadrian’s intention all along, although why the emperor granted so much favor to Aurelius, we’re not really sure. Anyway, Antoninus was now the new Roman Emperor and, to strengthen the bond with his newly adopted son, he also had Marcus Aurelius marry his natural-born daughter, Faustina the Younger. The two of them would go on to have 13 children together.
Unsurprisingly, Marcus Aurelius’s position as heir apparent brought with it a lot of new promotions. He was first made consul in 140. He also became the head of the equestrian order, he joined the colleges of priests, he took up residence in the imperial palace, and was made quaestor to learn about the paperwork and oration that were needed to rule Rome. The highest office he reached while Antoninus was still emperor was praetorian prefect.
At one point, he also changed his name to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar, but we will keep referring to him simply as Marcus Aurelius for simplicity’s sake. Meanwhile, his adopted brother took on the name Lucius Verus and followed a similar path, serving both as quaestor and consul. One notable difference between them was their physical prowess. Marcus Aurelius was “frail in body,” as Cassius Dio put it, while Verus was “a vigorous man of younger years” who was proficient in hunting and wrestling, but took pleasure in all athletic pursuits.
Around 160 AD, Antoninus fell ill. He died the following year at his ancestral home in Lorium, ending what was then the second-longest reign of the Roman Empire after that of Augustus. A few days later, he was deified at the request of his sons. In his book, Marcus Aurelius spoke very fondly of his adoptive father, saying that no other man had more influence on him as a youth.
“The king is dead, long live the king,” as the expression goes. Antoninus was gone and Rome needed an emperor. The Senate was ready to confirm Marcus Aurelius as the new sovereign, but something curious happened. Marcus Aurelius refused to take office unless his younger brother, Lucius Verus, was made co-emperor alongside him.
It was unusual, but the Senate accepted and March 8, 161 AD, marked the first time that the Roman Empire was ruled by two men. That being said, it was never in question who the true leader of Rome was. Besides the fact that Marcus Aurelius was the chosen heir, he was also the older sibling, he had experience helping Antoninus run the empire, and he was the only one with the title of Pontifex Maximus. Verus obeyed Marcus “as a lieutenant obeys a proconsul.”
You might think this is a setup for some kind of conspiracy, or betrayal, or even assassination down the line. That’s usually how these situations unfolded in ancient times, but we have here a rare exception. Despite their different personalities, the brothers stayed on good terms for the extent of their joint rule and never did one of them try to usurp the other.
The War in Parthia
You might think that the rule of a calm, practical, and amiable man would mark a time of peace for the Roman Empire, but that was not to be. In fact, almost for his entire 19-year reign, Marcus Aurelius was involved in one conflict or another.
First up was the Parthian Empire, a mighty Middle Eastern faction that had been around since the 3rd century BC. This was not the first time that these two powers clashed. It seemed that every time the Parthians wanted to expand to the west, they eventually ran into the dominion of Rome. This usually took the form of the Kingdom of Armenia, a land that acted as a buffer between the two empires who both wanted to install an Armenian king who served their best interests. The last time this happened was during the rule of Trajan who we already covered here on Biographics. If you need a quick refresher on him, why not check the video in the link below. That happened almost 50 years before Marcus Aurelius became emperor and, in the end, Armenia became a client state of Rome with its king firmly under Roman control.
It seems that every few decades, a new Parthian king gets the same idea – to remove Armenia from under Roman influence and place it under Parthian influence. In this case, it was King Vologases IV. In 161 AD, he marched into Armenia and deposed King Sohaemus, replacing him with his own son, Pacorus.
The Romans were clearly taken by surprise by this move and their initial reply was disastrous. There were two Roman provinces that bordered the Kingdom of Armenia: Cappadocia and Syria. Marcus Sedatius Severianus, the Governor of Cappadocia, decided to take matters into his own hands, even though he was not supposed to act without instructions from the emperor. Allegedly, an oracle convinced him that he would overpower the Parthians so he took a legion and marched into Armenia. He reached Elegeia where his entire army was surrounded and massacred. As for Severianus himself, he was either killed along with his soldiers or he committed suicide once he realized how badly he had been defeated. Seizing the upper hand, the Parthians then invaded Syria and bested the Romans there, as well.
The first wave of the war went decidedly in the Parthians’ favor and it didn’t look like things were going to get better for the Romans. They were led by two emperors who were completely inexperienced in military matters. They also had threats to deal with in other frontier provinces such as Britain and Germania Superior. Moreover, the defeat and subsequent retreat of the Roman forces in Syria created perfect conditions for a rebellion. Eventually, Marcus Aurelius decided that Lucius Verus should go in person to guide the war against Parthia.
If anyone was expecting Verus to be a great, inspiring commander, this was the moment that did away with that notion. As it turned out, Verus was the type of leader who preferred to pursue earthly delights and let others do the fighting for him. Allegedly, he spent most of the Parthian campaign at a resort in Antioch where he feasted and gambled daily, surrounded by his entourage. As it said in the Historia Augusta: “…while legions were being slaughtered, while Syria medidated revolt, and the East was being devastated, Verus was hunting in Apulia, travelling about through Athens and Corinth accompanied by orchestras and singers.” At this time, we should also point out that the veracity of the Historia Augusta is highly uncertain so don’t take anything from it as absolute truth. For his part, Cassius Dio confirmed that Verus made his headquarters in Antioch and didn’t personally take part in any battles, but made no mention of his party lifestyle.
Whatever the truth, fortunately for Rome, there were also a few capable generals who left with Verus and continued on their way to Parthia. Some of the more important ones were Martius Verus, Statius Priscus, and Avidius Cassius. Remember that last one as he will be important later.
Martius Verus attacked Armenia and conquered the capital of Artaxata. He then restored Sohaemus to the throne, the previous king who was subservient to Rome, and assumed the governorship of Cappadocia.
Historian Cassius Dio gives most of the credit for the eventual Roman victory to Avidius Cassius. After King Vologases retreated back to Parthia, he gave chase, and in 166 AD they sacked the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the latter being the Parthian capital. Afterwards, Avidius made his way to Syria where he eliminated any threat of a rebellion and was installed as the new governor of the province. Later, Marcus Aurelius would grant him control over all the Roman territories in Asia, a decision he would come to regret.
The Antonine Plague
Despite just winning a war, things soon went from bad to worse for the Roman Empire. The soldiers returning home did not come alone. They brought with them a mysterious illness that started one of the first known pandemics in history.
It became known as the Antonine Plague, also known as the Plague of Galen, named after the Greek physician who described the disease and its symptoms in his treatise Methodus Medendi. It caused fever, vomiting, swollen throat, diarrhea, thirstiness, and violent coughing fits that produced a foul odor and skin rashes all over the body. The illness lasted for about two weeks and the ones fortunate enough to survive it became immune from further infection.
The exact nature of the disease is still somewhat of a mystery. Smallpox and measles were generally regarded as the most likely culprits, both capable of ravaging a population that had no resistance to them whatsoever. In more recent times, the second candidate has fallen out of favor and both scholars and doctors believe smallpox was the true cause of the plague. They point to archaeological evidence that depict people infected with the illness displaying the pustules typically associated with smallpox.
While the Romans picked up the plague while campaigning in Parthia, the exact origins are shrouded in legend. There are multiple versions of the story, but they all seem to suggest that the disease was punishment from the gods because the Romans allegedly broke an oath they made not to pillage the city of Seleucia.
Trying to determine the impact of the pandemic with accuracy is impossible. Some say it wasn’t as bad as everyone thinks and that it demonstrated the resilience of Rome, while others believe it marked the beginning of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. At its height, it killed thousands of people a day as it spread throughout all the Roman territories. It lasted until 180 AD and some believe that the Plague of Cyprian which appeared 70 years later was, in fact, another outbreak of the same illness.
Lastly, the Antonine Plague may have claimed the life of Lucius Verus. While we don’t have details surrounding his demise, Verus fell ill in 169 AD and died on January 23, leaving Marcus Aurelius as the sole Emperor of Rome.
The Marcomannic Wars
The Antonine Plague was just one of the crises that Marcus Aurelius had to contend with following the end of the Parthian War. The other one was barbarian invasions by Germanic peoples along its northern frontier which was also known as Limes Germanicus.
Such border conflicts were relatively common for the Romans and represented an almost-constant threat to their outermost provinces. In fact, when the enemy was strong and determined enough, they represented a threat to Rome itself as just a few centuries later, the heart of the empire was sacked multiple times by invading Goths and Vandals.
The situation was not as dire this time around, but the Roman Empire was clearly at a disadvantage. It had just finished a war, meaning that its coffers were getting empty and its people were growing weary of conflict. Most of its northern border was poorly defended because the troops had been redirected to Parthia. And last, but certainly, by no means least, there was the plague to deal with.
It certainly seemed like an opportune time to attack, but scholars are still debating over the exact motive for the invasion. Some believe that the most obvious answer is true – the Germanic tribes simply sought to take advantage of the weakened state of the Roman Empire. Others speculate that it might have been overpopulation or another threat from the East which forced them to expand into the West.
The main belligerents (besides the Romans, of course) were the Germanic Marcomanni, hence the name Marcomannic Wars. They were joined by another Germanic tribe called the Quadi, and the Iazyges, who were actually a Sarmatian people originating in the steppes of Eurasia. They were assisted, at various points, by other tribes as the Marcomannic Wars were a major conflict that lasted for almost two decades and extended into the reign of Marcus Aurelius’s successor.
The leader of the opposing forces was Ballomar, King of the Marcomanni. Cassius Dio first mentions him for acting as mediator following some barbarian skirmishes into Roman territory. This happened in the years shortly before the outbreak of the war and involved other Germanic tribes such as the Longobards and the Ubii on one side and Marcus Jallius Bassus, then-governor of the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior, on the other. What exactly persuaded Ballomar to turn from conciliator to aggressor, we don’t know, but in 166 AD he united several tribes and crossed the Danube to lead incursions into Roman territory.
Because of the other problems in the empire, it wasn’t until 168 that Marcus Aurelius was ready to respond. The Roman army marched to Pannonia and set up a base at Aquileia. This time, both emperors were there to lead the troops. According to the Historia Augusta, many tribal leaders immediately started retreating or asking for pardons. For a while, it seemed like this conflict would fizzle out as soon as it started, but Marcus Aurelius was concerned that this was all a ploy to stall for time. He wanted to keep pursuing the enemy, but this was when Lucius Verus fell ill and died. The remaining emperor had to return to Rome to make preparations for his brother’s funeral.
Marcus Aurelius returned to the battlefield later that same year, accompanied by his general and son-in-law Claudius Pompeianus. A little side note here: Cassius Dio singled out Pompeianus as the military commander who distinguished himself the most during the Marcomannic Wars, alongside another lieutenant named Pertinax who would go on to become emperor during one of the most tumultuous periods in Roman history, but that’s a story for another time.
For now, we see the barbarian tribes gaining the upper hand in the war. The Iazyges invaded the provinces of Moesia and Dacia and killed the governor Claudius Fronto who served as general during the Parthian War. Other tribes went into Greece and destroyed one of the most important religious sites in the Roman Empire, the Temple of Eleusinian Mysteries.
But the Marcomanni were the most dangerous of all. They scored a decisive victory at Carnuntum in 170 AD where they faced off against an inexperienced Roman army and slain 20,000 soldiers. They kept pushing until they reached Italy itself, marking the first time in over 270 years that an enemy of Rome managed to penetrate into the heart of the empire.
Marcus Aurelius realized that the Marcomanni posed the greatest threat and considered them a priority when launching a counter-offensive. Legions from other frontiers were rerouted to fight Ballomar and this strategy proved successful. By the end of 171 AD, they had pushed the Marcomanni out of Roman territory and continued their pursuit across the Danube until the Marcomanni were defeated.
The other, smaller tribes began seeking audiences with Marcus Aurelius. Some of them surrendered, others offered alliances. The Quadi agreed to a peace treaty, but then broke it and went to war again. Aurelius defeated them once more and installed a pro-Roman king called Furtius, but the Quadi deposed him and renewed hostilities yet again. The two sides met in battle and the Quadi would have defeated the Romans if not for divine intervention, according to Cassius Dio, at least. He says that one of Marcus Aurelius’s retinue, an Egyptian magician called Arnuphis, prayed to Mercury and summoned a storm. While the Romans were reinvigorated by the pouring rain, the Quadi were struck by lightning and engulfed in flames.
Nothing as dramatic happened with the Iazyges. They simply surrendered and their King Zanticus agreed to the terms set by Marcus Aurelius.
The emperor’s triumphs are recorded on the Column of Marcus Aurelius still located in the Piazza Colonna in Rome. It was modeled on the triumphal column of Trajan who celebrated his victories over the Dacians. Also during his years in battle, Marcus Aurelius started writing down his personal philosophies which formed the basis for one of the most influential works on Stoicism. Even today, his book titled Meditations is still a popular seller, although the emperor never intended it to be published. Some argue that he wrote it for himself, others that it was for his sons.
Going back to the battle, this was only the First Marcomannic War. It was the biggest of them all, but it was followed by two more. It has been speculated that Marcus Aurelius had grander ambitions and might have wanted to eliminate the threat permanently during the first war and establish new Roman provinces. However, he had little choice but to accept quick victories and peace treaties. His attention was needed elsewhere as trouble was brewing in Syria.
A New Emperor Rises
Remember Avidius Cassius, the general from the Parthian War who was in charge of Syria and the surrounding provinces? Well, in 175 AD, he decided to rise against Marcus Aurelius and declare himself the new Emperor of Rome. While there is controversy surrounding his motives, he did it because word had reached him that Aurelius had died during the Marcomannic War. Even more controversially, historian Cassius Dio pointed the finger at Faustina, the emperor’s wife, as being the one who engineered this deception. Allegedly, she also believed that her husband would die in the war and feared that an outsider would kill her son to take the throne by force. Therefore, she preferred Cassius as emperor because he would not take such drastic measures. Anyway, Cassius eventually found out that Marcus Aurelius was still alive but, by then, it was too late to go back.
Well, actually, it might not have been if we’re going by Dio again. He portrayed Marcus Aurelius as one of the most gracious Roman emperors in history because he was not only willing to forgive the man who was once one of his strongest allies, but also said in a speech that if the soldiers, Senate, and people of Rome preferred Cassius over him, he would surrender his power without struggle.
Of course, this may have all simply been a way of rallying the troops to his side. After all, what Marcus Aurelius actually did was end the Marcomannic War as fast as possible and head to Asia with his army. Meanwhile, Cassius was raising his own force, but a battle between the two never took place. Just three months after the rebellion started, General Cassius was assassinated by his own men who were still loyal to the true emperor. His head was brought to Marcus Aurelius, but he allegedly refused to see it and ordered to have it buried. Whether or not Faustina was involved in the plot remains uncertain, but she also died that same year. Regardless of her intentions, her husband remained devoted to her and deified her and gave her a lavish funeral.
With the rebellion over, Marcus Aurelius was finally able to return to Rome where he had his son, Commodus, named co-emperor. Initially, he intended two of his sons to rule the empire as he did with Lucius Verus, but his other heir, Annius Verus, died when he was a boy.
Peace was brief as the emperor had to leave in 177 to fight in the Second Marcomannic War. He would never return to Rome again as he died on March 17, 180, at Vindobona, modern day Vienna. He was 58 years old and, although he was seemingly a man who cherished wisdom and eudaimonia, he was forced to spend almost his entire reign plunged into war and chaos.
He was followed by his son Commodus who was the antithesis of his father – cruel, vain, merciless, debauched, inept, and a complete megalomaniac. Never again would mighty Rome reach the same heights. As Cassius Dio put it, after the death of Marcus Aurelius, the empire descended “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”