Marcus Aurelius, the Last of the Five Great Emperors
The author of meditations was known as the philosopher king.
Marcus Aurelius was not only known for his philosophical interests and book Meditations, but he was also one of the most respected emperors in Roman History.
Aurelius studied philosophy all his life; in the first book of Meditations, he thanks the people he learned from, especially those who introduced him to stoicism.
He ruled the Roman Empire between 161 and 180 and is considered the last of the five good emperors when the Roman Empire had peace and stability.
Aurelius was born on 26th April 121 to a wealthy and politically connected family. His father died when he was just three years old, leaving the young man to be brought up by his mother and grandfather.
His grandfather had a significant influence on his education and it was here that he started to study the philosophy of stoicism. He was also said to be a good wrestler and boxer. He studied both Greek and Latin to enable him to read many philosophical texts.
Discourses written by former slave and stoic philosopher Epictetus significantly influenced him. Aurelius thanks Epictetus for introducing him to stoicism in Meditations.
The emperor at the time was Hadrian; when his adopted son, Lucius Ceionius and the prospective heir to Rome died, he was left to find another. He adopted Antonius Pius, Aurelius's uncle, on the condition that, in turn, he adopted both Aurelius and the son of his predecessor, Lucius Verus. Many state that Hadrian did this because he wanted Aurelius to rule Rome after him.
An Early Political Career
When Hadrian died, Pius took over as Emperor of Rome. The young Aurelius was then given prominent political positions alongside his adopted father. It was here that he learned the ways of government and public affairs.
In 145, Aurelius married the natural daughter of his adopted father, Faustina. The couple would be married for thirty years and have fourteen children, five of whom outlived their parents; a son and four daughters.
In 140, Aurelius was given the position of consul or leader of the senate, a position he held three times in his lifetime. As the years passed and the young man matured, he was given more responsibility and power.
In 161, Pius died; many thought Aurelius would take over as Emperor of Rome; instead, he chose to rule with his brother Verus.
The Many Battles of Marcus Aurelius
It is clear from history that Aurelius did not have an easy political career. In his first year as ruler, the Tiber burst its banks, causing widespread damage and poverty.
During the 160s, the Roman Empire battled with the Parthian Empire for control in the East; this was the first of many great battles.
When the soldiers returned from the war, they brought a plague home to Rome. The plague would linger for years and wipe out between five to ten million people. In 169, Verus died of the plague.
At the same time, Aurelius faced another military conflict against German tribes when they crossed the Danube River and attacked a Roman city.
There were also battles at home. In 175, after hearing that Aurelius was deathly ill, Avidius Cassius claimed the title of emperor for himself. As a result, Aurelius was forced to travel to the East to regain control of the empire. Although, there was no great battle with Cassius, as his own soldiers murdered him before Aurelius arrived.
Aurelius decided that instead, he would tour the eastern provinces with his wife to re-establish his authority, but tragedy struck when Faustina died during the trip.
Once again, Aurelius found himself battling German tribes in 177. During this time, he made his son Commodus his co-ruler and heir. It would be a decision that almost destroyed Rome when Commodus finally came to power.
Together father and son fought the northern enemies of the empire. Aurelius hoped to extend his borders further. Unfortunately, Aurelius would never see the end of this conflict as he died on 17th March 180 whilst in military quarters, the cause of his death thought to have been an infectious disease.
Meditations was never meant to be published as stoic literature; they were a fantastic man's thoughts and diary. It was initially titled 'To Himself." It, however, has become one of the most prominent pieces of literature from the ancient world and an essential text for stoics.
It is thought that he wrote Meditations during the years 170 to 180. Although he never intended it to be published, he did write it in Greek, essentially considered the language of the ancient philosophers. It was first published in 1558 and earned Aurelius the title of the Philosopher King.
His study of stoicism made him the emperor he was. Therefore, it is vital to appreciate Aurelius's position and power during his reign. He held one of the most powerful positions in the world and could have wanted for nothing.
Yet, he did not let the trappings of fame and riches infect him. Instead, he showed himself to be worthy not only of the role of emperor but the power that came with it. This was mainly due to his mastery of stoicism. All of this is documented in Meditations.
Under Marcus, the last of the 'Five Good Emperors,' the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue. - Historian Edward Gibbon
Stoicism provided a framework for Aurelius to deal with the stress of his leadership role as one of the most powerful empires in history.
Stoicism has also guided many other political figures, both past and present. The main text that is studied is Aurelius's journal.
Not everything written about Aurelius is positive, but it is clear that the good he did outweighs the bad. Some of the criticism levelled at him is his persecution of Christians, which he mentions briefly in Meditations, where he scorns them for their theatrics.
It is also difficult to fully know what happened during his reign as our knowledge of him has come from Meditations which are his words and letters he wrote to others. However, many would argue that Meditations is a unique example of classical literature.
Despite his reign of the Roman Empire, he is better known as a philosopher. Meditations gave him his place in history far more than his career as Emperor of Rome.