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Mediterranean Chronology

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius



Marcus Aurelius Antoninus is regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Roman history; he is numbered among the "Five Good Emperors." Marcus ruled the vast empire from 161 to 180 AD. A highly intelligent man, he stands out as one of the greatest intellectual rulers in Western Civilization. Although a great military leader, Marcus was impressed with a firm desire for peace that manifested itself in his philosophical writings.

Marcus was born in Rome on April 26, 121 and raised in a wealthy and politically prominent family. He was noticed by the Emperor Hadrian while he was still a child and was consequently given special educational privileges. Marcus was enrolled in the Equestrians at the age of six and the next year he was given special permission to attend the priestly college of the Salii in Rome. It was here that Marcus was taught by the greatest thinkers of the day, representing a variety of cultures.

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Marcus continued to receive help from emperors, but later assistance would come in the form of his growth in political power. He was adopted by Antoninus Pius, the chosen successor of the throne and was given political positions under him. To further strengthen Marcus's appointment as the successor of Pius, Marcus married his daughter, Annia Galaria Faustina. Marcus would go on to play a major role in government under his father-in-law until Pius died.

Marcus was crowned emperor on March 7, 161 and so began a reign characterized by war, disaster, and intellectual thought. There were three great external conflicts which mark his reign, and Marcus dealt with all of them effectively. He won a victory for the empire in 163 against the Parthians when they had invaded Armenia, he coped with a great plague that swept the whole empire, and he successfully pushed barbarians off Roman soil in the Marcomannic Wars. Internal problems came in the form of financial weakness due to the extensive military campaigning being forced upon the empire and he dealt with these problems through extensive government reforms. Marcus was not free from crisis in his personal life either: his wife was notorious for sleeping around and his heir lacked all of the leadership skills for which Marcus was famous.

Marcus found the strength to deal with the many problems he faced through Stoic philosophy. These beliefs were expressed in his Meditations, where he exhibits the tensions he felt between his position as emperor and his prevailing feeling of inadequacy. The 12 books that make up the set are the most introspective of any ancient philosophical writing--so much so, that they may be called a diary. Marcus was consoled in his writings by the fact that life is short and that the spirit, which is the only thing valuable about a person, is refused into the universe at death.


Image of bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius taken from: Birley, Anthony, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1987), Figure 23.


Birley, Anthony, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1987).

Bunson, Matthew, Encyclopedia of The Roman Empire. 1st ed.; Vol. 1. (New York; Facts on File, 1994).

Grant, Michael, and Kitzinger, Rachel, Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome. 1st ed.; Vols. 1-3. (New York; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988)

Edited by: Rachel J. Parks
Researched by: Mark H. Duncan
Written by: Amanda K. McVety
October 13, 1997

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