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Published On: Fri, Nov 10th, 2017

The Philosopher-King of Ancient Rome: Marcus Aurelius' Imperium

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Marcus Aurelius is famed for various accomplishments—his title as the last of the Five Good Emperors; his extensive study of and literary accomplishments in the field of Stoicism; and, last but not least, defeating numerous longstanding enemies of the Roman Empires: the Parthians, the Marcomanni and the Sarmatians, to name a few. Marcus Aurelius is, in fact, one of the few living examples of Plato’s infamous “philosopher king” ideology—that is, a successful leader defined by his intelligence, reliability and appreciation of his people and status. Yet Marcus Aurelius’ philosophical reign should also be remembered for its possible role in his one—albeit rather enormous—mistake: naming a legitimate son as heir to the Roman imperium.

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Musei Capitolini in Rome

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Musei Capitolini in Rome ( Public Domain )

End of the Adoptive Emperors

In some scholarly circles, this decision is not as catastrophic as it may seem. Marcus Aurelius not only named his son heir, but he was also the first emperor in almost one hundred years to actually have a legitimate son to pass imperium (the power of Emperor) on to. The Five Adoptive Emperors were “adopted” not merely because there was a fear of forming dynasties (though this contributed); it was also due to the fact that the emperors from the years 96-161 AD did not have legitimate sons. As noted in a previous article regarding the Roman Empire’s imperial timeline, Emperor Nerva received leadership in 96, but in his old age, he had no children and only lasted two years before his death. Trajan followed, also childless; Hadrian, though he had a wife, was a homosexual who did not spawn any sons with his wife. Antoninus Pius was adopted by Hadrian, and subsequently adopted both Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to serve as co-emperors after his own death in 161 AD. (It should be noted that Antoninus did have two sons by his wife; however, these boys both died before he took power in 138 AD.)

Thus Marcus Aurelius, while breaking a century old “tradition” was able to break this tradition because of his familial situation. Yet, what about the side of the coin where the Adoptive Emperors’ system was appreciated by the Senate, as dynasties were prevented? That is where one finds fault in Marcus’ reign. Unfortunately for the Roman people, Marcus Aurelius’ eldest son was Commodus who would go down in Rome’s legacy as one of the most mentally unstable leaders.

Statue of Emperor Commodus as Hercules ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Marcus’ Progressive System of Governance

Marcus himself ruled as co-emperor with Antoninus’ other chosen heir Lucius Verus until Verus’ death in 169 AD. Marcus was married to Antoninus’ daughter Faustina the Younger (after his first marriage was, of course, annulled by the emperor), when he was formally adopted as Antoninus’ heir. However, the two men butted heads over Marcus’ philosophical inclinations and Antoninus’ preference for, what some might call, an overly lavish court life. Though this author believes Marcus made an unforeseeable error in choosing his own son to inherit the Empire, Marcus’ philosophical education and independent studies certainly aided in this rule. He, like Emperor Hadrian, greatly admired Greek thought and rhetoric, and studied both in great depth. Most of his personal writings were recorded in Ancient Greek rather than Latin, in fact. His studiousness is likely one of the reasons he was—and still is—such a highly respected and beloved emperor.

That is not to say Marcus did not have his fair share of strife while in power and his rule was marked by almost continual war. Yet in spite of the various wars fought under his reign, Marcus’ stoic reputation was never combined with one of bloodshed or violence. Marcus took on the role of leader in every sense of the word—he was a man men wanted to follow in both political and military affairs. Interestingly, scholarship asserts that it was Marcus’ idea, not Antoninus’, that he and Lucius Verus should rule as equal co-emperors. According to WHO, Marcus would not accept imperium otherwise. Thus, Marcus became the Augustus and Verus, the Caesar. These titles for co-emperors would resurface in the breakup of the Empire in the third and fourth centuries.

Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome

Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome ( Public Domain )

Ancient literature regarding Marcus and Lucius’ early reign is littered with references of the co-emperors well-received differences from previous leaders. Famine in the city received personal responses from the emperors rather than their subordinates; literature could roast the emperors for comedic purposes without fear of punishment. (Previous emperors, Nero for instance, likely would have requested those writers’ heads.) Neither man was fond of the lavishness Antonius preferred, meanwhile both heaped praise and credit on the generals who fought on the front lines of the wars against Parthia. Though Verus did enjoy a triumph on his return from the East, the value of the generals does not appear to have been overlooked. The Roman people appreciated such modesty.

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