The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Life
The author of these Meditations, M. Aurelius Antoninus, was born in Rome on 26 April a.d. 121, and died at Sirmium (Mitrovitz) or Vindobona (Vienna) on the Danube frontier on 17 March a.d. 180, leaving to his son Commodus, who had become joint Emperor at the end of a.d. 176, the unachieved task of settling the war with the German and Sarmatian peoples along that frontier.
He closes the series of adoptive Emperors, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, under whom the Mediterranean world enjoyed a period of liberty and material comfort such as has been rarely the good fortune of mankind; 'if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian (a.d. 89) to the accession of Commodus'. For sufficient reasons Marcus made his young and inexperienced son his successor, and later writers fixed upon this step as the one blot upon his exalted memory.
Caesar Augustus, great-nephew of Julius Caesar, had established an autocracy, under forms of law, after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 b.c. and the subsequent overthrow of the children of Pompey. The succession continued in his family, his direct or indirect descendants, until the assassination of Nero in a.d. 69. The Flavian Dynasty, based on military command, succeeded under Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, and when the younger son's gloomy and savage tyranny closed with his assassination in a.d. 89, the writers of the day and public opinion hailed a new era of liberty and enlightenment, an era which lasted about ninety years, closing with the death of Marcus or at least with the end of the second century of our era.
One of the saddest themes in the Meditations is that of the extinction of famous families, and Marcus touches at least once upon a second topic, the inhumanity of the old Roman nobility, the Patricians so styled. He himself belonged to the new governing aristocracy, recruited largely from the middle class and from colonist stocks in Gaul and Spain and Africa, which came to the front under Vespasian's dynasty. His great-grandfather Verus came from a family originally settled in Baetica, a province of Spain. His grandfather, M. Annius Verus, created a patrician by Vespasian and Titus, was consul for the second time in a.d. 121, the year of his grandson's birth. He was Prefect of the City of Rome and afterwards consul for a third time. His father, M. Annius Verus, died young, after becoming praetor. His mother's grandfather, L. Catilius Severus, twice consul and probably Annius Verus' successor as Prefect of Rome, was removed from office by Hadrian at the end of his reign as a suspected candidate for the purple. From Pliny's letters we gather that he was of austere life and literary tastes, and from the Meditations that he took a generous interest in his young kinsman's education. Indeed, there is some evidence that Marcus was at first named after him (Annius) Catilius Severus. His mother, Domitia Lucilla, inherited a large fortune, in part derived from the famous advocate Gnaeus Domitius Afer, the master of the rhetoric teacher and advocate Quintilian. Her house, on the Mons Caelius, close to what is now the Church of St. John Lateran, was a centre of Greek culture, and it was no doubt her influence which inclined her son to Greek letters and philosophy at an early age. Like most cultivated Romans of that day she was familiar with the Greek language, and Tiberius Claudius Atticiis Herodes, the wealthy Athenian orator, stayed in her house in January a.d. 143, when he came to Rome to hold the consulship, and appears to have enjoyed her patronage in his early years.
Marcus was a boy when his father died, and was then adopted by his paternal grandfather, taking the name M. Annius Verus, by which he was known until he was adopted by Antoninus Pius. Looking back on his life, he divides it into the periods under his grandfather Verus, under his mother, and under Antoninus, and is thankful that he escaped the influence of the elder Verus' second wife. Returning to his mother's care, he underwent the ascetic discipline of Greek training, wrote literary essays, and enjoyed good masters at home, by the wise advice of his great-grandfather, Catilius Severus.
So born and so circumstanced, Marcus might naturally have expected to take a considerable, even a distinguished, part in Roman public life. Happily for his country, although perhaps unhappily for himself, he had, as a child of 6, taken the fancy of the childless Emperor Hadrian. The old man bestowed marked distinctions upon him, nicknaming him playfully Verissimus, 'most truthful'. When he came of age at 15, he was betrothed to Fabia, the daughter of L. Ceionius Commodus, Hadrian's adopted son and intended successor. These arrangements collapsed on the death of Lucius Aelius Caesar, as Commodus was now named, and Hadrian then adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of the elder Galeria Faustina, Marcus' paternal aunt. Antoninus was, in his turn, to adopt Marcus, then a youth of 17, and the young son of L. Aelius Caesar, afterwards the Emperor L. Aurelius Verus. This done, the earlier engagement to Fabia was broken off and Marcus betrothed to his first cousin, the daughter of Antoninus, the younger Faustina.
The day of his adoption was 25 February a.d. 138. Hadrian died on 10 July, and Marcus became Quaestor, the first step in office, on 5 December. In 139 he received the title Caesar, and was consul with the Emperor in a.d. 140. His biographer Capitolinus tells a story, which reminds one of Asser's tale of King Alfred, that when Marcus learned that he was to be thus adopted into the Aelian Aurelian family and to remove to the Tiberian palace on the Palatine, he left his mother's gardens on Mount Caelius with regret. Asked why he was sad, he discoursed upon 'the ills which a royal station brings in its train'.
To bear the golden yoke of sovereignty . . .
Would you enforce me to a world of cares?
In a.d. 145 he was married to Faustina, and, after the birth of a daughter (circa June a.d. 146), he received the Tribunician Power and the Proconsular Imperium (10 December a.d. 146), thus becoming, in all except title, joint Emperor. From now on, until his adoptive father's death, he was constantly at his side, learning the lessons of government. In the Meditations he has left two character studies of his admired pattern and predecessor.
Marcus was not yet 17 at his adoption, and Antoninus Pius wisely determined to leave him, at first, time to develop his character and powers by study. Thus he was able to devote seven years partly to social and state duties, but principally to determined application to the theory and practice of public speaking, and to the elements of Roman law. In this period his two masters were M. Cornelius Fronto, leader of the Roman bar, and L. Volusius Maecianus, a pupil himself of P. Salvius Julianus, the celebrated legal minister of Hadrian and codifier of the Praetorian edict. The fortunate discovery by Cardinal Mai of large fragments of Fronto's correspondence has given us a lively picture of this stage of Marcus' life. They present a full and happy life, a temper, serious indeed but relieved by delicate tact and humour, a character still immature and self-distrustful and overflowing with affection to his tutor, his mother Lucilla, his wife Faustina, and their children. Under the rather affected mannerisms which Marcus employed to please Fronto, the leader of a literary revolt from the style of the preceding century, we get a pleasant insight into the life led by the young Caesar in Rome, in his adoptive father's country seats at Lorium and Lanuvium, near the capital, and at the seaside resorts on the Bay of Naples and the Mediterranean coast. The manners of the imperial family resemble those which Pliny has so admirably depicted in his Letters, the same cultured urbanity, love of antiquities and the country-side, devotion to learning and literature, a return especially to the authors of the Republic. Ordered days and nights, simple habits, mild exercise varied by occasional hunting expeditions, a long round of social and political engagements, constant attendance in the Senate, anxious preparation by Marcus of the laboured speeches which he composed under Fronto's careful eye.
Towards the end of this period Marcus was drawn away from Fronto into the influence of Junius Rusticus, a public man whom Antoninus made Prefect of Rome. He was a follower of the Stoic philosophy and introduced his friend and pupil to the teaching of Epictetus. The breach which ensued between Rhetoric and Philosophy is plainly marked in the correspondence, and Fronto rallies his pupil on the subject. In the Meditations the name of Rusticus is introduced before that of Fronto, and it is noticeable that Marcus says nothing of the literary lessons he learnt from his old tutor, dwelling instead on the moral qualities which he had observed in Fronto, especially that natural affection which is preferred to the cold inhumanity of 'our so-called aristocrats'. From this time onwards Marcus clearly devoted himself to an unaffected, candid form of speaking which was the counterpart of the simple life which his Stoic teacher prescribed.
The reign of Antoninus Pius is almost a blank in history, the literary records being lost. There was little anxiety at home, little trouble abroad, nothing to suggest the tempests which were to break upon his successor. The good Emperor died at his country house at Lorium on 7 March a.d. 161, his last act, in the intervals of fever, being to order the statue of Fortuna to be carried to Marcus' room; the watchword he gave was Equanimity, a gentle hint to a successor, a nice allusion to the Stoic creed.
Marcus now took the name M. Aelius Aurelius Antoninus and, associating his brother Lucius as Emperor, gave him the title L. Aelius Aurelius Verus, the dynastic names with his own cognomen Verus. Probably he did this to prevent civil strife, but he was also looking to the East where the power of Parthia was threatening, and desired to send his colleague out with the prestige of emperor. There followed the Parthian and Armenian war, a.d. 161–6, in the course of which Marcus sent Lucilla, his eldest child, to be married to Lucius at Ephesus. The conduct of operations was in the hands of Avidius Cassius, who captured Ctesiphon and added a large province in the Euphrates and Tigris valleys to the Roman Empire. Lucius took the titles of Armeniacus, Parthicus Maximus, and Medicus, but had done little to deserve them, spending his time, so gossip said, in sensual pleasures in the famous city of Antioch on the Orontes. The returning legions brought back to Italy and the neighbouring lands a dreadful bubonic plague, which lasted many decades and to which some modern writers have ascribed the decline of the population of the Empire, leaving it a prey to the attack of the barbarians from the north.
Marcus meanwhile had been occupied at home with measures for the well-being of Rome and the Provinces, but now he was called to take the field against the Germans, who had broken through the frontier defences, crossed the Brenner Pass, and were actually investing Aquileia, in the neighbourhood of Trieste. The threat of 300 years earlier, when Marius broke the inroads of the Cimbri and Teutones, seemed again to menace the valley of the Po, perhaps Rome itself. What followed is obscure; there was serious fighting and the enemy were driven back by the two Emperors in a.d. 166, so that the immediate danger was relieved. In 168–9 there was another expedition which was hindered by a fresh outbreak of plague, and in January of the latter year L. Aurelius Verus died of apoplexy at Altinum, as the two Emperors were returning towards Rome from the area of pestilence. Marcus now ruled alone, until in a.d. 177 he raised his son Commodus to the position of joint Emperor, which Lucius had enjoyed.
The remainder of the reign was mostly spent in northern warfare, at first against the tribes in Bohemia, later farther east on the edge of the Roumanian salient. The war falls into two periods, a.d. 169–75 and a.d. 177–80. The first period was closed by the revolt of Avidius Cassius, the successful general of the Parthian war. Marcus had given him large powers to control the Eastern Provinces as governor of Syria. In April a.d. 175 he declared himself Emperor at Antioch. Marcus at once made a necessary armistice with the tribes beyond the Danube, moving a large body of troops under chosen leaders to crush the pretender. He showed his determination to hold his position by causing his son Commodus to come of age on 19 May a.d. 175. In July Cassius was assassinated and his 'brief dream of supremacy closed after three months and six days'. Marcus treated the conspirator's family and the principal rebels with leniency, but his actions show that the later accounts of his willingness to abdicate are mere inventions. Equally absurd is the fiction that Faustina herself was implicated with Cassius.
Marcus now first visited the East. He made a progress with the Empress, visiting Antioch and Alexandria and travelling, apparently, as far as Tarsus. On the return journey Faustina died at Halala in a.d. 176, at the foot of the Taurus range. Marcus raised the village to the status of a colony, Faustinopolis, allowed her memory to be consecrated, with the titles of Diva and Pia, raised a temple in her honour and instituted a kind of orphanage, Puellae Faustinianae, to her memory. Thus, if he was aware of them, he replied to the calumnies which had desecrated her fame. In his Meditations he speaks of her briefly: 'I owe it to the gods that my wife is what she is, so obedient, so naturally loving, so simple in her tastes.' In September 176 Marcus was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries, and during his visit to Athens instituted new philosophic chairs in the University and received Athenagoras' Apology for Christianity. On December 23 he triumphed with his son Commodus, now joint Emperor, at Rome.
The war in the north breaking out again, the two Emperors went to the frontier, probably making headquarters at Sirmium (Mitrovitz on the Save). Here, after a successful campaign, Marcus Aurelius died, possibly of the plague, but more probably of exhaustion. His son succeeded to the throne without opposition. Mommsen summarizes the result of the long series of battles with the Germans and Sarmatians as follows: 'After fourteen years of almost ceaseless warfare, he who was a warrior in spite of his will had reached the goal; the Romans were a second time faced with the acquisition of the upper waters of the river Elbe; now all that remained to do was the proclamation of the wish to retain what he had won. Thereupon he died . . . not yet 60 years old, in the camp on March 17, a.d. 180. We must recognize not merely the ruler's resolution and tenacity, we must further admit that he did what right policy enjoined . . . the war secured the supremacy of Rome in these regions for the future, in spite of the fact that Commodus let slip the prize of victory. It was not by the tribes that had fought in this war that the blow was dealt to which the Roman world-power succumbed.'
Of the domestic government of Marcus Aurelius Bury says: 'That which above all things links together the reigns of Antoninus and Marcus . . . is the policy in legislation and administration of justice common to both. To come to the aid of the weaker, to protect the condition of wards were the objects of Marcus, as of his predecessor. . . . The emperor was himself untiring in hearing cases and his sentences were marked by leniency. Like Antoninus, he was anxious to defend the provinces against the oppression of procurators [i.e. the financial agents of the Treasury] and to come to the assistance of communities in the case of public disasters.'
Marcus has sometimes been censured for permitting the growth of centralization and bureaucratic control, instituted by Trajan and Hadrian, and for unwise and reckless abuse of public finances. These mistakes, which ultimately led to the deplorable state of affairs in the later Empire, have been put down, too hastily, to his mild nature and philosophic temper; they should rather be viewed as the outcome of causes beyond one man's control, however enlightened his view. Such causes led to similar results in the administration of France under Louis XIV and his ministers. Further, the criticism of his financial measures must be judged by remembering the insuperable effects upon the imperial treasury of nearly fourteen years of a great war, added to its other burdens.
For his character as a ruler and as an individual little, if anything, can be added to Gibbons's portrait, which is the more impressive as drawn by one who not only depicted history upon a large and just scale but whose judgement is never, or rarely, biased by sentiment. 'His Meditations', he writes, 'composed in the tumult of a camp are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons on philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of a sage or the dignity of an emperor. But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfection of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. . . . War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution. His memory was revered by a grateful posterity, and above a century after his death many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus among those of their household gods.' Similarly Montesquieu has said: 'Search through all nature and you will not find greater objects than the two Antonines.'
Two further questions deserve a brief notice—the presumed weakness of husband, brother, and father to Faustina, his colleague Lucius and his son Commodus, and what is sometimes called his persecution of the Christian Churches. Immediately upon his accession he made Lucius joint Emperor and betrothed his daughter Lucilla to him. Lucius was son of L. Aelius Caesar, originally nominated to succeed Hadrian, a man who inherited his father's handsome presence and promise of intellectual gifts, which we may presume belonged to the chosen favourite of the experienced Hadrian. Marcus had as Caesar taken a large share in government and his health was precarious. Probably, almost certainly, he foresaw civil strife if he ignored a man who had a kind of claim upon the throne and had besides attributes which appeal at least to vulgar admiration. From the references in the Meditations to Lucius as well as from the correspondence of Fronto we can detect that Lucius at this date had a warm, if superficial, temper. In his defence we must also recognize, as Marcus did, that he was loyal to his older colleague. Marcus solved the problem by adopting a policy, familiar in later centuries, of instituting two Emperors. The experiment was not a striking success, but neither was it a complete failure. Lucius proved indolent, vain, and luxurious, but not wholly unworthy of his position. In the case of Commodus Marcus followed the same course. He made him Caesar, and designated him as successor, raising him at the time of the revolt of Avidius to be joint Emperor. He left him to the guidance of experienced men, but Commodus turned out to be unworthy of his office. The judgement of posterity is expressed by Ausonius:
'Hoc solo patriae, quod genuit, nocuit.'
There is no good evidence that Commodus had, when his father died, betrayed an evil promise; he was young and foolish, spoilt like Nero by irresponsibility; even so the wisest of kings was the father of Rehoboam. The ill fame of Faustina is notorious, and nothing will now overcome what was so long believed about her. She has become a byword. Yet the evidence against her is late and suspect, and when it has been weighed, as by Boissier, Merivale, and others, the verdict has been at worst a not-proven. I should prefer to credit the happy picture in Fronto's letters, the saying of her father 'I had rather live with Faustina in Gyara than without her in Rome', and the express words of her truth-loving husband. The next best evidence is Julian. In his pasquinade, the aturnia, where he does not spare his predecessors, all he says is that Marcus was wrong to deify a woman; he says nothing against her good reputation.
The question of the Christians cannot be settled in a few words. What appears certain is that there was no such thing as a general persecution, although there can be no reasonable doubt that the Christian communities at Lyon and Vienne, in Gaul, suffered by an outbreak of fanaticism, that the governor referred the matter to Marcus, and that he replied that the law must take its course. The reply was inevitable in view of the nature of the Roman government, as well as of the general social attitude to misunderstood religious disobedience. Nothing better has been said on the subject than by J. S. Mill in his Essay on Liberty: 'This man, a better Christian, in all but the dogmatic sense of the word, than almost any of the ostensibly Christian sovereigns who have since reigned, persecuted Christianity. Placed at the summit of all the previous attainments of humanity, with an open, unfettered intellect, and a character which led him of himself to embody in his moral writings the Christian ideal, he yet failed to see that Christianity was to be a good and not an evil to the world. . . . To my mind this is one of the most tragical facts in all history.' The only reference to the Christians in the Meditations illustrates the failure of a good and wise ruler to rise above ignorance and prejudice, and in no sense indicates the temper and purpose of a persecutor.
To his personal character his book bears incontrovertible witness, a witness confirmed by every act and deed recorded of him. Matthew Arnold has said: 'He is perhaps the most beautiful figure in history. He is one of those consoling and hope-inspiring marks, which stand for ever to remind our weak and easily discouraged race how high human goodness and perseverance have once been carried and may be carried again. The interest of mankind is peculiarly attracted by signal goodness in high places; for that testimony to the worth of goodness is the most striking which is borne by those to whom all the means of pleasure and self-indulgence lay open, by those who had at their command the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. Marcus Aurelius was the ruler of the grandest of empires; and he was one of the best of men.' He goes on to compare him with St. Louis of France and King Alfred of England. So the great historian of Greek philosophy, Edward Zeller, has written: 'We know how consistently Marcus Antoninus himself lived up to his precepts. From his life, as from his words, there comes to us a nobility of soul, a purity of mind, a conscientiousness, a loyalty to duty, a gentleness, piety and love of man, which in that century, and on the Roman imperial throne, we must admire two-fold.'
Renan speaks of the 'gospel which never grows old', revealed in the Meditations, and M. Aimé Puech has written recently of Marcus Aurelius: '' It is of this doctrine that the following pages endeavour to give a summary, by following his teaching, Book by Book, as he expounds it.
- 'Herein alone he harmed his country, that he had a son.
- See Renan, Examen de quelques faits relatifs à l'impératrice Faustine, femme de Marc Aurèle, C.R. Acad. Inscript, belles lettres, p. 203, Aug. 1867; Merivale, A History of the Romans under the Empire vii. p. 587 seq.