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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

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Roman Emperor, A.D. 161-180, born at Rome, 26 April, 121; died 17 March, 180.

His early life (121-161)

His father died while Marcus was yet a boy, and he was adopted by his grandfather, Annius Verus. In the first pages of his "Meditations" (I, i-xvii) he has left us an account, unique in antiquity, of his education by near relatives and by tutors of distinction; diligence, gratitude and hardiness seem to have been its chief characteristics. From his earliest years he enjoyed the friendship and patronage of the Emperor Hadrian, who bestowed on him the honour of the equestrian order when he was only six years old, made him a member of the Salian priesthood at eight, and compelled Antoninus Pius immediately after his own adoption to adopt as sons and heirs both the young Marcus and Ceionius Commodus, known later as the Emperor Lucius Verus. In honour of his adopted father he changed his name from M. Julius Aurelius Verus to M. Aurelius Antoninus. By the will of Hadrian he espoused Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus Pius. He was raised to the consularship in 140, and in 147 received the "tribunician power".

His reign (161-180)

His co-reign with Lucius Verus (161-169)

In all the later years of the life of Antoninus Pius, Marcus was his constant companion and adviser. On the death of the former (7 March, 161) Marcus was immediately acknowledged as emperor by the Senate. Acting entirely on his own initiative he at once promoted his adopted brother Lucius Verus to the position of colleague, with equal rights as emperor.

With the accession of Marcus, the great Pax Romana that made the era of the Antonines the happiest in the annals of Rome, and perhaps of mankind, came to an end, and with his reign the glory of the old Rome vanished. Younger peoples, untainted by the vices of civilization, and knowing nothing of the inanition which comes from over-refinement and over-indulgence, were preparing to struggle for the lead in the direction of human destiny. Marcus was scarcely seated on the throne when the Picts commenced to threaten in Britain the recently erected Wall of Antoninus. The Chatti and Chauci attempted to cross the Rhine and the upper reaches of the Danube. These attacks were easily repelled.

Not so with the outbreak in the Orient, which commenced in 161 and did not cease until 166. The destruction of an entire legion (XXII Deiotariana) at Elegeia aroused the emperors to the gravity of the situation. Lucius Verus took the command of the troops in 162 and, through the valor and skill of his lieutenants in a war known officially as the Bellum Armeniacum el Parthicum, waged over the wide area of Syria, Cappadocia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Media, was able to celebrate a glorious triumph in 166. For a people so long accustomed to peace as the Romans were, this war was wellnigh fatal. It taxed all their resources, and the withdrawal of the legions from the Danubian frontier gave an opportunity to the Teutonic tribes to penetrate into the rich and tempting territory. People with strange-sounding names — the Marcomanni, Varistae, Hermanduri, Quadis, Suevi, Jazyges, Vandals — collected along the Danube, crossed the frontiers, and became the advance-guard of the great migration known as the "Wandering of the Nations", which four centuries later culminated in the overthrow of the Western Empire. The war against these invaders commenced in 167, and in a short time had assumed such threatening proportions as to demand the presence of both emperors at the front.

After the death of Lucius Verus (169-180)

Lucius Verus died in 169, and Marcus was left to carry on the war alone. His difficulties were immeasurably increased by the devastation wrought by the plague carried westward by the returning legions of Verus, by famine and earthquakes, and by inundations which destroyed the vast granaries of Rome and their contents. In the panic and terror caused by these events the people resorted to the extremes of superstition to win back the favour of the deities through whose anger it was believed these visitations were inflicted. Strange rites of expiation and sacrifice were resorted to, victims were slain by thousands, and the assistance of the gods of the Orient sought for as well as that of the gods of Rome.

The Thundering Legion incident (174)

During the war with the Quadi in 174 there took place the famous incident of the Thundering Legion (Legio Fulminatrix, Fulminea, Fulminata) which has been a cause of frequent controversy between Christian and non-Christian writers. The Roman army was surrounded by enemies with no chance of escape, when a storm burst. The rain poured down in refreshing showers on the Romans, while the enemy were scattered with lightning and hail. The parched and famishing Romans received the saving drops first on their faces and parched throats, and afterwards in their helmets and shields, to refresh their horses. Marcus obtained a glorious victory as a result of this extraordinary event, and his enemies were hopelessly overthrown.

That such an event did really happen is attested both by pagan and Christian writers. The former attribute the occurrence either to magic (Dion Cassius, LXXI, 8-10) or to the prayers of the emperor (Capitolinus, "Vita Marci", XXIV; Themistius, "Orat. XV ad Theod"; Claudian, "De Sext. Cons. Hon.", V, 340 sqq.; "Sibyl. Orac.", ed. Alezandre, XII, 196 sqq. Cf. Bellori, "La Colonne Antonine", and Eckhel, "Doctrina Nummorum", III, 64). The Christian writers attributed the fact to the prayers of the Christians who were in the army (Claudius Apollinaris in Eusebius, Church History V.5; Tertullian, "Apol.", v; ad Seap. c. iv), and soon there grew up a legend to the effect that in consequence of this miracle the emperor put a stop to the persecution of the Christians (cf. Euseb. and Tert. opp cit.). It must be conceded that the testimony of Claudius Apollinaris (see Smith and Wace, "Dict. of Christ. Biogr.", I, 132-133) is the most valuable of all that we possess, as he wrote within a few years of the event, and that all credit must be given to the prayers of the Christians, though it does not necessarily follow that we should accept the elaborate detail of the story as given by Tertullian and later writers [Allard, op. cit. infra, pp. 377, 378; Renan, "Marc-Aurèle" (6th ed., Pari, 1891), XVII, pp. 273-278; P. de Smedt, "Principes de la critique hist." (1883) p. 133].

His death (180)

The last years of the reign of Marcus were saddened by the appearance of a usurper, Avidius Cassius, in the Orient, and by the consciousness that the empire was to fall into unworthy hands when his son Commodus should come to the throne. Marcus died at Vindobona or Sirmium in Pannonia. The chief authorities for his life are Julius Capitolinus, "Vita Marci Antonini Philosophi" (SS. Hist. Aug. IV); Dion Cassius, "Epitome of Xiphilinos"; Herodian; Fronto, "Epistolae" and Aulus Gellius "Noctes Atticae".


General assessment

Marcus Aurelius was one of the best men of heathen antiquity. Apropos of the Antonines the judicious Montesquieu says that, if we set aside for a moment the contemplation of the Christian verities, we can not read the life of this emperor without a softening feeling of emotion. Niebuhr calls him the noblest character of his time, and M. Martha, the historian of the Roman moralists, says that in Marcus Aurelius "the philosophy of Heathendom grows less proud, draws nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the Unknown God." On the other hand, the warm eulogies which many writers have heaped on Marcus Aurelius as a ruler and as a man seem excessive and overdrawn. It is true that the most marked trait in his character was his devotion to philosophy and letters, but it was a curse to mankind that "he was a Stoic first and then a ruler". His dilettanteism rendered him utterly unfitted for the practical affairs of a large empire in a time of stress. He was more concerned with realizing in his own life (to say the truth, a stainless one) the Stoic ideal of perfection, than he was with the pressing duties of his office.

Philosophy became a disease in his mind and cut him off from the truths of practical life. He was steeped in the grossest superstition; he surrounded himself with charlatans and magicians, and took with seriousness even the knavery of Alexander of Abonoteichos. The highest offices in the empire were sometimes conferred on his philosophic teachers, whose lectures he attended even after he became emperor. In the midst of the Parthian war he found time to keep a kind of private diary, his famous "Meditations", or twelve short books of detached thoughts and sentences in which he gave over to posterity the results of a rigorous self-examination. With the exception of a few letters discovered among the works of Fronto (M. Corn. Frontonis Reliquiae, Berlin, 1816) this history of his inner life is the only work which we have from his pen. The style is utterly without merit and distinction, apparently a matter of pride for he tells us he had learned to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing. Though a Stoic deeply rooted in the principles developed by Seneca and Epictetus, Aurelius cannot be said to have any consistent system of philosophy. It might be said, perhaps, in justice to this "seeker after righteousness", that his faults were the faults of his philosophy rooted in the principle that human nature naturally inclined towards evil and needed to be constantly kept in check. Only once does he refer to Christianity (Medit., XI, iii), a spiritual regenerative force that was visibly increasing its activity, and then only to brand the Christians with the reproach of obstinacy (parataxis), the highest social crime in the eyes of Roman authority. He seems also (ibid.) to look on Christian martyrdom as devoid of the serenity and calm that should accompany the death of the wise man. For the possible relations of the emperor with Christian bishops see ABERCIUS OF HIEROPOLIS, and MELITO OF SARDES.

His dealings with the Christians

In his dealings with the Christians Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians was that outlined in Trajan's rescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcoming. [For the much-disputed rescript "Ad conventum Asiae" (Eusebius, Church History IV.13), see ANTONINUS PIUS]. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial rescript inaugurated an entirely new and much more violent era of persecution (Eusebius, Church History V.1.45). In Asia Minor and in Syria the blood of Christians flowed in torrents (Allard, op. cit. infra. pp. 375, 376, 388, 389). In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived. It seems more probable that the "new decrees" mentioned by Eusebius (Church History IV.21.5) were local ordinances of municipal authorities or provincial governors; as to the emperor, he maintained against the Christians the existing legislation, though it has been argued that the imperial edict (Digests XLVIII, xxix, 30) against those who terrify by superstition "the fickle minds of men" was directed against the Christian society. Duchesne says (Hist. Ancienne de l'Église, Paris, 1906 p. 210) that for such obscure sects the emperor would not condescend to interfere with the laws of the empire. It is clear, however, from the scattered references in contemporary writings (Celsus in Origen, Against Celsus VIII; Melito, in Eusebius, Church History IV.26; Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 1) that throughout the empire an active pursuit of the Christians was now undertaken. In order to encourage their numerous enemies, the ban was raised from the delatores, or "denouncers", and they were promised rewards for all cases of successful conviction. The impulse given by this legislation to an unrelenting pursuit of the followers of Christ rendered their condition so precarious that many changes in ecclesiastical organization and discipline date, at least in embryo, from this reign.

Another significant fact, pointing to the growing numbers and influence of the Christians, and the increasing distrust on the part of the imperial authorities and the cultured classes, is that an active literary propaganda, emanating from the imperial surrounding, was commenced at this period. The Cynic philosopher Crescens took part in a public disputation with St. Justin in Rome. Fronto, the precepter and bosom friend of Marcus Aurelius, denounced the followers of the new religion in a formal discourse (Min. Felix, "Octavius", cc. ix, xxxi) and the satirist Lucian of Samosata turned the shafts of his wit against them, as a party of ignorant fanatics. No better proof the tone of the period and of the widespread knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices which prevailed among the pagans is needed than the contemporary "True Word" of Celsus (see ORIGEN), a work in which were collected all the calumnies of pagan malice and all the arguments, set forth with the skill of the trained rhetorician, which the philosophy and experience of the pagan world could muster against the new creed. The earnestness and frequency with which the Christians replied to these assaults by the apologetic works (see ATHENAGORAS, MINUCIUS FELIX, THEOPHILUS OF ANTIOCH) addressed directly to the emperors themselves, or to the people at large, show how keenly alive they were to the dangers arising from these literary or academic foes.

From such and so many causes it is not surprising that Christian blood flowed freely in all parts of the empire. The excited populace saw in the misery and bloodshed of the period a proof that the gods were angered by the toleration accorded to the Christians, consequently, they threw on the latter all blame for the incredible public calamities. Whether it was famine or pestilence, drought or floods, the cry was the same (Tertullian, "Apologeticum", V, xli): Christianos ad leonem (Throw the Christians to the lion). The pages of the Apologists show how frequently the Christians were condemned and what penalties they had to endure, and these vague and general references are confirmed by some contemporary "Acta" of unquestionable authority, in which the harrowing scenes are described in all their gruesome details. Among them are the "Acta" of Justin and his companions who suffered at Rome (c. 165), of Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonica, who were put to death in Asia Minor, of the Scillitan Martyrs in Numidia, and the touching Letters of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne (Eusebius, Church History V.1-4) in which is contained the description of the tortures inflicted (177) on Blandina and her companions at Lyons. Incidentally, this document throws much light on the character and extent of the persecution of the Christians in Southern Gaul, and on the share of the emperor therein.

About this page

APA citation. Healy, P. (1907). Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Healy, Patrick. "Marcus Aurelius Antoninus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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