Known for his philosophical interests, Marcus Aurelius was one of the most respected emperors in Roman history. He was born into a wealthy and politically prominent family. Growing up, Marcus Aurelius was a dedicated student, learning Latin and Greek. But his greatest intellectual interest was Stoicism, a philosophy that emphasized fate, reason, and self-restraint. Discourses, written by a former slave and Stoic philosopher Epictetus, had a great deal of influence over Marcus Aurelius.

Early Life

His serious and hard-working nature was even noticed by Emperor Hadrian. After his earlier choice for a successor died, Hadrian adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (who would be known as Emperor Pius Antonius) to succeed him as an emperor. Hadrian also arranged for Antoninus to adopt Marcus Aurelius and the son of his earlier successor. Around the age of 17, Marcus Aurelius became the son of Antoninus. He worked alongside his adopted father while learning the ways of government and public affairs.

Entry into Politics

In 140, Marcus Aurelius became consul, or leader of the senate – a post he would hold two more times in his lifetime. As the years passed, he received more responsibilities and official powers, evolving into a strong source of support and counsel for Antoninus. Marcus Aurelius also continued his philosophical studies and developed an interest in law.

Along with his burgeoning career, Marcus Aurelius seemed to have a contented personal life. He married Faustina, the emperor’s daughter, in 145. Together they had many children, though some did not live for long. Best known are their daughter Lucilla and their son Commodus.

Becoming Emperor

After his adoptive father died in 161, Marcus Aurelius rose to power and was officially then known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. While some sources indicate that Antoninus selected him as his only successor, Marcus Aurelius insisted that his adopted brother served as his co-ruler. His brother was Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus (usually referred to as Verus). Unlike the peaceful and prosperous rule of Antoninus, the joint reign of the two brothers was marked by war and disease. In the 160s, they battled with the Parthian empire for control over lands in the East. Verus oversaw the war effort while Marcus Aurelius stayed in Rome. Much of their success in this conflict has been attributed to the generals working under Verus, especially Avidius Cassius. He was later made governor of Syria. Returning soldiers brought some type of disease back with them to Rome, which lingered for years and wiped out a portion ofthe population. As the Parthian War ended, the two rulers had to face another military conflict with German tribes in the late 160s. German tribes crossed the Danube River and attacked a Roman city. After raising the necessary funds and troops, Marcus Aurelius and Verus went off to fight the invaders. Verus died in 169 so Marcus Aurelius pushed on alone, attempting to drive away the Germans.

Challenges to His Authority

In 175, he faced another challenge, this time for his very position. After hearing a rumor about Marcus Aurelius being deathly ill, Avidius Cassius claimed the title of emperor for himself. This forced Marcus Aurelius to travel to the East to regain control. But he did not have to fight Cassius as he was murdered by his own soldiers. Instead Marcus Aurelius toured eastern provinces with his wife, re-establishing his authority. Unfortunately, Faustina died during this trip.

While once again battling the German tribes, Marcus Aurelius made his son Commodus his co-ruler in 177. Together they fought the northern enemies of the empire. Marcus Aurelius even hoped to extend the empire’s borders through this conflict, but Marcus Aurelius did not live long enough to see this vision to completion.Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180. His son Commodus became emperor and soon ended the northern military efforts. Marcus Aurelius, however, is not best remembered for the wars he waged, but for his contemplative nature and his rule driven by reason. A collection of his thoughts have been published in a work called The Meditations. Based on his Stoic beliefs, the work is filled with his notes on life.

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