BRUNO BAUER: Christ and the Caesars – VII. The Time of Marcus Aurelius



The Time of Marcus Aurelius.

We come to a conclusion and say farewell to the Caesars who ruled the world alongside the gradual rise of Christianity. They all contributed to the formation of the new faith and, in their individuality, depicted with expressive force a feature of the image in which the dissatisfied united the ideals of their hearts. Therefore, they stand out so prominently from the emperors of the following one and a half centuries.


Augustus was the prince of peace who healed the wounds of civil war and called on shattered spirits to work together. Tiberius announced himself as a servant of the community and recoiled in horror when someone wanted to kneel before him as lord. Caligula appeared in public as a god-man and world judge. Nero dedicated himself as a philanthropist to the service of humanity. Vespasian had his legions carry the oracle of the Jewish God, which had called him to be the world ruler, ahead of them when they conquered Jerusalem and took Rome. Nerva and his successors conquered the roughness of Romanism within themselves and set an example of gentleness and calmness. The last of these gentle ones, Marcus Aurelius, left to posterity, as it were, his “Meditations” (τα εις εαυτον), in which he conversed with himself about the salvation of his soul and his relationship to his fellow human beings and to divinity.


We begin the conclusion of our work with a sketch of this imperial testament, in which we will trace the refractions of the same sunlight that spreads throughout the Gospels and the New Testament letters. After describing once again, as we have done since the beginning of our work, the flashing of the same ideas and soul moods in both circles, the so-called pagan and the Christian, and the back-and-forth movements of these flashes from one circle to the other, we will explain the victory of the Christian spirit in the comprehensive achievement of the Gospels, which surpasses the fragmented attempts of the pagan side. This victory coincides with the national and political disappointments of the philosophical emperor and the announcement of the approaching death of Romanism.

1. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

The peculiarity of the imperial monologues lies in the disposition that makes stoic submission to the law of nature and obedience to the workings of fate a source of enjoyment of one’s own inner self. In this disposition, the contemplation of the harmony that divine reason reveals in the union of the physical elements into a world system and in the linking of individual causes to the primary cause of fate becomes a theoretical delight, and surrender to the beneficent ordinances of the highest (e.g., 5, 8) becomes a strengthening and enlargement of the self, which feels itself and its experiences as part of the world order.


The imperial teacher reminds us: do not consider any chance occurrence that befalls you as something new and surprising (7, 68); welcome it with the cry, “I was looking for you!” Assimilate it to yourself, make it familiar to you, and let it be material for social virtue. This is how God also does it.


The insightful person (3, 2) who can grasp everything that happens in the context of the whole will recognize its particular attractiveness in everything. He will take no less pleasure in the sight of the throats of wild animals than in their images in paintings and stone, and will find that elderly matrons and elders also have their gracefulness, just as the beauty of a boy does, and will look at everything with equally chaste eyes.

“Oh, you great world system,” cries the thoughtful philosopher (4, 24), who (4, 4) had called the world, in which we have a common law, citizens of one another and participate in a civic entity, our city. “Oh, world, everything that is good for you also serves me. What is convenient for you is neither too early nor too late for me. Oh, nature, everything your seasons bring is a timely fruit for me.” He writes in a drama, “Oh, dear city of Cecrops!” Should I not say to you instead: Oh, dear city of God? (Thus he lived in the City of God, which Plato placed in heaven and Augustine saw growing throughout history.)

“When will you, my soul,” he asks at another time (10, 1), “when will you be good, simple, unadulterated, and without makeup? When will you be more visible and easier to recognize than your body that envelops you? When will you taste the sweetness of human love? When will you be full of yourself and satisfied with your fullness? When will you be convinced that everything serves your good and comes from God? When – when – yes, my soul, when will you finally be so disposed that you lead such a community with gods and men that you live in peace with both?”

Let your regal nature within you, he answers elsewhere (4, 1), transform all chance events within itself, just as a strong fire seizes everything that falls within its range, transforms it within itself, and thereby becomes greater.


How poor and childish, however, is the politics and practice of people who want to philosophize about everything in this whirlwind of the world’s course. Man, do not hope to see Plato’s perfect republic. If there is only a beginning of good, be content with it and do not consider it insignificant. Who can change everyone’s opinions? And yet, without such a general change, nothing else can be expected but forced servitude with sighs and tears.

Live in peace with the world order (10, 22). The earth loves the rain; the chaste winds also love it; the world loves to bring about what is to happen. Therefore, I say to the world, “I love what you love.” Is it not also said (in the Greek phrase instead of “it tends to happen”) that it loves to happen that way?

Have patience with people (7, 70). The immortal gods do not mind that they have had to endure so many evils for so long, and what is more, they take care of them in every way. And you, who will soon no longer exist, tire of bearing the wicked, even though you yourself are one of their number?

In our presentation of Seneca’s teaching, in his elevation of the commandments to an ideal height, we have shown the basic type for the evangelical antithesis of the old commandments and the new legislation. The imperial philosopher expresses the same antithesis (3, 14) in the words, “People do not know what stealing, buying, resting, seeing, and the commandment in general mean. It is not the eye that matters, but another aspect.” He means that these things, the forbidden and the commanded, must be understood in the context of the entire world. Stealing is not only the act of the thief who can be brought before the court, but also of the one who denies participation with the whole and wants to withdraw something from its harmony.


He is a priest and servant of the Highest who (3, 4, 6) rightly associates with the divine residing in him like a temple and allows it to fight with desires. He himself is the temple of the divine, — the same view as that of Philo’s and the processing of this Alexandrian image in the first letter to the Corinthians (3, 16) and in the first letter of Peter (2, 5).


Furthermore, we have established the origin of the Pauline comparison of community members with the limbs of a body and the interpretation of the community as a harmoniously tuned organism from the Stoic doctrine of the purposeful organization of the world. Seneca was the intermediary through which this image entered the Church. While the same theme was varied in the so-called Pauline letters (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:6, 22), Marcus Aurelius returned to the original source. The Spirit of the All, he writes, likes to share with others. Therefore, he has ordered the imperfect things to serve the perfect and united the perfect in harmony among themselves. Look how he has subjected one thing to another according to its value and brought the virtuous into harmony with one another. We are (2, 1) created to work together like feet, hands, and eyelids: I am a member of one body (7, 13) consisting of spiritual (namely, Logos-inspired) beings. The Apostle, who sees the Lord of the Church in the Logos, expressed it this way: you are the body of Christ and members, each in its place.


Like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius has accompanied this view of the community of the spiritual realm with admonitions taken from his own kind-hearted nature and the treasure of Greek proverbial wisdom. If a person has done good, he writes, for example, he does not proclaim it to the people, but proceeds to another good work, like a vine that, having borne its fruit, prepares anew to produce such again. Of the many sayings in which he forbids hatred and anger towards those who want to persecute and harm someone as a denial of their common divine origin (e.g., 2, 1), we also include his reflections on the theme (10, 37), according to which “No one in this world is so happy that many should stand by his corpse rejoicing over what has befallen him.”


In the face of this trial, where one is given a eulogy: “Now we will finally have peace from this teacher; he may not have troubled any of us, but one could see that he internally condemned us,” he wants composure and kindness maintained: “Therefore, leave with no less goodwill towards them than you had before, as their friend, patron, with sympathy and gentle courage.”

He believes that he who strives for the one thing necessary and “prefers the holy work of the God dwelling within him to everything else, makes no tragic figure, does not sigh, and needs neither solitude nor society.” People seek solitude in the countryside, by the sea, in the mountains (4, 3). You also wish for such a retreat, an unintelligent desire. Is it not allowed for you to turn inward at every moment? No solitude is more peaceful and charming than that of one’s own soul. But I call peace the good order and harmony of the soul. Therefore, enter into this charming hermitage (avagápnō). Renew yourself there.


Platonic asceticism, Stoic doctrine, Heraclitus’ ascent of logos births to the upper blissful calm, and the Cynic’s contempt for the earthly offer him comfort in death. One day, even the earth will be transformed (9, 23); who then will not despise everything earthly and mortal? Death is (6, 28) the end of the war our senses wage against each other, it is the holiday of all troubles and the end of bodily service. In death, you will cease (3, 3) to serve this earthly vessel of your body, which had submitted your noblest part, the divine, residing within you. When I, having completed the course of nature, lay down to rest, I will surrender my spirit into the hands of the one from whom I received it (5, 4). Amid the darkness of this world and in the stream of matter and time and its motion, I see nothing deserving of my respect, but I console myself with the thought (5, 10) that my dissolution is approaching, though without impatience.


Similarly, starting from the same basic view, the Paul of the Letter to the Philippians (1:23-24) says: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”

The worldly apostle on the imperial throne lives by the conviction (3, 3) that fate does not strike anyone before their life has reached its ordained end, so that one could call him an actor who leaves the stage before playing out his role. This belief and the series of other convictions led him to resolve to depart with the same gentleness and contentment as the ripe olive, which, when it falls, praises the earth that bore it and thanks the tree that gave it birth.

The imperial models and types of the Christian perfecters all led lives full of torments and misfortunes. An eloquent exposition by the elder Pliny (Hist. Nat. 7, 46) gives a picture of the anxieties and oppressions with which the Divus Augustus acquired the role of peacemaker and the torments that overtook him at the peak of his power. The misery and pain that subsequent rulers had to struggle with have been attempted to be presented in the preceding sections. Marc Aurel was also unhappy; however, before we consider his behavior in these trials, we will add some remarks on the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity. They will complete our earlier discussions on this issue.


2. Christianity as the Enhancement of Hellenism.

The defenders of Christianity take pleasure in portraying the alleged gulf between the new Christian community and the old pagan society in their descriptions of the first two centuries of our era, and they paint it quite dark, deep, and wide. The theological horror pictures have also passed into the history books of secular scholars, and on both sides they agree that in that period antiquity had reached the limit of its horizon and would have had to succumb to stagnation if Christianity had not broadened the field of vision.

However, my previous explanations have shown that the principles of Christianity, the gain of dying, the wisdom of fleeing from the world, and the perfection in death (in addition to the image of the Logos as the Revealer of the Divine) were established by the philosophy of Greece and were brought to the perception of the followers as a single fact by Christianity. Instead of remaining in front of an allegedly old and new time gap with artificial amazement, one must rather acknowledge that Christianity, with its emergence from Greek philosophy, bears witness to the development potential of antiquity.

If, despite all this, the fact were to remain or even be further confirmed that antiquity itself had reached the limit of its horizon with Christianity, this would rather confirm the core of our entire work, that Christianity was only a modification and enhancement of the old.


By far better than the fearful modern apologists, Bossuet in his discourse on universal history has understood the position of Revelation in relation to pagan antiquity. He cannot praise enough “the thoroughness with which God laid the foundation for their conversion from the beginning among the Greeks.” The bishop of Meaux explains that a docile people, the Greeks were enthusiastic from the beginning of their history for the common good and for the idea that they, with their families, formed part of the greatest body, the state. First it was the kings who elevated the law to reign. As the cities felt capable of self-government, legislators arose everywhere who prevented freedom from turning into arbitrariness. The bishop of Louis XIV’s time calls the idea of freedom that brought about such discipline truly admirable because this freedom was subject to the law and recognized by the people as reason. The law brought the authorities to their official seats, surrounded them with fear during their public duties, and allowed the changing individuals to return to their private status at a specified time; the general rule always remained.


And then, Bossuet continues, it is hardly possible to grasp what philosophy did to maintain this state of affairs. Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, all except Plato and Aristotle, filled Greece with the injunction to sacrifice personal purposes, even life, for the common interests. Even the poets taught the people more than they amused them, and their works breathed dedication to the homeland and civic loyalty.

But here the French historian and preacher stumbles. He also reaches an abyss into which the dispute between Athens and Sparta plunged this strict regime, and could not yet grasp the thought that it was precisely philosophy that bridged the gap.

Plato himself, faced with the dissolution that both mutual dismemberment and the rise of an emancipated conviction brought dangerously close to the states, designed the image of an ideal state in which public education of minors and the priestly elevation of the ruling class bound individuals more than ever to the purpose of the whole. In the event of extreme need, the pontiff, that is, the philosophical bridge-builder, had referred faith upwards to the heavenly state.


An implementation of the Platonic ideal was not immediately possible; an attempt would have resulted in a limited and forced reaction of Hellenism. The need of the self for a gripping and captivating order could only become urgent when the political circles of antiquity were shattered and Rome led the scepter over the ruins.

While any purely national movement could only lead to a lifeless existence of the Greek essence, the propaganda of Alexander and his successors, and later the Roman conquest, carried the Platonic bridge to all parts of the world at that time. At the same time, the continuers of the Platonic and Socratic work looked on with indifferent calmness as their individual states fell apart and taught their students to turn away from politics and turn inward.

As the circles that cultivated this inner, world-averse life felt the need for a more solid union for their self-preservation and strengthening at the end of the first century of our era, there was only one viable and powerful point of crystallization in the vast Roman Empire to which they could attach themselves. That was the community that had preserved its independence with its own self-elected representation under the political ruins that Rome had welded together into its world empire. In these communities, those who had gathered at the feet of a teacher or in associations, such as in the ascetic union in Alexandria, in death benefit societies, or in the friendly cohesion of the freedmen, as described to us by Petronius, took root and organized themselves according to the model of the sanctuaries that had gained significance and vitality after the downfall of the individual states. They created their own community association within the old community, with representation through the election of elders, a leadership through presbyters, daily stimulation through communal meals, and growing support for the poor.


Just as the ancient Greek, during the peak of his strength, possessed the liveliest sense of freedom in opposition to a hostile world and his self-esteem was most stimulated in the struggle against the great king outside or in the defense of his civic autonomy against his kindred neighboring states, so the new community circles indulged in the enjoyment of their freedom from the entire old world. Their daily prayer that the kingdom of peace may come was the desire for the end of the world empire. They were free from the power that had swallowed up the nationalities and their states, free from the gods to whom the emperors sacrificed, and from the altar service which was dedicated to them throughout the empire. In their midst, humanity, as revealed by Greek wisdom and Seneca, was given prominence, and the self was released from the bonds of nature and all considerations under which rulers and servants sighed. The spirit of equality of the new movement gained special strength from the Jewish community members who, from their homes, did not know political dedication and were brought up in a kind of democratic equality.

However, just as the ancient Greeks, when they returned to their civic duty from their opposition to foreign or kin-related adversaries, submitted to the laws, gods, and rights of their city, the flip side of the freedom that inflamed the members of the new community circles was an even deeper submission to the law, the leaders, and to the ideal Lord of the same, who would one day judge and dissolve the world empire. The Platonic poem about the heavenly kingdom of God had been given a body by the Stoic conception of the world as a body permeated and animated by the divine, in whose compelling organism the individual is enclosed as a member and must submit.


Seneca had already celebrated this victory of Greek thought and given it a guarantor in its ideal form as a fulfiller of humanity. Marcus Aurelius processed the triumph of Plato and the Stoics in his own way and transformed it into the gentle bliss with which he fulfills his assigned place in the world order. Finally, the contemporaries of the authors of the most significant Pauline letters transformed the Stoic world body, in which one member is lined up after the other and each performs its predetermined work, into the body of the Lord, in which the believers do their community work as members. Here, the discipline is raised to the highest degree, and the severity of the Greek popular court and the Athenian Areopagus is surpassed by the vigilance of the community officials and by the expulsion and handing over of the disobedient member to eternal judgment.

3. The morality of Roman society.

The generations from which the founders and members of these new communities emerged cannot have been as lost as they appear in the teachings, satires, and histories of the imperial era and are described by modern historians using this framework. For example, a court where Arrian enjoyed the friendship of Hadrian as consul, military commander, and provincial governor and, alongside the history of Alexander the Great’s wars and the description of his Black Sea voyage, published the lectures of Epictetus as a handbook for spiritual guidance, was certainly not an abyss of evil and depravity. The stern attitudes of Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius presuppose an environment that was able to appreciate and practice such seriousness of attitude directed toward moral superiority. However, we still have very detailed evidence of a widespread and generally respected decency in the character sketches that Pliny provides in his letters from the time of Trajan. Let us consider some of this evidence!


Brixia, from where Pliny (Epist. 1, 14) recommends a son-in-law for his friend Junius Mauricus, he calls a city of that part of Italy which still upholds and preserves old-fashioned propriety, moderation, and even rural simplicity. The recommended man’s father, elevated to the praetorian rank by Vespasian, preferred an honorable obscurity to the ambitious activities of Rome. The grandmother is from Padua, “one knows,” Pliny notes, “the strictness of this city.” “You know the spirit and morality of this province,” he writes (Epist. 2, 13) about Spain, from where the mother of another recommended person hailed.


There were still many people living in the countryside who devoted themselves to farming, raising their families, and their own education. Invited by Terentius Junior, who had served as a knight in the military, also administered the Narbonne province and then retired to his estate, Pliny (Epist. 7, 25) found in him a good household manager and careful farmer and then discovered in him, soon after he had treated him as such at the beginning of the conversation, a thorough connoisseur of Greek wisdom. Ummidius Quadratus, Pliny’s pupil in jurisprudence, was so rigorously educated by his grandmother that when he left the theater where there had been a competition of various pantomimes, he said to his teacher and friend, “Do you know that today I saw my grandmother’s pantomime (who belonged to her household troupe) dance for the first time?” (Epist. 7, 24).


The sentence in the mythical history of the primitive community in Jerusalem that they (Acts 2:44-45) “had all things in common,” and the awkward and lagging explanation that they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them among all, as anyone had need,” has been turned into a magnificent painting of a new and foreign to antiquity communicativeness. If, however, we listen to the testimony of real history, we shall find that so-called paganism had set a magnificent example which only later benefited the Church to such an extent. For example, when Pliny (Epist. 4, 13) noticed on a visit to his hometown of Como that inadequate provision had been made for education and that adult children had to go to Milan, he urged their fathers to employ capable teachers; he himself was willing to contribute one-third of what they brought together and immediately wrote to his friend Tacitus to look for teachers who could be recommended to the citizens. On another occasion, he established a library in his hometown and, on this occasion (Epist. 1, 8), emphasized that annual contributions to the education of good minds corresponded more to his genius than promises of circus performances and fencing games. And again, even though he was by no means excessively rich, he endowed an estate worth 500,000 sesterces (about 48,000 guilders) from his property near Como for the maintenance of orphans.


In addition to other public endowments, dedications to friends also testify to his participation and benevolence. For example, he wrote to Fabius Quintilianus (Epist. 6, 32): “I know you are richer in satisfaction than in wealth, so allow me, as a second father to our daughter, to take on a portion of your burden at the appropriate representation and service for her wedding, with a contribution of 50,000 sesterces.” When the poet Martial had dedicated a couple of beautiful verses to him, Pliny gave him a gift for his journey on his return to his Spanish homeland (Epist. 3, 21). To a fellow countryman and school friend, he transferred 300,000 sesterces (required for elevation to the rank of knight) to supplement his wealth (Epist. 1, 19).


Another aspect of the picture that Pliny unrolls for us of his time seems to contradict the joy of the Trajanic statesman in austere living and the generally serious mood of the era: a certain aesthetic versatility. He himself writes poetry, his friends make verses, in social gatherings people read aloud the products of leisure, and it is considered a duty to encourage one another in new productions. This year, for example, Pliny writes in Epistle 1.13, has been very productive in terms of poets. Not a day went by in April when someone did not give a reading. Although he complains about the laxity of the listeners, he praises all the more the eagerness in production and reading that is not deterred by such frivolity. He himself is a model of punctuality and attention and even enjoys a diligent audience during his readings. Thus, among other things, guests flocked to him when he gave his Senate speech on Trajan in an expanded version, although he had not explicitly indicated the reading in his invitations, as he proudly emphasizes in Epistle 3.18. Despite the worst weather, guests showed up two days in a row and asked him, when he was about to finish, to also give them the conclusion on the third day.


When he gave something in his house, his Calpurnia sat very close by behind a curtain and was delighted by the applause of the audience (Epistle 4.19). In the same letter, he elaborates on this domestic idyll, revealing that his wife also sang and accompanied his verses on the lyre, without any other teacher than the love she had for him.

He was, in fact, also a popular poet, particularly in a somewhat amorous genre. One of those numerous poets whom he complimented in his letters had cited the strict Consul as an example of his practice in the same genre, who also indulged in the same poetic game (Epistle 4.27). “In small verses,” this poet had recited in an evening gathering and in the presence of the distinguished statesman, “I sing songs like my Catullus and Calvus and the Ancients. But what do these matter to me? For me, there is only one Pliny who loves small verses, when he is away from the forum, seeks love, and hopes for love.”


Pliny even published a collection of such humorous poems and love dalliances (called hendecasyllables, following the eleven-syllable verse). They were read, transcribed, and even sung to the lyre and zither. Despite this success, however, he still felt somewhat insecure and had to justify himself against objections and even more severe accusations. Once he wrote that Cicero’s epigrams about his secretary Tiro (7,4) inspired him to create such things. Great and venerable men of the past, “who did not shy away from the luxuriance of the subject and the naked word,” are cited by him (Epist. 4, 14) when he passes his time composing poems about pleasure, love, humor, grief, and anger while riding in his carriage, taking a bath, or at table. “The most learned, worthy, and purest people,” he writes on another occasion, when he was feeling restless and the accusations were more serious (5,3), “have composed such things: Cicero, Marcus Brutus, Annäus Seneca, the divine Julius, Augustus, Titus, Nerva. Whether they also read their works aloud, I do not know. Well! They could satisfy themselves with their judgment. I trust myself too little to consider what pleases me alone as perfect. I jest, laugh, play. I am a human being.”


But this still meant taking the matter quite lightly, and it is remarkable that a large part of the upper society, while a whole chorus of revengeful writers around Tacitus sits in judgment over the preceding period of the Empire, took pleasure in Anacreontic, perhaps even “Sotadic” (see the last-mentioned letter) and similar trifles.

This same society had the feeling of living in a new era and simply called their century the century, their century. Nerva already understood the dawn of this Seculum as a private person and still under the pressure of the Domitian era, when he wished Pliny (Epist. 7, 33) good luck before a court for a noble deed and for the century. Trajan also pointed to the demands of the same century for noble and just actions in his correspondence with Pliny (10, 63. 98), and Pliny himself called in his Panegyric (chap. 34) what seemed to him just and uplifting, worthy of the Seculum.


Nevertheless, based on a significant historical analogy, we can consider the games of Roman society at that time as signs of a new era and list them among the harbingers of a revolution in the second century. Eighteenth-century France was already trembling with the anticipation of the revolution, as the upper class enjoyed themselves in literary and aesthetic circles with the creations of their beauty. The nobility was prouder of inventing a quatrain than of its coat of arms and made it a point of honor to compete with a bourgeois brother for the prize of poetic laurels in Apollo. The later men of terror of the Revolution glorified the game of love and the glory of the rose and myrtle in anacreontic verse. Barrère, the Anacreon of the guillotine, Carnot, the commander of battles, and Robespierre, the dogmatist of the Revolution, began as frivolous singers of love sorrow and shepherd’s happiness. The echo of this French century in Germany as a shepherd’s song was the prelude to the uprising of philosophical criticism. This side and beyond the Rhine, as in the time of Rome’s first humane emperors, was the childlike, often childish variation of the serious theme: Homo sum,–the same theme that the Greeks had established in high style since Socrates. And if the dictators of Rome, the restless spirits and tyrants from Sulla onwards, who Pliny refers to, enjoyed the easy play of imagination, they expressed with it the same return to a fictional state of nature and the same disbelief in their old state system as the French of the previous century gave up their belief in the foundation of their public and inner life with their frivolities.

4. The Fate of Marcus Aurelius.

The Seculum, on whose onset Nerva and his circle of friends were proud, ended in a gloomy fashion for Rome under Marcus Aurelius. Christianity had launched from Rome and Alexandria a bold and grand criticism and combination of the religious systems of the contemporary world. Pliny discovered it in Bithynia as something new; now, the biography of the divine founder had undergone a considerable number of adaptations and extensions, and the letters of the community leaders were circulating from one province to another, as we learn from Lucian.


In the face of this upswing, Roman literature and imperial affairs were in an accelerated decline, and Marcus Aurelius was besieged by a series of personal trials in the midst of the signs of great danger to the empire. His adoptive brother and co-regent was a glutton, his wife was rumored to be unfaithful, his son was an incapable and unruly character, his most capable general, the Prefect of Syria, rose against him, declaring that he wanted to free the empire from a weak schoolmaster. Added to this were the troubles along the entire course of the Danube, where the peoples with whom Domitian and Trajan had dealt were pushed forward by their hinterland, partly pushed aside by a wedge of immigrants, and rolled forward in a new and strengthened battle formation against the empire. The emperor died in the field camp, where he was struggling against this growing migration of peoples.


His co-regent was the son of Cejonius Commodus Verus, whom Hadrian had adopted as Aelius Verus in 135. The decision of this emperor, who sought a helper for his days of rest after his travels, for this scion of a respected Etruscan family, was widely disapproved at the time. The grace, joviality, and resolution of the young man had attracted the life-weary emperor, and the chivalry that he believed to see in his character had also been demonstrated by him as a resolute commander on a short mission to Pannonia. A certain momentum of his spirit, which longed for something special and deceived his adoptive father, also led him to ponder bizarre refinements in his pleasures and the embellishment of his surroundings. When he lay on his rose bed, delighting in Ovid’s love poems and Martial’s epigrams, which he, in his foppish humor, called his Virgil, and his youthful runners bedecked as winged cupids flew at his command, he presented the image of a sensualist who saw in the world only a servant for his amusing ideas. When the death of the enervated young man (on the first day of the year 138) freed the state from this danger, Hadrian held so firmly to his belief in the happy nature of the latter that he conditioned the adoption of Titus Aurelius Fulvius Antoninus Pius, which occurred shortly before his death, on the stipulation that he adopt him along with Marcus Annius Verus, so that the state would retain something from him.


This child, Lucius Cejonius Verus, who grew up to be a man during the twenty-two-year reign of Antoninus, showed so few abilities and inclinations for his future profession that Antoninus could not draw him out of private life. Although the prince developed the winning physique of his deceased father, and he also inherited his joviality and tendency for humor and caprice, and Antoninus also loved the openness and grace of his demeanor. But the young man remained outside of public life, while Annius Verus, Hadrian’s nephew and already highly favored by him, eighteen years old at the time of his adoption by Antoninus, was elevated to the highest honors and involved in all state affairs since the latter’s accession to the throne.


Both men were descended from their great-grandparents from the provinces, Antoninus from Gaul and Marcus from Spain, and their grandparents had risen to the consular dignity on both paternal and maternal sides. Antoninus received this name, which his reign was to give an epoch-making significance, from his maternal family and probably also the spirit of philosophical equanimity that established the kinship with his adoptive son. That consular Arrius Antoninus, who embraced the new emperor at the Senate’s greeting of Nerva and said he wished happiness to the Senate, people, and provinces, but not to the new ruler, who should have been content to avoid bad rulers instead of taking on such a burden (Capitolin. Antonin c. 1. Aurel. Vict. Epitome 12), was his maternal grandfather. Pliny not only praises him as a poet but also as a man who, in his later leisure, tempered his serious dignity with kindness, gentleness, and grace of speech (Epist. 4, 3. 18. 27. 5, 10).


After the death of Antoninus in 160, Marcus brought his adoptive brother out of obscurity, gave him his daughter Lucilla as his wife, and shared with him the title of Augustus, so that for the first time two rulers carried this glory of the highest dignity. He and his brother both took the name Aurelius, which they had received from their adoptive father, and the honorary name Antoninus, which has since been highly valued and worn by ten emperors or pretenders as a divine attribute.


It was not only his strong sense of duty that motivated Marcus to comply with Hadrian’s order to share the rule with Lucius Aurelius Verus, but he also believed it would be dangerous to keep a brother, who was entitled to the same succession as him, away from the throne. Perhaps he even hoped to raise the youthful co-ruler to his own level of seriousness. The first opportunity he gave him to perform a great activity was by giving him command of the troops that were ready in Syria against the Parthian intrusions into Armenia. However, the pleasure-loving prince did not know how to take advantage of it. He left the successful battle against the Parthians to the old and experienced army leader, Avidius Cassius, and indulged himself in Antioch and Daphne, bringing back Oriental virtuosos, actors, and jugglers as his favorite spoils of victory. Marcus silently endured the extravagant life of his imperial brother, sighed inwardly, and tried to cover up the annoyance as much as possible. Twice he summoned Verus to quell renewed unrest on the Danube; both times the sluggish companion dragged him back home over the Alps, and on the second return (in 168), Verus, ruined by his excesses, died of a stroke at the age of 42.


The example of the two Veruses shows that the adoption system did not benefit the state when it called young people to the throne. Their early deaths spared the world the spectacle of the atrocities that could not be avoided when they, having reached sole rule, gathered the means to satisfy their sensual desires at the expense of the Senate. Commodus, the son and successor of Marcus Aurelius, and later Caracalla, the heir of Septimius Severus, proved that both an early youth and the inheritance right to the Roman imperial throne were not suitable, and that the appeal to the legitimacy of possession immediately provoked bloody strife with the Senate. Commodus, the heir of the cautious Antonines, as he shook the head of a freshly killed ostrich back and forth in front of the seats of the senators in the Circus with a grinning and significant smile (Dio Cassius 72, 21), is the right image of the position of a legitimate heir among the gathered fathers. The generals who were called to the throne by the necessity at the borders and the call of the armies put an end to the struggle with the shadow of the Senate and had neither the inclination nor the time for the excesses of youthful Augusti.


If we can trust the historians, the imperial women of the Antonine period would have been worthy successors to Augustus’s unfortunate daughter Julia, who, as the daughter of a prince elevated to the throne, felt herself beyond the discipline of her father. Faustina, the wife of Antoninus and sister of the elder Verus who was called to the throne before him, is said to have indulged in debauchery and an extravagant lifestyle, which her husband endured with silent sorrow (according to Julius Capitolinus, Antoninus cap. 3). Even Marc Aurel’s Faustina, Antoninus’s daughter and thus also the daughter of an established prince, abused her husband’s indulgence and one of the emperor’s sinful companions was brought to the theater in Rome with a clear allusion to his name (according to Capitol. Marc Aurel cap. 19. 29 Dio Cassius 71, 34).


Marius Maximus even claimed in his lost and far-reaching history of the emperors, which extended to Alexander Severus, that Faustina had persuaded the prefect of Syria, who was victorious in the Parthian War, to revolt against her husband. Even Dio Cassius, a contemporary of the emperor and an eyewitness in the senators’ benches when Faustina grinned at Commodus with the ostrich head in one hand and the bloody sword in the other, tells at length how Faustina, who expected her husband’s death at any moment due to his frailty and feared that with the youth and imbecility of Commodus the empire would fall into the hands of another, indicated to Cassius that he should be ready to take possession of her and the reign if something happened to Aurelius.


The thirty-one years that had passed since Faustina’s union with Marc Aurel (138) until the rebellion of the military commander in Syria will have gnawed at her beauty to such an extent that the offer of her person to the future victor hardly deserves belief. Besides, Cassius lived with his wife in a happy marriage blessed with sons and daughters, and since he had the choice among them and a son-in-law, he hardly lacked his own heirs, and it is unlikely that he was asked to risk himself in the dangerous rebellion for the sake of Marc Aurel’s incapable son. We must therefore agree with the “Other,” whose testimony Capitolinus (Marc Aurel. cap. 24) and Vulcatius (Cassius cap. 7) oppose to the legend of Faustina’s treachery, that the rebel was led astray by the rumor of the emperor’s death or, to deceive the army and the provinces, spread that rumor in Asia itself. The unfavorable reputation in which the two Faustinas stood in society and among the people of the capital may be sufficiently explained by the position they claimed as princes’ daughters and by their dealings with a court of their own, in the midst of which they rested from the seriousness that weighed on them from their husbands’ court.


After the death of Antoninus in 160, Marcus brought his adopted brother out of obscurity, gave him his daughter Lucilla as a wife, and shared the title of Augustus with him, so that for the first time two rulers bore this glorious highest dignity. He and his brother also added the honorific name Antoninus that they had received from their adoptive father to their original name Aurelius, which was highly valued and worn by ten emperors or pretenders as a divine attribute.


The contrast between the strict and energetic warrior Avidius Cassius and the thoughtful Marcus Aurelius provided the belletristic rhetoricians around the year 200 with a welcome topic for declamations, which they could not have failed to use for a kind of psychological exposition. For such work, we consider the correspondence of Marcus Aurelius, from which Vulcatius provides fragments in his biography of Cassius. So Lucius Verus is said to have written to Marcus during the Parthian War from Syria that Cassius seemed to him, as was also noticed during the time of Pius, to be striving for the throne: “Everything we do displeases him; he laughs at our letters: he calls you a philosophical mother, me a foolish voluptuary.” Marcus Aurelius replied: “If the throne is destined for Cassius, then, although we might want to, we would not be able to kill him, because as your grandfather (Hadrian) said, no one has ever been able to kill his successor. But if it is the will of the gods, then he will run to his own ruin without us having to stain our hands with blood. So let us let him live according to his nature, especially since he is a good and strict general and an indispensable man for the state.”


The emperor, who went to the scene of the uprising, did not find his opponent alive. He had been killed by his own soldiers and had only worn the purple for a quarter of a year. The capable and energetic warrior was born in the Syrian city of Kyrrhus, a son of the rhetorician Heliodor, who rose to become governor of Egypt. Through his mother, he traced his descent from a republican associate of Brutus, and his own republican and absolutist tendencies flattered him with this supposed lineage from an ancient greatness. According to Vulcatius (Cassius cap. 1), he hated the name of an emperor and cursed the misfortune of the times that this name could only be driven away by an opposing emperor. Marcus Aurelius not only showed great mercy towards the family of his fallen opponent but also relieved the Senate of a burden when he urged them in a letter that no senator’s blood should be shed and that the exiled should have their property returned to them. The conspiracy had also had ramifications in Rome.


Just returned to Rome from the East in 176, Marcus Aurelius had to resume his military duties on the Danube. The ongoing conflict, which occupied him until his death, could no longer be brought to an end by individual battles or the destruction of the enemy. The success of the weapons could already be considered fortunate if the enemy was made receptive to negotiations by the art of war and the disciplined endurance of the army, and the belt of peoples that had set in motion along the Danube from Carinthia and Carniola to the Black Sea was only brought to a standstill to some extent.

“Bread and land!” was the pleading cry with which these peoples approached the Roman settlements on the Danube; their numbers and weapons gave the request weight, which always had to be weakened before the emperor engaged in negotiations and attempted to organize that large region. The impetuous petitioners were given land in Dacia, Pannonia, Moesia, Germany, even in Italy: only when a part of these colonists began to cause unrest in Ravenna and seized control of the city was the latter spared from such dangerous settlers. Some were granted Roman citizenship, others the promise of perpetual bread donations.


If the Jazyges only agreed to provide allied troops after the emperor promised to continue the war against the Quadi, that gives us an idea of the confusion in that belt of peoples, in which each member tried to push aside and back another. The Astingi, who had invaded Dacia with the cry of “money and land” and received both, became hired troops against restless subjects; other tribes that raised the same cry in Dacia used the money to buy off the retreat of a neighboring prince.

Dio Cassius suggests in his account of this organization (71, 11-19) that Cassius’s rebellion forced the emperor to make greater concessions than were actually in his plan. But even in the last three years of his life, which he had to devote to the Danube War, he did not make much more progress in organizing those lands than he had in his earlier campaigns. The life that had entered the throng of peoples north of the Danube could no longer be subdued by individual battles or even campaigns. The war, resumed by Marcus Aurelius as sole ruler in 169 after the death of Lucius Verus, had exhausted the public treasury to such an extent that the emperor had to offer the treasures of the palace and the jewels of Hadrian’s secret treasure for auction, and supplement the army by enlisting slaves and gladiators. In addition, the plague brought by the army from the Parthian War to the Western world had caused lasting devastation and, through the misery it created, had spread a depression in the general mood that continued to sap the strength of the empire.


Marcus Aurelius himself succumbed to the burdens of his government in Vindobona (Vienna) on March 17, 180, at the age of 59. His body weakened by early studies could no longer offer a sustainable resistance to an exhausting war of peoples, about whose hopelessness he harbored no illusions. The future of the empire under his son, whom he had allowed to come alone to his bedside the evening before his death, could not comfort him in his last moments. He died alone and probably wanted to die that way. As soon as Commodus had left him, he covered his head as if to sleep and died later that same night.


The affairs of his soul occupied him until his last moments, and the books of his Meditations seem to have received their final redaction during the war that consumed his sickly body. The second book is written with the inscription at the camp in Carnuntum (present-day Deutsch-Altenburg in Hungary).

He viewed his reign as a fulfillment of duty and a service to the place that fate had assigned him. The Empire was to him humanity, for which he had to exercise the general duties of man, only on a larger scale and with greater responsibility than others. At this level of position, he did not want to be a Caesar. “Beware,” he writes, for example, 6.30, “of going to extremes and becoming a Caesar. Do not be carried away, as it can easily happen. Stay simple and right, pious, honest, serious, without pride, a friend of justice, God-fearing, gentle, kind, constant in fulfilling your duty.”


The man who appeared as a world-wise and civic figure in the gatherings of scholars upon his return from Syria to Alexandria, and who endowed new chairs of learning with state salaries for all fields of knowledge in Athens, devoted himself in Rome, whenever he had leisure from wars, to the most thorough and conscientious administration of justice, in addition to state affairs. He was the first to appoint a permanent praetor for guardianships, charging him with the task of appointing and closely monitoring the guardians, who had previously been appointed by the consuls. He also founded the civil status control throughout the empire (Capitolin. Marc Aurel, cap. 10). And if his aversion to public games and animal fights and his prescription of blunt weapons for gladiator combat testify to the progressive moderation of the Roman spirit, it is worth mentioning that a ruler who embraced his worries about the empire and investigated the laws of the world order as a private citizen did not consider it too trivial when he saw a boy fall from a tightrope during a performance and ordered that cushions be placed under tightrope walkers in the future (Capitol. ibid. cap. 12).


His principle that one cannot make people as one wishes them to be (see also his Meditations and Dio Cassius 71, 34) prevented him from becoming a religious founder and turning the world into a realm of peaceful hermits, but his co-emperors, the Christians, were there for this undertaking. The victory of the latter will be depicted in the following pages.

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Neil Godfrey

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