The World of Marcus Aurelius

Anthony Birley’s Marcus Aurelius is a solid work of biography (originally published in 1966). My only criticism is the dull preliminary of a detailed genealogy, but the author soon moves on to describe the fascinating world that Marcus was born into. Fortunately for Birley, the period is rich in extant contemporary writings. At the time of Marcus’ childhood, the throne was occupied by Hadrian (117-138). He was the third of the five “Good Emperors,” noted for a love of philosophy and Hellenic culture. He was on the whole a capable but mercurial ruler. To the public at large he could be just and humane. He passed laws to lessen the severity of slavery. But within the inner circles of power Hadrian was often suspicious and petulant, and the Senate never forgave him for executing four of its members who opposed him.

To ensure the continuation of his dynasty, Hadrian required that his inheritor Antoninus Pius adopt both Marcus and Lucius (future co-emperors). One of the factors cited as the key to the success of the “Good Emperors” of the Nervan-Antonine line is that their successors were all adopted, whereas the Julio-Claudian line, with its tyrannical rulers, depended on individuals descended from the Emperor Augustus. As it turns out, says Birley, this was more a matter of luck than conscious policy, since none of the rulers from Titus to Antoninus Pius had biological heirs. Nevertheless it is a curious fact that when Marcus’ son Commodus took over the throne from his father in 180, he proved an unpopular and tyrannical ruler, and was assassinated by members of the Senate. 

Fortunately for Marcus, his adoptive father was a benevolent ruler who was willing to work within the older representative institutions of Rome. Marcus spoke of Antoninus Pius’ many virtues: “no vain-glory about outward honors; love of work and perseverance; readiness to listen to any who had something to contribute to the good of the state; his practice of rewarding every man impartially according to his deserts….” From him Marcus would learn to be frugal and self-disciplined even in moral matters. Among other things, Antoninus Pius frowned on Greek sexual practices (as did earlier Romans like Cicero). If the Romans were not exactly puritans, neither were all of them the glamorous libertines that Hollywood likes to make out.

Marcus would eventually become known as the “Stoic Emperor.” A point brought out in Birley’s study is how important the “Stoic opposition” was to cruel and extravagant Caesars like Nero and Domitian. The latter actually outlawed the teaching of philosophy until his assassination in A.D. 96. A number of philosophers were executed or sent into exile. Those that survived, such as Epictetus, were much admired by the future ruler of Rome.

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