Monday, March 17, 2014

Marcus Aurelius - the Philosopher on the Emperor's Throne

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius
in the Musei Capitolini in Rome
On March 17, 180 AD, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius passed away. He is often referred to as the philosopher on the emperor's throne and considered on of the most important Stoic philosophers.

The young Marcus was probably taught at home, and was highly influenced by the painter Diognetus, who was supposed have introduced Marcus to philosophy. Diognetus even achieved that Marcus took up the dress and habits of the philosopher. It became normal for the young student to study while wearing his rough Greek cloak and to sleep on the floor. Only his mother was then able to convince him to sleep in a regular bed again. In about 136, Hadrian selected Lucius Aelius Verus as his successor, and adopted him as his son, but he became ill and passed away before being able to speak to the senate. Aurelius Antoninus became Hadrian's successor and was adopted on 25 February in 138. As a result, Antoninus adopted Marcus and Lucius Verus, wherefore Marcus became Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. When Marcus learned that he was adopted, he only left his mother's house with reluctance, moving into Hadrian's private home. Before turning 24, Marcus became a quaestor and served under consul Antonius. When Hadrian passed away, Antonius' succession went by peaceful, since he kept Hadrian's nominees in office and appeased the senate, which asked him to accept the name 'Pius'.

In 140, Marcus was made consul and was appointed as a seviri, one of the knights' six commanders, at the order's annual parade on 15 July 139. After becoming princeps iuventutis, Marcus took the name Caesar and at the senate's request, Marcus joined all the priestly colleges. Still, the philosopher had to take his duties as consul very seriously and it is assumed that he felt drowned in paperwork and oratorical practices. When Marcus married Faustina, coins were issued with the heads of the couple.

To improve his oratory practice, Marcus worked together with three tutors in Greek and another in Latin. Even though one of his tutors, Atticus, thought of stoicism as foolish, Marcus would become a Stoic. Between his Latin coach Fronto and Marcus, an important relationship evolved and an important correspondence between the two survived. Marcus is supposed to have written: "Farewell my Fronto, wherever you are, my most sweet love and delight. How is it between you and me? I love you and you are not here". However, it is assumed that Fronto warned Marcus against studying philosophy, looking down on Marcus for turning to philosophy to escape the constant exercises of oratorical training. Furtherly, historians believe that Apollonius may have introduced Marcus to Stoic philosophy.

As Antonius aged, Marcus had to take over more and more administrative duties and he was along with Lucius designated joint consuls. At one night, the sick Antonius ordered that the golden statue of Fortune, which had been in the bedroom of the emperors, should go to Marcus' bedroom. It is reported that shortly after, that he turned over and passed away. Marcus became effectively sole ruler of the Empire and the senate would soon grant him the name Augustus and the title imperator, and he would soon be formally elected as Pontifex Maximus. However, Marcus was not really thrilled to take imperial power since he always preferred the life of a philosopher. Marcus insisted, that Lucius received equal powers even though the senate wanted him to rule by himself, which was quite rare. It was then the first time, that Rome was ruled by two emperors. It is believed, that the two emperors permitted free speech and the first period of Marcus' reign went by smoothly. He was even able to continue studying philosophy. However, the good times passed by around 162, when the flooded Tiber destroyed a great part of Rome, but both emperors worked on the resulting problems in person.

Marcus Aurelius passed away on 17 march 180 in the modern day Vienna and he was succeeded by his son Commodus. He was always and still is referred to as a philosopher king. The historian Herodian once wrote, that "Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life".

At yovisto, you may be interested in the two part lecture on Marcus Aurelius.



Go to part 2 of the lecture

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