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Who is Marcus Aurelius?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2014
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Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled from 161 CE until his death in 180 CE. He was the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, five men who became famous for their leadership of the Roman Empire. In addition to being a unique Roman leader, Marcus Aurelius was also an accomplished historian and Stoic philosopher. His book Meditations continues to be translated into a wide assortment of languages and read today.

Aurelius was born in 121 CE to a prominent Roman family. Because his aunt was the wife of the emperor Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius attracted attention at an early age, and when Hadrian designated Antonius Pius as his successor, he indicated that he expected Pius to adopt Marcus Aurelius as his son, probably in hopes that the boy would live to be the Emperor at some point. In 161, when Marcus Aurelius succeeded to the throne, he insisted on sharing the position with his adopted brother, Lucius Aurelius Verus, who later died while on a military campaign in the East.

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The rule of Marcus Aurelius was marked by a number of progressive social reforms, including laws which changed the positions of women and slaves in Roman society, giving them more rights and protections. He also engaged in other progressive political acts, and like the other Five Good Emperors, he had a cordial relationship with the Senate and with Roman society in general. He also spent a great deal of time traveling throughout the Roman Empire, dealing with rising social unrest in the East and from the German tribes; this unrest later contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

Marcus Aurelius was married to Faustina the Younger, and the two produced 13 children. Unfortunately, as was common during this period, only a handful of these children made it to adulthood, including most notably his son Commodus, who succeeded him on the throne. Little is known about Faustina, except for the fact that she notably accompanied her husband on military campaigns, and she was accused of poisoning people and ordering executions; despite these rather unpleasant traits, it would appear that she was very much loved by her husband.

The death of Marcus Aurelius marked a radical shift in Roman society. Uncertain about the succession, Aurelius confirmed that his son should take the throne, in the hopes that a firm decision about an heir would reduce the risk of civil war. However, Commodus turned out to be a poor choice of emperor, displaying the megalomania and questionable strategy exhibited by earlier and often deeply corrupt emperors. With the accession of Commodus, the Pax Romana, a 200 year period of relative peace for Rome, came to an end.

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