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Who is Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosopher-emperor of Rome, is renowned for his work "Meditations," a timeless guide to virtue, wisdom, and leadership. His reign from 161 to 180 AD was marked by a commitment to duty and reflective introspection. Discover how his ancient insights continue to resonate in our modern world—what lessons can we learn from his enduring legacy?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Marcus Aurelius and why is he significant in history?

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, known for being the last of the Five Good Emperors and a major figure in Stoic philosophy. His reign was marked by military success and the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability across the empire. His personal writings, "Meditations," offer insight into his philosophical beliefs and continue to influence modern thought on ethics and leadership. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, his work contributes significantly to the understanding of ancient Stoicism.

What were the main achievements of Marcus Aurelius's reign?

During his reign, Marcus Aurelius maintained the strength and stability of the Roman Empire despite challenges such as the Marcomannic Wars against Germanic tribes. He also successfully secured the empire's borders and implemented administrative reforms. His philosophical work, "Meditations," though not intended for publication, became one of the greatest works of philosophy. The British Library notes that his reign was marked by a commitment to duty and the welfare of his people.

How did Marcus Aurelius contribute to philosophy?

Marcus Aurelius is renowned for his contributions to Stoic philosophy, particularly through his work "Meditations." This collection of personal writings, intended as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement, is revered for its profound reflections on human nature, ethics, and the acceptance of fate. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy highlights "Meditations" as a cornerstone text that encapsulates the principles of Stoicism and offers timeless wisdom on resilience and virtue.

What can we learn from Marcus Aurelius's "Meditations" today?

"Meditations" provides timeless insights into dealing with adversity, understanding the impermanence of life, and the importance of self-discipline and personal integrity. Modern readers can learn from Marcus Aurelius's emphasis on rationality, his encouragement to focus on what is within one's control, and his call to lead a life of virtue. The book remains a valuable resource for those seeking guidance on personal growth and ethical leadership, as noted by The School of Life.

Did Marcus Aurelius's philosophical beliefs influence his role as an emperor?

Yes, Marcus Aurelius's Stoic beliefs deeply influenced his governance. He is often portrayed as the 'Philosopher King,' a ruler who applied wisdom and virtue to his leadership. His commitment to Stoic principles such as duty, rationality, and self-control is evident in his efforts to rule justly and his dedication to public service. According to the History Channel, his philosophical outlook shaped his approach to the complexities of ruling an empire during challenging times.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books