Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

An Imperial Philosopher


Marcus Aurelius, like his predecessor Trajan, belonged to a family of Italian origin that had been for some time settled in Spain. Losing his father in childhood, he was adopted by his paternal grandfather, Annius Verus, who was then (A.D. 126) Consul for the third time. The little Verus (for that was then his name) attracted the notice of the Emperor Hadrian, who made him a knight when he was but six years old, and a Priest of Mars two years afterwards.

Among the qualities which excited the admiration of Hadrian was the lad's transparent honesty and truthfulness. Verissimus, he would playfully call him, making an appropriate superlative of his name. When he was twelve he assumed the characteristic dress of the philosopher, a thick woollen cloak, worn also by soldiers on active service, and probably intended as a protest against the ornate and luxurious dress of civil life. Luxury, indeed, had no charms for the young Verus. On the contrary, he was strongly inclined to the asceticism which was at this time gaining a strong hold on the Christian community. He adopted the practice of sleeping on the ground, and could hardly be induced by the persuasions of his servants to use a couch covered with lion skins. As it was, his health was affected by his devotion to study. "This," says his biographer, "was the only point on which the life of the boy was open to censure."

We are reminded of what another of the noblest sons of Rome, Agricola, said about himself, that there was a time in his early youth "when he would have imbibed a keener love of philosophy than became a Roman and a senator, had not his mother's good sense checked his excited and ardent spirit." Meanwhile great prospects were opening out before the youth. Hadrian had adopted one Ceionius Commodus, and Verus was betrothed to his daughter, probably with a view to the succession. The new Prince died but a little more than a year after his adoption.

The Emperor now made a much happier choice in the person of Arrius Antoninus. At the same time he imposed the condition that the newly adopted son should himself adopt the youthful Verus and a son of the deceased Ceionius Commodus. Hadrian died in 138, and Arrius Antoninus succeeded him on the throne. The surname Pius was given him, it is commonly supposed, in recognition of his dutiful conduct in procuring the usual honours of deification for his adopting father, the Senate being disposed to refuse them on account of the cruelties of Hadrian's later years.

In 147, Antoninus Pius shared the Imperial honour with Aurelius (this was the name which Verus had assumed on his adoption). For fourteen years the two acted together with perfect harmony, and this was beyond doubt the happiest period in the life of Aurelius. The Empire enjoyed a repose such as had never fallen to its lot before, and was never realised again; and in his own home the troubles which disturbed his later years had not yet begun, or, at least, did not press.

In 161 Antoninus died, committing the Empire to Aurelius with his last breath, and making no mention, it would seem, of the son of Commodus. The first act of Aurelius was to associate his brother by adoption in the Empire. It was certainly a disinterested act, and it would have been a wise one, had the new colleague been really worthy of his promotion. At the time, indeed, he seemed to be so. He was young, active and vigorous, fit to fight the battles of the Empire, while Aurelius would manage civil affairs. Possibly promotion spoilt him. He took command, indeed, of the armies which were sent to operate against the Parthians, but the command was only nominal. Great victories were won, but they were won by his lieutenants. Verus himself, for that was the name by which he was known, spent his time in dissolute excesses. He died of apoplexy in 169, and Aurelius was thenceforward sole Emperor.

It was a heavy burden that he had to bear, and he bore it with a courage and a constancy that are beyond all praise. A scholar and a student, he had to spend his life in the camp. This uncongenial task he performed with extraordinary success. The exhaustion of the empire by famine and pestilence compelled him to fill up the ranks of his legions with gladiators and slaves. Yet the armies thus recruited won signal victories under his leadership. A formidable confederacy of the northern tribes threatened the Empire with the ruin which actually overtook it three centuries later. The imperial philosopher crushed it, as if he had been a Marius or a Caesar.

The Marcomanni were defeated in 170, the Quadi in 174. Scarcely had the latter victory been won when intrigues of the Empress Faustina led to troubles in the East. This woman, always the plague and disgrace of her husband, now went dangerously near to a treasonable conspiracy against him. The health of the Emperor was weak; his heir was a vicious lad only just in his teens. Faustina feared lest, if Aurelius should die, the legions might choose another Prince, and wrote to Avidius Cassius, who commanded the armies of the East, bidding him hold himself in readiness to seize the reins of power. Her own hand and the throne were to be his reward.

A rumor reached the East that the Emperor was dead, and Cassius immediately had himself proclaimed. When a contradiction followed, he believed that he had offended beyond all pardon, and persisted in his rebellion. With the greatest reluctance Aurelius marched against him. Nothing, he told his soldiers, was so hateful to him as civil war, and nothing would please him better than to be able to forgive. What he most feared was that Cassius' own shame and despair or the hand of some loyal subject should anticipate his purposes of clemency. The latter anticipation was fulfilled. A little more than three months after his assumption of the purple, Cassius was assassinated by two of his officers. The murderers brought his bloody head to Aurelius, but he turned away in disgust.

The Emperor would have accorded his forbearance to all concerned in the unhappy affair. The papers of Cassius he destroyed unread. Of those who had notoriously taken part with the usurper not one suffered death. The wretched Empress died while he was on his way eastward. Her son lived to succeed his father, and to be, perhaps, the vilest ruler that ever disgraced a throne. It was a lamentable weakness in the philosophic Emperor to shut his eyes to a wickedness of which he could not have been ignorant. The principle of adoption had had the happiest results. Nerva, chosen by the Senate, had adopted Trajan, Trajan Hadrian, Hadrian Antoninus, and Antoninus Aurelius. The last of the good Emperors reverted to the principle of inheritance, and the golden age of Rome was at an end. Aurelius died in his fifty-ninth year (A.D. 180).

Aurelius was a Stoic, but a Stoic with a difference. He modified the paradoxical tenets of the school with the sobriety of thought that characterized the Roman mind. Suicide, in particular, to which the Stoic teachers had been accustomed to give a hearty approval, did not commend itself to him. It may be truly said that the act is an expression of consummate egotism. The man who, at the bidding of his conscience or his pride, puts an end to his own life, puts himself above nature, or the Ruler of nature. But Aurelius was not an egotist. On the contrary, he develops in his philosophical thought what is notoriously absent from all non-Christian philosophy—humility. The sentence which he quotes with approval from Epictetus—"Thou art a little soul, bearing about a corpse,"—was not one which would have commended itself to a Cato. And, if you change Nature to God, there is a Christian ring in the following:—"To Nature, that giveth all and taketh all away, he that is instructed and modest says, 'Give what thou wilt—take what thou wilt away.' And this he says in a spirit not of pride but of subordination and loyalty." It is interesting, indeed, to see how much the philosopher is penetrated, all unconsciously, we cannot but think, with the Christian spirit. He counsels, for instance, self-examination. He tells us, almost in the Master's words, that it is not the things without, but the things within, that disturb the man. On the subject of prayer, too, he has some noble utterances. "If the gods can grant anything, why not pray to them to grant that thou mayest not be afraid of anything, or lust after or repine at anything, rather than that anything may or may not come to pass." Many Christians have less exalted conceptions than this.

But if we admire the man, we must also pity him. He was not happy. About the other life he could only doubt. He speaks of dim eternities stretching on either side of us; but whether we have or have not any part in them he could not say. "If the gods," he says in one place, "have ordered all things well, can it be that the men who by holy deeds have become most familiar with the Divine, when once they die, cease to be?" All that he can suggest as an answer is this: "If this be so, be sure that if it ought to have been otherwise, they would have so ordered it. . . . Because it is not so, if in fact it is not so, be certainly assured that it ought not to have been so."

And if the prospect of another life was dim, if not actually closed to him, he found his philosophy, as all have found it, a poor protection against the ills and disappointments of this. His home was wretched: among counsellors and friends he could hardly find one in whom he could trust. Where was he to look for help or comfort? "Come quick," he cries in one place, "lest, perchance, I too should forget myself!"

But he left a memory so dear and so reverenced as the memory of few rulers has been. "In life and in death," says his biographer, "he was close akin to the lords in heaven." A foolish and blasphemous adulation was wont to give divine rank to the imperial throne. It was a pure and tender gratitude that cherished the memory of Aurelius. He had preserved an unblemished sanctity of life among the temptations of a throne, and he had spent himself unsparingly for the good of his people; and he was not forgotten; for centuries afterwards the likenesses of the philosopher Emperor were among the most cherished possessions of families which kept alive the tradition of his goodness.

And yet, he was a persecutor of the Christian Church. Perhaps his Stoic teachers, who had begun to hate this formidable rival, had turned his heart against it. Perhaps he saw the irreconcilable hostility between the Empire and the new society. The fact remains: Justin at Rome, Polycarp at Smyrna, Blandina and Potheinos at Lyons, suffered by his persecution, it may even be said by his command. What are we to say? Nothing, except it be to give an application which the sufferers themselves would not, we may believe, have refused to give, to the dying words of Stephen, "Lord, forgive him, for he knew not what he did."