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Dispatch: Marcus Aurelius

RIP 17 March, 180 ad

The Emperor Hadrian thought the boy was made of the right stuff and that could take you a long way. He was promoted to the equestrian class (something like a knight) when he was six, and to the Salian priesthood when he was eight (nothing like an alter boy). To modern ears it seems a little early to get into that power-broker foolishness, but times change. Considering the lengths that modern “eques” parents will do to get their wee ones into the right pre-school, maybe they don’t.


He was born Marcus Verus, a descendent of the pre-Republic Kings of Rome. His father was a consul, as was the grandfather who adopted the orphaned boy. His aunt was married to Antonius Pius who, on the death of Hadrian, became emperor. Childless, Antonius adopted him as his heir and betrothed the boy to his daughter, Faustina. And the boy became known as Marcus Aurelius.


He was trained in Stoic philosophy, lived simply and worked hard. Or at least what his class considered simple living and hard work. He excelled in boxing and wrestling (the lower orders might not actually call that “work”) as well as heading a dance troupe called the College of Salii, which specialized in ritual dances to Mars, the god of war. Manly stuff, then.


In 140, He became consul, a public office that survived into the Empire in some desperate attempt to believe that they were still a republic. So fearful were the old republicans of anyone having too much power that their system elected two co-consuls for year-long terms, and having to power to veto the other. You could run as many times as you could get elected, just not while you held office. This made the Senate somewhat bitchy.


In 161, the Antonius died and Marcus Aurelius became Emperor right as war broke out all over the damn place. Parthians – from modern Iran – destroyed an entire Roman legion and invaded Syria. Then the European tribes went all sideways. A habit neither ever quite broke. The returning legions from the east brought pestilence to the city, and a natural disaster (flood) caused a wheat shortage. All of which makes the lives of the ancients seem a lot less foreign than streaming episodes of Rome might lead you to believe.


The one coup attempt of his reign was by one of his generals, Avidus Cassius, who honestly thought the emperor was already dead. (And it may or may not have been said emperor’s wife, Faustina, who put the bug in his ear. You never can tell in these political marriages…) Always the gentleman, the Emperor thought that Cassius was guilty more of bad form that anything we’d call treason and was fully prepared to pardon the gaff. Cassius’s troops, on learning that Marcus Aurelius was still alive, lopped off the general’s head and presented it as a token of loyalty. Thinking the gesture a tad indelicate, he refused the gift.


There is no evidence that Faustina prodded Cassius to do something rash, just a rumor. Still, even that was moot when she died. He had no time to grieve because the barbarians were running amok and he had to go sort that mess out.


It was on that campaign that Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations. What is brilliant about book is that it isn’t a masterclass in Stoicism – it doesn’t appear he ever thought that anyone would read it. It is simply the journal (and how Oprah is that?) of a powerful man coming to grips with the realities of running an empire and living his life in some harmony with an underpinning philosophy. And that was crucial: Roman religion – like that of ancient Greece – was a transactional arrangement. You made a sacrifice and bought yourself a bit of luck. There was no comfort or solace or even anything that we’d call a moral compass.

Aurelius’ ruling philosophy was that all things work together for the common good, which is familiar enough to even semi-religious people. The hitch was that it worked for the good of a whole that no one person could ever see. That’s a little harder to swallow. It requires the self-control required to do what was right. Not just what made you feel good. And that seems truly foreign these days.


Exactly how he managed write the best self-help book ever written, run the Empire with less administration that a mid-sized public school system and fend off barbarians in the bargain is a mystery for the ages, but he did. And it was on campaign in Germania that Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180. It should be said that his efforts at nation-building in Germany were better than ours in Afghanistan or Iraq.


Part of the brilliance of Marcus Aurelius is that despite rigorous education and being steeped in Stoic philosophy – he never set out to re-write Roman society or the world to meet his ideals. Choosing, instead the much harder, less gratifying but ultimately more practical route of dealing with the grim meat-hook realties of the world as it is. He stressed rule of law and established charities for the rearing and education of poor children, as well as disaster relief. His treatment of Christians was less stellar: he was aware of their existence (and likely not much else) but did nothing to protect them from the fanatics of the Imperial cult. All things, however, must pass, and Aurelius knew this.


Of his several children, but only one son survived Aurelius’s death. Because fate has a wicked sense of humor, the kid was a real shit. True, Aurelius had a perfectly sensible, driven and smart daughter, but this was the olden days. The Emperor Commodus almost immediately started unraveling his father’s good work, not out of spite, but sheer, vibrating incompetence. For twelve years he was a blood-thirsty tyrant who was curiously paranoid that no one actually liked him. It’s a bad combination. Another habit we haven’t quite broken - I’m looking at you, Vlad. Then the Emperor Commodus was strangled in his bathtub on New Year’s Eve by his own Pretorian guard.


Alas, hope springs eternal.