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Emperor, Philosopher, Legend: But How Did Marcus Aurelius Die?

Explore Marcus Aurelius' life journey from power to mortality and uncover the enduring wisdom he leaves behind.

Who was Marcus Aurelius?

In a world where ancient wisdom meets modern psychology, one philosophy stands out as a beacon of timeless guidance: Stoicism.

Dating back to approximately 300 BC, Stoic philosophy resonates remarkably with the principles of the most popular modern psychotherapy. But what makes Stoicism particularly relevant in the 21st century?

The answer lies in its steadfast emphasis on resilience, adaptability, and inner strength—a philosophy embodied by one of its most notable practitioners, Marcus Aurelius. While the founder of Stoicism, Zeno, laid its theoretical groundwork, it is Aurelius, the Roman emperor, who offers a compelling testament to its enduring relevance. As a ruler of one of the greatest empires in history, Aurelius exemplified the essence of Stoic resilience, offering invaluable insights for navigating the complexities of modern existence. In this story about his military campaigns, life's difficulties, and trials, we can see a vivid example of a stoic practitioner and a legendary emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

Philosophical contributions

His political career and challenges to his authority

Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was born into a famous Roman family. His father, Marcus Annius Verus, died when young Marcus was only about three years old, but throughout his life, he kept the memory of his father's virtue, which was reflected in the pages of "Meditations": "From what I heard of my Father and my memory of him, modesty and manliness." Antoninus Pius became Mark's adoptive father. From about the age of seven, the boy began to receive a home education following the ideas of the aristocratic environment of that time. The outstanding orator Cornelius Fronto taught Marcus Aurelius to understand that tyranny entails slander and hypocrisy and that, in general, people who are considered aristocrats are characterized by heartlessness and callousness of soul.

Quote by Marcus Aurelius about his fatherThe young man was not interested in luxury, gladiator fights, chariot races, and other entertainments that the Romans enjoyed. His idol was Epictetus, a representative of the late Stoia. Young Aurelius was impressed by this thinker's ascetic way of life, which he tried to imitate; for example, he made a bed for himself from wooden boards.

Emperor Hadrian, intensely appreciating the honesty of Marcus Aurelius, called him not Ver - "true" but Verissimus - "truthful". The Stoic teachers taught the future emperor an incredibly high discipline of mind and emotions. Even in his youth, neither joy nor grief changed the expression of his face, wrote the biographers of Marcus Aurelius. He was famous for the flexibility of his thoughts because he saw in everyone special skills and abilities for a purpose development of the state of his vision.

Co-ruling with adoptive brother

Young Marcus Aurelius became a quaestor at the age of eighteen. After Emperor Hadrian's death in Baia (Italy), Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Antoninus) made Mark co-consul. From that time, despite his aversion to worldly goods, he was surrounded by palace luxury.

After the death of Antoninus Pius in March 161, Marcus Aurelius, at the insistence of the senate, became emperor with co-ruler Lucius Verus, his adoptive brother. They ruled together for eight years, until the death of Lucius Verus in 169. Lucius Verus was not distinguished by the good qualities that characterized Marcus Aurelius. History calls him unrestrained in his pursuit of pleasures. In 169, Lucius Verus died of a stroke during a joint campaign in one of the Marcomannic wars. Then, Aurelius became a Roman emperor.

The challenges Marcus Aurelius had to overcome in his rule

People often misunderstood or even ridiculed Marcus Aurelius for his philosophical views and unconventional approaches to life situations. When, due to the problematic situation with army recruitment, he called even gladiators into the ranks of the armed forces, there were rumors that he wanted to deprive the people of pleasure by forcing everyone to do philosophy. Although Mark Aurelius wanted to rule peacefully, paying attention to the development of culture and spirituality, he had to fight a lot both within the empire itself and against external enemies. 

Aurelius ruled in challenging times. Enemies besieged the borders of the Roman Empire, riots arose, and Christianity gained popularity, supplanting ancient pagan beliefs. The life of Marcus Aurelius was full of severe challenges—he experienced the death of eight of his thirteen children, he was betrayed and criticized, and he suffered from chronic pain. The philosophy of Stoicism became his life guide, and its ideas helped him maintain courage in the face of trials and live a dignified life.

Approximately 170 AD, while staying in Carnuntum, a Roman military camp on the Danube, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the most powerful man of his time, wrote:

"No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts."

Quotes about challenges Marcus Aurelius had to overcome in his rule

"Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye, for it does happen. Keep yourself, therefore, simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Reverence the gods, save men. Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighborly acts." – this thesis of the philosopher Marcus Aurelius was guided by the emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus.

Marcus Aurelius on how to live your life properly

Military endeavors and challenges

Historia Augusta remains an important (and sometimes the only) source of information on Roman history. These historical documents let us imagine the circumstances in which Marcus Aurelius and the world around him lived.

Under emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161), the Roman state was in complete peace. This prosperous period is known as Pax Romana. Peace reigns in all the provinces, which will be interrupted only under Marcus Aurelius due to the military campaign in the East, which the Persians and the invasion of the warlike tribe of Marcomanni in the West launched.

Germanic tribes, namely the Goths and Vandals, were prominent in destroying Pax Romana. These tribes created a number of their own states in the ruins of the Empire. In March 161, the peace-loving Antoninus Pius died. During all the years of his reign, he never left Italy and did not make significant conquests. Pius' reluctance to engage in aggressive military action throughout his reign may have contributed to Parthian territorial ambitions. In the same year, the joint reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus begins. Their war in Parthia lasted from 161 to 166 AD, and although it ended successfully, it had several consequences. First, the troops returning from the war brought with them the plague (the so-called Antonine plague), which caused significant human losses (7-8 million people died) and significantly weakened the empire.

At the same time, the first movements of the Migration Period began in Central Europe in the 2nd century AD. Until the reign of Marcus Aurelius, they had complex relations with the empire but generally recognized the supremacy of the Roman emperor. By the mid-160s, the established relationship had changed. The Goths began to move southeast from the lands of their ancestors at the mouth of the Vistula River, displacing the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Vandals who could not resist them. Retreating, the tribes began to cross the borders of the Roman Empire.

Avidius Cassius' rebellion

In 175, after quelling the Bucoli rebellion in Egypt, General Avidius Cassius revolted against Marcus Aurelius. This revolt, fueled by rumors of the emperor's grave illness and possible death, was to become the most significant internal conflict of Aurelius's reign. However, the uprising turned out to be short-lived: although there was unrest in Rome, as soon as Marcus Aurelius and his troops were about to march against Avidius, the usurper was killed, and his head was sent to the emperor.

Marcus Aurelius only expressed his disappointment at being unable to pardon the pretender to the imperial diadem. He was very gentle with Avidius Cassius's relatives, none of whom suffered from revenge or suspicion. The cities that supported Avidius Cassius were also forgiven, especially Antioch and Alexandria, although Marcus Aurelius did not visit them for some time.

Faustina the Younger relation to the rebellion

According to the historian Cassius Dio, Avidius Cassius made a terrible mistake, being misled by Faustina the Younger, the Aurelius' wife. She decided that her sick husband would die soon and was afraid that the power would pass to someone else, and she would become a private person. Therefore, she secretly persuaded Cassius to be ready for any surprise with Marcus Aurelius and, in this case, to take her as his wife and gain imperial power. However, Avidius Cassius was already ready to oppose the emperor at that time despite rumors about Aurelius' wife Faustina the Younger.

It remains only to add that after Marcus Aurelius died in 180, power passed to his son Commodus (180-92 BC), who, with his insane rule, canceled all the advantages of the "five good emperors" (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius) and undermined the empire's welfare; after the death of the last of the Antonines, Rome again plunged into civil wars for a long time.

Aurelius and Christians

One more challenge for Aurelius was an attitude to Christianity. Refusing to worship the traditional gods of Rome, the Christians became easy targets for the people's fear and anger. In his quest to protect Rome from further harm, Marcus Aurelius turned his gaze upon the Christians, seeing in them the source of the empire's woes.

Historians recorded one case that gave the emperor a reason to view Christians differently. During the war of the Romans with several tribes, among whom were the Marcommani, the Roman army was surrounded by enemies and, because of the lack of water, found itself in greater danger from thirst than from enemies. Some Christians openly prayed to Jesus Christ. After that, a heavy rain fell, which filled the Romans with strength.

The circumstances of his death

Marcomannic wars

In the twilight of the 160s, a shadow loomed on the horizon as the Roman Empire basked in the glow of its achievements. From the depths of Germany, the Marcomanni tribes began their incursions into Roman lands, igniting the flames of war and threatening the empire's stability.

But Rome's troubles did not end there. Across distant shores, rebellions simmered in Britain and Egypt, demanding the attention of Roman legions and delaying the inevitable clash with the Marcomanni. Only after securing peace with the Persians could Rome turn its full might against this newfound enemy.

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, had grand designs for Rome's expansion. He envisioned incorporating new lands into the empire, forging Marcomania and Sarmatia into the fabric of Rome's dominion. Yet, the ambitions of Marcus Aurelius were thwarted by the uprising of Avidius Cassius, throwing a wrench into his carefully laid plans.

The tension between Rome and the Marcomanni reached a boiling point as the years passed.
In 177, Marcus Aurelius's son and future successor, Commodus, ascended to the ranks of consul and co-emperor alongside his father at the tender age of just 15, according to Cassius Dio, a historian who served as a senator under Commodus. In 178-179, the empire again found itself locked in a deadly struggle against the barbarian hordes. But fate had other plans for Marcus Aurelius.

Deadly infection

Marcus Aurelius, the revered ruler of ancient Rome, sincerely desired to see his empire prosper and his people thrive. His dreams faced a significant obstacle: a terrible disease. This situation was not unique in ancient times. During Marcus Aurelius's reign, a plague spread like wildfire, wreaking havoc across the empire. This was a common problem in ancient times when medicine wasn't advanced enough to prevent widespread epidemics, especially during times of war when large populations lived in close quarters without proper hygiene.

The Antonine Plague occupies an essential place in the history. The emperor successfully ended the war with the Marcomanni despite a severe plague (pestilentia), which killed many thousands both among the people and among the soldiers. The epidemic struck many provinces and devastated the whole of Italy so that villas, villages, and cities were left without plowmen and inhabitants, turned into ruins, and overgrown with forests, as historian Paulus Orosius described it.

A mysterious plague swept through the ranks of the Roman army, claiming soldiers and even the emperor of Rome. In his final moments, Marcus Aurelius remained true to his principles. The theme of death and thinking about it was a crucial theme in his "Meditations," and as a stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius prepared himself for it.

"Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills."

Marcus aurelius on death quote - Headway

Concerned for the welfare of his closest advisors, he ordered them to keep their distance, fearing the spread of contagion. Yet, even in death, he ensured the smooth transition of power, summoning his son, Commodus, to receive the symbols of imperial authority. In the heart of Vindobona (modern Vienna) or as many sources tell in the province Pannonia (modern Serbia), amidst the cries of the afflicted and the anguish of a grieving empire, Marcus Aurelius breathed his last on March 17, 180.

Exploring Marcus Aurelius' wisdom through Headway app

Marcus Aurelius was undoubtedly an interesting person and one of the outstanding Roman emperors. It is widely accepted that "Meditations" offers a personal insight into the experiences of an individual living as a Stoic in imperial Rome. Marcus Aurelius lived a not very long but bright life, which is still being written about and researched. He wanted to live for the good of his country, dared to fight enemies on the battlefield, and abruptly ended his life by contracting the plague. His stoic views helped him to go through difficulties with dignity. Thanks to Marcus Aurelius, who wrote about his experiences and reflections in his valuable work, "Meditations," we can also learn from his wisdom on its pages.

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