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The Intriguing Story of Marcus Aurelius' Wife and Her Impact on Rome

Dive into the Life of Marcus Aurelius' Wife: Discover how her reputed misdeeds contrast with her public honors in shaping the Roman Empire's history.

What Do We Know About Marcus Aurelius Wife

There were legends about the mysterious love of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius for his wife, Faustina II, during their lifetime. Marcus Aurelius, who ruled in the second half of the second century, was one of the most worthy emperors of Ancient Rome. He had an impeccable reputation. He streamlined legal proceedings and did not raise taxes, increased "social" assistance to the needy, and avoided riotous feasts. He wrote a remarkable philosophical diary and received the nickname "Philosopher."

On the contrary, Marcus Aurelius' wife Faustina was not distinguished by virtue but became famous for her dissipation and depraved behavior. The entire Roman empire knew how depraved and cruel Faustina was. Nevertheless, the philosopher-king Marcus humbly accepted her as she was. Her husband never reproached her during her lifetime and always spoke only positively about her. After her death, he ordered the Senate to deify her name.

Past perspectives

The wife of Marcus Aurelius is better known in history as Annia Galeria Faustina Minor or Faustina the Younger. Her mother, Faustina the Elder (Faustina I), was the wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius. Faustina the Younger was their only daughter to live to adulthood. She was a cousin and an adopted sister to her future husband, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Her father, Antoninus Pius, adopted his nephew Marcus after he lost his natural father.

Nerva–Antonine family tree

The dynasty founded by Nerva, better known as the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, included its founders Marcus Cocceius Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius, who formed the historical "Five Good Emperors." Trajan, the only Roman emperor not born in Italy, expanded the empire to its most significant dimensions. The dynasty ruled between 96 and 192 AD.

There was an exciting regularity in the genealogy of the Antonines - adoption. For example, Trajan was adopted by Nerva, Hadrian was the adopted son of Trajan, Antoninus Pius was the adopted son of Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius was the adopted son of Antoninus Pius, who married his daughter and cousin, Faustina the Younger.

Marcus Aurelius was the last successful ruler. He had two sons who were potential heirs. Alongside his brother Commodus, Marcus Annius Verus Caesar was appointed Caesar on October 12, 166 AD, indicating their designation as co-heirs of the Roman Empire. Tragically, Marcus Annius Verus Caesar passed away in 169 AD. It is believed that the reign of Lucius Commodus, the last representative of this dynasty, became synonymous with the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.

Marriage to Marcus Aurelius

She came from the imperial family of the Aurelius Antonines. Faustina’s father was Caesar Antonius Pius Augustus, and her mother was his wife Annia Galeria Faustina the Elder. Exploring the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology by William Smith, we come across interesting information about engagement.

During Hadrian's life, Faustina was betrothed to the son of Aelius Ceaser (Lucius Verus). Still, upon her father's accession, Antoninus Pius, the match was broken off because of Lucius Verus' extreme youth. It was decided that she had to become the bride of Marcus Aurelius, although the marriage was not solemnized until 145. In the spring of 145, Marcus married his cousin Faustina. After her father's death, Faustina ruled next to her husband, for which the Senate granted her the title of Augusta.

The role of women

In Roman history, women enjoyed relative freedom - they could participate in society, visit others, and attend receptions. However, in ancient Rome, women were primarily confined to their families and led very different lives from their husbands, especially concerning their occupations and leisure activities. Despite these legal norms, women exerted significant influence on society. They were revered as mothers of the family and respected by both their children and husbands.

The care provided by Roman authorities for orphans and children from low-income families did not lead to significant population growth. The wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius, Faustina the Elder, founded the "Girls of Faustina" organization. It aimed to educate Roman girls in the right spirit and prepare them for motherhood while also assisting girls who had lost their parents. Faustina the Younger continued the work of the "Girls of Faustina," initiated by her mother, Faustina the Elder.

Faustina and Marcus Aurelius had thirteen children, but only four survived past childhood. One of their surviving children was Commodus, who later became emperor after his father's reign. Another surviving child was Lucilla, who became involved in a major conspiracy against her brother, Commodus.

Faustina's influence and role

Faustina was bestowed with the prestigious title of Augusta on December 1, 147 AD, following the birth of her first child, Domitia Faustina. This honor signified her elevated status as the wife of the future emperor Marcus Aurelius.

During her lifetime and posthumously, Faustina was depicted on various coins, reflecting her prominent position in Roman society. The coinage featuring Faustina the Younger also promoted the imperial cult and reinforced dynastic succession. Images of Faustina alongside her husband, Marcus Aurelius, underscored their partnership and the stability of their reign. Beautiful marble statues of the empress Faustina have been preserved, with many of these historical treasures housed in the British Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Additionally, historical records indicate that Faustina actively participated in Marcus Aurelius's military campaigns, accompanying him to various Roman provinces and Syrian and Egyptian territories. Chroniclers also note her significant authority among military personnel and soldiers. She was even nicknamed the "Mother of the Camps" following the victory over the Quadi in the Pannonian campaign.

Connection with Avidius Cassius

At the instigation of the empress, her lover and concurrently governor in Syria, Avidius Cassius, rebelled and declared himself emperor in Egypt, significantly challenging Marcus Aurelius' authority. Faustina chose what she thought was a good moment: Marcus Aurelius, who had not been in good health since childhood, fell ill once again. But her husband pulled out, and Faustina was utterly horrified by what she had done. She feared Avidius Cassius would tell everyone about his conversations with her. The empress began bombarding her husband with letters in which she begged him to execute the dangerous rebel. One of Historia Augusta's authors, Vulcatius Gallicanus, mentioned a citation from the letter of an insidious woman, Faustina to Marcus Aurelius:

"I shall come to our Alban villa tomorrow, as you command. Yet I urge you now, if you love your children, to punish those rebels with all severity. For soldiers and generals have an evil habit of crushing others if they are not crushed themselves."

Marcus Aurelius wife letter to the emperor

Controversies and scandals

Roman gossip claimed that Faustina was constantly unfaithful to her husband, Emperor Marcus Aurelius. She allegedly had affairs with senators, soldiers, sailors, and gladiators. The historian Sextus Aurelius Victor openly wrote about how the emperor's wife publicly, without any embarrassment, seduced muscular sailors working in the ports. Also, historical evidence has survived to this day, which tells that Faustina seduced some prominent senators, gladiators, and pantomime actors. Moreover, according to Cassius Dio, many ancient contemporaries accused the emperor's wife not only of adultery but even of murder.

The situation in the country was incredibly complicated because Faustina one day began to choose representatives of the highest aristocracy as her lovers. First, the libertine Faustina entered a relationship with Lucius Verus, who was as dissolute as she. Despite being married to her daughter, he agreed to it.

Attitude of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius preferred to ignore Faustina's misdeed. Advisors constantly told the emperor all the details of his wife's obscene affairs, but he refused to believe them, hoping that all this was the city gossip of his opponents and haters.

According to Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius found his wife on his bed with a gladiator one day. Faustina could not do anything other than burst into tears and confess everything to her husband, pointing out that the gods had taken possession of her mind and body.

When Marcus Aurelius was asked to divorce his wife or execute her, he replied:

"If I divorce my wife, I must return her dowry. And what else could be considered a dowry if not the imperial power over Rome, which I received from my father-in-law, being adopted by him by the will of Hadrian?"

Marcus aurelius about divorce

Their son Commodus grew up and even began participating in gladiator fights. There were often rumors circulating that Commodus was not the son of Marcus Aurelius but of the same gladiator with whom Faustina had been involved.

Her death and legacy

Emperor Marcus Aurelius was always respectful towards his wife; he did not blame his wife, although he knew about her adventures. Faustina the Younger passed away in the winter of 175 AD at the military camp in Halala, situated in the Taurus Mountains of Cappadocia. After her death, he tried to perpetuate her memory and claimed her as a deified mortal. Faustina was buried in Hadrian's Mausoleum (Castle of the Holy Angel) in Rome, and a temple was dedicated to her.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius issued a series of gold and silver coins in honor of his wife. After his wife's death, Emperor Marcus Aurelius never married again. He was faithful to the end. Nevertheless, in his book "Meditations," the emperor spoke warmly about his life partner and shared his views on life with readers:

"Love that only which happens to thee and is spun with the thread of thy destiny. For what is more suitable?"

marcus aurelius on love

"Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors."

marcus aurelius on doing good

Connection to Stoicism

Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote a letter to the teacher of rhetoric and his friend Fronto:

"The tribute to my Faustina...I'd rather live with her on the prison island of Gyara than on the Palatine without her..."

marcus aurelius about his wife

Marcus Aurelius did not listen to the advice of the people around him, who convinced him to break up with Faustina. Marcus considered such an act too ignoble to his adoptive father and teacher, Antoninus Pius, who once blessed this marriage.

The early letters between Fronto and Marcus that referred to her, the utter absence of any jealousy in either or cause for jealousy from him. Marcus wrote about their thirteen children and their common griefs. In one letter, the emperor described the coins that bear her effigy, with the words Felicitas (Happiness), Hilaritas (Hilarity), Concordia (Agreement), Pudicitia (Chastity), and Laetitia Publica (Public joy), reflecting Faustina’s significance and the virtues associated with her.

The lack of jealousy between Marcus Aurelius and Faustina and the absence of any recorded cause for jealousy from Marcus suggests a strong and trusting marital relationship. The shared experiences of grief, likely including the loss of children and other personal hardships, would have further strengthened the bond between Faustina and Marcus Aurelius.

The French historian and researcher Ernest Renan called Marcus Aurelius' attitude to his wife an "inexorable gentleness." The ideal of the Stoics is the ideal of the sage: the sage is blessed, free, prosperous, happy, knows everything and has all the virtues. Despite his position of power, Marcus Aurelius believed in showing compassion and empathy towards others and his wife, accepting fate, and acknowledging what is within control. He wrote in "Meditations":

"Adapt yourself to the life you have been given; and truly love the people with whom destiny has surrounded you."

marcus aurelius on life

The historical figure of Faustina the Younger

Although Faustina was not an exemplary wife in some aspects due to her frivolous character, Marcus demonstrated his Stoic nature and accepted the challenge. They lived together until the end of their lives. He showed respect for her, they had many children, and Faustina even died in a military campaign in which she accompanied her husband.

During ancient times, it was unusual for women to participate in war, but Faustina stood by her husband's side during these years. The empress demonstrated her bravery, asserted her equality with her husband, and asserted her title. However, direct evidence for such involvement is sparse and primarily based on the symbolic importance of her presence.

Faustina's influence on the Roman Empire included Cassius's rebellion and her son Commodus, who contributed to the empire's collapse.

Explore "Meditations" on Headway app.

Suppose you're intrigued by ancient wisdom, the family of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina, and how this emperor could think and act precisely as he did in the trials that befell him. In that case, his writings are a treasure trove to be explored. To embark on this enriching journey, it is highly recommended that you explore Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" on the Headway app. Headway provides the perfect platform for engaging with Marcus Aurelius' timeless wisdom and applying it to your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Marcus Aurelius' son?

Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (August 31, 161, Lanuvio - December 31, 192, Rome) was Marcus Aurelius’ son and a Roman emperor, the last representative of the Antonine dynasty, named after his father's co-ruler, Lucius Verus Commodus.

Why did Marcus Aurelius choose Commodus to rule after him?

Marcus Aurelius passed away during a campaign from the plague, leaving Commodus as the sole ruler of the empire. Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor since Vespasian to have legitimate biological sons, but only Commodus survived.

Was Marcus Aurelius' wife unfaithful?

There have been historical accounts and rumors suggesting that Faustina might have been unfaithful, but the accuracy of these accounts is highly debated among historians.

The main sources of these rumors come from the Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors that is known for its unreliable and often sensational content. According to them, Faustina was accused of several affairs and other immoral behavior, but contemporary and modern historians often view these claims with skepticism.

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