NB: This is a draft. I’ll tidy it up and make revisions over time, adding some additional content along the way.
When we’re talking about Marcus Aurelius in relation to Stoicism we inevitably focus on ways his life might illustrate Stoic concepts and practices. However, sometimes people object that might lead to idealizing him. Now, it has to be said that overall the surviving histories do paint a consistently very admiring picture of Marcus’ personal character, and we can find many pieces of circumstantial evidence to support the view of him as a good emperor and a good Stoic. However, there are many criticisms of Marcus to be found in the ancient sources. So for the sake of balance I wanted to present them here as a “negative” history of Marcus. I’ll keep my comments to a minimum and try to present the claims made, although most of them are questionable, and in some cases I’ll point out additional information that’s relevant.
The Historia Augusta (HA) is known by scholars to be an unreliable source, although the quality of individual chapters varies. Nevertheless, the chapters specifically on Marcus’ reign are believed to be among the best (most reliable) among them. There are also remarks about Marcus in the chapters on Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Avidius Cassius, Commodus, and Pertinax, though, and these are perhaps more doubtful. The chapters on Commodus in particular are known to be among the least reliable in the whole text.
The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio is our other major source and considered to be generally more reliable, although often reflecting Dio’s political bias as a senator, having served under Commodus. In addition, there are several other minor historical sources not covered here. Often, as in Herodian’s account, Marcus was presented as the perfect emperor, and little or no criticism was levelled at his reign.
The chapter on Marcus in the Historia Augusta summarizes criticisms of his character as follows:
Nothing did he fear and deprecate more than a reputation for covetousness, a charge of which he tried to clear himself in many letters. Some maintain — and held it a fault — that he was insincere and not as guileless as he seemed, indeed not as guileless as either Pius or Verus had been. Others accused him of encouraging the arrogance of the court by keeping his friends from general social intercourse and from banquets. (HA)
There’s not much indication of covetousness in any other surviving accounts of Marcus’ character, though. There’s surprisingly little reference to it in The Meditations, as though it wasn’t an issue on his mind. What we do find, though, in the histories are several references to unrest caused by austerity during his rule, due the the financial predicament of the empire. Marcus generally comes across as very sincere in other accounts. For instance, we know Hadrian gave him the nickname Verissimus as a child, meaning “most truthful” because of his upright and frank character. There are several criticisms, though, that relate to Marcus not appearing gregarious enough by joining in the celebrations at public games, etc.
There is another indication in the HA that Marcus was perceived in his youth as spoiled and insincere.
Towards [Antoninus] Pius, so far as it appears, [Lucius] Verus showed loyalty rather than affection. Pius, however, loved the frankness of his nature and his unspoiled way of living, and encouraged Marcus to imitate him in these. (HA, Lucius Verus)
Like the HA, Cassius Dio also praises Marcus’ overall character very highly: “So temperately and so firmly did he rule them, that, even when involved in so many and so great wars, he did naught that was unseemly either by way of flattery or as the result of fear.”
Dio does mention Marcus being criticized for financial stinginess, although he feels strongly that this was a completely unjust criticism.
Therefore I am surprised to hear people even today censuring him on the ground that he was not an open-handed prince. For, although in general he was most economical in very truth, yet he never avoided a single necessary expenditure, even though, as I have stated, he burdened no one by levies of money and though he found himself forced to lay out very large sums beyond the ordinary requirements. (Cassius Dio)
It’s likely Marcus was reluctant to spend too much money on things like public entertainments, given the vast expenditure required by the Marcomannic Wars, and the considerable cost to the treasury of the plague and various natural disasters that occurred during his reign. He had no choice but to be thrifty, although that’s something certain groups were bound to resent.
Dio also has the following to say:
In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance. Most of his life he devoted to beneficence […] He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily; but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention; for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretence but to real excellence is clear; for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus, and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence. (Cassius Dio)
Again, Dio is praising Marcus but in doing so perhaps implies that he often turned a blind eye to the flaws of others, especially those of his wife, Faustina.
Aloofness / Austerity
There are several references to the notion that Marcus appeared aloof or overly-austere to some people at times.
It was customary with Marcus to read, listen to, and sign documents at the circus-games; because of this habit he was openly ridiculed, it is said, by the people. (HA)
There’s a remarkably frank letter from Marcus’ rhetoric tutor, Fronto, which confirms this notion.
On occasion, in your absence, I have criticized you in quite severe terms in front of a small circle of my most intimate friends. There was a time when I would do so, for instance, when you entered public gatherings with a more gloomy expression than was fitting, or pored over a book at the theatre or during a banquet (I am speaking of a time when I myself did not yet keep away from theatres and banquets). On such occasions, then, I would call you an insensitive man who failed to act as circumstances demanded, or sometimes even, in an impulse of anger, a disagreeable person. (Letter from Fronto to Marcus)
Notice, though, that Fronto partially retracts this appraisal and mentions that he’s now inclined to keep away from theatres and banquets himself. It’s as though people were saying that Marcus could come across as aloof for not joining in with common pastimes but they sometimes also side with him, and realize that he may have had a point.
Marcus was also allegedly criticized for appearing harsh in his military discipline and life in general because of his adherence to Stoicism. This appears to refer to his personal lifestyle rather than discipline with regard to his troops. Marcus was not perceived as a strict military commander, as the letter of Avidius Cassius below demonstrates. Why would he be so bitterly assailed for this, though? We’re told Marcus wrote speeches or pamphlets disputing what his critics had said rather than punishing them, as a more autocratic emperor may have done.
But because Marcus, as a result of his system of [Stoic] philosophy, seemed harsh in his military discipline and indeed in his life in general, he was bitterly assailed; to all who spoke ill of him, however, he made reply either in speeches or in pamphlets. And because in this German, or Marcomannic, war, or rather I should say in this “War of Many Nations,” many nobles perished, for all of whom he erected statues in the Forum of Trajan, his friends often urged him to abandon the war and return to Rome. He, however, disregarded this advice and stood his ground, nor did he withdraw before he had brought all the wars to a conclusion. (HA)
Undoubtedly many nobles died in the Marcomannic War. There’s a hint here of opposition to the war, albeit from Marcus’ own circle. The context perhaps implies that it was partly the loss of so many eminent Romans that they had in mind when pleading with him to conclude the northern campaign. Many historians believe Marcus was right to fight on, though, and in that case this anecdote can be viewed in a very different light as showing he possessed remarkable integrity and commitment to what he believed was right even when many voices were clamouring for him to abandon the campaign.
Marcus recruiting gladiators into the army seems like an eminently sensible emergency measure given the crisis caused by the sudden Marcomanni-led invasion and the depletion of numbers caused by the plague. However, it was among the aspects of the northern campaign that caused unrest among the population at Rome. It also seems linked to the perception that the emperor was overly-austere because of his Stoicism but he compensated by instructed wealthy Romans on their duty to contribute to other public entertainments.
And while absent from Rome he left forceful instructions that the amusements of the Roman people should be provided for by the richest givers of public spectacles, because, when he took the gladiators away to the war, there was talk among the people that he intended to deprive them of their amusements and thereby drive them to the study of philosophy. Indeed, he had ordered that the actors of pantomimes should begin their performances nine days later than usual in order that business might not be interfered with. There was talk, as we mentioned above, about his wife’s intrigues with pantomimists; however, he cleared her of all these charges in his letters. […] There was a report, furthermore, that certain men masquerading as philosophers had been making trouble both for the state and for private citizens; but this charge he refuted. (HA)
We’ll return to the seemingly very common allegation that his wife was guilty of adultery. Here it’s implied that accusation was made in public during his lifetime, which he actually sought to refute in letters – letters to whom? The last remark is cryptic. Philosophy became “trendy” because of Marcus and it was not unusual for men posing as Cynics in particular, or philosophers of other ilks, to be accused of being charlatans on the make. That would very likely be related to the suffering and desperation caused by the plague, which led the population to depend more than normal on dubious prophets and healers. It’s not clear what’s meant by Marcus refuting this charge, though. Could it perhaps be read as meaning that Marcus refuted the charge they were genuine philosophers, and exposed the fact they were merely charlatans masquerading as philosophers?
The chapter on Marcus in HA notes that he advanced several of his tutors to prestigious official positions. There may have been some additional resentment of those who were poor or foreign being advanced in this way. To be fair, Marcus’ tutors were some of the leading intellectuals in the empire and he naturally knew them well and trusted them as family friends. There was also a high turnover of staff in official posts during his reign because of the plague and the wars, so many people had to be advanced from obscurity to positions of rank.
Of his fellow-pupils he was particularly fond of Seius Fuscianus and Aufidius Victorinus, of the senatorial order, and Baebius Longus and Calenus, of the equestrian. He was very generous to these men, so generous, in fact, that on those whom he could not advance to public office on account of their station in life, he bestowed riches. (HA)
Marcus is presented as gracious and tolerant in the following anecdote from the HA, although the gossip that he had promoted to the office of praetor (magistrate) men who had duelled with fought with him in the arena may well contain a grain of truth. This may refer to duelling with blunted weapons or possibly wrestling or boxing, all pastimes Marcus enjoyed. It could be a reference to gladiators who trained him in swordplay but I think it’s perhaps more likely to refer to fellow-students of wrestling and boxing.
For example, when he advised a man of abominable reputation, who was running for office, a certain Vetrasinus, to stop the town-talk about himself, and Vetrasinus replied that many who had fought with him in the arena were now praetors, the Emperor took it with good grace. (HA)
Alleged Murder of Lucius Verus
Many stories are told of Lucius Verus’ debauchery and Marcus is arguably portrayed as turning a blind eye. This perhaps began earlier but appears to have become much worse during the war and after Lucius’ return to Rome. The HA chapter on Lucius Verus recounts tales of Lucius’ debauchery in detail and says of Marcus:
But Marcus, though he was not without knowledge of these happenings, with characteristic modesty pretended ignorance for fear of censuring his brother. One such banquet, indeed, became very notorious. […] The estimated cost of the whole banquet, it is reported, was six million sesterces. And when Marcus heard of this dinner, they say, he groaned and bewailed the fate of the empire. (HA, Lucius Verus)
It suggests Marcus sent Lucius to the east with the hope of changing his habits.
This diversity in their manner of life, as well as many other causes, bred dissensions between Marcus and Verus — or so it was bruited about by obscure rumours although never established on the basis of manifest truth. But, in particular, this incident was mentioned: Marcus sent a certain Libo, a cousin of his, as his legate to Syria, and there Libo acted more insolently than a respectful senator should, saying that he would write to his cousin if he happened to need any advice. But [Lucius] Verus, who was there in Syria, could not suffer this, and when, a little later, Libo died after a sudden illness accompanied by all the symptoms of poisoning, it seemed probable to some people, though not to Marcus, that Verus was responsible for his death; and this suspicion strengthened the rumours of dissensions between the Emperors. (HA)
However, rumours of poisoning were very much the norm in Rome when someone of note died unexpectedly. The HA chapter on Marcus also says:
And yet, for waging the Parthian war through his legates, he [Lucius Verus] was acclaimed Imperator, while meantime Marcus was at all hours keeping watch over the workings of the state, and, though reluctantly and sorely against his will, but nevertheless with patience, was enduring the debauchery of his brother. In a word, Marcus, though residing at Rome, planned and executed everything necessary to the prosecution of the war. (HA)
In addition to another mention of Marcus turning a blind eye to Lucius’ excesses, it’s insinuated that Lucius took a back seat. He reputedly let his generals, particularly Avidius Cassius, fight the war, although it’s also claimed that Marcus maintained strategic command from back at Rome. Yet Lucius later claimed the glory of celebrating a triumph at Rome.
It’s elsewhere implied that Marcus was suspected of wanting to claim the glory of Rome’s victory in the Parthian War by travelling east to join the troops late in the game.
Immediately thereafter he returned to Rome, recalled by the talk of those who said that he wished to appropriate to himself the glory of finishing the war and had therefore set out for Syria. (HA)
This is somewhat negated by the fact he turned back, and never visited the east during the war. However, there are several references to the notion that Marcus played an important role in the Parthian War behind the scenes and perhaps resented Lucius taking the glory, especially as he seems to have contributed little despite being stationed in Syria with the troops.
A more serious allegation arises, mentioned several times, that Lucius’ death was somehow caused by Marcus.
Such was Marcus’ sense of honour, moreover, that although [Lucius] Verus’ vices mightily offended him, he concealed and defended them; he also deified him after his death, aided and advanced his aunts and sisters by means of honours and pensions, honoured Verus himself with many sacrifices, consecrated a flamen for him and a college of Antonine priests, and gave him all honours that are appointed for the deified. There is no emperor who is not the victim of some evil tale, and Marcus is no exception. For it was bruited about, in truth, that he put Verus out of the way, either with poison — by cutting a sow’s womb with a knife smeared on one side with poison,a and then offering the poisoned portion to his brother to eat, while keeping the harmless portion for himself — or, at least, by employing the physician Posidippus, who bled Verus, it is said, unseasonably. After Verus’ death [Avidius] Cassius revolted from Marcus. (HA, Marcus Aurelius)
Note that even the author of the Historia Augusta appears to view these rumours as absurd. Again, when someone of note, especially an Emperor, died suddenly, Romans inevitably loved to gossip that they had been murdered.
The end of the above passage is very peculiar and intriguing. Avidius Cassius revolted six years after Lucius Verus’ death but the HA seems to imply some unspoken connection between these events. Indeed, if rumours existed that Marcus had murdered Lucius that would potentially have lent weight to Cassius’ rebellion. It could also be that the author of the HA seeks to imply that Cassius or his supporters spread this gossip.
The same rumour is repeated in the chapter on Lucius Verus but again the author of the Historia Augusta categorically dismisses it as ridiculous gossip. Using a knife smeared on one side with poison to cut meat was a notorious technique of assassination.
There is a well-known story, which Marcus’ manner of life will not warrant, that Marcus handed Verus part of a sow’s womb which he had poisoned by cutting it with a knife smeared on one side with poison. But it is wrong even to think of such a deed in connection with Marcus, although the plans and deeds of Verus may have well deserved it; nor shall we leave the matter undecided, but rather reject it discarded and disproved, since from the time of Marcus onward […] not even flattery, it seems, has been able to fashion such an emperor. (HA, Lucius Verus)
Could Marcus have murdered Lucius Verus? Possibly. In The Meditations and his private letters to Fronto, though, Marcus seems quite affectionate toward his brother. Also, it was at Marcus’ behest that Lucius was appointed co-emperor in the first place, and Marcus betrothed him to his own daughter. The death of Lucius came at a very inopportune time for Marcus, at the start of the Marcomannic War. Finally, Lucius’ reported symptoms (sudden loss of consciousness and difficulty speaking) actually resemble those of the plague, which had broken out nearby, making it seem more plausible that the disease had claimed him.
The HA chapter on Lucius Verus elsewhere once again raises and disputes this rumour, throwing in the gossip that Lucius had slept with Marcus’ wife. So altogether three different people were rumoured to have been responsible for poisoning Lucius Verus: Marcus, his wife Faustina, and Lucius’ wife Lucilla. Clearly the gossip was running wild.
There was gossip to the effect that he had violated his mother-in‑law Faustina. And it is said that his mother-in‑law killed him treacherously by having poison sprinkled on his oysters, because he had betrayed to the daughter the amour he had had with the mother. However, there arose also that other story related in the Life of Marcus, one utterly inconsistent with the character of such a man. Many, again, fastened the crime of his death upon his wife, since Verus had been too complaisant to Fabia, and her power his wife Lucilla could not endure. Indeed, Lucius and his sister Fabia did become so intimate that gossip went so far as to claim that they had entered into a conspiracy to make away with Marcus, and that when this was betrayed to Marcus by the freedman Agaclytus, Faustina circumvented Lucius in fear that he might circumvent her. (HA, Lucius Verus)
This last rumour that Lucius plotted to overthrow Marcus but was assassinated himself before he could carry out the plan is also found in Cassius Dio.
Lucius gloried in these exploits [of the Parthian War] and took great pride in them, yet his extreme good fortune did him no good; for he is said to have engaged in a plot later against his father-in‑law Marcus and to have perished by poison before he could carry out any of his plans. (Cassius Dio)
As noted above, Marcus was believed to have been co-ordinating the Parthian War behind the scenes but also accused of considering trying to steal Lucius’ glory by travelling out to the east to join him. We’re told that after laying Lucius Verus to rest, Marcus hinted to the senate that he should be credited himself with the victories of the Parthian War.
Later, while rendering thanks to the senate for his brother’s deification, he darkly hinted that all the strategic plans whereby the Parthians had been overcome were his own. He added, besides, certain statements in which he indicated that now at length he would make a fresh beginning in the management of the state, now that Verus, who had seemed somewhat negligent, was removed. And the senate took this precisely as it was said, so that Marcus seemed to be giving thanks that Verus had departed this life. (HA)
As we’ve seen the HA elsewhere claims that it was in fact true that Marcus was responsible for strategy in the Parthian War. This seems problematic because Marcus was at Rome, far removed from the armies in Syria, and the delay in communication caused by such a distance would have severely limited his ability to co-ordinate the military strategy. We also know that Marcus dropped use of the title Parthicus after Lucius death, which seems to confirm the conflicting story that he was reluctant to be credited with the victory himself. (On the other hand it could have been a deliberate effort to scotch the rumour that he’d murdered Lucius and sought to take credit for his achievements.)
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius
The HA reports an excerpt from a purported letter of Lucius Verus to Marcus Aurelius, which is generally considered to be a fake as it mistakenly calls Antoninus Pius Lucius’ grandfather and Marcus’ father, falsely implying that Marcus had adopted Lucius. (That said, it is contradicted a few lines later where Hadrian is called Lucius’ grandfather, so it may just be a scribal error.)
Everything we do displeases him [Cassius], he is amassing no inconsiderable wealth, and he laughs at our letters. He calls you a philosophical old woman, me a half-witted spendthrift. (HA, Avidius Cassius)
The civil war declared by rival Emperor Avidius Cassius in 175 AD against Marcus certainly proves that he faced serious opposition within the empire. Cassius had some powerful supporters for his rebellion, including a number of senators, the prefect of Alexandria, and presumably several other Roman generals. He was acclaimed by the Egyptian legion and had a strong base of support in his own province of Syria. After the civil war was quelled, Marcus had to deal with the simmering unrest in Syria, especially in its capital, the epicentre of the rebellion, Antioch. Until then, he’d never visited the east, and he cold also be criticized on the basis that his failure to tour the eastern provinces contributed to the discontent there that culminated in Cassius’ rebellion in Syria.
[Marcus] pardoned the communities which had sided with Cassius, and even went so far as to pardon the citizens of Antioch, who had said many things in support of Cassius and in opposition to himself. But he did abolish their games and public meetings, including assemblies of every kind, and issued a very severe edict against the people themselves. And yet a speech which Marcus delivered to his friends, reported by [the lost biography of] Marius Maximus, brands them as rebels. And finally, he refused to visit Antioch when he journeyed to Syria, nor would he visit Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius. Later on, however, he did visit Antioch. Alexandria, when he stayed there, he treated with clemency.
Which citizens of Antioch and what exactly did they say? Serious measures were taken by Marcus after the war to prevent further uprising there suggesting that significant unrest continued. Lucius Verus had previously made his base at Antioch during the Parthian War but was reputedly ridiculed by the natives. Perhaps that left a lasting resentment and desire for an alternative ruler.
The citizens of Antioch also had sided with Avidius Cassius, but these, together with certain other states which had aided Cassius, he [Marcus] pardoned, though at first he was deeply angered at the citizens of Antioch and took away their games and many of the distinctions of the city, all of which he afterwards restored. (HA, Avidius Cassius)
The HA attributes the following letter to Avidius Cassius, where Marcus is accused, despite being the “best of men”, of being overly tolerant of those who sought to grow rich under his rule. Cassius came from a wealthy Syrian family of exceptionally noble descent so he may simply be snobbish about Marcus’ tendency to promote men of humble origins to high office in a meritocratic fashion, e.g., as in the case of his two most senior generals on the northern frontier: Claudius Pompeianus and Pertinax. Pompeianus was also a Syrian, like Avidius Cassius, but of very humble origins and yet they were probably the two most powerful generals in the empire and at a time contenders for the throne. It’s easy to imagine Cassius would have been critical of Pompeianus’ status given his low birth and he would perhaps have the notion of Pompeianus being elevated above him as emperor, intolerable.
Unhappy state, unhappy, which suffers under men who are eager for riches and men who have grown rich! Marcus is indeed the best of men, but one who wishes to be called merciful and hence suffers to live men whose manner of life he cannot sanction. Where is Lucius Cassius [apparently an error for C. Cassius Longinus], whose name we bear in vain? Where is that other Marcus, Cato the Censor [i.e., Cato the Elder]? Where is all the rigour of our fathers? Long since indeed has it perished, and now it is not even desired. Marcus [Aurelius] Antoninus philosophizes and meditates on first principles, and on souls and virtue and justice, and takes no thought for the state. There is need, rather, for many swords, as you see for yourself, and for much practical wisdom, in order that the state may return to its ancient ways. And truly in regard to those governors of provinces — can I deem proconsuls or governors those who believe that their provinces were given them by the senate and Antoninus only in order that they might revel and grow rich? You have heard that our philosopher’s prefect of the guard was a beggar and a pauper three days before his appointment, and then suddenly became rich. How, I ask you, save from the vitals of the state and the purses of the provincials? Well then, let them be rich, let them be wealthy. In time they will stuff the imperial treasury; only let the gods favour the better side, let the men of Cassius restore to the state a lawful government. (HA, Avidius Cassius)
The need for “many swords” is puzzling as Marcus had massed a huge army in the north but perhaps alludes to the emphasis his strategy placed upon the use of diplomatic negotiation rather than military force. It’s likely Avidius Cassius was a more hawkish military commander than Marcus.
Cassius Dio appears to say that a number of Roman senators as well as generals, heads of state, and kings, were implicated in Cassius’ rebellion, and also that when he pardoned a number of co-conspirators the senate were worried it would pave the way for similar uprisings to recur in the future.
A law was passed at this time that no one should serve as governor in the province from which he had originally come, inasmuch as the revolt of Cassius had occurred during his administration of Syria, which included his native district. (Cassius Dio)
On the one hand, this was prudent of Marcus. On the other hand, it arguably implies it was a serious mistake for him to have appointed Cassius governor in his home province of Syria in the first place, as this allowed him to gain so much power that he inevitably became a danger to the throne. The very fact of the civil war points to an obvious line of criticism against Marcus for allowing it to develop by granting too much power to Cassius and perhaps not doing enough to secure loyalty from the people and the legions of Syria, Egypt, and the other regions who went over to Cassius.
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius proves that Marcus had a rival for the throne and powerful internal enemies. However, there were also several lesser uprisings in the east and other parts of the empire. There was unrest far away in Britain where the legionaries early in Marcus’ rule had reputedly sought to acclaim their governor, Statius Priscus, as a rival emperor to Marcus.
The histories mention that there was a violent uprising of the Bucoli or Herdsmen in Egypt against Roman rule, which spread rapidly to become a general armed uprising, during which the Roman garrison in Egypt was defeated in battle and Alexandria was besieged and nearly lost.
The people called the Bucoli began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. […] Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they came near capturing Alexandria, too, and would have succeeded, had not [Avidius] Cassius been sent against them from Syria. (Cassius Dio)
Why would the Herdsmen revolt? The most likely explanation is that they felt that they were suffering economically due to the expense of the Marcomannic War. Throughout the empire there was probably also unrest over the loss of soldiers’ lives during the northern campaign.
Marcus recruited many captured barbarians into the army during the Marcomannic War. He also tried to resettle many on lands within the empire but this met with mixed success:
Some of them [captured enemy soldiers] were sent on campaigns elsewhere, as were also the [returned] captives and deserters who were fit for service; others received land [to settle] in Dacia, Pannonia, Moesia, the province of Germany, and in Italy itself. Some of them, now, who settled at Ravenna, made an uprising and even went so far as to seize possession of the city: and for this reason Marcus did not again bring any of the barbarians into Italy, but even banished those who had previously come there. (Cassius Dio)
These two measures may have been perceived by him as more just alternatives to enslavement of captured enemies. We’re told he expelled the resettled barbarians from Italy, but not from the provinces, so the general policy of resettlement presumably continued.
Alleged Infidelity of Empress Faustina
There were clearly many rumours in circulation accusing Marcus’ wife, the Empress Faustina the Younger, of adultery. As with allegations of poisoning, gossip about the infidelity of powerful Romans’ wives was fairly common in Rome. We’re told several times that Marcus was criticized for turning a blind eye to these rumours. Some of the time, accusing Faustina of adultery seems to have served the purpose of implying that Commodus was not Marcus’ legitimate son, although this doesn’t seem the only motive for the stories.
The HA is speculating in the following passage when it says it “seems plausible” that Commodus was not the son of Marcus but born to Faustina from an adulterous relationship. One piece of tangible evidence that we possess in abundance appears to count against this: statues of Commodus show that he bore a striking physical resemblance to Marcus, his father. The HA adds a salacious anecdote about Faustina and Marcus ritually bathing in the blood of Commodus’ supposed true father, a gladiator. This obviously seems very out of character for Marcus. It should be noted that even after admitting that he is speculating about what “seems plausible” the author of the HA further qualifies this graphic part of the story as an embellishment current among the people.
Some say, and it seems plausible, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was not begotten by him, but in adultery; they embroider this assertion, moreover, with a story current among the people. On a certain occasion, it was said, Faustina, the daughter of Pius and wife of Marcus, saw some gladiators pass by, and was inflamed for love of one of them; and afterwards, when suffering from a long illness, she confessed the passion to her husband. And when Marcus reported this to the Chaldeans, it was their advice that Faustina should bathe in his blood and thus couch with her husband. When this was done, the passion was indeed allayed, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince; for afterwards as emperor he fought almost a thousand gladiatorial bouts before the eyes of the people, as shall be related in his life. This story is considered plausible, as a matter of fact, for the reason that the son of so virtuous a prince had habits worse than any trainer of gladiators, any play-actor, any fighter in the arena, anything brought into existence from the offscourings of all dishonour and crime. (HA)
The HA continues this passage by claiming that the stories about Commodus being born in adultery was very widespread, although doubt has already been cast on their plausibility.
Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really begotten in adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators. When Marcus Antoninus was told about this, that he might divorce, if not kill her, he is reported to have said “If we send our wife away, we must also return her dowry”. And what was her dowry? the Empire, which, after he had been adopted at the wish of Hadrian, he had inherited from his father-in‑law [Antoninus] Pius. (HA)
This isn’t impossible but there’s no known basis for assuming that Marcus’ claim to the throne actually depended in any real way on his being married to Faustina. Marcus’ claim to the throne came from his adoption by Antoninus Pius and his “grandfather” the Emperor Hadrian, not because of his later marriage to Faustina.
Faustina had originally been betrothed to Lucius Verus, at Hadrian’s request. However, after Hadrian’s death, in 138 AD, her father Antoninus Pius cancelled this arrangement and she was betrothed to Marcus instead. Marcus and Faustina were married seven years later in 145 AD. Because Marcus had been adopted by Antoninus, under Roman law, he was technically Faustina’s brother. Antoninus would have had to release one of them, presumably Faustina, from his paternal authority for the marriage to be legal. A few years later, in 147 AD, their first daughter was born and Antoninus granted Faustina the title of Augusta, or empress. Could this have been perceived by Antoninus as a necessary step to secure her claim on the throne after having to relinquish his legal status as her father? The situation was thereby complicated. It’s tempting to wonder whether rumours about Faustina’s fidelity were being spread as a way of undermining Marcus’ claim to the throne.
But truly such is the power of the life, the holiness, the serenity, and the righteousness of a good emperor that not even the scorn felt for his kin can sully his own good name. For since [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus held ever to his moral code and was moved by no man’s whispered machinations, men thought no less of him because his son was a gladiator, his wife infamous. (HA)
Elsewhere the HA adds an anecdote about Marcus being ridiculed in public over his wife’s alleged infidelities. He was reputedly criticized by the people of Rome for doing nothing in response.
It is held to Marcus’ discredit that he advanced his wife’s lovers, Tertullus and Tutilius and Orfitus and Moderatus, to various offices of honour, although he had caught Tertullus in the very act of breakfasting with his wife. In regard to this man the following dialogue was spoken on the stage in the presence of [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus himself. The Fool asked the Slave the name of his wife’s lover and the Slave answered “Tullus” three times; and when the Fool kept on asking, the Slave replied, “I have already told you thrice Tullus is his name”. But the city-populace and others besides talked a great deal about this incident and found fault with Antoninus for his forbearance. (HA)
Regarding Faustina, every indication is that Marcus held her in very high regard. In The Meditations he thanks the gods that “my wife is such as she is, so obedient, so affectionate, so straightforward” (1.17). This obviously contradicts the image of an unfaithful, scheming and deceitful woman emerging from the rumours. Indeed, after her death, Marcus honoured her very highly despite the allegations apparently made against her.
He asked the senate to decree her divine honours and a temple, and likewise delivered a eulogy of her, although she had suffered grievously from the reputation of lewdness. Of this, however, Antoninus was either ignorant or affected ignorance. He established a new order of Faustinian girls in honour of his dead wife, expressed his pleasure at her deification by the senate, and because she had accompanied him on his summer campaign, called her “Mother of the Camp”. And besides this, he made the village where Faustina died a colony, and there built a temple in her honour.
Today, Marcus is often blamed for appointing his son Commodus as his heir as he turned out to be a bad emperor, according to sources such as Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta. Some points about this should be clarified first, though. We can presume that it was initially expected that his younger co-emperor and adoptive brother, the Emperor Lucius Verus, would outlive Marcus. Lucius would therefore have initially been Marcus’ supposed successor. While Lucius was still alive, though, immediately after the Parthian War and outbreak of the Antonine Plague, Marcus appointed two of his sons, Commodus and his younger brother Marcus Annius Verus, as Caesar, his official heirs. This was probably at the behest of the senate who were concerned about stability because of the possibility the two emperors might die suddenly from plague or in the impending war on the northern frontier.
At this point, presumably the expectation was if Marcus died Lucius would continue to rule with Commodus becoming his co-emperor when old enough, and that later Commodus would rule jointly with his brother Marcus Annius Verus, much as the “brothers” Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had done. Marcus clearly favoured joint rule, having two co-emperors sharing power, as a means of securing stability. This approach may also have been favoured by the senate. It provided another check against the risk of a sole emperor becoming too much of an autocrat or tyrant. However, Commodus was only about five years old when he was made Caesar, official heir to the throne. Marcus probably barely knew him and certainly had no idea what his character would turn out like. Moreover, for eight years, they would mostly be apart, with Commodus at Rome and Marcus busy on the northern frontier with the army. As we’ve seen, Lucius died suddenly in 169 AD leaving Marcus as sole emperor, with his sons mere children, too young to be acclaimed emperor. Moreover, Marcus Annius Verus would die around the same time, leaving Commodus as Marcus’ only surviving son and the natural heir to the empire. Lucius had no children.
Although most previous emperors had adopted their heirs that was because they lacked adult sons who could assume power. The Roman people nevertheless instinctively believed in the natural succession of rule, from father to son. The senate worried that any situation where an individual who has a claim to the throne was left in the wings inevitably led to instability and the threat of civil war. So Marcus could not easily have replaced Commodus with an adopted heir. Moreover, once Commodus had been appointed Caesar, as a small child, Marcus could not easily have reversed that decision. Of course, one option would have been to have had Commodus assassinated but despite allegations of poisoning, etc., we can assume that was not something Marcus would have considered ethical. (We might ask why Marcus chose to have children in the first place if it meant that he would be put in this awkward situation, having a hereditary heir forced on him whose character could not be known in advance to be suitable.)
We can see that Commodus’ rise was rapidly accelerated in response to the civil war of Avidius Cassius. Marcus immediately called him, now aged fifteen, from Rome to the northern frontier, to assume the toga virilis, and officially become an adult citizen. In 177 AD, Marcus appointed Commodus his co-emperor. So strictly speaking, Commodus didn’t just succeed Marcus, but rather their reigns overlapped by three years. It’s not clear to what extent Marcus realized that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor. However, some accounts suggest that it was in this final years that his true character became apparent, although by then he was already acclaimed emperor.
According to Cassius Dio, Commodus wasn’t so much wicked as easily led and became progressively corrupted by a crowd of hangers-on.
This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature. And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)
Herodian also portrays Commodus as not initially wicked but rather naive and easily swayed. In particular he claimed that Marcus intended Commodus to stay under the watchful eye of his brother-in-law the general Pompeianus on the northern frontier but Commodus found excuses to leave for Rome, and away from Pompeianus and the military he rapidly fell under the sway of corrupt advisors.
However, the HA says that earlier in Commodus’ life, Marcus had sometimes vacillated, dismissing and then re-appointing corrupt advisors, whose company his son craved.
The more honourable of those appointed to supervise his life he could not endure, but the most evil he retained, and, if any were dismissed, he yearned for them even to the point of falling sick. When they were reinstated through his father’s indulgence, he always maintained eating-houses and low resorts for them in the imperial palace. (HA, Commodus)
Commodus apparently spent most of his time travelling with Marcus or stationed on the northern frontier after the outbreak of the civil war, when he was aged about fifteen. So this remark is puzzling because it doesn’t seem intended to refer to his earlier life as a child growing up in Rome but as an adult, during Marcus’ reign, yet throughout this time Commodus was probably seldom at the imperial palace in Rome.
The HA claims that on his deathbed Marcus finally realized that Commodus was going to be a terrible emperor.
Two days before his death, it is said, [Marcus] summoned his friends and expressed the same opinion about his son that Philip expressed about Alexander when he too thought poorly of his son, and added that it grieved him exceedingly to leave a son behind him. For already Commodus had made it clear that he was base and cruel. (HA)
It is said that he foresaw that after his death Commodus would turn out as he actually did, and expressed the wish that his son might die, lest, as he himself said, he should become another Nero, Caligula, or Domitian. (HA)
As we’ve seen, though, by this point there was very little Marcus could do about it except plead with Commodus to remain under the supervision of his son-in-law Claudius Pompeianus and other trusted advisors.
There’s a story about Marcus’ mother wishing Antoninus dead, so her son would succeed him as emperor more quickly, but it’s rendered trivial by the surrounding remarks.
Moreover, he showed great deference to his father, though there were not lacking those who whispered things against him, especially Valerius Homullus, who, when he saw Marcus’ mother Lucilla worshipping in her garden before a shrine of Apollo, whispered, “Yonder woman is now praying that you may come to your end, and her son rule.” All of which influenced Pius not in the least, such was Marcus’ sense of honour and such his modesty while heir to the throne. (HA)
Marcus waited 23 years to succeed Antoninus, far longer than anyone probably expected, so it’s unsurprising people might joke that he (or his family) were feeling impatient.
This is not presented by the HA as a criticism of Marcus but modern historians believe that on being acclaimed Marcus and Lucius provided an exceptionally large donative to the praetorian guard. They promised the common soldiers twenty-thousand sesterces apiece, and even more to officers. It’s not clear why they would do this as Rome faced no immediate threat at this time and there’s no indication the praetorians were restless.
Around 176 AD, Marcus visited Athens for the first time and was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.
After he had settled affairs in the East he came to Athens, and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries in order to prove that he was innocent of any wrong-doing, and he entered the sanctuary unattended. (HA)
This suggests that he felt it necessary to make a public demonstration of his innocence, perhaps because of rumours circulating such as those accusing him of assassinating Lucius Verus. Initiates in the mysteries were expected to confess their worst sins to the officiating priests and this may have been under oath and facing the threat of severe punishment in the afterlife if they were dishonest.
This final passage is barely a criticism either but it does show Marcus backtracking on a decision he apparently made in anger or frustration following a political betrayal at the height of the First Marcomannic War.
Against Ariogaesus [the king of the Quadi] Marcus was so bitter that he issued a proclamation to the effect that anyone who brought him in alive should receive a thousand gold pieces, and anyone who slew him and exhibited his head, five hundred. Yet in general the emperor was always accustomed to treat even his most stubborn foes humanely […] It can be seen from this, then, how exasperated he was against Ariogaesus at this time; nevertheless, when the man was later captured, he did him no harm, but merely sent him off [in exile] to Alexandria. (Cassius Dio)
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