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Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, who lives in Canada and Greece. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy. His bestselling self-help book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor has been translated into eighteen languages.
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This is a first draft. I’ve not supplied detailed references because I’m writing it off the top of my head just to get it out there. Please correct any errors. I’ll check it later and add references, etc. So apologies for any typos or whatever!
One of the most commonly asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism is why Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors, would have allowed Commodus, who turned out to be a terrible emperor, to succeed him. Sometimes people are just puzzled by this. Sometimes they criticize Marcus for failing in his duty either to bring up a better son or appoint a better heir. Sometimes they’ve seen the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which focuses on the character of Commodus as a bad emperor, and ask questions about its historical accuracy. It’s a question that interests me because I run a course about the relationship between Marcus Aurelius’ life and his Stoic philosophy called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and I’ve just finished writing a book on the same subject.
Marcus and Commodus in Gladiator
Let me start by briefly recapping what happens in Gladiator because those images seem to influence a lot of these discussions… In the first act, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is depicted as Caesar, the heir to the Roman empire, with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), on the northern frontier, during the Second Marcomannic War. A frail and elderly Marcus tells Commodus that he has changed his mind about appointing him emperor and that one of his generals, Maximus (Russell Crowe), will serve as an interim ruler managing Rome’s transition back to a republic.
MARCUS: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?
COMMODUS [with a slight smile on his face]: Yes, father.
MARCUS: You will not be Emperor.
COMMODUS [the smile quickly vanishes leaving in its place painful bewilderment]: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?
MARCUS: My powers will pass to Maximus to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a Republic again.
Commodus then strangles his father, makes himself emperor anyway, and tries to have Maximus murdered, setting up the plot for the rest of the film.
There’s also a Netflix docuseries about Commodus called Roman Empire: Reign of Blood (2016), which approaches the subject from a slightly more historical perspective. Several academics appear as talking heads, discussing Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and dramatized sections are interspersed depicting the events of his life. The experts are fairly reliable but the dramatized segments are a little hit and miss in their depiction, inevitably, as they have to make things exciting for the viewer and where there’s some uncertainty or conflict in the ancient sources they sometimes pick the most sensational story to tell.
Some Key Facts
This is a slightly complicated story. However, I find it helps to begin just by stating a few important historical facts, which I believe are partly obscured by the portrayal of events in Gladiator, although even people who have never seen that movie are often mistaken on these points.
- At the time Commodus was appointed heir, Marcus was still ruling alongside his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, who was nine years younger, and much fitter than the notoriously frail and sickly Marcus, so presumably Lucius was expected to be Marcus’ immediate successor.
- Marcus and Lucius together appointed Commodus Caesar, official heir to the throne, along with his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, on 12th October 166, when Commodus was a child aged five years old. Presumably at this time the most likely scenario would have been that when Marcus died, Commodus would serve alongside Lucius Verus as his junior co-emperor.
- Commodus had already been ruling as Emperor for about three years before Marcus died. Marcus had his son acclaimed Imperator on 27th November 176 AD and later, in the summer of 177 AD, he was granted the title Augustus, making him co-emperor with Marcus.
So whereas Commodus is portrayed as Caesar in the movie Gladiator, waiting to succeed Marcus, who then refuses to let him take the throne, in reality Commodus had already been emperor for about three years before Marcus died. Incidentally, although there were rumours that Commodus had Marcus assassinated, which Cassius Dio repeats, he also says that when Marcus was dying he took the precaution of having his son taken under armed guard so that he couldn’t be accused of his murder.
[Marcus Aurelius] passed away on the seventeenth of March, not as a result of the disease from which he still suffered, but by the act of his physicians, as I have been plainly told, who wished to do Commodus a favour. When now he was at the point of death, he commended his son to the protection of the soldiers (for he did not wish his death to appear to be due to Commodus) […] (Cassius Dio)
Marcus was nearly sixty and apparently dying of the plague, so it hardly seems necessary for Commodus to have gone to the trouble of ordering his physicians to assassinate him, although it’s possible.
Hadrian’s Succession Plan
Now let’s get a little deeper into the complexities… Imperial succession arrangements were often complicated and mysterious. To understand Commodus we have to go right back to his great-grandfather, by adoption, the emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was childless. Toward the end of his life his behaviour was becoming erratic. He surprised everyone by choosing a man called Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor. Hadrian granted him the imperial title Caesar, starting a tradition that the heir to the throne would take that title in advance. However, the man died suddenly about a year later, forcing Hadrian to come up with another candidate.
He then adopted a man called Aurelius Antoninus and appointed him Caesar on condition that Antoninus would in turn adopt a young boy called Marcus Annius Verus and make him his own successor. The boy Marcus took Antoninus’ family name and became forever known as Marcus Aurelius. So there was a plan that stretched decades into the future. However, these arrangements could easily be overturned by events. The man Hadrian had originally appointed Caesar had a young son, also called Lucius. The Senate were terrified of the possibility of civil war caused by rival factions fighting over claims to the throne. When Hadrian died he was hated by the Senate for spying on and executing his enemies at Rome. He’d also left them with the problem of what to do about the boy Lucius.
Marcus and Lucius as Co-Emperors
When the Emperor Antoninus died, Marcus Aurelius was acclaimed emperor but he insisted that the Senate recognize Lucius as his co-emperor. Lucius then took Marcus’ family name and became the Emperor Lucius Verus. Lucius was also betrothed to Marcus’ young daughter, Lucilla, making him Marcus’ son-in-law as well as his adoptive brother. (I know, it’s confusing but bear with me…) This was the first time that Rome had been ruled by two emperors jointly. It was probably considered necessary to unite the empire and prevent instability caused by the mess Hadrian had left by creating two rival dynasties with a claim on the throne.
The histories make it clear that although on paper they were (virtually) equals, Marcus was effectively the senior party and Lucius obeyed him like a provincial governor or a lieutenant in the army. I won’t go too much into Lucius’ character except to say he was quite the opposite of Marcus and whereas Marcus was a workaholic who spent his youth tirelessly studying and gaining experience of Roman law and government, Lucius was very idle and clearly came nowhere near Marcus’ level of competence and experience as a ruler. The one thing Marcus lacked was any military experience. As far as we know Lucius didn’t have any either but he was young, handsome, obsessed with sports, and probably quite popular, so it seems his role was envisaged as having more to do with the military. When the two emperors were acclaimed, indeed, it was Lucius who was sent to deliver a speech to the soldiers, and not long after, when the Parthian War broke out, Marcus sent Lucius to Syria to oversee the campaign.
We’ve no direct confirmation of this but it stands to reason that at this point in time it would have been assumed that Lucius would outlive Marcus and effectively become his successor. Lucius was nine years younger than Marcus and much fitter and healthier than him. He was also married to Marcus’ daughter, and it was said Marcus treated him more like a son than a brother. He may also have been a bad emperor but it seems that Marcus felt it was necessary, for some reason, to appoint him. Presumably because it was feared that a rival dynasty would split the empire, which in turn would leave it vulnerable to invasion, as we’ll see.
Lucius didn’t really distinguish himself during the Parthian War. He reputedly spent his time partying far away from the action and let his generals do all the work for him. One in particular, Avidius Cassius, became a rising star, and we’ll be returning to his part in the story later. However, Lucius returned to Rome and celebrated his victory. Unfortunately, the Roman legions returning to their garrisons across Europe brought back a disease, probably a strain of smallpox, which became known as the Antonine Plague. This pestilence ravaged the empire throughout the rest of Marcus’ reign and well into the reign of Commodus. We’re told bodies were carried out of Rome by the cartload. It’s been estimated that five million people across the empire may have died as a result of this plague. The Antonine Plague is an important character in this story because the histories tell us that by taking the lives of so many people it disrupted society in many ways. Those to whom family fortunes were bequeathed died prematurely. Experienced senators, military officers, and government officials died prematurely and had to be replaced – there was a high turnover of staff in important positions. We can see this affected the imperial succession also.
The Marcomannic Wars
Shortly after Lucius returned, a huge coalition army of barbarian tribes from the north, led by King Ballomar of the Marcomanni, invaded the northern provinces of the Roman Empire. They proceeded across the Alps, Rome’s natural defensive barrier, and rampaged through Italy, finally besieging the Italian city of Aquileia. This time both Marcus and Lucius took command of the military response and left Rome together to drive the barbarian horde out of Italy and liberate the northern province of Pannonia. War in the north would occupy Marcus for most of the rest of his reign and it would also cost the lives of many Romans, including men in senior positions. The city of Rome itself was thrown into total panic by the news that a barbarian army had penetrated Italy, because they feared Rome would be sacked.
Ballomar had seized the opportunity when Rome was weak. Beleaguered troops were still on their way back to their garrisons in the north from the Parthian War far to the east. The legions had also been devastated by the plague, which thrived in the conditions found in army camps. It was at this time that Marcus and Lucius agreed to appoint Marcus’ two sons, Commodus and Marcus Annius Verus, as two Caesars. This was undoubtedly done in response to the panic at Rome. Although his own succession had been planned by Hadrian far in advance, Marcus himself wasn’t appointed Caesar by Antoninus until he was eighteen. It was clearly assumed that both Marcus and Lucius might die suddenly and that it was better to have a successor in place than leave Rome in chaos. The death rate among children due to the plague would have been particularly high. That may be one reason why two boys were appointed Caesar but it’s also likely that Marcus planned for the brothers to rule jointly one day, as he and Lucius had done.
People often comment online that the Roman emperors typically adopted their successors and Marcus should have done likewise. The precedent for this was set when Julius Caesar adopted Octavian who went on to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor. However, the Roman emperors who adopted heirs normally did so because they had no suitable natural heirs of their own. For example, Hadrian adopted Antoninus and Antoninus adopted Marcus because they had no sons available to succeed them. The Roman people actually believed very strongly in natural succession, just like most barbarian peoples did. An emperor who had a natural heir, like Marcus, and chose to bypass him to adopt an heir, would risk creating a rival dynasty and dividing the empire. As rivals to the throne were often murdered, adopting a successor would also mean placing his own son’s life in very serious jeopardy. (On the other hand, as we’ll see, Marcus possibly did consider adopting an interim successor, Pompeianus, who would perhaps have become emperor if Marcus died while Commodus was still a boy, subsequently appointing Commodus his co-emperor, to rule jointly, when he reached a suitable age.)
Roman emperors were habitually family members, and even the adoptions came from a network of close kin; Nerva’s adoption of Trajan was the only known case where family connections did not play a part. The reasons for keeping the throne ‘in the family’ were partly financial. Since imperial wealth subdivided into the private property of the emperor (fiscus) and the funds in the public treasury (aerarium), and thus this wealth was in turn at least partly linked to the imperial family rather than the ‘job’ of emperor, it was extremely hard for a reigning emperor to exclude a son from the succession without at the same time disinheriting him. Finally, there were prudential reasons. Meritocracy was all very well, but a meritocratic appointment to the purple would risk almost certain rebellion from the excluded kin of the late emperor. To appoint an emperor on mere talent and ability, then, was to hand him a poisoned chalice. When an emperor finally did exclude his own son (in 306), the result was eighteen years of civil war. Septimius Severus was being ruthlessly pragmatic in his recommendation. Once Commodus survived infancy, Marcus was faced with a stark choice: he either had to make him his heir or kill him. (McLynn, Marcus Aurelius)
The fact that Marcus’ two sons were appointed Caesar did perhaps create a slight anomaly because the most likely scenario would be that Lucius would have outlived Marcus, as we’ve seen. There would be two Caesars but only one position open, in that case, for a co-emperor. So presumably it was envisaged that Commodus would serve as junior co-emperor to Lucius Verus and later, after the death of Lucius, Marcus Annius Verus would join his brother and rule alongside him. Also, Lucius was childless but if he’d had a son surely it would have created another conflict over succession. (Rome would have potentially been ruled by an emperor who had a natural heir but had already appointed two sons of his deceased brother as his heirs.) In any case, I would suggest that the Senate urged Marcus and Lucius to appoint these children Caesars before leaving for war because they felt it was necessary for the stability of the empire.
Death of Lucius and Marcus Annius Verus
Shortly after these wars began on the northern front, two deaths shook the empire and upset these plans. The young Caesar Marcus Annius Verus died during an operation on a tumour. Marcus lost about seven children altogether, including several sons. He was getting old now and Commodus, still a child, was his only surviving son. Shortly after this, the emperor Lucius Verus suddenly dropped dead, possibly another victim of the plague. There were, as always, rumours that Marcus had him assassinated but most scholars dismiss this as typical court gossip. Nevertheless, there was a faction on the Senate who opposed Marcus’ ongoing campaign in the north and they possibly propagated these and other rumours against him.
Around this time, Marcus also lost his main Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who was back at Rome serving as urban prefect. So he must have felt increasingly isolated. I believe there are signs in The Meditations and in the histories that Marcus was greatly affected by the loss of his children and struggled to cope emotionally by leaning more heavily on his Stoic training. (Did he perhaps begin writing The Meditations partly as a way of coping with the loss of his tutors and family members?) I think the whole empire was worried that Commodus wouldn’t survive, during the plague when many children died. And I think we can see hints that Marcus was affected by this climate and also concerned about the possible loss of his only surviving son, especially now that Lucius was gone. All eyes were suddenly on Commodus, though still a child.
The children of Roman nobles were usually raised by nurses who were slaves and possibly their mothers took some part in their care but often they had little contact with their fathers until they became older. On the other hand, Marcus’ private letters to Fronto reveal him to be an incredibly affectionate man and a loving parent. He describes his children as his little chicks in a nest. (These displays of familial affection seem perhaps a little out of character for a Roman of this period.) Nevertheless, for most of Commodus’ youth Marcus was extremely busy. With no military experience whatsoever, after the death of Lucius Verus, Marcus was suddenly and unexpectedly left in command of the largest army ever massed on a northern frontier, numbering an estimated 140,000 men, including legions, auxiliary units, naval units on the Danube, etc. Marcus was mostly stationed at the front line, in Pannonia (modern Austria), several weeks’ travel away from Rome. It seems his family sometimes visited him but generally we have to assume he was just far to busy fighting a massive campaign and running the empire in a time of great turmoil, far away from Rome, to have had much time to participate in his son’s upbringing. Nevertheless, we’re told Marcus took great care to provide the best possible tutors for his son, presumably men of good character and wisdom.
Pertinax and Pompeianus
The plague and war took the lives of many men whose positions had to be filled, so it created the opportunity to promote new men. Marcus caused some controversy by promoting individuals of humble stock, based on merit. One of them, Pertinax, was the son of a freedman who rose to become one of Marcus’ two right-hand men during the Marcomannic Wars. Later, he would succeed Commodus and,this son of a former slave would, albeit briefly, become emperor. The other was Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a Syrian of humble origins who had distinguished himself during the Parthian War. He was close friends with Pertinax and rose to become Marcus’ most senior general on the northern frontier.
Marcus betrothed Pompeianus to his daughter, Lucilla, the widow of Lucius Verus. She was one of the most powerful women in Rome, being titled Augusta, empress, from her marriage to Lucius, and also a daughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. By marrying her, Pompeianus was brought into Marcus’ dynasty. It was rumoured that Marcus asked Pompeianus to become Caesar, presumably as an interim ruler while Commodus matured and gained experience. However, for some mysterious reason he refused. Indeed, it’s said Pompeianus was invited to become emperor three times altogether and refused each time. (Marcus invited him to become Caesar, Pertinax asked him to accede to the throne after Commodus was assassinated and Julianus who succeeded Pertinax asked him to become joint emperor with him.)
Pompeianus was probably almost as powerful as Avidius Cassius, another Syrian general. However, Cassius was of extremely noble birth and “born to rule” so I would suspect he possibly resented the fact that his rival was a countryman from the lower ranks of society. We can’t know for sure but I wonder whether Pompeianus refused the invitation to become Marcus’ successor because he was concerned it would incite Cassius to declare civil war. We’re told Pompeianus later lost his eyesight, which was a common consequence of the plague, due to the pustules spreading onto the eyes. It may be that in later life he felt he wasn’t physically up to the task of ruling and it’s a sign of the esteem in which he was held, perhaps, that he was twice invited to rule despite being almost blind. The Aurelian Column which depicts Marcus’ campaign on the northern frontier shows him with Pompeianus by his side. Incidentally, Russell Crowe’s character the general named Maximus in Gladiator appears to be loosely based on Pompeianus.
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius
Then something else happened that sheds considerable light on the status of Commodus. Marcus was notoriously sickly. During the winter of 174/175 AD he seems to have become extremely ill and rumours of his death spread across the empire like wildfire. This led to Avidius Cassius being acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, far away in the east. Marcus survived, however, and this led to a civil war. Cassius was a notoriously strict and brutal military commander. He’d climbed rapidly to power following the Parthian War and after quelling a huge uprising in Egypt, he was now effectively governor-general over the whole of the eastern empire. It’s said that after the death of Lucius Verus, six years earlier, he began plotting against Marcus. By this point he was probably the second most powerful man in the empire next to Marcus himself. The prefect of Egypt gave him his support as did most of the eastern provinces, and a number of senators.
So we can probably assume that for many years, Marcus was aware that Cassius presented a potential threat and he was cautious about a situation like this arising. Although Commodus turned out to be a bad emperor, his character at this point was probably unknown to Marcus. However, Cassius was known to be a brutal man and Marcus and the Senate perhaps feared the possibility that he would claim the throne and become a tyrannical ruler. Although we often have ambiguous historical information about the motives of these individuals, we can once again see very clearly what actions Marcus took in response to this crisis.
He immediately had Commodus brought from Rome to the military camp in Pannonia. Commodus happened to be fifteen years old now so Marcus had him take the toga virilis, signifying that he had become an adult Roman citizen. It seems clear that Marcus wanted to protect Commodus from danger, to build support for him among the northern legions, and to put him in a position to assume power so that there was less uncertainty over the succession. From this point on, Commodus remained in his father’s company. So we could argue that Marcus now had time to mentor his son and study his character. However, it’s far too late now for Marcus to change course. He couldn’t strip Commodus of the title Caesar, granted to him ten years earlier. If he wanted to stop Commodus becoming his successor his only real option would be to have him assassinated, which would be against his Stoic Ethics. Even if he’d stripped Commodus of the title Caesar, he would have created a situation where he remained in the wings as a potential rival to any successor, around whom opposing factions could rally, splitting the empire in another civil war.
Marcus and Commodus as Co-Emperors
Marcus successfully put down the civil war and Cassius was beheaded by his own officers. As noted above, Commodus was then rapidly promoted to the rank of co-emperor. Some of the histories suggest that Marcus now began to realize that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor. However, we’re also told that he wasn’t so much a bad person as a weak or gullible one. He was easily swayed by 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)
In particular, Marcus asked his son-in-law and most trusted general, Pompeianus, to take responsibility for Commodus after his death and keep him out of trouble. After Marcus died, with Commodus now as sole emperor, it’s said that he immediately sought to abandon the northern campaign by paying huge bribes to the barbarian kings, so that he could return to Rome. We’re told Pompeianus was the only one brave enough to confront the new emperor and challenge his behaviour, arguing that he must remain with the army and finish the campaign.
So there was allegedly a sort of tug-of-war between Pompeianus and Commodus’ friends. After a few weeks, his friends won and Commodus abandoned the legions to return to Rome. There wasn’t much that Pompeianus could do to stop him. In one fell swoop, he’d lost all credibility with the army. An emperor normally requires the support of the legions or the Senate or the people of Rome. I think Commodus was now forced to become a populist in order to secure his position. Without the support of the legions or the Senate he turned himself into a sort of celebrity, fighting in the arena, throwing extravagant spectacles for the people and building a mythology around himself. He even had statues erected portraying himself as the Greek hero (and deity) Hercules, bearing his distinctive club and lion-skin headdress.
Was Marcus to Blame?
I’ll let others decide to what extent Marcus was to “blame” for Commodus. To me it seems that Marcus and the Senate were struggling to prevent civil war from dividing the empire because they knew that in its weakened state Rome would potentially be overrun by barbarian invaders if rival factions started fighting over the throne. I think they also planned for joint rule as a safety measure against a bad or tyrannical emperor taking control of Rome but the Marcomannic Wars and the Antonine Plague created turmoil that interfered with these plans. I also think Marcus tried to surround Commodus with advisors and to put him in the care of Pompeianus as a safety measure but that was negated when Commodus simply fled from the front leaving Pompeianus and others behind, and surrounding himself with individuals at Rome who further corrupted him. I think he found himself in a situation where he felt it was necessary to become a celebrity rather than a genuine ruler, something Marcus would have warned him against, and that inevitably led him further and further astray.
The Stoics would say that we can’t hold parents responsible for their children. Even Socrates had wayward sons and students. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. One of the very early philosophers admired by the Stoics was Stilpo, of the Megarian School, a teacher of Zeno of Citium. He had a notoriously dissolute daughter, apparently. People used to hold that against him but Stilpo replied, I think with some justification, “Her behaviour can no more brings dishonour upon me than mine can bring honour upon her.” I think it’s worth contemplating how that saying might relate to Marcus and Commodus.
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)
When Marcus Aurelius lay dying he turned to the guard of the night watch and said, cryptically, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.” We can only speculate as to the meaning he intended. For instance, it may have sounded to Romans as if he were alluding to the mystery religion of Mithraism or some other solar cult. However, it’s fair to say, though, that consistent with his approach throughout The Meditations, he appears to be portraying death as a process both natural and inevitable, just like the setting of the sun.
As I reflected on the meaning of this remark, it struck me that there are several passages in The Meditations which refer to the mind of the wise man using the metaphor of sunlight and, apparently related to these, several additional references to the mind as a lamp or blazing fire, casting light on the objects of the world. Indeed, according to their Physics, the Stoics believed that the intellect of man was composed of a subtle fiery substance, pneuma or spirit, the same substance from which the sun, the stars, and the other gods are made. The human mind, indeed, is a divine spark, a fragment of the Logos or cosmic fire that constitutes the Mind of Zeus.
Marcus continually reminds himself that the human mind has a duty to fulfil its own true nature, to become rational and wise, and not to be distracted or swayed from its path, something he likes to compare to the simplicity and purity with which the sun and stars shine forth in the sky. He says the sun does not undertake the work of the rain but fulfills its own nature. Each particular star is different from the others and yet they are all working together toward the same end (6.43). We should strive to do the same by cultivating the divine spark within us, fulfilling our human potential for wisdom and virtue. Everything in nature has come into being for a purpose. According to Marcus, the Sun himself would say, ‘I was born to perform a function’, and so would the rest of the gods (8.19). So it’s likewise our duty to know what our own true purpose is in life, something we try to discover through philosophy, the love of wisdom.
Marcus likes to refer to the stars as natural models of purity and simplicity. We should meditate, he says, on the the stars above as though accompanying them on their course through the night sky because thoughts such as these purify us from the defilements of our earthly existence (7.47). Even though the stars are separate and distinct they also form a natural unity together in the constellations of the night sky (9.9).
Marcus particularly attributes this idea of contemplating the orderliness and purity of the stars to the Pythagoreans, about whom Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had long ago written a book.
The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. (11.27)
The Pythagoreans believed that the stars and other heavenly bodies were divine. (They appear to move all by themselves, which to many ancient thinkers was a sign of life.) For Stoics they were gods but also merely fragmentary aspects of a greater divine Nature, or Zeus.
The Mind as the Sun
However, the nature of sunlight in particular becomes an important metaphor for the Stoic concept of mind throughout The Meditations. Marcus repeatedly stresses to himself that the light of the sun pours down in every direction and yet it is not exhausted. Its beams of light are merely an extension of its being. Sunlight is something very familiar to us. We see its beams entering a darkened room through a narrow window. It stretches out in a straight line and comes to rest on any solid body that intercepts it, cutting it off from whatever lies beyond. Sunlight appears to our eyes to rest exactly where its rays fall, without being deflected by its objects, like the wind, or being absorbed by them like water. It touches upon things lightly and illuminates them, without being contaminated by them. The pouring forth and spreading abroad of our mind should follow a similar pattern, extending itself without being exhausted or diminished. It should, like sunlight, not land with the force of a violent blow on the obstacles that it encounters nor dissipate, but steadily illuminate the objects before it. For what doesn’t welcome the light condemns itself to darkness (8.57).
Put very simply, I think Marcus would say today that we should think of our judgements, particularly our value judgements, as beams of light shining forth from our mind onto objects in the world. Values don’t exist in the world, we project them onto things. For the Stoics it’s therefore important to be aware of this and suspend these judgements or make them only lightly. Marcus consistently refers to this as the purification of the mind from being blended with externals, or its separation from things that belong to the world, or to the body.
From a more metaphysical perspective, Marcus reminds himself that sunlight is, in a sense, a single thing even though it is obstructed by walls, and mountains, and countless other obstacles. Likewise, for Stoic Physics, there is one common substance, though divided into countless individual bodies. There is one mind, even though it appears to be divided among countless creatures, each with its own characteristics. Material objects are senseless and have no affinity of this kind. But mind alone is naturally social, it tends towards what is akin to it and forms friendships and communities with others, and apparent divisions are overcome by the sense of common fellowship (12.30).
Likewise, he elsewhere says that one animal soul is distributed among irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided among rational creatures; just as there is one earth for all things formed from earth, and there is one light by which we all see and one air from which we all breathe (9.8). Fire tends to rise toward the heavens, with which it has an affinity, consuming whatever kindling is thrown upon it. So likewise, the mind naturally strives with even greater eagerness towards what is akin to itself, through the grasping of philosophical truths (9.9). The mind naturally loves virtue, and as social beings we aspire to make friends and form communities with other human beings, who share our capacity for reason. This is the bond of natural affection that Stoics believe exists between all rational beings, and which it’s our duty to cultivate into a sense of being at one with the rest of mankind, viewing them as our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens of the cosmic city.
Virtue as Sunlight or a Blazing Fire
Marcus also likes to describe virtue as a light blazing forth. A good, straightforward, and kindly person, he says, reveals these qualities in his eyes, they shine forth unmistakably in his gaze (11.15). In the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified, perhaps by Stoic mentoring and therapy, there nothing he says which would not bear examination or which hides away from the light (3.8).
Hence, there is nothing more wholesome and delightful, he says, than the sight of virtue shining forth in the characters of those around us. So we should be sure to keep these images ever at hand (6.48). Indeed, virtue is just like the light of a lamp which shines forth until it is extinguished, light extends itself afar without losing its radiance. In the same way, the cardinal virtues of truth, justice and self-control should shine forth without being exhausted (12.15).
Moreover, the mind of the wise man is like a blazing fire. All things human are mere smoke and nothingness, they continually change and then are gone forever. Don’t be troubled about them, Marcus says, but view life as a training ground for reason to examine things truthfully and objectively. The mind is naturally capable of assimilating the truth about everything that befalls you just as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light (10.31).
The preconceptions Nature planted within our souls are like sparks of wisdom, which need to be given fuel and fanned into a blazing fire. Hence, Marcus says the sparks of his Stoic principles need to be constantly fanned into new flames, such as that things that lie outside our intellect have no hold whatever over us. Once you renew these principles, which once you knew, then you will cease to be troubled, he says (7.2).
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills –a theme he returns to several times. You can retreat into yourself wherever you are and remember your Stoic principles, though. When your mind is in harmony with nature, it adapts itself readily to whatever befalls it. It’s not attached to any specific thing but rather prefers whatever is reasonable, and with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind. If it encounters an obstacle, it simply converts that into more material for the exercise of reason and virtue, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it. Piling up too much wood often extinguishes a little flame, but a blazing fire engulfs it all in an instant, and consumes it, making its flames burn even higher (4.1).
The Empedoclean Sphere
Marcus also makes very similar remarks about the mystical “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empdocles, who was closely associated with the Pythagoreans. This sphere represents the divine in perfect harmony but the mind of the wise man possesses similar qualities.
For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man’s true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Fr. 110)
Marcus likewise says that we have a body and feelings that our ours to take care of but only our intellect is truly our own. You will live a pure and unrestricted life if you will let go of everything that falls outside your own true nature, doing what is just, desiring what befalls you, and speaking the truth. If, that is, you will purify your ruling centre from everything external that becomes attached to it from the body, and everything in the past or future. Make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, as Marcus puts it, “a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it”, striving to live only the life that belongs to you here and now, then you will live out the rest of your days with peace and kindness, at peace with the divine spark within you (12.3).
Marcus appears to refer to this image of the Empedoclean sphere three times altogether. Elsewhere, he notes that neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way when it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, and it is capable of always remaining so (8.41).
Finally, he says that the sphere of the soul remains true to its natural form when neither stretching itself out towards anything outside itself nor contracting itself inwards, and when it is neither dispersed abroad nor shrinks back into itself, but shines forth with a steady light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth within itself (11.12). Here, the image of the Empedoclean sphere appears to merge with that of the sun shining its pure light onto objects without being defiled by them.
The poet Horace, in Satires (2.7), employs the same image of the perfect sphere in relation to Stoicism. He describes a speech delivered to him during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.
Who then is free? The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.
Utere non reditura.
Use the hour, it will not come again.
Today is your last chance to enrol on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor!
Remember, if you enrol on this pilot version of the course, you’ll be receiving $50 discount off the standard price, including e-learning and live webinars. You’ll also have access to any future updates or improvements, via lifetime access. I’m also providing a bonus live webinar to people taking part in the first course.
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I’m pleased to announce that my brand new e-learning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, will finally begin enrolling in a few weeks time.
I’ve been developing this course for the past six months and now it’s nearly ready for publication. It’s been a labour of love. For many years I’ve wanted to run a course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and I think the time is right now.
You can visit the main course page below although you won’t be able to enrol until the course is published in a few weeks’ time:
I’ve been delivering online courses for over a decade, including the huge Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training courses, in which about ten thousand people from around the world have participated so far. This will be the first time that I’ve actually created a paid course, though. I made the decision to charge for Roman Emperor for the simple reason that it allows me to be able to put enough time into research and course design to make sure I’m completely satisfied with the end result.
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I believe that the best way to teach Stoicism is by focusing on a specific example of a real Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is, today, by far the most famous of the Stoics, and we know more about him than any of the others. So this course will explore Stoicism and its relevance today by taking Marcus as our role model, and looking at examples from his life. It lasts four weeks and is divided into four broad phases of Marcus’ life, and four broad areas of Stoic philosophy. We’re particularly going to look at the psychological practices found in Stoicism and what we can learn from Marcus about applying these in daily life, to improve our character, find meaning in life, and become more emotionally resilient.
I’m not going to go into too much detail right now because I’ll be announcing more later. If you’re interested, though, stay tuned, as I’ll soon have a lot more to say about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
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These are my rough notes on Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Mithras. My hypothesis is that Marcus Aurelius may have been initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.
Marcus would certainly have been familiar with Mithraism. It was extremely popular during his reign, particularly with the army and merchants. His adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, constructed a Temple to Mithras at the port of Ostia, just outside Rome. (Numerous mithrea have now been uncovered at Ostia.) So it seems likely Pius would have been made an initiate of Mithraism, even if only as a political gesture.
We are also told in the Historia Augusta that Marcus’ son Commodus was initiated into Mithraism, although he reputedly dishonoured the rites.
He [Commodus] desecrated the rites of Mithra with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror.
The historian Michael Grant wrote of Commodus:
Thus he appears as Mithras, wearing the cosmic skull-cap, on an inlaid bronze and gilt bust (which is in the Victoria and Albert museum in London). The dying [Marcus] Aurelius had declared Commodus the Rising Sun, the Rising Sun of a New World, and amid increasing Sun-worship Sol is given the features of Commodus [on coinage]. This fitted in well with the cult of Mithras, by now the largest missionary force in paganism (Ostia had revealed its enormous popularity). (Grant, The Antonines)
Indeed, late in his reign Commodus adopted Invictus as one of his many titles, apparently styling himself after the Mithraic sun god Sol Invictus.
Some scholars, as Grant mentions, believed that this was a Roman bust of Commodus, dated c. 190 AD, possibly depicting him as Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap. However, the Victoria and Albert Museum no longer believe it was intended to be a likeness of Commodus. On the other hand, the British Museum do possess a coin minted during Commodus’ reign with his image clearly displayed on one face and that of a man wearing a Phrygian cap, adorned with stars and a crescent moon on the other side, which appears to be a depiction of either Mithras himself or the related Phrygian lunar deity called Men.
In any case, we can probably infer that Marcus’ father, who built a temple to Mithras, was an initiate of Mithraism and, as we’ve seen, Cassius Dio also tells us that Marcus’ son Commodus was one. What we don’t know for sure is whether Marcus was initiated into Mithraism himself, although arguably it seems likely that he was. Marcus was enrolled in all four of the traditional Roman priestly colleges as a young Caesar and he also took his official role as high priest very seriously. Later in life, when he toured Athens, he made a point of being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He had far more opportunity and motivation, though, to be initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.
At Carnuntum, the legionary fort where Marcus apparently spent much of his time during the Marcomannic Wars, archaeologists have unearthed six Temples to Mithras. The modern-day museum at Carnuntum contains an impressive reconstruction of a mithraeum. Some scholars therefore believe that Carnuntum was a location of special importance to the cult. Indeed, Mithraism was particularly associated with the legions posted along the Danube, where Marcus stationed himself for most of his reign. Porphyry says that Mithras was depicted armed with the “sword of Aries, which is a sign of Mars”, and therefore a military symbol.
Unsurprisingly for a cult so popular with the military, it’s believed that Mithraism strongly encouraged loyalty to the emperor, the supreme commander of the Roman legions, who was in fact appointed by the army to rule. Several inscriptions describe Mithras as protector or patron of the empire. It would therefore appear more important for Marcus to show his support for Mithraism by being initiated while at Carnuntum, than to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, which we know he did as soon as the first war was concluded and he was able to visit Greece.
However, as far as I’m aware there are no surviving depictions of Marcus containing Mithraic imagery, except perhaps a coin like that of Commodus above depicting a figure in a Phrygian cap with a crescent, who may be either Mithras or the similar-looking lunar deity called Men.
Contemplation of the Stars
Unfortunately, because the cult was shrouded in secrecy virtually no written information survives about it today, despite all the archaeological evidence. The image above shows a modern reconstruction of a mithraeum or temple of the god Mithras. Numerous chambers such as this, traditionally referred to as “caves”, although often constructed as long narrow sunken halls, have been found throughout the Roman empire. The London Mithraeum is one such site, although dating from a few generations after Marcus’ reign.
The Temples to Mithras were normally filled with astrological symbolism and it’s believed the arched walls and ceiling were painted with the constellations, and intended to look like the night sky. If Marcus stepped into one of the mithraea at Carnuntum, which seems very likely indeed given the amount of time he spent there and his interest in religious practices, he would have found himself in a mystical atmosphere, surrounded by stars, an image that’s bound to remind us of this passage from The Meditations:
Contemplate the course of the stars, as if you were going alongside them. And constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another. Because such thoughts purge away the impurity of life on earth. (Meditations, 7.47)
Likewise, Marcus also says:
The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Meditations, 11.27)
Although Marcus nowhere refers to Mithras, he must surely have seen the obvious relevance of these comments to the symbolism of the mithraea and the initiations that took place there. The neoplatonist Porphyry wrote that “the cave bore the image of the cosmos, which Mithras had created, and the things contained in the cave, by their proportionate arrangement, provided symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos” (On the Cave of the Nymphs).
Mithras and the Sun God
Mithras himself was either a sun god or associate of the sun god, sometimes equated with Sol Invictus who was also popular as a patron of the Roman army. His two torch-bearing companions, Cautes and Cautopates, are believed to symbolise the stations of the rising and setting sun. Cautes holds his torch raised up, and Cautopates holds his torch pointed downward.
According to the historian Cassius Dio, Marcus reputedly said, on his deathbed, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.” To the many followers of Mithras among his legions on the Danube, that must surely have sounded like an allusion to the symbolism of their cult, as Grant notes in the passage cited earlier.
More generally Cautes and Cautopates are taken to denote the cycles of nature, through which opposites such as day and night, life and death, succeed one another. Many references to this theme of cyclical change can be found in The Meditations, although it is also common in philosophical literature generally.
The Bull-Slaying (Tauroctony)
The central image of Mithraism is that of the god Mithras slaying a bull, which is the focal point of each mithraeum. Scholars refer to this characteristic Mithraic image as the tauroctony. We do know that the bull is sacrificial because some of the depictions show it dressed in a conventional Roman sacrificial blanket. The relief shown here depicts Marcus Aurelius presiding at the ritual sacrifice of a bull, although it probably pertains to one of the conventional state cults of Rome. There’s no evidence that real bull-sacrifice actually formed part of Mithraism. As far as we know the bull-slaying in Mithraism was purely symbolic.
The image of the bull was also very important to Stoicism. It can be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, used as a metaphor for the good man. The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently described the ideal society as like a herd of cattle feeding in a common pasture and later Stoics frequently refer to the image of the Stoic hero as a mighty bull protecting the rest of his herd. Marcus refers to himself as emperor, as a bull set over the herd. The bull was also the sacred animal of the eastern city of Tarsus, which was the home of many famous Stoics and reputedly also the home of Mithraism. Some scholars believe there are links between the Stoics of Tarsus and the cult of Mithras.
In addition to the images of Mithras, these temples sometimes include depictions of a mysterious lion-headed figure, wrapped in a serpent, called leontocephalus by scholars.
It’s believed he represents universal time and corresponds with the Hellenistic deity called Aion, or Eternity. We also know Antoninus Pius minted several coins carrying the name AION as a dedication, adding to his links with the cult.
Indeed, the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, which was erected by Marcus Aurelius in his honour, is thought to depict the god Aion. He is shown in the apotheosis scene, carrying Antoninus and his wife Faustina to heaven.
Marcus refers very frequently to the vastness of time, in some of the most obviously mystical passages of The Meditations. He uses the Greek word AION twenty times altogether. Sometimes he even appears to personify the concept, such as in the following striking passage:
How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus, has Aion already swallowed up! (7.19)
I initially left this passage out of the article because as far as I can see Vermaseren is the only author to make this claim:
There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates’ homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as ‘Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras’. (Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963)
As I understand it, the inscription on this altar is damaged and has been read by other experts in a completely different way, and not as a reference to Marcus Aurelius.
However, if Vermaseren were correct about the inscription on this altar being consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as “Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras”, that would directly support my hypothesis that Marcus was an initiate of Mithraism. Indeed, it would go even further and provide evidence that he was actually a priest of the cult. The equation of Mithras and Helios is typical but making him synonymous with Zeus would be particularly interesting in relation to Marcus’ Stoicism.