“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.” If you’ve ever seen the movie Gladiator, you might recognize this quote. Unfortunately, Maximus is a fictitious character, but Marcus Aurelius was a very real emperor of Rome during the period known as the “Pax Romana,” or Roman Peace. His rule was marked a golden age of Rome, but shortly after his death, things started going poorly because of his son Commodus who preferred fighting as a gladiator over ruling.
One major problem with the history of Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, is that there were not many reliable historians around at the time. What we do know largely comes from later historians who used primary sources(sources written at the same time as Marcus) that no longer exist. We do know he was born in 121 A.D and was the grandson of a man who was Consul of the Senate twice and was the Prefect of Rome. His uncle-in-law was also heir to the Roman Emperor. That was a fairly fortunate place to be during the time of the Roman empire. He was selected by Emperor Hadrian to be his successor and became emperor in the year 161 A.D.
Although the time was known as Pax Romana, Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war defending Rome from the Parthians, Germans, an other “barbarian” tribes(Barbarian meaning non-Greek or Latin speakers. Greeks thought their language sounded like “bar-bar-bar-bar). He was very successful in his military campaigns and allowed Rome to continue prospering. Marcus was the fifth emperor in the group of emperors commonly called the “five good emperors.” They were called this, because there were five of them and they were good. On a serious note, they were very successful emperors because they were handpicked and adopted by previous emperors. They were chosen for there merits, not necessarily their bloodlines.
Marcus chose his son to be his successor in 177 A.D and it was the first time an emperor chose his son since 79 A.D with emperor Titus. Aurelius may sound like the ideal emperor, but his reign was not flawless. Disease was rampant during his reign and continuous warfare tainted the idea of Roman peace. Another major issue with his rule was intense Christian persecution. It is unknown whether or not he ordered the persecutions himself, but local leaders under his rule executed numerous Christians and this period is sometimes called the “fourth persecution.” Christian faced incredible tortures and deaths that I will not go into detail, because they are very gruesome. Early sources fail to mention who was to blame for this increase, but it also tainted the idea of Pax Romana.
With a rule of constant warfare and persecutions, Marcus Aurelius is ironically most well know for his philosophy of stoicism. Many of his quotes are repeated to this day. A couple notable ones(used from Brainyquote.com) “Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” And “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” He was a very introspective man who loved to think and write, but who happened to be very good at warfare. Apparently the apple fell quite far from the tree. His son Commodus preferred wrestling and fighting in the Coliseum(he also fought naked much to the astonishment of the senate). He also removed statues of gods and replaced them with his face. So, Marcus Aurelius may not have been the best parent, but he was a great army commander, thinker, and ruler. He may have had dark spots in his rule, but he will go down in history as one of the greatest Roman emperors. Marcus contributed to the golden age of Rome and the great Pax Romana, and this is his snapshot from history.