Philosopher on the Throne.Marcus Aurelius was the adopted son of Antoninus Pius, and came to the throne at his father’s death. The new emperor was first of all a philosopher. He had studied in the school of the Stoics, and was himself the highest embodiment of their principles. He was wise brave, just, and temperate. The history of the pagan world presents no higher example of uprightness and manhood. In whatever he did he acted from a pure sense of duty. But his character as a man was no doubt greater than his ability as a statesman. So far as we know, Marcus Aurelius never shrank from a known duty, private or public; but it is not so clear that his sense of personal duty was always in harmony with the best interests of the empire.
Misfortunes of his Reign.In judging of this great man we must not forget that his reign was a time of great misfortunes. Rome was afflicted by a deadly plague and famine, the most terrible in her history. From the East it spread over the provinces, carrying with it death and desolation. One writer affirms, with perhaps some exaggeration, that half the population of the empire perished. The fierce barbarians of the north were also trying to break through the frontiers, and threatening to overrun the provinces. But Marcus Aurelius met all these dangers and difficulties with courage and patience.
His Persecution of the Christians.The most striking example of the fact that the emperor’s sense of duty was not always in harmony with the highest welfare of the people is shown in his persecution of the Christians. The new religion had found its way throughout the eastern and western provinces. It was at first received by the common people in the cities. As it was despised by many, it was the occasion of bitter opposition and often of popular tumults. The secret meetings of the Christians had given rise to scandalous stories about their practices. They were also regarded as responsible in some way for the calamities inflicted by the gods upon the people. Since the time of Nero, the policy of the rulers toward the new sect had varied. But the best of the emperors had hitherto been cautious like Trajan, or tolerant like Hadrian, or openly friendly like Antoninus. But Marcus Aurelius sincerely believed that the Christians were the cause of the popular tumults, and that the new sect was dangerous to the public peace. He therefore issued an order that those who denied their faith should be let alone, but those who confessed should be put to death. The most charitable judgment which can be passed upon this act is that it was the result of a great mistake made by the emperor regarding the character of the Christians and their part in disturbing the peace of society.
Encroachments upon the Frontiers.During this reign the peace of the empire was first seriously threatened by invasions from without. The two great frontier enemies of Rome were the Parthians on the east and the Germans on the north. The Parthians were soon repelled. But the barbarians from the north, the Marcomanni and Quadi, continued their attacks for fourteen years. Pressed by the Slavonians and the Turanians on the north and east, these tribes were the forerunners of that great migration of the northern nations which finally overran the empire. With courage and a high sense of his mission the emperor struggled against these hordes, and succeeded for the most part in maintaining the northern frontier. He died in his camp at Vienna, at his post of duty. However much we may condemn his policy with reference to the Christians, we must always admire him for the purity of his life and his nobility as a man.
Roman Philosophy.Marcus Aurelius expressed in his life and writings the highest ideas of Roman philosophy. The Romans cannot, however, be said to have shown any originality in their philosophical systems. These they derived almost entirely from the Greeks. The two systems which were most popular with them were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed that happiness was the great end of life. But the high idea of happiness advocated by the Greek philosophers became degraded into the selfish idea of pleasure, which could easily excuse almost any form of indulgence. In Rome we see this idea of life exercising its influence especially upon the wealthy and indolent classes. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the end of life was to live according to the highest law of our nature. This doctrine tended to make strong and upright characters. It could not well have a degrading influence; so we find some of the noblest men of Rome adhering to its tenetssuch men as Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic philosophy also exercised a great and beneficial influence upon the Roman jurists, who believed that the law of the state should be in harmony with the higher law of justice and equity.
SELECTIONS FOR READING
Capes, Antonines, Ch. 1, “Nerva,” Ch. 2, “Trajan,” Ch. 3, “Hadrian,” Ch. 4, “Antoninus Pius,” Ch. 5, “Marcus Aurelius” (7).1
Pelham, Bk. VI., Ch. 1, “The Antonines” (1).
Bury, Empire, Ch. 30, “Roman World under the Empire” (7).
Dyer, City, Sect. 4, “Rome from Augustus to Hadrian” (9).
Merivale, Empire, Vol. IV., Ch. 40, “Great Cities of the Empire” (7).
Merivale, Gen. Hist., Ch. 79, “The City of Rome” (1).
Farrar, chapter on “Marcus Aurelius” (18).
THE FORUMS OF ROME.Bury, Empire, see index, “Forum” (7); Burn, Chs. 2, 4 (9); Parker, Arch, Hist., Ch. 11 (9); .Hare, Ch. 4 (14); Middleton, Ancient Rome, Chs. 5, 6, 8 (9); Lanciani, Rums, pp. 232-254 (9).
1 The figure in parenthesis refers to the number of the topic in the Appendix, where a fuller title of the book will be found.