Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. For the first 8 years of his rule he was co emperor with Lucius Verus. He would be remembered as an influential stoic philosopher as well as a formidable emperor. This interesting combination of philosopher and leader made Marcus Aurelius a memorable historical figure and he is often pointed to as the prime example of leadership that Plato describes in his essay The Republic.
Marcus was born to a wealthy and influential family in 121 AD. His father died when he was very young and he was then raised by his mother and grandfather Marcus Annius Verus, who was a Roman patrician and a significant member of the ruling class. Marcus was educated by private tutors and avoided public education. He found an affinity for philosophy as a young man and quickly adopted the mindset of stoicism. It is said that as a boy he often slept on the floor, in line with some of the ideas of cynics and stoics, until his mother convinced him to sleep in a bed.
Marcus was adopted by Aurelius Antonius in 138 AD. Aurelius Antonius had been selected by Emperor Hadrian to be his successor after the emperor had begun to develop several health concerns. Marcus came to live with Aurelius Antonius and spent his adolescence navigating the political landscape including his agreement to marry Antonius’ daughter Faustina. Since Marcus was Antonius’ adopted son, this would have meant he agreed to marry his legal sister. Strangely enough, the marriage took place regardless. Marcus was now firmly positioned to be emperor.
With the death of his adopted father, Emperor Antonius, in 161 AD, Marcus Aurelius became Emperor of Rome. The senate was originally prepared to adopt only Marcus as Emperor. However Marcus Aurelius insisted that his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, be granted the position of co emperor. Strangely enough, this was approved and would mark the first time that Rome would be ruled by two emperors. It is interesting that Marcus would insist on giving power to Lucius. He could have easily seized power for himself, yet he allowed another to participate in ruling along side him. This action illustrates Marcus Aurelius had a tendency for modesty and did not view leadership as an opportunity for self advancement, but rather as an obligation to be fulfilled.
During his time as Emperor, Marcus would focus on several pieces of legislation that centered around the Roman currency, laws pertaining to orphans and minors, as well as the choice for city councilors. He was regarded as an emperor who was very knowledgeable of the law and very thoughtful about Roman legislation. The early years of his reign were rather peaceful. Marcus was allowed to develop his deep love for philosophy.
However, Marcus Aurelius would be forced to handle a war with the neighboring emperor Vologases IV of Parthia. Volgases invaded the country of Armenia and supplanted their own leader. Armenia was under the protection of the Roman Empire at the time, this would force Marcus Aurelius’ hand and send him to war against the invader. The Romans would eventually be successful and Vologases would agree to peace and be forced to give over large amounts of his empire in western Mesopotamia.
In addition to being a loved emperor, Marcus made contributions to the study of stoic philosophy. The Meditations is a series of essays written by the emperor himself; it recounts several periods in his life and examines the nature of stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius promotes the idea that all things come from nature and so all things must one day return to nature. The writings promote the idea of finding a ‘cosmic knowledge’, a way of accepting the universe and finding virtue as the true purpose of life. It is interesting that Marcus Aurelius would be so drawn to stoicism. As emperor he could have been given any earthly treasure he desired. He instead confined himself to humility, duty and a pursuit of virtue. A man who was granted power, he was never consumed by it. A man of blameless character and humble attitude, he is often remembered as a good man and a wise leader.