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Solon: Great Lawmaker and First Democrat

by July 31, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Solon (640-560 BC) was one of the most important men in the Classical world. He was in part responsible for setting Athens on its road to greatness. He helped to stabilize the city-state and laid the foundations for the future Athenian Empire. Most importantly of all, he laid the foundations for Athenian democracy, which continues to influence modern-day democracies.
The early years of Solon
Solon was believed to be the son of Execestides, who was a member of the nobility. The family was distinguished but they had fallen on hard financial times. His family circumstances gave Solon a unique insight into Athenian society.
He received a good education and was an acclaimed poet. His poetry was famous in Athens and it includes verses on political issues and even his love affairs. During the war with Megara, Solon was given an important command and he carried out his duties with bravery and great skill. According to some sources, Solon was also a merchant and this allowed him to learn something about the world outside Greece.

Marble relief of Solon (1950), located at the U.S. Capitol in the House of Representatives Chamber.

Solon and his rise to power
Sometime around 590 BC, Solon was appointed archon of the city and became the de-facto ruler. The archon had a range of legal, military, and political powers. However, the Athenians provided Solon with extraordinary powers to deal with the serious political and social-economic crisis that was blighting the city.
At the time, Athens was divided between aristocrats who dominated the political life of the city, and a rising class of merchants and entrepreneurs who, though wealthy, were excluded from power.  This caused a great deal of friction in the city-state and it was widely feared that these tensions could lead to civil strife and even outright civil war.
Meanwhile, the majority of the population was powerless and lived on the verge of starvation. Many were dependent on the aristocracy who owned the land. The poor often became indebted to them and were sold into slavery if they failed to pay their debts.
A previous archon, Draco, had introduced a law code that favored the rich and was very harsh on any wrongdoer. From Draco we get the word Draconian, meaning harsh and brutal. Solon was charged with reforming Athens.

“Solon demands to pledge respect for his laws”, book illustration (Augsburg 1832)

Solon and his reforms
Solon somehow managed to get the aristocrats to end the practice of debt-slavery. He also outlawed the practice of fathers using their sons and daughters as security when taking out a loan. This was transformative and it helped to end debt-bondage. Solon sought to change Athenian society and to make it more equal and more stable. He introduced four classes of inhabitants and people were divided based on their wealth.  Taxation was based on which class a person belonged to.
The four classes all had different political rights, and this was to reflect the amount of tax that they paid. The highest class, the pentakosoimedimnoi, had the most political rights, followed by the hippeis.
Though the poor and the artisans had few if any, political rights, they were granted equality before the law and this was a historic change. Solon also introduced an appeal system. In this way, he dismantled the cruel law code of Draco. Athens, as a result of Solon’s innovations, had a very liberal court-system, and this promoted equality and justice in the city-state. All that was retained of Draco’s law code was the punishment for murder.

Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens (Wikimedia)

Solon was also a political reformer. He abolished the aristocracy’s monopoly on power. He introduced a new popular council, whose members could vote on political, diplomatic, and legal matters.
However, the aristocrats dominated a smaller council, and this allowed them to greatly influence politics. Even after Solon’s reforms, the old elite was still inordinately powerful. Not long after the death of the great lawgiver, Athens fell under the control of the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons for several decades.
Ironically, Peisistratos was a relative of Solon, who blamed the Athenians for the rise of the tyrants, because they did not place the good of the city before their selfish interests. Tragically, Solon was to witness the death of democracy in his beloved city and he died in exile.
Many have pointed out that Solon’s reforms were to bear fruit in the 5th century BC when, under Pericles, the city became very democratic.
Solon had been a trader and he took an interest in the economy. He encouraged agriculture and prohibited the export of foodstuffs. This benefitted the economy and food became cheaper. However, he did encourage the export of olives and this became a major industry. Many credit him with the promotion of the Athenian pottery industry, which became a major industry in Attica.

Plutarch, c. 100 CE, the biographer of Solon. Edward Gooch—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The travels of Solon
After the end of his period of office, Solon did an unusual thing. It is claimed that he visited Midas and Lydia. He was believed to have also traveled to Egypt and learned the lore of the Egyptians. It is believed that he was also the source of the Atlantis legend.
Because of his great wisdom, he was regarded as one of the seven sages of Ancient Greece. His words of wisdom such as ‘count no man happy until he dies’ were very influential in the Classical world. It is believed that he lived to be one hundred years old, but this is probably only a legend.
Solon was crucial in the history of Athens. His foresight and reforms changed the course of Athenian history. Solon can justly be considered as the ‘father of Athenian democracy’ and played a significant role in the development of democratic institutions and systems all around the world. His social, economic, and legal reforms not only influenced the Greek city-state but have influenced societies since the Classical era. Solon, more than anyone, was responsible for the rise of Athens and its Golden Age, which has shaped western civilization down to this day.

Cicero: Rome’s Greatest Defender

by May 27, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There are many great Romans whose names are still honored to this day. None has been more feted down the centuries than Cicero. He was perhaps Rome’s greatest author and one of its greatest orators and philosophers. Cicero was also one the last defenders of the Roman Republic, inspiring democrats and those who oppose tyranny to this day.
Early Life of Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was born into an aristocratic family in Arpimium, not far from Rome. He received a good education in Latin and Greek and oratory, the art of public speaking, which was essential for a life in politics and law.
After briefly serving with the legions he became a lawyer. His oratory soon became legendary and was a much sought-after lawyer. Cicero won fame for defending a man against a trumped-up murder charge.
Young Cicero

The Young Cicero Reading by Vincenzo Foppa (fresco, 1464), now at the Wallace Collection

Politically he was allied to the Optimates, that is the old Senatorial nobility, even though they never fully accepted him. His public speaking made him a powerful force in Roman politics and he became the enemy of the populist party (populares).
One of the most prominent populists was Cataline. Cicero regularly condemned him and his party in fiery and eloquent speeches. When Cataline failed to become consul in 63 B.C. he began to plot with others to seize Rome and start a popular revolution. Among his aims was believed to be the destruction of the old aristocratic elite and the cancellation of all debts.
Cicero became aware of this, which later became known as the Cataline Conspiracy. He urged the Senate to move against the populists, who were planning to start a revolt in Italy and burn Rome.
Cicero managed to persuade the Senate to issue a decree ordering Cataline to be detained. There was an attempt to assassinate the great orator, but it failed. Cataline then left Rome, and evidence was produced that proved he was guilty. Cicero had the conspirators executed, but many including Julius Caesar believed that he had gone beyond his powers as Consul.

Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari

Cicero and the First Triumvirate
Cicero had a close relationship with Pompey the Great. He was a supporter of him, because he was the leader of the Optimate party. The orator lent his support to the creation of the First Triumvirate. This was a political alliance between Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey which effectively made them the most powerful men in Rome.
Cicero began to criticize Caesar and his policies and as a result he was forced out of Rome and became an exile. Later he was able to return to Rome and even became a governor. He intrigued with Pompey and he warned him about the growing power of Caesar.
Cicero returned to Italy just as Caesar was crossing the Rubicon. Later he tried to broker a deal between Caesar and Pompey but he failed. Later the orator joined the army of Pompey in the Balkans. When Caesar defeated the Republicans at the Battle of Pharsalus, Cicero was pardoned by Caesar and even returned to politics.
When the conqueror of Gaul was assassinated, Cicero was shocked. He correctly saw that Mark Antony was a threat and had ambitions to become absolute ruler of Rome. Furthermore, Mark Antony hated Cicero because he frequently mocked him in his speeches. Naturally, then, the orator formed an alliance with Octavian, the future Augustus.
First Triumvirate

From left to right: Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey

The Death of Cicero
Cicero made many speeches opposing Mark Antony and he encouraged the Senate to oppose his ambitions. When Mark Antony took up arms against the Senate, the orator urged that the Consuls be sent against him.
After the Battle of Mutina, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, and they divided the Republic and its provinces between them. They decided to secure their position by starting a campaign of terror against their enemies, known as the Proscriptions.
Mark Antony wanted Cicero dead. This forced the orator to go into hiding, and many Romans helped him to evade the Second Triumvirate. However, he was finally betrayed to two killers by a former slave of his brother. Cicero died with great bravery and when the assassins approached him, he bared his throat to them, to show that he was not afraid.
His killers beheaded him and cut off the hand that had written so many condemnations of Mark Antony. According to legend, Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, mocked the head of Cicero and reputedly stuck a pin into the tongue of the dead orator. This was done out of revenge for all the times he had used his tongue to castigate Mark Antony.
Death of Cicero

The Vengeance of Fulvia by Francisco Maura Y Montaner, 1888 depicting Fulvia inspecting the severed head of Cicero

Literary Works
Cicero is considered to be one of the masters of Latin. His speeches and oratory were collected and widely read. They have influenced oratory to the present day and the adjective “Ciceronian” is used to describe eloquence.
He was also a distinguished philosopher, much influenced by Greek Scepticism and Neo-Platonism. Cicero worked tirelessly to introduce Greek philosophy into Rome. He also wrote extensively on politics and ethics.
His works have had an enduring influence on the development of European culture and history. Cicero influenced Italian Humanists of the Renaissance such as Petrarch, who discovered letters between Cicero and his friend Atticus that had been lost to time. He was also much admired by leading members of the Enlightenment, such as David Hume and even many of the founding fathers of the United States.
“…the philosophers of the Academy have been wise in withholding their consent from any proposition that has not been proved. There is nothing worse than a hasty judgment, and nothing could be more unworthy of the dignity and integrity of a philosopher than uncritically to adopt a false opinion or to maintain as certain some theory which has not been fully explored and understood.” ~ Cicero, De Natura Deorum

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen. ( Public Domain )

“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.” ~ David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Cicero was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, despite his bravery and oratory, he failed to save the Republic. He is remembered as one of the greatest of all Latin writers and decisively shaped Western culture. To this day, Cicero inspires those who want to defend freedom against tyrants.

Emperor Commodus: Was He Really So Terrible?

by March 13, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 AD) is widely regarded as one of the ‘bad emperors’ and a bloody tyrant. This image has been perpetuated in several movies, especially the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000).
His reign and life were extraordinary by even the standards of the Roman Empire. However, what was the legacy of Commodus and was he is evil and Emperor as is often made out?
Early life
Lucius Aurelius Commodus was born in 161 AD, the son of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His mother was the aristocratic Anna Galeria Faustina Minor, and his parents were first cousins. Rome was at the zenith of its power and prosperity when he was born.
Marcus Aurelius is widely seen as one of the greatest of all Emperors’ and was also a renowned Stoic philosopher. Commodus was the only legitimate male child of the Emperor that survived into adulthood. When he was just five years old, Commodus was given the title of Caesar and this designated him as the heir of Marcus Aurelius.
Birth of Commodus

Sestertius celebrating the birth of Commodus and his twin brother in 161

His upbringing was one that was directed by his father. He had the best tutors and his personal physician was Galen. Marcus Aurelius’ later reign was marked by war and plague. The Emperor was forced to fight German tribes in the so-called Marcomannic Wars. Rome was also badly shaken by the terrible Antonine Plague that killed countless people.
Commodus was present at his father’s headquarters during the wars with the Germans, in 172 AD.  Marcus was constantly on campaign and after a bitter struggle by 177 AD he was close to victory. He was on the verge of annexing much of modern Central Europe to the Empire. In 177 AD, Commodus was made co-ruler of the Roman Empire with his father.
No future Emperor was as well-prepared for his future role as Commodus. However, from an early age his temper and unpredictability made many doubt his suitability for the role.
Commodus’ Reign
Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD and he was mourned by his entire Empire. Commodus became sole ruler of the Roman World. The first thing that he did was end the war with the Germans and decided not to annex the, and turn them into a province his father had conquered. Many believe that this was the right strategic decision.
Commodus Denarius

Denarius of Commodus.

Commodus returned to Rome and he turned over the reins of government to the corrupt Praetorian Prefects. We know little of the early years of his reign, but it appears that after a conspiracy to assassinate him, he became paranoid.
Commodus’ paranoia turned to cruelty, as could be seen, for instance, when he tried to kill the woman he loved (his mistress)—more than once.  He soon devoted all his energy to his passions and he virtually handed the government of Rome to Cleander, a Phrygian former slave. Commodus also had a streak of sadism, delighting in tormenting and torturing the disabled. However, his overriding passion was gladiatorial games.
The Gladiator Emperor
The Roman elite was obsessed with the bloody sport, but Commodus took it to extremes. He would fight in the arena, which was against all the social norms of the time. In the early years of his reign he would invite gladiators to his palace and in staged combats, he would kill them. Typically, he would be armed, and the gladiators would be armed only with imitation weapons.
If this was not bad enough, he decided to participate in the Gladiatorial Games in the Coliseum, in Rome. He would appear as a gladiator and he would kill the disabled and later he would slaughter gladiators. All of his victims would have been tied up or unarmed… They didn’t stand a chance.

Commodus as Hercules, Capitoline Museums

Commodus was certainly bloodthirsty. However, he used his displays at the games to demonstrate his power. His slaughter in the arena demonstrated to his many enemies his cruelty and this made people afraid of him. Commodus’ extravagance in the arena was such, that he almost bankrupted the Empire. To pay his debts he was forced to devalue the coinage which wreaked havoc on the economy.
Commodus as God
Commodus was the first Emperor born into the ‘purple’. He knew that he would be an Emperor from childhood. From an early age he displayed signs of megalomania and he heeded no-one apart from his father. During his reign he self-identified with Hercules and wanted to appear god-like to the people of Rome. He even had the temerity to name the months of the year after himself.
The Roman Imperial system was one that was based on the Emperor cooperating with the Senatorial elite. However, Commodus intimidated the Senatorial elite and ruled as an absolute ruler. Nothing could restrain him, and he even had an entire family killed so that he could seize their wealth. When he became unpopular, he did the same thing to Cleander and his family. Commodus even had his former favorite’s head placed on a spear and paraded around Rome.
The assassination of Commodus
In 192 AD, the people of Rome had enough. Several leading figures entered a conspiracy. At first, they poisoned him, but Commodus managed to vomit up the poison. They then hired his favorite wrestler known as Narcissusus and he murdered the Emperor in his bath. Petrinax was acclaimed Emperor but he was later deposed, and this led to a series of civil wars that only ended with the rise of Septimius Severus.
Death of Commodus

Death of Commodus, Fernand Pelez

The legacy of Commodus
Commodus was a bloody tyrant and his reign was also a disaster and contributed to the decline of the greatest Classical Empire. After his reign of terror, the Emperors became the absolute rulers of the Roman World, following his example. Most importantly of all, Commodus weakened the economy of Rome, with his lavish spending. This was to lead to inflation which was a crucial factor in the ‘Third Century Crisis’ that almost destroyed the Roman Empire.
So, was Commodus as terrible as he is typically made out to be? Well, he certainly doesn’t seem to have been the worst, but he was far from an angel. The final judgment on the character of this Roman leader, I leave up to you.

The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part III

by March 11, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Parthian Attacks
With barely enough time to get comfortable in the Emperor’s seat, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus’ minds were turned to a ghost that haunted their predecessor. As Emperor Antoninus Pius lay dying, his mind was often consumed by the actions of foreign kings. Such worries would turn out to not be unfounded, though Antoninus would (perhaps fortunately) not live long enough to see his fears justified.
In late summer or early autumn of 161, Vologases IV of Parthia invaded Armenia, removing and exiling its king before installing a king of his choosing, King Pacorus. The governor at the time, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, an experienced military man and Gaul, was, unfortunately, mislead by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus.
It was the prophet who told the governor that he would easily defeat the Parthians and win glory for himself in the act. Severianus was duped by the snake handler and lulled into a false sense of military superiority.
Vologases IV

Coin (front and back) of Vologases IV, minted at Seleucia in 156.

Sadly, Severianus led a legion into Armenia to challenge the Parthians. But, the Parthian general Chosrhoes trapped him near the head of the Euphrates River, at Elegia. Severianus attempted several engagements with the general but failed each time. After three days he committed suicide, leaving his legion to be massacred by the Parthians.
In the winter of 161-162, it was decided that Lucius would take over and direct the Parthian war. As he was strong and healthy, this seemed a wise choice, rather than sending Marcus who had always suffered from bouts of illness.
Marcus may have had an ulterior motive for sending Lucius; as the lesser emperor had developed a taste for debauchery, and he hoped the terror of war would straighten him out and remind him that he, too, was an emperor.
Bust of Lucius

Marble portrait of the co-emperor Lucius Verus, Roman Antonine period.

Thus, in the summer of 162, with the senate’s blessing, Lucius left for the Parthian war. He would spend much of his time in Antioch, wintering at Laodicea, and spending the summers at Daphne, enjoying what were to be his final days as a bachelor. In the autumn of 163, or early 164, Lucius married Lucilla in Ephesus after Marcus moved up the marriage date; perhaps as a result of Lucius taking a mistress, Panthea.
Marcus did not attend the marriage of his 13year-old daughter. Instead, he accompanied them as far as Brundisium, and returned immediately to Rome after they boarded the ship. Some evidence suggests that he was not entirely happy with the arrangement, as he also sent word to his proconsuls not to give the company any official reception.
In the coming years, the war with the Parthians would continue back and forth, with both sides sustaining bitter defeats with heavy losses. Eventually, in 165, the Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia, and after a series of skirmishes the Parthian army was routed at the Tigris River, before the Roman army continued on down the Euphrates River for another major victory. Lucius and the Roman army then turned their sights on the cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia.
Where Ctesiphon occupied the left bank of the Tigris, Seleucia sat on the left, and despite offering no resistance to the invading army, Seleucia was ransacked. At the end of 165 Ctesiphon was seized, and as the only city that had withstood the Romans, it then faced having the royal palace raised to the ground by fire. Both of these pillaging conquests would leave a black mark on Lucius’ honor and reputation.
Marcus and Lucius

Busts of the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius (left) and Lucius Verus (right), British Museum.

Upon the army’s return to Rome, Lucius adopted the title Parthicus Maximus, and both he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again. When the army returned, in 166, to Media, Lucius then added the extra title Medicus to his name, while Marcus chose to wait until then to include Parthicus Maximus to his list of honors. The two emperors were then hailed as imperatores for the fourth time, and on 12th October Marcus announced his two sons as his heirs-apparent; Annius and Commodus.
Rebellion On All Fronts
The Parthian War wasn’t the only military matter that occupied Marcus’ thoughts. Indeed, much of the 160s were consumed with attacks on almost all of the Roman Empire’s borders. There were skirmishes in Britain, in Raetia (eastern and central Switzerland), and Upper Germany. Marcus had been ill-prepared for inheriting such a calamitous state, and with very little military experience, he was guided by others.
In 166 the borders of the Roman Empire were broken in Upper Germany by the indigenous tribes of the area. Unfortunately, Marcus had replaced capable leaders and governors with friends and relatives of the imperial family, and this nepotism would come back to haunt him.
Where the Roman army had so far succeeded in repulsing the advances of smaller bands of the Germanic tribes, in 168 they faced a much more dangerous combination of united tribes who crossed the Danube.
Consummation of Empire

The Course of Empire (series of paintings by Thomas Cole): The Consummation of Empire (1836).

Attacking between the Danube and Theiss rivers, the Marcomanni of Bohemia, along with the Lombards, followed by the lazyges (one of the main tribes of the Samartians, an Iranian confederation) , invaded the empire’s territory. Lucius Verus, having recently defeated the Parthian leader Vologases, was quick to defend the Danubian border.
At the same time, the Costoboci from Carpathia invaded Macedonia and Greece. However, Marcus was able to repel this attack for the moment. While fending off this advance, the Germanic tribes began settling in Dacia, Pannonia, Germany, as well as Italy.
Although this was not unheard of, the sheer numbers of tribes relocating there required the creation of new provinces; and with the overwhelming number of barbarians arriving, it caused Marcus to banish any and all barbarians who’d been brought to Italy previously, for fear of being overrun.
This onslaught of attacks would not be the worst thing Marcus would have to deal with. While returning to Rome, Lucius became grievously ill with the symptoms of gastroenteritis, although some scholars believe it may have been the Antonine Plague, aka; smallpox. Just three days later, he was dead.
Apotheosis of Lucius

The apotheosis of Lucius Verus, 2nd century relief plates from Ephesus, on display at Humboldt University of Berlin

The death of his adoptive brother, and the husband of his 21year-old daughter, caused Marcus a great deal of heartbreak. He escorted Lucius’ body back to Rome. The co-Emperor would be deified and then worshipped as Divus Verus, soon after the funeral games held in his honor.
Lawmaker and Administrator
Marcus proved to be a prudent ruler of the Empire. Now, as the only ruler, he would spend much of his time in Rome, addressing matters of law. There he would decide over disputes and listen to petitions. This is something that his predecessors had failed to do: being competent in navigating imperial administration. He also paid particular attention to the release of slaves, the welfare of orphans, and how city councilors were selected.
He was a shrewd businessman, seeking the senate’s approval before spending money, even though he did not need to do so as Emperor. During this period, Marcus potentially made contact with Han China, though this tenuous link is via a Roman traveler who claimed to represent the ruler of Daqin. There is physical evidence to support this story, with Roman glassware being found at Huangzhou, which shares some coastline on the South China Sea, and golden Roman medallions have been found at Óc Eo, in Vietnam, which dates to Marcus’ rule, or possibly earlier to Antoninus’.
At any rate, in 165/166 the Antonine Plague broke out in Mesopotamia, and possibly continued long after Marcus’ time as Emperor. The Antonine Plague is now suspected to have been smallpox, and was one of the plagues that afflicted the Han Empire at the time of Marcus’ potential contact.
aurelius on horse

Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.

It is believed that during this contact, Roman subjects may have begun a new era of Roman-Far East trading. However, this exchange of goods may also have instigated the wider spreading of the plague, and caused severe damage to Roman maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. For instance, archaeological records spanning Egypt to India show decreased traffic, and this had a significant effect on goods going to Southeast Asia at this point.
End of Days
It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty, with heathen tribes surrounding the borders of Rome, and the Antonine Plague ravaging the Roman populous. For much of the 170s, Marcus’ rule was spent attempting to stem the onslaught, and in 177 he named Commodus as co-ruler (his other son, Annius, died in 169).
This decision caused quite a stir, as his appointment was only the second time in Roman history where an Emperor nominated his biological son as co-ruler, the first being Vespasian and his son Titus. Perhaps Marcus hoped for a similar legacy for his family.
Whatever his intentions, Marcus would not live to see them bear fruit. He passed away in 180, of natural causes, in Vindobona—modern-day Vienna. He was 58years old, and his ashes were returned to Rome, and there placed in the mausoleum of Hadrian. Upon his death, he was immediately deified, and eventually his efforts against the German tribes and the Sarmatians were acknowledged with a column and a temple in Rome.
Column of Marcus

Detail of a relief scene on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (in Rome, Italy), depicting a battle of the Marcomannic Wars, late 2nd century AD

Despite the tumultuous events that afflicted Rome throughout Marcus’ reign, he is remembered today as the last emperor of the Pax Romana—the golden age of Rome.
Much of Marcus Aurelius’ life was marred by illness, loss of loved ones. Because of his stoic desire to live a quiet life he never sought the limelight of leadership, but when faced with ruling the empire, it was this same stoic attitude of his that allowed him to accept his fate. It was his natural duty, and he abided by it.
Marcus’ choice of an heir has been heavily criticized, as Commodus proved to be erratic, and lacked both military and political savvy. Though Marcus had done his best to raise the boy to be a capable man and future leader, Commodus would be a bitter disappointment to his father.
The death of Marcus and the reign of Commodus would come to mark the end of the Pax Romana. As Cassius Dio wrote, in an encomium to Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on the transition to Commodus and to Dio’s own times, “…our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire (series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).

However, if nothing else, it’s worth remembering Marcus’s steadfastness. As Dio also said of the man he knew,

“[Marcus] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”

Marcus’ iconic stoicism, philosophic nature, and compassionate heart meant he constantly worked towards creating a better Roman world. Marcus lived a life of constant challenges, overcoming them where possible, accepting those that he could not, and all the while striving for the betterment of all.
As he once so beautifully wrote in his Meditations,

“Upon every action that thou art about, put this question to thyself; How will this when it is done agree with me? Shall I have no occasion to repent of it? Yet a very little while and I am dead and gone; and all things are at end. What then do I care for more than this, that my present action whatsoever it be, may be the proper action of one that is reasonable; whose end is, the common good; who in all things is ruled and governed by the same law of right and reason, by which God Himself is.” ~ Book 8. II.


The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part II

by March 6, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
One Empire, Two Emperors
Life changed drastically for Marcus Aurelius, and Rome in 161 when Antoninus Pius died, leaving Marcus effectively as the new Emperor. However, although he was granted the name Augustus and the title imperator, and was elected Pontifex Maximus, Marcus appears to have taken these positions with some hesitation, having to be compelled to do so.
He may have been hesitant due to a literal fear of imperial power—horror imperii—or simply because he preferred the philosophic life. But, due to his training as a Stoic, he did not shrug off what he perceived as his duty and accepted the appointment.
It’s important to reflect on Marcus’ relationship with Hadrian, who was of course Antoninus’ predecessor. Although Marcus doesn’t appear to have had any great sentiment for Hadrian, as he did not mention Hadrian in his Meditations, Marcus was no doubt aware of the former emperor’s plans of succession, and ultimately chose to uphold them.
However, this is where Marcus displayed his sense of fairness, justice, and stoicism; he refused to take up office unless Lucius Verus was also granted equal powers. The Senate capitulated, and two Emperors were now ruling Rome equally, working united, a first for the Empire.
Aurelius and Verus

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum.

Or, at least that is how it appeared. Marcus held more authority—auctoritas—as he had been consul more times than Lucius, and had been involved in Antoninus’ rule and was Pontifex Maximus. To the public eye, it was clear that Marcus was the senior partner in this joint rulership.
In an unexpected move, the joint rulers then made their way to Castra Praetoria, the Praetorian Guard’s encampment, and Lucius addressed the troops, and made a declaration of a special ‘donative’—a donation which was more than double that from previous emperors, almost several years pay.
With this address and monetary promise, the army immediately declared them as imperatores, and vowed to protect them. This course of action, winning over the military, wasn’t entirely necessary as with previous ascensions, however it was an effective way of solidifying support from the army to the Emperors against any future attacks.
Family Matters
To honor Antoninus, the Emperors held elaborate ceremonies, with his body being cremated at the Campus Martius, and both Marcus and Lucius nominating him for deification. The remains of Antoninus Pius were interred with the remains of Marcus’ beloved children, and former emperor Hadrian’s remains in Hadrian’s mausoleum.
Meanwhile, Faustina was pregnant, and she had dreamt that she would give birth to two serpents, with one stronger than the other. On 31 August (Caligula’s birthday), Faustina gave birth to Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. The birth was celebrated widely, with coins being minted.
Commodus denarius

A denarius of Commodus.

Some time after both emperors’ ascended, Annia Lucilla was betrothed to Lucius despite him formally being her uncle – as he was also adopted by Antoninus, but wasn’t biologically related to her. During the ceremonies, the Emperors made new provisions to support poor children, something akin to previous imperial foundations.
A New Roman Empire
This joint leadership was popular with the Romans, in part because both Emperors’ were direct and lacked the pomp of former rulers. They also earned favor by permitting free speech, something that had been lacking, with those who spoke out being subject to retribution.
Marcus then proceeded to breath new life into the empire, by replacing major officials. The first to change was the ab epistulis, or those in charge of the imperial correspondence. Next, one of Marcus’ former tutors, Lucius Volusius Maecianus was appointed prefect of the treasury, due to his experience as prefectural governor of Egypt. Finally, Gaius Aufidius Victorinus, Fronto’s son-in-law, was made governor of Germania Superior.
At Marcus’ accession to Emperor, Fronto returned from Cirta, and took up residence in his Roman townhouse. Although Fronto did not dare to write to the emperors directly, he did reflect on how the boy he had known had grown into a great leader, and remarked, ‘There was then an outstanding natural ability in you; there is now perfected excellence. There was then a crop of growing corn; there is now a ripe, gathered harvest. What I was hoping for then, I have now. The hope has become a reality.’
Aurelius and bread

Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Joseph-Marie Vien.

In these early days of his reign, a time when all things appeared to move smoothly and without any conflict, Marcus was able to embrace his philosophic nature. Coinage from the era is stamped with the euphemistic words ‘felicitas temporum‘ or ‘happy times’.
Changing Tides
Sadly, these easy days were to end all too soon. Late in 161 or early 162, the Tiber broke its banks and flooded much of Rome. This flooding took the lives of citizens and livestock alike, causing famine and disease to ravage the city. Marcus and Lucius turned their personal attention to the dire situation, and provided for the communities from the Roman granaries to ease their suffering.
Fonto was obviously pleased with his student’s actions, as he continued to write to Marcus throughout the early days of his reign. He also noticed that, with this new prominence of position, that Marcus might have been ‘beginning to feel the wish to be eloquent once more, in spite of having for a time lost interest in eloquence’, something Fronto was all too keen to assist with, but also reminded him of the differences between Marcus’ personal life and his public one.
As a teacher, Fronto could be no prouder of his pupil; Marcus was beloved by his subjects, he was proving to be a wise and capable emperor, and most of all, Marcus was as eloquent as his teacher could wish for. With Fronto’s words ‘Not more suddenly or violently was the city stirred by the earthquake than the minds of your hearers by your speech’, he commended his student’s rhetorical abilities when the Emperor addressed the Senate after an earthquake in Cyzicus. It was clear to all who heard his words: Marcus Aurelius was indeed the Emperor.

Tiberius: Great Emperor or Monster?

by February 28, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Tiberius( 42 BC –37 AD) was the second Roman Emperor and one of its greatest. He was also a brilliant general. Yet, he is remembered today as a gloomy tyrant who was vey cruel. Tiberius was a very complex man and to this day he is something of an enigma.
The Early Life of Tiberius
The future Emperor was born to Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla of the ancient Claudian family. His father was a supporter of the Optimates and was opposed to the increasing power of Octavian (late Augustus). He was forced with his wife to flee for his life from the anger of Augustus but was eventually pardoned.
However, when Augustus saw Livia he fell in love with her, despite the fact that she was pregnant with her husband’s child. The first Emperor forced Tiberius’ father to divorce his mother.
The young Tiberius was at first raised by his father, but after he died he went to live in the home of his Stepfather Augustus. The strange family circumstances of the young Tiberius are blamed by many for his gloomy and suspicious temper.
Tiberius and Livia

Livia and her son Tiberius, AD 14–19, from Paestum, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid.

Tiberius’ Early Career
Augustus was very concerned about having a heir. From an early date Tiberius was regarded as a potential successor of the First Emperor. He entered public life under the direction of Augustus and was a fine orator and advocate. He soon was given a military command and proved to be a brilliant general. After service in the East, he was given command of several legions.
Tiberius was able to conquer the mountainous area of Raetia (modern Switzerland). Later he would conquer large parts of Pannonia and Illyria, despite facing large armies.  Tiberius also launched an offensive across the Danube and defeated the Marcomanni. He was later ordered to Germany where he defeated several tribes. After the death of Augustus’ close friend Agrippa, the First Emperor recalled Tiberius to Rome.
Tiberius in Mid-Career
In 11 BC, Tiberius was forced to divorce his first wife Vipsania, with whom he had a son, Drusus. Augustus made Tiberius marry Julia, his daughter, and consequently became the stepson of his grandchildren. He was cruelly forbidden to even see his first wife.
It seems that Augustus wanted Tiberius to act as the guardian of his likely heirs. However, his marriage to Julia was a disaster and he remained in love with his first wife. His relationship with the Emperor became strained.
Bust of Augustus

Head of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, Roman artwork of the late Augustan period, last decade of the 1st century BC

Despite this, in 6 B.C. Tiberius was selected to take over de-facto command of the East. He suddenly resigned and retired to Rhodes, where he studied philosophy and rhetoric.
His reasons for this dramatic action are not known. Some have speculated that he was humiliated by his wife’s infidelities or that he felt that he was no longer a candidate to succeed Augustus. After a few years, Tiberius wanted to return to Rome, but Augustus refused him leave to return, despite the pleas of his mother Livia.
Tiberius as Heir
Tiberius could have died in exile but for a remarkable series of events.  Two of Augustus’ grandsons died while still young men.  The First Emperor had Tiberius recalled and made him his heir. Another grandson of Augustus was later banished. In 12 A.D., Tiberius was made the co-Emperor. It appears that Augustus was reluctant to do so but Livia probably persuaded him to make Tiberius his heir.
Tiberius as Emperor (14-37 AD)
When Augustus died, Tiberius, at least publicly, became Emperor. He was faced with a great many challenges including a rebellion in Illyria and a mutiny among the legions on the Rhine. Germanicus, the son of this brother, ended the mutiny and the rebellion, at least according to the historian Tacitus.

Bust of Germanicus

Tiberius was a capable administrator and he strengthened the administration of the Roman Empire  and continued the policies of Augustus. He avoided unnecessary wars and the population enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity.
The reign of the Second Emperor is seen as embedding the Imperial system and ensuring that it was accepted by the vast majority of the local elites. However, Tiberius had a poor relationship with the Roman senatorial elite and he held many treason trials and executed many Senators.  Germanicus was hugely popular with the populace, and many historians believe that Tiberius had him poisoned.
Retirement to Capri and Sejanus
The Emperor was aware of his unpopularity and is said to have become weary of government. He withdrew to the Island of Capri and the reins of the government were left to Sejanus. He was an Etruscan by birth and was commander of the Praetorian Guard (Imperial bodyguard).
Tiberius stayed in Capri where he allegedly delighted in cruel tortures and sexual orgies. Sejanus ruled Rome with an iron-fist and had many Senators assassinated. However, he soon aspired to the Imperial throne.
Tiberius in Capri

Tiberio in Capri (French engraving)

Sejanus began an affair with the daughter in law of Tiberius. Later he had the Second Emperor’s son poisoned, but made it appear as having been a natural death. Tiberius was not aware of Sejanus’ actions, until he was informed of them. Tiberius then had Sejanus and his family summarily executed. However, he still did not return to Rome and power was largely in the hands of the successor of Sejanus in the Praetorian Guard.
The Second Emperor was somewhat paranoid, and he had many potential heirs killed off for no particular reason. Eventually he decided to make Germanicus’ son, Caligula, his heir along with his only grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. It is widely suspected that Caligula and the Praetorian Prefect had Tiberius suffocated or poisoned.
Tiberius’ Legacy
The Second Emperor did much to ensure that the Imperial system managed to survive the death of Augustus and his shrewd administration, preventing another outbreak of civil war. He could be brutal, but his cruelty and tyranny were overstated by later Roman historians.
Is it possible that, perhaps, one might be a great emperor and a monster? I leave that for you to decide, dear reader.