Rome was governed from the year 96 to 180 by a chain of emperors dubbed the “5 Good Emperors” by Machiavelli. It has been studied and argued for centuries that Rome achieved it’s greatest heights under these emperors, who ruled with absolute power but possessed wisdom and virtue. Each was the adoptive heir of the previous emperor, which seems good evidence that choosing someone other than a full-blooded son to wield unlimited power usually led to a ruler with the people’s concerns in mind. The 5 good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Antoninus Pius reigned for 23 years, and brought to Rome a prolonged time of peace. His adoptive son was the nephew of his beloved wife Faustina. Marcus Aurelius assumed the throne upon his death and immediately made his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, a co-emperor. Lucius Verus died only 8 years later after suffering a stroke, leaving Marcus Aurelius sole emperor. Marcus had the heart and sole of a philosopher. He was well studied in the ways of ancient philosophy, and made many writings which have been passed down through time. Known as “the Meditations”, Marcus’ writings paint a picture of his wisdom and his preoccupation with death. Here’s a sample from the Meditations:
“The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just- though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity.”
Marcus may have been wise with a solid understanding of his responsibility as emperor, but that did not ensure a peaceful reign. After years of peace on Rome’s borders, all hell broke loose in the east and the north, leading to years of war. Marcus himself was on the frontlines for much of it, gone from Rome for a period of at least 8 years without returning. Eventually, the Roman armies secured the borders and won, but at great cost. They brought plague back to the capitol from the east, which raged in Rome for over 10 years. The hardest fought wars were against Germanic tribes to the north. It was here on the that Marcus Aurelius eventually died after years of illness, possibly cancer, in 180 after 19 years in power. More so than any other emperor, and due in large part to his writings which have survived to the present, he has gone down in history as a figure who embodies the best of Rome.
2 important monuments to Marcus Aurelius are found in Rome today. The first is the Column of Marcus Aurelius (also called the Aurelian Column). It stands in a piazza in the heart of modern Rome, not far from the government buildings. It is an impressive structure at 100 feet high. The form mimics that of Trajan’s column, which is found a few blocks away in the forum. Like Trajan’s column, Marcus’ column contains an incredibly detailed sculptural frieze that reads like an enormous spiral comic book. It tells the story of Marcus’ military victories in the north. At one time, it would have had a statue of Marcus Aurelius on the top. That one is long gone, replaced rather strangely with a statue of St. Paul.
The other significant monument to Marcus Aurelius is his bronze equestrian statue, which shows him heroically riding a horse. It’s made of cast bronze. At one point, there were probably many such statues in Rome, and carved bronze pieces also decorated many buildings. Those pieces are all gone forever, scavenged and melted down in the middle ages. “The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius” survives because people in the middle ages believed it to be a statue of the Christian Emperor Constantine (more on him later). The statue was unharmed and has stood for centuries and has only recently been placed inside the Capitoline Museum at the Roman Forum. It’s near the top of the greatest works from antiquity to still survive today. It shows with amazing detail just how talented Roman sculptors were.
Marcus Aurelius was a wise man, known as the philosopher king. It’s surprising and ironic then, that he made such a poor choice for his successor. His son was Commodus, and in choosing him Marcus Aurelius became the first emperor in nearly 100 years to favor a son over an adoptive heir. Commodus turned out to be one of the worst tyrant emperors, grouped with the likes of Caligula and Nero. Like those emperors, he was obsessed with power, demanded to be worshiped as a god, and was eventually assassinated. The reign of Commodus is seen as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. You could say that it began under Marcus Aurelius with his wars in the north, as eventually it was the northern tribes who wore down deteriorating Rome and sacked the capitol. Perhaps more on Commodus later-
For now, here’s another great SmartHistory clip with a more detailed look at the “Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius”. Enjoy-