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

The Philosopher-King of Ancient Rome: Marcus Aurelius' Imperium


Marcus Aurelius is famed for various accomplishments—his title as the last of the Five Good Emperors; his extensive study of and literary accomplishments in the field of Stoicism; and, last but not least, defeating numerous longstanding enemies of the Roman Empires: the Parthians, the Marcomanni and the Sarmatians, to name a few. Marcus Aurelius is, in fact, one of the few living examples of Plato's infamous "philosopher king" ideology—that is, a successful leader defined by his intelligence, reliability and appreciation of his people and status. Yet Marcus Aurelius' philosophical reign should also be remembered for its possible role in his one—albeit rather enormous—mistake: naming a legitimate son as heir to the Roman imperium.

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Musei Capitolini in Rome

The Statue of Marcus Aurelius (detail) in the Musei Capitolini in Rome (Public Domain)

End of the Adoptive Emperors

In some scholarly circles, this decision is not as catastrophic as it may seem. Marcus Aurelius not only named his son heir, but he was also the first emperor in almost one hundred years to actually have a legitimate son to pass imperium (the power of Emperor) on to. The Five Adoptive Emperors were "adopted" not merely because there was a fear of forming dynasties (though this contributed); it was also due to the fact that the emperors from the years 96-161 AD did not have legitimate sons. As noted in a previous article regarding the Roman Empire's imperial timeline, Emperor Nerva received leadership in 96, but in his old age, he had no children and only lasted two years before his death. Trajan followed, also childless; Hadrian, though he had a wife, was a homosexual who did not spawn any sons with his wife. Antoninus Pius was adopted by Hadrian, and subsequently adopted both Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to serve as co-emperors after his own death in 161 AD. (It should be noted that Antoninus did have two sons by his wife; however, these boys both died before he took power in 138 AD.)

Thus Marcus Aurelius, while breaking a century old "tradition" was able to break this tradition because of his familial situation. Yet, what about the side of the coin where the Adoptive Emperors' system was appreciated by the Senate, as dynasties were prevented? That is where one finds fault in Marcus' reign. Unfortunately for the Roman people, Marcus Aurelius' eldest son was Commodus who would go down in Rome's legacy as one of the most mentally unstable leaders.

Statue of Emperor Commodus as Hercules (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Marcus’ Progressive System of Governance

Marcus himself ruled as co-emperor with Antoninus' other chosen heir Lucius Verus until Verus' death in 169 AD. Marcus was married to Antoninus' daughter Faustina the Younger (after his first marriage was, of course, annulled by the emperor), when he was formally adopted as Antoninus' heir. However, the two men butted heads over Marcus' philosophical inclinations and Antoninus' preference for, what some might call, an overly lavish court life. Though this author believes Marcus made an unforeseeable error in choosing his own son to inherit the Empire, Marcus' philosophical education and independent studies certainly aided in this rule. He, like Emperor Hadrian, greatly admired Greek thought and rhetoric, and studied both in great depth. Most of his personal writings were recorded in Ancient Greek rather than Latin, in fact. His studiousness is likely one of the reasons he was—and still is—such a highly respected and beloved emperor.

That is not to say Marcus did not have his fair share of strife while in power and his rule was marked by almost continual war. Yet in spite of the various wars fought under his reign, Marcus' stoic reputation was never combined with one of bloodshed or violence. Marcus took on the role of leader in every sense of the word—he was a man men wanted to follow in both political and military affairs. Interestingly, scholarship asserts that it was Marcus' idea, not Antoninus', that he and Lucius Verus should rule as equal co-emperors. According to WHO, Marcus would not accept imperium otherwise. Thus, Marcus became the Augustus and Verus, the Caesar. These titles for co-emperors would resurface in the breakup of the Empire in the third and fourth centuries.

Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome

Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (Public Domain)

Ancient literature regarding Marcus and Lucius' early reign is littered with references of the co-emperors well-received differences from previous leaders. Famine in the city received personal responses from the emperors rather than their subordinates; literature could roast the emperors for comedic purposes without fear of punishment. (Previous emperors, Nero for instance, likely would have requested those writers' heads.) Neither man was fond of the lavishness Antonius preferred, meanwhile both heaped praise and credit on the generals who fought on the front lines of the wars against Parthia. Though Verus did enjoy a triumph on his return from the East, the value of the generals does not appear to have been overlooked. The Roman people appreciated such modesty.

Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People

Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People (Public Domain)

Marcus’ Success and Failure

Marcus enjoyed numerous other successes during his reign as emperor. While Verus died in 169, likely of a plague caught while fighting the Parthian Wars, Marcus continued to rule until 180 AD, his son Commodus by his side starting in 177. Triumphs against the Macromanni and other tribes of Germania were added to his list of achievements, as well as the defeat of the Sarmatians near the Black Sea. In spite of Marcus' highly positive imperial reign, this author finds fault in his choice of co-emperor and successor. Commodus was named Caesar just after the Parthian defeat in 166, however historians such as Cassius Dio indicate that he was showing signs of instability long before he officially took this role in 177 AD. Dio believes Marcus' failing health might have played a role in his decision to overlook these anomalies; more recent scholarship argues that his decision might have had to do with Marcus' firm belief in duty, an extension of his Stoic studies.

Detail from the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome shows the story of his victories.

Detail from the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome shows the story of his victories. (CC BY 3.0)

Yet it cannot be denied that Commodus' reign was the beginning of the end of the Empire. After all, Commodus was the first emperor to be assassinated since Vespasian's younger son Domitian had imperium from 81-96 AD. One wonders what might have happened had Marcus not chosen Commodus as his successor. Would the Empire have fractured, having five claimants to the throne before Septimus Severus gained power in 193? Would the Empire have been physically halved had Severus' son Caracalla not murdered and attempted to erase his own brother from history; had Caracalla not so lavishly overpaid his soldiers that coinage was devalued; or had Caracalla not (somewhat recklessly) begun new campaigns in the east for the sole purpose of gaining territory rather than responding to real threats?

Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius by Eugène Delacroix

Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius by Eugène Delacroix (Public Domain)

It cannot be argued that what happened to the Roman Empire after Marcus Aurelius' death was Marcus' "fault", for lack of a better term. After all, even if Marcus Aurelius' Stoicism was part of the reason he chose his blood child as heir, that Stoicism was also what made him a valued and respected leader. Take away one and the other might suffer. What can be argued is the amount of growth that occurred under Marcus' reign, both with Antoninus and Verus. Eastern threats were largely defeated and the Roman people benefited from a true philosopher king. Marcus Aurelius' accomplishments greatly overshadow his one error; whether or not it can even be considered an error if it was in the name of "duty" the question for debate.

Top image: Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Joseph-Marie Vien (Public Domain)

By Riley Winters


Ackeren, Marcel van (ed).2012.  A Companion to Marcus Aurelius. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.

Birley, Anthony R. 1966. Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. New York: Routledge.

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. (trans. Richard Haines, 1916.) Harvard: Loeb Classical Library.

McLynn, Frank. 2010. Marcus Aurelius: A Life. Da Capo Press.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. (trans. Allan Bloom and Adam Kirsch, 2016.) Basic Books.

Scarre, Chris and Brandon Shaw. 1995.  Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. Thames & Hudson.

Stertz, Stephen A. 1977. "Marcus Aurelius as Ideal Emperor in Late-Antique Greek Thought."  The Classical World 70.7. p. 433–39.

Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome (trans. Michael Grant, 1956.) Penguin Classics.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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