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Marcus Aurelius

Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (April 26, 121 - March 17, 180) (born Marcus Annius Catilius Severus at marriage taking the name Marcus Annius Verus) was given the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus upon being name heir to the office of Roman emperor, which he held from A.D. 161 to his death in 180. The name Aurelius means "the golden."

His uncle Antoninus Pius adopted him as a son and designated him his successor on February 25, AD 138, when Marcus was only seventeen years of age. Antoninus also named Lucius Verus as his successor. When Antoninus died, Marcus accepted the throne on the condition that he and Verus were made joint emperors (Augusti), with Verus partly subordinate. The reasons for this are unclear.

The joint succession may have been motivated by military exigency. During his reign Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war with various peoples outside the Empire. Germanic and other peoples launched many raids along the long European border, particularly into Gaul. (They, in turn, may have been under attack from more warlike tribes farther east.) In Asia, a revitalized Parthian empire renewed its assault. A highly authoritative figure was needed to command the troops, yet the emperor himself could not defend both fronts at the same time. Neither could he simply appoint a general to lead one assault; earlier popular military leaders like Julius Caesar and Vespasian had used the military to overthrow the existing government and install themselves as supreme leaders.

Marcus Aurelius solved the problem by sending Verus to command the legions in the east. He was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little incentive to overthrow Marcus. The plan was successful - Verus remained loyal until his death on campaign in 169. This joint emperorship was faintly reminiscent of the political system Roman Republic, which functioned according to the principle of collegiality and did not allow a single person to hold supreme power. Joint rule was revived by Diocletian's establishment of the Tetrarchy in the late 3rd century.

Marcus Aurelius has a reputation (possibly exaggerated by history) as a Stoic philosopher. His Meditations, written on campaign in Greek, survive and continue to inspire.

He died in 180 during the expedition against the Marcomanni in the city of Vindobona (today Vienna). He was able to secure the succession for his son Commodus, though the choice may have been unfortunate. Commodus was a political and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist.

Marcus Aurelius appears as a character in the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire played by Alec Guinness, the 2000 film Gladiator, played by Richard Harris, and in the novel Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove.

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See also: Roman Empire, Byzantine Emperors

Preceded by:
Antoninus Pius (138 - 161)
Roman emperors
Followed by:
Commodus (180 - 192)