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AN IMPERIAL PHILOSOPHER
MARCUS AURELIUS ANTONINUS AUGUSTUS
ARCUS AURELIUS, like his predecessor Trajan, belonged
to a family of Italian origin that had been for some
time settled in Spain. Losing his father in childhood,
he was adopted by his paternal grandfather, Annius
Verus, who was then (A.D. 126) Consul for the third
time. The little Verus (for that was then his name)
attracted the notice of the Emperor Hadrian, who made
him a knight when he was but six years old, and a
Priest of Mars two years afterwards.
Among the qualities which excited the admiration of
Hadrian was the lad's transparent honesty and
truthfulness. Verissimus, he would playfully call him,
making an appropriate superlative of his name. When he
was twelve he assumed the characteristic dress of the
philosopher, a thick woollen cloak, worn also by
soldiers on active service, and
 probably intended as a protest against the ornate and
luxurious dress of civil life. Luxury, indeed, had no
charms for the young Verus. On the contrary, he was
strongly inclined to the asceticism which was at this
time gaining a strong hold on the Christian community.
He adopted the practice of sleeping on the ground, and
could hardly be induced by the persuasions of his
servants to use a couch covered with lion skins. As it
was, his health was affected by his devotion to study.
"This," says his biographer, "was the only point on
which the life of the boy was open to censure."
We are reminded of what another of the noblest sons of
Rome, Agricola, said about himself,
that there was a time in his early youth "when he would
have imbibed a keener love of philosophy than became a
Roman and a senator, had not his mother's good sense
checked his excited and ardent spirit." Meanwhile great
prospects were opening out before the youth. Hadrian
had adopted one Ceionius Commodus, and Verus was
betrothed to his daughter, probably with a view to the
succession. The new Prince died but a little more than
a year after his adoption.
The Emperor now made a much happier choice in the
person of Arrius Antoninus. At the same time he imposed
the condition that the newly adopted son should
 himself adopt the youthful Verus and a son of the
deceased Ceionius Commodus. Hadrian died in 138, and
Arrius Antoninus succeeded him on the throne. The
surname Pius was given him, it is commonly supposed, in
recognition of his dutiful conduct in procuring the
usual honours of deification for his adopting father,
the Senate being disposed to refuse them on account of
the cruelties of Hadrian's later years.
In 147, Antoninus Pius shared the Imperial honour with
Aurelius (this was the name which Verus had assumed on
his adoption). For fourteen years the two acted
together with perfect harmony, and this was beyond
doubt the happiest period in the life of Aurelius. The
Empire enjoyed a repose such as had never fallen to its
lot before, and was never realised again; and in his
own home the troubles which disturbed his later years
had not yet begun, or, at least, did not press.
In 161 Antoninus died, committing the Empire to Aurelius
with his last breath, and making no mention, it would
seem, of the son of Commodus. The first act of
Aurelius was to associate his brother by adoption in
the Empire. It was certainly a disinterested act, and
it would have been a wise one, had the new colleague
been really worthy of his promotion. At the time,
indeed, he seemed to be so. He was young, active and
vigorous, fit to
 fight the battles of the Empire, while Aurelius would
manage civil affairs. Possibly promotion spoilt him.
He took command, indeed, of the armies which were sent
to operate against the Parthians, but the command was only
nominal. Great victories were won, but they were won
by his lieutenants. Verus himself, for that was the
name by which he was known, spent his time in dissolute
excesses. He died of apoplexy in 169, and Aurelius
was thenceforward sole Emperor.
It was a heavy burden that he had to bear, and he bore
it with a courage and a constancy that are beyond all
praise. A scholar and a student, he had to spend his
life in the camp. This uncongenial task he performed
with extraordinary success. The exhaustion of the
empire by famine and pestilence compelled him to fill
up the ranks of his legions with gladiators and slaves.
Yet the armies thus recruited won signal victories
under his leadership. A formidable confederacy of the
northern tribes threatened the Empire with the ruin
which actually overtook it three centuries later. The
imperial philosopher crushed it, as if he had been a
Marius or a Caesar.
The Marcomanni were defeated in 170, the Quadi in 174.
Scarcely had the latter victory been won when intrigues
of the Empress Faustina led to troubles in the East. This
woman, always the
 plague and disgrace of her husband, now went
dangerously near to a treasonable conspiracy against
him. The health of the Emperor was weak; his heir was
a vicious lad only just in his teens. Faustina feared
lest, if Aurelius should die, the legions might choose
another Prince, and wrote to Avidius Cassius, who
commanded the armies of the East, bidding him hold
himself in readiness to seize the reins of power. Her
own hand and the throne were to be his reward.
A rumor reached the East that the Emperor was dead, and
Cassius immediately had himself proclaimed. When a
contradiction followed, he believed that he had
offended beyond all pardon, and persisted in his
rebellion. With the greatest reluctance Aurelius
marched against him. Nothing, he told his soldiers,
was so hateful to him as civil war, and nothing would
please him better than to be able to forgive. What he
most feared was that Cassius' own shame and despair or
the hand of some loyal subject should anticipate his
purposes of clemency. The latter anticipation was
fulfilled. A little more than three months after his
assumption of the purple, Cassius was assassinated by
two of his officers. The murderers brought his bloody
head to Aurelius, but he turned away in disgust.
The Emperor would have accorded his forbearance to all
concerned in the unhappy affair. The papers of Cassius
he destroyed unread. Of those
 who had notoriously taken part with the usurper not one
suffered death. The wretched Empress died while he was
on his way eastward. Her son lived to succeed his
father, and to be, perhaps, the vilest ruler that ever
disgraced a throne. It was a lamentable weakness in
the philosophic Emperor to shut his eyes to a
wickedness of which he could not have been ignorant.
The principle of adoption had had the happiest results.
Nerva, chosen by the Senate, had adopted Trajan, Trajan
Hadrian, Hadrian Antoninus, and Antoninus Aurelius. The
last of the good Emperors reverted to the principle of
inheritance, and the golden age of Rome was at an
end. Aurelius died in his fifty-ninth year (A.D. 180).
Aurelius was a Stoic, but a Stoic with a difference.
He modified the paradoxical tenets of the school with
the sobriety of thought that characterized the Roman
mind. Suicide, in particular, to which the Stoic
teachers had been accustomed to give a hearty approval,
did not commend itself to him. It may be truly said
that the act is an expression of consummate egotism.
The man who, at the bidding of his conscience or his
pride, puts an end to his own life, puts himself above
nature, or the Ruler of nature. But Aurelius was not
an egotist. On the contrary, he develops in his
philosophical thought what is notoriously absent from
all non-Christian philosophy—humility. The sentence
which he quotes with approval from
Epictetus  —"Thou art a little soul, bearing about a corpse,"—was
not one which would have commended itself to a Cato.
And, if you change Nature to God, there is a Christian
ring in the following:—"To Nature, that giveth all and
taketh all away, he that is instructed and modest says,
'Give what thou wilt—take what thou wilt away.' And
this he says in a spirit not of pride but of
subordination and loyalty." It is interesting,
indeed, to see how much the philosopher is penetrated,
all unconsciously, we cannot but think, with the
Christian spirit. He counsels, for instance,
self-examination. He tells us, almost in the Master's
words, that it is not the things without, but the
things within, that disturb the man. On the subject of
prayer, too, he has some noble utterances. "If the
gods can grant anything, why not pray to them to grant
that thou mayest not be afraid of anything, or lust
after or repine at anything, rather than that anything
may or may not come to pass." Many Christians have
less exalted conceptions than this.
But if we admire the man, we must also pity him. He
was not happy. About the other life he could only
doubt. He speaks of dim eternities stretching on
either side of us; but whether we have or have not any
part in them he could not say. "If the gods," he says
in one place, "have ordered all things well, can it be
that the men who by holy deeds have become most
familiar with the Divine, when once
 they die, cease to be?" All that he can suggest as an
answer is this: "If this be so, be sure that if it
ought to have been otherwise, they would have so
ordered it. . . . Because it is not so, if in fact it is
not so, be certainly assured that it ought not to have
And if the prospect of another life was dim, if not
actually closed to him, he found his philosophy, as all
have found it, a poor protection against the ills and
disappointments of this. His home was wretched:
among counsellors and friends he could hardly find one in
whom he could trust. Where was he to look for help or
comfort? "Come quick," he cries in one place, "lest,
perchance, I too should forget myself!"
But he left a memory so dear and so reverenced as the
memory of few rulers has been. "In life and in
death," says his biographer, "he was close akin to the
lords in heaven." A foolish and blasphemous adulation
was wont to give divine rank to the imperial throne.
It was a pure and tender gratitude that cherished the
memory of Aurelius. He had preserved an unblemished
sanctity of life among the temptations of a throne, and
he had spent himself unsparingly for the good of his
people; and he was not forgotten; for centuries
afterwards the likenesses of the philosopher Emperor
were among the most cherished possessions of families
which kept alive the tradition of his goodness.
 And yet, he was a persecutor of the Christian Church.
Perhaps his Stoic teachers, who had begun to hate this
formidable rival, had turned his heart against it.
Perhaps he saw the irreconcilable hostility between the
Empire and the new society. The fact remains:
Justin at Rome, Polycarp at Smyrna,
 Blandina and Potheinos at Lyons, suffered by his
persecution, it may even be said by his command. What
are we to say? Nothing, except it be to give an
application which the sufferers themselves would not,
we may believe, have refused to give, to the dying
words of Stephen, "Lord, forgive him, for he knew not
what he did."