Marcus Aurelius: Biography, Meditations, & Achievements

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius: Biography, Meditations, and Achievements

Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of ancient Rome.   Aurelius, whose reign spanned from 161 CE to 180 CE, has often been listed among the Good Roman Emperors. He is also famous for his Stoic ideas and ways of living. Emperor Aurelius is credited with authoring a philosophical book titled “Meditations”. Below is a short biography as well as the major achievements of Marcus Aurelius:

Short Biography of Marcus Aurelius

On 26th April 121 CE, Aurelius’ birth occurred in Italy. He was a member of an aristocratic family. After his birth, Aurelius went by the name Marcus Annius Verus – this was a name he took straight from his father. Domitia Lucillia was the name of Aurelius’ mother; she came from a rich family background.

Putting wealth aside, Aurelius’ family line had a rich political background. His paternal relations held top political posts such as senators and town administrators. Around 124 CE, Aurelius lost his father; and for the most part of his upbringing, he was brought up by handmaids and nurses. He also spent a significant amount of his time with his grandfathers.

During his early years, Aurelius got exposed to philosophical concepts. While embarking on campaigns, he conceived his “Meditation” ideas. At that time, Aurelius was about 50-years-old. This already sent signals about his journey to philosophy. Aurelius was a well-known Stoic: he believed in using reason to understand nature. His reign popularized Stoicism.

Guided by his own intuitions, he lived a life of sacrifice by prioritizing the needs of others before himself. Notwithstanding his kind-heartedness, Aurelius’ reign was slightly marred by bloodshed; wars were fought, and Christians were persecuted. He, however, managed to carry out his responsibilities in the empire before his natural death at the age of 58 in 180 CE.

Rise to the Throne in Rome

The story of how Aurelius found his way into imperial power has not been fully understood, but here is an overview of his rise to power.

Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) mentioned one Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor. Around the same time, Marcus Aurelius dated Commodus’ daughter (Fabia). Then in 138 CE, Commodus passed away before he could occupy the throne. When Hadrian later passed away, Aurelius’ engagement to Fabia was nullified.  Titus Aurelius Antoninus (better half of Aurelius’ aunt) was set to become Hadrian’s successor. Hadrian had ordered Antoninus to adopt Marcus Aurelius and one of Commodus’ sons. With this arrangement, the 17-year-old Marcus was bound to become a co-ruler.

Aurelius spent many years as an apprentice under Titus Antoninus – this was clarified by Fronto (Marcus Aurelius’ teacher). The brilliance, hard work and serious-mindedness of Aurelius made him an admirable figure. For example, the famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus developed a strong affinity for Aurelius.

In the political arena, Marcus Aurelius went on to become a three-time  consul. In 145 CE, He tied the knot with his cousin Annia Galeria Faustina – she was a daughter of the reigning emperor Antoninus. By 147 CE, Marcus Aurelius’ position in the palace was that of a co-emperor. When Antoninus passed away, Marcus Aurelius stepped in as a full Roman Emperor. The other adoptive son of Antoninus was made a junior co-emperor.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Meditations refer to the philosophical writings/ideas of Marcus Aurelius. His self-advisory notes (book) gained an immense readership and following in philosophy. After over 2,000 years, Aurelius’ Meditation work still finds applications in our daily lives.  The writings touch on philosophy, happiness, emotions, morality, personal development and mindfulness.

 Aurelius grew up with Stoic philosophy; when he became a king, he didn’t depart from it.  For an anxiety-filled world like ours, the key principles of Stoicism may not be easy for us to follow but we do have a chance to change our lives with the principles. For example, Stoic teachings advise that, anytime we kiss our wives or children, we should pretend that we are kissing humans – in the event of their deaths, we may not feel too much pains. Marcus Aurelius glued himself to Stoic teachings to a level that won him a sound reputation as a philosopher and a king.

Some Powerful Excerpts from Meditations

Written at the time of anti-Barbarian campaigns, the book contains life teachings that we can all relate to. Here are some selected sayings and lines from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”:

  • In one quote, Aurelius made an important statement about how one can be happy; happiness comes from concentrating on present tasks, satisfaction with present activities, having less expectations, little fears and avoiding being distracted – with this, no man can stop your joy.
  • The book also stated that, people may see you as a beast (an ape), but if you are able to stick to reason, within a matter of 10 days, you will be be seen as a god.
  • We can’t control people’s thoughts. Therefore, their opinions shouldn’t bother us much. Happiness lies in our own minds.
  • Don’t be quick to vent your anger at the mistakes or afflictions of others, but help them to find a solution.
  • Understand that death is real; no man has lived for 1000 years.  Make the best possible impact before you die.
  • Do not be an enemy of change; change is necessary for growth.
  • Wrongdoers aren’t always people who do things; by failing to do something good, you are a wrongdoer.

Great Achievements of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius’ 19-year reign was greeted with some level of wars and diseases, but he still managed to achieve some successes. Here are three great achievements of Marcus Aurelius:

1. He emerged victorious in the war with the Parthian Empire.

In 160 CE, the military generals of Aurelius’ brother, Verus, helped Aurelius secure victory in the war with the Parthians

2. Fought Germanic Invaders

When the war with the Parthians was over, Aurelius and Verus squarely faced Germanic tribes . The Germanic tribes, after crossing River Danube, launched attacks on the Roman city. Aurelius and Verus assembled troops and fought back the invaders. Verus died  in the course of the conflict, but Aurelius pushed further.

3. Legal Accomplishments of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was very successful in law. As emperor, he listened and addressed petitions.  Aurelius also resolved disputes. His proficiency in legislation caught the attention of some professional jurists. They saw him as a skilled lawyer and emperor.

Aurelius’ was primarily concerned about legal issues regarding freedom of slaves, orphans, under-aged children and the city council. He also increased the silver percentage purity of the Roman currency (the Denarius coins jumped from 79% of silver purity to 82%).  However, when crisis hit the military, they reverted to the original silver composition of the currency.

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