Marcus Aurelius, SPQR

Felicem diem natalem, Marce Aureli!

Marcus Aurelius was born Marcus Annius Verus on 26 April AD 121 of an aristocratic family of Spanish origin (from Ucubi, a small town southeast of Cordoba in Baetica). He was the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome and a major Stoic philosopher.

Portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius as a boy. Musei Capitolini, Rome.

When Marcus Aurelius was a young child, he gained the attention and favour of Hadrian by the frankness of his character. Hadrian nicknamed him Verissimus, meaning most truthful or sincere.

In AD 127, at the age of six, Hadrian gave him equestrian honours and made him a priest of the Salii at the age of eight. In February of AD 138, Hadrian adopted as his heir Antoninus Pius, the uncle of Marcus. In turn, Antoninus adopted Marcus that same year. Marcus Annius Verus then took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This succession of adoptions became known as the Antonine Dynasty. This era of more than 80 years was described by the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon as the height of Roman power and glory, and ‘the happiest times of humanity’.

Portrait of Marcus Aurelius as a young man, from the Area of San Teodoro on the Palatine. Palatine Museum, Rome.

On the death of Antoninus Pius in 161, Marcus Aurelius made Lucius Verus, another adopter son of his uncle, his colleague in government. They ruled jointly until Lucius’ death in January 169. During their reign, the Empire entered a period troubled by natural disasters, plague and floods, and by invasions of barbarians. To console himself, Marcus Aurelius recorded his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy. These are now known as his Meditations, and they reveal a mind of great humanity and natural humility.

Marble bust of Marcus Aurelius in a fringed cloak, circa 160-170, found in the House of Jason Magnus in Cyrene (Libya). British Museum, London.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Cuirassed statue of Marcus Aurelius. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

“All is ephemeral — fame and the famous as well.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Cuirassed statue of Marcus Aurelius. Capitoline Museums, Rome.

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius, from the Mausoleum of Hadrian, Rome, AD 170-180. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you foresee the future too.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. Musei Capitolini, Rome.

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Portrait of emperor Marcus Aurelius, from Rome, after AD 169. Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main.

“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Young Marcus Aurelius. Venice Museo Archeologico, Italy.

“Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius, between AD 180 and 183, from the villa of Marcus Aurelius daughter Lucilla at Acqua Traversa, near Rome. Louvre Museum, Paris.

Further portraits of Marcus Aurelius can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.

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