Marcus Aurelius, Rome, SPQR

26 April AD 121- Future Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius is born (#Hadrian1900)

Happy 1900th birthday, Marcus Aurelius! 🎉

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born on 26 April 121 in Rome during the reign of Hadrian to an aristocratic family of Italo-Hispanic origin, the gens Annia. The family had settled in the southern Spanish province of Baetica, in the small town of Ucubi (modern-day Espejo), a few miles southeast of Corduba (modern-day Córdoba). It came to prominence and became wealthy through olive oil production in Spain.

His father was the praetor Marcus Annius Verus, who came from a wealthy senatorial family. His mother was Domitia Lucilla, the heiress of a wealthy family that owned a tile factory near Rome. She was well educated and could read Greek and Latin.

Marcus Annius Verus and Domitia Lucilla from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”

Marcus’ year of birth, 121, was known in the Roman records as the year when his grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus, was consul for the second time. Verus was a close friend of Hadrian and would assume a third consulship in 126, an enormous mark of honour. Marcus’ grandfather married Rupilia Faustina, a daughter of the niece of Trajan, Salonia Matidia, Hadrian’s beloved mother-in-law (see here), and her elder half-sisters were Matidia Minor and Vibia Sabina, the wife of Hadrian. So Marcus’ paternal grandmother was the sister-in-law and third cousin of Hadrian. The couple had three children, Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina the Elder), a future Empress who would marry Antoninus Pius (Hadrian’s successor), Marcus Annius Libo, a future consul (AD 128), and Marcus Annius Verus, the future father of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus’ grandfather Verus died in 138, nearly aged ninety. Marcus would later say of him in his Meditations:

From my grandfather Verus [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper.

121 was also known as the year 874 Ab urbe condita (‘from the founding of the City’, the dating system of classical Rome). Just a few days before Marcus’ birth, Hadrian celebrated Rome’s 874th birthday with chariot races in the Circus Maximus and the establishment of a new festival, the Romaia (see here).

Young Marcus Aurelius. Dated to around AD 139.
Louvre Museum, Paris

Marcus was originally named Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, after his maternal great-grandfather, Lucius Catilius Severus. He would later be called Marcus Annius Verus after his father. He was raised as a boy in the family’s house on the Caelian, one of the hills of Rome with many aristocratic villas, a district Marcus would affectionately refer to as “my Caelian”.

Marcus was only three years old when his father died in 124. Though he can hardly have known him, Marcus wrote in his Meditations that he had learned “modesty and manliness” from his father’s memories and the man’s posthumous reputation.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father [I learned] modesty and a manly character.

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

At his father’s death, Marcus was adopted by his paternal grandfather Verus, but his maternal great-grandfather also participated in his upbringing. He was brought up in his mother’s home (the Horti Domitiae Lucillae) on the Caelian Hill, although she probably did not spend much time with her son. As was the custom in aristocratic households, Marcus Aurelius was in the care of nurses. However, he was to credit her with teaching him religious piety and how to avoid the manners of the rich.

From my mother, [I learned] piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

Marcus Aurelius as a young boy.
Altes Museum Berlin.

He was a solemn child from the very beginning; and as soon as he passed beyond the age when children are brought up under the care of nurses, he was handed over to advanced instructors and attained to a knowledge of philosophy. HA Marcus 2.1

Hadrian seems to have favoured the young Marcus by the frankness of his character as he nicknamed him Verissimus, meaning “most truthful”. In 127, at the age of six, Marcus was enrolled in the order of the equites on the recommendation of Hadrian, and the following year he was made salius Palatinus, the highly respected priesthood dedicated to Mars that dates back to the early days of the settlement of Rome on the Palatine Hill. While Marcus was a Salii an auspicious omen heralding Marcus Aurelius’ future rule occurred. One day, when the members of the college were throwing their crowns onto the banqueting couch of the gods, as was customary, Marcus Aurelius’ crown fell on the brow of Mars (HA Marcus 4.1-4)

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

His elementary education began in 128 when Marcus reached the age of seven. His first teachers were Euphoric, Geminus, and an unnamed tutor. Euphoric probably taught him Greek and Geminus Latin, while his tutor was probably charged with his general development. At the age of twelve, Marcus would have been ready for secondary education under the grammatici. He had a series of tutors in oratory and rhetoric, including Diognetus, who was to introduce him to philosophical texts. The most eminent of his tutors was Marcus Cornelius Fronto, best known as Fronto, the greatest Latin orator and rhetorician of his time. The pair would become life-long friends and keep in close correspondence for many years afterwards. Their surviving letters throw an attractive light on Marcus’ daily routine as a young man and as Caesar.

In 136, in his fifteenth year, Marcus took on the toga virilis, symbolizing his passage into manhood. Shortly after, Hadrian arranged for his engagement to Ceionia Fabia, the daughter of the respected politician Lucius Ceionius Commodus (soon to become Lucius Aelius Caesar). Marcus was then made prefect of the city during the feriae Latinae. In the same year, Marcus met Apollonius of Chalcedon, a Stoic philosopher who taught Commodus. Apollonius would have a significant impact on Marcus and would study regularly with him. Like Hadrian, Marcus admired philosophy, a subject that he prized above all and would have the greatest influence on the young man. Fronto wanted him to become a rhetorician, but Marcus to become a student of philosophy instead.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground. However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins. HA Marcus 2.6

Statue of a Roman citizen of the second quarter of the 2nd century AD, a portrait of the young Marcus Aurelius was added by a neo-classical sculptor sometime before 1818.
Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne.

In late 136, Hadrian fell ill and almost died from a haemorrhage at his villa at Tivoli. With such uncertainty about the future, Hadrian selected Ceionius Commodus (who was married to Marcus Aurelius’ aunt Faustina) as his successor and adopted him as his son. Hadrian spent 300 million sesterces on publicly celebrating the adoption with lavish games in the Circus Maximus and distributing gifts to the public and military. As part of his adoption, Commodus took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar and was designated consul for the second time for the year 137. Although Lucius lacked military experience, he was sent to the Danube frontier and returned to Rome a year later. He was to deliverer a speech to the Senate on the first day of 138 but grew ill the night before and died of a haemorrhage.

On 24 January 138, while celebrating his sixty-second birthday, Hadrian selected Aurelius Antoninus as his new successor, formally adopting him the following month. As part of Hadrian’s wishes, Antoninus adopted his own nephew, the 17-year-old Marcus, and 7-year-old Lucius Commodus (his future co-emperor), the young son of Lucius Aelius Caesar, thus securing the succession for another generation. Marcus became M. Aelius Aurelius Verus and Lucius became L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus. Further, as stipulated by Hadrian, Antoninus’ daughter Faustina was betrothed to Lucius (his betrothal to Ceionia Fabia would be annulled).

The adoption was later depicted on the so-called Parthian Monument from Ephesus, now in the Ephesos Museum in Vienna.

Relief frieze of the Parthian monument depicting the political act of adoption of Antoninus Pius and his successors, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus by Hadrian.
Ephesos Museum Vienna, Austria.

The Historia Augusta records that on the night of his adoption Marcus Aurelius had a dream:

And it was on the day that Verus​ was adopted that he dreamed that he had shoulders of ivory, and when he asked if they were capable of bearing a burden, he found them much stronger than before. When he discovered, moreover, that Hadrian had adopted him, he was appalled rather than overjoyed, and when told to move to the private home of Hadrian, reluctantly departed from his mother’s villa. And when the members of his household asked him why he was sorry to receive royal adoption, he enumerated to them the evil things that sovereignty involved. HA Marcus 5.2

In 138, as his health had deteriorated steadily, Hadrian left for Baiae, a seaside resort on the Campanian coast. He died in the presence of his adopted son on 10 July. Antoninus succeeded to the throne, finalised Hadrian’s burial arrangements, and Marcus Aurelius held gladiatorial games at Rome. Antoninus had Aurelius’ betrothal to Ceionia Fabia annulled and arranged a marriage between him and Antoninus’ daughter Anna Galeria Faustina (the future Faustina the Younger).

Sestertius commemorating the betrothal of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger in 139.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Marcus held the consulship jointly with Antoninus in 140, then he and Antoninus were consuls again for the year 145. In late spring 145, Marcus Aurelius married Faustina Antoninus’ daughter, as planned since 138. Marcus took an increasingly important role in his adoptive father’s government for the next 23 years. His apprenticeship under Antoninus is illuminated by the correspondence between him and his teacher Fronto. Aurelius also devotes a long passage of praise to his adopted father in his Meditations, in which he lists the emperor’s impressive qualities (Book I.16).

In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission.

Aureus recording Marcus’ sixth year of tribunician power (AD 151-2) and showing him as a handsome man in his late 20s, with a head of loose curls and a fashionable “philosopher’s beard.” © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the death of Antoninus Pius in March 161, Marcus Aurelius became emperor and made Lucius Verus his colleague in government, keeping with Hadrian’s original designs. 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. 

He would go on to become on the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome and a prominent Stoic philosopher. These successions 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’.

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.

“What we do now echoes in eternity.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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

“All is ephemeral — fame and the famous as well.” 

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…” 

Golden bust of emperor Marcus Aurelius (facsimile).
Musée romain d’Avenches, Switzerland.

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

The famous gilded bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback.
Musei Capitolini, Rome.

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

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.”

Fragment of a bronze portrait of Marcus Aurelius, probably belonging to a bust or full-length statue, after 170 AD.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

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

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

‘Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.’

Relief from an honorary monument to Marcus Aurelius, 176-180 AD, from Rome.
Musei Capitolini, Rome.

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

Bronze head of Marcus Aurelius with bright blue glass inlaid eyes, ploughed up in a field at Steane in 1976 (UK), AD 161-180,
Ashlomean Museum, Oxford.

Let’s celebrate! 🎈

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1 thought on “26 April AD 121- Future Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius is born (#Hadrian1900)”

  1. I would also recommend the book Marcus Aurelius in Love: The Letters of Marcus and Fronto, ed./trans. Amy Ritchlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

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