Marcus Aurelius in Harpers Dictionary

Marcus Annius (Verus) Aurelius, was born at Rome in the year A.D. 121. Upon the death of Ceionius Commodus, the emperor Hadrian turned his attention towards Marcus Aurelius; but he being then too young for an early assumption of the cares of empire, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius, on condition that he in his turn should adopt Marcus Aurelius. His father dying early, the care of his education devolved on his paternal grandfather, Verus, who caused him to receive a general education; but philosophy so early became the object of his ambition that he assumed the philosophic mantle when only twelve years old. The species of philosophy to which he attached himself was the Stoic, as being most connected with morals and the conduct of life; and such was the natural sweetness of his temper that he exhibited none of the pride which sometimes attended the artificial elevation of the Stoic character. This was the more remarkable, as all the honour and power that Antoninus could bestow upon him became his own at an early period, since he was practically associated with him in the administration of the Empire for many years. On his formal accession to the sovereignty his first act was of a kind which at once proved his great disinterestedness; for he immediately took Lucius Verus as his colleague, who had indeed been associated with him by adoption, but who, owing to his defects and vices, had been excluded by Antoninus from the succession, which, at his instigation, the Senate had confined to Marcus Aurelius alone. Notwithstanding their dissimilarity of character, the two emperors reigned conjointly without any disagreement. Verus took the nominal guidance of the war against the Parthians, which was successfully carried on by the lieutenants under him, and during the campaign married Lucilla, the daughter of his colleague. The reign of Marcus Aurelius was more eventful than that of Antoninus. Before the termination of the Parthian War, the Marcomanni and other German tribes began those disturbances which more or less annoyed him for the rest of his life. Against these foes, after the termination of hostilities with Parthia, the two emperors marched; but what was effected during three years' war and negotiation, until the death of Verus, is little known. The sudden decease of that unsuitable colleague by an apoplexy restored to Marcus Aurelius the sole dominion; and for the next five years he carried on the Pannonian War in person, without ever returning to Rome. During these fatiguing campaigns he endured all the hardships incident to a rigorous climate and a military life with a patience and serenity which did the highest honour to his philosophy. Few of the particular actions of this tedious warfare have been fully described; although, owing to conflicting religious zeal, one of them has been exceedingly celebrated. This was the deliverance of the emperor and his army from imminent danger by a victory over the Quadi, in consequence of an extraordinary storm of rain, hail, and lightning, which disconcerted the barbarians, and was, by the conquerors, regarded as miraculous. The emperor and the Romans attributed the timely event to Iupiter Tonans; but the Christians affirmed that God granted this favour on the supplications of the Christian soldiers in the Roman army, who are said to have composed the Twelfth, or Meletine, Legion; and, as a mark of distinction, we are informed by Eusebius that they received from an emperor who persecuted Christianity the title of the "Thundering Legion." The date of this event is fixed by Tillemont as A.D. 174. The general issue of the war was that the barbarians were repressed, but admitted to settle in the territories of the Empire as colonists; and a complete subjugation of the Marcomanni might have followed had not the emperor been recalled by the conspiracy of Avidius Cassius, who assumed the purple in Syria. This usurper was quickly destroyed by a conspiracy among his own officers, and the clemency shown by the emperor to his family was most exemplary. After the suppression of this revolt he made a progress through the East, in which journey he lost his wife Faustina, daughter of Antoninus Pius, a woman as dissolute as she was beautiful, but whose irregularities he never seems to have noticed-a blindness or insensibility that has made him the theme of frequent ridicule. While on this tour he visited Athens, and, like Hadrian, was initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries. His return to Rome did not take place until after an absence of eight years, and his reception was in the highest degree popular and splendid. After remaining in the capital for nearly two years, and effecting several popular reforms, he was once more called away by the necessity of checking the Marcomanni, and was again successful, but fell ill, at the expiration of two years, at Vindobona, now Vienna. His illness arose from a pestilential disease which prevailed in the army; and it cut him off in the fifty-ninth year of his age and nineteenth of his reign. His death occasioned universal mourning throughout the Empire. Without waiting for the usual decree on the occasion the Roman Senate and people voted him a god by acclamation, and his image was long afterwards regarded with peculiar veneration. Marcus Aurelius was no friend to the Christians, who were persecuted during the greater part of his reign- an anomaly in a character so universally merciful and clement that may be attributed to an excess of pagan devotion on his part, and still more to the influence of the persons by whom he was surrounded. In all other points of policy and conduct he was one of the most excellent princes on record, both in respect to the salutary regulations he adopted and the temper with which he carried them into practice. Compared with Trajan or Antoninus Pius, he possibly fell short of the manly sense of the one and the simple and unostentatious virtue of the other-philosophy or scholarship on a throne always more or less assuming the appearance of pedantry. The emperor was also himself a writer, and his Meditations (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν), in Greek in twelve books, have descended to posterity. They are a collection of maxims and thoughts in the spirit of the Stoic philosophy, which, without much connection or skill in composition, breathe the purest sentiments of piety and benevolence. They were jotted down from time to time in his leisure moments, and largely while he was in camp along the Danube during his campaign against the Marcomanni. His theology, in general, seems pantheistic, the key-note being the doctrine of a "natural unity," including God, nature, and all mankind. Marcus Aurelius left one son, the brutal Commodus, and three daughters. Among the weaknesses of this good emperor, his too great consideration for his son is deemed one of the most striking; for, although he was unremitting in his endeavours to reclaim him, they were accompanied by much erroneous indulgence, and especially by an early and ill-judged elevation to titles and honours.

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