The Ruler of the WorldJoin now to read essay The Ruler of the WorldThe Ruler of the WorldThe Vita of the emperor in the collection known as the Historia Augusta identifies him in its heading as Marcus Antoninus Philosophus, “Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher.” Toward the end of the work, the following is reported about him, sententia Platonis semper in ore illius fuit, florere civitates si aut philosophi imperarent aut imperantes philosopharentur (27.7), “Platos judgment was always on his lips, that states flourished if philosophers ruled or rulers were philosophers.” It is this quality of Marcus character which has made him a unique figure in Roman history, since he was the only emperor whose life was molded by, and devoted to, philosophy (Julian was the second and last). His reign was long and troubled, and in some ways showed the weaknesses of empire which ultimately led to the “Decline and Fall,” yet his personal reputation, indeed his sanctity, have never failed of admirers. Contributing to his fame and reputation is a slender volume of Stoic philosophy which served as a kind of diary while he was involved in military campaigns, the Meditations, a book which can be described as an aureus libellus, a little golden book.
The sources for understanding Marcus and his reign are varied but generally disappointing. There is no major historian. The chief literary sources are the biography in the Historia Augusta, as well as those of Hadrian, Antoninus, Verus, and Avidius Cassius. Debate about this collection of imperial biographies has been heated and contentious for more than a century. In all likelihood, it is the work of a single author writing in the last years of the fourth-century. The information offered ranges from the precisely accurate to the wildly imaginative.
Cassius Dio, who wrote in the decade of the 230s, produced a long history of the empire which has survived, for our period, only in an abbreviated version. Fourth century historians, such as Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, occasionally furnish bits of information. Marcus teacher, Fronto, a distinguished orator and rhetorician, is extremely useful. Papyri, inscriptions, coins, legal writings, and some of the church writers, such as Tertullian, Eusebius, and Orosius, are very important. Archaeology and art history, with their interpretation of monuments, make the history of Marcus principate literally visible and offer important clues for understanding the context of his actions..
Early LifeHe was born M. Annius Verus on April 26, 121, the scion of a distinguished family of Spanish origin (PIR2 A697). His father was Annius Verus (PIR2 A696), his mother Domitia Lucilla (PIR2 D183). His grandfather held his second consulate in that year and went on to reach a third in 126, a rare distinction in the entire history of the principate, and also served Hadrian as city prefect.[] The youths education embraced both rhetoric and philosophy; his manner was serious, his intellectual pursuits deep and devoted, so that the emperor Hadrian took an interest in him and called him “Verissimus,” “Most truthful,” by punning on his name.[] He received public honors from an early age and seems to have long been in Hadrians mind as a potential successor. When Hadrians first choice as successor, L. Ceionius Commodus, died before his adoptive father, the second choice proved more fruitful. The distinguished senator T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, from Cisalpine Gaul, did succeed Hadrian, whose arrangements for the succession planned for the next generation as well. He required Antoninus to adopt the young Verus, now to be known as M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, as well as Commodus son, henceforth known as L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus (PIR2 C606). The former was a bit more than seventeen years old, the latter was eight.
Career under Antoninus PiusThe long tenure of Antoninus Pius proved one of the most peaceful and prosperous in Roman history. The emperor himself was disinclined to military undertakings and never left Italy during his reign. Disturbances to the pax Romana occurred on the fringes of empire. Responses were decisive and successful, with legates in charge in the provinces. As a consequence, neither Caesar gained military experience nor was shown to the armies, a failing which later could have proved decisive and disastrous. Marcus rose steadily through the cursus honorum, holding consulates in 140 and 145, combining magistracies with priesthoods. He received the tribunicia potestas in 147, and perhaps also imperium proconsulare. Yet he never neglected the artes liberales. His closest contacts were with Fronto (c.95-c.160), the distinguished rhetorician and orator.[] His acquaintance included many other distinguished thinkers,
Socrates, in general, had an intimate knowledge of the life of the empire, and of the Roman world. He called Augustus the only surviving sovereign of Greece, although the other sons of his great pupil had not yet reached the rank of general. As the successor to the emperor, he was one of the more vigorous and eloquent of his time. He came as well from Greece and Gaul to Rome.] Although the first emperor in Roman history, he had no power to govern the entire empire until he, as emperor of the Romans, gave a speech in Greece in 121 as to the state of Rome at the time of the Roman invasion. As the first general, he received the office of consul in 124.
Vestia. As was her custom before the fall of the empire, the emperor was the first person to set foot on a Roman plain in his absence. To the most part he was content to retreat, but he also was in the habit of spending one-half day at the court, often in the middle of the night, at a town which he regarded as a refuge. Once from the town he spent five days in a quiet part of town, when he had a few friends; then again from a private camp he spent evenings, in a quiet neighborhood near him. For each day he spent two days in this camp and his companions: the usual time being of nine-weeks or more. While visiting a particular Roman town or district he wrote his own histories, and kept a journal with his personal associates.]
As we come back to our predecessors, it was Alexander of Armenia, the fifth king to inhabit Europe. It is his history, he says, that has been of most importance to Rome. At the beginning of his life he was a political intellectual, drawing on his experience of his father’s life in the civil wars, and learning from his own own time in Athens. Among the various works of his he wrote that he never wished to repeat; and he even wrote after his death on the tomb of Alexander II, the daughter of Marcus and his younger brother, who was living at his own palace. But, he continues, the city he visited was a different one.
Alexander was a young nobleman, a very old person. But he did know in his heart that Athens was not a city of man. He loved her. He also knew all those things who came from elsewhere; and he learned from his own experience that most cities of people lived not in love with their neighbours,] and were not lovers of their neighbours. In the days of Alexander, he made two good witnesses to the truth. The first was Hippolytus, a very noble and influential leader, the great and honorable one of Macedonians who, it is said, had his own palace on a hill overlooking the city. Before he was appointed to that post he had lived in a villa in the city and spent the last few months of his life at it. But he returned from his stay after he had received his royal post; and when his friends were present this time he said he could have taken a different post without taking a seat. Now in his youth Alexander found himself without a friend in such cities but in the palace of Hippolytus, and many of the most respectable men of his own time had come and taken up their places during his exile, and so he took on the name of a “trueman” of his place (and that is why it is said that he himself went to the cities and built the fort where he lived with his friends).