Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany
Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany. PD Bibi Saint-Pol. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121 - March 17, 180) was the last of the five "good" emperors of Rome and a major Stoic philosopher.

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (born Marcus Annius Verus) reigned from from A.D. 161-180. As Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius followed Emperor Antoninus Pius (the husband of a paternal aunt of Marcus Aurelius) who had adopted Aurelius as heir. In 145, Marcus Aurelius married his cousin Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus Pius.

Marcus Aurelius originally co-ruled with Lucius Aurelius Verus who commanded the eastern campaigns and died suddenly in 169. [See Historia Augusta - The Life of Lucius Verus 9.11.]

Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his own son Commodus, who had accompanied his father on campaign along the Danube against the Quadi and the Marcomanni. Commodus was made Caesar at the age of 5. On January 1, 177, Commodus became co-ruler with his father. With the succession of Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus, the period of the five, good, adopted emperors ended.

Known for his Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius not only wrote his Meditations, but also waged wars with the Parthian Empire and Germanic tribes. The reign of Marcus Aurelius marked the end of the Pax Romana. Christians were martyred during Marcus Aurelius' reign, but he did not initiate Christian persecutions.

During Marcus Aurelius' reign a plague was brought back from the East that was called the Antonine Plague after the family name of Marcus Aurelius.

The physician Galen described the pandemic, for which reason, it is also called the Plague of Galen. It lasted from 165/66 - 180 or later with possibly another outbreak in 189. The Littmans, in "Galen and the Antonine Plague," make the case for identifying the plague disease as smallpox. Some online articles say Marcus Aurelius and Verus died of it.*


  • The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus : And a Selection from the Letters of Marcus & Fronto, translated by A. S. L. Farquharson and R. B. Rutherford.

  • The chief ancient literary source on Marcus Aurelius is the Historia Augusta. Information also comes from Cassius Dio, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Fronto, Tertullian, Eusebius, and Orosius, according to DIR - Marcus Aurelius, by Herbert W. Benario.
  • "Galen and the Antonine Plague," by R. J. Littman, M. L. Littman. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 243-255.
  • *I have not found the source of the belief that either Lucius Verus or Marcus Aurelius died of the plague; however, in the Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius expresses concern that someone might catch his illness and talks about the pestilence. See Marcus Aurelius 28.8.