History remembers Marcus Aurelius as one of the Roman Empire's "good" emperors—but this is Rome we're talking about. Even the good guys did some pretty twisted stuff. From his scandalous marriage to his tainted legacy, this so-called "Philosopher King" had some serious skeletons in his closet. So who really was the last good emperor? Dive in and find out.
Marcus Aurelius was born into one of Rome's richest families, but that doesn't mean he had a charmed childhood. He lost his father when he was just three years old, never getting to know the man who gave him life. In a touching tribute, he'd later say he learned "modesty and manliness" by studying his deceased dad's life.
So his lost his dad, but at least he had his mom to raise him, right? Well, not exactly...
Turns out, Roman ladies weren't exactly the "motherly" type. Marcus Aurelius's mother Lucilla basically never saw her boy, and instead he spent his lonely childhood in the care of nursemaids. But, as the boy got older, the testosterone-fueled Romans believed he needed a man in his life, so a new father-figure hit the scene.
Aurelius's caretakers sent him to live with his grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus. After his isolated days with the nursemaids, Aurelius instantly took to his ol' granpappy. He spoke highly of his grandfather for the rest of his life—but there was one part of this new life he absolutely hated. When Marcus's grandma passed, his grandpa took a mistress, and he utterly despised her.
Though generally a pretty polite dude, something about this woman rubbed Aurelius the wrong way, and he couldn't get out of the house fast enough after she moved in.
Marcus Aurelius was a homeschool kid, and let's just say it made him a little...weird. Thanks to his, ahem, "eccentric" teachers, Aurelius started wearing rough, worn-out clothing and sleeping on the floor. Imagine if Prince Harry started walking around in a burlap sack and camping out on the grounds at Buckingham Palace. Yeah, it was weird.
Eventually, Aurelius's mother had to beg him to start sleeping in a bed again. It was bad enough that her son was so eccentric—but all of a sudden, he became really important really fast.
See, the thing about Marcus Aurelius is, he was never supposed to be emperor. Sure, he was rich and came from a powerful family, but there were lots of rich and powerful young men who were a lot closer to the emperor at the time, Hadrian. But, in 136, something happened that changed everything: Hadrian had a sudden hemorrhage and barely survived.
Suddenly, the most powerful man on earth felt mighty fragile. He started looking for a successor—and there was talk buzzing about this weird kid who slept on the floor and loved philosophy.
Soon after Hadrian recovered from his attack, he did something no one expected: He announced that his successor was going to be a dude named Lucius Ceionius Commodus. People were...absolutely horrified. See, our friend Lucius wasn't exactly emperor material. He was old, sickly, and frail. This guy could barely stand under his own power, let alone run the Roman Empire.
So why on earth did Emperor Hadrian make the Crypt Keeper his heir? Well, it all has to do with our boy Marcus Aurelius.
If anyone thought Marcus Aurelius was a weirdo, Hadrian wasn't one of them. The ailing emperor thought he was just the man for the job, but Marcus was still too young to become emperor. But, here's the important part: Marcus Aurelius was engaged to marry old Commodus's daughter. So, Hadrian figured he'd make Commodus his heir, then Commodus would croak pretty quickly, leaving Marcus Aurelius the emperor.
I know what you're thinking: That plan's more convoluted than an 80s action movie, no way it's going to work. Well, guess what? It didn't.
In 138 AD, the most obvious thing in the world happened: Lucius Ceionius Commodus fell ill and passed. That's right: Hadrian was already on death's door, and his heir still didn't manage to outlive him. Pretty sure he got plenty of "I-told-you-sos" after that one. Instead, he made a guy named Antoninus Pius his heir. Since a gentle breeze wasn't about to knock Antoninus over, I'd say he was an upgrade.
So, what about our boy Marcus Aurelius? Don't you worry, thanks he was very much still in the picture.
Hadrian really wanted Marcus Aurelius to become emperor one day, but it took some really messy dealing to get it done. Basically, after his first heir kicked the bucket, Hadrian made Antoninus Pius his heir, then had him adopt Marcus Aurelius as his son. Then, to really seal the deal, he made Marcus dump his fiance and marry Antoninus Pius's daughter.
Did I just say that Marcus Aurelius married his new sister? Yes, I did. Turns out, Romans loved marrying their sisters.
Now that Marcus Aurelius was officially in line to become emperor, Hadrian decided he was pretty much done with this whole "living" thing. He tried to take his own life several times, but people kept stopping him, so Hadrian decided to do it the old-fashioned way: He went to a ritzy seaside resort and started eating and drinking anything and everything he ever wanted.
Yeah, he didn't last long. Hadrian passed, Antoninus Pius became emperor, and suddenly our friend Marcus Aurelius was one of the most important people in the Empire—and that brought a whole host of new problems.
In 145, Marcus Aurelius married his sister-but-not-really, Faustina the Younger. This wouldn't end up being the greatest relationship, as you'll soon see, but at least this couple did one thing really well: Made babies. Faustina gave birth to their first child, a girl named Domitia, soon after their marriage. Domitia would be the first of a whopping 13 children.
But aside from that, I think it's fair to say their relationship was a total mess.
Marcus Aurelius was famously stern and reserved—Faustina? Not so much. Already a bit of a wild child, one vice possessed her more than the rest: Lust. I guess her Philosopher King wasn't exactly the most exciting partner, because she allegedly liked to sleep around. A lot. And this was the Roman Empire we're talking about, so she had no shortage of man meat.
This is why Faustina enjoyed one particular Roman tradition a little too much...
The Roman Empire was one of the most militaristic societies in history, so it should come as no surprise that they held their own version of Fleet Week. Rome's finest legionaries, navymen, and gladiators would parade through the streets in their finest gear—and no one enjoyed the display more than Aurelius's wife Faustina. She would use the occasion to scout out new lovers.
But let's not be too quick to cast aspersions on poor Faustina—she faced more pain than most of us will see in our lifetimes.
Marcus Aurelius and Faustina's first daughter Domitia was a sickly child from the very beginning, and she barely clung to life for her first years. Almost immediately after she was born, Faustina became pregnant again, this time giving birth to twin boys. The couple rejoiced, but these were even more sickly than their first. The twins didn't survive long—and while grieving them, Domitia just got worse and worse.
Marcus Aurelius should have been spending his days preparing to rule an empire, but he spent most of his time looking after his frail daughter. Sadly, his doting couldn't save her—she passed at just three years old. The loss devastated the couple once again—and according to Aurelius's writings, this was a moment that changed him forever.
After losing Domitia, Aurelius wrote this: "One man prays: 'How I may not lose my little child', but you must pray: 'How I may not be afraid to lose him.'" Rather than buckle under the pain of losing his children, Aurelius steeled himself into the hard man he'd become. He would end up needing every bit of strength he possessed—because the hard times were only beginning.
Though Marcus Aurelius fathered 13 children, only one son and four daughters outlived him. Not a great track record. And the one son who did outlive him wasn't exactly the kind of boy who would make a father proud...
In 161, Faustina gave birth to a healthy son. They named him Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, but you probably only know him by the last part: Commodus, the only one of Marcus Aurelius's sons to live to adulthood. Unfortunately, Commodus didn't have much of his father in him...He'd go on to be one of the most bloodthirsty, arrogant, and hated emperors in Rome's history.
But that's jumping ahead—we haven't even gotten to Marcus Aurelius's ascension yet.
It's a good thing Marcus Aurelius was a patient guy (his wife can attest to that), because he had to wait a long time before becoming emperor. Antoninus Pius reigned for 22 long years before he finally kicked the bucket. As soon as that happened, Marcus Aurelius finally became emperor—but there was a bit of a wrinkle. In a strange turn of events, Aurelius wasn't the only emperor.
Marcus Aurelius didn't rule Rome alone at first. He had a co-emperor: Lucius Verus. Now, if you think that Roman emperors don't tend to be the "sharing" type, you'd be right. Though both of them were emperors, Marcus Aurelius technically had a little bit more power than Lucius Verus. He also happened to be smarter, calmer, and all-around less nuts than Verus.
And they both got along perfectly and nothing dramatic happened, right? Yeah, about that...
Poor Lucius Verus, the guy never stood a chance. See, Marcus Aurelius, for his all his faults and saucy personal life, was a pretty darn good emperor. That's why Roman historians called him the last of the Five Good Emperors. He kept Rome stable, managed to expand its borders, and didn't make half the empire despise him. If you're a Roman emperor, that's about as good as it gets.
On the other hand, history has almost entirely forgotten Lucius Verus. He was a total screw-up and he just couldn't manage to get himself out of Aurelius's shadow—but hey, at least he got a (super gross) consolation prize...
One thing is for sure: Unless your name is Commodus, you definitely did not want to be Marcus Aurelius's kid. First of all, you'd be lucky to see your first birthday. But then, even if you did, you'd probably end up married to some old dude before you were even a teenager. That was his daughter Annia Lucilla's fate. Aurelius betrothed her to his fully-adult co-emperor Lucius Verus when she was just 11 years old.
And if that's not gross enough, it gets worse. Aurelius and Verus were technically brothers, so that meant that Annia Lucilla wasn't just marrying a man decades older than her, but that man happened to be her uncle. Yuck.
Aside from marrying his daughter to his brother and his wife's taste for sailors and gladiators, the start of Marcus Aurelius's reign actually went pretty smoothly. In fact, he would call his first years as emperor the "happy times." Sounds nice right? Well, not really. See, if you call an early period the happy times, that can only mean one thing: There were some dark times ahead—and were there ever.
Marcus Aurelius's reign was about to devolve into chaos, and to make matters worse, his wife was at the center of it.
According to Roman historians, Faustina the Younger played the game of thrones with the best of them: By that we mean, she never hesitated to poison or just flat-out execute anyone who got in her way. This was a serious contrast to her husband's more pragmatic approach to ruling, but hey, to each their own. And it's not like ol' Marcus Aurelius couldn't use the help. His predecessor had made sure of that...
As he lay on his deathbed, Emperor Antoninus Pius laid down the equivalent of an Ancient Roman diss track. He spent his final moments calling out all the foreign kings and political adversaries who had wronged him like Michael Jordan at the Hall of Fame. No, Antoninus Pius wasn't exactly the most diplomatic guy—and that meant he left quite the mess for Marcus Aurelius to clean up.
Eventually, those old enemies came back to haunt him, and Aurelius learned there's a difference between learning how to run an empire and actually doing it.
One of the enemies Antoninus Pius name-checked in his final moments was the King of Parthia—with good reason. Not long into Marcus Aurelius's reign, said king revolted. To make matters worse, the Roman governor in the region, a guy named Severianus, was a bit of an idiot. Convinced he could take on the Parthians himself, Severianus charged straight at them...and got his entire legion massacred then took his own life.
The situation in Parthia was getting completely out of hand, but Marcus Aurelius came up with a devious plan—a plan that could kill two birds with one stone.
Parthia was in revolt, but Marcus Aurelius had another problem: He co-emperor Lucius Verus. While Aurelius was all about running an empire, Verus was all about spending money, partying, and sleeping around, and it was starting to get embarrassing. So, Marcus Aurelius decided there was nothing like a little campaigning to straighten a man out. He sent Verus to Parthia to deal with the upstart king, hoping the conflict would teach him how to be a better emperor.
If you think that's what happened, you're greatly overestimating the incorrigible Lucius Verus.
Marcus Aurelius hoped Verus would lead his Roman legions to victory over the treacherous Parthian king. Verus said, "Nah." He spent the entire time partying and gambling with a bunch of bohemian actors while other men handled the conflict. Rather than make Verus finally smarten up, if anything, it made him even worse.
That didn't stop him from taking all the credit when Rome captured the Parthian king's main stronghold, though. But that's not nearly the worst thing he did during his little vacay in Parthia...
Anyone who knew Lucius Verus knew not to trust him very far, and that included Marcus Aurelius. He sent his cousin Libo along with Verus to keep an eye on the debaucherous emperor. However, Libo mysteriously turned up dead very early on in the campaign—and few people thought it was an accident. Historians have long speculated that Verus personally had Libo taken out of the picture so he'd be free to party as he pleased.
It's hard to imagine two emperors more different than Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Verus went about doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted—which almost always meant drinking and gambling and almost never meant running an empire. Meanwhile, Marcus Aurelius always asked the Senate for permission whenever he wanted to spend money on a new project even though, as emperor, he could do whatever the heck he wanted.
But let's not go thinking that Marcus Aurelius was some saint. He was good...as far as Roman emperors go. As you're about to see, that was a pretty low bar to clear.
The early days of the Roman Empire weren't exactly the best time to be a Christian. Roman emperors brutally oppressed members of the fledgling religion—and somehow Marcus Aurelius managed to top them all. Under this "good emperor," not only did the Roman Empire persecute more Christians than ever, but the punishments they doled out got even harsher.
Apparently, Marcus Aurelius hadn't read the bible: If you mess with Christians, you get a plague—and one of the worst the world had ever seen was coming.
The world was changing fast while Marcus Aurelius was emperor. Trade networks spread further than ever before, and the Romans actually made contact with China for the first time ever. This meant goods and information spread across the globe—but that's not the only thing that spread. Around 165, Marcus Aurelius would face his greatest enemy yet. It came back with the soldiers from the East, and it claimed more lives than any battle ever could.
The Antonine Plague had arrived.
As if Lucius Verus's campaign in the East couldn't have gone any worse, when he came back to Rome, he brought the plague with him. Believed to be smallpox or maybe measles, whatever it was, it hit Rome like a ton of bricks. People started dying by the thousands every single day. In a matter of months, Marcus Aurelius's hold on his empire started slipping—but at least there he found a silver lining to this catastrophe.
The Antonine Plague was one of the most horrifying events in human history. By the time it had ended, it had claimed the lives of up to 10 million people. However, it did solve at least one of Marcus Aurelius's problems: In 169, Aurelius's hapless co-emperor fell suddenly ill and passed at just 38 years old. Reports at the time said it was food poisoning, but many historians have speculated it was the plague.
Perhaps Roman officials didn't want people thinking a grand, divine emperor had perished the same way as the common people. Either way, that was one less headache for Marcus Aurelius—but the worst scandal of his reign was soon to follow.
They didn't have email in the Roman Empire, so that meant news traveled really slowly. And when news did arrive, who can say if it was even true. That's what happened when a general, Avidius Cassius, received earth-shattering news in Egypt: Marcus Aurelius was no more. He quickly proclaimed himself emperor, completely unaware that Marcus Aurelius was very much alive.
The whole thing started with a simple misunderstanding, but it would end in bloodshed.
The smart thing for Cassius to do would have been to renounce his claim to the throne once he realized Marcus Aurelius lived, but no one who wants to rule the Roman Empire would give up power that easily. By the time he heard the truth, he already had two legions behind him and he decided he kinda liked this whole empire thing. That was the biggest mistake he ever made.
Cassius got to enjoy being a fake emperor for exactly three months and six days. After he realized the news of Marcus Aurelius's passing was greatly exaggerated, he kept up the charade, but the writing was on the wall. Soon enough, one of his own centurians stabbed him in the back—literally. They then cut off his head and sent it straight to Marcus Aurelius to prove their loyalty.
The head absolutely horrified Aurelius, and he refused to even look at it. Granted a head would horrify most people, but the Romans tended to be into that kind of thing. Maybe he dreaded it so much because he knew who was behind this betrayal...
According to the histories, none other than Faustina herself, Marcus Aurelius's own wife, put Cassius up to the whole thing. She knew that her husband was growing old and frail, so she wanted to set up a puppet emperor to keep the throne warm until her son Commodus came of age. As if it wasn't enough to sleep around on her husband, she had to deal him one last betrayal too...
If indeed it was Faustina behind the false emperor, she didn't last long enough to try something like that again. She passed in 175 under mysterious circumstances; no historian is exactly sure what happened to her. So, not only did Marcus Aurelius outlive the majority of his children, but he also outlived his much-younger wife, too.
I guess he was too busy to die. After all, he was plenty busy finishing his greatest accomplishment—the thing that would make him a legend.
Marcus Aurelius's book Meditations is maybe his greatest accomplishment. Written over the course of 20 years, it's his reflection on life, politics, and philosophy. This landmark work has been studied by countless scholars over the centuries—which makes this next part a little awkward: Aurelius didn't want anyone reading it! He called the work, "To Himself" because it was basically his secret diary, intended for his eyes only.
Apparently, no one cares about an emperor's privacy after he's gone...
Some Roman emperors met their end at the hands of their own soldiers. Some took their own lives, or partied so hard their hearts gave up. Marcus Aurelius was not one of those. This simple, reserved man met a simple, reserved end. He passed from unknown causes in 180 AD. He was nearly 60 and had been ill for years, and the man had surprisingly few enemies for a Roman emperor, so few historians think there was foul play involved.
The foul play would come later, because with Marcus Aurelius gone, Rome was about to enter a dark time.
When you picture the Roman Empire, you probably picture the 200 years of the Pax Romana, between the reigns of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. Those were the golden years. Next came our boy's son Commodus, a spoiled and violent dictator whose rule threw Rome into utter chaos. From there, it was basically one long descent to the fall of Rome a couple centuries later. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.
So where the heck did everything go wrong? Here's one clue: Commodus marked the first time ever that a biological son succeeded his father as Emperor of Rome. Why's that so bad? Well, recent emperors had tended to choose heirs who they thought would make good emperors. Commodus was a brat whose mother spoiled him rotten and believed he deserved the throne with no effort. See the problem?
And the saddest part is, Marcus Aurelius saw all of this coming, yet was powerless to stop it.
Marcus Aurelius knew his kid was a screw-up. He feared that Commodus would be a poor emperor, more interested in his own hedonistic pleasures than in actually ruling an empire. Well, this is one time Marcus Aurelius was actually wrong. Commodus wasn't just a poor emperor—he was one of the worst emperors ever.
Anyone who says, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" has never heard of Commodus. While his father was intelligent, reserved, and thoughtful, Commodus was arrogant, brash, and cruel. Convinced Hercules was his ancestor, Commodus loved nothing more than doing demigod cosplay and entering the gladiator area to murder innocents and slaughter animals.
And that's not even close to the worst of it. He neglected his people, bankrupted the Empire, and eventually fell to an assassin. So much for "making daddy proud."
No matter how much Commodus stained Marcus Aurelius's legacy, everyone still considered the latter a pretty remarkable man. But even remarkable men have skeletons in their closets, and there was one chilling rumor that dogged Marcus Aurelius wherever he went. His wife's many affairs were an open secret throughout Rome—but one of her flings got a lot more disturbing than the rest.
Faustina allegedly had many partners, but one of them was special. Multiple ancient sources claim that she actually fell in love with a nameless gladiator. Two things made this man different: Faustina actually cared for him, and Marcus Aurelius found out about him. And when the emperor did learn about his wife's affair, his response was absolutely twisted.
Marcus Aurelius was never one to rush into anything, so when he found out about his wife's new man, he asked some Chaldean soothsayers for advice. And boy oh boy, did they give it. The soothsayers had the perfect way for Marcus Aurelius to reclaim his manhood. First, they said Faustina must sleep with the gladiator one last time. I'm sure Aurelius wasn't too excited about that part—but it's what came next that was the truly messed up part.
The soothsayers had Faustina sleep with her gladiator—then had Aurelius stab the man while they were doing it. Pretty dark, right? We're just getting started. Then, he made Faustina bathe in the man's blood, and once she was good and lathered up, Aurelius slept with her over the man's still-warm body! If you think Roman histories are boring, you're not reading closely enough, because this stuff is straight out of 50 Shades of Grey fan-fic.
After that bananas bit of foreplay, one question remains: Why the heck did Marcus Aurelius put up with his wife's constant affairs? He was, after all, the emperor of the freaking Roman empire, and he could have left her if he wanted. Well, evidently, he believed that as the last emperor's daughter, "her dowry was the empire." Basically, he thought if he left her, he'd have no claim to the throne anymore.
I don't know if I really buy that—maybe he was just into it?
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