Marcus Annius Verus, known to history as the the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was born at Rome in the year 121. His father's family, like that of Trajan, was Spanish, but had been resident in Rome for many years and had recieved patrician rank from Vespasian. He lost his father in infancy and was brought up by his mother and his paternal grandfather, who not only gave him the example of their own virtue and piety, but secured for him the best of teachers in Greek and Latin literature, rhetoric, philosophy, law, and even painting. In the first book of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius makes grateful and precise acknowledgement of what he learned from the members of his family and from his teachers. "To the gods I am indebted for having good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good."
Among the teachers of Marcus Aurelius were Sextus of Chaeronea, a grandson of Plutarch, Junius Rustiscus, to whom he owed his acquaintance with the discourses of Epictetus, and the rhetorician Marcus Cornelius Fronto, with whom between the years of 143 and 161 he carried on a correspondence. From Diognetus the Stoic he learned what it meant "to have desired a plank bed and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline." For a time, he assumed the dress of the Stoic sect and lived so abstemious and laborious a life that he injured his health.
As a child Marcus Aurelius had gained the favor of Hadrian by the frankness of his character. Hadrian called him Verissimus (most true or sincere) from his family name Verus, gave him equestrian honors at the age of six, and made him a priest of the Salian brotherhood at the age of eight. After the death of Aelius Caesar, Hadrian adopted as his heir Antoninus Pius, the uncle of Marcus, on condition that he in turn adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Ceionius Commodus, son of Aelius Caesar.
Hadrian died in 138. In 139 the title of Caesar was conferred upon Marcus Aurelius; in 140 he was consul and from 147, when he was invested with the tribunician power, to the death of Antoninus Pius in 161, Marcus Aurelius shared the brudens, if not the honors, of imperial rule. At the age of fifteen he had been betrothed to a daughter of Aelius Caesar, but after his adoption this engagement was broken and he married Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus Pius.
When the Emperor Antoninus was dying he had the Statue of Victory carried into the rooms of Marcus Aurelius as the material sign of the transfer of imperial power, and he recommended Marcus Aurelius to the senate as successor without any mention of Commodus. Marcus Aurelius, however, at once conferred upon his adoptive brother the tribunician and proconsular powers and the titles of Caesar and Augustus. For the first time Rome had two emperors. But Lucius Verus, as Commodus was henceforth known, was more interested in his pleasures than in his imperial duties. He deferred to Marcus Aurelius and was content to play the second role until his death in 169.
The reign of Antoninus Pius had been a time of peace and prosperity; that of Marcus Aurelius was filled with every kind of calamity. The wisdom and firmness of the emperor could not prevent the beginning of the decline. In the first year of his reign there were floods and famine in Italy, earthquakes in Asia, eruptions of barbarians across the northern frontier, riots and seditions of the legionaries in Britain. But there were even more serious preoccupations for Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian and Antoninus had kept the kingdom of Armenia under Roman influence, but as sooon as Antoninus died the Parthians drove out the Armenian king, friendly to Rome, and put in a king of their own choice. The province of Syria was at once attacked. At the time the Goths, coming down from the Baltic, were driving other German tribes before them, some of whom overflowed into the Roman province on the right bank of the Danube. Marcus Aurelius spent most of his reign fighting the Parthians in the East and the Quadi, the Marcomanni, and other barbarian nations in the North. The last ten years of his life he was almost continually absent from Rome. The Meditations, "Thoughts addressed to himself" and not, presumably, intended for publication, were written down, in part at least, during the time Marcus Aurelius was campaigning against the Germans.
In 175, after a series of victories, Marcus Aurelius left the Danube to restore order in Syria, where the brilliant general, Avidius Cassius, had revolted and declared himself emperor. Before the arrival of Marcus Aurelius, Cassius was assassinated by one of his officers, thereby depriving the emperor "of the pleasure of pardoning him." Marcus Aurelius showed remarkable clemency toward the family and friends of Cassius and is said to have burned his correspondence without reading it.
While he was returning from the pacification of the East, Marcus Aurelius lost his wife, who died in a village of Asia Minor. Faustina's name has become a symbol of infidelity and debauchery, though all that is known of her is that she bore eleven children, that her husband trusted her and mourned her death. On his way home Marcus Aurelius visited Athens where he endowed chairs of philosophy and rhetoric and was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. In 176, he entered Rome with his son, Commodus, and celebrated a triumph for his German victories, after which he took the title of Germanicus Maximus.
The role played by Marcus Aurelius in the persecution of the Christians in 177 has been the subject of much controversy. He was undoubtedly unsympathetic to Christianity as he knew it. His attitude as emperor was perhaps the same as that of Trajan, that the Christians should not be "pursued," but if, when asked to sacrifice to the gods, they refused, they should be punished on the ground that they were opposing the order and authority of the state.
The German war soon broke out again and Marcus Aurelius had to return to the Danube, where he died, probably from natural causes, on the 17th of March, 180, toward the end of his fifty-ninth year. His ensuing deificiation met with wide-spread response, and for a long time his statue held a prominent place among the penates of the Romans.