M ARCUS AURELIUS was a worthy successor of the good Antoninus. He was one of the best and most remarkable men that ever lived. He traced his descent from the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, and he himself has said: "To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends,—nearly everything good."
The new emperor had been most carefully brought up and educated, and never did good teachers have so good a pupil. He was not a Christian, but a pagan who practiced all the virtues which the Christians taught. He belonged to a school of philosophers called the Stoics, who said that people ought to bear nobly all the ills of this life, and to seek to be good rather than happy.
He delighted in reading and hearing of the lives of great and noble men, and specially admired Epictetus the philosopher. This man, although only a lame slave, was one of the finest characters that ever lived; and the great emperor profited much by the teachings received from him. Marcus Aurelius thus learned to be simple, true, temperate, and good; and through the influence of Epictetus he became a model of pagan virtue.
During the course of his life, this emperor wrote down many of the beautiful thoughts which occurred to him, and many maxims for the education of his son. These writings have been preserved in a book called "Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," and are said to be the finest ever written, after the Bible.
Marcus Aurelius, although so fond of peace, did not enjoy much of it during his reign, for there was constant trouble with the barbarians in Germany and Britain. As soon as these disturbances began, the Parthians in the East revolted also; and Verus, whom Marcus Aurelius had made associate ruler of Rome, was sent out to fight them.
This Verus, unfortunately, was as bad as Aurelius was good. While he was in Rome he behaved very well, but when far away from his virtuous colleague, he began to live a very wicked life. Had not his generals fought bravely for him, the Parthians would never have been conquered; for he spent most of his time in idleness, or in eating and drinking to excess.
When Verus returned home, he claimed and received the honors of a triumph, although they belonged in reality to his generals. The joy of the Romans at his return, however, was soon changed to mourning, because the troops brought back from the East a horrible disease, which caused the death of hosts of people.
The Romans were almost wild with terror, owing to this disease and to the floods and famines which took place at about the same time; but Marcus Aurelius showed great courage, and went among them trying to relieve their sufferings, and exhorting them to be patient.
Hoping to put an end to such scourges, the people made great offerings to the gods; and when these failed to bring any relief, the pagan priests accused the Christians of causing all their woes. On the strength of such accusations, the Christians were again persecuted; and the only fault which can be found with Marcus Aurelius is that he allowed them to be tortured during his reign.
Many historians, however, say that the blame of the persecution does not really rest upon Aurelius, who knew nothing about the new religion, but upon the senators, who made him believe that the Christians were very wicked, and that they should be put down at any price.
Verus having died, Marcus Aurelius now became sole ruler. Meanwhile, a great rebellion had broken out among the barbarians in the north, and the emperor himself took command of the army that marched against them. We are told that once during this campaign the Roman legions were in great danger. Had it not been for a sudden thunderstorm, accompanied by much hail, which fell upon the enemy, the emperor and his troops would surely have perished.
This timely thunderstorm has been considered a miracle. The pagan Romans said that it was worked by their gods, whom they had called upon in their distress; but the Christians believed that it was owing to the prayers of some of their brothers who were in the imperial army.
However this may be, Aurelius put a stop to the persecutions of the Christians on his return to Rome. He died not long after, at Vienna, during another campaign, leaving the empire to Commodus, his young son, and imploring the senators to give the new emperor good advice.
The victories and life of Marcus Aurelius were commemorated by a column, still standing in Rome, where the miracle related above is also represented. A better monument, however, is the book he wrote, which has been translated into English, so that everybody can read it; and best of all is the record of his life, which had been wholly devoted to doing good.