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John H. Haaren

Marcus Aurelius


T HE next emperor was Trajan's cousin Hadrian. He was a good ruler and did a great deal to improve the city of Rome. He traveled through many parts of the empire to see that the people were justly governed and that the public officials were doing their duty. He visited Britain, which was then a Roman province, and he caused a strong wall to be built from sea to sea across the country near Scotland, to prevent the fierce tribes of the north from making raids upon the Roman settlements in the south. Some of the remains of this wall are still to be seen.

Hadrian also built a great tomb in Rome, which was called Hadrian's Mole. He and many other Roman emperors were buried in this tomb. It is now known as the Castle of St. Angelo.

When Hadrian died a very good man named Antoninus was made emperor. He showed such filial regard for Hadrian, by building a temple in his honor, that he was called Antoninus Pius. Under the emperors who ruled before his time the Christians were very cruelly treated. They were not allowed to have churches or places of worship, and numbers of them were put to death in the most shocking manner. Often Christians were thrown into the arena in the Amphitheatre and devoured by wild beasts.



In those times the Christians of Rome held their religious meetings in underground passages dug for burying places. These Catacombs, as they were called, were near the walls of the city and altogether were hundreds of miles in length. Along both sides of the tunnels were openings, one above another, in which the dead were buried. Many of the Catacombs have been explored in recent times. They are among the "sights" which visitors to Rome are always eager to see.

Antoninus Pius was very friendly to the Christians. He gave orders that they should be allowed to practice their religion and that any one who interfered with them should be punished.

The next emperor of Rome was a very remarkable and a very good man. His name was Marcus Aurelius. He governed the empire justly and well for nearly twenty years. He began to reign in the year 161 A.D. He was the adopted son of the good Emperor Antoninus. For some time before the death of Antoninus, he held a high office and helped to govern the empire.

As soon as he became emperor Aurelius invited a young man named Verus to share the throne with him. Verus had also been adopted by Antoninus. The generous act of Aurelius surprised everybody. Never before was there a Roman emperor who wanted to give half of his power to another person, and it seemed strange to the people that Aurelius should do so. But Aurelius said:

"I think my adopted brother has a right to be emperor with me."

And so Verus was made emperor with Aurelius, and for the first time Rome was ruled by two emperors. Verus had a great respect for Aurelius. He seldom attempted to do anything in matters of government without asking his advice. But he did not have much to do with public affairs. He cared very little about being emperor and generally spent his time in amusing himself. He was not a good young man, and his conduct gave Aurelius a great deal of sorrow. But after nine years Verus died, and Aurelius was the sole ruler during the rest of his life.

In his youth Aurelius studied under the best teachers in the empire, and so had an excellent education. He always had an eager desire for knowledge and was constantly learning. Even in war times, when he was fighting in the field, he carried a library with him and could often be seen in his tent engaged in study. He was one of the most learned of the Roman emperors, and his intimate friends were scholars and authors.

When a boy of only twelve years he joined the Stoics. These were followers of a famous wise man or philosopher of Greece, called Zeno. This man taught that the people should act according to reason and virtue, and should keep an even temper and a brave heart under all circumstances. He taught also that men should show neither joy nor sorrow, but control their feelings and passions, and submit without complaint to what could not be prevented.

The followers of Zeno were called Stoics, from the Greek word stoa,  which means a roofed colonnade or porch. It was in a roofed porch at Athens that Zeno taught his doctrine.

The Emperor Aurelius was one of the best and most earnest of the Stoics. He carefully trained himself to control his feelings at all times and to do his duty honestly and faithfully. The Romans never had a purer or nobler emperor, or one more respected and beloved. His style of living was very simple. He had no idle courtiers at his house, and he kept only a few servants. He gave no costly dinners and entertainments. He spent much of his salary to improve the condition of the poor and to provide good schools for their children.

He used to walk through the streets of Rome in plain clothing, attended only by a favorite slave. He returned the greetings of the people with bows and pleasant smiles. Any one could go to him and talk freely, and he encouraged the people to tell him about their troubles so that he might understand how to help them.

He gave the Senate a great deal of power which he thought it ought to have, and gave back to the people many rights and privileges which former emperors had taken away from them. No wonder the Romans loved him and called him a good man.


B UT the reign of Aurelius was full of troubles. In the first part of it the Tiber one day overflowed its banks, and the waters swept away a large portion of Rome, destroying many lives. After this there were dreadful earthquakes, very destructive fires, and other serious misfortunes.

There were also many wars. There was a war with the Parthians, a brave, warlike nation in Asia, who destroyed a Roman army and then invaded Syria. Large armies were sent against them and they were soon conquered and forced to pay homage to Aurelius.

The Parthian horsemen had a strange way of fighting. They were armed with bows and arrows and small spears called javelins, and were mounted on very swift horses. They would make attacks on the rear lines of the Romans, and when the Romans turned to attack them they would lash their horses and ride off as fast as the wind. And while their horses were going at full speed they would turn in their saddles and cast their javelins, or shoot their arrows with wonderfully accurate aim.



After the Parthian war there were wars with a number of wild tribes living in the countries now called Austria and Hungary. The tribes there rebelled against their Roman governors, and Aurelius had years of hard fighting before he could subdue them. He was himself a remarkably brave and able general and gained many splendid victories. So at last he taught the barbarians to respect and obey the Romans who governed them.



Once, while Aurelius was fighting a tribe called the Quadi, his soldiers were hemmed in by the enemy, in a small rocky valley, and suffered greatly from thirst. Suddenly the sky darkened and rain fell in torrents. The thirsty soldiers collected the water in their helmets and drank it eagerly.

While they were drinking, and their lines were in confusion, the Quadi suddenly attacked them in large numbers. The Romans would have been cut to pieces but that there came a violent hailstorm, with lightning and thunder, which stopped the battle. When the storm had ceased, the Romans, much refreshed by the rainfall, boldly fought the Quadi and won a great victory.

Some of the Romans believed that the sudden storm which relieved them so much was caused by the magical power of an African wizard who was with the army at the time. But there was also with the army a legion of soldiers, some 3,000 in number, who were Christians. The Christians had prayed for rain, and they believed that the rain came in answer to their prayers. They said that it was a miracle sent by God to prove the truth of Christianity.

Now Aurelius was a pagan. Some of his Christian soldiers had tried to convert him to their faith, but they had not succeeded. He lived and died a believer in the pagan gods and goddesses. After the strange storm, however, he seemed to have a greater respect for Christianity, and he named his Christian legion of soldiers the "Thundering Legion."


O NCE the commander of the Roman armies in Asia, a man named Avidius Cassius, planned a rebellion against Aurelius. When everything was ready Cassius declared himself emperor and started with his army to Rome to take possession of the city. Aurelius collected his troops and went to meet Cassius; but no meeting took place, for Cassius was killed by his own soldiers, and the rebellion quickly came to an end.

Those who had aided Cassius were brought before Aurelius for punishment. But the emperor would not punish them.

"No, I will not harm them," he said. "I think I have governed the empire too faithfully and liberally to fear plots. I can afford to forgive traitors. Let all the friends of Cassius go free; they are to be pitied rather than punished."

Aurelius was always very industrious and would never waste any of his time. It was a part of his duty as emperor to attend the games and sports in the Colosseum and the Circus. Aurelius cared nothing for such sports and whenever he attended them, he always spent his time at some useful occupation while sitting in the splendid chair of state provided for him. Sometimes he would study his favorite books and make notes from them, and sometimes he would dictate letters and government orders to a secretary. Thousands of excited Romans around him would be shouting their delight at the sports in the ring, but Aurelius would go on calmly with the work he had in hand.



"I do not like to waste my time by sitting here doing nothing," he would say. "To waste time is one of the greatest of crimes."

And so, by never allowing himself to be idle, Aurelius was able to do many useful things. He established good schools and hospitals in Rome and other cities of Italy. He introduced new trades so that the poor people could get a much better living than before.

Aurelius always gave great encouragement to art and literature. He welcomed authors and artists to Rome and was always their friend. He established libraries and halls of paintings and statuary. He himself wrote several books.

It is said that with all his virtue the life of Aurelius was not a happy one. He had serious troubles at times in governing the empire, and the cares of a ruler often weighed heavily upon him. His wife, whom he dearly loved, behaved very badly and caused him much anxiety, and his only son was a very bad young man.

So in the latter years of his life Aurelius always appeared melancholy. A smile was seldom seen upon his face. He died at the city now called Vienna, in Austria, A.D. 180.