Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Worst Decision of Marcus Aurelius Comes Home to Roost

The Worst Decision of Marcus Aurelius Comes Home to Roost


      Today marks the anniversary of the death in 180 of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  It is as well the date upon which his worst decision was inflicted upon the world.

      There is no question that Marcus was a great emperor.  In fact he is the only emperor to have written a book, namely the Meditations, that to this day remains in print (while Caesar's Gaelic Wars remain a staple of classes in both Latin and military history, Caesar was never emperor).  Marcus was one (and the last) of a string of excellent emperors.  After the tragedy that was Nero and the tumult of the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian), the emperors of the Nervan-Antonian dynasty had consistently been effective leaders.  This had been largely achieved by the sitting emperor adopting his heir.  This path avoided the deficiency of restricting passage of control to only natural heirs, necessarily limiting the pool of possible successors; the Flavians had been lucky in this regard, but they were only two generations – the father Vespasian to his son Domitian and then upon Domitian’s death the throne went to his brother Titus.  Hadrian was only a cousin to his predecessor Trajan. While Hadrian would in turn adopt Antoninus Pius, it does not appear they were related to one another.  It is reported that a condition imposed by Hadrian on Antoninius’ adoption was that he in turn adopt Marcus Aurelius.

      Marcus broke with this approach, appointing his natural son Commodus as his heir (Commodus was appointed co-emperor some three years before Marcus' death). He was a disaster.  A man of apparently no character, he is described by Aelius Lampridius as “even from his earliest years he was base and dishonorable. and cruel and lewd, defiled of mouth, moreover, and debauched.”   A megalomanic, he took to fighting in the gladiatorial games.  Of course he always won; who is going to try to kill the emperor in front of thousands of witnesses.  Of course it did not hurt that he secretly directed that his opponents be given dulled weapons.  Meantime he ignored the operation of the Empire, leaving decisions to his chamberlain and other officials.  He did, however, both order a devaluing of the currency and imposed excessive taxes.  Gibbons, in his monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dated the decline of the Roman Empire from Commodus.

      Finally he was assassinated.  There was, however, no natural heir to the position of Emperor, and his death would be followed by the “Year of Five Emperors.” 

      Had Marcus Aurelius followed the path of the other Nervan-Antonian emperors and adopted as his heir a proven leader, the path of the Roman Empire would well have been substantially different.  But he did not. Such decisions are the stuff of history.

      In closing, contra the movie “Gladiator,” Marcus was not killed by Commodus.  Rather, he died of natural causes (it has been suggested that an unidentified plague was involved), possibly in what is now Vienna.  Commodus was not killed in the gladiatorial games, but rather was assassinated  in 192 by being strangled.

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