The Sciences

The Philosophical Life and Mysterious Death of Marcus Aurelius

Explore the life and mysterious death of Marcus Aurelius, the renowned Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, whose legacy continues to captivate historians and enthusiasts.

By Jake ParksJun 20, 2024 8:00 AM
Marcus Aurelius statue
(Credit: BERK OZDEMIR/Shutterstock)

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Marcus Aurelius, one of the most celebrated Roman Emperors and a central figure in the philosophical school of Stoicism, continues to capture the imagination of historians and enthusiasts alike. Known for his philosophical writings and his reign as emperor from 161 to 180 AD, Aurelius' life has been well-documented. However, the exact circumstances of his death are less certain, leaving it somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Here, we’ll explore the life of Marcus Aurelius, from his historic ascent to the throne of the Roman Empire to the enigmatic end that marked his passage from ruler to legend.

Who Was Marcus Aurelius?

Before discussing the various theories of his death, it's crucial to understand who Marcus Aurelius was. As a philosopher-king, Aurelius is often remembered through his work Meditations, a series of personal writings that offer insights into his stoic philosophy.

(Credit: Jeff Whyte/Shutterstock)

His reign was marked by a dedication to duty, morality, justice, and wisdom. Aurelius is depicted as a ruler who preferred philosophical contemplation over the extravagances of imperial life.

Marcus Aurelius' Rise to Caesar

Marcus Aurelius' ascent to Caesar was meticulously orchestrated within the complex web of Roman politics. Born to a prominent family, his destiny was shaped early on by Emperor Hadrian, who saw potential in him for leadership. Hadrian's strategy for a stable succession involved the adoption of Antoninus Pius as his heir, contingent on Antoninus adopting Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his successors. This adoption secured Marcus' path to the throne.

Column of Marcus Aurelius was erected in AD 180 to commemorate his victories over the barbarian tribes of the Danube.

In 161 AD, following the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus ascended as co-emperor with Lucius Verus. Their partnership was marked by rare harmony, showcasing Marcus' ability to govern wisely — a skill honed from his upbringing in the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. This seamless transition and co-rule highlighted the effectiveness of Hadrian's succession planning, ultimately shaping one of Rome's most philosophically inclined leaders.


Read More: The Hierarchy of the 1,200-Year-Long Roman Empire


The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius died at age 58 on March 17, 180 AD, in either the city of Vindobona (modern-day Vienna, Austria) or Sirmium (modern-day Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia) after returning from a military campaign against Germanic tribes on the Danube.

The traditional and most widely accepted explanation of his death is that he succumbed to natural causes — possibly the Antonine plague, which was rampant during the final years of his reign. As he had planned, his only surviving son, Commodus, succeeded him.

Sculpture of ancient Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy (Credit: Bill Perry/Shutterstock)

Alternative Theories and Speculations

Despite the historical consensus, alternative theories and rumors about the death of Marcus Aurelius have surfaced over the centuries, reflecting a deep fascination with this significant historical figure.

One of the more sensational speculations is that Marcus Aurelius was poisoned or intentionally killed by other means, a theory with little to no contemporary evidence, yet still popular in fictional and sensational accounts.

Did Marcus Aurelius Kill His Wife?

Among the more outlandish rumors about this widely respected Roman emperor is the claim that Marcus Aurelius might have had a role in the death of his wife, Faustina the Younger. However, historical records indicate that Faustina died in the winter of 175 AD, most likely due to natural causes.

There is no substantial evidence to suggest foul play on the part of Aurelius, and such claims are generally considered unfounded by serious scholars.


Read More: 5 of the Most Ruthless Rulers in Ancient History


The Legacy of Marcus Aurelius

Four golden coins of Marcus Aurelius Emperor at National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain (Credit: WH_Pics/SHutterstock)

The death of Marcus Aurelius marked a significant turning point in Roman history. He was the last of the "Five Good Emperors," and his passing ushered in a period of instability that eventually led to the decline of the Roman Empire.

His son, Commodus, who succeeded him, is often cited as one of the less capable emperors. And his reign contrasted sharply with the philosophical and administrative rigor of his father.

While the exact circumstances of Marcus Aurelius’ death may linger in a shroud of mystery, what remains undisputed is the legacy he left behind. His stoic writings continue to be studied and revered for their wisdom and practicality. In a time of often brutal and autocratic rule, his life stands as a testament to the power of philosophy and ethical governance.

So, perhaps the real story of Marcus Aurelius lies not in how he died, but in how he lived — a life of contemplation, virtue, and duty, immortalized in his Meditations and in the annals of history.


Read More: If Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, How Long Did It Take?


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Jake Parks is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in covering science news. He has previously written for Astronomy magazine, Discover Magazine, The Ohio State University, the University of Wisconson-Madison, and more.

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