(PHILOSOPHY, ROME and its EMPIRE – continued)
Marcus Aurelius was emperor from 161 until his death in 180. As a Stoic, Aurelius believed in the brotherhood of man and he exercised power with a strong sense of duty and tried to avoid letting himself be ruled by passion. Here was a man about whom it might be said that he was not corrupted by power, although he had plenty of it. Marcus Aurelius realized that he was not the most clever of men, but he believed that he was guided by God's "divine reason."
Here was a philosopher-king of whom Plato and Aristotle might have approved, and Confucius too. Doing right for Aurelius included defending against Parthia's military intrusions into Armenia and across the Euphrates River into Syria, where Parthian troops had not been seen for two centuries. Aurelius fought the Parthians from 162 to 166, his troops retaking Armenia and marching into Mesopotamia to Ctesiphon.
In the course of this war, the Romans came in contact with an epidemic – perhaps smallpox. Racked by illness, the Roman army was obliged to retreat. Returning soldiers spread the disease, and the epidemic became known as the Great Pestilence. It lasted fifteen years, killing as many 25 percent in some population centers, reducing the empire's manpower while Germanic peoples on the empire's borders were growing in number.
German tribes, attracted by the pleasant climate of the Mediterranean region and by the empire's higher standard of living, pushed across the empire's border, into the Danube region and into Italy. Aurelius saw it as his duty to control the empire's borders, and he dashed about with his armies from one area to another and successfully contained the invasions. This warring was not paid for by plundering or taxing a wealthy and defeated people; it was paid for by taxing Roman citizens. And Aurelius made his contribution by auctioning off the crown jewels.
During his years of campaigning against the German invasions, Aurelius wrote Meditations, attempts at wisdom that expressed his borrowed Stoicism.
... I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather's concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season.
... Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty.
... the soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any man, or even moves towards him with the intention of injuring ... when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain ... when it plays a part, and does or says anything insincerely and untruly ... when it allows any act of its own and any movement to be without an aim.
... every man's intelligence is a god, and is an efflux of the deity.
... What a soul one has who dies not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.
Aurelius continued to want to improve the world, but in his later years he saw that the power to make the world right had to be collective. In his later years he blamed people in general for failing to reform themselves. He had became pessimistic, believing that humanity would repeat the sordid follies of the past.
Aurelius was himself engaging in a major misjudgment and folly. He believed in that which had made him emperor, and he made his sixteen year-old son Commodus his heir. With Commodus, according to the historian Sir Edward Gibbon, Rome's string of "Five Good Emperors" came to an end. Aurelius, despite his sense of duty, was taking part in keeping Rome on its path of ruin.
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