Friday, May 08, 2009

Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher-Emperor of Rome

Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher-Emperor of Rome

Michael Lorenzen


Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 AD to 180 AD. He was also a noted philosopher. Historians generally consider him to have been one of the greatest Roman Emperors. It is easy to see why. There are many aspects of his leadership which demonstrate his management skills. These include his ability to navigate ethics, his understanding of the culture of the Roman Empire, his ability to manage the organization of the Roman bureaucracies, his success in introducing change, his capability to set policy, and his cleverness in problem solving. This paper will look at examples from all of these areas as well as provide an overview of his life and his philosophical beliefs. The book Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (2000) by Anthony R. Birley will be used to illustrate some points.

Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher-Emperor of Rome

Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (April 26, 121 – March 17, 180) was Roman Emperor in the second century AD. He is considered to be the last of the so called Five Good Emperors who ruled Rome at the height of Roman power. He was also a major Stoic philosopher who wrote Meditations in the last decade of his life.

The Emperor Antoninus Pius adopted Marcus Aurelius as his heir when Marcus was only 17. Under the long and generally peaceful reign of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius held a variety of titles in the Roman bureaucracy including the title of Consul. He also studied philosophy extensively. When Antonius Pius died in 161, Marcus Aurelius became the Roman Emperor at the age of 40. There was no opposition to his succession.

Marcus Aurelius immediately chose his brother Verus as co-emperor. This was a new idea as the Roman Empire had never had two Emperors before. However, it would become more common as the Roman Empire began a long decline.

The legendary Pax Romana (Peace of the Romans) ended early in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. No sooner had he assumed the throne, the Picts commenced to threaten in Britannia and German tribes attempted to cross the Rhine and the upper reaches of the Danube. These attacks were repelled. In Asia, the Parthian Empire attacked and destroyed an entire Roman legion. The resulting war lasted five years. The Romans were led to victory by Marcus Aurelius’s co-Emperor Verus.

The victory over the Parthians was costly. The drain on resources weakened Roman power along the German frontier. Emboldened, the Marcomanni and Quadi
crossed the Danube in 169, marched across several provinces, and invaded Italy. The end result of their onslaught was the siege of Aquileia. This was the first invasion of Italy since the late second century B.C. Compounding problems further, the victorious Roman legions returning from Asia had brought back the plague. This devastated the Roman population and made it difficult to field an army. Marcus Aurelius had to conscript slaves to have a sufficient fighting force.

The German Wars would dominate the rest of Marcus Aurelius’s reign. He was almost constantly engaged in campaigning against the northern tribes. The first campaigns were notable by the death of Verus in 169, leaving Marcus as sole emperor. Marcus Aurelius was successful in driving the tribes out of Roman territory but he was not able to end their threat. The German tribes would remain a threat for centuries to come and they ultimately brought about the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Aurelius wedded Faustina the Younger in 145. During their thirty year marriage, Faustina bore thirteen children. This included his son Commodus who would become Emperor, and his daughter Lucilla, who was married to Verus to solidify his alliance with Marcus Aurelius.

In early 180, while Marcus and his son Commodus were fighting in the north, Marcus became ill. Which disease killed him is unknown but it very well could have been the plague. Commodus succeeded his father as Emperor. Commodus was a psychotic individual with delusions of grandeur. He was an unsuccessful ruler who was eventually murdered by his own guards. His rule is considered by many historians as the beginning of decline of the Roman Empire. The biggest complaint that many historians have with Marcus Aurelius is that he had the poor judgment of allowing Commodus to follow him on the throne.

The Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

While on campaign between 170 and 180, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations. He wrote this for his own reflection and there is no evidence that he ever intended for his writing to be published. The work takes the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs. It was written in Greek and not widely distributed until it was first published in 1558 in Zurich.

His stoic philosophy revolves around the denial of emotion. He believed that freedom from emotion would free a man from the pain of the material world. He thought that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. Marcus Aurelius was a pagan. This was reflected in his writing as he believed that some sort of logical good force organized the universe and that even bad events happened for the greater good.

Marcus Aurelius believed that the good force that organized the universe was present in every living thing. He believed that individuals did not survive death but were reabsorbed by the universe. As all people were a reflection of the universal spirit, he believed that rulers had an obligation to be just and to treat all (including slaves) fairly.


Understanding the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is important to understanding how he used ethics in his leadership. He really believed that he was morally obligated to look out for the welfare of all the people in the Roman Empire including slaves. This can be best demonstrated by examining how he reformed the laws to provide for the more ethical treatment of certain classes of people in Roman society.

Birley (2000) wrote of Marcus Aurelius, “His attention to the theory and practice of legislation and the administration of justice were intensive, and it is notable that he was described by professional lawyers as ‘an emperor most skilled in the law,’ and by the great Papinian as a ‘most prudent and conscientiously just emperor.’ The badly-informed and muddled chronicler Aurelius Victor, writing in the fourth century, expressed the opinion that under Marcus the ambiguities of the law were wonderfully clarified” (p. 133).

Marcus Aurelius focused his legislation in three areas. This included the liberation of slaves, the protection of minors and orphans, and the selection of councilors to run and administer local communities all over the Roman Empire. Marcus Aurelius made it easier for slaves to win their freedom and to be able to prove this later if questioned. He endeavored to have guardians appointed for orphans so that the minors would be protected and that their property rights would be looked after. The appointment of local councilors also helped to assure that Roman laws were being applied fairly all over the empire.

Another area that Marcus Aurelius acted ethically was in the area of sex Birley (2000) noted that Marcus Aurelius claimed in his Meditations, “I preserved the flower of my manhood and did not make proof of my virility before the right time, but even deferred the time” (p. 53). He married at 24 and then remained married to the same women for 30 years and had 13 children with her. Although it is impossible to know if he ever cheated on his wife or had pre-martial sex, it is probable due to his philosophical beliefs that he exercised a great deal of ethical action with his sexuality. At a time when Roman men had access to slaves and adultery was socially tolerated, this would appear to be remarkable and an indicator of his high ethical character.

Organizational Theory

Marcus Aurelius was responsible for many organizations in his lifetime. This included the different priestly orders he belonged to as a younger man, the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire, and armies in the field when he lead them into battle. At various times, he invariably exhibited leadership skills that would fit all of the eras of organizational theory. However, I think the two he demonstrated the most were classical theory (scientific management) and systems theory.

The Roman Empire was normally governed in a classical theory style. It operated as a large machine. It was managed top down with a clear line of authority going down from the Emperor in Rome to the various legions and provinces. There was a great deal of emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of the members of different social classes. Although the Roman Senate maintained an important symbol with some powers granted by the Emperor, the Emperor had absolute power. Due to the size of the Roman Empire, it was dominated by a large impersonal bureaucracy.

As such, it was very common for Marcus Aurelius to rule in a classical theory style. When he gave orders to his legions, he expected them to be carried out immediately. The chain of command was important and soldiers who disobeyed an order could face execution. His firmness in running the legions was shown over and over again as he fought the German Wars. For example, after he won his first victory in the German Wars, he refused his soldiers additional pay. Birley (2000) wrote, “After the first victory he had won in person, although he accepted the salutation of Imperator, he refused the troops’ request for a donative, saying that whatever they got from him over and above their regular pay would be wrung from the blood of their parents and families…So temperately and firmly did he rule that even when engaged in so many and so great wars, he never did anything unworthy by way of flattery or as a result of fear” (p. 169).

It is also apt to look at Marcus Aurelius’s management from the perspective of systems theory. The Roman Empire was a large state that functioned in many ways like a large organism. Crop failures and war in one province could cause famine in other provinces. Plague, death and a loss of tax revenue in the eastern provinces directly impacted the western provinces and the Imperial treasury. As systems theory focuses on organization and the interdependence of relationships, and the Roman Empire acted like one large interconnected system, it is not surprising that Marcus Aurelius managed it accordingly.

As such, systems theory is one way to understand why Marcus Aurelius agreed to allow some German tribes to settle in the Roman Empire in peace. Some historians criticize this move as it lead to the later “barbarization” of the Roman Empire. However, due to plague, the Roman Empire had become severely depopulated. There were few to grow crops and to provide soldiers for future legions. Birley (2000) wrote, “It could even be argued that depopulation of the countryside, especially Italy, had been beginning before the plague, to an alarming extent. Beside this, if the settlers were from peoples which Marcus intended to incorporate within the empire, the criticism has less points in any case. They were to be romanized sooner or later, by one means or another” (p. 170).


The Roman Empire was vast ruling the entire Mediterranean world including most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. It was made of the peoples of hundreds of nations, cities, and tribes. Hence, Roman culture was diverse by nature. However, the Romans were tradition bound and much of their accepted high culture originated in Italy and Greece. As such, Marcus Aurelius was expected as ruler to understand culture as practiced by the aristocracy of Rome but at the same time have some understanding of other cultural norms in the Roman Empire.

Marcus Aurelius was inducted into the culture of the ruling class of the Roman Empire early. The Emperor Hadrian bestowed on him the honor of the equestrian order when he was only six years old and then made him a member of the Salian priesthood at eight. He was entrusted to the best professors of literature, rhetoric and philosophy of the time and in his early twenties began to study Stoicism as his primary interest. He was raised to the consularship in 140, and in 147 received the tribunician power. All of these actions would have thoroughly engrained the culture of Rome into the future ruler.

Peterson and Deal (1999) classified organizational culture four main parts. These included 1. vision, purpose and values, 2. ritual and ceremony, 3. history and stories, and 4. architecture and artifacts. A look at Marcus Aurelius’s rule shows that he understand all four of these parts of culture as it related to Roman culture. He knew the values of the ruling class. He understood and actively participated in the rituals and ceremonies of Rome including both religious and secular, he knew Roman history well, and he lived comfortably in probably the greatest architecturally rich city of the ancient world.

One way Marcus Aurelius demonstrated and used his knowledge of Roman culture in governing was to have his predecessor as Emperor (Antoninus Pius) deified. It was traditional to have all but the worst or transitory Emperors declared gods by the Roman Senate. Birley (2000) wrote, “The next public act was to arrange for the funeral and deification of Antoninus Pius…A flamen was appointed to minister to the new deity, and a college of priests was chosen from among the closest friends of the Imperial family, whose duty it would be to meet on appointed days to sacrifice and feats in honor of Antoninus” (p. 118).

Marcus Aurelius also paid homage to the culture of the Roman military. He and his co-emperor Verus gave the soldiers a huge bonus to mark their joint ascension. Birley (2000) wrote, “They promised a bounty, or donative, to the troops of 20,000 sesterces (5,000 denarii) per man, more to officers. This expensive ceremony was now a necessary opening to every reign, as it had been since the stormy and opposed accession of Claudius in 41” (p. 117).

Change Management

Before examining some of the changes that Marcus Aurelius introduced to the Roman Empire, it is important to understand the mindset of the Roman people. They did not like change. In fact, they were quite resistant to the idea. Wrote Holland (2003), “Novelty, to the Citizen’s of the Republic, had sinister connotations. Pragmatics as they were, they might accept innovation if it was dressed up as the will of the gods or an ancient costume, but never for its own sake” (p. 4).

That is not to say the Romans rejected all change. However, they were very conservative about it. Holland (2003) further wrote, “Conservative and flexible in equal measures, the Romans kept what worked, adapted what had failed, and preserved as sacred lumber what had become redundant. The Republic was both a building site and a junkyard” (p. 4). Although the Republic was long gone by the time of Marcus Aurelius, the resistance to change was still evident in the second century Roman Empire.

Probably the largest change that Marcus Aurelius introduced to the Roman Empire was the idea of having two Emperors when he had his brother Verus made co-Emperor. This was done frequently later in Roman history but this was the first time it was actually done. Marcus Aurelius believed that the burden of running the Roman Empire was so great that it needed at least two men to do it properly.

Birley (2000) wrote, “Two emperors thus ruled Roman world for the first time, an innovation, but like most Roman innovations one for which there was ample precedent. It set an example which followed with increasing frequency. The continuing existence of the ancient twin magistracy of the consulate was one precedent” (p. 117).


A policy analysis of the Roman Empire would require several volumes of a book to compile. Even limiting to the reign of Marcus Aurelius would provide a vast amount of material. With multiple frontiers, client states, social classes, and government
functions, there is a lot to analyze. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, one well known policy was his treatment of Christians in the Roman Empire. Christianity had been spreading throughout the Roman Empire in the second century. Earlier Emperors had decided to leave the Christians alone. A “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was instituted and Christians who did not openly claim to be Christians had no need to fear the lions. Marcus Aurelius continued this policy but was more willing to aggressively prosecute Christians if he felt that was for the greater good.

The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia noted, “In his dealings with the Christians Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians has that outlined in Trajan's rescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcoming. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper.”

Some historians believe that the extent of any Christian persecution under Marcus Aurelius was overstated. He was a pagan and he was tolerant of different religious faiths. He believed that Christianity was immoral but basically harmless. However, he also would not intervene and stop a Christian persecution unless the Christian recanted. As the Roman Empire was a pagan entity at this time of history, it is not an unreasonable policy for Marcus Aurelius to have pursued.

Problem Solving

In his nineteen year reign, Marcus Aurelius had to solve problems a great deal. Dealing with the plague and multiple wars, on top of the normal affairs of state, presented him with many opportunities to make tough decisions. Of those, two are of particular note. In the first, Marcus Aurelius made the decision to conscript slaves to serve in the military. In the second, he auctioned off Imperial property to raise funds for the cash strapped Roman Empire.

Several German tribes invaded Italy in 169. This is the first actual invasion of Italy by foreign forces in several centuries. It shocked the Romans into action. However, the plague that was brought back by victorious Roman legions from the Parthian War caused serious problems. There were not enough Roman freedmen to fill out the legions. Faced with this recruitment problem, Marcus Aurelius conscripted gladiators, bandits, slaves, and Germanic tribesmen. This was an unorthodox move by Marcus Aurelius but it probably was a necessity. It certainly was an instance of decisive problem solving.

Another problem solving event was Marcus Aurelius’s decision to auction off Imperial property to raise funds. The Germanic invasion of Italy coupled with the plague put a strain on the revenue that the Roman Empire had as funds needed spent for war at the same time large number of taxpayers perished. Birley (2000) wrote, “Marcus must have realized that new taxation would be extremely unpopular and not very productive. A gesture like the palace auction had more than a practical benefit – it demonstrated that the emperor was willing to make sacrifices” (p. 160).


Marcus Aurelius may have made some mistake (like allowing Commodus to follow him on the throne) but his good decisions appear to far out weigh this. There are many aspects of his leadership which demonstrate his management skills. These include his ability to navigate ethics, his understanding of the culture of the Roman Empire, his ability to manage the organization of the Roman bureaucracies, his success in introducing change, his capability to set policy, and his cleverness in problem solving. He clearly was a good Emperor and a decent role model for modern leaders and managers to study.


Birley, A. R. (2000). Marcus Aurelius: A biography. New York: Routledge.

Holland, T. (2003). Rubicon: The last years of the Roman Republic. Chicago: IL, Doubleday.

Deal, T. E. & Peterson, K. D. (1999). Shaping school culture: The school leader's role. San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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