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The Good And Bad Emperor Post by :johnblazed Category :Essays Author :Lydia H. Sigourney Date :November 2011 Read :1395

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The Good And Bad Emperor

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the seventeenth Emperor of Rome, and began his reign on the 2nd of March, 161 years before the Christian era. Besides these three names, he had several others, Annius Verus, after his grandfather; Elius, which was given him by the Emperor Adrian; Verissimus, from his constant regard to truth; and Philosophos, from his love of wisdom.

In early childhood he was instructed by his mother, who took great pains to teach him not to do wrong, or to think unkindly of any person. She would not permit him to be dainty in his food, or to partake in luxuries that might be hurtful to his health; and though he saw much to tempt his taste, he regarded the restrictions of his mother. She also counselled him not to be proud, but to relieve the poor whenever he had opportunity. By his respect and obedience to her, he began life with the elements of virtue and happiness.

His grandfather also conducted a part of his education, in childhood. He listened reverently to his words, and followed all his directions. Thus, he began to honour and love the aged, and to bow down before them. In one of the wise books which he wrote in manhood, the very first sentences are expressive of gratitude to these his earliest teachers.

"Of my grandfather, I learned to be gentle and meek, and to refrain from all anger and passion. Of my mother, I learned to be religious and bountiful, to forbear not only to do, but to intend any evil; to content myself with a spare diet, and to fly all the excesses that come from great wealth."

Not content with the high moral training of his immediate instructors, he was careful to imitate whatever he saw that was praiseworthy in the conduct of others. "Of my brother," he writes, "I have learned to be kind and loving to all of my house and family, bountiful and liberal in the largest measure, always to hope for the best, and to believe that my friends love me."

As he grew older, masters were called in to direct his studies. Two of these were from Greece, and he acquired the language of that classic clime with great accuracy. Junius Rusticus, his instructor in philosophy, he says, "taught me to write letters simply, and without affectation, to be easily reconciled to those who had offended me, as soon as any of them would be content to seek unto me again; also, to read with diligence, and never to be content with light and superficial knowledge."

He was particularly partial to that department of philosophy which teaches the regulation of the temper and conduct. Such excellence did he attain in its principles and their exemplification, that he was permitted to assume, at the age of twelve, the philosophical gown. His rapid progress in knowledge, and preeminence for truth and integrity, gained him the favour of the Emperor Adrian, who was a patron of learning and virtue. Among other distinctions, he appointed him prefect of the city, when only fifteen years old. It was an office of power and importance, comprising the superintendence of buildings, and navigation, and the judging of causes, as a chief magistrate, if the Emperor should be absent from the city. In this responsible station, he acquitted himself with justice and dignity, not at all vain of his elevation, but improving every opportunity to advance in knowledge.

Amid the pressure of his public offices and private studies, he did not overlook the domestic affections. To his sister Annia Corneficia, he showed the utmost tenderness. He liked to impart his knowledge to her, and to have her enjoy the new ideas that he gathered. After the death of their father, he became her watchful protector, and the paternal estate having been left to him, he presented it to her, rejoicing at having it in his power to make her so valuable a gift. His generosity was equalled by his gratitude. When he became Emperor of Rome, he remembered all who had done him services, and recompensed them. Especially to his teachers, his regard was unbounded. His obligations to them he frequently mentioned, and said the knowledge with which they had stored his mind was more precious than the wealth of an empire. While they lived, he loaded them with benefits. When they died, he paid to their memories the tribute of affectionate respect. He laid chaplets of flowers on their tombs, and caused their statues to be made of gold, which he kept in his domestic chapel.

In this feature of attachment to his instructors he resembled Alexander the Great, who was never weary of testifying gratitude to his master, Aristotle. Comparing it to the affection for his father, he said, "I am indebted to Philip for living, and to Aristotle for living well." He rebuilt and beautified Stagyra, after it had been destroyed, because it was the native place of Aristotle, and enclosed a copy of Homer's poems, to which this beloved preceptor had written notes, in a gold box, carrying it wherever he went with his armies, and laying it under his head every night, when he retired to rest. In a letter to his teacher, he says, "I had rather surpass the rest of men in the knowledge of sublime and excellent things, than in greatness and extent of power."

More truly great was Alexander in this sentiment, than in his renown as a warrior. And surely, in the beautiful sentiment of gratitude to our instructors in knowledge and virtue, we, who are Christians, ought not to suffer ourselves to be surpassed by the followers of false gods.

When Marcus Aurelius was raised to the highest office in the Empire, he felt it incumbent on him to be the father of his people. He strove to do good to all. He laboured to frame just laws. He directed the courts to take a longer time for the transaction of business, that they might not be tempted, through haste, to neglect the causes of the poor. So great was his own industry and patience, that he not unfrequently gave ten days to the study of a case whose decision was important or difficult.

He showed great respect for the opinion of the Senate, and never took any portion of the revenue for public expenses without their permission. He evinced much prudence in the use of what they entrusted to him. Once, when the claims of the nation were peculiarly pressing, he said to his wife, the Empress Faustina,

"I will sell the furniture of my palace, and you can dispose of your richest clothing, rather than burden our people to part with more than they can spare."

He was anxious for the improvement of the young, and appointed a magistrate to whom minors might apply, who needed protection or assistance. He was careful to add an example of morality to the precepts that he impressed on others. Though he had power to punish, it was his practice to forgive those who had done him personal injuries. He had a foe, named Avidius, whose slanders he generously pardoned. Afterwards, hearing that Avidius had destroyed his own life, he said, "Ah! I have now lost the opportunity of changing an enemy into a friend."

He also cultivated the virtue of patience with the infirmities of others. "If we cannot make them in all things as we wish them to be," he used to say, "we must take them as they are, and do the best with them that lies in our power." This principle of forbearance was strongly put to the test by Lucius Verus, his colleague during the earlier part of his reign. This person rendered little aid in the cares of the government, whose authority he partook. He led an idle life, and selfishly regarded only his own wishes. He possessed much vanity, and coveted popular applause, though he did nothing to deserve it. He liked the pomp and pageantry of war, but not its hardships. Though he was forward to promote it, yet he threw its toils upon others, and when in distant countries with the Roman armies, spent his time in indolence or unmanly sports. He was addicted to indulgence in wine, and a luxurious table. Hence he injured his health, and probably shortened his days, dying suddenly in a fit, ere he was forty years old.

The efforts that Marcus Aurelius made for his improvement and reformation, were like those of a kind father, anxious for his erring son. He mildly reasoned with him, and faithfully advised him, and laboured to excuse his faults, even when the whole nation was exasperated.

The command over his passions, which was so conspicuous in Marcus Aurelius, he derived from long study and practice of that Philosophy to which he was so much attached, as to call it his "mother." He made choice of the sect of the Stoics, who were sometimes called scholars of the Portico, because their master gave his lectures in a portico adorned with pictures, at Athens, in Greece. Zeno, the founder of this school of philosophers, discouraged luxury, and the pride of wealth. He set an example of great simplicity of life, dressing plainly, and being frugal in all his expenses. Bread, figs, and honey, were his principal diet, and when the most distinguished men sat at his table, he made no change in its provisions. He was modest in the estimation of himself, and amid any concourse of people, sought the humblest and lowest place. To poor men of merit, he paid the same respect as if they had been rich. He had many opposers, but never lost his temper through their provocations. He taught that virtue was the true good, that happiness existed in the mind and not in outward circumstances, and that men should be unmoved either by pleasure or pain. His temperance and tranquil spirit were probably favourable to longevity, as he died on the verge of ninety-nine, two hundred and sixty-four years before the Christian era.

Marcus Aurelius embodied some of the precepts of his philosophy in a book which has been praised by wise and learned men. As a specimen of its style, I will extract some of his sentiments on the diligent improvement of time.

"In the morning, if thou feelest reluctant to rise, consider how much work thou hast to do. Say to thy heart, Am I unwilling to go about that for which I was born, and brought into this world? Was I made to please myself idly, in a warm bed?

"Wert thou born only to enjoy pleasure? Was it not rather that thou mightest be always busy, and in action? Seest thou not how every tree and plant, how sparrows and ants, spiders and bees, are industrious and intent to perform what belongs unto them? And wilt not thou hasten to do that which thy nobler nature doth require?"

In his Meditations he thus reasons on the firmness with which this mortal existence should be resigned; and his argument is as strong as any that philosophy, unenlightened by the Gospel, could furnish.

"Thou hast taken ship. Thou hast sailed. Thou hast come to land. Get out of the ship into another life. The Gods are there."

Yet this good Emperor, who seemed as perfect as it was possible for pagan morality and belief to make any human being, still had faults. One of the most prominent of these was persecuting the Christians. That a man so habitually mild should have been thus severe, can only be explained on the principle that he believed himself to be doing right. Thus the Apostle Paul, when he imprisoned and punished the followers of Christ, and consented to the stoning of Stephen, "calling upon God," persuaded himself that he was discharging a sacred duty.

Marcus Aurelius was much influenced by the priests of the heathen temples, who were jealous of whatever interfered with their own idol-worship, and also by the philosophers, who despised the Christians. Much of the barbarity to which they were subjected was hidden from him, as the governors of the distant provinces put many to death without his knowledge. Still, he ought to have more thoroughly investigated the truth with regard to them, and had he been acquainted with the New Testament, would doubtless have admired its pure and sublime morality.

Another of his faults was, that he so often engaged in war when he did not approve of it, but considered it both a calamity and disgrace. It has been already mentioned that his colleague, Lucius Verus, was proud of military parade, and encouraged bloodshed. The Romans, also, were an iron-hearted people, placing their glory in foreign conquest. Any disorder in the countries that they had subjected, they were prompt to punish by the sword.

On one such occasion, when Marcus Aurelius led an army into Germany, to chastise the Quadi, a tribe who had rebelled against the sway of Rome, some remarkable circumstances occurred. It was a wild region which he traversed, where it was difficult to obtain sustenance. The troops were in danger of famine. The heat was intense, and no rain had fallen for a long time, so that the grass was withered, and many of their horses perished. The brooks and fountains wasted away, and they endured distressing thirst. The enemy shut them up between the mountains and themselves, preventing as far as possible their approach to the rivers. Then in this weak condition they forced them to give battle or be cut off.

It was pitiful to see the Roman soldiers standing in their ranks, with enfeebled limbs and parched lips, almost suffocated with heat. For four days they had scarcely tasted water. As their barbarous enemies pressed closely and fiercely upon them, the Emperor advanced to the head of his forces, and, oppressed with anxiety, raised his eyes to heaven, and said,

"By this hand, which hath taken no life away, I desire to appease Thee. Giver of life! I pray unto Thee."

Poor and empty, indeed, was this form of heathen devotion, contrasted with the triumphant trust of the king of Judah, who, when the mighty host of the Ethiopians stood ready to swallow him up, exclaimed,

"It is nothing for God to help, whether by many or by them that have no power."

Then it was told the Emperor, that there was in the camp an Egyptian, who boasted that the gods of his country could give rain.

"Call him forth!" was the imperial command, "bid him pray for water to relieve our thirst, and make to his gods any offerings that spirit propitiate them."

The dark-browed man came forward and with many ceremonies invoked Isis, the goddess who presided over the waters. He implored her with the most piercing earnestness to be gracious, and give rain. Thus the idol-priests, during the long drought in Israel, under Ahab, when the grass and brooks dried up, and the cattle died, cried in their frantic sacrifices, "from morning until noon, Oh Baal! hear us. But there was no voice, neither any that regarded."

In the pause of despair that ensued, some Christian soldiers, who had been constrained to join the army, were led forward. Kneeling on the glowing sands, they besought the Great Maker of heaven and earth, for the sake of their dear crucified Saviour, to pity, and to save. Solemnly arose their voices in that time of trouble.

But the interval allotted to this supplication of faith was brief. The conflict might no longer be deferred. As they approached to join in battle, the enemy exulted to see the Roman soldiers perishing with thirst, and worn almost to skeletons, through famine and hardship.

Suddenly the skies grew black. At first a few large drops fell, Heaven's sweet promise of mercy. Then came a plentiful shower, then rain in torrents. The sufferers, with shouts of joy, caught it in their helmets, and in the hollow of their shields. The blessed draught gave them new strength and courage.

While they were yet drinking, their foes rushed upon them, and blood was mingled with the water that quenched their thirst. But the storm grew more terrible, with keen flashes of lightning, and thunder heavily reverberating from rock to rock. The barbarians, smitten with sudden panic, exclaimed that the gods fought against them with the fires of heaven, and fled from the field. Thus the fortune of the day was turned, and the vanquished left victors.

Marcus Aurelius received this deliverance with deep gratitude. In his heart he connected it with the prayer of the Christians, and caused their persecutions to cease. An ancient historian mentions that the soldiers who had thus supplicated for relief, received the name of the "thundering legion," and were permitted to have a thunderbolt graven on their shields, as a memorial of the tempest that had discomfited their enemies, and saved the Roman forces, when ready to perish. The Emperor, in his letter to the Senate, recorded the events of that wonderful occasion, which, among others connected with the war he then conducted, were sculptured on the Antonine column, still standing in the city of Rome.

When the career of Marcus Aurelius terminated, and his time came to die, he gave parting advice to his son and successor, Commodus, solemnly charging his chief officers and the friends who loved him, to aid him in the discharge of his duties. Though he uttered so many precepts of wisdom and fatherly tenderness, it still seemed as if much was left unspoken, which he would fain have said. Anxious care sat upon his brow after his pale lips breathed no sound. It was supposed that this trouble was for his son, in whose right dispositions and habits he could have little confidence.

Commodus was the only son of Marcus Aurelius, his twin brother having died during infancy. The utmost pains had been taken with his education. But he had no love of knowledge, preferring sports or idleness, having no correct value of the preciousness of time.

When he was but fourteen years of age, his father permitted him to have a share in the government, hoping thus to elevate him above trifling pursuits, and implant in his young heart an interest for the people over whom he was appointed to rule. But no sooner was he in possession of power, than he began to abuse it. He grew haughty, and despised the rights of others, studying only his own selfish gratification.

He was nineteen, when, by the death of his father, he assumed the supreme authority. For a time his course was more judicious than could have been expected, as he consented to take the advice of aged counsellors, who were experienced in the cares of state. Afterwards, he rejected their guidance, and would listen only to the suggestions of young and rash advisers. Ere long he became unjust and cruel, taking away life as his own caprices dictated.

Among some of his most illustrious victims were the Quintillian brothers, Maximin and Cardianus. They were distinguished for wealth and liberality, and a zealous kindness in relieving the poor. They were also remarkable for their mutual affection, their studies and pleasures being the same. They read the same books, and so uniform was their flow of thought, that they could pursue together the composition of the same treatise. Such delight had they in each other's company, that they were seldom seen separate, and had no idea of divided or opposing interests. Rome admired this beautiful example of fraternal love, pointing them out as two forms animated by one soul. Without just cause, Commodus put to death these two brothers, who, having lived in each other's life, were executed at the same time.

In the midst of such barbarities, this bad Emperor was amusing himself with the hunting of wild beasts, and the company of vain and vicious people. His excesses were at length terminated by violence, being strangled after a reign of twelve years, December 31st, 192. His memory was execrated by those over whom he had ruled. Indolence and hatred of knowledge in his boyhood, and love of wicked associates in youth, brought the vices of a bad heart to early ripeness, so that he was at once dreaded and despised.

In analyzing his character, it will be found in two respects similar to that of Rehoboam, king of Israel, in his rejection of the advice of aged counsellors, to follow the guidance of the young, and in being the unwise son of a wise father.

We see that the honours won by illustrious ancestors will avail us nothing, unless by our own virtues we sustain their reputation. Indeed, if we take a different course, our disgrace will be deeper, as the career of the bad Emperor, which we have briefly traced, seems darker when contrasted with the lustre and glory of his predecessor.

Therefore, let every child of a good and distinguished parent, give added diligence, that he may not blemish the memory of those whom he loves, or stain the brightness of a transmitted name.


(The end)
Lydia H. Sigourney's essay: Good And Bad Emperor

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