If, like most modern humans, you get your historical knowledge from Ridley Scott films, you’ll remember Marcus Aurelius as the Roman emperor who got cuddled to death by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.
But did this really happen?
Well, Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161AD and reigned until 180, and his reign included two spells of joint rule – one with Lucius Verus and one with his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).
Commodus was co-emperor for the last three years of Marcus’s reign and became sole emperor afterwards, so there’s a possible motive for patricide.
But – apart from in movies – it’s hard to find serious references to the alleged murder.
Most writers simply brush over the death by saying Marcus “caught some disease” (seriously – “some” disease).
History Today’s Richard Cavendish says Marcus’s end came when he “caught smallpox and then starved himself to death at the age of 58”.
He does not mention a motive for this sudden self-starving, but says the emperor’s reign was remembered as a “golden age”.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica simply says Marcus died at his military headquarters, having “just had time to commend Commodus to the chief advisers of the regime”.
All these slightly odd explanations could add up to something suspicious, but the historical consensus seems to be that the old (by Roman life expectancies) fella popped his clogs of natural causes.
Interestingly, the Britannica also notes that Marcus had “no choice” but to name Commodus as successor, as the only alternative would have been to have him killed. And that’s just bad parenting.
Marcus Aurelius is remembered as the last of the “five good emperors” and one of the great stoic philosophers – which basically means he said we humans are very small in the big scheme of things and we should take our troubles on the chin and not b*tch about them.
In his book Meditations, he tells readers: “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.”
And, hopefully, if his last sight was Commodus’s armoured chest smothering him, he could still see this big picture.
As he put it: “Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”