Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

4. Marcus Aurelius |
The noble emperor who scorned the Christians

Marcus Aurelius is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 101, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Last of the great pagans, Marcus saw the empire as doomed after a barbarian breakout wreaked havoc and forewarned of what was to come

Marcus Aurelius - The noble emperor who scorned the Christians

Marcus Aurelius – The noble emperor who scorned the Christians
Out of the forests of the north and through the Alps poured 100,000 barbarians bent on destruction and slaughter. Roman garrisons were overrun and towns and villages destroyed as the invaders cut a hundred-mile swath across northern Italy from the Alps to the sea. The year was A.D. 170, and the historian Ammianus described the sudden incursion as “the united madness of the different tribes.”

The imperial messengers galloped south and west from the Danube frontier, over the Julian Alps and into the Po River Valley, changing horses at the post stations and then rushing into the towns, warning the magistrates to bring their people in from the suburbs and nearby farms to within the walls, neglected though the walls were. Farther from the main highways, more distant freeholders and small plantation owners first learned of the collapse of the frontier when they saw the smoke plumes rising from their neighbors’ homesteads. Then they pushed carts, hurriedly filled with their valuables, toward the doubtful safety of the nearest Roman garrison.

The year was a.d. 170. For the first time in a full century, war had come to Italian soil. But now the combatants weren’t civilized Roman legions, fighting among themselves to support their candidate for emperor. Rather, the enemy was the fierce, bestial savage, laying waste all in his path. Not for almost four hundred years had the barbarians reached Italy. Now they were back.

Along the frontier, a line of watchtowers and legionary fortresses, known as the limes,1 stood guard against the dark German forests of the north and the sunny vineyards and olive groves of the Mediterranean. But in a surprising end-run, the barbarians had dodged around the defenders, and as many as one hundred thousand Marcomanni, Sarmatians, and Quadi–cruel and hungry, hairy and painted, dressed in reeking animal skins–had poured through the Danube defenses. Like ants, they swarmed over the Alpine passes and into the plush northeastern Italian plain, burning, raping, and killing, sacking the city of Opitergium and besieging the Adriatic port of Aquileia.

The historians of the day recorded surprisingly little of these traumatic events. The barbarians remained in control of northeastern Italy for over a year, and heroic efforts had to be made to maintain communications between the frontier and Rome. Yet there are few accounts of it. Fifty thousand crack troops were stationed on the upper and middle Danube, six legions in all, including two new ones, the Second and Third Italica, raised specifically for a campaign to discipline the unruly Germans. But these legionaries could do little more than limit the barbarian forays across the river, cutting off and punishing any isolated raiding parties that they caught.

The waste and slaughter of the breakthrough must have been immense: a hundred-mile swath cut across northern Italy from the Alps to the sea. It was such a prodigious calamity that the historian Ammianus described it as “the united madness of the different tribes.” And the reliable Cassius Dio noted with awe, “Among the barbarian corpses were found even women’s bodies in armor.” The presence of women suggested to some that the barbarians had come, not simply to raid, but to occupy territory–Roman territory.

No one lounging comfortably in a Roman bath wanted to think about that very much, because it suggested the unthinkable: the fall of the empire, the end of the world.

A year later, with no new crops planted to feed them and legions prodding them from behind, the barbarians started moving back across the Julian Alps. Then, as the horde reached the Danube and began the return crossing–within range of the Roman troops still on the frontier–the Roman commander united all his forces to strike them, turning retreat into rout, drowning thousands, and recovering almost all their booty.

Leading those Roman forces was their supreme commander, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, known to history as Marcus Aurelius, first citizen of the empire, one of the finest jurists, philosophers, and orators of his age, the greatest and the last of the “Good Emperors of pagan Rome.” The barbarian breakthrough was the beginning of a war that would absorb the rest of Marcus’s life.

Marcus Aurelius enjoyed the supreme blessing and curse of being the best of men, fully in command of his civilization, at just the moment when the world was threatening to disintegrate, when all the anarchic forces without and sophisticated vices within began conspiring to topple an empire that seemed to its inhabitants civilization itself.2

For the average Roman citizen or freeman–the Gallic wine merchant, the Iberian rancher, the British tin miner, the Greek stone mason–such a fall was simply unimaginable. Just twenty-three years earlier, the empire had celebrated the nine-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Rome. Nine hundred years! And over three hundred years had passed since Rome had crushed Carthage and won undisputed control of the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum, they called it, meaning “Our Sea.” Now, hard white marble adorned the temples, baths, and arenas of a thousand cities from Egypt to Britain, Armenia to Portugal. What Rome hadn’t absorbed wasn’t worth conquering or was just too far away.

But Marcus’s philosophy had taught him that nothing human endures–except duty. And through the eyes of duty, he could see how fragile was this whole extraordinary edifice of empire.

There were a half-dozen external threats, but most ominous was the pressure on the limes, the two-thousand-mile fortified frontier running from the German Alps north down the Rhine to the North Sea, and east down the Danube to the Black. The tribes across the limes were restless, being pushed by the even wilder Germanic and Turkic hordes behind them, a barbarian avalanche that began high in Central Asia.

Still, as Marcus looked north and east from his camp on the Danube, he knew that the tide could be held back, but only if Rome kept its integrity and remained true to the principles of virtue through which it had become great. And that was the real worry.

Centuries earlier, the citizen-militia had been replaced by a professional army, increasingly recruited outside the Italian heartland. Then the very success of the empire, bringing with it a flood of cheap imports like Egyptian grain, had eviscerated the dutiful citizen farmers and artisans. Some rose into the bureaucratic ranks, the patricians and equites (knights) growing obscenely wealthy in the imperial service. But many Roman citizens simply lived off the free grain ration and lolled at the public baths or the games.

“The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else,” lamented the dyspeptic poet Juvenal, “now disturb themselves no more, and long eagerly for just two things–bread and circuses!” And their supposed betters, the gentry, were if anything worse. As the wealth and personal retinue of noble Romans burgeoned, so did their sloth, luxury, and licentiousness. Too many young aristocrats preferred fine wines and witty mistresses to forced marches and camp life. Too many young wives preferred to have lovers rather than children–birth control, abortion, and the exposure (abandonment in open fields) of infants were commonplace. The latest celebrity actor and the all-star gladiator were far more entertaining than strategy and politics. Ease and indolence do not make for big families, and by the mid-second century the workforce had shrunk, and the government had to conscript labor to transport essential supplies into the city.

Beyond this, something even more serious was eating the heart of the empire–not vice, but what seemed to Marcus a dangerous insanity. Something slavish, yet somehow attractive to patricians, plebian citizens, freedmen, and slaves alike. A dream, but a subversive dream, voiding honest citizens’ oaths to the gods and their emperor. It was called Christianity. Most Christians professed their loyalty to the empire, confident it could be “saved,” though only if it abandoned paganism and became Christian. Events would one day vindicate their view, for they correctly envisioned the course that the empire was indeed destined to take. Though it would perish in the West, it would survive in the East as a Christian empire for another thirteen centuries.3

However, other Christians spoke of the empire as the sum of all evils–“the harlot of the Seven Hills,” as one of their writings called Rome (Rev. 17). To Marcus, such people were blind. Did they not realize that the only alternative to Rome’s peace and prosperity was the war and anarchy stirring beyond the limes? They claimed to love humanity. Could they not see that humanity had never before succeeded as it had succeeded in Rome?

To Marcus, the empire was surely the gift of the gods, but it was a gift conferred through centuries of strife and struggle. In his epic poem of Rome’s founding, the Aeneid, the first-century poet Virgil quipped, “Such hard toil it was to found the Roman people.” Toil indeed, much of it organizational. For Rome’s legions had conquered the world more through discipline and technology than through raw courage. Its cities had been created and linked by civil engineering, methodical administration and, at least initially, religious piety.

Many cities were in fact founded as army camps. Between roughly 200 b.c. and a.d. 100, wherever the legions crossed into hostile territory, they completed their daily twenty-mile march by mid-afternoon. Then, while auxiliaries (non-Roman light infantry and cavalry) stood guard, legionaries took up their picks and shovels. Military surveyors had already laid out the stakes marking the new camp or castra: a square, four hundred yards on a side, quartered by two streets, the commanders’ tents at the center, with bivouacs marked out for the legion’s sixty centuries (companies). Fortification was the first task: a deep ditch dug, and its dirt and sod piled up in a tall rampart. Next came the tents and latrines; then supper and a night’s sleep, in as much security as might be expected in enemy territory.

Certainly, in Rome’s march across Italy and Sicily, Gaul, Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, Anatolia, and Syria, there had been fighting–terrifying ambushes, battles, and sieges. But the steady advance of these fortified Roman castra across a land always gave conquest the air of inevitability.

Once the battles had been fought and the military campaigns turned from conquest to pacification, the most strategic sites in the new territories were selected for permanent castra, with tall wooden palisades, huts, and even public baths. Then a second army of eagle-eyed Roman merchants flocked in, to provide for the troops and scout out local entrepreneurial opportunities–slaves, crafts and jewelry, agricultural produce, and metals. The army pacified, but the merchants romanized.

The camp was transformed into a city. Slaves built new walls, typically eight hundred yards on a side, stone-faced, and filled with a Roman innovation, concrete. The main streets were widened, lengthened, and resurfaced with stone. New streets were added, dividing the city into blocks called insulae (literally islands). Each block was eighty yards square and was bisected by an alley. Sites were marked out for forums–colonnaded public squares surrounded by temples, courts, schoolrooms, public recital halls, and libraries. Other sites were reserved for public toilets, markets, arenas and theaters, and especially for the centers of social life–the public baths.

Retiring legionaries were granted deeds for lots inside and farmland outside the new cities. Developers arrived with their craftsmen and slaves, buying up blocks and filling them with private houses and four-story apartment buildings, wood-framed, concrete-walled, and stuccoed. The ground floor fronts of these buildings held shops, often belonging to family chains–wine and snack shops, bakers, butchers, olive oil and charcoal dealers, potters, weavers and leatherworkers, tinsmiths, coppersmiths and ironmongers, carpenters, masons, and stonecutters. Wholesale warehouses rose near the gates for grain, wine, oil, and cement. Pottery works, making drain pipe and roof tiles, set up under the walls.

Meanwhile, more teams of slaves and (if the local tribes were subdued) legionaries built the highways, linking these new cities with the rest of the empire. Drainage ditches were cut and curb stones set, twenty feet apart for major roads, twelve for feeder routes. The soil between the curbs was then dug out several feet deep, and that ditch filled with layers of rock, stone, and gravel, cambered to let the rain run off. Important roads were eventually surfaced with smooth, cut stone, mortared in the gaps. But most level stretches remained packed gravel, their maintenance the responsibility of the nearest municipality that collected the road tolls.

The first purpose of the Roman roads was strategic, to permit rapid movement of the legions. So they took the shortest, straightest route, embankments raising them above marshy ground, but with little concern for the steep grades to be climbed by merchant wagons (though for important routes, short tunnels cut through ridge lines). Permanent bridges replaced boat bridges; stone and concrete piers were sunk into the riverbeds, connected by wooden or stone arches.

Thanks to these roads, a legion could easily average twenty miles a day, marching from Rome to Cologne on the Lower Rhine, over the Alps, in sixty-seven days; from Rome to Antioch in Syria in 124 days. Forced marches were much faster.

Post houses were built at twelve- to twenty-mile intervals for imperial messengers to change horses. Even in winter, express messengers could ride from the Lower Rhine to Rome, thirteen hundred miles, in nine days, though a routine dispatch might take a month. As political, commercial, and tourist travel grew in the provinces, these post houses were joined by public mansiones (hotels) and private taverns. Such sites, in turn, might grow into towns.

Early in the lives of these new cities, while their populations were small, work began on permanent water supplies. This required the engineering and organizational skills that underpinned Rome’s greatness. Water was channeled into the city by mighty aqueducts, fed by lakes and rivers up to sixty miles away. Multi-arched bridge-like structures carried the water over intervening ravines and river valleys, soaring high above the ground, while intervening hills were penetrated by tunnels. Where the aqueducts entered the cities, they spilled into large, brick-lined cisterns. From there, lead pipes, running under the sidewalks, carried the water to public fountains (for most Romans, the city’s more than six hundred public fountains were the source of their drinking and cooking water), to wealthier homes and to the marble-lined public toilets and baths.4

Some Christians shunned the baths because of their reputation for salaciousness and immodesty. The rich had their own baths, but the public baths were more than swimming pools. They were vital gathering places for gossip, discussion, and the exchange of ideas, open throughout the empire to all classes including women (in their own pools), children, and even slaves and foreigners upon payment of a few cents.5 They were comfortably furnished and decorated by the city’s wealthy families. Not only the water, but the walls and floors were heated. This feature alone accounted for the centrality of the baths for people whose own homes were so inadequately heated they wore overcoats indoors for much of the year. People could, and did, spend hours every day in them. Exercise courts, lecture halls, and shops sprang up around them, offering massages or beauty treatments.6

Sewage disposal was a marvel of Roman ingenuity. The toilets, baths, and private houses were connected by clay pipes to sewers under the sidewalks, and these, in turn, joined two or more tile-lined mains, often six feet in diameter. Supplemented by storm drains on each street, they were big enough to allow the maintenance workers (sometimes prisoners condemned to death) to row small boats through the pipes as the sewage flowed under the city walls and out to the nearest river. Household waste was less efficiently handled. Though some went into toilets flushing down the sewer lines beneath each street, some had to be hauled off in carts, and some, as recorded in surviving records of lawsuits, was unceremoniously dumped from windows.

Within a century of being founded, these new cities might have reached their stable size–perhaps twenty-five to fifty thousand people within the two-mile circuit of their walls–and they had all the conveniences of life. Their streets bustled. Their citizens gossiped, arranged business deals, and lounged in the baths. On feast days, marble temples sheltered their sacrifices. Local aristocrats sponsored public games in tall stone arenas and plays in their theaters. Legal actions were heard in local courts, and the births of citizens registered by public scribes.

What the local farms or mines couldn’t provide–iron, marble, lead, or wine–was imported, while local surpluses were exported by a network of entrepreneurs extending back to Rome itself.

Not all the empire’s cities had grown up in this orderly fashion. In the more populous and civilized East–Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt–the empire took the cities as it found them, adding a few baths and temples, and otherwise simply providing the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that knitted them into the imperial economy. But by the time the empire reached its natural limits at the end of the first century a.d., Gaul alone had sixty municipalities. Spain, Britain, fertile North Africa, Sicily, the Balkans, and Italy itself were laced with highways and jeweled with stone walls and marble temples.

Home to perhaps fifty million people, the empire has been called a federation of cities. Yet it was Roman. Provincials could win Roman citizenship and its legal advantages by military or civic service. And everyone paid the taxes needed to support the army, the government, and the slothful city of Rome–the last at a cost of perhaps ten percent of the empire’s gross domestic product.

Most of the population remained agricultural; farm technology was ox-and-plow, and farm workers were tenants or plantation slaves. Since the transportation system could only soften the local impact of drought and famine, these could still be devastating. But in the Mediterranean, shipping supplied the needs of Rome itself. In the second century, imperial largesse gave Roman plebeians–poor citizens, descendants of the long-gone independent farmers–not only freedom from taxes, but a daily grain ration. So between mid-March and mid-November, grain ships as large as twelve hundred tons plied from Egypt and North Africa to the nearby ports of Ostia and Puteoli.

Though the whole Mediterranean shore was Roman, shipping still needed navy galleys to protect it from freebooters, especially near Albania, Sardinia, and the Greek islands. The navy also protected the Channel crossing to Britain and the sea lanes to the allied Greek cities on the Black Sea. Shallow-draft squadrons patrolled the Rhine and Danube.

Rome itself, with its population of about one million, was a drain on the imperial economy, but it provided the empire with its leaders. By Marcus’s time, recruitment for the army had become ninety-five-percent provincial, but officers and provincial administrators were the sons of the Roman nobility, who began apprenticing at age fourteen. For Rome’s was a family culture, and the family extended far beyond husband, wife, and children. It included adopted children, poor relations, and the often well-educated, well-treated household slaves.

Each great family had a cloud of clients as well–lower-ranked citizens providing personal and political services, plus African, Spanish, or Greek artisans. The most economically important clients were freed slaves or their descendants, often wealthy entrepreneurs in their own right but still financially bound to their former masters. Many managed the family’s plantations and trading ventures far out in the provinces.7 These reported to the father, the paterfamilias, who must not run these enterprises himself, common trade being beneath his dignity. Even dirt-poor plebeians, ousted from the ancestral farms in earlier generations, felt it more dignified to live on the dole, than to lower themselves to the trades.

The paterfamilias was also the family’s jurist. When a youth “donned the toga” of an adult at fourteen, he was still totally subject to his father’s will. He could choose neither his career nor his wife, for a marriage was an alliance and could significantly alter, for good or ill, the family’s status. Adoptions were customary, both to give gifted children better prospects and to help great families find worthy heirs.

The paterfamilias had the power of life and death over the household’s women and children. A father who caught his daughter in adultery, even with a citizen, could legally kill the lover, provided he also killed the girl. Yet despite this dolorous patriarchal authority, the Roman treatment of women was curiously lenient, even indulgent. Women, freed from their fathers by marriage, could own property and inherit apart from their husbands. Marcus enacted a reform, permitting them to bequeath their wealth to their children, overriding other family claimants. Though women were barred from public office, the clever and dedicated wielded great political influence. In fact, for nearly a quarter of the third century, women largely ran the Roman empire (see Chapter 8). Wealthy widows were very free–so free they gained a reputation for profligacy.

The nobility often paid dearly for their ascendancy. In both Rome and the provincial cities, they were obliged to sponsor public spectacles like games, plays, religious feasts, even the construction of public buildings. Many, particularly in the provinces, were slowly ruined by these massive expenses, either slipping into poverty or becoming paid bureaucrats in the imperial service.

At Rome, the power of the great families, whose members were identified by the colored borders on their white togas, was exercised through the ancient six-hundred-member Senate and the two consuls it elected yearly. But the Senate’s power had been diluted since the days of the republic. Now the emperor controlled the army, appointed the governors for the frontier provinces, and could elevate worthy knights, foreign noblemen, and wealthy freedmen to senatorial rank. Though incredibly small, given the size of the empire, the senatorial class was the indispensable talent pool from which the emperor drew his military commanders and civil administrators.

The emperor himself was viewed as the father of the empire, the pater patriae. Though his real power depended on the loyalty of the army, he ruled by the legal fiction that he was both elected by the Senate and the natural or adopted heir of Caesar Augustus. Adoption into the imperial family as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius–“son of the deified Caesar”–often came after the untimely death of his predecessor.

By a.d. 161, Rome’s 913th year and the empire’s 192nd, Antoninus Pius had ruled this sprawling monument to human industry, ingenuity, and ambition for twenty-three peaceful years. For thirteen of those years, his carefully tutored and adopted son, Marcus Aurelius, had ruled with him. With characteristic genius, some said, Rome solved the problem of succession that dogged hereditary monarchies. The sitting emperor simply adopted the most promising successor. However, since Antoninus and his three predecessors had all died without natural heirs, they had little choice but to adopt, not out of genius, but necessity.

Marcus was one of the most promising ever. Though many facts of his life are obscure, his assessment of himself and the people around him are preserved in his book, Meditations, written in the last decade of his life as he campaigned on the Danube front. He was born on April 26, 121, the son of Annius Verus, a descendant of a noble Italian family that had made its fortune in Spain, and of Domitia Lucilla, an extremely wealthy Roman heiress.8 When Marcus was three, his father died, and the boy was adopted by his paternal grandfather, who had the same name. Almost nothing is known of his grandfather, except that he served the third of three terms as consul, a stellar distinction, when Marcus was five. Thus Marcus opens the Meditations:

From my grandfather Verus: the lessons of noble character and even temper.

From my father’s reputation and my memory of him: modesty and manliness.

From my mother: piety and bountifulness, to keep myself not only from doing

evil, but even from dwelling on evil thoughts.

Wealth and privilege did not spoil the young Marcus. He was “a solemn child from earliest infancy,” says an ancient biographer, and he was not robust; he endured chest and stomach ills his entire life. His early education was the best available, a combination of oratory and philosophy, studies in political discourse and moral perfection.

From my [childhood] tutor: not to become a partisan of . . . the races or gladiators; to bear pain and be content with little, to work with my own hands, to mind my own business, and be slow to listen to slander.

From [my teacher] Diognetus . . . to write philosophic dialogues in my boyhood, and to aspire to the camp-bed and the skin coverlet and other things which are part of Greek training.

In his young adulthood, Marcus’s teachers in Stoic philosophy were Apollonius of Chalcedon and Quintus Junius Rusticus, grandson of one of the “Stoic martyrs” who died resisting Domitian’s tyranny–and who himself sentenced Justin Martyr to death for being Christian. But his most influential oratory teacher was Marcus Cornelius Fronto, leader of the literary movement of the day, later consul (and author of the bitter denunciation of Christianity described in the preceding chapter).

From Rusticus: to realize the need for reform and treatment of character . . . to be accessible and easy to reconcile with those who provoke or offend. . . .

From Apollonius: moral freedom, not to expose oneself to the insecurity of fortune, to look (only) to reason, to be always the same, in sharp attacks of pain, in the loss of a child, in long illness. . . .

From Fronto: to observe how vile a thing is the malice, caprice and hypocrisy of absolutism.

A bust of the young Marcus shows a beardless youth, chin firm, lips full and slightly parted, eyes wide apart and deep-set, head covered in thick curls worn long over the forehead and ears: truly a solemn young man. Later busts and imperial coinage would show him prematurely aged, heavily bearded and weary.

Marcus attracted the attention of his uncle, the emperor Hadrian, very early. Cassius Dio reports that Marcus, “while still a boy, so pleased his many powerful and wealthy relations, that they all loved him.” When Marcus was sixteen, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius as son and heir, on condition that Antoninus himself adopt Marcus and a younger cousin, Lucius Verus, as his heirs. Their contemporaries speculated that Antoninus’s adoption was primarily a device to give Marcus time to come fully of age. Thus began Marcus’s life in the imperial household, an honor he did not cherish; in fact he listed the dangers it posed to anyone seeking virtue. “Do not be drenched in the purple dye,” he warned himself. Only an emperor was permitted the royal purple.

Still, duty was duty, and it came early. He was made consul at the unprecedented age of eighteen, and began attending imperial councils. At twenty-two, he became consul for the second time, a staggering distinction for one so young. By then, too, he was married to his cousin, Antoninus’s fifteen-year-old natural daughter, Faustina, and became for life what the Romans called uxorious, or excessively fond of his wife.

From the gods . . . that I preserved the flower of my youth and did not play the man before my time, but even delayed a little longer . . . that my wife is what she is, so obedient, so warm-hearted and so artless . . . for these things require the gods to help and Fortune’s hand.

At twenty-six, he was made Caesar, or junior emperor, and that year, Faustina bore him the first of what would be at least fourteen children, including two sets of twins. Only five would see adulthood, one of them the future emperor Commodus. Letters to and from his long-time teacher Fronto revealed his continuing deep grief at the deaths of his “chicks.”

As co-emperor, Marcus could divide his time between his administrative duties and his beloved philosophy. But his leisure carried a price. Moorish brigands were raiding into Mauretania and Spain, the Germans were restless on the Rhine-Danube frontier, Egypt was troubled, and the empire of Parthian Persia, based on the Iranian plateau, was again eyeing the Roman ally, Armenia. In his day, Hadrian had traveled continuously from Britain to Mesopotamia and back again, overseeing the borders. But Antoninus indulged his own passion for peace by never leaving Rome and its temples. Worse yet, he neglected Marcus’s advanced education and the empire’s security by never sending his adopted son to the frontiers.

From my father by adoption: gentleness and unshaken resolution in judgment. . . readiness to hear those who had anything to contribute to the public advantage; the desire to award every man according to desert.

In 161, after a brief illness, the aged Antoninus Pius died, mumbling angrily to himself about a “foreign king” playing him false, meaning the Parthian king of Persia. Now thirty-nine, Marcus was effectively ruler of the world. Yet surprisingly, he refused to accept the Senate’s election as Imperator and Pontifex Maximus–supreme priest–unless his adopted younger brother Lucius Verus was made co-emperor. Marcus had an unfeigned distaste for power, and only his training and Stoic philosophy impelled him to accept the office.

In accordance with a growing custom, the Senate elected Antoninus to divinity, his body was burned on a funeral pyre, an eagle was released to symbolize the ascent of his spirit to the gods, and a college of priests was chosen from the family’s closest friends to administer to the new cult of the Divus Antoninus. By now, deifying a newly deceased emperor had become a practical necessity. It conveyed the message: Rome is eternal. The empire never imposed this religion on its provincial cities; it didn’t need to. Worship of the Divi Augustus was the provinces’ most immediate bond to the capital.

The roots of Rome’s religion ran deep. From prehistoric times, the family worshiped its divine ancestors along with the sacred hearth, the holy fire at the center of the household. In the early days, the Roman was a farmer, and the family’s properties were marked by the ancestral tombs and sacred boundary stones. The family calendar was marked by rituals like feasts at the ancestral tombs, pouring milk and honey to the dead to keep them content in the underworld. The newborn child was formally introduced to the sacred hearth nine days after birth, the paterfamilias picking up the baby in front of the fire to acknowledge paternity. There were rites of purification and invocation (calling on a god), public processions marking sacred spaces, and ancient prayers promising an eventual, if vague, victory over death.

Gradually the great families and their clients coalesced into clans, and at the heart of each coalition was a calendar of feasts and rituals, honoring gods like father Jupiter, mother Juno, messenger Mercury, warrior Mars, smithy Vulcan. A Roman aristocrat was a priest, and a citizen was anyone admitted to the rites of Rome’s gods and the divine founders. All associations–political and social–were bound by oaths and defined first by their feasts, sacrifices, priesthood, and prayers. Ritual permeated everything. Three gods guarded the entrances to homes: Forculus the door, Cardea the hinges, and Limentius the threshold, and the devout greeted each in turn. Yet it was a religion without doctrines or creeds. As long as the rituals were observed, it didn’t much matter whether they represented some truth. The rite was what counted; that’s what held things together. Christianity was to reverse that order. The rite would be an expression of the doctrine.

With the fall of the republic and the gradual disappearance of independent citizen-farmers in the last two centuries before Christ, however, a great change began. The wealthy bought up the small farms and soon only they still revered the family gods. This left the plebeian citizens, the freedmen and the slaves, depending upon the distant civic gods and austere public sacrifices. The loss was real; most of the mysticism was gone from life.

Instead, there were the games, held forty times a year. For most, the games became the substitute for family piety, as they mutated from public sacrifices into orgiastic baths of human and animal blood. Blood-spattered gladiators became popular heroes. In the barbarian breakthrough of 170, Marcus had to draft gladiators into the army. Vainly, he offered ballet as a substitute, but his popularity plunged. The people wanted blood, not art. They also wanted magic, and an explosion of interest in astrology, Egyptian gods, and Asian mysticisms descended upon the city. Rome became a smorgasbord of different cults.

Officialdom struggled to control all this. When, in 186 b.c., the wine-soaked orgies of the god Bacchus got out of hand, 3,500 devotees were put to death. But Bacchus was an ancient god, one imprudent to neglect. So a century later, a toned-down version of the “Bacchanals” became acceptable. Likewise, the Egyptian cult of Isis, suspiciously attractive to the poor, was suppressed for over a century, before a tamer version was given a temple in Rome. Chaldean astrologers were expelled five times before they gained respectability.

Meanwhile, some of the aristocracy–those drawn to something beyond their own pleasures, anyway–committed themselves to “reason and duty,” as defined by one (or an eclectic mix) of the established schools of philosophy, particularly Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. Apart from atheistic Epicureanism, these all proposed some version of a single, impersonal, purely rational god, or Divine Reason–and even the Epicureans were willing, somewhat cynically, to engage in the public sacrifices. By Marcus’s time, Stoicism was favored. “Be content to make a very small step forward and reflect that even this is no trifle,” he writes. Founded by the Greek Zeno, the four-hundred-year-old Stoic school believed in a world that was in some way the life of a single, passionless deity. The good life, therefore, was a dispassionate one, a life of apathia, acting only according to reason and out of duty.

Hence, Marcus took very seriously the duties that Rome’s traditional religion imposed upon him as Pontifex Maximus. For major feasts, the emperor would lead the prayers and sacrifices–such as opening the jugular of a young white bull and catching its warm blood in a silver basin. Most of Rome’s two hundred such festivals did not require his personal attention, but he emphasized the priestly roles of all those in authority, from the paterfamilias, who was pontifex of the family, to the decurion, as pontifex of the provincial city, to the elected presidents of the trade fraternities into which the city’s artisans were organized, each of whom was pontifex of his collegia.

A priesthood conferred status, binding important families to public service, and therefore officialdom had a vested interest in the whole elaborate paraphernalia of pagan worship. Stirring a renewed interest in it was a means of encouraging a renewed public piety, a rebirth of public virtue, and a renewed public commitment to the empire itself. A major obstacle to this pagan rejuvenation, however, was Christianity. The Christians volubly denounced the entire pagan system as foolish superstition at best, demonic at worst. Almost a century earlier, Trajan had said that hunting Christians was “not in accordance with the spirit of the age.” But the age had changed. Trajan had reigned in an era of peace and prosperity. Now would begin the reign of Marcus, who faced ominous threats from the north, the west, and the east. The need was now urgent for the divine intervention of its gods.

Rome’s difficulties began almost immediately upon the accession of Marcus and Lucius Verus. In late 161, the “foreign king” against whom Antoninus had muttered angrily on his deathbed, the Parthian Vologases III, invaded Rome’s ally Armenia, and installed a cousin on its throne. The nearest provincial governor, Severianus, had invaded Persian territory with a single legion. Caught on the upper Euphrates, it was slaughtered, and Severianus committed suicide. Why had he embarked on such a foolish single-legion attack? Because, Rome later learned in disgust, a seer, one Alexander of Abonutichus, had told him that his horoscope assured him of a great victory. So much for astrology.9 By now Rome had a war on its hands.

The situation was sufficiently serious to merit an emperor’s intervention, and after deliberation, Marcus sent young Lucius to the eastern front. This might, he knew, solve more than the Persian problem. Lucius was, frankly, a dilettante, a playboy, an embarrassment to the new administration. “And so,” says an ancient biographer, “at least his immorality could not be carried on in the city . . . and he might return a reformed character through the fear inspired by warfare.” For the four years of the ensuing war, Marcus remained in Rome, fretting anxiously, spending long days reviewing legal cases as the empire’s last court of appeal, and watching his son, Antoninus, grow ill and die at the age of four.

Lucius’s generals–particularly the Syrian Avidius Cassius–acquitted themselves well in the Parthian War, putting a client king of Rome back on Armenia’s throne, temporarily occupying Persian Mesopotamia, burning Vologases’ palace at Ctesiphon, and forcing a peace treaty. So on his return in 166, Lucius was granted a formal triumph, a parade through Rome with wagonloads of booty, complete with shuffling prisoners and swaggering veterans of the victorious eastern army. If the war had sobered him, it wasn’t evident. Marcus spent five days living in Lucius’s villa, apparently to provide him with a sober example. Yet while Marcus diligently pursued his judicial responsibilities, Lucius partied.

Unfortunately, in addition to their booty, those veterans brought back the most severe plague recorded in antiquity, perhaps typhus, bubonic, or smallpox. The accounts of it are sparse but chilling. “Such great pestilence devastated all Italy, that everywhere estates, fields, and towns were left deserted, without cultivators or inhabitants, and relapsed into ruins and woodland,” says one account. It was probably an exaggeration, but only slightly. By 167, the pestilence had become most severe where the populace was most dense, notably in Rome itself and the camps of the army. The dead were carried away daily in carts, a scene that would be repeated again in the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, always with the implication that the end of the world was at hand.

The plague would continue for most of the next decade and delay for another four years Marcus’s long-planned conquest of Germany. Its chief victim was the army, the institution that more than any other embodied the organizational and technological genius that was Rome. Since Augustus’s day, it had normally numbered twenty-eight legions–sometimes more, as when Marcus raised two for Germany; sometimes less, as when Severianus lost one in the East. In Augustus’s time, the legions were stationed evenly about the empire. But now, the Rhine-Danube limes had drawn half of them–four on the Rhine, four in Bavaria and Austria, and six on the lower Danube. Britain needed another three–normally two, but there had been a rebellion early in Marcus’s reign that left Spain and Africa with three and the unstable East with just eight. Almost two dozen provinces without legions relied on noncitizen provincial regiments to suppress increasingly troublesome brigands.

Rome cared well for its soldiers. When legionaries retired after twenty-five years’ service, they were reckoned among the wealthier non-noble Romans. Their salary–three hundred denarii a year–was only five percent of that of a junior procurator who served as a provincial governor. But they received the same or more after an important victory, or at the succession of an emperor, gifts they frequently salted away until retirement when they often received a gift of land as well.

Those twenty-eight legions provided the empire’s mobile reserve. Yet with half their 140,000 infantry manning the stockades and patrols on the German frontier, little was left for the unexpected. Reinforcing different sectors consisted less in moving whole legions, and more in detaching small battle-groups, called vexillationes, from as far away as Syria. Though new legions (like Marcus’s Second and Third Italica) were traditionally raised in Italy, once they were stationed on a frontier, each five-thousand-man formation drew its three hundred yearly recruits (plus auxiliaries) from its resident province, which became its home. So, if three cohorts were detached from a Syrian legion and marched off to the Danube–twelve hundred miles in two months–they would expect to march home again when the campaign was over.

In the first century, the empire had reached its natural limits: to the south, the Sahara and Arabian Deserts; to the east, the ancient empire of Persia, now under the control of a Persian people known as the Parthians, with the buffer states of Mesopotamia and Armenia endlessly disputed; in the northeast, the lower Danube; in the northwest, the upper Danube, the Rhine, and Britain; in the west, the Atlantic. Only on the Danube and Rhine was there a large, threatening population, yet paradoxically, one too primitive to be conquered.

Rome had repeatedly tried to pacify Germany. In his day, Augustus had sent three legions under Verus to the apparently tranquil Weser Valley, only to lose them all in an ambush by the (as the Romans saw them) treacherous German allies. His successor, Tiberius, made a more modest effort with yet more modest results. Later still, Trajan had taken a half step, occupying Dacia, modern Romania, and thereby creating a great Romanian salient jutting two hundred miles north from the Danube; but that only subdued the tribes of the Dacian confederation, leaving the Marcomanni, the Quadi, and the Iazyge still pressing the limes. Now, sixty years later, Marcus would try again.

However, the central problem in conquering Germany was that there was nothing to conquer. Julius Caesar had conquered the Gauls in 60 b.c., and Claudius finally conquered the Britons in a.d. 50, but both Gaul and Britain had settled farming villages and market centers. The Germans planted their scant crops in forest clearings, and otherwise hunted game and raided their neighbors. When legions pushed across the frontier, the barbarians melted into the forest. Nor could trade goods pacify them; they had nothing to trade except slaves and few homes to hold Roman luxuries. All the Germans had was a growing population and a hunger for cleared, arable land.

Ten legions might do the job, by pushing clear through Germany to the Baltic and exterminating anyone unwilling to be enslaved. However, Rome had problems enough keeping its twenty-eight legions properly manned. Its total military establishment, perhaps five hundred thousand men, represented one percent of the empire’s total population. But most of that population consisted of agricultural people, often slaves, uninvolved in public life. Further, even before the plague, Marcus had difficulty finding competent commanders and administrators for the legions and provinces he already had. The fundamental obstacle was demographic: hopeless slaves don’t breed, and pampered aristocrats won’t.

Still, Marcus’s Stoic sense of duty demanded he do what he could. After a year presiding at special religious rituals for the plague, he and Lucius headed for the Danube in 168. It was Marcus’s first trip outside Italy, and what he found was appalling. Plague was still rampant among the legions. They would eventually accept even slaves as volunteers. In January 169, the pair headed back to Rome for the winter, to avoid being infected themselves. But on that return trip came another blow. Lucius suffered a stroke and died. Marcus was now alone.

Then tragedy struck again. Marcus’s seven-year-old son Annius Verus died from an ear tumor. Still, duty required that he return to the Danube. That’s when the disastrous breakthrough occurred. He wintered there in early 170, oversaw one of the largest concentrations of Roman might ever assembled, and presided over the opening of the spring offensive. The historical record of what followed testifies to the scale of the disaster.

It began with an absurdity, or so later generations would see it. The apparently indispensable Alexander of Abonutichus again consulted the stars and advised the army that victory was assured if they threw two lions into the Danube. The lions were procured from the south and pitched snarling and clawing into the river. Alas, they did not drown. Instead, they swam to the opposite bank, where the barbarians enthusiastically clubbed them to death, apparently mistaking them for some sort of wolf. Though it’s unclear how, the legions that followed the lions met with a similar fate. In what is described in one of the records as “the greatest of blows,” the army lost twenty thousand men, many or most of them captured. Within months, the Marcomanni horde broke through to the west, and the great disaster of 170 followed. Making things worse, the Costoboci broke through east of Dacia and invaded Greece. Marcus’s first watch on the Danube had begun as an infamous calamity.

Diligently, methodically, dispassionately, the student of Stoicism dealt with the problem. The Costoboci, weaker of the two invasions, after rampaging south through Macedonia, were encircled by a Roman force as they approached Athens and were exterminated. Sometime in 172, the Marcomanni, sated by their bloody invasion of Italy and finally driven out by the defenders, now sought to make their way home across the Danube. Marcus caught them at the crossing and wiped them out on the banks of the river. Even this, however, did little to pacify their cousins on the other side, particularly the troublesome Quadi. So, despite his losses, Marcus took his army over the river, beginning a series of punitive raids. This discouraged renewed invasions, but it did not bring peace, and Marcus would now spend the last eight years of his life discovering that the Danube War was essentially futile.

Large-scale raids could break up the most dangerous tribal concentrations, but anything like peace depended on purchasing the loyalty of the Germanic tribes, whom the Romans found chronically undependable. Toward this unattainable end, however, Marcus tirelessly strove, even negotiating the inclusion of whole barbarian units under their tribal chieftains within the Roman army, and allowing other clans to settle in the provinces, though not in Italy. It was a decision criticized by later historians as accelerating the fall of the empire and plunging western Europe into barbarism. Yet Marcus could reasonably consider the empire secure so long as the army remained loyal, and he had grounds for thinking it would. Those grounds were chiefly religious.

The army’s almost official religion was the worship of Mithras, the Unconquered One and Lord of Time, a Persian cult picked up by legionaries and spread through the empire. It dramatized the battle between good and evil, and promised salvation at death from evil, and oblivion to anyone not accepting its discipline. It combined awesome ceremonies–such as baptism in bull’s blood–with fellowship. It was welcomed by pragmatic Romans because it combined the rational deism of pagan philosophy with the polytheism of the traditional cults. Mithras was content to be worshiped under the names of Jupiter, Saturn, or Hercules. There was no Mithraic doctrine, no “Book of Mithras,” no historical prophet, no dedicated priesthood, and nothing for women. But Mithraism’s emphasis on discipline, together with its indifference to theology, made it the perfect political religion, and by Marcus’s time, it was becoming the empire’s most important cult.

Marcus’s life changed on the Danube. His many and rewarding years of philosophical study were now long behind him. Most of his children had died. His permanent residence was now an armed camp in a climate often inhospitably cold. All was now Stoic duty, whether as commander of the army or as chief jurist of the empire. Wherever his camp was pitched, a river of delegations began to flow toward him. Provincial governors were given wide latitude in preserving the peace, but they naturally referred difficult or interesting cases to him. “Whenever he had leisure from war, he gave judgment,” records Cassius Dio. “He engaged in most extensive inquiries and interrogations to determine the just solution . . . often spending eleven or twelve days on a case, judging into the night.”

Among the most troublesome cases were those that involved the Christians. That issue had gone beyond annoyance. Such disasters as the massive earthquake in Sardis, numerous local famines, and particularly the catastrophic plague, had evidenced the displeasure of the gods. So, anyway, the people believed. And what could displease the gods more than these “godless ones” refusing to sacrifice? Poets and scholars condemned Christianity as superstitious, or given to novelty, or criminally mischievous. The philosopher Celsus revealed in a widely published tract, True Reason, that Christians cheered the coming of the end of the world with an eternal fire that would consume everyone except Christians. And had not Marcus’s revered teacher Fronto denounced Christians as sexual perverts? Bureaucrats saw a threat to the Roman order they were sworn to defend. As for the people as a whole, their children were dead, their homes destroyed, and they were frequently hungry. What they wanted was vengeance.

Marcus found persecution distasteful, and early in his reign he had decreed that Christians not be hounded for causing natural disasters. However, like most of his class, he tried to reconcile philosophy’s hypothesis of a detached, impersonal god–“Divine Reason”–with the ancient pagan rituals, and even his philosophy suggested that the nature gods might be spiritual mediators between mankind and Divine Reason. Thus he sacrificed whole herds of animals in gratitude for his military victories and, passing through Greece in 177, eagerly sought initiation into the ancient Eleusian mysteries of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.

Such pagan obeisance by the emperor boded ill for the Christians, who recognized the hand of God in much of Stoic philosophy, but only the demonic in paganism. For his part, Marcus, in his writings, only once mentions the Christians. “How wonderful,” says the Meditations, “is that soul which is ready–if it must be at this very moment released from the body–either to be extinguished or scattered or survive. But this readiness must come from a deliberate decision and not out of sheer stubborn discipline like the Christians.”

Stubborn obstinacy, that’s all he could see in them. Thinking they knew what no one could know–what happens to the soul after death–they formed a disciplined, well-organized faction, withholding the traditional signs of loyalty. All they had to do for loyalty’s sake was burn that pinch of incense. Yet they refused. Apparently exasperated, Marcus issued a decree from the Danube that permitted the torture of Christians to death. More important, he refused to chastise provincial governors for excessive zeal in prosecuting the Christians, even when they violated their rights as Roman citizens. When their fate depended on him, Marcus would be lenient; but he would not interfere with noble Romans in their duty.

In an increasingly hostile climate, the simple absence of imperial protection was fatal to many Christians. Following the plague, major pogroms broke out in Smyrna, Lyon, Pontus, Palestine, Athens, and Crete. Particularly in Asia Minor, the mob was often incited by local Jews, eager to distance themselves from the Christians with whom many Romans still confused them. Victims who were Roman citizens might expect beheading; the less privileged were burned, crucified, or thrown to the beasts (see sidebar in preceding chapter).

Anti-Christian polemics like Celsus’s True Reason, Fronto’s denunciation of Christianity, or the works of Lucian of Samosata, were responses to a swelling stream of pro-Christian literature, coming from even relatively minor figures like Justin Martyr’s student Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Apollinarius of Hierapolis, and Miltiades. The very volume of the writing suggests there was a growing market for popular Christian philosophy. These works were often “open letters” to the emperor, but their readers were literate provincials. Christians saw paganism as far more a liability than an asset to the empire. They advanced themselves as loyal citizens.

As early as Hadrian’s reign, Quadratus of Athens wrote a letter to the emperor. Unlike the pagan gods, he argued, Jesus was historical and real, as were his miracles. Though Quadratus apparently delivered his appeal in person, the tolerant Hadrian did not have him arrested. Thirty years later, the Jewish-Christian Bishop Melito of Sardis appealed to Marcus for toleration of Christians. At the same time, he launched a bitter attack against the Jews for inciting anti-Christian violence in Asia. His work would long be cited as the beginning of Christian anti-Semitism.

A few years after that, the Christian Athenagoras took the now-dangerous step of seeking an audience with Marcus while the emperor passed through Athens. Largely ignoring the old anti-Christian slanders of incest and cannibalism, he concentrated instead on answering the charge of atheism. Not once, he said, had Christians joined in any provincial rebellions against the empire, yet they were the only group condemned for their name. “When we assert that he who ordered this universe is the One God, then incomprehensibly the law is brought against us.” But this faith may be viewed as the real fulfillment of the promise of pagan philosophy, he said. While in Athens, Marcus endowed chairs of Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, and Epicurean philosophy, but he had no time whatever for the Christian Athenagoras.

Even so, people in authority began to listen. They saw that where the outcome of paganism and Stoicism was ultimate futility, the Christians offered the empire hope–hope for a real community of rich and poor, hope for some purpose to history beyond the dreary rise and fall of empires, and above all, hope for something beyond the doors of death. It was an offer increasingly, and paradoxically, attractive to the educated and the privileged.

Marcus’s nineteen-year reign, both for himself and his empire, represented a marked decline from initial confidence to closing despair. While he was still a young man, his friend Aelius Aristides had written, “Wars have so far vanished as to be legendary affairs of the past.” The cities had nothing to do but to beautify themselves as lasting monuments to Rome and its gods. A generation later, all this was beginning to unravel.

Indeed, Marcus’s life had painfully fulfilled what his Stoic philosophy envisioned: cold duty, with no expectation of satisfaction and no consolations of the spirit in his final years. They were filled with disappointment. His most trusted and competent general rebelled and attempted to seize his throne. His own beloved wife, Faustina, was implicated in the rebellion. His sole surviving son, heir, and successor, Commodus, was a self-evident disappointment. The danger of the tribes on the Rhine-Danube limes was as ominous as ever. And though plague, earthquakes, and local famines had ignited a popular frenzy against Christianity, it persistently, mystically, kept on growing.

In 175, with no apparent instigation, the skilled commander of the Asian armies, Syrian Senator Avidius Cassius, announced Marcus Aurelius’s death and his own assumption of the imperial crown. Cassius was either badly misinformed, or the victim of a plot to make him overplay his hand. When it became clear that Marcus was still very much alive and commanding the Danube armies, Cassius’s situation was immediately hopeless. Despite Marcus’s promise of clemency, Cassius persisted in his rebellion until he was assassinated by a centurion, ending, it was said, “a dream of empire lasting three months and six days.”

Immediately upon Cassius’s death, loyal commanders in Asia burned all his records, apparently on Marcus’s orders, and the emperor forbade any investigation into the rebellion. The rumor immediately spread that, as Marcus had been more ill than usual, Faustina had assumed he was dying and pushed Cassius into rebellion as a protector for her own underage Commodus.

Be that as it may, later that same year Commodus received the toga virilis of manhood. The barbarian Iazyges were defeated, though not humbled, and came to terms, leaving the formidable Quadi neither humbled nor tamed. Marcus’s dearest Faustina, possibly pregnant, died unexpectedly at age forty-five during the rigors of Marcus’s brief post-rebellion tour of the Asian provinces. She was deified by the Senate, and the Syrian town of Halala where she died was renamed Faustinopolis.

On January 1, 177, Commodus was made Imperator Augustus, co-emperor, though the event could not have brought much joy to his father. As Cassius Dio candidly reported: “One thing most prevented Marcus from being happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way, he was vastly disappointed in him.” One oft-told story of Commodus’s youth typifies the general perception of him. He was said to have ordered a slave thrown into the furnace for allowing his bath to go lukewarm.10

“Reflect continually that all such things as happen now, also happened before, and on the fact that they will happen again,” the Stoic Marcus wrote in his Meditations, shortly before his death. Heartbreak was the inevitable price of leadership. “The whole drama . . . which you know from your own personal experience, the whole court of Hadrian, the whole court of Antoninus, and the whole court of Philip, Alexander, and Croesus. All these were similar. Only the actors were different.” Joyless, cheerless, hopeless, he dutifully longed for the painless oblivion of death.

Still, by 180, with the Danube war going as well as could be expected, he laid the plan to achieve the greatest goal of his life–the creation of two new provinces, Bohemia and Slovakia, both north of the Danube. The legions were to strike in the spring. But in March, Marcus fell ill, possibly with the plague. Realizing his end was near, he sent for Commodus, now eighteen, and begged him not to neglect the Danube war after his succession. Commodus replied that his first concern was his own health. So Marcus sent his son away, apparently to avoid the contagion. Over the next few days, the emperor stopped eating and drinking, and on March 17, 180, a month before his fifty-ninth birthday, the best and most powerful man of his age, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, pulled his cloak over his head and died.

Commodus returned to Rome, to a reign of lust, extravagance, and bloodshed, culminating in his assassination twelve years later. The Danube war was allowed to languish, and as Marcus foresaw, the day would one day come when the limes would collapse, the barbarians would flood the western empire, and, as later poets said, the lights of the world would go out.

Yet, within the bosom of Rome, there lay another kind of courage, born not of Stoicism but of hope. Four years after Marcus’s death, the aging Senator Apollonius was identified by a recreant slave as a closet Christian. For this service, both the slave’s legs were broken, the state’s usual penalty for an informer against a master. This, however, did not mitigate the charge. Was Apollonius yet another instance of a renegade member of Rome’s noble families who had treasonously allied himself to that crucified Jew? The prefect Perennis would have an answer, please. Christians, replied the senator, were taught to pray for the emperor. Would the senator then swear by the genius of the emperor? The senator would not. Perennis, a true Roman, respected courage, however ludicrous the cause. He would therefore submit Apollonius to the judgment of his peers and schedule a public hearing by senators, counselors, and philosophers.

Before this august assembly, the senator made his confession. Yes, he believed in Christ. Did not the worthy philosophers before him believe in “the divine logos?” Indeed they did, and so, too, did he. But he believed that this logos had been made into a man, became flesh, and dwelt among us. No longer, therefore, could he worship the gods, mere “corpses,” as his forefathers had. Neither would he make oath or burn incense to a supposedly divine emperor-god.

Furious, the assembly passed its sentence–death. Since Apollonius was a Roman citizen, it would be a merciful death by the sword. He went to that death with the same tranquil equanimity he had shown at his trial. Like Marcus, he died bravely. Unlike Marcus, he died in triumph, not in despair.

He also died alone. Persecution had not always been so selective. Seven years earlier, and some 450 miles to the northwest, the Christians of Lyon had likewise suffered Rome’s loathing of this new faith. But they died neither swiftly nor in solitude, but slowly, in degradation, and by the dozens, while the mob howled its approval.

This is the end of the Marcus Aurelius category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 101, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Marcus Aurelius from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at