The last of the five good emperors, Marcus Aurelius, presided over the most majestic days of the Empire. Under Aurelius, whose reign lasted from 161-180 A.D., the sense of unity, and the reconciliation of peoples, was remarkable. Greek scholars studied Roman law at a great law school established by Rome in Syria. Provincial families, having risen generation by generation into the higher ranks of Roman society, were sending their members to serve in the Roman Senate. Yet at the same time there were ominous signs of change.
From Gold to Iron and Rust
In the last years of Marcus Aurelius’ reign, Rome’s borders on the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates were all endangered at once. Although it would be another 200 years before those borders were breached in any strength, Marcus Aurelius’ time was increasingly taken up with military matters. He was often at the frontiers, moving from camp to camp, personally leading his armies (and, between battles, finding time to write his enduring Meditations). The military campaigns eventually put a severe strain on the treasury and on civilian manpower. With so many men called up for service, provinces along the borders began to turn to barbarian peoples for help on their farm lands- leading to the appearance of barbarian settlements within Rome’s borders. And as a final portent of trouble, plague spread through the Empire.
Decline and Fall
The three centuries between the great age of Aurelius and the overwhelming of Rome by barbarians is often called the ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. But Romans who lived during those centuries did not know it was falling. To them, the business of empire went on as usual: petty tyrants paraded as emperors; rich men dressed in senatorial togas; Roman soldiers went forth to battle barbarians, even if they did it more for money than for the glory of Rome.
When Marcus Aurelius died in 180 A.D., probably of the plague, he was succeeded by the first of many tyrants, his own son Commodus. The famed historian Cassius Dio writes, “Our history now plunges, from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”