Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.50

Volker Grieb (ed.), Marc Aurel - Wege zu seiner Herrschaft.   Gutenberg:  Computus, 2017.  Pp. 480.  ISBN 9783940598271.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Erich Merkel (

This volume, consisting of nineteen articles (all German), came out of a conference held at the Helmut-Schmidt- Universität/Universität der Bundeswehr in Hamburg in 2011. Its goal is to examine the reign of Marcus Aurelius with as little reference as possible to his image, common among both the public and scholars, as a philosopher-emperor, which perspective, Grieb argues, has unduly monopolized historical analysis. Instead, the contributors seek to understand what roles Marcus played in the political, social, and economic context of his day, with a frequent emphasis on Machtpolitik. Over a wide range of topics, there are, as Grieb observes in the introduction, two common unifying themes: continuity and change. Continuity with the practice of previous emperors is emphasized to balance the common view of Marcus as a reforming philosopher-king, and to counter the sense of crisis that pervades the literature. Aspects of change include the institution of the co-emperorship with Verus, as well as Marcus' relations with intellectuals and Christians; on the whole, however, the contributors focus on continuity and on understanding the emperor in his historical context.

Taken together, these contributions represent an important and interesting work of scholarship that any classicist interested in the period will find valuable. The articles are all carefully sourced and well researched, with extensive citations and discussions of previous scholarship; the footnotes are of the expected Teutonic length, and the bibliography stretches to 44 pages. There is a heavy focus on physical evidence and material culture, which may be unfamiliar and so especially valuable to many philologists; coins, in particular, are discussed in almost every contribution. Accordingly, the volume contains a great number of pictures, graphs, and charts. The individual chapters have been carefully edited and generally paired well together, often referring to one another—although in one case the paired articles seem unaware of each other's existence. Most of the articles share a common viewpoint: they tend to undermine common conceptions about Marcus Aurelius, deemphasizing the influence of philosophy and recontextualizing him as just another emperor, working in the same sociopolitical environment as other emperors. Correspondingly, there is also frequent reference to propaganda and its use in legitimating the imperial regime. This is refreshing and necessary, but sometimes overdone: one contributor, for instance, comes close to the bold claim that all Antonine historiography is propaganda.1 Finally, it must be mentioned that there is a common and problematic reliance on the Historia Augusta, a source that historians writing about this period have no choice but to use, if cautiously; its fundamental unreliability, however, is rarely acknowledged here.

After a brief introduction by Grieb, the first chapter is Priwitzer, "Marc Aurel und der Doppelprinzipat". Here Priwitzer discusses a definite innovation: Marcus' elevation of Lucius Verus to co-Augustus, a first in Roman history. A survey of the scholarship shows that this fact has received surprisingly little attention, and the reasons given are often insufficient. Priwitzer finds an explanation in court politics and an attempt to pacify the “Ceionian faction”; similar, purely political reasons are given for the later elevation of Commodus. This chapter displays an impressive command of both the scholarship and primary sources, and is clearly and carefully argued.

Michels, "Usurpation und Prinzipatsordnung unter Antoninus Pius und Marc Aurel" endeavors to understand how the “Good” Emperors acted in response to conspiracies in the context of the behavior expected of them (Handlungsrahmen/Handlungsspielraum) by the nature of the Principate. In particular, they had to maintain the support of the senatorial elite, the urban populace, and the legions; how the emperors reacted to several plots is examined in light of these political necessities.

Speidel, "Der Philosoph als Imperator: Marc Aurel und das Militär," recognizes that, although Marcus was acknowledged as a philosopher in his own day, his role in military affairs was more important to contemporaries: thus in the equestrian statue from the Capitol and on coins he usually appears as a general. Even literary sources mostly praised his military exploits. Speidel, with a wide knowledge of the original sources and recent scholarship, argues that Marcus mainly strove to fulfill the expected role of an ideal general.

Sommer, "Des kleinen Kaisers großer Krieg: Lucius Verus, der Partherfeldzug und der Traum vom Römischen Frieden," is an analysis of Lucius Verus' conduct of the Parthian War. The scanty and often contradictory sources (Dio, the H.A., coins, even a Syriac chronicle) are carefully and insightfully sifted and compared with one another to give a reasonable reconstruction of the events and the political situation. This chapter is especially rich in maps and figures of coins.

Schäfer, "Der Kaiser als Feldherr: Kriege im Donauraum," parallel to the previous article (and indeed citing it), examines Marcus' own conduct during the wars with the Marcomanni. Marcus, despite a lack of military experience and probably of any soldierly inclination, went to the front when conditions required; there he skillfully directed the overall strategy, but wisely left his generals in charge of implementing tactics. Literary sources are again supplemented by archaeology and material culture.

Schipporeit, "Der Triumph in der Zeit der Antoninen," notes that, prior to Verus' joint triumph with Marcus over the Parthians, it had been 59 years since a living emperor had triumphed. Since Hadrian, however, the triumph had fallen into disuse; Pius seems to have merged triumphal imagery with the consulship.2 But Marcus, hearkening back to the joint triumph of Vespasian and Titus, reinstituted the triumph, first with Verus and then with Commodus, as a way to legitimate their positions.

Weiß, "Die Militärdiplome unter Marc Aurel und Commodus: Kontinuitäten und Brüche," and "Ein neues Diplom von Commodus für die Prätorianer und Stadtkohorten," are a pair of articles on the archaeology of the bronze diplomas given to retiring soldiers. The author compares finds from the reigns of Pius, Marcus, and Commodus, and notes interesting developments in the style of the diplomas and their frequency, and the implications thereof. The second article presents a previously unpublished diploma, with pictures of the find, the raw text, a reconstruction, and interpretations, which reveal some historical trends.

Meißner, "Geschichtsdenken, Geschichtsmetaphysik, Geschichtspragmatik in der Zeit Marc Aurels," examines ancient historiographical theory and developments under the Antonines, focusing on Fronto and Lucian. Background is given with quotations from Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Cicero. Surprisingly, the Cicero quoted is the De Oratore rather than the letter to Lucceius (Ad Fam. 5.12), nor is Pliny, Ep. 5.8 on writing history mentioned. The core of the chapter then focuses on Fronto's letter to Verus about the Parthian war, in which he makes use of historical exempla but asserts that Verus has surpassed them all; this is emphasized as a dramatic rupture in historiographical theory, rather than a standard rhetorical technique.3 Lucian's How to Write History, meanwhile, is more concerned with truth in the Thucydidean-Polybian mode. But both Fronto and Lucian, Meißner concludes, are in one sense propaganda, the difference being that, for Lucian, history must be true before it can be propaganda.

Horst, "Die Macht des Philosophenkaisers," tries to position Marcus' intellectualism within its historical context, namely the Second Sophistic; many misconceptions here are swept aside in a review of scholarship. Horst argues that paideia became a prerogative of the aristocracy, another arena in which they could compete, and that the emperors had to interact with them on this plane; Marcus did this well and set a trend.

Halfmann, "Marc Aurel und Herodes Atticus," could serve as a case study of the previous chapter: it analyzes the life of Herodes Atticus as a sophist-aristocrat and his (usually hostile) relations with other members of his class and with the emperor.

Ruffing, "Finanzpolitische und wirtschaftliche Maßnahmen unter Marc Aurel," examines the common view of Marcus' reign as a golden age followed by economic crisis and decline. It contains many graphs and charts, several on the weight of coins; Ruffing uses this data to argue against the belief that a decrease in silver content led to inflation. There is then a discussion of Marcus' tax and price reforms. Overall, the emperor's policies were conservative, and his reign was economically neither a crisis nor pivotal.

Mattern, "Bauten und Baupolitik Marc Aurels," covers Marcus' building program from the point of view of the stereotyped canon of imperial virtues. Under several headings—cura, pietas, virtus militaris, etc.—it discusses the known and hypothesized constructions in Rome and the provinces, and what each says about Marcus' Baupolitik.

Klinkott, "Parther-Pest-Pandora-Mythos: Katastrophen und ihre Bedeutung für die Regierungszeit von Marc Aurel," is another chapter countering the view of crisis, this time the Antonine Plague. Klinkott argues forcefully that the Plague was not, and was not seen as, an empire-wide catastrophe until much later; but later authors with their own agendas took up the topos of catastrophe as an imperial touchstone. Interestingly, it is argued that stereotypically good emperors have more catastrophes reported in the tradition, to show their virtue in responding.4 More work can be done here, especially on the later sources' motives and methods.

Koehn, "Tendenzen in der Gesetzgebung Marc Aurels am Beispiel des Erb- und Familienrechts," examines the traditional view of Marcus as a legal reformer in the context of inheritance law, specifically the senatus consultum Orfitianum; after a review of the scholarship and discussion of the legal intricacies, Koehn concludes that Marcus' reforms were essentially conservative.

Spickermann, "Kulte, Religion und Heiligtümer in der Zeit des Marc Aurel," reviews Marcus' religious activities, which are again essentially conservative (the only new trend being his promotion of the domus divina in the imperial cult), as well as religious imagery and mottos on coins and the rain miracle (Regenwunder) on Marcus' Column. None of the oft-mentioned conflict between his traditional praxis and philosophical monotheism is found.

Molthagen, "Die Verfolgung von Christen unter Marc Aurel," is the first of two chapters on the Christian persecutions. It begins by describing the traditional way of dealing with Christians, known from Pliny since Trajan. After a excellent review of the evidence, Molthagen arrives at the interesting and challenging conclusion that there was in fact no new widespread persecution under Marcus; that examples from Eusebius must be postdated to Decius; and that, in the Acts of Justin Martyr, the earliest recension of the text describes a process no different from that in Pliny. So thorough a revision merits closer attention.

Zilling, "Das Bild Marc Aurels in der christlichen Geschichtsschreibung," relates to the Christian tradition's depiction of Marcus. It is jarring to find Zilling, in the first paragraph, uncritically accepting the tradition of widespread persecutions that the previous chapter (which is not cited) so forcefully argued against. Much of the article focuses on the curious fact that Christian hagiography regarded Marcus as both wise and just—as almost a Christian!—and also as a persecutor.

Grieb, "Marc Aurels Selbstdarstellung im Porträt, Aelius Caesar und die Bärtigkeit des Imperators," takes aim at one more common conception: that the emperor's beard was philosophical. Rather than a mark of Hellenism or intellectualism, Grieb, comparing the coins of many emperors, argues that Marcus' beard was propaganda tying him to Aelius Caesar, and that the imperial beards were in fact a military fashion.

Overall, this volume brings a useful and stimulating perspective to the study of Antonine history.


1.   Meißner, p. 188.
2.   One problematic argument: on p. 127, Schipporeit makes a point of a coin depicting Marcus riding beside Pius in a chariot, but there is certainly no second figure visible.
3.   Cf. Pliny, Pan. 11, 13, 55; Plutarch, Timoleon 36, Flamininus 11.
4.   Using Klinkott's catastrophe-catalog, there is a respectable correlation of about 0.3 between 'good' emperors (if Hadrian is assumed to be good and Claudius bad) and number of catastrophes; but this vanishes if one takes into account length of reign, while years reigned and catastrophes have a huge ~0.8 correlation.

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