Roman Emperor, A.D. 161-180, born at Rome, 26 April, 121; died 17 March, 180. His father died while Marcus was yet a boy, and he was adopted by his grandfather, Annius Verus. In the first pages of his "Meditations" he has left us an account, unique in antiquity, of his education by near relatives and by tutors of distinction; diligence, gratitude and hardiness seem to have been its chief characteristics. From his earliest years he enjoyed the friendship and patronage on the Emperor Hadrian, who bestowed on him the honor of the equestrian order when he was only six years old, made him a member of the Salian priesthood at eight, and compelled Antoninus Pius immediately after his own adoption to adopt as sons and heirs both the young Marcus and Ceionius Commodus, known later as the Emperor Lucius Verus. In honor of his adopted father he changed his name from M. Julius Aurelius Verus to M. Aurelius Antoninus. By the will of Hadrian he espoused Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus Pius. He was raised to the consularship in 140, and in 147 received the "tribunician power".
His co-reign with Lucius Verus was between 161and 169. After death of Lucius Verus in 169 he reigned alone till his death in 180. He was a great philosopher. Niebuhr calls him the noblest character of his time. It is true that the most marked trait in his character was his devotion to philosophy and letters. Philosophy became a disease in his mind and cut him off from the truths of practical life. He was steeped in the grossest superstition; he surrounded himself with charlatans and magicians. The highest offices in the empire were sometimes conferred on his philosophic teachers, whose lectures he attended even after he became emperor. In the midst of the Parthian war he found time to keep a kind of private diary, his famous "Meditations", or twelve short books of detached thoughts and sentences in which he gave over to posterity the results of a rigorous self-examination.
In his dealings with the Christians, Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians has that outlined in Trajan's prescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcoming. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial prescript inaugurated an entirely new and much more violent era of persecution (Eusabius). In Asia Minor and in Syria the blood of Christians flowed in torrents. In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived. It seems more probable that the "new decrees" mentioned by Eusebius were local ordinances of municipal authorities or provincial governors; as to the emperor, he maintained against the Christians the existing legislation, though it has been argued that the imperial edict against those who terrify by superstition "the fickle minds of men" was directed against the Christian society. It is clear, however, from the scattered references in contemporary writings (Celsus, Origen. Contra Celsum", Melito, in Eusabius; Athenagoras, "Legatio pro Christianis",) that throughout the empire an active pursuit of the Christians was now undertaken. In order to encourage their numerous enemies, the ban was raised from the delatores, or "denouncers", and they were promised rewards for all cases of successful conviction. The impulse given by this legislation to an unrelenting pursuit of the followers of Christ rendered their condition so precarious that many changes in ecclesiastical organization and discipline date, at least in embryo, from this reign.
Another significant fact, pointing to the growing numbers and influence of the Christians, and the increasing distrust on the part of the imperial authorities and the cultured classes, is that an active literary propaganda, emanating from the imperial surrounding, was commenced at this period. The Cynic philosopher Crescens took part in a public disputation with St. Justin in Rome. Fronto, the preceptor and bosom friend of Marcus Aurelius, denounced the followers of the new religion in a formal discourse and the satirist Lucian of Samosata turned the shafts of his wit against them, as a party of ignorant fanatics. No better proof the tone of the period and of the widespread knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices which prevailed among the pagans is needed than the contemporary "True Word" of Celsus (ORIGEN), a work in which were collected all the calumnies of pagan malice and all the arguments, set forth with the skill of the trained rhetorician, which the philosophy and experience of the pagan world could muster against the new creed. The earnestness and frequency with which the Christians replied to these assaults by the apologetic works (ATHENAGORAS, MINUClUS FELIX, THEOPHILUS OF ANTIOCH) addressed directly to the emperors themselves, or to the people at large, show how keenly alive they were to the dangers arising from these literary or academic foes.
From such and so many causes it is not surprising that Christian blood flowed freely in all parts of the empire. The excited populace saw in the misery and bloodshed of the period a proof that the gods were angered by the toleration accorded to the Christians, consequently, they threw on the latter all blame for the incredible public calamities. Whether it was famine or pestilence, drought or floods, the cry was the same (Tertullian, "Apologeticum", V, xli): Christianos ad leonem (Throw the Christians to the lion). The pages of the Apologists show how frequently the Christians were condemned and what penalties they had to endure, and these vague and general references are confirmed by some contemporary "Acta" of unquestionable authority, in which the harrowing scenes are described in all their gruesome details. Among them are the "Acta" of Justin and his companions who suffered at Rome (165), of Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonica, who were put to death in Asia Minor, of the Scillitan Martyrs in Numidia, and the touching Letters of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne in which is contained the description of the tortures inflicted on Blandina and her companions at Lyons. Incidentally, this document throws much light on the character and extent of the persecution of the Christians in Southern Gaul, and on the share of the emperor therein.