The period between 98 AD and 161 AD represented the apex of Roman power and the period from 193 AD to 284 AD was a period of outright administrative chaos. But the period in between was one of intense contradiction and the beginning of the long decline of the Roman Empire, a decline that would not culminate until the late 5th century. What to make of this 33 year period between the apex and the beginning of the fall?
Marcus Aurelius is a famous figure in European history. He was learned, philosophical emperor whose humanity is legendary. He also ended up making war throughout his reign and even though it was not acknowledged at the time his years as Emperor sowed the seeds for Rome's decline. Some of it was simply bad luck: After defeating the Parthians in AD 166, the Roman army returned west with the plague, and a percentage of the Roman population perished even in what were the best of times (unlike the plague of 1347-1348).
Marcus also faced the first full scale Barbarian threat to the northern frontier in well over a hundred years. This threat was a harbinger of the almost constant instability in what is now Germany from the mid 200s until the mid 400s. Marcus also left the empire to his incompetent son Commodus, who is regarded as one of the worst emperors in Roman history, after several successive emperors who had "adopted" a non blood line but capable successor.
The life of Marcus Aurelius is chronicled in the work of Anthony Birley, a historian. The work written in 1966 (when he was only 29) is an outstanding and timeless look at the contradictions in Marcus' reign and the successes of humanity he brought to the empire.
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