Marcus Aurelius’ Reign Was Forever Ruined By A Plague That Did More Damage To Rome Than Any Barbarian Tribe..

by Daniel Russ on March 26, 2014

Citizens Collapsing


Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were brothers, both had been plucked from aristocratic families by the Roman Oligarch Antonius Pius. It was not a favor Pius was doing. He was following strict missives issued by Hadrian, the Emperor, and these were conditions upon which rested Pius as his choice as successor.  Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were to adopted and raised in the royalty. They might have been blood relatives but they were diametrically opposite people. Marcus was the intellectual man, the man of letters. Lucius Verus was the man of vigor and sexuality.


It was 161 A.D. when they ruled.  Rome had been at peace for over a century. Other than expeditionary excursions at the periphery of the empire, Rome was prospering. Peace was robust, and treaties were holding near the capital with anyone who would otherwise be at odds with a monarchical super power. But Rome stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia. It stretched from northern Europe to North Africa. So in many ways they had gotten soft. Throughout the age of Rome, pecking at their heels were outsiders. Barbarians. Many times the Romans pushed Germanic tribe sour of their territory, other times they assimilated them into Roman culture, including auxiliaries legions serving in the Roman army.


The Parthians, a horse borne nomadic tribe from the Black Sea area had begun to forage and pillage and expand into Roman territories. Parthian troops began to attack Roman garrisons in Syria, a distinctly pro Roman province .


Pius had given his daughter Faustina to Marcus Aurelius as his wife. That made Marcus the senior Emperor. Marcus was an organized leader and saw no need to take an arrow and prove himself. It was Marcus really who sent his brother Lucius Verus to take care of the Parthians. For the first time in almost 150 years a Roman Emperor lead troops into battle. Lucius Verus set up a headquarters in Antioch.  The Parthians were truly frightening Rome, and knocking down one legion after another. He sent a veteran Roman console, Avidus Cassius to take the fight to the fearsome Parthians.


Cassius Avidus was not just a Roman officer, he was Syrian himself. He understood the ground, the people and the methods of fighting. He was a great ground commander, but he was also a ruthless precept, and his subjects hated and feared him. For Marcus, perfect. From 162 ad two 165 A.D. the Romans plundered Parthian villages the pushed them all the way back to the capital: Ctesiphon. In 196 AD the Romans did more than plunder the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, they razed his temples.


Despite the story of Christianity, the 800 year Roman Republic and Empire was mostly tolerant of other religions. It was only when Christianity became a political statement that the Romans were threatened. It was an aberration when Romans defaced religious iconography and temples of other creeds. Perhaps the plundering of temples in Ctesiphon must have been bad luck.


The Roman army also contracted the plague and brought it back to Rome.


When Lucius Verus returned to Rome there was a Triumph, a massive celebration that feted the win. This was the first Triumph that Rome had seen in centuries, and the win was big enough to make this a once in a lifetime event for many Roman citizens at the time. Plundered loot was on display as were live prisoners who were later cut down by Roman soldiers on the way. This win over the Parthians had depleted Roman troops so badly that Germanic tribes were beginning to waylay undermanned Roman garrisons. These Germans were a far cry from the men who burst out of the Teuterborg Forest and decimated three legions a century and half prior. These German troops were much more sophisticated much better armed much better fighters then the first German troops that the rooms came across in the second century BC. They were using purloined Roman armor and weapons.


The plague itself was probably a form of measles or some pox. It was called the Antonine Plague and killed as much as a third of some populations. What it really did was destroy the Roman Army. It did more damage than any of the raiding tribespeople would. Verus then had to return to the Roman province known as Pannonia (today this is in the Balkans) to crush another Parthian uprising. He died of the plague on the way in 167 AD.


It was left to his brother Marcus Aurelius to push the Marcomanni back across the Danube River. The counter offensive he planned had to be delayed for two years because there was a severe shortage of Imperial troops at hand.


Not to worry though. The plague killed enough Germanic tribesmen that by 185 AD the Romans finally outnumbered them in the field.





Marcus Aurelius


sources: Polybius, History of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1 J. B. Bury · Dover Publications, The FDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbons. Penguin Classics.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jrj1701 March 29, 2014 at 7:50 am

This is something that many do not consider, that it was not just a simple answer to what felled Rome and destroyed the Roman Empire. There were many factors and these all had a role in killing the Roman Empire. Another reason why polemic arguments tend to lead away from the truth. Thank you for your post.

Louis October 6, 2017 at 4:37 am

“Rome had been at peace for over a century”. A century of peace? And the whole Jewish revolt, which took three legions (almost 10% of the available military power of the empire) to crush, the invasion, and subsequent romanisation, of Dacia (also with more then 3 legions, and lots of auxilia) and the eternal squabbles over Armenia, not to mention problems with the Mauretanians in North Africa? Yes, in light of the preceding century, and the following ones, it was relatively peacefull, but I doubt the doors of the temple of Janus were closed for the whole of the century.

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