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Marcus Aurelius and Nero, two of the most recognizable names from the
long period of Roman prosperity now know as the Pax Romana. The two mens lives
were separated by almost one hundred years. Despite this fact, their childhoods are
strikingly similar. This however is apparently where their similarities end. Both
became emperors of Rome but their reigns were very different. Today Marcus
Aurelius is recognized as a philosopher king strived for peace but was required to
fight wars. In contrast, Nero is known as an irresponsible, immature artist who
burned Rome to the ground.
Nero and Marcus Aureliuss upbringings were strikingly alike. Both were
born into affluent families. Neros mother, Agrippina, was the great-granddaughter
of the great emperor Augustus. Augustuss family was well off and politically active.
As boys, both learned of Ancient Greece and philosophy from their tutors. The stoic
philosopher Seneca the Younger tutored Nero. His philosophic teachings apparently
did not make a big impact on Nero, who was more interested in the arts. Aurelius
was introduced to stoicism by Diognetus, an artist, and took immediately to its
ethics. He even went as far as to wear a Greek cloak and sleep on the cold ground.
While both emperors were born and educated under similar circumstances, their
personalities and interests clearly diverge.
Both emperors ascensions to the throne were very different. After the death
of her husband, Neros mother married her uncle, the emperor Claudius. She quickly
convinced him to allow Nero to marry his daughter and name Nero his successor.
Agrippina is believed to have poisoned and kill Claudius to allow Nero to become
emperor. Nero was only 17 when he ascended the throne. Marcus Aureliuss ascent
to the throne was comparatively slower. At 17 years old he was named the heir to
Emperor Pius Antonius. He then became a consul in the senate and slowly received
more political power. When his adoptive father died Aurelius became emperor and
chose to co-rule with his adoptive brother Verus. The difference between Aurelius
and Neros path to leadership is clear. Aurelius gained power slowly, and when he
eventually became emperor he decided to give some responsibility to another ruler.
Neros rise to power was quick and mostly the result of his mothers exploits. When
he became emperor he was immature and unready.
Both leaders reigns are recognizable today for vastly unlike reasons. In the
beginning of his reign Marcus Aurelius remained in Rome while his brother Verus
oversaw conflicts with the Parthians in the east. After defeating the Parthian empire
and Verus dying Aurelius was forced to go fight barbarians in the west. He
appointed his son Commodus co-ruler at this time and they continued fighting
Germanic tribes until Marcuss death. During his campaign Aurelius wrote his book
called Meditations about the philosophy of conflict. Neros reign had a totally
different tone. After becoming emperor he had his mother murdered for her trying
to influence Neros rule. After his mothers death Neros reign became tyrannical
and lavish. He spent much of the empires money to fund his artistic pursuits. He
even gave mediocre public performances. During his reign Rome experienced a
great fire that burned down more than half of the city. After the fire Nero raised
taxes and took money from temples to fund the construction of his estate, called the
Domus Aurea, on the ruins of the city. This led many to believe that he deliberately
started the fire. Shortly after the fire a revolt began against him. Not being able to do
the act himself, he had a servant kill him. Neros last words were What an artist the
world loses with me. Marcus Aureliuss reign was modest and quiet compared to
Neros seemingly flamboyant and corrupt rule.
Both emperors have legacys fitting of their reigns. Nero today is known as an
eccentric ruler. His artistic pastimes differentiated him thoroughly from any other
Roman emperor. His taking of state funds for his personal needs also solidifies him
as a selfish and irresponsible leader. While Nero is an icon of dishonor, Marcus is
almost the exact opposite. His early interest in stoicism and modesty make his title,
the Philosopher King fitting. It is quite ironic that during his reign, he, one of the
most noble and kind emperors of Rome, was forced to fight wars that kept him away
from his studies and completely fulfilling his stoic ideology. It is clear that Nero and
Marcus Aurelius were different in one way. Throughout his reign Nero wanted
more, more attention, more money and more control. Marcus Aurelius wanted less,
less conflict, less power and less fame.