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April 26: Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius (121)

Marcus Aurelius

It was on this date, April 26, year 121, the 16th Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born Marcus Annius Verus, the son of Annius Verus and nephew of Emperor Antoninus Pius, who adopted him in 138. He became consul in 140, held various public offices between 140 and 161 and, as Emperor, made Lucius Verus his colleague. Marcus had the bad fortune to inherit the Empire during a dangerous age, when barbarians threatened the borders and the Pax Romana. Defenses sapped the finances of the state, and a plague, brought back to Rome by returning soldiers, sparked a mass descent into superstition, and even human sacrifice, to win back the favor of the gods. The Emperor’s generals subdued the Parthians, quelled a revolt among the tribes of Pannonia and won victories over the Marcomanni and the Quadi—all between 162 and 175.

It was after the victory over the Quadi that a curious Christian legend arose concerning Marcus, who had no sympathy at all for the new Christian cult, either before or since. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia and various later Christian apologist sources, we get the story of the Thundering Legion (Latin: Legio fulminata). In brief,

When the Emperor Marcus Aurelius led an expedition against the Quadi in 174, his army, exhausted by thirst, was on the point of falling an easy prey to the enemy. It was then that the soldiers of the Twelfth Legion, which was composed of Christians, prayed to their God for help. Forthwith a heavy thunderstorm arose, bringing the desired relief to the Romans, but terrifying and dispersing the barbarians. Hereupon the emperor issued a decree forbidding the persecution of the Christians and to the Twelfth Legion he gave the surname of fulminate, or fulminea, that is, "thundering."

Tertullian (c160-c225 CE) first mentions this story, which is picked up by the Christian polemicist Eusebius (260/265-339/340), who also cites Apollinaris of Hierapolis, a contemporary of Marcus, as an authority for the alleged miracle—though it is curious that authority for the story comes after its first report! Even the Catholic Encyclopedia walks a fine line between credulity and skepticism, but the supposed miracle has some factual flaws: First, the Twelfth Legion already had the name Legio fulminate at least a century before the miraculous incident. Second, although the thunderstorm itself appears to be well attested, the miraculous cause cannot be. As Thomas Paine would ask, rhetorically, many centuries later, “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie?” In other words, is it more likely that an air mass became so unstable that it overturned violently, or that Christian prayer caused rain? Third, there is no record of a predominantly Christian legion at that period of Roman history—indeed, the Christian cult was opposed to war for its first three centuries. Finally, the decree which Marcus Aurelius is said to have written to the Senate, in which he forbade the further persecution of the Christians, is the easiest to debunk: there was in fact increased persecution of Christians after the event. Indeed, some scholars point to a pagan origin of the story: an Egyptian magician named Arnuphis, presumably embedded with the legion, is said to have invoked “Mercury, who is in the air, and other spirits,” thereby precipitating the storm and causing the victory over the Quadi. It was a simple matter for Christians, as they have done for centuries with the legends and customs of their pagan forbears, to convert the story to a Christian invocation!

It was to Marcus that the Christian apologists Justin Martyr (103-165) and Athenagoras of Athens (133-190) defended Christianity. But Marcus had no patience with any kind of superstition, saying, “I learned from Diognetus not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers, and about the driving away of demons and such things.” It is instructive to note that the Christians had to defend themselves against the charge of atheism, not because they believed in no god, but because they believed in the wrong god(s)! Although Christian persecutions increased during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, in his time the handling of the insurgent Christian cult was treated as a local problem, so it is unclear how much, if any, Imperial direction the local officials received.

Marcus did not believe in immortality and, in his Meditations (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν), a collection of precepts of practical morality written in Greek, he conspicuously neglects the idea of a supreme being. Marcus Aurelius died at Vindobona (modern Vienna, Austria) on 17 March 180, though probably not as depicted in the 2002 film Gladiator. Marcus did, however, leave the Empire to the disastrously immoral Emperor Commodus. A man of gentle character and wide learning, Marcus left a legacy as one of the most characteristic of the Stoic-Epicurean philosophy. It is important to remember that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are still read today, but the apologetics of Justin and Athenagoras are not.

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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April 15: Leonardo da Vinci

This deathbed conversion, by so critical a thinker as Leonardo, who would have nothing to lose by professing piety all his life, can only mean that during his prime years he was a secret freethinker.

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