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The Danube: Marcus Aurelius

The final victory in a 12-year campaign led by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius  (fig.1) at Vindobona (modern Vienna) over Germanic and Sarmatian tribes secured the borders of the Empire, and served to protect the Danubian frontier for some period of time. Ailing and approaching death, the emperor sent for his son Commodus, and there are some indications that Commodus may have had a hand in hastening his father’s death. According to Cassius Dio’s History of Rome (72:33-34; written ca. AD 230), the emperor’s demise was prematurely brought about by his physicians on the orders of Commodus (a story which forms the backdrop of the recent film Gladiator).

[Fig.1: Statue of Marcus Aurelius at Carnuntum Museum (© 1999 BFA Documentary Photography).]

With Romanization came a new social fabric, meshing barbarian tribes from the north and east with the institutions of Imperial settlements, providing access to the Empire’s commercial wealth and far-flung trading resources. Here the process initiated by Augustus and continued under later emperors from Hadrian to Caracalla paralleled that started by Caesar in Gaul in the 1st century BC. It also yielded its own literary masterpiece, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosophical treatise written in Danubian camps.

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