Historic Date Meets Russell Crowe Movie (Because It’s Not JUST St. Patrick’s Day Today)

I always enjoy it when real life and history touches upon one of Crowe’s movies. Today is no exception.

While the seventeenth of March is better known among many as being Saint Patrick’s Day in honor of the legendary Irish saint, it is also a historic date for those interested in the latter years of the Roman Empire.

On this date in 180 A.D. or Common Era, this follower of Stoicism; warrior; ‘philosopher-king’ (a nickname acquired during his life), the author of Meditations, and considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” died in Vindobona (modern Vienna).

The biological son of the distinguished Marcus Annius Verus and the noblewoman Domitia Lucilla Minor, and later adopted by his grandfather Emperor Antoninus Pius, whom he succeeded, he was known by several names at birth and throughout his youth.

Marcus Annius Verus…Marcus Annius Catilius Severus…Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus

He is better known to history as Marcus Aurelius.

        A bust of Marcus Aurelius, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

He had complained of stomach and chest pains for years (http://www.roman-empire.net/highpoint/marcaurelius.html), therefore his death may not have come as a surprise. There is no viable evidence he was murdered, despite the dramatic portrayal in the Oscar winning Best Picture Gladiator, when we watch erratic son Commodus suffocate the Emperor by ‘hugging’ him to death upon learning he won’t be made declared Caesar.

Which means we need to link one of the most well-known scenes from the movie. It’s stunning to watch two great actors play off one another as well as Joaquin Phoenix and Richard Harris do:

I love how one reference puts it and will quote them here in response to the question ‘Was Marcus Aurelius murdered by his son?’

But – apart from in movies – it’s hard to find serious references to the alleged murder.

Most writers simply brush over the death by saying Marcus “caught some disease” (seriously – “some” disease).

History Today’s Richard Cavendish says Marcus’s end came when he “caught smallpox and then starved himself to death at the age of 58”.

He does not mention a motive for this sudden self-starving, but says the emperor’s reign was remembered as a “golden age”.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica simply says Marcus died at his military headquarters, having “just had time to commend Commodus to the chief advisers of the regime”.

All these slightly odd explanations could add up to something suspicious, but the historical consensus seems to be that the old (by Roman life expectancies) fella popped his clogs of natural causes.


And for the record, Commodus had served as his father’s co-Emperor/joint Emperor since 177. Marcus had named his son Caesar in 166, approximately fourteen years prior to his death!

Not saying any of that would have prevented Commodus deciding he’d waited long enough for daddy to finally leave this Earth. It certainly does make for a powerful movie scene, but we’ll try to stick with what evidence we have.

Marcus Aurelius was deified and his ashes were secured in Hadrian’s mausoleum (the modern-day Castel Sant Angelo, which we’ve mentioned in previous posts). There the ashes remained until 410 when the Visigoth sacked Rome.

In the movies, he has been portrayed by not only Harris, but the great Sir Alec Guinness in The Fall of the Roman Empire.

     Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius in ‘Gladiator’

Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Marcus Aurelius in ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’

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