Marcus Aurelius, the celebrated Roman philosopher-emperor, was known by history as the last of the Five Good Emperors. He was reared in the Imperial court, and through a series of adoptions and marriages, was established as successor to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Rising to power in 161 A.D. at the age of 40, Marcus reigned for almost 20 years, his first six years as co-regent with Lucius Verus.
Marcus Aurelius' reign was characterised by bitter and near-continuous warfare. He also faced the financial weakening of the Empire, which he had to solve through extensive government reforms and, on a personal front, was betrothed to a notoriously unfaithful wife who bore him an unsuitable heir.
Aside from his political and military successes, however, Marcus Aurelius left a formidable legacy in the form of his diary, known today as the Meditations, but in his original writings headed simply 'To Myself'. Written in his later life while he was campaigning on the northern frontier, they demonstrated his adherence to the stoic school of ancient philosophy and his reverence for virtue and duty - to one's self and to others. He famously wrote in book VIII, 5, ‘The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature's law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man's nature demands; say what seems to you most just - though with courtesy, modesty and sincerity’ (quoted in C. Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors, London, 1995, p. 118).
Portraiture of Marcus reflects the advancing stages of his life. Representations of him as a young man show him with a full head of tousled curls, and gradually he acquires a wispy beard and moustache.
By the time Marcus was crowned Emperor, he is portrayed with the same halo of curls, but now with the full beard of a philosopher, complete with individual parallel curling locks, as visible here. This portrait can be categorized as Type 4 or the Capitoline Imperatori 38 Type. The present bust is probably after examples created between 170-180 A.D., toward the end of his principate, it portrays the mature and aging emperor. As Kleiner describes 'Portraits made at the end of Marcus's principate are extraordinary human documents because they not only incorporate the aging process but also mirror the state of mind of the philosopher-emperor. It is not surprising that the earliest instance of psychological penetration in Roman portraiture should coincide with the principate of a deep thinker thoroughly imbued with Stoic ideas' (Kleiner, Roman Sculpture, p. 271).