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An Alternative History of the Roman Empire: The Last Years of Marcus Aurelius

By Tim Venning

Coins minted in the reign of Marcus Aurelius.

In the previous article, we looked at the events of 180 AD and the death of Marcus Aurelius of illness. What would happen if instead he survived? This article is about one possible scenario. There are others but we will limit ourselves to one possibility.

Upon recovering from his illness, there would be the inevitable rumours that doctors keen to ingratiate themselves with his bored and impatient son had not exactly done their best to help his recovery. Marcus' would therefore turn to his more trusted long-term family physicians, who would advise him that one more winter in the Central European cold would kill him. As a result he might make the most of the summer 180 to supervise the removal of more of the recalcitrant Marcomannian tribes and the building of the network of wooden Roman fortresses, roads, small towns, mining-settlements in the mountains to extract silver, and a fortified ‘limes’ of wooden barriers, forts and ditches across the Elbe gap in the north-western Carpathians and the Ostrava Gap further East. But, at the behest of the doctors, he would then return to Italy in autumn 180 with his son, leaving around three-quarters of his army to complete arrangements in the new province for another year.

By 181 however, the main forces would be withdrawn. Only three legions would be left there as a permanent garrison with Marius Maximus in command as governor. He could be succeeded within a few years by a rising ‘new man’ commander. Septimius Severus, from an ex-patriate Roman family living in Tripolitania (Libya), and a previous major success story of the war as a legionary commander would be the obvious choice. Tough, shrewd, unflappable and quite capable of brutality to terrorise the local tribesmen, Severus was among the younger officers recommended by the ‘high command’ around Marcus for senior command at the end of the war. Another success was his younger brother Septimius Geta who in this timeline is unlikely to be appointed to Sicily but would remain instead in Upper Moesia and Dacia in the mid-late 180s .

Away from the Austrian Winters, in this scenario Marcus Aurelius duly lived to April 190, dying aged 69, though for much of his last decade he would probably be a semi-invalid moving cautiously only between Rome, Tibur and Baiae. He would take on no more provincial tours, that job would be left to one or other of his sons-in-law under special grants of ‘imperium’ (legal authority to over-ride local governors) for specific commissions, aided by panels of ‘service nobility’ senators. But, given his military interests, he would still wish to overhaul the legionary commands in various provinces whose detachments to his Marcomannic war had not been up to standard in discipline or willingness to endure hardships, and sent in tough new commanders and above them new provincial governors to reinvigorate the ‘chain of command’ and weed out slackers and the over-indulgent. In doing so, however, he must make sure the troops were paid and given generous grants of land on their retirement so there was no excuse for mutiny. Praesens, the Father of Commodus' wife, would be an obvious choice to take charge of arranging the new appointments and moving some legions to new provinces in the mid-180s so they could not keep up local connections and live in a semi-civilian fashion, and parades and inter-unit military Games were organised to keep them busy. As a result, until Praesens died, he'd be seen as the military ‘supremo’ of the Empire under Marcus in terms of both overall strategy and appointments, and as a possible ‘Caesar’ under the weak-willed Commodus as the next Emperor.

Bruttia Crispina the daughter of Praesens and wife of Commodus. Photo taken by PierreSelim and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Among Praesens’ disciplinarian allies the most notable for future politics was the veteran Helvidius Pertinax (born 126), Emperor in both OTL and in this timeline. Pertinax was the self-made Italian provincial son of an ex-slave businessman who became governor of Britain in 184-7, where he faced a mutiny of under-employed soldiers at forts in Brigantian territory (Yorkshire). With Prasens in charge of the military he'd likely be able to deal with this more firmly and successfully than in reality, so then be transferred to Rome to advise the Praetorian Praefect rather than be forced to resign. This would make it likely he'd get a more notable job such as governor of Syria in 187-9 and City Praefect in 189-90. Though still disliked as a ‘provincial peasant’ and of servile origins by snobbish senators, Pertinax would be the most noticeable of a group of rising provincial meritocrats who Marcus intruded into the Senate as capable and reliable ‘new blood’ in the 180s. Though it was probably just over-suspiciousness by the more exclusive ‘old dynasties’ like the Quadrati and Quinctilii to imply that this was a deliberate ploy by Marcus or his palace bureaucrats to elbow them away from power and prestige – and hopes of the succession. Among Pertinax’s admirers and proteges might be Septimius Severus, who might serve under him in this scenario, and as Praefect he was admired and sought out for advice by Marcus as a man who would tell him the truth and not just what he hoped his master wanted to hear.

More on an ‘inner track’ as a member of the elite and senatorial connection as opposed to just an Imperial favourite was the wealthy Didius Julianus from Mediolanum, a former colleague of Pertinax in a suffect consulship in the mid-170s and related to a leading lawyer of Hadrian’s reign. He had proven to be a capable commander in the mid-170s German wars noted for promotion by the ‘high command’ for showing initiative. He was more of an administrator than a fighting general, and could elbow his way to prominence as a successful provincial governor (Asia Minor and North Africa ) in the 180s whose contacts at court kept him in the Imperial eye and provided future lucrative jobs.

Marcus’ continuing rule would also mean continuing commitment to his expensive new province of Marcomannia that OTL Emperors weren't willing to make. The income from the silver mines and cutting down forests would take the best part of a decade to start making a difference to the Imperial treasury, and would never paid for itself but it was a commitment Marcus thought needed for the Empire's security. This meant that he'd be able to complete the conquest and garrisoning of Marcomanni territory (Bohemia) in the early 180s and establish a firm and well-protected Carpathian frontier. Marcomannia would be divided into two provinces, East and West. The rising general Septimius Severus would be a good choice for governing the west in the late 180s or early 190s. One can imagine him putting down a local tribal revolt by counter attacking ambushes and driving off larger numbers of attackers,as he did in OTL battles. The semi-autonomous tribal kingdom of the Lazyges would survive between the middle Danube and Theiss. And, as they did elsewhere, the Romans would build wooden frontier walls and ditches to separate their territory from the Germans to the North and in the Beskids gaps between the western and central Carpathians. They'd also have forts in the Carpathian passes, linked by roads to the Danube with a frontier road running East to West along the South side of the Carpathians.

But what of Marcus’ lazy, nonintellectual and easily-influenced surviving son Commodus in a scenario where he does not become Emperor in 180? We can offer one scenario based on what we know of the characters involved. With more time for his family, Commodus might produce a Heir who he'd call Titus Aurelius (after his deceased twin), but he'd still soon bored with his wife. His fawning but shrewd chamberlain Saoterus, an ambitious freedman who clearly though the way to the goodwill of the future Emperor was to be a prolific pimp for him, would start providing mistresses for him. This rising tide of not-so-secret debauchery behind the austere and disapproving Marcus’ back would soon become gossip. You'd imagine it'd be duly reported to Commodus's sister Lucilla by her ‘toy-boy’ younger lover Quintianus, a cousin who had superseded her work-distracted husband in her affections and then Lucilla would tell Marcus. But, when confronted, Commodus would grovel theatrically before his father and promise to amend his ways, blaming his chamberlain, and so the result is that Marcus forgave him but executed Saoterus. As Heir Commodus would be on a much tighter leash than as Emperor.

Statue of Lucilla, depicted as the goddess Ceres

But, this means Lucilla would temporarily be in favour with her father and so be allowed to accompany an Imperial delegation to the Olympic Games in 184 as Marcus (too weak after chest problems to go across the choppy Adriatic himself) played up his Greek cultural enthusiasms in his new role as heir to Hadrian and she embarked on a ‘charm offensive’ in the Greek part of the Empire. Marcus himself might visit the nearer Sicily as part of the same effort, where he could tour famous sites of the Ancient Greek era and speak wistfully of the past intellectual glories of the local master-scientist Archimedes of Syracuse whose house there was made an Imperially-sponsored shrine. He might also recall the failed attempt of the ruthless but cultured tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse (died 367 BC) to get his spoilt and drunken son and heir Dionysius II reformed into a model ruler by the philosopher Plato as his tutor. Later history as a hint that he was losing confidence in the similarly spoilt Commodus to reform might play this up. One can imagine much later written reports of advisers saying to him on their tour of Dionysius‘ palace at the Ortygia citadel at Syracuse that Rome did not need the coups and wars of a new Dionysius II but the quick and peaceful transfer of power to a wiser successor, the equivalent of Dionysius II’s learned and honest uncle Dio. The account might even be so unsubtle as to say, when asked who could be Rome’s Dio, Marcus looked at a bust of the rising governor Pertinax (his eventual successor) and said ‘Maybe this man’. But this is likely to be a later imagination, he would not act on it at this point. Regardless, as a philosopher it is likely he would return to Sicily and spend summers there if his health allows. And much like he had set up new Imperially-funded lecturers in all the liberal arts at the Academy in Athens on a visit in 176 in OTL so he would do similarly at a new ‘Academy of Plato’ at Syracuse.

Soon Lucilla would be in turn exposed by courtiers keen to impress her alienated brother, her by now numerous affairs carefully recorded and presented to her father was told, and she ended up, as one court wit quipped, playing not the ‘new Livia’ as she had wanted but the ‘new Julia’ – banished by her father for adultery in 187, though to strict supervision at an estate in Sicily rather than to a small island. Commodus might now take up chariot-racing, one of his OTL hobbies, and be rumoured to be secretly training at his country estate as a gladiator too. His father would tolerate his racing and his huge equestrian stud-farm as less demeaning or immoral than his mistresses, and in 188 he might preside at the Olympics in turn, in Greek costume to match his sister, and then, given his tastes, go on an extravagant tour of Asia Minor and Syria. The Emperor would hope that his interest in military sport and the races and military Games which he was allowed to arrange on his tour would draw him back into liking military life and agreeing to lead a planned war to humiliate Parthia by annexing all of upper Mesopotamia around Nisibis, but he likely would not oblige. Commodus' lifestyle means he could easily die in an accident prior to 190 and his father's death. It is easy to imagine him perishing in a chariot-racing accident after drinking too much in a competition with his fellow-rakes. Marcia, Commodus' mistress and assassin in OTL, would thus be spared involvement in the squabbles for the throne and would therefore settle down as the wife of a senior official, out of the view of history.

In this scenario, Marcus would have no sons left. So he might turn to his son-in -law Pompeianus as his intended adult heir – the long-suffering and capable official would not have shared in Lucilla’s disgrace as he had been her victim rather than her supporter and so would have remained among the Imperial advisers. The idea would be for Pompeianus , despite his undistinguished family’s non-senatorial rank which still caused hostility from the older senatorial families to him, to act as a ‘stop-gap’ ruler after Marcus died until Commodus’ small son Titus was adult, as Antoninus Pius had ruled after Hadrian until the then teenage Marcus was older. But Pompeianus did not covet the throne as co-emperor and in effect senior ruler despite the urgings of his allies and in particular the foes of the Quinctilii, who now saw their chance to stand as the candidates of the ‘old’ aristocracy and block Pompeianus . The senatorial families in Rome were also afraid of a ‘new man’ general assuming the throne given the priority of constant military watchfulness for a new German or Parthian war, and their main fear was of Praesens as grandfather to the next, probably under-age emperor (Titus) once Commodus died; but in this scenario lets assume Praesens died before Marcus, in late summer 190. Marcus’ other senior military commanders from the mid-late 170s, Marcus Valerius Maximianus (governor of Rhaetia in the late 170s and consul in 184 ) and Aufidius Victorinus (governor of Mauretania in the mid-170s and of Cappadocia in 180-3 then consul in 185) were also spoken of as ‘dark horse’ candidates to succeed Marcus and had some senatorial support but, likewise, they might predecease him.

This is essentially the concept of the scenario explored in this essay. That by delaying Marcus' death ten years, most of the people who'd be his natural successors would themselves have died. Being the Heir to the Roman Empire was always a dangerous position.

In this scenario, therefore before Marcus died in September 190 he would chose as the next co-emperor with his grandson Titus the most worthy and disciplinarian man among his senior generals in the 180s - Helvius Pertinax, ex-governor of Britain and current Praefect of Rome, aged 64, who Marcus trusted for his traditionalist morals and strict personal probity. Didius Julianus, Pertinax’s fellow-consul in 175, would make a play for the heirship as a court favourite, being able to marry his son off to a daughter of one of the Quinctilii in 188 in an alliance against Praesens, but Marcus would rule him out as living in too lavish a manner and for the rumours of financial chicanery surrounding him. Pertinax would be made ‘Caesar’ on the spot when summoned to see the sick Marcus at the Palace, invested as such by the Senate, and when Marcus died three weeks later, become ‘Augustus’ . From then it's easy to see the boy-emperor Titus Antoninus dying early, the dynasty ending and him left as sole Emperor. Indeed, apart from Titus being named first in official documents and required to attend various annual religious ceremonies and the Games in Rome the boy-emperor had made no impact on the Empire and had mostly lived in suburban villas with his mother and tutors while his colleague got on with the business of governing. Pertinax continued the line of ‘Six Good Emperors’ (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, Marcus, Pertinax), all adoptive not hereditary as the philosophers around Marcus enthused – but he was not interested in philosophy himself and as a brusque ‘non-nonsense’ administrator he soon sent them all packing from the palace as a waste of money. With a smooth succession and no regicide in 192 (as in real life), the Guard did not revolt despite Pertinax’s stern reductions of expenditure and privileges for them. The recalled Lucilla tried to meddle with them and was banished again, to an isolated island off Majorca this time.

Having described a possible way to avoid the tyranny of 180-92 and the Year of the Five Emperors, we will examine in the next article what a Pertinax reign that lasted longer than a couple of months would look like.


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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