Today marks the anniversary of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, a few days after the 19th anniversary of his accession to the throne. His reign is traditionally grouped with that of his four predecessors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius), going back to the year 96, as the period of the Five Good Emperors; this is a historiographic conceit of the later Italian Renaissance, of Machiavelli specifically, and reinforced by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, one that has long outlasted its usefulness. It is fair to say, however, that his reign marks the end of a long period of relative peace for the Roman Empire; he himself spent a good part of his reign commanding troops on the German frontier to push back new waves of barbarian invaders. It is also fair to say that the accession to the throne of his son and successor Commodus represented as much of a decline for the Antonine dynasty as Nero had for the Julio-Claudian.
One of the most famous monuments in Rome today is the large bronze equestrian statue of him which sits in the middle of the main plaza on Capitoline Hill. This is the only one of its kind that now survives, although we know of the existence of several others from literary sources and images on coins. Its original location in Rome is unknown, as is the precise time of its making, whether towards the end of the emperor’s life, when he had successfully halted (for a time) further incursions into the empire, or after his death and divinization. Sometime in the 8th century, for reasons also unknown, it was moved to an area very near the cathedral of Rome, which is traditionally called “St John in the Lateran”, but officially, the archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior.
In the Middle Ages, for lack of any other source for most metals, it was common practice to recycle them from ancient Roman objects of various kinds. Hence, the numerous other equestrian statues in Rome and other Italian cities were almost all destroyed, although fragments of some of them have survived. The statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran, however, was preserved because it was believed to be an image of Constantine, the liberator and great benefactor of the Church, who had donated the property and palace of the Lateran to become the cathedral of Rome and the first official Papal residence.
By the end of the 15th century, scholars had come to realize that the statue could not be of Constantine, since the figure is bearded, whereas other surviving images of Constantine, including a colossal marble head now on display in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums, always show him clean-shaven. It was rather Marcus Aurelius who wore the beard which was one of the marks of a philosopher, and indeed, he is also known to posterity as the last writer of the Stoic school, although his Meditations were not intended for publication, and are really more of a private, philosophical diary.
In 1538, as part of a complete reorganization of the Capitoline Hill, Pope Paul III had Michelangelo bring the statue there from the Lateran and set it up in the middle of the new piazza that now dominates the place. This decision may have been motivated at least in part by the fact that persecution of the Church intensified notably in Marcus Aurelius’ reign, although it very much debatable whether or to what degree he was personally responsible for this. It remained there until 1981, when it was removed for preservation reasons, and has now been replaced on its pedestal by an exact copy. The original stands in its own room, along with several other fragmentary bronzes, in the Capitoline Museums. When it was first made, it was completely gilded, but the gilding has largely worn off, and the bronze is now oxidized, and hence green. A popular tradition in Rome would have it that when all of the gilding is finally worn off, the horse will speak, and the world will end; this has now been staved off for a good long while by its being kept indoors.
Although, as noted above, the majority of equestrian statues were destroyed by medieval recycling, there was another that survived much closer to our own time, in the northern Italian city of Pavia, known as the “Regisole – the Sun King.” Its age and subject are unknown; Petrarch expressed his admiration of it in a letter to Boccaccio, and a drawing of it by Leonardo da Vinci survives. Sadly, as an image of a monarch, it was destroyed by Jacobins in 1796, and it is now represented by a copy based on the various drawings of it.
(The reconstructed Regisole in front of the cathedral of Pavia; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)