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Revolt of Avidius Cassius during reign of Marcus Aurelius

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) is considered one of the best, if not the best emperor of Rome. Called the “philosopher on the throne” he conducted prudent rule in a spirit of stoicism, respecting the senate. In 175 CE there was a rebellion of Avidius Cassius – his trusted general – which was a big shock for the Romans.

Avidius Cassius

Avidius Cassius was born around 130 CE. He began his political and military career during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE). He took the office of quaestor (he was responsible for financial affairs) in 154 CE so that at the end of Antonius Pius’s rule he would become a legion of the legion in Mezja, in order to protect the province against the Sarmatians.

During the rule of Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, he served in the war with the Parthians as a legate of the III Gallica legion. Avidius Cassius proved his commanding skills by defeating the Parthians at Dura-Europos around 164 CE and conquering the cities of Selution and Ctesiphon. For his achievements, Cassius was included on senatorial lists.

In 166 CE, under the general command of co-communist Lucius Werus, Cassius, led by one of the legions, took part in another campaign against the Party. Roman victories caused rumours that Cassius crossed the Indus River, which was not true but emphasized the admiration of Roman society for his skill.

At the end of 166 CE, Cassius became the legatus Augusti pro praetore, an imperial representative in Syria. In around 170 CE (after the death of Lucius Verus) there was a revolt in Central Egypt, where residents revolted against large increases in grain prices. During the revolt, called the “Bucoli war”, Cassius received the title of Rector Orientis (can be translated as “Supreme Commander of the Orient”), which in practice gave him imperium and great power in the Eastern provinces of the Empire. Within 5 years he stifled the rebellion, taking advantage of the divisions and the gradual destruction of subsequent troops.


Faustina the Younger

In mid-CE 175, Avidius Cassius received false reports saying that Marcus Aurelius had died of a disease (the so-called Antonine plague) which was brought by Roman troops returning from the war with Parthians. Upon hearing this, Cassius proclaimed himself emperor and stated that it was the legionaries involved in the Marcomannic War in Pannonia who elected him as the new ruler. There are also rumours that Cassius’s wife, Faustina the Younger, would convince us to usurp, who feared that in the event of her husband’s death, the usurpers would fight for the throne in the face of their son’s young age Commodus. Cassius was supposed to guarantee that a person close to her husband and family would sit on the throne.

Cassius Dio in his work “Roman history” reported that at the news of Cassius’s rebellion, Aurelius in his military camp spoke to the soldiers. He emphasized his sadness at the news of his friend’s rebellion and stated that he had never experienced any pain on his part. He decided that if the threat were related only to his person, he would give the decision to choose a better emperor to the legions and the Senate. Aurelius also expressed the hope that Cassius would not die or commit suicide, because the emperor wanted to show him grace. Despite calm words, the senate recognized Cassius as a public enemy and Marcus Aurelius had to face the rival in an open fight.

Cassius had strong support in Egypt, Syria and Arabia, which gave him an army of seven legions. The prefect of Egypt (the granary of Rome), Gaius Calvisius Statianus, issued an edict to the people of the province for recognition of the new power. However, many noblemen in the Empire opposed Cassius. Herod Atticus himself – a philosopher, teacher of Aurelius, and a well-known Roman citizen of those times – said in a letter to Cassius: “you are mad”.

Actions of Marcus Aurelius

Despite the support Aurelius received from Rome’s elites, the capital was uncertain. For certainty, the emperor sent the governor of Lower Pannonia to secure the city. Marcus Aurelius was forced to suspend warfare against the Iazyges and head east. Interestingly, the emperor received offers of military support in the campaign against the rebel from the border barbarian peoples; Aurelius, however, rejected all. Marcus Aurelius’s army was more numerous, and rumours that the emperor was about to strike Egypt first terrified Cassius’s army. At the end of July 175 CE, the centurion and decurion of Cassius killed him and sent his head to Aurelius. However, the emperor did not want to see the remains of his former companion and ordered to bury the deceased. On July 28, 175 CE, Egypt again recognized Aurelius as emperor.

Despite the suppression of the rebellion, Marcus Aurelius went east with a group of advisers and his wife who died on the way. Cassius Dion was not sure himself whether the empress had died of gout or for fear of her involvement in Cassius’ speech being revealed. All Cassius’ correspondence was destroyed; Aurelius did not want to read any of the letters to avoid unnecessary revenge. However, the emperor asked the senate to prepare a list of former usurper supporters. The emperor wanted to avoid bloodshed, but the death met the son of Cassius – Avidius Maecianus. His other son Avidius Heliodorus went into exile, and his daughter Avidia and her husband were in the care of their uncle.

Assessment of Avidius Cassius

Cassius Dion in his work “Roman History” shows us, Avidius Cassius, as “a good husband”. Cassius was definitely an outstanding leader who was known for his strict discipline.

The motives of the revolt of Avidius Cassius were not entirely clear. There was no reason for Aurelius’ eminent commander and comrade to rebel against the ruling ruler. Cassius Dion clearly states that the emperor would certainly save Cassius after losing the civil war.

Marcus Aurelius also probably did not notice (or did not want to notice) the potential participation of Faustina in the usurpation of Cassius. Aurelius regretted the death of his wife who was deified by the Senate. The place where she finished her life – Halala (Cappadocia, present-day Turkey) – received a new name in her honour: Faustinopolis. The emperor also launched a school for orphans – Puellae Faustinianae (“Faustyna’s Girls”). Numerous statues were created in her honour.

The behaviour of Marcus Aurelius can either prove his great love for his wife and faith in the sincerity of her actions, or the stoic approach to life, when the Roman is entitled to accept all fate, stop emotions and live in a dignified way.

  • Adams Geoff W., Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and beyond
  • Birley Anthony, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, 2001
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzowych Rzymu, Warszawa 2001
  • Smith William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

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