Episode 37 – Marcus Aurelius versus Suleyman the Magnificent

Today’s episode comes from the Leaders bracket, and it pits a man that some say was the greatest Roman Emperor of all time, Marcus Aurelius against longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman the Magnificent.

Before we meet the contestants, let me share with you my primary resources. The first book is aptly named, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography by Anthony R. Birley and this is my primary source. Secondary sources include Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre and Emperors of Rome by David Potter.

For the second contestant Suleyman, my central texts are Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent and the Battle for Europe 1520 – 1536 by James Reston and World Without End: Spain, Phillip II and the First Global Empire by Hugh Thomas. The secondary work is Titans of History by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Let’s get to the action.

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was born on April 26, 121. According to the sources, we have many different birth names for the future Roman Emperor. We have Marcus Annius Verus, Marcus Annius Catililus Severus or Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus. Whatever his real birth name he was born to a very well to do family in Rome. 

Marcus’s father died when he was a mere three years of age. He grandfather raised him in a very upscale palace beside the Lateran located on the Caelian Hill. This was the time of the Five Good Emperors which started with Nerva, continued through Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and eventually ending with Marcus Aurelius. Marcus’ early days were under the rule of Hadrian.

Hadrian is critical in the ascension of Marcus as he adopted Antoninus Pius in 138 on the condition that he, in turn, would adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. This would guarantee a line of succession as Hadrian had no biological son.

Interestingly, none of the first four of the Five Good Emperors had any biological sons. This may be why they were so good at ruling the Roman Empire. Picking the best person to rule instead of relying on good bloodlines seems to have been a better way of passing on the rule. This will be proven right with the ascension of Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus in 180. Many have pointed out his reign as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.

We have to discuss the reign of Antoninus Pius for a bit to understand more about his adopted son Marcus. When Hadrian was Emperor, he was a fighting one, going from one part of the empire to another. Pius on the other hand never left Rome for the entirety of his 23-year reign. 

This period of Roman history is considered the absolute apex. To quote David Potter in his book Emperors of Rome, “Marcus Aurelius, as Marcus Annius Verus became known after his adoption, would later refer to Antoninus Pius as a model emperor: kind, diligent, polite to subordinates, unwilling to decide in haste, and always putting the good of the community before anything else. Aside from Marcus Aurelius’ personal recollections, little else is known of the man who ruled Rome at the height of its prosperity. During his reign – the longest since that of Augustus – there were no major wars, no scandals, and no executions of prominent men, save one who had openly and unsuccessfully tried to incite a rebellion in Spain.”

It is here we have to acknowledge the presence of a co-emperor during the time of Marcus Aurelius, and that is Lucius Verus, his adopted brother. This joint rule began with the death of Antoninus Pius on July 10, 161. While Aurelius was the heir apparent, Hadrian had wished both to share control. Marcus insisted that his brother be named co-ruler, which the Senate agreed to. This was the first time in Roman history that we have a joint reign. This was only to last for eight years as Lucius Verus was to die of a stroke in early 169.

I’d like to read you a quote about the reign of Marcus Aurelius from the Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre. “The reign of Marcus Aurelius was marked by bitter and near-continuous warfare, first on the eastern, then on the northern frontier, exacerbated by plague, invasion, and insurrection. The sequence of calamities is reflected in the bleak stoicism of Marcus’s Meditations. These, the beside jottings of a philosopher-king, forced by his imperial destiny to spend most of his energies campaigning on the Danube, are dominated by thoughts of death and the transitoriness of human experience. Rarely do we get such an insight into an emperor’s true character as the glimpse with these writings provide. They are not the work of a happy man, but they testify to a certain grandeur of spirit. Indeed, historians such as Cassius Dio made Marcus Aurelius a model for later generations: ‘In addition to possessing all other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in the position of power.'”

The reason I read this quote was that it pointed out some of the challenges of Marcus’s reign. The warfare was bracketed by two major wars, the Parthian War which began in 161 around the area of present-day Armenia and Syria, and the invasions of the Germanic tribes starting in 167. This latter war coincided with another tragic event during Marcus and Versus’s reign and that a break out of the plague in Rome.

Whether the plague was caused by smallpox, measles or the bubonic plague has been debated over the years. What we do know is that it was likely due to the returning soldiers after defeating the Parthians in 165. Known as the Antonine Plague, it was to cost the lives of an estimated five million people. In Rome alone during the height of the plague, 2,000 people died a day. 

Marcus Aurelius was able to subdue the German tribes, he lost his brother during the campaign due to his stroke. Some have suggested that the plague was to blame, but that is mere conjecture, and the stroke is a more likely cause. Another important figure in Roman history appears during the German revolts, and that is the true son of Marcus Aurelius, the future Emperor Commodus. He was to ride in campaign with his father, but from all reports, he was not the best-behaved child. His reign was deemed by many historians as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.

To add to all of Marcus’s trials and tribulations, we have a revolt by one of his governors, Gaius Avidius Cassius of Syria. It all began with a rumor that Aurelius was dead. Commodus was a mere boy of 13 in 175 when word spread, so Cassius thought that his time was at hand. To make matters worse, Faustina, Marcus Aurelius’s wife was in on the plot. Gaius Avidius Cassius had no intention of overthrowing the Emperor, but he had gone too far when his troops declared for him. After a few months, Cassius’s soldiers assassinated him ending the revolt.  

Instead of punishing the troops that sided with Cassius, he decided to name his son co-emperor to avoid a succession plan. Additionally, the two returned to Rome after an eight-year hiatus away from the capital. The year is 176.

Two years later the Quadi, a Germanic tribe was in open revolt, so Marcus and Commodus headed out for the Danube frontier. In 180, it was very apparent that Marcus Aurelius was seriously ill. From what I’ve gathered, many believe that he was suffering from cancer as the drug he was taking, theriac, contained opium and was used to control pain more than try to cure any disease. His supposed last words were, “Why do you weep for me, instead of thinking about the plague, and about death which is the common lot for us all?”

Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180. Cassius Dio was to say about him, “He did not meet with good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all for this very reason that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.” Marcus was 58 when he passed on.

This philosopher-emperor accomplished much as the head of the Roman Empire. He kept the borders safe, defeated a major enemy when he crushed the Parthians, and he was able to guide Rome through the tough years of plague that struck most of the empire. What he must be criticized heavily for is for giving his people over to his son Commodus who was only 18 when he took control. 

Returning to author Chris Scarre, “The 18-year-old emperor may well have been daunted by the tasks which lay ahead; the rule of Marcus Aurelius would have been a difficult act for anyone to follow. Commodus, however, not only failed to measure up to his father’s elevated standard; he went down in history as a positive monster, a megalomaniac who thought himself a god, had the months renamed in his honor and delighted in nothing better than playing gladiator in front of the assembled Roman populace.”

Leaving the Roman Emperor, we now try to put things into perspective.  During his reign, the first Buddhist monks arrive in China, Ptolemy’s works on cartography are published, and Confucian scholars in China are massacred.

Suleyman the Magnificent
Suleyman the Magnificent

Next up is a man who was a descendant of two participants in Battle Ground History, Suleyman the Magnificent. His great-grandfather was Mehmed II who we will meet next episode when he faces off against Ulysses S. Grant. His father was Selim I also known as Selim the Grim who we will meet in episode 43 when he goes up against Abraham Lincoln.

Born on November 6, 1494, in the city of Trabzon in the Ottoman Empire. He was to become the tenth-sultan from the House of Osman, also known as the Ottoman’s. This family came to power in 1299 and would rule the empire until the sultanate was abolished in 1922. Suleyman was to rule as sultan for 46-years the longest of anyone during their 623 years in power.

Being the son of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Selim I, gave Suleyman a life of luxury while growing up but lest you think it was an easy one, think again. He was the intended heir to the throne, but his father was a highly suspicious man, thinking there was a conspiracy against him behind every corner, something we will hear about in his episode. Suleyman feared for his life on more than one occasion. They didn’t call his father Selim the Grim for nothing having deposed his father and killing two of his brothers before coming to power. 

There is a rumor that Selim had sent a poisoned shirt to his son to murder him, but his mother was able to thwart that attempt. Seven grand viziers were beheaded during Selim’s reign which led to a lot of palace paranoia. So when his father died while on campaign and Suleyman was asked to return to Constantinople to receive the sword of the House of Osman, he was suspicious, to say the least.  

Selim was once thought to have asked the question, “Those who ride to the hunt, do they ask. In truth, who are the hunters and who is the hunted.”

As James Reston, Jr. puts it in his book Defenders of the Faith, “Had not the sultan poisoned his father and strangled his brothers and their children? Why not his only son? Was this some sort of test?” He further goes on to write, “Was Suleyman now sought as the hunter or the hunted? Was the crescent sword of the House of Osman meant for his hand or for his throat?”

When he was finally convinced that it was not a ruse but that indeed, his father had died, Suleyman entered Constantinople. He was accompanied by his friend and confidant Ibrahim. This former slave was to be by Suleyman’s side for many years, becoming Grand Vizier in 1523. Unfortunately for Ibrahim, he got on the wrong side of Suleyman due to rumors and court intrigue. Ibrahim was executed on March 15, 1536, on charges of disloyalty.

Part of the reasons behind Ibrahim’s downfall can be best summed up by James Reston Jr. in his book, Defenders of the Faith. He states, “As Ibrahim Pasha rose in influence, so his arrogance grew, He dressed even more lavishly than the sultan, his fingers laden with jeweled rings. According to a contemporary, he ‘brought almost every fancy object he could acquire’ and became the intermediary for the court’s purchases of fabulous gold artifacts from Venice. Appealing to the Sultan’s education as a goldsmith, he persuaded Suleyman that the display of precious jewelry and gold treasures was promoting an ideal of magnificence akin to that of Hannibal and Alexander the Great.”

One of the privileges of becoming the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was the harem you inherited. Countless women were now at your disposal, many having been captured from various lands and enslaved. Suleyman was enamored of two members of his harem, in particular, Mahidevran and Hurrem, with the latter better known to the Western world as Roxelanna. Suleyman was to break with tradition and marry Hurrem, then known as Hurrem Sultan. She was to bear him many children with one, Selim, succeeding his father when he passed away in 1566.

The Ottoman Empire that Suleyman inherited from his father Selim the Grim was an expanding one. It was growing quickly enough for the new Sultan. After squashing a revolt in Damascus in 1521, Suleyman’s eyes focused on a road through eastern Europe, starting with Hungary and then on to Vienna. We will learn much about the battle of Vienna in episode 52.

Mehmed II had tried to subdue the Hungarians but met his match with their leader John Hunyadi. Hunyadi was long dead, and by late summer of 1521, Belgrade fell due to the lack of Hungarian support. The road was wide open towards Vienna. Luckily for them, Suleyman decided to attack the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean, home of the Knights Hospitaller. 

In 1522, Suleyman led a massive fleet of ships and men to take the island fortress. For five long months, the Siege of Rhodes went on costing many Ottoman lives, far more than their opponents. Out of around 200,000 invaders, around 40-60,000 died of battle wounds or, more likely, disease. The Christian chroniclers claimed that 114,000 of the Ottoman’s died, but that is likely to be a gross overstatement.

The Christians lost about 5,000 out of 6,700, with the ones remaining allowed to leave the island. On January 1, 1523, the remaining soldiers and townsfolk left in what might be called a parade with banners flying and drums beating. Suleyman really had little to gain by slaughtering the beaten enemy as he now controlled the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. 

If you remember episode 7 where we looked at the reign of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and more, you would have heard about Francis I of France and their on-going wars against each other. What does this have to do with Suleyman you might ask? Lots, as Francis, allied himself with the Ottoman Sultan against Charles. This gave Suleyman the opening to attack the eastern flank of Charles’s empire, namely the city of Vienna.

After the Ottoman’s destroyed the Hungarian’s and their numerous allies at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Vienna was now the next target. In 1529, Suleyman began his advance on the European city with over 120,000 men. Problems with the campaign started almost as soon as they got going on May 10, 1529. The weather was horrible with heavy rains causing flooding on the route. Heavy artillery and siege engines were bogged down and unable to continue. Slowly, the soldiers marched on with many suffering from the many diseases which were to plague Middle Age armies.

When the now depleted army of Suleyman arrived near the gates of Vienna, led by his friend Ibrahim, they were met with a brave and well-armed Austrian garrison of about 17-20,000 men. Through the coming weeks, tunnels were dug under the fortified walls, tunnels were destroyed, and forays against the defenders were met with withering rifle fire. Then came the rains which made the invaders lives miserable. Disease within the Ottoman camp was rampant which made Suleyman decide to make one final, ill-fated charge at the wall. It failed miserably. Not only that but during their retreat, the Ottoman army was met by a series of snowstorms which caused them to abandon their baggage train and much of their remaining artillery. 

Strangely, the attack on Vienna was spun in Constantinople as a victory for the Ottoman’s, and it can be claimed that much was gained. Hungary was now pretty much a vassal state of the Turks, but that would be fought over for the next 200 years. Suleyman had found the western border of his empire though, the zenith of his conquests.

In the 1540s, Suleyman would return and capture a number of fortresses of Charles V’s, causing his enemy to sign a humiliating treaty with the Ottoman’s. This allowed Suleyman to turn his attention to another enemy, another Muslim state this time, the Shia Safavid dynasty of Persia.

The animosity between the two main wings of Islam cannot be understated as the battle between them continues to this day. From 1532 until 1555, battle after battle aged on. It was a see-saw war with the Persians gaining some victories followed by Ottoman gains. By the end, Suleyman had capture Baghdad, lower Mesopotamia and the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

As all of these wars were being fought, Suleyman expanded his empire to the east by capturing critical ports in the Indian Ocean and North Africa. This led him into naval conflicts with the Portuguese over the coming decades. Other battles were fought throughout the Mediterranean against Charles V, with Francis and the French aiding the Turks. Finally, weary of constant warfare, Charles and Francis signed a peace treaty which ended Frances alliance with Suleyman. 

Returning to James Reston Jr, he remarks about the issues Suleyman has with the Shites of Persia post-treaty. “In Suleyman’s lifetime, Persia rather than central Europe had been the natural and traditional enemy of the Ottoman Empire. His father, Selim I, had devoted his short reign to the east, campaigning as far as the Persian capital of Tabriz in an effort to purify Islam under the traditional doctrine of Sunnism.”

Suleyman’s next target was the ancient city of Baghdad. He was somewhat unaware that it was nothing like it was in its glory years. After the Mongol Horde destroyed it in 1258 an later with the second destruction by the Tatars led by Tamerlane in 1400, it was a shell of itself. Still, it was a famous city and one that the Ottoman’s took rather quickly and began rebuilding it despite being a hotbed of Shiite Islam. 

I want to go back to the disputes between the Protestants and Catholics a bit. The time of Suleyman was a time of Christian upheaval in Europe with the occurrence of the Protestant Reformation. Some historians believe that the threat of Suleyman and the Turks led to the acceptance of the Protestant religion in return for their support of a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire.

There is a great deal of evidence that Pope Clement VII was so concerned with a Turkish invasion of Italy, that he had plans to skip town and head toward Avignon, a city controlled by the French. An understanding of sorts between the warring Christian religions in 1532 prohibiting armed conflict between the sides. Such was the power and influence of Suleyman.

When the Sultan of the Ottoman’s died on September 7, 1566, at the age of 71, his empire was one of the most powerful and feared in the Western world. Even after his death, under his son Selim II, the Ottoman Empire kept expanding and reforming. His legacy would last for countless decades until the eventual decline beginning in 1740, some a little less than 200 years after Suleyman’s death.

Now for our putting it into perspective segment.

During Suleyman’s reign, at the Battle of Mactan, Ferdinand Magellan is killed in the Philippines, the Aztec’s surrender to Herman Cortes, Giovanni da Verrazano discovers New York harbor, Niccolò Machiavelli dies, Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of English king Henry VIII, is executed, and chocolate is first introduced in Europe. 

Now is the time to head off to the scorer’s table.

Since we are in the Leaders bracket, we begin with the 15 points for the length of their reign. Marcus Aurelius started his stint as the head of the Roman Empire on March 7, 161 ending with his death on March 17, 180 for a total of 19 years at the helm. Sultan Suleyman took over from his father Selim the Grim on September 30, 1520, and ending with his death on September 6, 1566, for a reign of just under 46 years. This means that the Ottoman gets 15 and the Roman, 7.

Next up is their effect on the rest of the world for 20 points. The Roman Emperor’s influence was huge as the Empire was near its zenith during his time on the throne. Every decision he made changed lives from the land now know as England all the way west to what is now Saudi Arabia. Suleyman on the other hand-controlled lands from as far south as Aden, west to Baghdad and east to Hungary. On top of that, as we mentioned, his threat to the Christian world caused the pope to accept Protestantism to protect Europe. For these reasons, I give Sulyeman 20 points and Marcus, 18.

Next up is their effect on world history for 25. It is here we run into some issues for Marcus. He was considered the last of the great Roman emperors. In my opinion, the word last should be emphasized because of his leaving the reigns to the most dominant empire in world history to that date to his unqualified son, Commodus. According to many historians, this handoff marked the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. As for Suleyman, he left his lands to his capable, while not remarkable son, Selim II. The Ottoman Empire would continue to thrive and expand, though at a slow pace, for well over another 100 to 150 years after Suleyman’s death. Twenty-five points to the Turk, 10 to the Roman.

Now we head off to the effect of how they made their country better for forty points. Both of these great leaders improved the state of theirs with Suleyman getting the edge yet again because of the succession of their heir to the throne. Little additional needs to be said of either as Commodus is vastly inferior of a ruler than Selim II. Suleyman the Magnificent makes this a clean sweep of the top point totals with the forty points here. Marcus Aurelius found himself in a tight spot going up against someone with the name the Magnificent; he gets twenty points. 

The final total is Suleyman 100, Marcus 65. The Ottoman Sultan moves on to the next round where he will face off against the yet another of the Five Great Emperors of the Roman Empire, Trajan.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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