There is a much more comprehensive outline of the life of Marcus on Wikipedia, but by way of completeness, I am including a page here, that encompasses some of the key points as well as some information (at the time of writing) Wikipedia doesn’t have.
First of all, he’s not the Gladiator guy, although the Marcus Aurelius form Gladiator could be based on the factual one.
The real Marcus was the last of the so called “five good emperors”, the others of whom were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius.
He came from a wealthy family, who had grown rich from their family brick-works during the time of the Emperor Hadrian (of wall-building fame). Hadrian was aware of, and fond of Marcus as a boy, and interceded in his educational arrangements, sponsoring him – and putting him on what could be regarded as an inevitable path to public office. As part of his education he was trained by several of the brightest minds of his time, but he was particularly struck by the teachings of the stoic philosophers and aspects of the philosophy related to duty.
When Hadrian died, Aurelius Antoninus was bequeathed the throne, but only on condition that he adopt Marcus and his brother Lucius Commodus, as part of the deal.
After the death of his adopted father, although he did not want it, Marcus was honour-bound to accept the role of emperor, however he insisted that Lucius Commodus share the honour. It was the first time that Rome was ruled by two emperors (I’m not sure if this is why modern Italian’s chose to depict him on the 50 cent piece, however that’s who that is on the back of the coin – shown above).
The stoic philosopher became the philosopher king, and was a popular and considerate ruler who oversaw the Roman empire through war, disaster and reform, but unfortunately he damaged his own legacy by the choice of his successor and egotistical son Commodus, who undid some of the greatness his father had earned for the family name.
As for the Golden Book, he is reported to have written it for his own eyes while on campaign. I first came across mention of it in my copy of “Of Plymouth Plantation” by William Bradford. According to my copy (Random House, 1981 Edition on page 18) of Bradford, Golden Book was very popular during Bradford’s time and also known as the “Dial of The Princes”.
Bradford’s tribute to Marcus follows:
“Yea, such was the mutual love and reciprocal respect that this worthy man had to his flock and his flock to him that it might be said of them as it once was of that famous emperor Marcus Aurelius and the people of Rome, that it was hard to judge whether he delighted more in having such a people, or they in having such a pastor. His love was great towards them and his care was always bent for their best good, both for soul and body. For besides his singular abilities in divine things (wherein he excelled) he was also very able to give directions in civil affairs and to foresee dangers and inconveniences , by which means he was very helpful to their outward estates and so was every way s common father unto them. And none did more offend him than those that were close and cleaving to themselves and retired from the common good; as also such as would be stiff and rigid in matters of outward order and inveigh against the evils of others, and be remiss in themselves, and not so careful to express a virtuous conversation. They in like manner hah ever a reverend regard unto him and had him in precious estimation, as his worth and wisdom did deserve. And though they esteemed him highly while he lived and laboured amongst them, yet much more after his death, when they came to feel the want of his help and saw (by woeful experience) what a treasure they had lost, to the grief of their hearts and wounding of their souls. Yea, such a loss as they saw could not be repaired, for it was as hard for them to find another leader and feeder in all respects as for the Taboriutes to find another Ziska. And though they did not call themselves orphans (as the other did) after his death, yet they had cause as much too lament in another regard, their present condition, and after usage.”