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Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

The Philosopher King

Marcus Aurelius was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. He also happens to have been emperor of Rome, during the height of its power. As a consequence, we know considerably more about him than about any other Stoic philosopher. We have accounts of his life and reign from Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, as well as fragments of evidence from various other historical sources. Moreover, The Meditations itself opens with a series of remarks about his family members and teachers, and the nature of the text – a series of private notes on his endeavours to apply Stoic philosophy in his own life – arguably gives us some glimpses of Marcus’ personal concerns. In addition, we have a cache of letters between Marcus and his Latin rhetoric tutor, and close family-friend, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, which provide a window on his character and personal life as Caesar and later as emperor.

Marcus wasn’t the sort of decadent or autocrat that many people today associate with the immensely privileged position of Roman emperor. For example, Herodian writes of him as follows:

He was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us. To his subjects he revealed himself as a mild and moderate emperor; he gave audience to those who asked for it and forbade his bodyguard to drive off those who happened to meet him. Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life. His reign thus produced a very large number of intelligent men, for subjects like to imitate the example set by their ruler.

We’re told that he constantly had the saying of Plato on his lips “that those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers” (Historia Augusta). Indeed, by all accounts he was widely perceived as embodying the principles of the Stoic philosophy that he followed, and which he describes throughout The Meditations. Curiously, Marcus never mentions the word “Stoic” anywhere in the text, although there’s no question that he did consider himself a follower of that school’s teachings. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, says that though Marcus had tutors in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy “he was most inclined to the doctrines of the Stoic school”, taught by his main philosophical tutors. The Historia Augusta likewise describes Marcus as being “wholly given over to the Stoic philosophy, which he had not only learned from all the best masters, but also acquired for himself from every source.”

Indeed, Marcus was well-known for having dedicated his life to training in Stoic philosophy, a path which he started upon from the unusually young age of twelve. Moreover, the Historia Augusta, adds:

For the emperor was so illustrious in philosophy that when he was about to set out for the Marcomannic war, and everyone was fearful that some ill-luck might befall him, he was asked, not in flattery but in all seriousness, to publish his "Precepts of Philosophy"; and he did not fear to do so, but for three days discussed the books of his "Exhortations" one after the other.

It’s not clear whether or not these “Precepts of Philosophy” or “Exhortations”, if real, correspond with The Meditations, his only surviving philosophical text. As we’ll see, the content of that book consists mainly of notes concerning philosophical themes rather than formal precepts or exhortations.

It seems unlikely that The Meditations was ever intended for publication. Marcus frequently alludes to events that would be obscure or meaningless to most other people, such as the contents of a letter received by his mother or a dispute his adoptive father had with a customs officer. He also criticizes his own character quite harshly and complains about the values of those surrounding him at court – remarks he presumably would have intended to keep to himself. If the Historia Augusta is correct, therefore, it may be that he published some other philosophical writings. In any case, it seems clear that to subsequent generations of Romans, and perhaps during his own lifetime, Marcus had earned the reputation of a ruler who aspired to, and arguably succeeded in nearing, the ancient Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king.

To Himself

The title Meditations or The Meditations was introduced by later editors. It fits quite well because the text contains a series of passages largely consisting of Marcus Aurelius’ personal reflections on life, written from the perspective of Stoic philosophy. There are many short aphoristic sayings, but also a few longer passages sometimes showing more rhetorical elegance. The book also contains quotations from earlier philosophers and poets. There are even a few fragments of dialogue, such as this one attributed to Socrates:

What do you want, souls of rational men or irrational? Souls of rational men. Of what rational men, sound or unsound? Sound. Why then do you not seek for them? Because we have them. Why then do you fight and quarrel? (11.39)

The Codex Palatinus, the Greek manuscript from which Xylander’s original printed edition of The Meditations derived, bore the title To Himself. This is also fitting because Marcus is clearly addressing himself throughout and, indeed, he often refers to the notion that he should tell himself various sayings or or remind himself of certain philosophical ideas. The first passage of chapter two, for instance, opens with the words: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself...” This can be viewed as the beginning of the book proper, in a sense, as it follows what’s often viewed as a kind of prologue, in chapter one. It’s one of the most popular passages from the book so worth quoting:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. (2.1)

Structurally, The Meditations is divided into twelve chapters or “books”, composed of discrete passages such as this. The number ranges from sixteen to seventy-five per chapter, in the current edition, adding up to 487 passages in total. Apart from in book one, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent theme for each book that might serve to distinguish it from the others. Book one is quite different from the rest of the text, however. It consists of a series of passages in which Marcus praises his family members and tutors for exhibiting various positive qualities. It’s likely that this was intended as a sort of contemplative exercise, whereby he might articulate and try to emulate the virtues exhibited by his loved ones and role models. Later in the text, he provides an explanation for this practice:

When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Hence we must keep them before us. (6.48)

Each passage in book one concentrates on a different person, sixteen individuals in total, except for the closing passage which consists of a brief summary of related blessings for which Marcus thanks the gods.

Throughout the rest of the text, Marcus ranges over a variety of themes related to Stoic philosophy and its applications in daily life, for the purposes of his own moral and psychological self-improvement. The major recurring themes include topics such as justice, death, piety, and overcoming unhealthy desires and emotions. Anger was the emotion with which Marcus was most concerned. Indeed, in the opening sentence of book one, Marcus praises his grandfather’s freedom from anger and later he admits that he has struggled to control his own temper sometimes. At one point, Marcus lists ten distinct psychological strategies for overcoming feelings of anger (11.18). He returns to various selections from this list many times throughout The Meditations.

The two philosophers he cites most often are Epictetus – perhaps unsurprisingly, as he was the most important Stoic teacher of the Roman world – and Heraclitus, a famous pre-Socratic philosopher who appears to have influenced the Stoics. Marcus mentions him alongside two other “noble philosophers”, Socrates and Pythagoras, all favoured by the Stoics (6.47). He also refers to Plato, Theophrastus (the Aristotelian), Epicurus and Democritus. Curiously, he nowhere mentions Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school. He does mention Chrysippus, though, the third head of the Stoic school, alongside Socrates and Epictetus: “How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus has time already swallowed up!” (7.19). Among his childhood tutors were, apart from several Stoics, teachers of Platonism and Aristotelianism, but there’s no mention of anyone specializing in the other major school of Hellenistic philosophy, Epicureanism.

It’s difficult to know for certain when The Meditations was actually written. No specific dates are mentioned in the text and for all we know different parts could have been written at different times in Marcus’ life. Nevertheless, there are a few clues to be found in the text itself and perhaps also in the Roman histories and elsewhere. At one point, for instance, Marcus mentions that his adoptive brother the emperor Lucius Verus has been dead long enough that it would seem odd for his mistress Pantheia still to be grieving beside his casket (8.37). Given that Lucius died in 169 AD, this part of The Meditations was presumably written in 170 AD or later. Elsewhere, though, Marcus writes “you now wait for the time when the child shall come out of your wife's womb” (9.3). His youngest child, Vibia Aurelia Sabina, was born in 170 AD, which suggests this passage must have been written in that year or earlier.

Although Marcus mentions the death of Lucius and other significant figures in his life, he nowhere mentions the loss of his wife, the Empress Faustina the Younger, and if the passage mentioned above refers to her pregnancy she clearly must have been alive when he wrote it. Neither does he mention the civil war with Avidius Cassius, which occurred earlier in the year of his wife’s death. This is perhaps somewhat weaker evidence but it might be taken to suggest The Meditations was completed prior to these events, which both took place in 175 AD. The range of dates we’re looking at, 170 - 175 AD, therefore happen to correspond broadly with the period of the Roman counter-offensive during the First Marcomannic War. At this time, Marcus was fighting several hostile tribes – chiefly the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians – along the northern frontier of the Roman empire, marked by the natural boundary of the River Danube.

The notion that The Meditations was written during the course of the First Marcomannic War is supported by two rubrics found in the text, which apparently specify Marcus’ location at the time of writing. Between the first and second chapter we find the words “Among the Quadi at the Granua”, the name of a tributary that joins the River Danube near the Roman city and military camp at Aquincum, the capital of Lower Pannonia, now located in modern-day Hungary. A different rubric is located between the second and third chapters, which says simply “This in Carnuntum”, the capital of the Roman province of Upper Pannonia, in modern-day Austria, where another important military camp was located on the banks of the Danube.

The positioning of these phrases makes it unclear to which parts of the text they refer but perhaps the simplest assumption is that the first chapter, which is quite distinct from the rest of the book, was written further east at a later stage of the First Marcomannic War, while Marcus was fighting or negotiating peace with the Quadi across the Danube, and the rest of the book was written earlier at his military base in Carnuntum. It’s possible, however, that some of the text may have been written at a later date, perhaps during the Second Marcomannic War, which began in 176 AD and ended with Marcus’ death in 180 AD. Recently, an archeological find has provided some related evidence. A funerary stele shows that a member of the emperor’s praetorian guard, his personal bodyguard, died at Carnuntum in 171 AD. We can therefore infer that Marcus was probably stationed there at this time.

Excerpt from Donald Robertson's introduction to The Meditations, available for pre-order: Meditations: The Philosophy Classic.

Read The Meditations online.