Marcus Aurelius (121 – 161AD) is the best example of what a good person can be, that still echoes true till today. In our current society there is a lot we can learn from him. How he dealt with the responsibilities and the temptations of being the Emperor of the Roman Empire. He used Stoicism as his guiding philosophy to keep him on track and make sure he did his duty for the community. Marcus Aurelius had a lot on his plate during his reign, from a plague, to wars with foreign and internal enemies. We are fortunate to have an intimate insight into his thoughts from the personal notes that survived in a book we now call the Meditations. This post starts with a little story of how I imagined an encounter with Marcus Aurelius could look like. After setting the mindset to the later stages of his rule, you’ll be able to find a brief introduction into the life of this extraordinary man.
The hooves have long ago stopped making the clicking sounds. They are now occasionally crushing some leaves. The escort around me diligently guides me to my destination without any major hiccups. The temperature has dropped considerably and it has become rather wet. It is during these moments that I am happy I took a thick woolen cape. I find it harder to keep all my scrolls dry and safe because everything is damp and wet. It has been a long time since I have seen my family.
With each passing day, we see more and more signs of life, I’m glad to notice that they are friendly signs of life. They ask us if we have letters for them, but that is not the purpose of our trip. Therefore, we pass them by quite quickly.
The path starts to expand
The trees are long, old pine trees with the green far on top. The ground is a red brownish color with some patches of snow here and there. The thawing soil is evidence of a new season approaching. I can sense a change in my escort; they seem more relaxed as the day progresses.
The path, if we can call it a path, starts to expand. I can tell by the trees. They seem to be cut down in the shape of an opening wedge. There is a new addition to the background sound, a murmuring of some sort. The scent of pine is fighting against new aromas weaving through the trees. We reduce our pace and trot onwards. The first tents, tables, and tools laying on the floor make the entrance to the scene.
We ride through an avenue with the biggest tents close to us and they become gradually smaller as they disappear in the woods. In the middle, my escorts stop. They turn their horses to the left and point towards a somber yet bigger red tent. There it is, the destination of this long journey. My heartbeat takes over from the rhythm that we have heard over the last few weeks.
And imposing figure stands before me
I have to show confidence, this is my responsibility, my task and I need to perform it as I should. There is a bed on the left and as I turn my head, an outreached hand enters my field of vision. A bit startled I take a step back. My eyes follow the arm to the person to who it belongs.
An imposing figure stands before me. It is easy to see that this person has seen his battles and hardships. Lean muscles everywhere, which seem to have been able to withstand the tests of time. A broad chest plate covers his pecks. With pushed back shoulders he keeps himself standing straight. Ready to take on the world.
The curly beard goes along his chin and gets absorbed by the same kind of hair on his head. A stern yet calming face appears from between this cover. His voice is deep as he asks for the reports. I open my bag and search for them. He has already returned to the big table which is covered with maps, candles, and other attributes. After I find the scrolls, I hand them over and give my Emperor a brief detailed report. I am then dismissed out into the camp dwarfed by the tall trees. Not knowing when I get to return home.
Marcus Aurelius is one of the most famous Stoics
Marcus Aurelius is one of the most famous Stoics. He was one of the five great Roman emperors. We know so much about him because his personal notes survived and are available for us to read. Although he never meant for these notes to be published, someone took them and bundled them into a book. The so-called Meditations have helped millions of people throughout history.
His reign and legacy
He was born in 121 AD and became emperor in 161 AD after Antoninus died. Antoninus had adopted Marcus Aurelius together with Lucius Verus as was the custom at that time. He did so by the command of the previous Emperor Hadrian, who had adopted the two young men before that. But because they were both too young, he installed Antoninus as a interm Emperor. After his death, Verus and Marcus became co-Emperors up to the death of Verus in 169 AD. During his reign, Marcus had to deal with the Antonine plague that wreaked havoc throughout the empire. To top that off, he spent most of his later years up to his death in the north defending the border of the Roman Empire against Germanic tribes and a civil war instigated by one of his generals from the eastern front.
Despite all these problems, he was widely popular among the Romans. Because he was a calm and steady Emperor, who took great care in ruling the empire. He earned a great deal of respect and honor by looking after his people and by leading many military successes.
The people grieved his death and had to deal with his son, Commodus, as his successor. Commodus is now seen as one of the worst emperors Rome had ever seen. The opinions are divided as to why Marcus chose his son, who was no great military leader and showed little discipline, as the heir. Some argue that he wanted to go back to the tradition where a son followed his father. There is enough proof of the poor leadership and grandeur that Commodus displayed. A statue can be seen in the Capitoline museums in Rome of him dressed up as Hercules. There is a full season on him in the Netflix series: ‘Roman Empire’.
It is fascinating to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations because it gives you some real insight into the mind of one of the most powerful people at that time. He was close to the ideal of Plato’s philosopher-king. Plato believed that in order to govern, one should be or become a philosopher.
From his notes, we can tell that he was highly influenced by Stoicism. Specifically, from the teachings of Epictetus, the former slave, who he refers to the most in his Meditations. He specifically thanks his Stoic teacher, Junius Rustics for introducing him to the discourses of Epictetus. The two never met, but we can be almost certain that Rusticus did meet with Epictetus or at least Arrian, who wrote down the teachings of this great Stoic teacher. This contrast shows that it doesn’t matter what part of society you are on, philosophy is accessible to anyone.
After learning more about Marcus Aurelius, I found myself utterly intrigued by his life. I’ve always had an interest in the ancient Romans, but his example personified it for me. There is no urge to now go and walk around as an emperor, but to have a little bit of his style would be nice.
If you are interested in other philosophers, you can read my introductions on Seneca, Epictetus, or Michel de Montaigne.
Learn more about Marcus Aurelius
The best way to get to know Marcus Aurelius is to read his Meditations. But to help you understand his situation a bit more, there is a video from Michael Surge, professor at Princeton University. He gives a detailed explanation of how exemplary his behavior was. Moreover, as seen from his position of absolute power. I would encourage you to watch it.
2 thoughts on “Who Was Marcus Aurelius?”
After reading Meditations from cover to back and reviewing it, I got the feeling I like Marcus, not necessarily what stoicism has been portrayed to be, or the way it is embodied by some. I’m recalling what was done with psychology and its hyper-focus on cognition. From my point of view, Marcus saw reason as a tempered combination of rational thought and intuition (inner guide), which has an emotional aspect to it. There’s also the God question that most people seem afraid to bring up and which has been made irrational by many. Talking about Nature seems acceptable, but God (or Gods, according to Marcus) not so much. There seems to be a need to keep it on the concrete, material side of human existence. I find curious the story about Commodus. What could have guided Marcus’ decision? Blind faith? I will try to look it up. Thanks for sharing all this information, it’s awesome to tap into it. As usual, my favorite part is the beginning, where imagination introduces us to what comes next. Brilliant.
Thank you, Vanessa. You’re takes on Marcus Aurelius are very interesting and they raise some good questions. I’ll look into them further as well. The God point you raise as well is a good one.
Thank you for your comments on my writing. It’s very motivational.