Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor
This is part of our short 3-part series on the three most important Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Here you will find a brief introduction to Marcus, suggested readings, three exercises/lessons from him, as well as a selection of quotes. You can also read our introduction to Stoicism if you are not familiar with the philosophy.
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Agasicles, king of the Spartans, once joked that he wanted to be “the student of men whose son I would also like to be.” it is a critical consideration we must make in our search for role models. stoicism is no exception. before beginning our studies we need to ask ourselves: who are the people who followed these precepts? Who can I point to as an example? Am I proud to admire this person? Do I want to be more like them?
and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born almost two millennia ago (121 – 180), is a leader and example who gives a resounding yes.
Marcus Annius Verus was born into a prominent and established family, but no one at the time would have predicted that he would one day be emperor of the empire. Little is known of his childhood, but he was a serious young man who also enjoyed wrestling, boxing, and hunting. Around his teens, the reigning emperor at the time, Hadrian was about to die and was childless. he had to choose a successor and after his first choice, lucius ceionius, died unexpectedly, he chose antoninus. He was a senator who was also childless and would have to adopt Marcus, on Hadrian’s condition, as well as Ceionius’s son, Lucius Verus. this is how the name of marcus changed to marcus aurelius antoninus.
Once Hadrian died, it became clear that Marcus was next in line for the highest position in the empire. His education would become a serious concern and he would have the privilege of studying with Herodes Atticus, a rhetorician from Athens (Marcus would later write his musings in Greek) as well as Marcus Cornelius Fronto, his Latin instructor whose letters of correspondence with Marcus survive. to this day. Marcus would also serve as consul twice thus receiving a valuable and practical education.
in 161, when antoninus died and ended one of the longest reigns, marcus became emperor of the roman empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180. he also co-ruled at first with lucius verus, his adoptive brother until Lucius’s death eight years later. His reign was not easy: wars with the Parthian empire, barbarian tribes threatening the empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity as well as the plague that left many dead.
Marcus’s death occurred in 180 at his military headquarters in present-day Vienna. The historian Cassius Dio describes Marcus’s attitude towards his son, Commodus, whom he had made co-emperor a few years before and would now succeed him: “[Marcus] was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles for practically all his reign. but for my part, I admire him all the more precisely for this, that in the midst of unusual and extraordinary difficulties he survived and preserved the empire. Only one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after raising and educating his son in the best possible way, he was very disappointed in him.”
It’s important to realize the gravity of that position and the magnitude of the power that Marcus wielded. he held one of the most powerful positions in the world at the time, if not the most. if he chose, nothing would be off limits. he could indulge himself and succumb to temptations, there was no one who could restrain him from any of his desires. There’s a reason the adage that power absolutely does not corrupt has been repeated throughout history; unfortunately, it tends to be true. And yet, as essayist Matthew Arnold noted, Marcus proved himself worthy of the position he found himself in.
and it wasn’t just him who delivered that verdict. The famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote that under Marcus, the last of the “five good emperors,” “the Roman Empire was ruled by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue.” the guide of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from most world leaders past and present. just think of the journal he left behind, now known as his musings that we discuss below: the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation. , wiser.
And for Marcus, stoicism provided a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as the leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. no wonder he wrote his musings in the last decade of his life, while campaigning against foreign invaders. Inherited from his mentors and teachers, Marcus embraced the studies of Stoicism that we see in him thanking his teacher Rusticus for introducing him to Stoicism and Epictetus within the meditations. Another influence on Marcus came from Heraclitus, whose concepts we can see throughout the meditations and who had a strong influence on Stoic thought. Given the literary world of the time, Marcus was probably not exposed to Seneca, another of the three most prominent Stoics.
what is tragic about marcus, as one scholar wrote, is how his “philosophy, dealing with self-control, duty, and respect for others, was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line that it anointed his death “.
Now it’s up to us to get it back.
notable works & suggested reading
The Meditations of Marcus is perhaps the only such document ever produced. They are the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world giving advice on how to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations of his position. Originally titled, “To Yourself,” Meditations is the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization, and strength. It turned out to be just as inspiring to writers like Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson as it has been to statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Wen Jiabao, and Bill Clinton. If you read it and it doesn’t change you profoundly, it’s probably because, as Aurelio says, “what doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness”. As John Stuart Mill said in his work on freedom, the meditations are “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”
It’s important to remind ourselves that we are lucky to have access to these. as gregory hays explains, traces were lost for centuries until the early 10th century, “it reappears in a letter from the scholar and ecclesiastical arethas.”
you have to read the hays translation. If you end up loving Marcus, go find the inner citadel and philosophy as a way of life by Pierre Hadot who studies the man (and men) behind the job. and if you want more on the subject, marcus inspired the obstacle is the road, of which you can get a free chapter if you subscribe to the daily stoic newsletter.
3 Stoic Exercises of Marcus Aurelius
1. practice the virtues that you can show
It’s easy to succumb to self-pity when we start telling ourselves that we lack certain talents, that we miss things that seem to come so easily to other people. we need to catch ourselves when we do it. instead, we need to focus on the things that are always within us: our capacity and potential for virtuous action. as marcus wrote himself,
“no one could ever accuse you of being witty.
okay, but there are many other things you can’t say that you “don’t have in you”. practice the virtues that you can show: honesty, seriousness, resistance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, haughtiness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer, beyond excuses like “I can’t”? And yet you settle for less.”
2. drawing strength from others
As discussed above, Marcus most likely wrote the notes for himself, which are now battlefield meditations, during the last decade of his life. in those moments of difficulty and adversity, he wrote himself notes of encouragement, to recover, to fulfill his duty. one exercise we can borrow from him is to draw strength from the people in our lives or simply from the role models who inspire us. as he wrote,
“When you need encouragement, think about the qualities that the people around you have: the energy of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of another, etc. nothing is as encouraging as when the virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we are practically bathed in them. it’s good to keep this in mind.”
3.focus on the present
Marcus knew the temptations for all of us to let our imaginations run wild imagining all the ways things could go wrong. Of course, such an exercise can be helpful in preparing for the future and preparing for adversity, but Marcus well understood that it can become a paralyzing fear that will paralyze us from any useful action. as he said,
“don’t let your imagination be overwhelmed by life as a whole. don’t try to imagine all the bad things that could happen. stay with the current situation and ask yourself: “why is this so unbearable? why can’t i take it? you will be embarrassed to answer.
then remember that the past and the future have no power over you. only the present, and even that can be minimized. just set your limits. and if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold up against that… well then, shame on yourself.”
Marcus Aurelius Quotes
“yes, you can, if you do everything as if it were the last thing you would do in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, testy.”
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work, as a human being.’ What do I have to complain about, if I am going to do what I was born to do, the things for which I was brought into the world? Or is this what I was created for? to snuggle under the covers and keep warm?’”
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be nosy, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like that because they can’t tell right from wrong.”
“not to feel exasperated, defeated or despondent because your days are not filled with wise and moral actions. but getting back up when you fail, celebrating being a human being, imperfect as it may be, and fully embracing the quest you’ve embarked on.”
“The mind adapts and converts the obstacle to our actions to its own ends. the impediment to action advances the action. what gets in the way becomes the way.”
“without carelessness in your actions. there is no confusion in your words. no inaccuracies in your thoughts.”
PS Bestselling authors of the Daily Stoic Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman have teamed up again on their new book Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living by Zeno to Marcus. In addition to presenting the fascinating lives of all the well-known and not-so-known Stoics, Lives of the Stoics distils timeless and immediately applicable lessons on happiness, success, resilience, and virtue. The book is available for pre-order and is scheduled to be released on September 29!
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