Meditations c 175
Marcus Aurelius, Rome, 121-180
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was Roman Emperor from 161 to his death. Regarded as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ he ruled the Roman Empire from 161 to 180, and is also considered one of the most important stoic philosophers. He, along with Julius Caesar, is the only one of two ancient leaders whose written works makes The Great Books List.
While in popular imagination Marcus Aurelius is regarded as an intellectual leader, his reign was marked by several wars including those against the Parthians, Germans and even elements of his own empire.
He is best known for his work ‘Meditations,’ which was written on campaign between 170–180. It is still revered as a brilliant discourse on government, service and duty.
Marcus Aurelius was born into a wealthy family of consular rank. Marcus Aurelius’ father was of Spanish origin, and served as a praetor.
He was also related to the wife of Roman Emperor Hadrian and became a trusted member of Hadrian’s court. Hadrian was succeeded as Emperor by Antoninus who nominated Marcus Aurelius and Verus to be his successors.
When Antoninus died in 161, the 40-year old Marcus Aurelius assumed the mantle of Emperor but only on the condition that he and Verus were made joint emperors. It was an unusual arrangement, albeit one that harkened back to the consul model of the Republic, but Marcus was motivated by his loyalty to Antoninius and his adoptive brother.
Another motivation was that Marcus faced two enemies in the Germanic tribes spilling into Roman Gaul and a revived Parthian Empire in the east. Marcus saw the joint Emperorship as a way or allowing an Emperor to command the military on two fronts. Marcus was aware of the revolts of Julius Caesar and Vespasian who had become powerful generals away from central control. Verus proved authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops in the East and remained loyal to Marcus until his death on campaign in 169.
At the beginning of his reign, Marcus continued on the path of his predecessors by instituting law reforms particularly in the treatment of slaves, widows and minors. Criminal law and punishments were also reformed. Christianity remained illegal but they were rarely persecuted during Marcus’ rule.
Varus and his generals defeated the Parthians in 166 and Varus returned to the West and joined Marcus in the war against the Germans. Both Marcus and Verus led the troops but Varus died in the field in 169. Marcus became sole Emperor and continued the campaign. After some notable defeats, the Romans gained the upper hand and began forcing the Germans back over the Danube and Rhine.
After a brief interlude in Rome, Marcus again led his legions against the Germans and crossed the Danube into Bohemia. But Marcus Aurlius fell ill and the campaign stalled.
Marcus Aurelius died in March, 180 in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna). His son and successor, Commodus, turned out to be an egotistical and brutal despot and his violent and bloody reign brought an end to the era known as Pax Romana. It also ended the tradition of adoptive emperors.
Meditations was written while Marcus Aurelius was on military campaign from 170 to 180. Aurelius wrote the text as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement and it is an exemplary piece of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Aurelius was important thinker and brought the experience of leadership, a religious background (he had served as a priest at the sacrificial alter earlier in life), a military mind and an understanding of the role of government, service and duty.
The significance of death was very important in the Meditations. Marcus Aurelius expresses skepticism about an afterlife and believed everyone is returned to oblivion upon death. He also wrote of the river of life and that death was an end to suffering. Ideas that are reminiscent of Eastern teachings. It is written in Chinese histories that Romans began to make contact with the Chinese court around the time of Marcus Aurelius although it would be pure speculation to assume that Chinese ideas made their way back to Rome.
Despite his meditations on life and death, Marcus Aurelius was an advocate of rational virtue. Aurelius portrayed an indifference towards the brutalities in life, and dispassionately persecuted his enemies and others and was constantly at war. He justified his deeds by pointing at the insignificance of worldly affairs.
Marcus Aurelius is portrayed in the film Gladiator by Richard Harris, a film which gives us an interesting insight into the nature of battles in Aurelius’ time.