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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus


 

Marcus Aurelius

emperor of Rome
in full Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, original name (until ad 161) Marcus Annius Verus

born April 26, ad 121, Rome
died March 17, 180, Vindobona [Vienna], or Sirmium, Pannonia

Main
Roman emperor (ad 161–180), best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius has symbolized for many generations in the West the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

Youth and apprenticeship
When he was born, his paternal grandfather was already consul for the second time and prefect of Rome, which was the crown of prestige in a senatorial career; his father’s sister was married to the man who was destined to become the next emperor and whom he himself would in due time succeed; and his maternal grandmother was heiress to one of the most massive of Roman fortunes. Marcus thus was related to several of the most prominent families of the new Roman establishment, which had consolidated its social and political power under the Flavian emperors (69–96), and, indeed, the ethos of that establishment is relevant to his own actions and attitudes. The governing class of the first age of the Roman Empire, the Julio-Claudian, had been little different from that of the late Republic—it was urban Roman (despising outsiders), extravagant, cynical, and amoral; the new establishment, however, was largely of municipal and provincial origin—as were its emperors—cultivating sobriety and good works and turning more and more to piety and religiosity.

The child Marcus was, thus, clearly destined for social distinction. How he came to the throne, however, remains a mystery. In 136 the emperor Hadrian inexplicably announced as his eventual successor a certain Lucius Ceionius Commodus (henceforth L. Aelius Caesar), and in that same year young Marcus was engaged to Ceionia Fabia, the daughter of Commodus. Early in 138, however, Commodus died and later, after the death of Hadrian, the engagement was annulled. Hadrian then adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (the husband of Marcus’ aunt) to succeed him as the emperor Antoninus Pius, arranging that Antoninus should adopt as his sons two young men, one the son of Commodus and the other Marcus, whose name was then changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. Marcus thus was marked out as a future joint emperor at the age of just under 17, though as it turned out he was not to succeed until his 40th year. It is sometimes assumed that in Hadrian’s mind both Commodus and Antoninus Pius were merely to be “place warmers” for one or both of these youths.

The long years of Marcus’ apprenticeship under Antoninus are illuminated by the correspondence between him and his teacher Fronto. Though the main society literary figure of the age, Fronto was a dreary pedant whose blood ran rhetoric, but he must have been less lifeless than he now appears, for there is genuine feeling and real communication in the letters between him and both of the young men. It was to the credit of Marcus, who was intelligent as well as hardworking and serious-minded, that he grew impatient with the unending regime of advanced exercises in Greek and Latin declamation and eagerly embraced the Diatribai (“Discourses”) of a religious former slave, Epictetus, an important moral philosopher of the Stoic school. Henceforth, it was in philosophy that Marcus was to find his chief intellectual interest as well as his spiritual nourishment.

Meanwhile, there was work enough to do at the side of the untiring Antoninus, with learning the business of government and assuming public roles. Marcus was consul in 140, 145, and 161. In 145 he married his cousin, the Emperor’s daughter Annia Galeria Faustina, and in 147 the imperium and tribunicia potestas, the main formal powers of emperorship, were conferred upon him; henceforth, he was a kind of junior co-emperor, sharing the intimate counsels and crucial decisions of Antoninus. (His adoptive brother, nearly 10 years his junior, was brought into official prominence in due time.) On March 7, 161, at a time when the brothers were jointly consuls (for the third and the second time, respectively), their father died.


Roman emperor
The transition was smooth as far as Marcus was concerned; already possessing the essential constitutional powers, he stepped automatically into the role of full emperor (and his name henceforth was Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus). At his own insistence, however, his adoptive brother was made co-emperor with him (and bore henceforth the name Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus). There is no evidence that Lucius Verus had much of a following, so that a ruthless rival could have easily disposed of him, though to leave him in being as anything less than emperor might have created a focus for disaffection. It is most probable, however, that Marcus’ conscience impelled him to carry out loyally what he believed to have been the plan by which alone he himself had eventually reached the purple. For the first time in history the Roman Empire had two joint emperors of formally equal constitutional status and powers, but, although the achievement of Lucius Verus has suffered by comparison with the paragon Marcus, it seems probable that the serious work of government was done throughout by Marcus and was the more arduous in that it was done during most of his reign in the midst of fighting frontier wars and combatting the effects of plague and demoralization.

For constructive statesmanship or the initiation of original trends in civil policy, Marcus had little time or energy to spare. The field most congenial to him seems to have been the law. Numerous measures were promulgated and judicial decisions made, clearing away harshnesses and anomalies in the civil law, improving in detail the lot of the less-favoured—slaves, widows, minors—and giving recognition to claims of blood relationship in the field of succession. Marcus’ personal contribution, however, must not be overstated. The pattern of ameliorating legislation was inherited rather than novel, and the measures were refinements rather than radical changes in the structure of law or society; Marcus was not a great legislator, but he was a devoted practitioner of the role of ombudsman. Moreover, there was nothing specifically Stoic about this legal activity, and in one respect the age of Antoninus Pius and Marcus signalizes a retrogression in the relationship of law to society, for under them there either began, or was made more explicit, a distinction of classes in the criminal law—honestiores and humiliores, with two separate scales of punishments for crime, harsher and more degrading for the humiliores at every point.

Marcus’ claim to statesmanship has come under critical attack in numerous other ways; for example, in the matter of Christian persecution. Though Marcus disliked the Christians, there was no systematic persecution of them during his reign. Their legal status remained as it had been under Trajan and Hadrian: Christians were ipso facto punishable but not to be sought out. This incongruous position did little harm in times of general security and prosperity, but when either of these were threatened, the local population might denounce Christians, a governor might be forced to act, and the law, as the central authority saw it, must then run its course. The martyrdoms at Lyon in 177 were of this nature, and, though it appears that Christian blood flowed more profusely in the reign of Marcus the philosopher than it had before, he was not an initiator of persecution.

In 161 Syria was invaded by the Parthians, a major power to the East. The war that followed (162–166) was nominally under the command of Verus, though its successful conclusion, with the overrunning of Armenia and Mesopotamia, was the work of subordinate generals, notably Gaius Avidius Cassius. The returning armies brought back with them a plague, which raged throughout the empire for many years and—together with the German invasion—fostered a weakening of morale in minds accustomed to the stability and apparent immutability of Rome and its empire.

In 167 or 168 Marcus and Verus together set out on a punitive expedition across the Danube, and behind their backs a horde of German tribes invaded Italy in massive strength and besieged Aquileia, on the crossroads at the head of the Adriatic. The military precariousness of the empire and the inflexibility of its financial structure in the face of emergencies now stood revealed; desperate measures were adopted to fill the depleted legions, and imperial property was auctioned to provide funds. Marcus and Verus fought the Germans off with success, but in 169 Verus died suddenly, and doubtless naturally, of a stroke. Three years of fighting were still needed, with Marcus in the thick of it, to restore the Danubian frontier, and three more years of campaigning in Bohemia were enough to bring the tribes beyond the Danube to peace, at least for a time.
 

The Meditations
A more intimate contact with the thoughts pursued by Marcus during the troubling involvements of his reign, though not what would have been historically most valuable, his day-to-day political thoughts, can be acquired by reading the Meditations. To what extent he intended them for eyes other than his own is uncertain; they are fragmentary notes, discursive and epigrammatic by turn, of his reflections in the midst of campaigning and administration. In a way, it seems, he wrote them to nerve himself for his daunting responsibilities. Strikingly, though they comprise the innermost thoughts of a Roman, the Meditations were written in Greek—to such an extent had the union of cultures become a reality. In many ages these thoughts have been admired; the modern age, however, is more likely to be struck by the pathology of them, their mixture of priggishness and hysteria. Marcus was forever proposing to himself unattainable goals of conduct, forever contemplating the triviality, brutishness, and transience of the physical world and of man in general and himself in particular; otherworldly, yet believing in no other world, he was therefore tied to duty and service with no hope, even of everlasting fame, to sustain him. Sickly all through his life and probably plagued with a chronic ulcer, he took daily doses of a drug; the suggestion has been made that the apocalyptic imagery of passages in the Meditations betrays the addict. More certain and more important is the point that Marcus’ anxieties reflect, in an exaggerated manner, the ethos of his age.

The Meditations, the thoughts of a philosopher-king, have been considered by many generations one of the great books of all times. Though they were Marcus’ own thoughts, they were not original. They are basically the moral tenets of Stoicism, learned from Epictetus: the cosmos is a unity governed by an intelligence, and the human soul is a part of that divine intelligence and can therefore stand, if naked and alone, at least pure and undefiled, amidst chaos and futility. One or two of Marcus’ ideas, perhaps more through lack of rigorous understanding than anything else, diverged from Stoic philosophy and approached that Platonism that was itself then turning into the Neoplatonism into which all pagan philosophies, except Epicureanism, were destined to merge. But he did not deviate so far as to accept the comfort of any kind of survival after death.

At the same time that Marcus was securing his trans-Danubian frontiers, Egypt, Spain, and Britain were troubled by rebellions or invasions. By 175, the general Avidius Cassius, who earlier had served under Verus, had virtually become a prefect of all of the eastern provinces, including control of the important province of Egypt. In that year, Avidius Cassius took the occasion of a rumour of Marcus’ death to proclaim himself emperor. Marcus made peace in the north with those tribes not already subjugated and prepared to march against Avidius, but the rebel general was assassinated by his own soldiers. Marcus used the opportunity to make a tour of pacification and inspection in the East, visiting Antioch, Alexandria, and Athens—where, like Hadrian, he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries (though that esoteric religious cult does not seem to have impinged at all upon his philosophical views). During the journey the empress Faustina, who had been with her husband in the Danubian wars as well, died. Great public honours were bestowed upon her in life and in death, and in his Meditations Marcus spoke of her with love and admiration. The ancient sources accuse her of infidelity and disloyalty (complicity, in fact, with Avidius Cassius), but the charges are implausible.

In 177 Marcus proclaimed his 16-year-old son, Commodus, joint emperor. Together they resumed the Danubian wars. Marcus was determined to pass from defense to offense and to an expansionist redrawing of Rome’s northern boundaries. His determination seemed to be winning success when, in 180, he died at his military headquarters, having just had time to commend Commodus to the chief advisers of the regime.

Assessment
Marcus’ choice of his only surviving son as his successor has always been viewed as a tragic paradox. Commodus turned out badly, though two things must be borne in mind: emperors are good and bad in the ancient sources according as they did or did not satisfy the senatorial governing class, and Commodus’ rapid calling off of the northern campaigns may well have been wiser than his father’s obsessive and costly expansionism. But those who criticize Marcus for ensuring the accession of Commodus are usually under the misapprehension that Marcus was reverting to crude dynasticism after a long and successful period of “philosophic” succession by the best available man. This is historically untenable. Marcus had no choice in the matter: if he had not made Commodus his successor, he would have had to order him to be put to death.

Marcus was a statesman, perhaps, but one of no great calibre; nor was he really a sage. In general, he is a historically overrated figure, presiding in a bewildered way over an empire beneath the gilt of which there already lay many a decaying patch. But his personal nobility and dedication survive the most remorseless scrutiny; he counted the cost obsessively, but he did not shrink from paying it.

John Anthony Crook

 


MEDITATIONS
 

Type of work: Philosophical discourse
Author: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180)
First published: 1558, composed с 171-180

 

The book of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome from 161 to 180, has been called The Thoughts and The Reflections, but most commonly Meditations. The true title of the work is unknown. Its history is mysterious, but scholars have never doubted its authenticity. When Marcus Aurelius was fifty years of age, perhaps older, he adopted the habit of composing notes, or memoranda, for his own benefit. From his boyhood, the emperor had been of a philosophic turn of mind, and he chose to write in Greek, the language of the philosophers. Although his reflections have inspired and comforted many thousands of readers, they are clearly intended for self-improvement only. The emperor's behavior, well documented by historians, indicates that he lived by those precepts he recorded.
For more than a thousand years, Meditations remained an obscure work, going unmentioned by other writers for centuries at a time. Suidas, the ancient lexicographer, cites the book under several words in his dictionary. He names Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as the author, indicating that it deals with the conduct of the emperor's own life, but he gives no title. Other writers of late antiquity mention a work by Marcus Aurelius as well. It was not until the fifteenth century that the work came to be valued as a treasure, and not until 1558 that it was published in Zurich by Xylander, in a Latin version. Before the end of the sixteenth century, Antonio de Guevara, a Spanish bishop, had based a sort of romance on the life and character of Marcus Aurelius, Archontorologion: Or, The Dial! of Princes, Containing the Golden and Famovs Booke of Marcvs Avrelivs, Sometime Emperovr of Rome. Its purpose was to put before Emperor Charles V the model of antiquity's wisest and most virtuous prince.
Though nothing of the manuscript's early history is known for certain, reasonable inferences can be drawn. The emperor's notes were not abstract speculation. They were his philosophical response to the burdens he bore as ruler of a great state, and especially as commander in chief of armies fighting constant, protracted, and inconclusive wars on several frontiers. Since he was recording his most personal views in the form of self-admonition, it is improbable that he dictated to an amanuensis. Therefore, when the emperor died of the plague or some other contagious malady while campaigning along the upper Danube, it is likely that he left behind a manuscript in his own hand. The same would be true even if, as some scholars have suggested, the emperor was writing for his unworthy son and successor, Commodus, rather than for himself. Some unknown person preserved, and probably copied, the manuscript.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius comprises twelve books. Whether this division was made by the emperor or by some later editor is not known. The contents are random, except that the writer devotes book 1 to an acknowledgment of the good qualities transmitted to him by grandparents, parents, sister, kinsmen, teachers, friends, and the gods. An inscription at the end of book 1 indicates that it was written among the Quadi at the Granua. An inscription at the end of book 2 indicates that it was written in Carnuntum. If these notes are genuine, the emperor may well have been the one who divided the work into books.
The Meditations represents the last great statement of the Stoic philosophy. The thoughts expressed are reminiscent of the Discourses and the Enchiridion of the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus. They are practical statements of ethical behavior, undergirded by a deep religious faith. The central premise is that man's fate is chosen by the gods, for the gods can naturally choose better than man. Man's obligation is to respond to what the gods send him in those ways which are closest to nature. That which follows nature is good, that which departs from nature is evil, and the gods have given man the ability to distinguish between the two. Those vicissitudes to which man can find no natural response he must simply bear with dignity. A recurrent theme throughout the Meditations is that contentment never comes from the circumstances of man's life; it can come only from within. The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius is modified somewhat by the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, with which the emperor was clearly familiar.
When considered on its literary merits alone, the Meditations suffers by comparison to the greatest works of antiquity. The text is repetitious, and the writing style is undistinguished. Likewise, when judged purely as a writer, Aristotle suffers by comparison to Plato, since the former's work survived largely through lecture notes while the latter's dialogues were presumably finished, polished creations. Marcus Aurelius was not writing for posterity. He was writing for himself, or perhaps for his son who would be the next emperor. The power of the book lies in the character of its author and the clarity with which it expresses that character. Like all rulers in all times, Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by schemers, backbiters, flatterers, and gossips. The biographer Capitoli-nus and the historian Dion Cassius recount stories of the infidelities and lewdness of Faustina, the empress. Marcus Aurelius speaks only of his wife's virtue and gentle spirit, and of his deep love for her. In his attitude toward his son, the emperor could perhaps be faulted for an excess of high-mindedness, since Commodus proved himself lacking in his father's virtue and capacity.
Of the seduction of fame and the blandishments of flatterers, the emperor writes:
But perhaps the desire of the thing called fame will torment thee.—See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of [the present], and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed [and be quiet at last]. For the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this thy dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee.
A few lines further, he returns to his oft-repeated assertion that all life is change, and the particular circumstances of one's life are important only in regard to one's inner response to them. "Things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. . . . The universe is transformation: life is opinion." The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius posits no afterlife, nor does it suggest that there are any likely rewards on earth for virtuous behavior. Death—obliteration—is repeatedly cited as the fact which gives the lie to every human vanity. "This is the chief thing: Be not perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the universal; and in a little time thou wilt be nobody and nowhere, like Hadrianus and Augustus." Along with the troubles the gods send to man, for whatever good reasons of their own, they send him the capacity to bear them:
Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? for thou wilt be ashamed to confess.
Marcus Aurelius states that one should not hate one's enemies but, rather, should attempt to win them over to reason and the right. Nor should one blame another whose behavior has been base:
But most of all when thou blamest a man as faithless or ungrateful, turn to thyself. For the fault is manifestly thy own, whether thou didst trust that a man who had such a disposition would keep his promise, or when conferring thy kindness thou didst not confer it absolutely, nor yet in such a way as to have received from thy very act all the profit.
For Marcus Aurelius, there is a oneness to all things— physical, spiritual, and ethical: "There is one universe made up of all things, and one god who pervades all things." This belief informs life with an ultimate simplicity beneath all of its complexities. The author reduces the multifarious questions of honor, duty, and ethical behavior to this admonition: "Thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last." Men seek retreats from the affairs of the world—country houses, seashores, mountains—when they should retire into themselves. "Let thy principles be [such that they] will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest." All things are as they should be, if man can accept them as such. "Everything harmonizes with me which is harmonious to thee, О Universe." This harmony is not difficult to achieve if man will only follow the way of life which is natural and obvious: "Go straight on, following thy own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one."
The Stoics, a sect founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium in the fourth century B.C., were waning in influence by the emperor's day. Their philosophy must have seemed especially austere when contrasted with the eternal life promised by the Christian sect, which was, at least in retrospect, clearly in the ascendancy. For example, here is Marcus Aurelius on happiness: "If thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature . . . thou wilt live happy."
Marcus Aurelius was the last of Rome's "good emperors." He was the embodiment of Plato's philosopher-king. Throughout the Christian era, attempts have been made to associate the Meditations with Christian thought. Such efforts are understandable, for the emperor's self-admonitions to virtuous conduct for its own sake, steadfastness, magnanimity, and forbearance are congenital to the mind of the Christian apologist. The weight of evidence, however, indicates otherwise. Marcus Aurelius seems to have known little about the Christians, and what he knew he did not like. At times during his reign, Christians were persecuted, especially by provincial governors. The state of constant warfare, aggravated by widespread pestilence, caused the populace to demand a scapegoat, and the Christians had renounced the ancient gods of Rome. The historical record is unclear, but it seems likely that the emperor—as tolerant as the ruler of a besieged empire could afford to be—acquiesced in these persecutions rather than instigating them. Still, he clearly regarded the Christians as fanatical troublemakers. He should be viewed, then, not as an incipient Christian but as the voice of paganism's last great moral pronouncements.
Marcus Aurelius was an able general, but he was not a military figure of the stature of Julius Caesar. He was a clear and disciplined thinker but not a brilliant one, like Plato or Aristotle. He was a competent writer of prose but not a master stylist, like Cicero. In the final analysis, the author of the Meditations was great because he was good.

 

 
 
 
 

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