This is part of our 3-part short series on the three most important Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. Here you will find a short 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.
Agasicles, king of the Spartans, once quipped that he wanted to be ‘the student of men whose son I should like to be as well.’ It is a critical consideration we need to make in our search for role models. Stoicism is no exception. Before we begin our studies we need to ask ourselves: Who are the people that followed these precepts? Who can I point out as an example? Am I proud to look up to this person? Do I want to be more like them?
And Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born nearly two millennia ago (121 – 180), is a leader and example who provides a resounding yes.
Marcus Annius Verus was born in a prominent and established family but nobody at the time would have predicted that he would one day be Emperor of the Empire. There is little that is known of his childhood but he was a serious young man who also enjoyed wrestling, boxing and hunting. Around his teenage years, the reigning emperor at the time, Hadrian was nearing death and was childless. He had to pick a successor and after his first choice, Lucius Ceionius, died unexpectedly, he chose Antoninus. He was a senator who was also childless and he would have to adopt Marcus, as per Hadrian’s condition, as well as Ceionius’s son, Lucius Verus. This is how Marcus’s name changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Once Hadrian died, it was clear that Marcus was next in line for the most important position in the empire. His education would become of serious concern and he would have the privilege of studying under Herodes Atticus, a rhetorician from Athens (Marcus would later write his Meditations in Greek) as well as Marcus Cornelius Fronto, his instructor in Latin whose letters of correspondence with Marcus survive to this day. Marcus would also serve as a consul twice thus receiving a valuable and practical education.
In 161, as Antoninus died and ended one of the longest reigns, Marcus became the Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180. He also co-ruled in the beginning with Lucius Verus, his adopted brother until Lucius’ death eight years later. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity as well as the plague that left numerous dead.
Marcus’s death came in 180 in his military headquarters in modern day Vienna. The historian Cassius Dio describes Marcus’s attitude towards his son, Commodus who he made co-emperor few years earlier and was now to succeed him: “[Marcus] was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him.”
It is important to realize the gravity of that position and the magnitude of power that Marcus possessed. He held one of—if not the most—powerful positions in the world at the time. If he chose to, nothing would be off limits. He could indulge and succumb to temptations, there was nobody that could restrain him from any of his wishes. There is a reason the adage that power in absolute absolutely corrupts has been repeated throughout history—it unfortunately tends to be true. And yet, as the essayist Matthew Arnold remarked, Marcus proved himself worthy of the position he was in.
And it was not only him who offered that verdict. The famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote that under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. The guidance of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from the majority of past and present world leaders. Just think of the diary that he left behind, which is now known as his Meditations which we discuss below: the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, 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 a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. It is not surprising that he wrote his Meditations in the last decade of his life, while on campaigning against foreign invaders. Passed down from his mentors and teachers, Marcus embraced the studies of Stoicism which we see in him thanking his teacher Rusticus for introducing him to Stoicism and Epictetus inside Meditations. Another influence on Marcus came from Heraclitus, whose concepts we can see throughout Meditations and who had a strong influence on Stoic thought. Given the literary world at the time, Marcus was mostly likely not exposed to Seneca, another one of the three most prominent Stoics.
What is tragic about Marcus, as one scholar wrote, is how his “philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.”