Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher King

On March 17th of the year 180 A.D., the Pax Romana came to an end. During this 200 year period, Rome reached the apotheosis of its power and glory-a true golden age of human flourishing accompanied by unparalleled peace and tranquility in the Empire. This period began with the ascension of Caesar Augustus and the formation of the Empire in 27BC and continued until the death of the last good Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in the Spring of 180 A.D.. But after the death of Marcus, one Roman historian said that Rome descended “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”

How did a young boy, not born in line for the imperial throne, come to occupy the title of “Imperator”? And why did the entire history of Rome seem to pivot on the life of this one man? Perhaps Roman historians begin to answer this question when they bestow upon Marcus Aurelius an unusual title – “the philosopher.” This is the story of Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher King.

The story of Marcus Aurelius is from our book, Famous Men of Rome, a collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth. It’s a perfect addition to the collection of any students and teachers of classical history, from fourth to sixth grade.

Education and Youth

Marcus was born to a wealthy and influential Roman family. His family occupied a place within the inner circle of the Emperor Hadrian, who immediately noticed the young and virtuous Marcus and took to calling him *verissimus*, “the most truthful one.” To no one’s surprise then, Marcus received an impressive education in drama, music, geometry, literature, rhetoric, and Greek. And although his father died when Marcus was only three, he was adopted by his paternal grandfather who spared no expense in his private education. His most influential teacher was Junius Rusticus, a Stoic philosopher and politician who first exposed Marcus to Stoic teaching and the way of life that should accompany a true Stoic philosopher.

In the winter of 138 A.D., as the Emperor Hadrian lay dying on his bed, he issued an unexpected decree. Hadrian adopted a 52 year old unambitious senator named Antoninus Pius. But Hadrian had one condition, Antoninus must then adopt Marcus Aurelius. Although Hadrian was growing increasingly frail and paranoid in his old age, he made every arrangement to secure the future ascension of the young Verissimus. The old senator served a provisional role, for Hadrian, allowing Marcus Aurelius time to acquire the wisdom and courage required of an Emperor.

Marcus met the news of his adoption with great sadness. Even then, he recognized the significance of Hadrian’s plan and the massive turn his life was about to take. From an early age, he desired nothing more than to study and practice philosophy. His life-long devotion to philosophy even took a great toll on his long term health. One historian explains that “as a result of his close application and study he was extremely frail in body.” Despite his natural inclination away from political life and towards the life of a philosopher, Marcus recognized the demands that this new status would place on his life. And although he never neglected his practice of philosophy, he accepted his new duty and plunged head-long into a political career.

His Reign: War, Pestilence, and War Again

In 161 A.D., not one, but two Roman emperors rose to power. For the first time in the history of the empire, one emperor elected to have another rule by his side. Recognizing the size and scope of his duty, Marcus Aurelius demanded that his adoptive brother, Lucius, receive equal powers. The senate acceded to his request and confirmed both Marcus and Lucius as *imperatores* of the Roman Empire.

No emperor before Marcus elected to share his power. Only the wise philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius, had the wisdom to see that sharing his rule could be a strength instead of a weakness. Of course, given his proven aptitude as a leader and his skill in rhetoric, every Roman citizen understood that Marcus was the true head among these equals; however, Marcus demonstrated his magnanimity by never speaking ill of his adoptive brother Lucius, despite his known debauchery.

Given that the Empire had experienced 200 years of peace and was now under the efficient and judicious leadership of a strong and prudent sovereign, one might expect a continued season of internal concord and international amity. But this would not be the fate of Marcus and his Empire. In fact, during almost every minute of his 19 year reign, Marcus was forced into wars and conflicts.

First, the Parthians invaded Armenia in the east, taking also Syria and winning a decisive victory against the Roman legions at Elegeia. Then, the old Germanic tribes to the north grew increasingly more defiant until finally they led an invasion force across the Danube river and into the region of Gaul. This act of aggression initiated a 14 year period known as the Marcomanni Wars, and Marcus would spend the rest of his life in a foreign land engaged in this conflict.

In addition to these two wars, the Roman armies spread a mysterious illness throughout the Empire. This sickness was known as the Antonine Plague–the first known pandemic. It would last the rest of Marcus’s reign as Emperor and it would kill about 60 million people, about 1/3 of the population of the Empire.

The Meditations

Fortuna did not love Marcus Aurelius. Instead, she oppressed his Empire from the east, from within, and from the north. She also left a dark stain on his own life. Marcus experienced the death of 8 of his children. He saw his adoptive brother and co-Emperor Lucius succumb to the plague in 169. He lost his beloved wife of 35 years. And He endured painful recurring health problems, leading eventually to his death in March of 180 A.D.

Despite a lifetime of turmoil and death, Marcus was never deterred from his virtuous activity. Unlike his brother Lucius, who threw wild parties and gave elaborate gifts, Marcus lived simply and without pretension. Few could rival the discipline and commitment with which he dispatched his duties. When Roman politicians refused to go out among the people for fear of death and the plague, Marcus courageously walked among the sick and dying to lead the people. And to defend Rome against the raging Germanic tribes, he sold personal items from the royal palace to help finance the war in the north.

Marcus found the strength to live a virtuous life despite the brutal circumstances of his life. And he reveals the source of this strength in a book that he wrote to himself over a 10 year period while he was on campaign against the Germanic tribes in the north. We call this book the *Meditations* of Marcus Aurelius.

“There comes a time in a man’s life,” Marcus writes, “when his existence is in flux, his insight clouded, his body’s entire composition decaying, his soul a cyclone, his fortune unpredictable, his fame uncertain. In short: all the things of the body are a river, and all the things of the soul are as a dream and a mist, and life is a war and a journey in a strange land, with a posthumous fame only of oblivion. What, then, can be his escort through life? One thing and one thing only: Philosophy” (2.17).

Philosophy, for Marcus, has a specific purpose: it is a therapy, a balm for the soul, a salve for the struggles of human life. Marcus would agree with the sentiments of Epicurus when he wrote, “Empty is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.”

In his Meditations, Marcus describes philosophy as a style of life, a style that is cemented and reinforced in the soul by the committed practice of virtuous disciplines. And like any good Stoic philosopher, Marcus practiced the three stoic disciplines of desire, action, and proper judgment:

The discipline of desire required that Marcus train himself only to desire that which is within his control. This discipline requires the virtue of courage to accept things as they are and the virtue of temperance to refrain from desiring those things which remain outside of his control. Despite the ravages of a plague, Marcus often led his weakened army into battle against the northern barbarians. He could not control the spread of the plague, but he could courageously defend Rome from those that sought her destruction.

“Cease to fume at destiny,” Marcus wrote to himself, “by ever grumbling at today or lamenting over tomorrow” (2.2). This discipline necessitates a calm acceptance of one’s fate. Marcus studied carefully the philosophical manuals of Epictetus when he was young, and he took seriously his warning not to “hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace” (Enchiridion 8).

The discipline of action required that Marcus cultivate an impulse towards those actions that benefit the community of all mankind. “Let your impulse to act and your action,” he wrote, “have as their goal the service of the human community, because that, for you, is in conformity with His your nature” (9.31) Marcus recognized that fear, anxiety, and the pressures of life could cripple his impulse to act, or even worse, they could cause use him to act without virtue. Thus, this discipline requires the virtue of justice to discern what is right and fair to others and then to act accordingly.

“Early in the morning,” he preached to himself, “when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being” (5.1). Marcus understood that mankind is a political animal, created to live in virtuous communion with others. The discipline of action, then, involves extending the natural affection that Marcus was born to feel for his own physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental health of all mankind.

The discipline of proper judgment required that Marcus make true judgments about the nature of the external world and the events that occur in it. For Marcus and his Stoic teachers, the biggest barrier to happiness is our own value-judgments about events in the world. “It is in your power to rid yourself of many unnecessary troubles,” Marcus reminds himself, “for they exist entirely in your opinions” (9.32).

The practice of this discipline demanded that Marcus acquire the virtue of wisdom and sound reason to determine whether his beliefs about the world are true judgments or value judgments. Marcus understood that the devastating pains of life could lead him to assent to wrong-headed impressions. “Nothing,” he preached to himself, “so enables greatness of mind as the ability to examine systematically and truthfully everything that meets us in life” (3.11) Marcus labored to hold every event in his life at bay, carefully scrutinizing it according to right reason and sound judgment.

His Death

More than other Stoic philosophers like Epictetus or Seneca, the Meditations reveal that Marcus Aurelius was a philosophical disciple rather than a philosophical innovator. He disciplined himself and committed his life to practicing the Stoic disciplines of desire, action, and proper judgment. And by bending his life into conformity with this Stoic way of life, Marcus hoped to cultivate human flourishing and happiness during a season of his life that was plagued by war and pestilence. Philosophy, for Marcus, provided a way to navigate the vicissitudes of life. It was a medicine, taken by the soul to produce health and encouragement.

While Marcus was born with a love for philosophy, he was pressed into service to his country. And for 19 years, he served the Empire. Like many today, Marcus found that the tumult of life was filled with impediments to human flourishing: plagues, economic depressions, war, personal betrayals, and above all the reality of death. Marcus reminds us that philosophy can provide a balm for the soul, a salve to heal the pains that ache us.

Some years later Justin Martyr would speak of the greatest philosophy: Christianity. Speaking of his conversion to Christianity, he explains

“I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Savior. For these words possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of righteousness with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.” (Dial 8.1)

The life of Marcus Aurelius illustrates that philosophy is a medicine for the soul, a way of coping with the pains of human life. His life demonstrates that philosophy is a way of living, which produces virtues through a commitment to practices. In unison with this way of thinking about Philosophy, Justin Martyr reminds us that the greatest way of life – the greatest philosophy– is the Christian faith.

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