The Stoic Emperor
Get ready to learn about Marcus Aurelius, the last “good emperor” of the Roman Empire. Despite facing internal social unrest and external instability on the Empire’s frontiers, Marcus Aurelius brought stability and security to the Empire using a combination of military might, statesmanship, and personal philosophy.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 A.D. He became the emperor in 161 after his adoptive father, Emperor Pius Antoninus, passed away. Marcus ruled together with his adoptive brother, Lucius Aurelius Verus, until Verus died in 169. About 40 years before Marcus Aurelius took power, the expansion of the Roman Empire had ended, and a general peace had ensued since. Unfortunately, the joint reign of the two brothers was quite different from the peaceful and prosperous rule of Pius Antoninus. Instead, their reign was marked by war and disease.
In the 160s, Marcus and Versus had to fight a war against the Parthians in the eastern part of the empire (modern-day eastern Iran). After defeating the Parthians and restoring peace and stability in the area, the soldiers brought some type of disease back to Rome, which lingered for several years and wiped out a significant portion of the population.
As the Parthian War came to an end, the Roman Empire faced another military conflict with Germanic tribes in the late 160s. These tribes crossed the Roman Empire border of the Danube River, raiding and pillaging Roman cities. To defend their territory, Marcus Aurelius and Verus set out to fight the invaders. Unfortunately, Verus died in 169, leaving Marcus to continue the fight against the Germans alone.
Busts of the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius (left) and Lucius Verus (right), British Museum.
After several years of fighting the Germanic tribes, Marcus restored peace along the Germanic border. Then, however, he had to deal with threats from within Rome itself. A rumor of his death spread to the province of Syria, prompting Governor Avidius Cassius to claim the title of Roman Emperor. Marcus made plans to travel to Syria to resolve the situation, but a word of a wrongful death resulted in the murder of Cassius by his own soldiers.
With all external and internal disputes resolved, Marcus was able to return to Rome and establish his domestic rule. A man devoted to intellectual pursuits, he began to focus his efforts on legal reform and philosophy. His goal was to continue the era of peace and stability that had defined Rome under his father and his father’s predecessor, Hadrian. This time was short-lived, as the German tribes rose up again in 177.
Marcus was determined to put an end to this fighting and raised the cash and troops necessary to fight a fully offensive campaign against the restless Germanic tribes. The first thing he did was to appoint his son Commodus, as joint emperor, easing his own burden of command so he could balance the wars with his other ambitions. Chief of these ambitions was the creation of a collection of personal philosophies known as the Meditations. It has been considered by many generations one of the greatest books of all time.
The Roman Empire at the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D., represented in purple.
Despite the wars that plagued Rome, Marcus Aurelius was determined to be known as an emperor of peace and intellect. His dream was to see Rome not just as an empire won through conquest, but as a cultural power much like Athens and Greece.
His philosophical writings were an attempt to spell out his vision of how life should be lived, both collectively and individually. His greatest focus was on seeing the bigger picture. Marcus believed that much of personal suffering could be avoided by viewing life in terms of the whole world rather than just your individual life. He also tried to avoid biased opinions, setting aside prejudice and always keeping an open mind. His philosophical writings reflected the Stoic tradition of philosophy, in particular the teachings of Epictetus.
Here’re some of Marcus Aurelius’s most famous quotes from Meditations:
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
He believed that our thoughts shape our reality, and that we have the power to control our own happiness.
“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
The quote highlights one of the key tenets of Stoicism—the idea that we cannot control external events, but we can control our reactions to them. By recognizing that we have power over our own thoughts and emotions, we can become more resilient and better able to navigate life’s challenges.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
This thought emphasizes the importance of forgiveness and compassion. Instead of seeking revenge, which only perpetuates a cycle of harm, we should strive to be better than those who have wronged us. By rising above petty grudges and resentment, we can cultivate a sense of inner peace and harmony.
Title page of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves.
Marcus Aurelius died in 180, leaving his son Commodus as the sole ruler. The Roman era under Commodus and his successors would be defined by war, corruption, and chaos, the very antithesis of what Marcus Aurelius strived to achieve. Rather than being lost, however, the legacy of Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations continues to influence Western philosophy and political reform even to this day. His goal of a peaceful, cultural empire, as opposed to an empire defined by conquest, has helped to shape modern ideals.
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” —Marcus Aurelius
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love...” —Marcus Aurelius
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” —Marcus Aurelius
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” —Marcus Aurelius
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