Study Guide

Marcus Aurelius

by Marcus Annius Verus

Marcus Aurelius Essay - Critical Essays

Marcus Aurelius

Introduction

Marcus Aurelius 121-180

(Full name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) Roman emperor and philosopher.

Aurelius is one of the most remembered of the Roman emperors because of his Meditations (c. 169–c. 180), a classic work of Stoic philosophy consisting of a collection of his private notes gathered posthumously under one title. As the last of the five “good emperors,” as head of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180, and because he was revered for centuries after as the perfect emperor, Aurelius continues to be of great interest to historians. His short, literate essays reveal much about a time period not well represented elsewhere and also much regarding the thought processes of the State. A somber work informed by Stoicism and other philosophies that attracted Aurelius, the Meditations also appeals to the general reader because it is approachable and largely understandable without special training. After fighting in horrendous battles with death all around him, Marcus writes simply on how to use reason and logic, how to control one's emotions, and how to practice self-mastery. He urges piety, not pride: “Be just and temperate and a follower of the gods; but be so with simplicity, for the pride of modesty is the worst of all.” Aurelius’s well–known aphorisms such as “Man is worth as much as what he is interested in is worth”—have served as both solace and guide to innumerable readers for many centuries.

Biographical Information

Aurelius was born in Rome in 121. His father, Annius Verus, was a consular who and stemmed from a long line of nobles; his mother, Domitia Lucilla, was well educated, fluent in Greek, extremely wealthy, and also of aristocratic birth. Incorporated into their son's early education in character, culture, poetry, and public speaking, was an emphasis on instilling in him an appreciation for simplicity. Aurelius's studies continued at home after his father died, and he benefitted from the best tutors in geometry, music, and in Greek and Latin grammar. Aurelius soon came under the care of the childless Hadrian, who became emperor of Rome in 117. In 136 Marcus was betrothed to the daughter of the current consul, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, who was next in line to be emperor. Upon Ceionius's death in 138, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius and made him adopt both Aurelius and Ceionius's son Lucius Verus. During Pius's reign as emperor from 138 to 161, Aurelius studied rhetoric and law and served in numerous important government positions. His first betrothal having been put aside—probably reflecting political realities—Aurelius married Pius's daughter Faustina in 145. The couple had a daughter the following year. They also had a son, Commodus, in 161. Although Aurelius's claim to the position of emperor was superior to Verus's, Aurelius insisted they rule together, which they did from 161 until 169, when Verus died. It was during the following years of solo rule that Aurelius wrote the bulk of the Meditations. Although during this time the empire was troubled with invasions, nearly constant warfare, and internal strife, early historians soon called it a Golden Age because Aurelius's eminently just rule contrasted so greatly with that of his son, the savage Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192.

Major Works

The Meditations was written in Greek, a language often preferred in Aurelius's time for works of philosophy. Whether or not Aurelius deliberately chose to write his notes in Greek because of its traditional link to philosophy is open to debate, but it is clear that he had not polished his work or laid it out systematically, and it's possible he never intended to do so. Written mostly during breaks in battles during the last ten years of his life, the Meditations often reflect the grim realities of pain and death. The original notes are no longer extant and surviving manuscripts suffer from occasional indecipherable words, a source of much argument since only conjecture can fill in the gaps. The precise meanings of the words present are by no means totally agreed upon by scholars, either. There is no way to know how Aurelius himself organized his notes, if indeed he did, nor is it possible to find how they came to be published. However, they definitely were not available to readers until after his death and appear to have been well known by the fourth century. The Meditations was not translated into English until 1634. Scholars doubt that the books were written in the order in which they are now found, and they believe that the preface was most likely written last. Often broken down into twelve sections, no definitive division has ever been reached, and editors differ widely in their views on where chapter divisions should be made. Although not of major importance comparatively, Aurelius's letters to his tutor, Cornelius Fronto, are read by scholars to try to ascertain more of Aurelius's early thoughts. Written well before he became emperor, many of them describe physical maladies, but without describing a means to overcome them.

Critical Reception

Aurelius was revered during his life and after his death, little criticism of him was made, although a few very early critics took him to task for the persecution of Christians, for allowing his son to become his successor, and for tolerating the infidelity of his wife, Faustina. Although it was not difficult to defend Aurelius against the charges, the charges nevertheless lingered to some degree. Dio Cassius's history of Rome, written between 197 and about 225, contains an immensely favorable account of Aurelius including the statement, “He governed better than anyone who has ever been in power.” In the fourth century Sextus Aurelius Victor wrote of Aurelius: “Had it not been for him the whole Roman State would have toppled over in a single fall.” Much of modern criticism devoted to Aurelius concerns understanding his message. There is disagreement about whether or not Aurelius intended his Meditations to be read by others, or whether they were written exclusively for himself. Scholars of Aurelius's thought realize they have much work ahead of them in better learning his intent, for although many of his lines appear simple, wisdom urges caution in making easy interpretations. They also believe that immersion in ancient studies is essential in order to gain a proper context in which to make sense of and appreciate Aurelius's true place in the history of philosophy.

Principal Works

Meditations (philosophy) c. 169-c. 180

Marcus Aurelius [edited by C. R. Haines] (philosophy) 1930

The Meditations of the Emperor M. Antonius [translated by A. S. L. Farquharson] (philosophy) 1944

Meditations [translated by Maxwell Staniforth] (philosophy) 1987

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius [translated by George Long] (philosophy) 1993

Criticism

George Long (essay date 1881)

SOURCE: “M. Aurelius Antoninus” and “The Philosophy of Antoninus” in The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, George Bell & Sons, 1881, pp, 1-67.

[In the following excerpt, Long discusses Aurelius's personal history, the status of Christians in his time, and his philosophical ideas.]

M. Antoninus was born at Rome a.d. 121, on the 26th of April. His father Annius Verus died while he was praetor. His mother was Domitia Calvilla also named Lucilla. The Emperor T. Antoninus Pius married Annia Galeria Faustina, the sister of Annius Verus, and was consequently the uncle of M. Antoninus. When Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius and declared him his successor...

(The entire section is 21491 words.)

Henry Dwight Sedgwick (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: “Two Pagan Criticisms” and “The Roman Attitude toward Christianity” in Marcus Aurelius, Yale University Press, 1921, pp. 198-206, 207-18.

[In the following excerpt, Sedgwick explores two contemporary admonishments directed at Aurelius and explains the reasons why Christians were generally held in low esteem by Romans.]

In this chapter I shall refer to the criticisms that have been made upon Marcus Aurelius. But, first, as a fitting prologue to an apology, I will begin with some favorable testimonies of Dio Cassius (150-235?), Herodianus (165-255?), and such other historians of the ancient world as have spoken of him, in order to make it plain at the...

(The entire section is 6541 words.)

Henry Ebel (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Matthew Arnold and Marcus Aurelius,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1963, pp. 555-66.

[In the following essay, Ebel critiques an essay on Aurelius written by Matthew Arnold, finding it ambiguous, full of shifts and twists, but clearly revealing Arnold's sense of affinity with Aurelius.]

In 1863 Matthew Arnold had, in his own later words, “been thinking much of Marcus Aurelius and his times.”1 One result of his thinking was an essay entitled “Marcus Aurelius”—a review of George Long's rendering of the Meditations. A careful examination of this essay indicates how deeply involved Arnold in...

(The entire section is 4782 words.)

Brand Blanshard (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Marcus Aurelius” in Four Reasonable Men, Wesleyan University Press, 1984, pp. 3-53.

[In the following excerpt, Blanshard analyzes Aurelius's Stoic philosophy and discusses problems with its ways of dealing with emotion, pain, death, and pleasure.]

… THE STOIC WAR ON EMOTION

No one would now deny that reasonable living requires the control of emotion by thought. Unfortunately the Stoics tried not merely to control feeling but to annihilate it. Anger, fear, grief, pity were for them not the allies but the enemies of reason, and it was better to get rid of them altogether than to try to tame and harness them. That so extreme an...

(The entire section is 8684 words.)

Erich Segal (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Noblest Roman of Them All,” in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, March, 1988, pp. 287-92.

[In the following essay, Segal reviews Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, by Anthony Birley, also commenting on Aurelius's life and times.]

It was a golden age. Gibbon regarded it as the time when “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”

In the second century a.d., the Roman Empire extended over nearly two million square miles. One city ruled the entire world. Egypt, Sicily, and North Africa were merely its “farms” (as a contemporary man of letters, Aelius Aristides, expressed it). Roman prosperity was enhanced by...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)

Judith Perkins (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The ‘Self’ as ‘Sufferer’,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, July, 1992, pp. 265-72.

[In the following essay, Perkins contends that Aurelius's obsession with suffering and death indicates that he never gained the self-mastery he sought.]

The early Roman Empire provides little evidence for the personal religious feelings of its inhabitants; only a few texts reflect what we would call individual testimony of personal religious experience. The works of second-century authors which in fact display such religious feelings often offend modern sensibilities.1 Commentators have described Aelius Aristides' Orationes sacrae,...

(The entire section is 3489 words.)

James A. Francis (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Marcus Aurelius: Rational Asceticism and Social Conservatism” in Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, pp. 21-52.

[In the following excerpt, Francis contends that Aurelius's practice of asceticism was cerebral and notably unconcerned with the physical.]

In the second century, asceticism ascended to the very apex of Roman society. In contrast to the philosophy-hating tyrannies of Nero and Domitian, Marcus Aurelius ruled with the reputation of a philosopher-king1 and, to a certain extent, that of an ascetic. Although much has been written examining the precise...

(The entire section is 14789 words.)

Pierre Hadot (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “A First Glimpse of the Meditations” and “The Meditations as Spiritual Exercises” in The Inner Citadel: The “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Michael Chase, Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 21-53.

[In the following excerpt, Hadot discusses the history of Aurelius's manuscript, the difficulties of assigning it to a particular genre, and the qualities Aurelius assigns to his ideal man.]

THE FATE OF A TEXT

In our time, now that the printing and distribution of books are banal, everyday operations, we no longer realize to what extent the survival of any work of antiquity represented an almost...

(The entire section is 13337 words.)