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.