Marius the Epicurean

by Walter Pater

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

Walter Pater’s novel was an answer to those who had misunderstood his views on art and philosophy. The novel is, in great part, a fictional rendering of Pater’s own struggle for a philosophical position, and the personality of Marius is a reflection of the author himself. The volume is also an appreciation of the culture of the second century of the Christian era in Roman Italy. Although sharply criticized by historians of fact, Pater’s careful study of the environment has caught the spirit of the times and the people. No one who has not some familiarity with the writers of the time, and before, can read with signal success the intellectual adventures and development of the young Roman who is the central figure of the book; the work is, to some extent, a veritable patchwork of ideas and even quotations from the classical authors who would be the basis of knowledge for a young Roman studying seriously during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.

In his portrayal of Marius the Epicurean, Pater shows what might have happened to a young man of Marius’s sort during Marcus Aurelius’s reign. With precision and accuracy, he also unconsciously delineates the nature of a middle-aged, middle-class bachelor-scholar of about the year 1880. Pater thought that the purpose of higher education was to teach art and poetry, so he incorporates this philosophy into Marius’s development. Perhaps this is the reason that Marius the Epicurean contains more poetry—not from books and pictures, but from life as Pater saw it—than any of Pater’s other works.

The setting of Marius’s spiritual journey is chiefly Rome. It is in this, “the most religious city of the world,” that readers are given glimpses of many various religions: the religion of Numa, the religion of Isis, the medical cult of Aesculapius, and the new Christianity. It is by mentioning these religions and having Marius influenced by them that Pater is, from the beginning, able to present a deeply serious tone to the work.

Having chosen the appropriate setting, Pater selected characters that best suited his purpose from the history, philosophy, art, and literature of the age. Such characters as Lucius, Apuleius, Cornelius, Fronto, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucien are leading figures in the Latin literature of Marius’s day. The Greek physician Galen is also introduced, and also presented is the future patron saint of Christian music, Cecilia. Ideas of Pliny, Tibullus, Lucretius, Horace, and Vergil are sprinkled throughout the book and add to the philosophical and literary atmosphere. With the imaginary life of Marius as his framework, Pater is able to present what is to him the most important and impressive ideas of the period.

Marius the Epicurean is not easily classified. From its opening pages, one is aware of an unusual reading experience. Pater’s writing is often obscure, but is often leisurely and poetic. Interested readers should consult Pater’s Appreciation with an Essay on Style (1889) for his views on style. Whereas many great Victorian literary artists tend to argue their various doctrines with heavy-handed urgency, Pater whispers and murmurs to his audience, usually in a calm, almost somber tone. It is because each phrase is intricately fashioned that Marius the Epicurean is often referred to not only as a philosophical romance (rather than a novel) but also as a prose poem. The many details of the story are easily forgotten, but the overall tonal effect of the work lingers in the mind. It is not the figures, lingering in misty shadows, that capture the attention; the philosophy, aesthetics, and religious doctrines are not easily associated with any concrete individual or personality. The characters serve mainly as vehicles through which Pater can fulfill his major purpose—exposing his listener to the intellectual and philosophical timbre of ancient Rome.

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