Marius the Epicurean

by Walter Pater

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Places Discussed

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*Rome. Center of the Roman Empire. When Marius first looks out upon Rome it appears to him as a “vast intellectual museum,” and that colors his view of all its various components—not merely its many pagan shrines, its multilayered tombs, and its many ruins, but its functioning institutions: the Forum, where the body of Aurelius’s brother Lucius Verus is set to lie in state before the tribunal before being conveyed to its funeral pyre in the Campus Martius; the Marmorata, where precious marbles are accumulated; the Appian Way, more cemetery than thoroughfare; the Field-of-Mars, colonized by public buildings that have reduced its grassy playgrounds to mere enclaves; and, most important, the Temple of Peace, part college and part club, in whose library the Diurnal (a primitive newspaper) is posted. Even the Arena, notorious throughout history as a public slaughterhouse, does not strike Marius immediately as a place of vulgar spectacle but as a religiously significant stage set for the contrivance of marvels and illusions. When Marius visits the imperial palace it is to receive the emperor’s manuscripts for copying and revision: the kind of journeywork which will, albeit at several centuries’ remove, provide the foundations of Europe’s Renaissance.

It is significant that Marius is happiest when he is able to remove himself temporarily from the hubbub of Rome itself to the clean air, clear light, and serenity of the Alban and Sabine hills. Two locations are of particular significance: the house near Cicero’s “haunted” villa at Tusculum where, as a fellow guest of the emperor’s son Commodus, he watches a satire of Socrates by Lucian; and the secluded house of Cecilia, two miles outside the city, where he obtains his first intimations of the Christian faith. Cecilia’s villa is the only place whose architecture and garden, though only superficially different from his old home, seem to him symbolic of nascence rather than senility.


*Pisa. Italian city in which Marius attends school. Although somewhat decayed from its former splendor, it fills Marius with dreams of Rome. The school is an imitation of Plato’s Academy, with its own cypress grove; it is there that Marius meets Flavian and reads the “golden book” (Lucius Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, better known as The Golden Ass), whose interpolated tale of Cupid and Psyche, paraphrased in Walter Pater’s text, is a powerful influence on him. After watching the symbolic launching of the Ship of Isis from Pisa’s harbor, Flavian dies of the plague, prompting a new phase of Marius’s philosophical self-education.


White-nights. Pater’s version of the name of Marius’s boyhood home, to which he returns in the final chapter. It comprises a villa surrounded by farmland, whose extent has shrunk while the family’s fortunes have declined. The establishment is run-down, but it preserves a residual dignity appropriate to a kind of farming that was never more than an “elegant diversion.” The house lies well away from the road, on raised ground above a marsh. The main building is constructed of pink and yellow marble, now mellowed by age and encrusted with moss. The pavement of the hall is decorated with mosaics, and there are ancestral masks in cedar chests at each corner. An oval chamber contains artworks collected by its founder, Marcellus, including a famous head of Medusa. There is also a two-story prospect-tower topped by a pigeon-house. Its windows look out on the crags of Carrara and the coast, dominated by the lighthouse-temple of Venus Speciosa.

Temple of Aesculapius

Temple of Aesculapius. Temple in the Etrurian Hills beyond the Arnus Valley, to which Marius is taken as a boy when he falls...

(This entire section contains 678 words.)

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ill. The temple provides facilities for patients to sleep, so that the priests may deduce the causes of their illness and appropriate treatments from the imagery of their dreams—although its clear air and pure water supply must have been its primary curative agents. Its garden is flanked by the Houses of Birth and Death, set apart for the use of mothers-to-be and the dying.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Walter Pater. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Includes considerable evaluation of Marius the Epicurean, which ranges from detailed stylistic analysis to questions of genre. Pater’s work is also evaluated as an inspiration to writers of the early twentieth century.

Crinkley, Richmond. Walter Pater: Humanist. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970. In the chapter analyzing Marius the Epicurean, the circular structure of the text and the diminished presence of the author is considered. Also delineates the decorative elements in Pater’s prose.

Iser, Wolfgang. Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment. Translated by David H. Wilson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Examines the narrative structure of Pater’s portraits. Finds that significant narrative inconsistencies create a state of flux between past and present. Considers Pater’s theories on memory and history.

Monsman, Gerald. Walter Pater. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Combines a broad overview of Pater’s work with a more focused critique of the novels. The chapter on Marius the Epicurean points out the emphasis on inward vision rather than outward events.

Ward, Anthony. Walter Pater: The Idea in Nature. London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1966. Traces Pater’s explorations of a literary style that expresses the complexity of experience and the inconstancy of meaning. The recurrent quest for beauty in Pater’s fictional and nonfictional works is also considered.


Critical Essays