‘If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.’ – Marcus Aurelius
Author, stoic, emperor. The life of Marcus Aurelius is one of high esteem and honour. Like most Roman emperors of the era, Marcus prioritised the protection and expansion of Rome’s borders, particularly towards the north in what is now modern-day Germany. He is considered to be the last of Rome’s ‘Five Good Emperors’ and his rule would prove to be the last of benefit to the empire, which began a rapid decline after Marcus’ death in 180 AD. His influence during his life and work for Rome was great – a superior general and a popular politician. However, it is his body of philosophical reflections, known to us now as Meditations, that has stood the test of time and secures Marcus Aurelius as one of history’s finest. This is the life, work, and legacy of one of Rome’s greatest leaders – and one of today’s most legendary thinkers.
The Life of 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 Annius Verus, who would later become Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, was born into a family renowned for political prestige and military might. Ruling, to some capacity, was always destined for Marcus. The young to-be-emperor was reserved, humble, and successful in his studies on all accounts. Marcus’ ruling family prioritised work ethic, faith, and goodness above all else. This is in contrast to the Judio-Claudian dynasties that revelled in their ruling, upper-class privilege, seeking lives of extravagance and low moral character. Before the age of 17, Marcus was selected as future co-emperor alongside fellow adopted brother Lucius Verus. As was the wish of Emperor Hadrian, Marcus insisted that he rule beside Lucius Verus, despite being offered sole kingship. In 161 AD both men ascended the throne to become co-rulers.
However, it was clear to fellow consuls and the public that Marcus was the man in charge, with Lucius obeying his every command. Their first order of business was to invest a large sum into Rome’s army, thus winning their favour and protection for the remainder of the rule. This was a wise decision, considering the length of time Marcus would inevitably spend around his troops in the wilderness of middle-Europe. In 169 AD, Lucius fell ill and later died, therefore enabling Marcus to claim sole rule of Rome.
‘Objective judgement, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance, now, at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need.’
After co-emperor Lucius Verus returned from military disruption in the Middle East, the two emperors made for the Danube in Europe. However, as Marcus lead his legions North, hordes of Germanic barbarians invaded his native Italy. With the death of Lucius in 169 AD, only a year after the beginning of the campaign to restore Rome’s borders, much fighting and more leadership was required on Marcus’ behalf. The cracks in Rome’s military might were beginning to show and the possibility of a fallen capital was beginning to emerge. Despite the dire odds, Rome’s legions under Marcus would defend their homeland, and a further three years’ campaign in Bohemia were enough to quell the growing forces of barbarians for a time. As Marcus struggled to retain the frontiers around the Danube, it seemed the empire began to fall into irreversible disrepair. A stretched mass of conquered land was proving impossible to manage. The far territories of modern-day Egypt, Spain, and England broke out in revolt or suffered from outside invasion. Furthermore, rumours of Marcus’ death reached Avidius Cassius, a general who controlled most of the Middle East. As Marcus made peace with the barbarians and prepared to march his men south, word reached the emperor that the traitor Avidius had been assassinated by his own men.
This bitter-sweet news would be short-lived. Soon after, Marcus’ wife, Faustina, passed away. Marcus made his love for his wife well-known and a life that was already lonely became even more so. The above described constant challenges and stresses were the result of a life lived in the world’s highest office. Many times, Marcus could have failed, lost the will to move forward and save Rome from her inner and outer enemies. But each night, as the battles became quiet and his men retreated to rest, Marcus found solace in his writing and in his Meditations.
‘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.’
Historians do not doubt Marcus Aurelius’ credibility as a statesman, general, or emperor. It was well-documented since his birth that Marcus was a naturally gifted individual. There existed before him many good emperors, so what is it that causes Marcus to stand out as truly great? Emperors such as Julius Caesar expanded Rome’s borders and left an influence on an empire that lasted countless generations. But those men built legacies that existed only in the epochs of that empire. Conversely, the words, teachings, an example of Marcus Aurelius extend into the 21st century and there exists an argument that stoicism – made popular by the philosopher king – is the cornerstone of Western philosophy alongside Christian teachings (which were themselves eventually influenced by stoicism).
Stoicism, in short, is the belief that virtue is righteous above all things, and that to be good – in action and in thought – is the key to happiness and inner peace. Certainly, Marcus was a good man. He ruled alongside an adoptive brother he could have easily been rid of. He made peace with hordes of barbarians, Rome’s greatest and longest-running enemies, in an effort to secure Rome from within. And, he loved his wife truly and wholly, despite spending the majority of their married life abroad. Marcus was not the creator of stoicism, but unlike his predecessors who donned togas and lived their life as mere intellectuals, the emperor’s beliefs were tested daily. Imagine being the most powerful man in all the known world and taking nothing for yourself; choosing only good for goodness’ sake. Without fail, Marcus would personify the stoic virtues of wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage above all other factors. His masterwork and his legacy, Meditations, remains an incredible inspiration to millions across the globe. Bestselling authors Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferris openly employ the practices and example of Marcus Aurelius across all of their works, including the best-selling The Obstacle Is The Way and Tools Of Titans respectively.
Today we understand that Marcus Aurelius personified greatness – not because he conquered vast territories or slaughtered thousands – but because he was simply a good man of the highest honour, who prioritised humble virtue and the natural morality of the human spirit. I will leave you with what, at this moment, is his most fitting quote:
‘Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.’
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