Who was Marcus Aurelius? A Complete History of the Philosopher King
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Who was Marcus Aurelius?
Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor from the year 161 to 180. He was born on 26th April 121 in Rome, Italy and died on 17th March 180 in Vienna, Austria. Aside from being Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius is also remembered and known for his contemplations on and contribution to Stoic philosophy. The journey of Marcus Aurelius becoming an emperor was difficult. Marcus‘ father died while he was 3 years old, and his grandfather decided to help raise him. His uncle Antoninus Pius was adopted as the new heir by then emperor Hadrian. Antoninus in turn adopted Marcus.
Marcus studied both Latin and Greek, he also learned to assume public roles and the business of government when Antoninus became emperor. Marcus Aurelius married Faustina, Antoninus‘ daughter, in 145. He later succeeded the throne in collaboration with Lucius Verus peacefully in 161 after the death of Antoninus.
The Work of the Stoic Emperor
After years of apprenticeship under Antoninus as well as being favoured by the previous emperor Hadrian, Marcus eventually became emperor in a smooth transition after the death of Antoninus from illness. His constitutional name became Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. The fact that he insisted his adoptive brother Lucius Verus be co-emperor shows that he had no greed for power and the co-emperors made history, given that the Roman Empire had never been ruled by two emperors with equal constitutional powers before.
Between the two emperors, Marcus is better recognised and this could have been because he carried out most of the governmental work. It is said that Marcus had no time or energy to spare because he spent more time on civil policy trends and statesmanship.
Marcus Aurelius’ rule favoured the minors, widows, slaves, and the poor which is what made his reign so favourable with the people. However, his ruling certainly wasn’t perfect. For instance, the way he carried out matters of Christian persecution is a notable stain on his otherwise excellent reputation.
Niccolo Machiavelli, the Author of the 1531 book The Discourses on Livy, came up with the term “Five good emperors” – of which Marcus Aurelius was a part – to refer to the adopted Roman emperors that established a good government in comparison to the emperors that succeeded the throne by birth. These adoptive emperors earned respect by carrying out better governance and generally speaking, being less power-crazy than many of their Emperor counterparts.
Marcus Aurelius’ Role in Stoicism
Marcus was dubbed the philosopher-king and is arguably the most famous advocate of the philosophy of
1. Be content to live simply
2. Don’t overvalue praise
3. Be conscientious and hardworking
4. Develop your character
5. Don‘t be afraid of criticism
The reign of Marcus Aurelius as an emperor was very challenging. During his adoptive father Antonius’s reign, there was exceptional peace and stability which made his rule relatively straightforward. But when Marcus and Lucius took over, they were faced with a series of disasters. A major famine hit Rome shortly after he took over as emperor. This was after the River Tiber burst its banks and wiped out livestock and homes. If this was not enough trouble for the co-emperors, Parthians then attacked their ally Armenia, which resulted in a war in the east lasting five years.
Although they won the Parthian war, the troubles didn’t end there. The soldiers returned to Rome with a deadly virus that hit the entire empire. In 15 years, this deadly plague claimed the lives of about 5 million people. As a result of this debilitating virus, the empire was even struggling to fend off small tribes in a number of territories.
Cassius Dio, a well-known Roman historian, stated that he admired Marcus because amid all the extraordinary and unusual difficulties, he managed to preserve the empire and did not lose himself. While many other leaders would have been quick to deflect blame, hide away or simply go insane, Marcus Aurelius marched straight through the storm and led his people from beginning to end. He faced these challenges head-on with endurance, poise and total stoic equanimity. After his adoptive brother Lucius Verus’s death, Marcus was left in sole command of the empire.
Rather than running the war from Rome’s safe palace, he took the front line during the Marcomannic War. He had no previous military experience and yet he managed to deploy and command one of the largest armies (140,000) of his time. During this time is when he started writing down his reflections, meditations, thoughts and things that he was learning each day and had learned throughout his life. These passages that he only wrote for himself later became released as the incredible “Meditations” that has since become the cornerstone book for all Stoic philosophy. Since being written around 2000 years ago, it has become one of the most influential self-help and influential classics of all times. In the first chapter, Marcus lists all the qualities and virtues that he admires from 16 people, including family and teachers. He then continues with his thoughts and teachings on all aspects of life, ranging from anger and anxiety to leadership and death.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius faced immense challenges throughout his life and reign. He turned to philosophy to help him deal with these hardships and to be as effective as he possibly could in the most prestigious and powerful position of his time: Roman Emperor. He chose contemporary Roman philosophers and the Ancient Greeks’ philosophy as the basis of Stoicism and his contemplations. During the last decade of life, he started writing “Meditations”. The book is a great insight into the mind of one history’s great leaders and people. Because the topics that he covers are so diverse and detailed, many people have adopted his book as a reliable ‘Handbook for Life’. Some of the most famous Marcus Aurelius quotes include:
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.“
“When you’ve done well and another has benefited by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top— credit for the good deed or a favour in return?
“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.“
“To love only what happens. What was destined. No greater harmony.”
Marcus Aurelius is remembered as one of the most powerful rulers in history. He endured pain and hardship without complaint and with the Highest Good always in mind. In his reign, he was faced with numerous and constant challenges such as the plague, war, famine, and frequents attacks by enemy tribes. However, he came out of them all largely unscathed and ended up writing a piece of work that is still popular 2000 years later – speaking to just how much wisdom he collected that still echoes throughout the ages.
Want to take your knowledge of Stoicism and the teachings of Marcus Aurelius further? Check out our Essential Stoic Teachings.