67 - The Philosopher King: Marcus Aurelius

The life and thought of Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and author of the classic text of Stoic self-examination, the Meditations.

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Further Reading: 

• E. Asmis, "The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.36.3 (1989), 2228-52.

• P. Hadot, The Inner Citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, tr. M. Chase (Cambridge MA: 1992).

• F. McLynn, Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor (London: 2009).

• Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: 1983).

• J. Rist, “Are You a Stoic? The Case of Marcus Aurelius,” in B.F. Meyer and E.P. Sanders (eds), Self Definition in the Greco-Roman World (Philadelphia: 1982).

• R.B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Oxford: 1989).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Marcus Aurelius

ddd's picture

How did Stoicism affect Aurelius's ruling style?

I just listened to this podcast, and was wondering if the emphasis on ethics in Roman Stoicism was actually reflected in the deeds of Aurelius? He may not have gotten angry, or felt sad when his kids died, but did he rule in any way that particularly reflected Stoic ethics?

For that matter, was it considered virtuous to keep slaves, torture, or other things that we might find abhorrent in modern times.

Thanks for a great set of podcasts Prof. Adamson!

Peter Adamson's picture

Marcus as a ruler

That's a really interesting question. Certainly Marcus has a high standing among historians (and later Romans) as having been a particularly good emperor. He had to spend much of his reign dealing with crises, especially military ones, which kept him a bit on the back foot unlike someone like Augustus who had time and means to re-shape the Roman world as he saw fit. If only for that reason I think we see Marcus' Stoicism coming out more in what we know of his personal life, e.g. he is reputed to have been quite moderate in his lifestyle. And that shouldn't be sharply distinguished from his style of rule: emperors ruled in large part by setting an example of conduct and it's not totally misleading that we remember someone like Caligula more for his, um, colorful personal life than his decisions as emperor.

I highly recommend the History of Rome podcast which covered Marcus, and everything else up to the fall of the Western empire, exhaustively from a historical perspective.

And by the way, not only did Marcus apparently find Stoicism compatible with institutions like slavery (perhaps Stoicism can even support this by encouraging us to think that slaves are just providentially destined for their role in life), but also the persecution of Christians. He wasn't one of the worst persecutors among the emperors by any means but he was no friend of this new faith.

John Sellars's picture

It's hard to say how much

It's hard to say how much Marcus' philosophical thoughts shaped his behaviour as ruler given that the evidence for the latter is limited, though one might look at the biographies of him, by Birley and, more recently, McLynn.

One theme that does emerge throughout the Meditations though is accepting and making the best of the roles in which one finds oneself. Marcus is emperor, like it or not, so he has to work to try to do the best he can in that role, he continually reminds himself. The same would presumably apply to slaves. Peter is quite right to note the role a commitment to providence might play in this acceptance, but Marcus often says things like 'well even if providence doesn't exist, this is where you find yourself, so do the best you can'. This picks up a much earlier Stoic theory of differing roles (personae) and the fact that appropriate acts can vary for people in different roles. A very different outlook to most people today.

ddd's picture

How did Stoicism affect Aurelius's ruling style?

Thanks for enlightening me. I had envisioned something like Ashoka with Aurelius, in which his philospophy affected all aspects of government. Maybe I need to think of these Helenistic schools as being more focused on introspection than one's actions toward others.