- Ari Lieberman
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Marcus Aurelius was born on April 26 121 and as he grew up came to the attention of Hadrian who promoted him to different positions of authority.
The “circumstantial evidence that Hadrian wanted Marcus to succeed him, possibly around the time the young man was twenty-one, is overwhelming”.
Antoninus Pius himself was the adopted son of Hadrian (who in turn was the adopted son of Trajan!). And Hadrian actually chose Antoninus Pius as his apparent heir (after his first choice was no longer in the running) and at the same time had him adopt the yet, too
young to be emperor, Marcus Aurelius whom Hadrian eyed as a worthy future emperor.
Marcus Antoninus, the philosopher, upon obtaining the throne at the death of Antoninus,
his adoptive father, had immediately taken to share his power Lucius Verus, the son of
Lucius Commodus. For he was frail in body himself and devoted the greater part of his
time to letters. Indeed, it is reported that even when he was emperor he showed no shame
or hesitation about resorting to a teacher, but became a pupil of Sextus, the Boeotian
philosopher, and did not hesitate to attend the lectures of Hermogenes on rhetoric; but he
was most inclined to the doctrines of the Stoic school. Lucius, on the other hand, was a
vigorous man of younger years and better suited for military enterprises. Therefore
Marcus made him his son in-law by marrying him to his daughter Lucilla and sent him to
conduct the war against the Parthians.
He studied philosophy with ardor, even as a youth. For when he was twelve years old he
adopted the dress and, a little later, the hardiness of a philosopher, pursuing his studies
clad in a rough Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground; at his mother's solicitation,
however, he reluctantly consented to sleep on a couch strewn with skins.
Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as the personification of the ideal philosopher king.
The Historia Augusta depicts it this way: Marcus Antoninus, devoted to philosophy as
long as he lived and pre-eminent among emperors in purity of life.
Edward Gibbon in The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire explains that to understand
Marcus Aurelius one needs to appreciate the fact that he was a stoic from his youth. The
virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of severer and more laborious kind… At the
age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to
submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only
good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. His meditations,
composed in the tumult of the camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give
lessons of philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the
modesty of sage, or the dignity of an emperor… He was severe to himself, indulgent to
the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind…War he detested, as the
disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called
upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns, on
the frozen banks of the Danube.
Dio Cassius presents it this way: The emperor, as often as he had leisure from war, would
hold court; he used to allow abundant time to the speakers, and entered into the
preliminary inquiries and examinations at great length, so as to ensure strict justice by
every possible means. In consequence, he would often be trying the same case for as
much as eleven or twelve days, even though he sometimes held court at night. For he was
industrious and applied himself diligently to all the duties of his office; and he neither
said, wrote, nor did anything as if it were a minor matter, but sometimes he would
consume whole days over the minutest point, not thinking it right that the emperor should
do anything hurriedly.
A modern highly favorable assessment of Marcus’ Meditations is offered:
Meditations is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts
of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the
responsibilities and obligations of his positions. Trained in Stoic philosophy, Marcus
Aurelius stopped almost every night to practice a series of spiritual exercises—reminders
designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of
whatever he was dealing with. It is imminently readable and perfectly accessible. You
cannot read this book and not come away with a phrase or a line that will be helpful to
you the next time you are in trouble. Read it, it is practical philosophy embodied.