Commentary & Opinion
3:45 pm
Fri August 22, 2014

David Nightingale: Marcus Aurelius (121-180)

Little the life each lives,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “little the corner of the earth he lives in, little even the longest fame hereafter, and even that dependent on a succession of poor mortals, who will very soon be dead, and have not learnt to know themselves much less the man who was dead long years ago...” [Ref.1, p.599.]

Emperor Marcus Aurelius was born in AD 121, when Hadrian's Wall across England was under construction. He was raised among the rich, on one of the 7 hills of Rome, and home schooled. At 17 he was summoned to live in Emperor Hadrian's home, to further his home schooling.

He was soon made a young consul, and at 24 married his first cousin, Faustina, who bore him at least 13 children. At the age of 40 he became leader of the Roman empire, which surrounded the entire Mediterranean and included much of Europe. He was emperor for the last 19 years of his life, years filled with disasters  –  rather as Obama's time has been filled with disasters, albeit of a different nature. Rome in Marcus Aurelius' reign had floods, earthquakes, smallpox plagues, uprisings, but despite all this he is usually referred to as one of the five 'good' emperors – the others being Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius.

While on campaigns he wrote the well-known books or diaries that he called “To Myself”, but known today as “Meditations”, which later became a favorite of the philosopher John Stuart Mill, the poet Goethe and President Clinton.

In Book 1 Marcus Aurelius mentions all those he has learned from: “From my grandfather: the lessons of noble character and even temper,” and, “from my mother: piety and bountifulness, to keep... from dwelling on evil thoughts; simplicity in diet, and to be far removed from the ways of the rich...” [Ref.1, pp.592-4]

Of course, he was always surrounded by the rich – but to his credit didn't always like what he saw. He goes on,

“From the gods: to have had good grandparents, good parents, a good sister... good friends, almost everything...  [and] That I was not brought up longer than I was with my grandfather's 2nd wife ... That my station in life was under... a father [Ibid,p. 593, item 17]  … who was to strip off all my pride and lead me to see that it is possible to live in a palace and yet not to need ... embroidered uniforms or candelabra... and the like accompaniments of pomp...

He tried to live in obedience to Nature, and wrote

“... to have pictured to myself what life in obedience to Nature really is...  so that nothing hinders my living in obedience to Nature... though I still come somewhat short of this, by my own fault...  [#17,p.593-4]

When he talks of things that are beautiful, he claims that beauty is inherent, and asks:  “... works of art... which of these is lovely because it is praised, or corrupted because it is blamed?” [Book 4, #20]

While many of us today try to fit too many things into our schedules, he said 2000 years ago:

“For if one removes most of what we say and do as unnecessary, he will have more leisure, and less interruption ... for in this way superfluous actions will not follow....” [Book 4, #24]

And, perhaps in a rather banal way, he writes,

“[You see]  … men marrying, bringing up children, falling ill, dying, fighting, feasting, trading, farming, flattering, asserting themselves... praying for another's death … heaping up riches. [But] now that life of theirs is no more and nowhere.” [Book 4, #32]

Many movie-goers know Marcus Aurelius as a just and far-sighted ruler from films like 'Gladiator', and he is indeed regarded as such by the majority of later writers on the Roman Empire. The Gladiator movie took liberties; Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son Commodus, but died of weakness and illness, which might have been the plague that was killing large numbers of Romans.

Finally, today, with our cars, TVs and ubiquitous handheld screens, here's his comment from Book 4:  “Men look for retreats for themselves, the country, the seashore, the hills... [but] nowhere does a man retreat into more quiet... than into his own mind ...” [Book 4,#17]


1. “The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature”; eds P.E.Knox & J.C.McKeown; Oxford Univ. Press 2013.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.


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