Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta

What do we learn about the life and character of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the author of The Meditations, from the Historia Augusta?

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and BeyondThe Historia Augusta is a somewhat unreliable Latin history, supposedly compiled from the writings of different authors.  It appears to contain a mixture of authentic historical facts derived from other sources, and fictitious elaboration added by one or more later authors.  However, it is one of the few sources of information about the life of Marcus Aurelius, the author of the famous Stoic journal, originally entitled To Himself but better known today as The Meditations.

It contains a chapter dedicated to the life of Marcus, which appears reasonably plausible and may be one of the more reliable parts of the text.  Indeed, several of the details given about Marcus’ life in this text appear consistent with biographical fragments in The Meditations.  This potentially lends the rest of the biography some credibility as  historians consider it unlikely the author actually had access to a copy of The Meditations.  A detailed scholarly analysis of the text has recently been published by Dr. Geoff W. Adams, of the University of Tasmania, called Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and Beyond (2013).

So what does the biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta say that may be of interest to us in terms of his Stoicism?  The opening sentence states that Marcus  “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.”  We’re told Marcus was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Stoics and Cynics.  The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction.  He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics.  He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School.  But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practiced in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

We’re told of his character: “He was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.”  He’s praised as a benevolent and wise ruler:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state.  He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few.

We’re told he was not quick to punish anyone, and that although resolute he was always reasonable and restrained.  He was renowned for acts of kindness and compassion.  For example, apparently Marcus was the first to order that tight-rope walkers, often young boys, should be protected from injury by placing mattresses beneath their ropes, since which time nets have been used to reduce the risk.  Presumably he felt that the spectacle of children risking their lives was unnecessary and their skills could still be entertaining enough, though the performance was made safe.

The war in Germania is portrayed as necessary to defend Rome against incursions and difficult because the armies were seriously depleted by plague.  Marcus took the controversial, but perhaps prudent decision to order slaves and gladiators to be armed and trained for military service.  We’re told he auctioned off the treasures of the imperial palace selling robes, goblets, statues, and paintings, to raise funds for the war in Germania.  Perhaps his comment about his indifference to his purple imperial robes, described as just wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore, in The Meditations, can be linked to the sacrifice of such precious garments.

But because Marcus appeared severe in his military discipline and in fact in his general lifestyle, as a consequence of his philosophical practices, he was angrily criticized; but to all of those who spoke badly of him, he responded in either orations or in brochures.

In other words, despite his supreme power, he did not have his outspoken critics punished, or even killed, as emperors such as Nero did.  It seems his austere lifestyle led both to prudence in running the state but also to some anxiety among the population.  We’re told that when he recruited the gladiators to serve in the army, “there was gossip among the people that he sought to take away their amusements and so force them to study philosophy.”  Again, though, with regard to his concern with justice, we’re told:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending.  […] He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes.  He settled countless foreigners on Roman land.

Curiously, we’re told Marcus was “exceptionally adored” by the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and that he somehow “left the imprint of philosophy” upon them.

For Marcus’ own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source.

This is another typical characteristic attributed to Stoics: the wise man has a fundamental constancy, and is unchanged by external circumstances, whatever his fate.  Whether he meets with outward success or failure, he is always the same, because these things are ultimately “indifferent” to him, only his own virtue (or vice) really matters enough to influence his state of mind.  When Marcus became seriously ill he ended his life by refraining from eating and drinking, which we’re also told Zeno the founder of Stoicism did when he wished to end his life.

Stoicism has a military flavour, both in its language and in the lifestyle and attire adopted by its adherents.  Stoic leaders, perhaps for that reason, were sometimes popular with the Roman troops.  Marcus is portrayed as a man dedicated to the military and adored by them, not unlike the Stoic hero Cato before him.  Hence, “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.”

When near death, he called his friends around, showing, we’re told, a lofty indifference to his own impending demise.  He said: “Why do you cry for me, instead of considering the pestilence and the death that is the common destiny of us all.”  This is a standard Stoic formula, in fact.  Contemplating the universal and inevitable nature of death is supposed to help us accept it with indifference, as determined by Nature.

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2 thoughts on “Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta”

  1. Thank you Donald Robertson for posting this brief but revealing sketch of Marcus Aurelius — the veil of sanctity that surrounds him seems only to increase the more we know, except when it comes to his letting the empire pass into the hands of Commodus. (But even there the question remains open.)

    For live like a Stoic week I will forgo my mattress, simplify my dress, eat simply, feed my soul on the discourses of Epictetus, teach the outlines of Stoicism in my Latin classes. We have a translation contest centered around a text from Seneca’s letters, a text which cannot be translated without engaging higher dimensions of ethical thought. One girl took the text home and came back with a sterling translation. I asked how on earth she did it and she told the story of her 70-year old grandfather who was a Latin teacher. From just one sentence he had recognized the author, the text in question, gave a splendid translation, and summarized the philosophical content. I told the girl that she couldn’t win the contest with her grandfather’s work, but issued an invitation for him to speak to the class.