An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique

Description of a simple meditation technique derived from a method described by Athenodorus combined with the psychological processes defined by Marcus Aurelius.

Athenodorus in the haunted houseWhen I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature.  This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy.  I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more.  Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed.  However, I was disappointed.  I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques.  One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them.  If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective.  Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition.  They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement.  Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.

Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new.  One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes.  The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC.  We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature.  We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties.  (And he features in an ancient ghost story.)  What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice.  Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything.  It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently.  It started with a simple observation.  Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet.  Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three.  Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc.  So reciting those takes marginally more time and effort than just counting to ten.  If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath.  Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average.  Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards.  Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath.  One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed that it required a bit of patience.

Augustus / OctavianThe point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience.  If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average.  The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975).  Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s.  The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school.  The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response.  Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis.  The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result.  So that removed any mystical or philosophical significance from the technique, at least in terms of the physiological relaxation effect.  

So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes.  That’s still not meditation.  However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet.  That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions.  Indeed, what the Stoics said about this is very remarkable:

Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body.  Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong.  However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)

What Marcus says here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus.  We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us.  Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones.  

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance.  Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”.  It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality.  Marcus says two crucial things here.  First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow.  Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural – despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses.  Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.”  This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.

So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above?  Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet.  You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath.  You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves.  If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again.  Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well.  One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place.  That’s helpful.  Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number.  It doesn’t matter.  The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten.  That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure.  Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions.  You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind.  That’s completely natural.  The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad.  In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now.  Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness.  Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response.  Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.

The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind.  You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete).  The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue.  During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it.  The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us.  In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).  

I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology.  The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind.  One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness.  When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background.  Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else.  Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance.  What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.  

Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia).  That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.”  Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery.  Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control.  However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome.  Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer.  His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow.  Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control.  Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something.  Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”.  In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.  

My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself.  I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so.  It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits.  If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten.  Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done.  Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day.  Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above.  Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good.  Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.

Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Physics

Excerpt from The Meditations in which Marcus lists what he considers to be the few doctrines of Physics that are sufficient for him, and reminds himself to set aside his books.

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius says to himself in The Meditations that he’s grateful he wasn’t distracted from the essence of Stoic philosophy, living as a Stoic, by reading too many books on Logic and Physics.  He thanks the gods:

[…] that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of celestial phenomena; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. (Meditations, 1.17)

This is followed by an interesting couple of passages near the start of Book 2, in which Marcus lists a series of Stoic doctrines about Physics, concerning human nature and the nature of the universe.  He concludes by saying that these doctrines are enough for him.  These are sandwiched between two reminders to set aside his textbooks.

Throw away your books!  No longer distract yourself with them: it is not allowed.  But as if you were already dying, look down upon the flesh.  It is nothing but blood and bones and a network, a network of nerves, veins, and arteries. Consider the breath also, what kind of a thing it is, air, and not always the same, but every moment expelled and then drawn in again. The third part is the ruling faculty [hegemonikon].  Consider that you are an old man; no longer let yourself be a slave, no longer like a puppet whose strings are pulled by selfish impulses.  No longer be dissatisfied either with your present lot, nor dread the future.

All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separate from nature or from interweaving and interlacing with the things which ordered by Providence. From that all things flow, and there is also necessity, and that which is for the welfare of the whole universe, of which you are a part. But that which the nature of the whole brings about, and what serves to maintain this nature, is good for every part of nature. Now the universe is preserved, by the changes of the elements but also by the changes of things compounded of the elements.

Let these doctrines be enough for you, hold them always as fixed principles [dogmas]. But cast away your thirst after books, that you may not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from your heart thankful to the gods.  (Meditations, 2.2-3)

Marcus on the Emperor Antoninus Pius

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius’ description of the virtues of the Emperor Antoninus Pius in The Meditations.

Antoninus PiusIn the first book of The Meditations, Marcus has far more to say about the virtues of his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, than any of the other people he acknowledges.  We have no reason to believe that Antoninus Pius was a Stoic but Marcus does make some interesting observations about him in relation to philosophy.

Marcus says Antoninus had a “high appreciation of all true philosophers without an upbraiding of the others, and at the same time without any undue subservience to them” and he goes on to say that most of all, he had a “readiness to acknowledge without jealousy the claims of those who were endowed with any special gift”, including knowledge of ethics, “and to give them active support that each might gain the honour to which his individual eminence entitled him”.  It seems likely, therefore, that Antoninus approved of and supported Marcus’ most beloved Stoic tutors, such as Apollonius of Chalcedon, Junius Rusticus, and Claudius Maximus.  We know Antoninus sent for Apollonius to be one of Marcus’ first tutors in philosophy.

He apparently “gave no thought to his food, or to the texture and colour of his clothes”, somewhat like Cynics and Stoics.  Marcus says he was free from any superstition regarding the gods, which is something the philosophers, especially the Cynics, were known for attacking.  However, Marcus particularly notes Antoninus’ “take it or leave it” attitude to external things.

The example that he gave of utilising without pride, and at the same time without any apology, all the lavish gifts of Fortune that contribute towards the comfort of life, so as to enjoy them when present as a matter of course, and, when absent, not to miss them.

This is so important that he seems to repeat it a few paragraphs later, comparing it to the legendary self-mastery of Socrates.  He says that Antoninus considered everything calmly (with ataraxia) and methodically, and that:

One might apply to him what is told of Socrates, that he was able to abstain from or enjoy those things that many are not strong enough to refrain from and to o much inclined to enjoy.  But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to be abstemious in the other is characteristic of a man who has a perfect and indomitable soul, as was seen in the case of Maximus.

Presumably, Marcus is here comparing Antoninus to one of his favourite Stoic tutors, Claudius Maximus, whom he praises for “self-mastery” and “cheerfulness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances”.

Marcus also thanked the gods:

That I was subordinated to a ruler and a father capable of ridding me of all conceit, and of bringing me to recognise that it is possible to live in a Court and yet do without bodyguards and gorgeous garments and linkmen and statues and the like pomp; and that it is in such a man’s power to reduce himself very nearly to the condition of a private individual and yet not on this account to be more paltry or more remiss in dealing with what the interests of the state require to be done in imperial fashion.

We know from the histories that on his deathbed, Antoninus gave the tribune of the night-watch the password of the day as aequanimitas (equanimity) before lapsing into sleep, and dying peacefully.  As was often the case, this final phrase was taken as symbolic of his reign.

The Missing Stoics in Diogenes Laertius

Summary of the original table of contents of Book VII from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, showing the names of the most eminent philosophers of the Stoic school, from Zeno down to Cornutus.

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, written at the start of the 3rd century AD, is one of our main sources for information about ancient Stoicism.  Book VII, on the Stoic school, is very useful.  However, many people may be unaware that the surviving manuscripts are incomplete.  It cuts off during the life of Chrysippus for some reason.  We know from a table of contents in one of the manuscripts, though, that it should continue with chapters on many subsequent Stoics.  Here is a full list of the eminent Stoic philosophers whose lives and opinions Diogenes considered important enough to include:

  1. Zeno of Citium – Founder and first scholarch
  2. Aristo [of Chios] – Seceded from school
  3. Herillus – Seceded from school
  4. Dionysius – Seceded from school
  5. Cleanthes – Second scholarch
  6. Sphaerus
  7. Chrysippus -Third scholarch, with whom the surviving manuscripts end…
  8. Zeno of Tarsus
  9. Diogenes [of Babylon] – Fourth scholarch
  10. Apollodorus [of Seleucia]
  11. Boethus [of Sidon]
  12. Mnesarchides
  13. Mnasagoras
  14. Nestor
  15. Basilides
  16. Dardanus [of Athens]
  17. Antipater [of Tarsus] – Fifth scholarch
  18. Heraclides [of Tarsus]
  19. Sosigenes
  20. Panaetius – Sixth scholarch, founder of The Middle Stoa
  21. Hecato [of Rhodes]
  22. Posidonius – Head of the school in Rhodes
  23. Athenodorus [Cordylion]
  24. Athenodorus [Cananites]
  25. Antipater [of Tyre]
  26. Arius [Didymus]
  27. Cornutus – Fl. in reign of Nero, c. 60 AD

Notable Omissions

Cato the Younger is not listed here and neither is Seneca, though he was a contemporary of Cornutus.  Seneca was executed in 65 AD, whereas it’s believed Cornutus was still alive and exiled in either 66 or 68 AD.  Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and other Stoics who come later are also missing but possibly only because Diogenes’ main source is Arius Didymus, who died around the same time as Cornutus and Seneca.

Marcus Aurelius: The Education of a Philosopher

Some notes on what we learn about Stoicism from Marcus Aurelius’ teachers, and what he says he admired most about them.

Bust of Young Marcus AureliusWhat did Marcus Aurelius learn from his Stoic teachers?  We have many references to his philosophical teachers, especially Stoics, who provided him with living role-models of virtue.  So what did he find most praiseworthy and admirable in these men?  Marcus tells us, in particular, that they provided him with examples of integrity, patience, and self-mastery, but also cheerfulness, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness, all of which were also important Stoic traits.

The opening sentence of the Historia Augusta states that Marcus Aurelius “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 he 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 Cynics and Stoics.  As we’ll see below, Marcus himself suggests the idea for sleeping on a camp-bed and adopting other aspects of the “Greek training” came from Diognetus, his painting tutor.  Marcus was seventeen years old when Antoninus Pius adopted him into the imperial family, so it’s implied that at this age he was already studying Stoicism under Apollonius of Chalcedon.  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 practised 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 know something about most of these men, with the exception of the Stoic Cinna Catulus.

At the end of Book 1, Mrcus thanks the gods “That I got to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus”, all three of whom were Stoic teachers.  It’s typically presumed by scholars that these were his three most significant teachers. Marcus also studied Platonism under Alexander of Seleucia, known as Peloplaton (“Clay Plato”), and Aristotelianism under Claudius Severus.  There’s no mention of any specific Epicurean teacher, although Marcus was apparently familiar with Epicurean writings.

Diognetus

Marcus said, intriguingly, that his painting tutor, Diognetus, showed him:

[…] not to resent plain speaking [parrhêsia]; and to become familiar with philosophy and be a hearer first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to write dialogues as a boy; and to set my heart on a camp bed and a pelt and whatever else accords with the Greek training [agôgê].(Meditations, 1.6)

The allusion to philosophy here naturally suggests that parrhêsia may be used in the sense associated with the Cynic philosophers’ way of life, of which it was a central element.  Although this is merely an impression the passage gives, it’s reinforced by the reference to sleeping on a military-style camp bed, under a crude pelt, which some scholars have taken to be a reference to the Spartan agôgê, elements of which were assimilated into the Cynic and Stoic lifestyle.  Unfortunately, however, beyond this cryptic reference, we know nothing of Diognetus, or the three lecturers to whom he referred Marcus.  It’s striking that this passage refers to philosophy, though, and is followed by passages in honour of Marcus’ main philosophy tutors.

Junius Rusticus

From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed correction and training [therapeia] for my character; and not to be turned aside into an zealous sophistry; nor compose speculative treatises, or deliver little sermons, or try to show off being an ascetic or unselfish man; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and fine language; and not to go about the house in my robes, or commit any such breach of good taste and to write letters without affectation, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to shew oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial overview; nor to be too quick in agreeing with every chatterbox; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

Statue of Young Marcus AureliusThe Stoic Junius Rusticus was Marcus’ most important teacher.  The book of Epictetus that Marcus refers to here as as “memoir” or notes must surely be the Discourses we know today, which he quotes elsewhere.  However, there were originally eight Discourses, of which only four survive today.  So it’s possible that Marcus had also read the lost books of Epictetus.  Marcus was aged around fourteen when Epictetus died, and it’s unlikely the two ever met.  However, Junius Rusticus was aged around thirty-five and so it’s tempting to speculate that he’d met and studied with Epictetus and later communicated his philosophical teachings to Marcus, along with a copy of the Discourses from his personal library.

Marcus mentions that it was from Rusticus he learned that his own character needed correction.  That’s important because one of the most psychologically significant roles of a philosophical mentor, especially in Stoicism, was to act as a sort of mirror to younger students and help them become aware of their own blind-spots.  Galen, for example, wrote at length about the necessity of having a wise teacher to provide this kind of insight because we’re naturally oblivious to our own prejudices and character flaws.

He also learned from Rusticus to avoid becoming lost in sophistry or useless philosophical speculation, something Epictetus never tires of warning his students against.  Again, Marcus admires Rusticus for avoiding too much rhetoric and for his plain speaking, like Diognetus.

Intriguingly, when Marcus writes that Rusticus provides a good example of how to be willingly reconciled to those who have lost their temper with you, he may well be referring to his own short-fuse.  Marcus elsewhere thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  Perhaps Rusticus was sometimes too blunt in his moral criticisms of the young Marcus and provoked him to anger, but was willing to compromise and be reconciled if Marcus was willing to reconsider his actions.

Apollonius of Chalcedon

The Historia Augusta suggests that Apollonius of Chalcedon was Marcus’ first philosophy teacher and that he saw him before being adopted into the imperial family of Antoninus Pius, aged seventeen, and continued to study with him thereafter.

From Apollonius I learned freedom and unwavering caution; and to focus on nothing else, even for a moment, except reason; and to be always the same, in acute pain, on losing a child, and in long illness; and to see vividly through a living role-model that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the least of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. (Meditations, 1.8)

The start of this passage can be read as referring to Stoic mindfulness, or Apollonius showing continual attention to his own ruling-faculty and to reason.  What does it mean to be simultaneously both resolute and yielding, or willing to let go?  This could be read as a reference to the famous Stoic “reserve clause”: the Stoic is totally committed to doing what is up to him, or acting virtuously, but he seeks external things lightly, with the caveat that they may go otherwise.

Sextus of Chaeronea

Sextus of Chaeronea was the nephew of the famous Platonic philosopher Plutarch.  According to Philostratus, Marcus was still attending lectures by Sextus late in life, perhaps around 177 AD, after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, and before he returned to the northern frontier.

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, “it is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, “O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.”

Marcus writes of him in The Meditations:

From Sextus, kindness, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the concept of living in accord with nature; and a serious demeanour without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly revered by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and organizing, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles [dogmas] necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion and yet full of natural affection; and he could express his approval without a noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without being pretentious. (Meditations, 1.9)

The references to Stoic terminology in this passage are striking.  Sextus showed Marcus the virtuous Stoic feeling of kindness (eumenes) and what it really means to “live in accord with nature”, the Stoic goal of life.  He also showed him what it means to reconcile Stoic indifference (apatheia) with natural affection (philostorgia).

Claudius Maximus

Claudius Maximus is mentioned later than the other Stoic teachers, although it’s believed he died around 161 AD the same year Marcus became emperor.  He was a Roman politician, who served as consul, governor of Pannonia Superior, and then proconsul of Africa.  Marcus mentions the death of Maximus and his wife briefly in The Meditations (8.25).

From Maximus I learned self-mastery, and not to be turned aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a good-tempered character combining gentleness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I noticed that everybody felt he believed in what he said, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his frustration, neither, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do things for the benefit of others, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he gave the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been set right. I saw, too, that no man could ever either think that he was looked down upon by Maximus or think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. (Meditations, 1.15)

Marcus begins by referring to Maximus’ as a model of Stoic self-mastery (enkrateia) and focus on the goal of living rationally.  He was cheerful in all circumstances, not gloomy as some people imagine Stoics.  He was sincere and authentic but gentle and honourable in his dealings with others, whom he always sought to help.  He was never surprised or shocked by anything, things the Stoics took to be a sign of philosophical naivety.  What he says about Maximus being someone whom one imagines could never be turned astray rather than having to be set on the right path, is recalled later in The Meditations (3.5), where he writes “You should stand upright, not be set upright.”

Marcus Aurelius: the Civil War in the East (Children’s Version)

Piece of biographical fiction about Marcus Aurelius and the civil war in the eastern empire, triggered by Avidius Cassius, written for my five-year old daughter, Poppy, and other children.

NB: This is a children’s story, or rather biographical fiction based on the ancient accounts of Marcus’ reign and other evidence, including The Meditations.  I wrote it for my five-year old daughter, Poppy.  It’s a simplification of a much more detailed account I’d written for adults.


The Philosopher King

Marcus AureliusLong, long ago – over two thousand years ago – there was a famous philosopher named Socrates. Socrates was extremely wise, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. He used to talk a lot to people about the difference between a good person and a bad person. Once he said that kings are powerful and philosophers are wise, so the world would be better if all kings became philosophers, because then they would be both powerful and wise. Most kings are not philosophers, though. In fact, there had never really been a king who was a philosopher. After Socrates died, over five hundred years passed before a philosopher finally became a king. His name was Marcus Aurelius and he was the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world. An emperor is like a king but even more important. He rules over not one but many different countries. Marcus Aurelius ruled over a vast empire that stretched from England through Europe into the north of Africa and the Middle East. (Not Scotland, though!)

When Marcus was just a young boy, the emperor Hadrian asked his successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt him, so that he could be next in line to the throne. On the day he was adopted, young Marcus had a strange dream in which his shoulders were made of ivory.  When someone asked him if they could lift a heavy weight he discovered they were much stronger than he realised.  A wise man told him the dream meant he was destined to be a great leader, who say beautiful things.  Antoninus gathered together the best teachers for Marcus from around the world. He learned lots of different things but the subject he loved most was philosophy, or how to become wise. When he was twelve years old he started to wear the traditional grey cloak of a philosopher and trained himself in toughness by doing things like sleeping on a mat on the ground instead of in a normal bed. He carried on studying for the rest of his life. In fact, he was still going to philosophy lessons when he was an old man. When people asked him why he spent so much time studying philosophy, Marcus used to quote Socrates’ saying: Nations can only flourish when the philosophers become kings or the kings become philosophers.

Lucius VerusWhen Antoninus died, Marcus became the new emperor of Rome but he wanted to share the job with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus. (We say “adoptive” because neither of the boys were born the sons of the emperor Antoninus Pius but he chose them both to become his sons, and took them into his family.) Marcus said he didn’t want to become emperor unless his little brother, Lucius, was emperor too. So for the first time ever Rome had two co-emperors. Marcus was older, though, and had more experience in government, so he was really the one in charge.  Marcus was very serious and worked hard.  Lucius was almost the opposite of his brother.  He was very lazy and he liked to play games and throw fancy parties instead of working, but Marcus loved him anyway because he was his little brother and he treated him in some ways like a son.

The Parthian Wars & the Plague

To keep him busy and out of trouble, Marcus sent Lucius to lead a war that had started far to the east in a land called Parthia. Lucius couldn’t be bothered fighting, though, so he just based himself in the city of Antioch, where he played dice all night long, watched gladiatorial fights and circus games, and held notorious banquets where he drank and feasted until he passed out at the table. They say while his generals and their legions were risking their lives on the battlefield of Parthia, Lucius was out hunting in the countryside or touring the seaside towns with groups of musicians and his good-for-nothing friends.  Some say Marcus was actually the one planning how to fight the war, from back in Rome, even though Lucius was based in a city closer to the fighting.  Lucius took charge of organizing all the food and supplies and avoided doing anything dangerous because he wasn’t very brave. He let his generals do all the fighting for him while he took the glory. The war raged on for five years and one of Lucius’ generals in particular, named Avidius Cassius, fought and won many battles with his legions. As he defeated more enemies he was given powers, until he was nearly as powerful as Lucius, who remained safely back in the city, far from all the action. One day, Cassius sacked an ancient town named Seleucia, with whom the Romans had agreed peace.  Despite the fact that Seleucia had welcomed the Roman soldiers as friends, Cassius ordered them to steal everything they could and destroy everything else that was left behind. People said the gods were angry with Cassius and gave his soldiers a terrible disease, called the plague. When Lucius and Cassius came back home from Parthia to Rome they were both treated as war heroes, even though Cassius had done all the fighting. The Roman people were overjoyed. But without realising it, the soldiers had also brought back something very bad indeed back from Parthia. They brought back the disease called the Antonine Plague, or smallpox.

The plague spread through the whole Roman empire, for fifteen long years. The Roman people were very sad and very worried. They say maybe a third of the population died. People with the disease would become very sick, they’d get a fever, their throat would hurt, their stomach would hurt, and their skin would become very sore and lumpy. It was horrible to see. Everyone prayed to the gods to save them and doctors tried everything they could think of to help. But back then they didn’t really understand what was going on, or how the plague worked, so even the best doctors in the empire couldn’t help much.  Maybe five million people died as a result.  Marcus Aurelius was friends with a very famous doctor named Galen who studied the plague and tried to find a cure to protect the emperors.

The Marcomanni Wars

While the disease was spreading, more and more soldiers were dying, and so the army became much weaker. Then, at the worst possible time, another disaster happened. Not long after the wars to the east, in Parthia, had ended, millions of barbarian tribesman called the Quadi and Marcomanni started to invade Rome from the other side of the empire, far to the north. They broke through into Roman towns and stole everything. People were very afraid of going to war in the north because the barbarians were so many, and the Roman armies were suffering from the plague. Lucius wanted to stay home and rest but Marcus said it was an emergency and they both needed to lead the Roman army north to drive back the invaders. Because the army was so weak, Marcus did something that shocked the people. He took slaves and gladiators into the army to help replace the soldiers who’d died from plague. And he sold many treasures from his imperial palace to raise money that was used to help pay the soldiers wages.

Marcus and Lucius put on their army cloaks and rode north to war. At first, they struggled to defeat the barbarians who numbered many more than the Romans. But gradually, as they learned more about their enemies and about the country they were in, the Romans started to win more battles. However, yet another disaster struck. Marcus wanted Lucius to stay in the north but finally gave in to his demands and allowed him to go back home. While travelling back to Rome, though, Lucius fell sick with the plague. The best doctors in the empire tried but they couldn’t save him and he died. Lucius’ family were angry and said he should never have left Rome but it was too late.  Many other noblemen died in battle on the northern frontier, and Marcus built statues to them.  Some Romans started to feel that between the plague and the wars, too many people had died.

Marcus was very sad about the loss of his brother but he continued the war in the north. Even though he’d never led an army before, and never trained as a soldier, Marcus was very wise and became a great general. The army loved and admired him. His soldiers all thought the gods were helping Marcus because of a miracle some of them claimed they’d seen. One day,  one of Marcus’ best generals and his soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered by warriors of the Quadi barbarian tribe. It was the middle of summer and the Roman soldiers had no water, they were feeling very weak and thirsty because of the heat. They say Marcus prayed for them and something incredible happened. Suddenly storm clouds appeared in the sky overhead and it started raining very heavily. The soldiers caught the rain in their helmets and drank as they carried on fighting. They all cheered because of the miracle and started to fight back more bravely. As the barbarians charged at them on horseback, thunder sounded and lightning struck them. Fire and water came down from the skies and helped the Romans defeat their enemy. After this famous victory, the soldiers all celebrated Marcus’ as their supreme commander and told stories about how he brought them good luck.

During one of their most famous battles, the Romans chased the Marcomanni across the frozen river Danube. The barbarians assumed they would have a great advantage against the Romans on the ice because they were used to it, so they turned to fight, but they were in for a shock. The Romans had been training hard through the winter. When the Marcomanni surrounded them on the icy surface, the Romans packed themselves in a tight formation, placed their shields on the ice, and put one foot on top so that they could stand more firmly. Then as the barbarians charged, they grabbed the reins of their horses and pulled them to the ground, so they slipped on the ice and fell. The Romans were victorious because they’d carefully studied how to fight in these surroundings and practised tricks that would help their soldiers defeat the local tribes.

The Rebellion of Avidius Cassius

However, while Marcus was far away, busy fighting in the north, the people in the eastern empire felt neglected and were growing restless. They hadn’t seen Marcus for a long time, and Lucius was dead now. Millions of people had died of the plague and many more of their men were sent to fight with Marcus in the distant north and most of them were slain in battle and never returned home. Things were becoming expensive because taxes had increased to pay for Marcus’ war against the Marcomanni, people had to give more money to the emperor and they didn’t like that. One day, a mysterious Egyptian tribe called the Herdsmen said “We’ve had enough.” They tricked and killed two Roman officers and declared war on the Romans in Egypt. More and more people joined their revolution until the Roman Prefect or ruler of Egypt became worried. This was a big problem because most of the grain used to make bread came from Egypt, so the Romans called it the breadbasket of their empire. Marcus decided it was an emergency and told Cassius to march his legions to Egypt and stop the Herdsmen. However, to do that he had to make Cassius even more powerful, so he granted him imperium throughout the east, which meant people had to obey him as if he were the emperor. Cassius led the Roman armies into Egypt but there were so many of the Herdsmen he didn’t fight them in a pitched battle. Instead, he slowly tricked them into arguing with each other, until they fell out, and then he beat them, something we call a “divide and conquer” strategy. People said Cassius had saved Rome and they thought he was very clever. So he became an even bigger hero, and was left with supreme command throughout the eastern part of the empire.

Now since the co-emperor Lucius had died, Cassius had gradually become so powerful, that he started to feel like he should be an emperor himself. Indeed, some people even say that when Lucius was alive he tried to warn Marcus that he’d heard Cassius wanted to overthrow him.  Marcus said that he shouldn’t worry because whatever will be will be, and that they couldn’t judge Cassius based on rumours anyway.  He told Lucius to remember their adoptive father the emperor Antoninus, who used to say “No one ever kills his successor”.  However, Marcus had been very sick for many years, with pains in his chest and stomach. He found it hard to eat and at night he struggled to sleep because he was so ill. Some people say that because of his illness, Marcus’ wife, Faustina, worried that he was about to die. They say she told their friend Cassius that if Marcus was dying he was to get the army to acclaim him emperor instead, as quickly as possible, before any of their enemies could seize the role. Perhaps Faustina even planned to marry Cassius if Marcus died, to protect their son Commodus, and make sure he could become emperor one day. Nobody knows for sure, but some people say that was Faustina and Cassius’ plan. Somehow, one day, Cassius heard news that Marcus was really sick and was probably dying so the Egyptian army quickly acclaimed Cassius the new emperor. But he’d made a terrible mistake. Marcus had indeed been very ill, weeks ago, but he’d recovered and now he was better.

When the Senate, the government in Rome, found out, they were angry.  This was a huge rebellion.  They immediately declared Cassius a public enemy and took away all the money and land that belonged to him and his family. The people in Rome panicked because they thought Cassius would be so angry that now he’d march the Egyptian army into their city and destroy everything. When the people within a country fight one another, that’s called a civil war. Everyone was worried that now there were two emperors, they would have to fight over control of Rome, and there would be a huge civil war. Marcus was so far away it would have taken several weeks for the news to reach him. When he found out he thought his friend Cassius must have made a terrible mistake and would change his mind and give up, so he waited for news, but Cassius didn’t back down or surrender, instead he gathered his armies and prepared for war.  Some of Lucius’ family and other politicians in Rome also opposed Marcus’ war in the north because it was so expensive and the lives of so many Roman soldiers had been lost. So some politicians in Rome did take sides with Cassius but there weren’t very many of them. Most Romans remained loyal to Marcus, as their true emperor.

Everyone was shocked at what Cassius had done. They thought Marcus would be shocked too and really angry. But for his whole life Marcus had been preparing to respond philosophically to things like this. Every morning he would meditate and patiently tell himself “Today you will meet ingratitude, treachery, lies, and selfish people…” He planned how to deal calmly with even the most difficult situation, and never to be surprised by anything. He’d learned that from the ancient philosophers he studied as a young man. Finally, he was just about to win his wars in the north, after years and years of fighting.  However, instead, he would have to quickly pack up and march his armies all the way across the empire to fight a new war against his own friend. Fortunately, Marcus was very organised and hard working. He sent one of his generals ahead with a small army to reach Cassius first and block his path to Rome. He sent another general to Rome where he was to calm everyone down and stop the panic. Marcus himself took time to agree peace with the local tribes and prepare a much larger army, containing some of the toughest and most experienced soldiers.  When they were ready he started the long march south to defeat Cassius.

Marcus Prepares for Civil War

Before they left, as soon as he realised Cassius wasn’t going to back down, Marcus gave a speech to his soldiers. He told them that he wasn’t angry or upset. Everyone was amazed how calm he was. He always tried to see things from both sides. He wanted to understand other people’s motives, what was important to them, and what they were thinking. When someone did something that seemed bad, he’d learned from the philosophers to pause and say to himself: “It must have seemed right to him.” So he said he wanted everyone to forgive Cassius and his friends, and let them live in peace if they would surrender. Marcus said nobody in Rome was to hurt any of Cassius’ supporters and that ones that had been exiled, or sent away, were to be invited to come back home. The soldiers were surprised he was being so gentle but that was what he’d learned from philosophy. Marcus’ response was very different from the politicians’ in Rome; whereas he remained calm and offered to pardon Cassius, the Senate were angry, panicked, and wanted to punish everyone involved in the rebellion.

The army led by Marcus began marching toward Egypt to fight the main battle of the civil war.  Something surprising happened, though, before they could reach the enemy. The legions in Egypt heard that Marcus wanted to forgive them all but their commander, Cassius, still refused to give up. The soldiers knew that Marcus had a much bigger and much stronger army, and they were afraid they were going to lose. So they decided to get rid of Cassius themselves. Two of their officers charged at him on their horses when he wasn’t expecting it, caught him by surprise, and chopped his head off. They took Cassius’ head to Marcus but he said he didn’t want to look at it and told them to bury it instead. He was sad that his friend had been killed because he said it was all a big mistake and he wanted to pardon him. Marcus had won the war, but he refused to celebrate.  He said he wanted to make sure that nobody else was killed, and he asked the Senate to give back all of Cassius’ money to his children, to let them go wherever they want to go, and to protect them from harm.

Marcus travelled around all the different countries in the east of the empire and helped to calm them down and restore peace. The people said he was a hero because they were terrified that there was going to be a civil war but he’d managed to stop it without any fighting by saying that he was going to forgive everyone involved. He was loved by all the eastern provinces and they say that many of the people there started to study philosophy because of their admiration for Marcus.