New Book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorI’m pleased to announce that my new book about Stoicism is now listed for pre-order from online bookstores.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is available for pre-order in Kindle, hardback, and audio CD formats.  It is scheduled to be published on January 29th 2019, by St. Martin’s Press / Macmillan Publishing.

I’ve already written a general introduction to Stoicism for personal improvement: Teach Yourself Stoicism (2013).  There are many other good books around on Stoicism so I wanted to write something completely different.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor uses anecdotes about the life of Marcus Aurelius, drawn from Roman histories, to teach lessons about his use of Stoic philosophical precepts and psychological techniques in daily life.  Each chapter focuses on a different period in Marcus’ life and a different personal development topic, relevant to modern readers.  These include dealing with desire, anger, anxiety, pain, illness, sadness, loss, and coming to terms with our own mortality.  I’ve drawn heavily on my own experience as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist to explain Stoic psychological exercises in a way that’s workable for readers today who want to use Stoicism to make practical changes in their own lives.

If you want to learn more, you might be interested in listening to my recent interview about Marcus Aurelius’ life and philosophy for Scott Hebert’s Stoic Mettle podcast.

I hope you enjoy reading my new book!  Please let me know if you have any questions about it in the comments below.  As always, thanks for your support!

Regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

PS.  You can become a patron and sponsor my work on Stoicism and psychotherapy via my new Patreon page.

PPS. Links to the book listing on the websites of Macmillan Publishing, AmazonGoodReads, Chapters, WorldCat, Google Books, Kobo, Barnes and Noble.  You can also search for the book using the ISBN numbers below:

  • ISBN-10: 1250196620
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250196620

🎁 Happy birthday, Marcus Aurelius!

Marcus Aurelius was born 26th April, 121 AD.

So to celebrate his birthday, here are some links to free downloads related to Marcus Aurelius from my e-learning site:

Marcus Young and OldAnd I have a special announcement: my new book about his life and philosophy, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, has just been listed on Amazon.  Although it’s not available until January 2019, you can pre-order a copy now:

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019) on Amazon

We’re also offering 10% off the price of our four-week course on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, to anyone enrolling within the next five days, who uses the coupon code: MARCUS2018.This offer is limited to the first 50 people using the coupon code, so don’t miss out!

FREE STUFF

1. Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories

I created this unique e-book containing excerpts about the life of Marcus Aurelius from three Roman histories: Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta. If you want to find out more about Marcus Aurelius the man, you should definitely read this. Go straight to the ancient sources!

2. The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius

My favourite book on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Portrays his Stoic teacher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, delivering a eulogy over his body on its return to Rome. You could read this in an afternoon and you’ll probably remember some of the passages for the rest of your life.

3. Marcus Aurelius HD Wallpapers

Our graphic designer, Rocio de Torres, created these HD desktop wallpapers with images of Marcus Aurelius and popular quotes from The Meditations so that you can use them on your computer to remind yourself of his Stoic wisdom.

4. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Another e-book, this time the classic George Long translation of The Meditations, carefully adapted for EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF file formats so that you can download it free of charge and read on your device.

Hope you enjoy! And please feel free to share with your friends online.

As always, thanks for your support!

PS: My new Patreon page also has some exclusive content for anyone who wants to become a patron and support the work I do on philosophy and psychotherapy.

PPS: There are loads of articles on my WordPress blog about Marcus Aurelius, all grouped together by category.

Marcus Aurelius Chronology

Lady Stoics #3: Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor

Annia Cornificia Faustina MinorWe don’t know much about female Stoics, except perhaps some of the daughters of famous Stoics who appear also to have been influenced by Stoics.  For example, Porcia Catonis, the daughter of Cato of Utica, is portrayed in a manner that suggests she may have been a Stoic, as is Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition.

One of the daughters of Marcus Aurelius, Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor (160-212 AD), may perhaps also have learned something of Stoicism from her famous father.  At least, Cornificia appears to have been more committed to honouring her father’s memory and following his moral example than her younger brother Commodus was, though.

When she was in her fifties the tyrannical emperor Caracalla had her executed, by forced suicide, as part of a purge.

[Caracalla], when about to kill Cornificia, bade her choose the manner of her death, as if he were thereby showing her especial honour. She first uttered many laments, and then, inspired by the memory of her father, Marcus, her grandfather, Antoninus, and her brother, Commodus, she ended by saying: “Poor, unhappy soul of mine, imprisoned in a vile body, fare forth, be freed, show them that you are Marcus’ daughter, whether they will or no.” Then she laid aside all the adornments in which she was arrayed, having composed herself in seemly fashion, severed her veins and died.

Other than that we don’t know much about her.  However, if she actually said “show them that you are Marcus’ daughter” as she faced death then it suggests she may perhaps have been inspired by his Stoicism.

Enrolling Now: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Roman Emperor Banner

I’m pleased to announce that my course on the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, is now enrolling, and starts on Sunday 18th February 2018.  It only runs once or twice per year, though – so don’t miss out!

The course will teach you how to apply philosophical principles and psychological techniques from Stoic philosophy in your daily life, based on the example of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. It focuses on specific areas where Stoicism can help, including anger, pain and illness, fear, and loss.

Who is this course for? Anyone who’s interested in Stoicism, particularly Marcus Aurelius. If you’re a complete newcomer this course will provide a good introduction to Stoicism. Even if you’ve read a lot of books on Stoicism, though, you’ll still benefit from the resources and exploring a different approach to the subject.

Thanks Donald for your personal perspectives, the anecdotes and breadth of applied experience with Stoicism; the practical and historical perspectives, using Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, were very insightful and valuable also for long-term retention. Lots of thought-provoking material here to read and re-read. Many thanks. The course concept and contents are highly recommended. (I came close to turning this course down – but am greatly relieved now that I registered at the last minute!) – Sachigo

If you have any questions at all about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

I would definitely recommend this course. It is a great overview of Stoicism. Using Marcus Aurelius as a role model is brilliant!
– Moonhorse

Marcus Graffiti

Warm regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

Free E-book: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations of Marcus AureliusFree download available for one week only!

This is the classic George Long translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in e-book format.  It’s the complete unabridged text.

This translation is in the public domain but I wanted to create my own e-book edition so that I can upgrade it over time with notes, a preface, etc., and make it easier to navigate the text. Once you register to download you’ll get the current files but I’ll also be able to notify you when an improved edition is released, which you can also download free of charge.

This mini-course contains download links that you can use to obtain copies of the EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) or PDF versions of the book. This text has been carefully reformatted to make it suitable for e-readers and mobile devices.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Older Marcus Marcus Aurelius died on 17th March 180 AD.  Excerpt from Herodian of Antioch’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus.  

Download the whole book free of charge.

When Marcus was an old man, exhausted not only by age but also by labors and cares, he suffered a serious illness while visiting the Pannonians. When the emperor suspected that there was little hope of his recovery, and realized that his son would become emperor while still very young, he was afraid that the undisciplined youth, deprived of parental advice, might neglect his excellent studies and good habits and turn to drinking and debauchery (for the minds of the young, prone to pleasures, are turned very easily from the virtues of education) when he had absolute and unrestrained power.

This learned man was disturbed also by the memory of those who had become sole rulers in their youth. The Sicilian despot Dionysus, in his excessive licentiousness, had sought out new pleasures and paid the highest prices for them. The arrogance and violence of Alexander’s successors against their subject peoples had brought disgrace upon his empire.

Ptolemy, too, contrary to the laws of the Macedonians and Greeks, went so far as to marry his own sister. Antigonus had imitated Dionysus in every way, even wearing a crown of ivy instead of the Macedonian hat or the diadem, and carrying the thyrsus instead of a scepter.

Marcus was even more distressed when he recalled events of recent date. Nero had capped his crimes by murdering his mother and had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of the people. The exploits of Domitian, as well, were marked by excessive savagery.

When he recalled such spectacles of despotism as these, he was apprehensive and anticipated evil events. Then, too, the Germans on the border gave him much cause for anxiety. He had not yet forced all these tribes to submit; some he had won to an alliance by persuasion; others he had conquered by force of arms. There were some who, although they had broken their pact with him, had returned to the alliance temporarily because of the fear occasioned by the presence of so great an emperor. He suspected that, contemptuous of his son’s youth, they would launch an assault upon him; for the barbarian is ever eager to revolt on any pretext.

Roman Histories Mockup

Death of Marcus

Marcus Young and OldTroubled by these thoughts, Marcus summoned his friends and kinsmen. Placing his son beside him and raising himself up a little on his couch, he began to speak to them as follows:

“That you are distressed to see me in this condition is hardly surprising. It is natural for men to pity the sufferings of their fellow men, and the misfortunes that occur before their very eyes arouse even greater compassion. I think, however, that an even stronger bond of affection exists between you and me; in return for the favors I have done you, I have a reasonable right to expect your reciprocal good will.

And now is the proper time for me to discover that not in vain have I showered honor and esteem upon you for so long, and for you to return the favor by showing that you are not unmindful of the benefits you have received from me. Here is my son, whom you yourselves have educated, approaching the prime of youth and, as it were, in need of pilots for the stormy seas ahead. I fear that he, tossed to and fro by his lack of knowledge of what he needs to know, may be dashed to pieces on the rocks of evil practices.

You, therefore, together take my place as his father, looking after him and giving him wise counsel. No amount of money is large enough to compensate for a tyrant’s excesses, nor is the protection of his bodyguards enough to shield the ruler who does not possess the good will of his subjects.

The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.

When a man holds absolute power, it is difficult for him to control his desires. But if you give my son proper advice in such matters and constantly remind him of what he has heard here, you will make him the best of emperors for yourselves and for all, and you will be paying the greatest tribute to my memory. Only in this way can you make my memory immortal.”

At this point Marcus suffered a severe fainting spell and sank back on his couch, exhausted by weakness and worry. All who were present pitied him, and some cried out in their grief, unable to control themselves. After living another night and day, Marcus died, leaving to men of his own time a legacy of regret; to future ages, an eternal memorial of excellence.

When the news of his death was made public, the whole army in Pannonia and the common people as well were grief-stricken; indeed, no one in the Roman empire received the report without weeping. All cried out in a swelling chorus, calling him “Kind Father,” “Noble Emperor,” “Brave General,” and “Wise, Moderate Ruler,” and every man spoke the truth.

Why did Marcus Aurelius allow Commodus to succeed him?

This is a first draft.  I’ve not supplied detailed references because I’m writing it off the top of my head just to get it out there.  Please correct any errors.  I’ll check it later and add references, etc.  So apologies for any typos or whatever!

One of the most commonly asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism is why Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors, would have allowed Commodus, who turned out to be a terrible emperor, to succeed him.  Sometimes people are just puzzled by this.  Sometimes they criticize Marcus for failing in his duty either to bring up a better son or appoint a better heir.  Sometimes they’ve seen the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which focuses on the character of Commodus as a bad emperor, and ask questions about its historical accuracy.  It’s a question that interests me because I run a course about the relationship between Marcus Aurelius’ life and his Stoic philosophy called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and I’ve just finished writing a book on the same subject.

Marcus and Commodus in Gladiator

Maximus, Commodus, and Marcus Aurelius in GladiatorLet me start by briefly recapping what happens in Gladiator because those images seem to influence a lot of these discussions…  In the first act, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is depicted as Caesar, the heir to the Roman empire, with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), on the northern frontier, during the Second Marcomannic War.  A frail and elderly Marcus tells Commodus that he has changed his mind about appointing him emperor and that one of his generals, Maximus (Russell Crowe), will serve as an interim ruler managing Rome’s transition back to a republic.

MARCUS: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?
COMMODUS [with a slight smile on his face]: Yes, father.
MARCUS: You will not be Emperor.
COMMODUS [the smile quickly vanishes leaving in its place painful bewilderment]: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?
MARCUS: My powers will pass to Maximus to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a Republic again.

Commodus then strangles his father, makes himself emperor anyway, and tries to have Maximus murdered, setting up the plot for the rest of the film.

There’s also a Netflix docuseries about Commodus called Roman Empire: Reign of Blood (2016), which approaches the subject from a slightly more historical perspective.  Several academics appear as talking heads, discussing Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and dramatized sections are interspersed depicting the events of his life.  The experts are fairly reliable but the dramatized segments are a little hit and miss in their depiction, inevitably, as they have to make things exciting for the viewer and where there’s some uncertainty or conflict in the ancient sources they sometimes pick the most sensational story to tell.

Marcus Aurelius Chronology

Some Key Facts

This is a slightly complicated story.  However, I find it helps to begin just by stating a few important historical facts, which I believe are partly obscured by the portrayal of events in Gladiator, although even people who have never seen that movie are often mistaken on these points.

  1. At the time Commodus was appointed heir, Marcus was still ruling alongside his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, who was nine years younger, and much fitter than the notoriously frail and sickly Marcus, so presumably Lucius was expected to be Marcus’ immediate successor.
  2. Marcus and Lucius together appointed Commodus Caesar, official heir to the throne, along with his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, on 12th October 166, when Commodus was a child aged five years old.  Presumably at this time the most likely scenario would have been that when Marcus died, Commodus would serve alongside Lucius Verus as his junior co-emperor.
  3. Commodus had already been ruling as Emperor for about three years before Marcus died.  Marcus had his son acclaimed Imperator on 27th November 176 AD and later, in the summer of 177 AD, he was granted the title Augustus, making him co-emperor with Marcus.

So whereas Commodus is portrayed as Caesar in the movie Gladiator, waiting to succeed Marcus, who then refuses to let him take the throne, in reality Commodus had already been emperor for about three years before Marcus died.  Incidentally, although there were rumours that Commodus had Marcus assassinated, which Cassius Dio repeats, he also says that when Marcus was dying he took the precaution of having his son taken under armed guard so that he couldn’t be accused of his murder.

[Marcus Aurelius] passed away on the seventeenth of March, not as a result of the disease from which he still suffered, but by the act of his physicians, as I have been plainly told, who wished to do Commodus a favour.  When now he was at the point of death, he commended his son to the protection of the soldiers (for he did not wish his death to appear to be due to Commodus) […] (Cassius Dio)

Marcus was nearly sixty and apparently dying of the plague, so it hardly seems necessary for Commodus to have gone to the trouble of ordering his physicians to assassinate him, although it’s possible.

Hadrian’s Succession Plan

Emperors in GalleryNow let’s get a little deeper into the complexities…  Imperial succession arrangements were often complicated and mysterious.  To understand Commodus we have to go right back to his great-grandfather, by adoption, the emperor Hadrian.  Hadrian was childless.  Toward the end of his life his behaviour was becoming erratic.  He surprised everyone by choosing a man called Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor.  Hadrian granted him the  imperial title Caesar, starting a tradition that the heir to the throne would take that title in advance.  However, the man died suddenly about a year later, forcing Hadrian to come up with another candidate.

He then adopted a man called Aurelius Antoninus and appointed him Caesar on condition that Antoninus would in turn adopt a young boy called Marcus Annius Verus and make him his own successor.  The boy Marcus took Antoninus’ family name and became forever known as Marcus Aurelius.  So there was a plan that stretched decades into the future.  However, these arrangements could easily be overturned by events.  The man Hadrian had originally appointed Caesar had a young son, also called Lucius.  The Senate were terrified of the possibility of civil war caused by rival factions fighting over claims to the throne.  When Hadrian died he was hated by the Senate for spying on and executing his enemies at Rome.  He’d also left them with the problem of what to do about the boy Lucius.

Marcus and Lucius as Co-Emperors

Lucius VerusWhen the Emperor Antoninus died, Marcus Aurelius was acclaimed emperor but he insisted that the Senate recognize Lucius as his co-emperor.  Lucius then took Marcus’ family name and became the Emperor Lucius Verus.  Lucius was also betrothed to Marcus’ young daughter, Lucilla, making him Marcus’ son-in-law as well as his adoptive brother.  (I know, it’s confusing but bear with me…)  This was the first time that Rome had been ruled by two emperors jointly.  It was probably considered necessary to unite the empire and prevent instability caused by the mess Hadrian had left by creating two rival dynasties with a claim on the throne.

The histories make it clear that although on paper they were  (virtually) equals, Marcus was effectively the senior party and Lucius obeyed him like a provincial governor or a lieutenant in the army.   I won’t go too much into Lucius’ character except to say he was quite the opposite of Marcus and whereas Marcus was a workaholic who spent his youth tirelessly studying and gaining experience of Roman law and government, Lucius was very idle and clearly came nowhere near Marcus’ level of competence and experience as a ruler.  The one thing Marcus lacked was any military experience.  As far as we know Lucius didn’t have any either but he was young, handsome, obsessed with sports, and probably quite popular, so it seems to have been envisaged his role would be more involved with the military.  When the two emperors were acclaimed, therefore, it was Lucius who was sent to deliver a speech to the soldiers, and not long after, when the Parthian War broke out, Marcus sent Lucius to Syria to oversee the campaign.

We’ve no direct confirmation of this but it stands to reason that at this point in time it would have been assumed that Lucius would outlive Marcus and effectively become his successor.  Lucius was nine years younger than Marcus and much fitter and healthier than him.  He was also married to Marcus’ daughter, and it was said Marcus treated him more like a son than a brother.  He may also have been a bad emperor but it seems that Marcus felt it was necessary, for some reason, to appoint him.  Presumably because it was feared that a rival dynasty would split the empire, which in turn would leave it vulnerable to invasion, as we’ll see.

Lucius didn’t really distinguish himself during the Parthian War.  He reputedly spent his time partying far away from the action and let his generals do all the work for him.  One in particular, Avidius Cassius, became a rising star, and we’ll be returning to his part in the story later.  However, Lucius returned to Rome and celebrated his victory.  Unfortunately, the Roman legions returning to their garrisons across Europe brought back a disease, probably a strain of smallpox, which became known as the Antonine Plague.  This pestilence ravaged the empire throughout the rest of Marcus’ reign and well into the reign of Commodus.  We’re told bodies were carried out of Rome by the cartload.  It’s been estimated that five million people across the empire may have died as a result of this plague.  The Antonine Plague is an important character in this story because the histories tell us that by taking the lives of so many people it disrupted society in many ways.  Those to whom family fortunes were bequeathed died prematurely.  Experienced senators, military officers, and government officials died prematurely and had to be replaced – there was a high turnover of staff in important positions.  We can see this affected the imperial succession also.

The Marcomannic Wars

Marcus Annius VerusShortly after Lucius returned, a huge coalition army of barbarian tribes from the north, led by King Ballomar of the Marcomanni, invaded the northern provinces, overrunning them.  They crossed the Alps, Rome’s natural defensive barrier, and rampaged through Italy, finally besieging the Roman city of Aquileia.  This time both Marcus and Lucius took command of the military response and left Rome together to drive the barbarian horde out of Italy and liberate the northern province of Pannonia.  War in the north would occupy Marcus for most of the rest of his reign and it would also cost the lives of many Romans, including men in senior positions.  The city of Rome itself was thrown into total panic by the news that a barbarian army had penetrated Italy, because they feared Rome would be sacked.

Ballomar had seized the opportunity when Rome was weak.  Beleaguered troops were still on their way back to their garrisons in the north from the Parthian War far to the east.  The legions had also been devastated by the plague, which thrived in the conditions found in army camps.  It was at this time that Marcus and Lucius agreed to appoint Marcus’ two sons, Commodus and Marcus Annius Verus, as Caesar.  This was undoubtedly done in response to the panic at Rome.   Although his own succession had been planned by Hadrian far in advance, Marcus himself wasn’t appointed Caesar by Antoninus until he was eighteen.  It was clearly assumed that both Marcus and Lucius might die suddenly and that it was better to have a successor in place than leave Rome in chaos.  The death rate among children due to the plague would have been particularly high.  That may be one reason who two boys were appointed Caesar but it’s also likely that Marcus planned for the brothers to rule jointly one day, as he and Lucius had done.

People often comment online that the Roman emperors typically adopted their successors and Marcus should have done likewise.  The precedent for this was set when Julius Caesar adopted Octavian who went on to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor.  However, the Roman emperors who adopted heirs normally did so because they had no suitable natural heirs of their own.  For example, Hadrian adopted Antoninus and Antoninus adopted Marcus because they had no sons available to succeed them.  The Roman people actually believed very strongly in natural succession, just like most barbarian peoples did.  An emperor who had a natural heir, like Marcus, and chose to bypass him to adopt an heir, would risk creating a rival dynasty and dividing the empire.  As rivals to the throne were often murdered, adopting a successor would also mean placing his own son’s life in very serious jeopardy.  (On the other hand, as we’ll see, Marcus possibly did consider adopting an interim successor, Pompeianus, who would perhaps have become emperor if Marcus died while Commodus was still a boy, subsequently appointing Commodus his co-emperor, to rule jointly, when he reached a suitable age.)

The fact that Marcus’ two sons were appointed Caesar did perhaps create a slight anomaly because the most likely scenario would be that Lucius would have outlived Marcus, as we’ve seen.  There would be two Caesars but only one position open, in that case, for a co-emperor.  So presumably it was envisaged that Commodus would serve as junior co-emperor to Lucius Verus and later, after the death of Lucius, Marcus Annius Verus would join his brother and rule alongside him.  Also, Lucius was childless but if he’d had a son surely it would have created another conflict over succession.  (Rome would have potentially been ruled by an emperor who had a natural heir but had already appointed two sons of his deceased brother as his heirs.)  In any case, I would suggest that the Senate urged Marcus and Lucius to appoint these children Caesars before leaving for war because they felt it was necessary for the stability of the empire.

Death of Lucius and Marcus Annius Verus

Shortly after these wars began on the northern front, two deaths shook the empire and upset these plans.  The young Caesar Marcus Annius Verus died during an operation on a tumour.  Marcus lost about seven children altogether, including several sons.  He was getting old now and Commodus, still a child, was his only surviving son.  Shortly after this, the emperor Lucius Verus suddenly dropped dead, possibly another victim of the plague.  There were, as always, rumours that Marcus had him assassinated but most scholars dismiss this as typical court gossip.  Nevertheless, there was a faction on the Senate who opposed Marcus’ ongoing campaign in the north and they possibly propagated these and other rumours against him.

Around this time, Marcus also lost his main Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who was back at Rome serving as urban prefect.  So he must have felt increasingly isolated.  I believe there are signs in The Meditations and in the histories that Marcus was greatly affected by the loss of his children and struggled to cope emotionally by leaning more heavily on his Stoic training.  (Did he perhaps begin writing The Meditations partly as a way of coping with the loss of his tutors and family members?)  I think the whole empire was worried that Commodus wouldn’t survive, during the plague when many children died.  And I think we can see hints that Marcus was affected by this climate and also concerned about the possible loss of his only surviving son, especially now that Lucius was gone.  All eyes were  suddenly on Commodus, though still a child.

The children of Roman nobles were usually raised by nurses who were slaves and possibly their mothers took some part in their care but often they had little contact with their fathers until they became older.  On the other hand, Marcus’ private letters to Fronto reveal him to be an incredibly affectionate man and a loving parent.  He describes his children as his little chicks in a nest.  (These displays of familial affection seem perhaps a little out of character for a Roman of this period.)  Nevertheless, for most of Commodus’ youth Marcus was extremely busy.   With no military experience whatsoever, after the death of Lucius Verus, Marcus was suddenly and unexpectedly left in command of the largest army ever massed on a northern frontier, numbering an estimated 140,000 men, including legions, auxiliary units, naval units on the Danube, etc.  Marcus was mostly stationed at the front line, in Pannonia (modern Austria), several weeks’ travel away from Rome.  It seems his family sometimes visited him but generally we have to assume he was just far to busy fighting a massive campaign and running the empire in a time of great turmoil, far away from Rome, to have had much time to participate in his son’s upbringing.  Nevertheless, we’re told Marcus took great care to provide the best possible tutors for his son, presumably men of good character and wisdom.

Pertinax and Pompeianus

Tiberius Claudius PompeianusThe plague and war took the lives of many men whose positions had to be filled, so it created the opportunity to promote new men.  Marcus caused some controversy by promoting individuals of humble stock, based on merit.  One of them, Pertinax, was the son of a freedman who rose to become one of Marcus’ two right-hand men during the Marcomannic Wars.  Later, he would succeed Commodus and,this son of a former slave would, albeit briefly, become emperor.  The other was Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a Syrian of humble origins who had distinguished himself during the Parthian War.  He was close friends with Pertinax and rose to become Marcus’ most senior general on the northern frontier.

Marcus betrothed Pompeianus to his daughter, Lucilla, the widow of Lucius Verus.  She was one of the most powerful women in Rome, being titled Augusta, empress, from her marriage to Lucius, and also a daughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  By marrying her, Pompeianus was brought into Marcus’ dynasty.  It was rumoured that Marcus asked Pompeianus to become Caesar, presumably as an interim ruler while Commodus matured and gained experience.  However, for some mysterious reason he refused.  Indeed, it’s said Pompeianus was invited to become emperor three times altogether and refused each time.  (Marcus invited him to become Caesar, Pertinax asked him to accede to the throne after Commodus was assassinated and Julianus who succeeded Pertinax asked him to become joint emperor with him.)

Pompeianus was probably almost as powerful as Avidius Cassius, another Syrian general.  However, Cassius was of extremely noble birth and “born to rule” so I would suspect he possibly resented the fact that his rival was a countryman from the lower ranks of society.  We can’t know for sure but I wonder whether Pompeianus refused the invitation to become Marcus’ successor because he was concerned it would incite Cassius to declare civil war.  We’re told Pompeianus later lost his eyesight, which was a common consequence of the plague, due to the pustules spreading onto the eyes.  It may be that in later life he felt he wasn’t physically up to the task of ruling and it’s a sign of the esteem in which he was held, perhaps, that he was twice invited to rule despite being almost blind.  The Aurelian Column which depicts Marcus’ campaign on the northern frontier shows him with Pompeianus by his side.  Incidentally, Russell Crowe’s character the general named Maximus in Gladiator appears to be loosely based on Pompeianus.

The Civil War of Avidius Cassius

Then something else happened that sheds considerable light on the status of Commodus.  Marcus was notoriously sickly.  During the winter of 174/175 AD he seems to have become extremely ill and rumours of his death spread across the empire like wildfire.  This led to Avidius Cassius being acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, far away in the east.  Marcus survived, however, and this led to a civil war.  Cassius was a notoriously strict and brutal military commander.  He’d climbed rapidly to power following the Parthian War and after quelling a huge uprising in Egypt, he was now effectively governor-general over the whole of the eastern empire.   It’s said that after the death of Lucius Verus, six years earlier, he began plotting against Marcus.  By this point he was probably the second most powerful man in the empire next to Marcus himself.  The prefect of Egypt gave him his support as did most of the eastern provinces, and a number of senators.

So we can probably assume that for many years, Marcus was aware that Cassius presented a potential threat and he was cautious about a situation like this arising.  Although Commodus turned out to be a bad emperor, his character at this point was probably unknown to Marcus.  However, Cassius was known to be a brutal man and Marcus and the Senate perhaps feared the possibility that he would claim the throne and become a tyrannical ruler.  Although we often have ambiguous historical information about the motives of these individuals, we can once again see very clearly what actions Marcus took in response to this crisis.

He immediately had Commodus brought from Rome to the military camp in Pannonia.  Commodus happened to be fifteen years old now so Marcus had him take the toga virilis, signifying that he had become an adult Roman citizen.  It seems clear that Marcus wanted to protect Commodus from danger, to build support for him among the northern legions, and to put him in a position to assume power so that there was less uncertainty over the succession.  From this point on, Commodus remained in his father’s company.  So we could argue that Marcus now had time to mentor his son and study his character.  However, it’s far too late now for Marcus to change course.  He couldn’t strip Commodus of the title Caesar, granted to him ten years earlier.  If he wanted to stop Commodus becoming his successor his only real option would be to have him assassinated, which would be against his Stoic Ethics.  Even if he’d stripped Commodus of the title Caesar, he would have created a situation where he remained in the wings as a potential rival to any successor, around whom opposing factions could rally, splitting the empire in another civil war.

Marcus and Commodus as Co-Emperors

Commodus as HerculesMarcus successfully put down the civil war and Cassius was beheaded by his own officers.  As noted above, Commodus was then rapidly promoted to the rank of co-emperor.  Some of the histories suggest that Marcus now began to realize that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor.  However, we’re also told that he wasn’t so much a bad person as a weak or gullible one.  He was easily swayed by hangers-on.

This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.  And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)

In particular, Marcus asked his son-in-law and most trusted general, Pompeianus, to take responsibility for Commodus after his death and keep him out of trouble.  After Marcus died, with Commodus now as sole emperor, it’s said that he immediately sought to abandon the northern campaign by paying huge bribes to the barbarian kings, so that he could return to Rome.  We’re told Pompeianus was the only one brave enough to confront the new emperor and challenge his behaviour, arguing that he must remain with the army and finish the campaign.

So there was allegedly a sort of tug-of-war between Pompeianus and Commodus’ friends.  After a few weeks, his friends won and Commodus abandoned the legions to return to Rome.  There wasn’t much that Pompeianus could do to stop him.  In one fell swoop, he’d lost all credibility with the army.  An emperor normally requires the support of the legions or the Senate or the people of Rome.  I think Commodus was now forced to become a populist in order to secure his position.  Without the support of the legions or the Senate he turned himself into a sort of celebrity, fighting in the arena, throwing extravagant spectacles for the people and building a mythology around himself.  He even had statues erected portraying himself as the Greek hero (and deity) Hercules, bearing his distinctive club and lion-skin headdress.

Was Marcus to Blame?

I’ll let others decide to what extent Marcus was to “blame” for Commodus.  To me it seems that Marcus and the Senate were struggling to prevent civil war from dividing the empire because they knew that in its weakened state Rome would potentially be overrun by barbarian invaders if rival factions started fighting over the throne.  I think they also planned for joint rule as a safety measure against a bad or tyrannical emperor taking control of Rome but the Marcomannic Wars and the Antonine Plague created turmoil that interfered with these plans.  I also think Marcus tried to surround Commodus with advisors and to put him in the care of Pompeianus as a safety measure but that was negated when Commodus simply fled from the front leaving Pompeianus and others behind, and surrounding himself with individuals at Rome who further corrupted him.  I think he found himself in a situation where he felt it was necessary to become a celebrity rather than a genuine ruler, something Marcus would have warned him against, and that inevitably led him further and further astray.

The Stoics would say that we can’t hold parents responsible for their children.  Even Socrates had wayward sons and students.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  One of the very early philosophers admired by the Stoics was Stilpo, of the Megarian School, a teacher of Zeno of Citium.  He had a notoriously dissolute daughter, apparently.  People used to hold that against him but Stilpo replied, I think with some justification, “Her behaviour can no more brings dishonour upon me than mine can bring honour upon her.”  I think it’s worth contemplating how that saying might relate to Marcus and Commodus.

Criticisms of Marcus Aurelius from Roman Histories

NB: This is a draft.  I’ll tidy it up and make revisions over time, adding some additional content along the way.

When we’re talking about Marcus Aurelius in relation to Stoicism we inevitably focus on ways his life might illustrate Stoic concepts and practices.  However, sometimes people object that might lead to idealizing him.  Now, it has to be said that overall the surviving histories do paint a consistently very admiring picture of Marcus’ personal character, and we can find many pieces of circumstantial evidence to support the view of him as a good emperor and a good Stoic.  However, there are many criticisms of Marcus to be found in the ancient sources.  So for the sake of balance I wanted to present them here as a “negative” history of Marcus.  I’ll keep my comments to a minimum and try to present the claims made, although most of them are questionable, and in some cases I’ll point out additional information that’s relevant.

The Sources

The Historia Augusta (HA) is known by scholars to be an unreliable source, although the quality of individual chapters varies.  Nevertheless, the chapters specifically on Marcus’ reign are believed to be among the best (most reliable) among them.  There are also remarks about Marcus in the chapters on Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Avidius Cassius, Commodus, and Pertinax, though, and these are perhaps more doubtful.  The chapters on Commodus in particular are known to be among the least reliable in the whole text.

The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio is our other major source and considered to be generally more reliable, although often reflecting Dio’s political bias as a senator, having served under Commodus.  In addition, there are several other minor historical sources not covered here.  Often, as in Herodian’s account, Marcus was presented as the perfect emperor, and little or no criticism was levelled at his reign.

General Character

The chapter on Marcus in the Historia Augusta summarizes criticisms of his character as follows:

Nothing did he fear and deprecate more than a reputation for covetousness, a charge of which he tried to clear himself in many letters. Some maintain — and held it a fault — that he was insincere and not as guileless as he seemed, indeed not as guileless as either Pius or Verus had been. Others accused him of encouraging the arrogance of the court by keeping his friends from general social intercourse and from banquets. (HA)

There’s not much indication of covetousness in any other surviving accounts of Marcus’ character, though.  There’s surprisingly little reference to it in The Meditations, as though it wasn’t an issue on his mind.  What we do find, though, in the histories are several references to unrest caused by austerity during his rule, due the the financial predicament of the empire.   Marcus generally comes across as very sincere in other accounts.  For instance, we know Hadrian gave him the nickname Verissimus as a child, meaning “most truthful” because of his upright and frank character.  There are several criticisms, though, that relate to Marcus not appearing gregarious enough by joining in the celebrations at public games, etc.

There is another indication in the HA that Marcus was perceived in his youth as spoiled and insincere.

Towards [Antoninus] Pius, so far as it appears, [Lucius] Verus showed loyalty rather than affection.  Pius, however, loved the frankness of his nature and his unspoiled way of living, and encouraged Marcus to imitate him in these. (HA, Lucius Verus)

Like the HA, Cassius Dio also praises Marcus’ overall character very highly: “So temperately and so firmly did he rule them, that, even when involved in so many and so great wars, he did naught that was unseemly either by way of flattery or as the result of fear.”

Dio does mention Marcus being criticized for financially stinginess, although he feels strongly that this was a completely unjust criticism.

Therefore I am surprised to hear people even to‑day censuring him on the ground that he was not an open-handed prince. For, although in general he was most economical in very truth, yet he never avoided a single necessary expenditure, even though, as I have stated, he burdened no one by levies of money and though he found himself forced to lay out very large sums beyond the ordinary requirements. (Cassius Dio)

It’s likely Marcus was reluctant to spend too much money on things like public entertainments, given the vast expenditure required by the Marcomannic Wars, and the considerable cost to the treasury of the plague and various natural disasters that occurred during his reign.  He had no choice but to be thrifty, although that’s something certain groups were bound to resent.

Dio also has the following to say:

In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance. Most of his life he devoted to beneficence […] He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily; but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention; for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretence but to real excellence is clear; for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus, and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence. (Cassius Dio)

Again, Dio is praising Marcus but in doing so perhaps implies that he often turned a blind eye to the flaws of others, especially those of his wife, Faustina.

Aloofness / Austerity

There are several references to the fact Marcus appeared aloof or overly-austere to some people at times.

It was customary with Marcus to read, listen to, and sign documents at the circus-games; because of this habit he was openly ridiculed, it is said, by the people. (HA)

There’s a remarkably frank letter from Marcus’ rhetoric tutor, Fronto, which confirms this notion.

On occasion, in your absence, I have criticized you in quite severe terms in front of a small circle of my most intimate friends. There was a time when I would do so, for instance, when you entered public gatherings with a more gloomy expression than was fitting, or pored over a book at the theatre or during a banquet (I am speaking of a time when I myself did not yet keep away from theatres and banquets). On such occasions, then, I would call you an insensitive man who failed to act as circumstances demanded, or sometimes even, in an impulse of anger, a disagreeable person. (Letter from Fronto to Marcus)

Notice, though, that Fronto partially retracts this appraisal and mentions that he’s now less inclined to keep away from theatres and banquets himself.  It’s as though people were saying that Marcus could come across as aloof for not joining in with common pastimes but they sometimes also side with him, and realize that he may have had a point.

Marcus was also allegedly criticized for appearing harsh in his military discipline and life in general because of his adherence to Stoicism.  This appears refer to his personal lifestyle rather than discipline with regard to his troops.  Marcus was not perceived as a strict military commander, as the letter of Avidius Cassius above demonstrates.  Why would he be so bitterly assailed for this, though?  We’re told Marcus wrote speeches or pamphlets disputing what his critics had said rather than punishing them, as a more autocratic emperor may have done.

But because Marcus, as a result of his system of [Stoic] philosophy, seemed harsh in his military discipline and indeed in his life in general, he was bitterly assailed; to all who spoke ill of him, however, he made reply either in speeches or in pamphlets.  And because in this German, or Marcomannic, war, or rather I should say in this “War of Many Nations,” many nobles perished, for all of whom he erected statues in the Forum of Trajan, his friends often urged him to abandon the war and return to Rome. He, however, disregarded this advice and stood his ground, nor did he withdraw before he had brought all the wars to a conclusion. (HA)

Undoubtedly many nobles died in the Marcomannic War.  There’s a hint here of opposition to the war, albeit from Marcus’ own circle.  The context perhaps implies that it was partly the loss of so many eminent Romans that they had in mind when pleading with him to conclude the northern campaign.  Many historians believe Marcus was right to fight on, though, and in that case this anecdote can be viewed in a very different light as showing he possessed remarkable integrity and commitment to what he believed was right even when many voices were clamouring for him to abandon the campaign.

Marcus recruiting gladiators into the army seems like an eminently sensible emergency measure given the crisis caused by the sudden Marcomanni-led invasion and the depletion of numbers caused by the plague.  However, it was among the aspects of the northern campaign that caused unrest among the population at Rome.  It also seems linked to the perception that the emperor was overly-austere because of his Stoicism but he compensated by instructed wealthy Romans on their duty to contribute to other public entertainments.

And while absent from Rome he left forceful instructions that the amusements of the Roman people should be provided for by the richest givers of public spectacles, because, when he took the gladiators away to the war, there was talk among the people that he intended to deprive them of their amusements and thereby drive them to the study of philosophy.  Indeed, he had ordered that the actors of pantomimes should begin their performances nine days later than usual in order that business might not be interfered with. There was talk, as we mentioned above, about his wife’s intrigues with pantomimists; however, he cleared her of all these charges in his letters.  […] There was a report, furthermore, that certain men masquerading as philosophers had been making trouble both for the state and for private citizens; but this charge he refuted. (HA)

We’ll return to the seemingly very common allegation that his wife was guilty of adultery.  Here it’s implied that accusation was made in public during his lifetime, which he actually sought to refute in letters – letters to whom?  The last remark is cryptic.  Philosophy became “trendy” because of Marcus and it was not unusual for men posing as Cynics in particular, or philosophers of other ilks, to be accused of being charlatans on the make.  That would very likely be related to the suffering and desperation caused by the plague, which led the population to depend more than normal on dubious prophets and healers.  It’s not clear what’s meant by Marcus refuting this charge, though.  Could it perhaps be read as meaning that Marcus refuted the charge they were genuine philosophers, and exposed the fact they were merely charlatans masquerading as philosophers?

Alleged Nespotism

The chapter on Marcus in HA notes that he advanced several of his tutors to prestigious official positions.  There may have been some additional resentment of those who were poor or foreign being advanced in this way.  To be fair, Marcus’ tutors were some of the leading intellectuals in the empire and he naturally knew them well and trusted them as family friends.    There was also a high turnover of staff in official posts during his reign because of the plague and the wars, so many people had to be advanced from obscurity to positions of rank.

Of his fellow-pupils he was particularly fond of Seius Fuscianus and Aufidius Victorinus, of the senatorial order, and Baebius Longus and Calenus, of the equestrian.  He was very generous to these men, so generous, in fact, that on those whom he could not advance to public office on account of their station in life, he bestowed riches. (HA)

Marcus is presented as gracious and tolerant in the following anecdote from the HA, although the gossip that he had promoted to the office of praetor (magistrate) men who had duelled with fought with him in the arena may well contain a grain of truth.  This may refer to duelling with blunted weapons or possibly wrestling or boxing, all pastimes Marcus enjoyed.  It could be a reference to gladiators who trained him in swordplay but I think it’s perhaps more likely to refer to fellow-students of wrestling and boxing.

For example, when he advised a man of abominable reputation, who was running for office, a certain Vetrasinus, to stop the town-talk about himself, and Vetrasinus replied that many who had fought with him in the arena were now praetors, the Emperor took it with good grace. (HA)

Alleged Murder of Lucius Verus

Many stories are told of Lucius Verus’ debauchery and Marcus is arguably portrayed as turning a blind eye.  This perhaps began earlier but appears to have become much worse during the war and after Lucius’ return to Rome.  The HA chapter on Lucius Verus recounts tales of Lucius’ debauchery in detail and says of Marcus:

But Marcus, though he was not without knowledge of these happenings, with characteristic modesty pretended ignorance for fear of censuring his brother. One such banquet, indeed, became very notorious. […]  The estimated cost of the whole banquet, it is reported, was six million sesterces.  And when Marcus heard of this dinner, they say, he groaned and bewailed the fate of the empire.  (HA, Lucius Verus)

It suggests Marcus sent Lucius to the east with the hope of changing his habits.

This diversity in their manner of life, as well as many other causes, bred dissensions between Marcus and Verus — or so it was bruited about by obscure rumours although never established on the basis of manifest truth.  But, in particular, this incident was mentioned: Marcus sent a certain Libo, a cousin of his, as his legate to Syria, and there Libo acted more insolently than a respectful senator should, saying that he would write to his cousin if he happened to need any advice. But [Lucius] Verus, who was there in Syria, could not suffer this, and when, a little later, Libo died after a sudden illness accompanied by all the symptoms of poisoning, it seemed probable to some people, though not to Marcus, that Verus was responsible for his death; and this suspicion strengthened the rumours of dissensions between the Emperors. (HA)

However, rumours of poisoning were very much the norm in Rome when someone of note died unexpectedly.  The HA chapter on Marcus also says:

And yet, for waging the Parthian war through his legates, he [Lucius Verus] was acclaimed Imperator, while meantime Marcus was at all hours keeping watch over the workings of the state, and, though reluctantly and sorely against his will, but nevertheless with patience, was enduring the debauchery of his brother.  In a word, Marcus, though residing at Rome, planned and executed everything necessary to the prosecution of the war. (HA)

In addition to another mention of Marcus turning a blind eye to Lucius’ excesses, it’s insinuated that Lucius took a back seat.  He reputedly let his generals, particularly Avidius Cassius, fight the war, although it’s also claimed that Marcus contributed to the military strategy from back at Rome.  Yet Lucius later claimed the glory of celebrating a triumph at Rome.

It’s elsewhere implied that Marcus was suspected of wanting to claim the glory of Rome’s victory in the Parthian War by travelling east to join the troops late in the game.

Immediately thereafter he returned to Rome, recalled by the talk of those who said that he wished to appropriate to himself the glory of finishing the war and had therefore set out for Syria. (HA)

This is somewhat negated by the fact he turned back, and never visited the east during the war.  However, there are several references to the notion that Marcus played an important role in the Parthian War behind the scenes and perhaps resented Lucius taking the glory, especially as he seems to have contributed little despite being stationed in Syria with the troops.

A more serious allegation arises, mentioned several times, that Lucius’ death was somehow caused by Marcus.

Such was Marcus’ sense of honour, moreover, that although [Lucius] Verus’ vices mightily offended him, he concealed and defended them; he also deified him after his death, aided and advanced his aunts and sisters by means of honours and pensions, honoured Verus himself with many sacrifices, consecrated a flamen for him and a college of Antonine priests, and gave him all honours that are appointed for the deified.  There is no emperor who is not the victim of some evil tale, and Marcus is no exception. For it was bruited about, in truth, that he put Verus out of the way, either with poison — by cutting a sow’s womb with a knife smeared on one side with poison,a and then offering the poisoned portion to his brother to eat, while keeping the harmless portion for himself — or, at least, by employing the physician Posidippus, who bled Verus, it is said, unseasonably.  After Verus’ death [Avidius] Cassius revolted from Marcus. (HA, Marcus Aurelius)

Note that even the author of the Historia Augusta appears to view these rumours as absurd.   Again, when someone of note, especially an Emperor, died suddenly, Romans inevitably loved to gossip that they had been murdered.

The end of the above passage is peculiar.  Avidius Cassius revolted six years after Lucius Verus’ death but the HA seems to imply some unspoken connection between these events.  Indeed, if rumours existed that Marcus had murdered Lucius that would potentially have lent weight to Cassius’ rebellion.  It could also be that the author of the HA seeks to imply that Cassius or his supporters spread this gossip.

The same rumour is repeated in the chapter on Lucius Verus but again the author of the Historia Augusta categorically dismisses it as ridiculous gossip.  Using a knife smeared on one side with poison to cut meat was a notorious technique of assassination.

There is a well-known story, which Marcus’ manner of life will not warrant, that Marcus handed Verus part of a sow’s womb which he had poisoned by cutting it with a knife smeared on one side with poison.  But it is wrong even to think of such a deed in connection with Marcus, although the plans and deeds of Verus may have well deserved it;  nor shall we leave the matter undecided, but rather reject it discarded and disproved, since from the time of Marcus onward […] not even flattery, it seems, has been able to fashion such an emperor. (HA, Lucius Verus)

Could Marcus have murdered Lucius Verus?  Possibly.  In The Meditations and his private letters to Fronto, though, Marcus seems quite affectionate toward his brother.  Also, it was at Marcus’ behest that Lucius was appointed co-emperor in the first place, and Marcus betrothed him to his own daughter.  The death of Lucius came at a very inopportune time for Marcus, at the start of the Marcomannic War.  Finally, Lucius’ reported symptoms (sudden loss of consciousness and trouble speaking) actually resemble those of the plague, which had broken out nearby, making it seem more plausible that the disease had claimed him.

The HA chapter on Lucius Verus elsewhere once again raises and disputes this rumour, throwing in the gossip that Lucius had slept with Marcus’ wife.  So altogether three different people were rumoured to have been responsible for poisoning Lucius Verus: Marcus, his wife Faustina, and Lucius’ wife Lucilla.  Clearly the gossip was running wild.

There was gossip to the effect that he had violated his mother-in‑law Faustina. And it is said that his mother-in‑law killed him treacherously by having poison sprinkled on his oysters, because he had betrayed to the daughter the amour he had had with the mother.  However, there arose also that other story related in the Life of Marcus, one utterly inconsistent with the character of such a man.  Many, again, fastened the crime of his death upon his wife, since Verus had been too complaisant to Fabia, and her power his wife Lucilla could not endure.  Indeed, Lucius and his sister Fabia did become so intimate that gossip went so far as to claim that they had entered into a conspiracy to make away with Marcus,  and that when this was betrayed to Marcus by the freedman Agaclytus, Faustina circumvented Lucius in fear that he might circumvent her. (HA, Lucius Verus)

This last rumour that Lucius plotted to overthrow Marcus but was assassinated himself before he could carry out the plan is also found in Cassius Dio.

Lucius gloried in these exploits [of the Parthian War] and took great pride in them, yet his extreme good fortune did him no good; for he is said to have engaged in a plot later against his father-in‑law Marcus and to have perished by poison before he could carry out any of his plans. (Cassius  Dio)

As noted above, Marcus was believed to have been co-ordinating the Parthian War behind the scenes but also accused of trying to steal Lucius’ glory by considering travelling out to the east to join him.  We’re also told that after laying Lucius Verus to rest, Marcus hinted to the senate that he should be credited himself with the victories of the Parthian War.

Later, while rendering thanks to the senate for his brother’s deification, he darkly hinted that all the strategic plans whereby the Parthians had been overcome were his own.  He added, besides, certain statements in which he indicated that now at length he would make a fresh beginning in the management of the state, now that Verus, who had seemed somewhat negligent, was removed. And the senate took this precisely as it was said, so that Marcus seemed to be giving thanks that Verus had departed this life. (HA)

As we’ve seen the HA elsewhere claims that it was in fact true that Marcus was responsible for strategy in the Parthian War.  This seems problematic because Marcus was at Rome, far removed from the armies in Syria, and the delay in communication caused by such a distance would have severely limited his ability to co-ordinate the military strategy.  We also know that Marcus dropped use of the title Parthicus after Lucius death, which seems to confirm the conflicting story that he was reluctant to be credited with the victory himself.  (On the other hand it could have been a deliberate effort to scotch the rumour that he’d murdered Lucius and sought to take credit for his achievements.)

The Civil War of Avidius Cassius

The HA reports an excerpt from a purported letter from Lucius Verus to Marcus Aurelius, which is generally considered to be a fake as it mistakenly calls Antoninus Pius Lucius’ grandfather and Marcus’ father, falsely implying that Marcus had adopted Lucius.  (That said, it is contradicted a few lines later where Hadrian is called Lucius’ grandfather, so it may just be a scribal error.)

Everything we do displeases him [Cassius], he is amassing no inconsiderable wealth, and he laughs at our letters. He calls you a philosophical old woman, me a half-witted spendthrift. (HA, Avidius Cassius)

The civil war declared by rival “Emperor” Avidius Cassius in 175 AD against Marcus certainly proves that he faced serious opposition within the empire.  Cassius had some powerful supporters for his rebellion, including a number of senators, the prefect of Alexandria, and presumably several other Roman generals.   He was acclaimed by the Egyptian legion and had a strong base of support in his own province of Syria.  After the civil war was quelled, Marcus had to deal with the simmering unrest in Syria, especially in its capital, the epicentre of the rebellion, Antioch.  Until then, he’d never visited the east, and he cold also be criticized on the basis that his failure to tour the eastern provinces contributed to the simmering discontent there that culminated in Cassius’ rebellion in Syria.

[Marcus] pardoned the communities which had sided with Cassius, and even went so far as to pardon the citizens of Antioch, who had said many things in support of Cassius and in opposition to himself.  But he did abolish their games and public meetings, including assemblies of every kind, and issued a very severe edict against the people themselves. And yet a speech which Marcus delivered to his friends, reported by [the lost biography of] Marius Maximus, brands them as rebels.  And finally, he refused to visit Antioch when he journeyed to Syria, nor would he visit Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius. Later on, however, he did visit Antioch. Alexandria, when he stayed there, he treated with clemency.

Which citizens of Antioch and what exactly did they say?  Serious measures were taken by Marcus after the war to prevent further uprising there suggesting that significant unrest continued.  Lucius Verus had previously  made his base at Antioch during the Parthian War but was reputedly ridiculed by the natives.  Perhaps that left a lasting resentment and desire for an alternative ruler.

The citizens of Antioch also had sided with Avidius Cassius, but these, together with certain other states which had aided Cassius, he [Marcus] pardoned, though at first he was deeply angered at the citizens of Antioch and took away their games and many of the distinctions of the city, all of which he afterwards restored. (HA, Avidius Cassius)

The HA attributes the following letter to Avidius Cassius, where Marcus is accused, despite being the “best of men”, of being overly tolerant of those who sought to grow rich under his rule.  Cassius came from a wealthy Syrian family of exceptionally noble descent so he may simply be snobbish about Marcus’ tendency to promote men of humble origins to high office in a meritocratic fashion, e.g., as in the case of his two most senior generals on the northern frontier: Claudius Pompeianus and Pertinax.  Pompeianus was also a Syrian, like Avidius Cassius, but of very humble origins and yet they were probably the two most powerful generals in the empire and at a time contenders for the throne.  It’s easy to imagine Cassius would have been critical of Pompeianus’ status given his low birth and he would perhaps have the notion of Pompeianus being elevated above him as emperor, intolerable.

Unhappy state, unhappy, which suffers under men who are eager for riches and men who have grown rich! Marcus is indeed the best of men, but one who wishes to be called merciful and hence suffers to live men whose manner of life he cannot sanction.  Where is Lucius Cassius [apparently an error for C. Cassius Longinus], whose name we bear in vain? Where is that other Marcus, Cato the Censor [i.e., Cato the Elder]? Where is all the rigour of our fathers? Long since indeed has it perished, and now it is not even desired.  Marcus [Aurelius] Antoninus philosophizes and meditates on first principles, and on souls and virtue and justice, and takes no thought for the state.  There is need, rather, for many swords, as you see for yourself, and for much practical wisdom, in order that the state may return to its ancient ways.  And truly in regard to those governors of provinces — can I deem proconsuls or governors those who believe that their provinces were given them by the senate and Antoninus only in order that they might revel and grow rich?  You have heard that our philosopher’s prefect of the guard was a beggar and a pauper three days before his appointment, and then suddenly became rich. How, I ask you, save from the vitals of the state and the purses of the provincials? Well then, let them be rich, let them be wealthy. In time they will stuff the imperial treasury; only let the gods favour the better side, let the men of Cassius restore to the state a lawful government.  (HA, Avidius Cassius)

The need for “many swords” is puzzling as Marcus had massed a huge army in the north but perhaps alludes to the emphasis his strategy placed upon the use of diplomatic negotiation rather than military force.  It’s likely Avidius Cassius was a more hawkish military commander than Marcus.

Cassius Dio appears to say that a number of Roman senators as well as generals, heads of state, and kings, were implicated in Cassius’ rebellion, and also that when he pardoned a number of co-conspirators the senate were worried it would pave the way for similar uprisings to recur in the future.

A law was passed at this time that no one should serve as governor in the province from which he had originally come, inasmuch as the revolt of Cassius had occurred during his administration of Syria, which included his native district. (Cassius Dio)

On the one hand, this was prudent of Marcus.  On the other hand, it arguably implies it was a serious mistake for him to have appointed Cassius governor in his home province of Syria in the first place, as this allowed him to gain so much power that he inevitably became a danger to the throne.  The very fact of the civil war points to an obvious line of criticism against Marcus for allowing it to develop by granting too much power to Cassius and perhaps not doing enough to keep secure loyalty from the people and the legions of Syria, Egypt, and the other regions who went over to Cassius.

Various Uprisings

The Civil War of Avidius Cassius proves that Marcus had a rival for the throne and powerful internal enemies.  However, there were also several lesser uprisings in the east and other parts of the empire.  There was unrest far away in Britain where the legionaries early in Marcus’ rule had reputedly sought to acclaim their governor, Statius Priscus, as a rival emperor to Marcus.

The histories mention that there was a violent uprising of the Bucoli or Herdsmen in Egypt against Roman rule, which spread rapidly to become a general armed uprising, during which the Roman garrison in Egypt was defeated in battle and Alexandria was besieged and nearly lost.

The people called the Bucoli began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. […] Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they came near capturing Alexandria, too, and would have succeeded, had not [Avidius] Cassius been sent against them from Syria. (Cassius Dio)

Why would the Herdsmen revolt?  The most likely explanation is that they felt that they were suffering economically due to the expense of the Marcomannic War.  Throughout the empire there was probably also unrest over the loss of soldier’s lives during the northern campaign.

Marcus recruited many captured barbarians into the army during the Marcomannic War.  He also tried to resettle many on lands within the empire but this met with mixed success:

Some of them [captured enemy soldiers] were sent on campaigns elsewhere, as were also the [returned] captives and deserters who were fit for service; others received land [to settle] in Dacia, Pannonia, Moesia, the province of Germany, and in Italy itself. Some of them, now, who settled at Ravenna, made an uprising and even went so far as to seize possession of the city: and for this reason Marcus did not again bring any of the barbarians into Italy, but even banished those who had previously come there. (Cassius Dio)

These two measures may have been perceived by him as more just alternatives to enslavement of captured enemies.  We’re told he expelled the resettled barbarians from Italy, but not from the provinces, so the general policy of resettlement presumably continued.

Alleged Infidelity of Empress Faustina

There were clearly many rumours in circulation accusing Marcus’ wife, the Empress Faustina the Younger, of adultery.  As with allegations of poisoning, gossip about the infidelity of powerful Romans’ wives was fairly common in Rome.  We’re told several times that Marcus was criticized for turning a blind eye to these rumours.  Some of the time, accusing Faustina of adultery seems to have served the purpose of implying that Commodus was not Marcus’ legitimate son, although this doesn’t seem the only motive for the stories.

The HA is speculating in the following passage when it says it “seems plausible” that Commodus was not the son of Marcus but born to Faustina from an adulterous relationship.  One piece of tangible evidence that we possess in abundance appears to count against this: statues of Commodus show that he bore a striking physical resemblance to Marcus, his father.   The HA adds a salacious anecdote about Faustina and Marcus ritually bathing in the blood of Commodus’ supposed true father, a gladiator.  This obviously seems very out of character for Marcus.  It should be noted that even after admitting that he is speculating about what “seems plausible” the author of the HA further qualifies this graphic part of the story as an embellishment current among the people.

Some say, and it seems plausible, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was not begotten by him, but in adultery; they embroider this assertion, moreover, with a story current among the people. On a certain occasion, it was said, Faustina, the daughter of Pius and wife of Marcus, saw some gladiators pass by, and was inflamed for love of one of them; and afterwards, when suffering from a long illness, she confessed the passion to her husband.  And when Marcus reported this to the Chaldeans, it was their advice that Faustina should bathe in his blood and thus couch with her husband.  When this was done, the passion was indeed allayed, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince; for afterwards as emperor he fought almost a thousand gladiatorial bouts before the eyes of the people, as shall be related in his life. This story is considered plausible, as a matter of fact, for the reason that the son of so virtuous a prince had habits worse than any trainer of gladiators, any play-actor, any fighter in the arena, anything brought into existence from the offscourings of all dishonour and crime. (HA)

The HA continues this passage by claiming that the stories about Commodus being born in adultery was very widespread, although doubt has already been cast on their plausibility.

Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really begotten in adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators.  When Marcus Antoninus was told about this, that he might divorce, if not kill her, he is reported to have said “If we send our wife away, we must also return her dowry”.  And what was her dowry? the Empire, which, after he had been adopted at the wish of Hadrian, he had inherited from his father-in‑law [Antoninus] Pius. (HA)

This isn’t impossible but there’s no known basis for assuming that Marcus’ claim to the throne actually depended in any real way on his being married to Faustina.  Marcus’ claim to the throne came from his adoption by Antoninus Pius and his “grandfather” the Emperor Hadrian, not because of his later marriage to Faustina.

But truly such is the power of the life, the holiness, the serenity, and the righteousness of a good emperor that not even the scorn felt for his kin can sully his own good name.  For since [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus held ever to his moral code and was moved by no man’s whispered machinations, men thought no less of him because his son was a gladiator, his wife infamous. (HA)

Elsewhere the HA adds an anecdote about Marcus being ridiculed in public over his wife’s alleged infidelities.  He was reputedly criticized by the people of Rome for doing nothing in response.

It is held to Marcus’ discredit that he advanced his wife’s lovers, Tertullus and Tutilius and Orfitus and Moderatus, to various offices of honour, although he had caught Tertullus in the very act of breakfasting with his wife.  In regard to this man the following dialogue was spoken on the stage in the presence of [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus himself. The Fool asked the Slave the name of his wife’s lover and the Slave answered “Tullus” three times; and when the Fool kept on asking, the Slave replied, “I have already told you thrice Tullus is his name”. But the city-populace and others besides talked a great deal about this incident and found fault with Antoninus for his forbearance. (HA)

Regarding Faustina, every indication is that Marcus held her in very high regard.  In The Meditations he thanks the gods that “my wife is such as she is, so obedient, so affectionate, so straightforward” (1.17).   This obviously contradicts the image of an unfaithful, scheming and deceitful woman emerging from the rumours.  Indeed, after her death, Marcus honoured her very highly despite the allegations apparently made against her.

He asked the senate to decree her divine honours and a temple, and likewise delivered a eulogy of her, although she had suffered grievously from the reputation of lewdness. Of this, however, Antoninus was either ignorant or affected ignorance.  He established a new order of Faustinian girls in honour of his dead wife, expressed his pleasure at her deification by the senate, and because she had accompanied him on his summer campaign, called her “Mother of the Camp”. And besides this, he made the village where Faustina died a colony, and there built a temple in her honour.

Commodus

Today, Marcus is often blamed for appointing his son Commodus as his heir as he turned out to be a bad emperor, according to sources such as Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta.  Some points about this should be clarified firs, though.  We can presume that it was initially expected that his younger co-emperor and adoptive brother, the Emperor Lucius Verus, would outlive Marcus.  Lucius would therefore have initially been Marcus’ supposed successor.  While Lucius was still alive, though, immediately after the Parthian War and outbreak of the Antonine Plague, Marcus appointed two of his sons, Commodus and his younger brother Marcus Annius Verus, as Caesar, his official heirs.  This was probably at the behest of the senate who were concerned about stability because of the possibility the two emperors might die suddenly from plague or in the impending war on the northern frontier.

At this point, presumably the expectation was if Marcus died Lucius would continue to rule with Commodus becoming his co-emperor when old enough, and that later Commodus would rule jointly with his brother Marcus Annius Verus, much as the “brothers” Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had done.   Marcus clearly favoured joint rule, having two co-emperors sharing power, as a means of securing stability.  This approach may also have been favoured by the senate.  It provided another check against the risk of a sole emperor becoming too much of an autocrat or tyrant.  However, Commodus was only about five years old when he was made Caesar, official heir to the throne.  Marcus probably barely knew him and certainly had no idea what his character would turn out like.  Moreover, for eight years, they would mostly be apart, with Commodus at Rome and Marcus busy on the northern frontier with the army.  As we’ve seen, Lucius died suddenly in 169 AD leaving Marcus as sole emperor, with his sons mere children, too young to be acclaimed emperor.  Moreover, Marcus Annius Verus would die around the same time, leaving Commodus as Marcus’ only surviving son and the natural heir to the empire.  Lucius had no children.

Although most previous emperors had adopted their heirs that was because they lacked adult sons who could assume power.  The Roman people nevertheless instinctively believed in the natural succession of rule, from father to son.  The senate worried that any situation where an individual who has a claim to the throne was left in the wings inevitably led to instability and the threat of civil war.  So Marcus could not easily have replaced Commodus with an adopted heir.  Moreover, once Commodus had been appointed Caesar, as a small child, Marcus could not easily have reversed that decision.  Of course, one option would have been to have had Commodus assassinated but despite allegations of poisoning, etc., we can assume that was not something Marcus would have considered ethical.  (We might ask why Marcus chose to have children in the first place if it meant that he would be put in this awkward situation, having a hereditary heir forced on him whose character could not be known in advance to be suitable.)

We can see that Commodus’ rise was rapidly accelerated in response to the civil war of Avidius Cassius.  Marcus immediately called him, now aged fifteen, from Rome to the northern frontier, to assume the toga virilis, and officially become an adult citizen.  In 177 AD, Marcus appointed Commodus his co-emperor.  So strictly speaking, Commodus didn’t just succeed Marcus, but rather their reigns overlapped by three years.  It’s not clear to what extent Marcus realized that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor.  However, some accounts suggest that it was in this final years that his true character became apparent, although by then he was already acclaimed emperor.

According to Cassius Dio, Commodus wasn’t so much wicked as easily led and became progressively corrupted by a crowd of hangers-on. 

This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.  And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)

Herodian also portrays Commodus as not initially wicked but rather naive and easily swayed.  In particular he claimed that Marcus intended Commodus to stay under the watchful eye of his brother-in-law the general Pompeianus on the northern frontier but Commodus found excuses to leave for Rome, and away from Pompeianus and the military he rapidly fell under the sway of corrupt advisors.

However, the HA says that earlier in Commodus’ life, Marcus had sometimes vacillated, dismissing and then re-appointing corrupt advisors, whose company his son craved.

The more honourable of those appointed to supervise his life he could not endure, but the most evil he retained, and, if any were dismissed, he yearned for them even to the point of falling sick.  When they were reinstated through his father’s indulgence, he always maintained eating-houses and low resorts for them in the imperial palace. (HA, Commodus)

Commodus apparently spent most of his time travelling with Marcus or stationed on the northern frontier after the outbreak civil war, when he was aged about fifteen.  So this remark is puzzling because it doesn’t seem intended to refer to his earlier life as a child growing up in Rome but as an adult, during Marcus’ reign, yet throughout this time Commodus was probably seldom at the imperial palace in Rome.

The HA claims that on his deathbed Marcus finally realized that Commodus was going to be a terrible emperor.

Two days before his death, it is said, [Marcus] summoned his friends and expressed the same opinion about his son that Philip expressed about Alexander when he too thought poorly of his son, and added that it grieved him exceedingly to leave a son behind him. For already Commodus had made it clear that he was base and cruel. (HA)

Likewise,

It is said that he foresaw that after his death Commodus would turn out as he actually did, and expressed the wish that his son might die, lest, as he himself said, he should become another Nero, Caligula, or Domitian. (HA)

As we’ve seen, though, by this point there was very little Marcus could do about it except plead with Commodus to remain under the supervision of his son-in-law Claudius Pompeianus and other trusted advisors.

Miscellaneous

There’s a story about Marcus’ mother wishing Antoninus dead, so her son would succeed him as emperor more quickly, but it’s largely rendered trivial by the surrounding remarks.

Moreover, he showed great deference to his father, though there were not lacking those who whispered things against him, especially Valerius Homullus, who, when he saw Marcus’ mother Lucilla worshipping in her garden before a shrine of Apollo, whispered, “Yonder woman is now praying that you may come to your end, and her son rule.” All of which influenced Pius not in the least, such was Marcus’ sense of honour and such his modesty while heir to the throne. (HA)

Marcus waited 23 years to succeed Antoninus, far longer than anyone probably expected, so it’s unsurprising people might joke that he (or his family) were feeling impatient.

This is not presented by the HA as a criticism of Marcus but modern historians believe that on being acclaimed Marcus and Lucius provided an exceptionally large donative to the praetorian guard.  They promised the common soldiers twenty-thousand sesterces apiece, and even more to officers.  It’s not clear why they would do this as Rome faced no immediate threat at this time and there’s no indication the praetorians were restless.

Around 176 AD, Marcus visited Athens for the first time and was initiated into the Eleusianina mysteries.

After he had settled affairs in the East he came to Athens, and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries in order to prove that he was innocent of any wrong-doing, and he entered the sanctuary unattended. (HA)

This suggests that he felt it necessary to make a public demonstration of his innocence, perhaps because of rumours circulating such as those accusing him of assassinating Lucius Verus.

This final passage is barely a criticism either but it does show Marcus backtracking on a decision he apparently made in anger or frustration following a political betrayal at the height of the First Marcomannic War.

Against Ariogaesus [the king of the Quadi] Marcus was so bitter that he issued a proclamation to the effect that anyone who brought him in alive should receive a thousand gold pieces, and anyone who slew him and exhibited his head, five hundred. Yet in general the emperor was always accustomed to treat even his most stubborn foes humanely […] It can be seen from this, then, how exasperated he was against Ariogaesus at this time; nevertheless, when the man was later captured, he did him no harm, but merely sent him off [in exile] to Alexandria.  (Cassius Dio)

Webinar: Marcus Aurelius on Anger

This is a Facebook Live webinar I did on Stoicism and Anger, based on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The audio is good (remember to turn up the volume) but a bit out of synch with the video so I’ve published the transcript of the main section below…

So let’s dive right into the topic of anger… The Stoics were very interested in anger. We actually have an entire book by Seneca called On Anger. However, I’m going to be talking today about what another famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, has to say about managing anger. We know Marcus himself initially struggled with angry feelings, because he tells us so. He was worried at times that he’d lose his temper with those close to him and maybe even do something he regretted. He probably knew the notorious anecdote about his adoptive grandfather Hadrian, who lost his temper with a slave and stabbed the man in the eye with a metal stylus used for writing. Later, when Hadrian had calmed down and come to his senses, he felt deeply ashamed and asked the slave what he could do to make amends. The man said all he really wanted was his eye back. Of course, even the Emperor Hadrian couldn’t fix that. The Stoics believed that anger is essentially a form of temporary madness. And they were right about that, in a sense. We know today that anger tends to distort and bias our thinking, which explains why we often do things when angry that we regret later – anger literally makes us stupid. And sometimes what we do in anger can’t be undone, it can often cause lasting damage, as in the story about Hadrian. Marcus, by contrast, was renowned for his composure in the face of provocation. We hear several anecdotes about him keeping his cool under pressure, where other people would have been furious. And we never hear of him actually losing his temper, although he tells us he wasn’t just calm by nature, he had to work on it, through years of rigorous training, with the guidance of his Stoic tutors.

Marcus GraffitiNow, I should emphasise that the Stoics have a whole system of psychological training. So they would approach anger using a variety of techniques and we can only touch on a few of those today. Stoic therapy of the passions is about overcoming pathological or unhealthy passions, including anger, which Stoics interpreted as the desire to harm others. For instance, Stoics would train themselves to carefully monitor their feelings, catching anger early before it has a chance to escalate, so they could easily nip it in the bud. Marcus like other Stoic students had a mentor, in this case Junius Rusticus. He probably underwent this training under the close personal supervision of Rusticus whose job it was to observe his character and actions, and gently point out his errors. The Stoic teacher Epictetus told his students that when they spot a passion like anger they should challenge their underlying thinking, asking themselves whether it’s about something that’s actually up to them or something not up to them.

The Stoics believed that external things, things not under our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves. So we should address our own initial impressions saying “You are just an impression (of something being bad) and not really the thing you represent” – “You are just a thought and not the thing itself.” Values like that don’t really exist in things, we just project them onto things. However, Epictetus also says that if a passion is very strong we may find it difficult to challenge our thinking until we’ve recovered our composure, so we should postpone doing anything until we’ve calmed down and can think clearly and rationally about the problem. That’s a well-known ancient strategy for dealing with anger. Today therapists do similar things for anger management, and we might call it a “time out” or “postponement” strategy in modern CBT. So the Stoics trained themselves very rigorously in these and many other psychological skills for coping with anger. Today we’re going to look at just some of the additional cognitive or thinking strategies described by Marcus Aurelius.

Overcoming anger is actually one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations. The very first sentence of the book opens with Marcus reflecting on the example his natural grandfather Annius Verus provided. Verus was someone who seemed to be totally free from anger, in stark contrast to his adoptive grandfather, Hadrian, who was a slave to his own temper. There’s one passage in particular about anger that I want to look at, though. Marcus lists ten gifts from Apollo, or from Apollo and his nine Muses. Apollo was the god of healing so it’s appropriate that Marcus would dedicate these psychological remedies to him. So what are they? Well Marcus says that when we begin to grow angry we should do one or more of the following things:

  1. Remember that you were meant to live in harmony with other people – that’s the goal of life
  2. Think of their character as a whole, particularly their flaws, their ignorance and how they are misled by their own value judgements
  3. Either what they do is right or wrong. If it’s right, you should accept it and learn from it. If it’s wrong, however, then it’s surely not intentional, as nobody is willingly deceived or deprived of the truth, according to Socrates. (Epictetus tells his students to say: “It seemed so to him.”)
  4. Pause to recognize your own flaws – you’re no different from the people you’re angry with: none of us are perfect
  5. Remember you can’t read their mind, and people often do the wrong thing for the right reason, and vice versa – you can’t be sure of their motives
  6. Remember that all things are transient, including both yourself and the other person
  7. Realize that you’re not harmed by their actions but only by your own value judgements, and it’s those that are making you angry
  8. Remember that anger hurts us more than the things we’re angry about do
  9. Ask yourself what virtue, resource, or ability Nature has given you to respond to the other person – Stoics call the virtue of “kindness” an antidote or remedy for anger because anger wishes harm on others whereas kindness, or goodwill, wishes them well
  10. To expect bad men never to do bad things, is both naive and foolish – it’s feigned surprise, we should be more prepared than that

Marcus actually returns to the topic of anger many times throughout The Meditations and gives several shorter lists of techniques, so in addition to this nice overview of ten gifts from Apollo, Marcus basically tells us which ones are his favourites and his various remarks help to clarify what he means. So let’s just briefly recap the five strategies we’re going to talk about and then go into them in more detail.

The two he seems to place most emphasis on here and elsewhere are the first one and the last one:

  • We’re naturally social creatures and flourish when we try to live in harmony
  • The misdeeds of others are as inevitable as the seasons and the wise man is never surprised by foolish or vicious people’s actions because he anticipates them.

However, three others are also particularly emphasized by him.

  • That it’s not other people’s actions that upset us but our judgements about them, which comes mainly from Epictetus.
  • That everything is transient and when we remember this and look at the bigger picture we typically feel less attachment and distress, an idea derived from Heraclitus.
  • That our anger is itself a vice and does us more harm than the external things we’re angry about.

So let’s look at those one at a time in more depth…

1. We’re naturally social creatures

The Stoics believed that the distinguishing feature of human beings is that they’re language using, self-conscious, thinking beings. They’re rational in the sense of having the capacity for reason. They believed that to reason at all is to wish to reason well, and that we therefore have a duty to make good use of our capacity for thinking rationally. When we reason well we become wise, and so that’s basically the goal of Stoicism. The other virtues consist in wisdom applied to our actions, or to our fears and desires. So we’re capable of reason, we have a duty to reason well and become wise. But the Stoics also argued that human beings are inherently social creatures, like ants or bees. We’re inclined by nature to form bonds of natural affection with our partners and offspring, our families, and also with our circle of friends – we care about these people. We’re also naturally inclined to form communities and to want to live with other human beings in villages, towns and cities. (At least that’s generally true.) The Stoics therefore argue that man is by nature both rational and social. We should cultivate reason so that we become wise but we should also cultivate social virtues like justice, fairness, and kindness to others, so that we’re better able to live in harmony with other people. Even if we encounter vicious or foolish people, or people who act like our enemies, there are good and bad ways of dealing with them. The Stoics thought we should try to educate our enemies and turn them into our friends wherever possible, or learn to tolerate them insofar as that’s appropriate, rather than becoming frustrated with them and alienated from them. That doesn’t mean the Stoics were pushovers, Marcus presided as a judge and sentenced people for their crimes, but he was generally perceived as doing so after very careful consideration of each case, and to lean toward more lenient penalties where appropriate. He didn’t get angry with people, though. (Likewise, as military commander, he exiled enemy leaders, for instance, rather than executing them – but he also fought tenaciously against them.)

So, in a nutshell, Marcus repeatedly tells himself to remember that humans are naturally social and that nature intended us to work together rather than to be in conflict. So he’s reminding himself that he sees it as his duty to try to live with other people, without becoming angry toward them, which he sees as unnecessary and unhelpful. He wants to avoid being alienated from others, by learning to forgive them or at least tolerate them, while nevertheless asserting himself and opposing their behaviour, where necessary.

In 175 AD, Marcus was faced with a civil war when his most powerful general in the eastern empire, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion. The Senate’s knee-jerk reaction was to declare Cassius public enemy and seize his property and that of his family. This threw the whole of Rome into total panic because people feared Cassius would retaliate by marching on the city of Rome and sacking it. Marcus was several weeks away, fighting a major war on the northern frontier, but when he heard the news he shocked everyone by announcing that he was prepared to forgive Cassius and the others involved. Ironically, that probably led to Cassius’ death because he refused to stand down but his legions no longer had any motive to fight, knowing that they were facing a superior force, so they beheaded Cassius and surrendered to Marcus. Marcus was as good as his word and actually protected Cassius’ family from persecution following the end of the rebellion. He considered it his duty to try to understand his enemies and defuse conflicts where possible, and that worked out pretty well for him in practice. So remember that we’re naturally social creatures, not antisocial.

2. Bad people inevitably do bad things

Although Marcus begins by emphasising that we’re naturally social creatures, paradoxically, he also emphasises that the majority of people inevitably act in antisocial ways. The Stoics believed that by granting us the ability to reason, nature has given us the potential to become wise, but nevertheless we’re all fools, the wise man is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix. Like most of Marcus’ strategies for coping with anger, this is a special application of a general Stoic principle. The Stoics astutely observed that when people are upset they tend to say things like “I can’t believe you’re doing this” or “I can’t believe this is happening”, as if they’re shocked or surprised. However, they shouldn’t be. We all know what sorts of things happen in life. We all know that other people often do foolish or selfish things. So why should we act surprised when these things happen. Acting surprised exaggerates our feelings – it makes us more angry – and it’s kind of phoney if you think about it. The Stoic wise man says “I saw this coming” or at least “I should have seen this coming – it’s no surprise.” Shit happens. That’s life. When someone else’s house is burgled we think: “These things happen sometimes.”

When I worked in central London, I saw pickpockets every single day. They used to stand facing the barriers in the underground station at Oxford Circus. When someone used their ticket to open the barrier, they’d watch them take out their wallet or purse and put it back again. If they put their wallet in an outside pocket they’d follow them upstairs. Then when they were crossing the street in the crowds, at the traffic lights, someone would bump into them – they’d turn round and go “Hey, watch where you’re going!” While they were distracted doing that, an accomplice, walking on their other side, would be picking their pocket. So I was more careful but I told myself I was bound to get my wallet stolen eventually. I had my mobile phone stolen once and my wallet twice, in about ten or fifteen years of working there. When it happened, though, I was able to say “Oh well, I knew it would happen eventually.” There’s no point being angry about it. That’s life. These things happen. To pretend otherwise would just be a form of self-deception, playing dumb. But people deceive themselves in this way all the time in order to amplify their anger. The Stoic wise man tries to view life rationally and that means accepting that all people are flawed, and selfish, to some extent, so it’s inevitable that sometimes they’ll lie, steal, cheat, betray, etc. It would be foolish to think otherwise. So Stoics are ready for these things when they happen – they’re prepared for them emotionally and refuse to act surprised. That’s just what it means to view life realistically, as far as they’re concerned. So remember that bad people inevitably do bad things.

3. It’s our own judgements that upset us

Again, this is a general Stoic principle. Epictetus famously said that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things. That quote has been taught to many thousands of clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy, following Albert Ellis. So it’s become almost a cliche in modern psychotherapy. However, here Marcus applies it specifically to anger. Anger is the desire to harm others, according to the Stoics, typically because we believe they’ve somehow harmed or threatened to harm us. But Marcus says that it’s all in our minds, ultimately. Other people can’t harm us as much as we can harm ourselves. They can insult us, but we don’t have to take offense. They can steal from us, but we don’t have to be shocked or dismayed at the loss. They can lie to us, but we don’t have to trust them in the first place, or be surprised when they let us down. Thrasea used to quote a saying attributed to Socrates, which he modified slightly: “The tyrant Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” He can destroy my body but he can’t degrade my character, unless I allow him to, which is the most important thing to a Stoic.

The real harm comes from our own judgment that we’ve been harmed, ironically. We’re upset, at least to some extent, because we choose to be upset. Now the Stoic position is actually much more nuanced than this slogan implies. They recognize that we all have natural automatic, reflex-like reactions to external events. So we’re bound to feel upset and angered if someone punches us in the face, that’s just natural. However, the difference between the fool and the wise man, is that the fool continues to be angry about it whereas the wise man steps back from his initial impressions, his feelings of anger, and questions them, telling himself that the thing he’s angry about only seems bad because of his value judgements and not because it’s intrinsically bad. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, as Hamlet says. We’re naturally predisposed to take offence or be angry about certain things but as the Stoics put it, we don’t need to then give our assent to those initial impressions and go along with our angry reaction. We can pause and rethink our response. Remember that it’s our own judgement that upsets us.

4. Everything is transient

The previous strategy is very much associated with Epictetus whereas this one seems very aligned with the thought of the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step into the same river twice because new waters are constantly flowing in. His philosophy was summed up as “everything flows”, nothing lasts forever, everything is continually changing around us. Nothing remains the same. Marcus very frequently makes use of this strategy in The Meditations, contemplating the transience of material things but also his own mortality and that of the other people who offend him. When we view the bigger picture in this way, and realize that things are transient, we tend to feel less upset and less attached to them. Once again, though, anger tends to do the opposite and amplify itself by focusing on the most upsetting part of a situation, narrowing our attention, concentrating itself, and ignoring the bigger picture. When we think about the span of events – beginning, middle, and end – and their place within the bigger picture of our lives, and the history of life on earth, then our feelings are diluted and weakened. Things seem more trivial and less worth getting upset about. But that’s the truth. The totality is reality.

When we focus on events in isolation we’re committing a lie of omission, taking them out of context. That’s the very nature of anger, though. We do it every day. It’s selective. It focuses on isolated events or aspects of a situation, or of a person’s character, as opposed to the whole picture. There’s a famous Stoic technique called The View From Above that encourages us to imagine events within the totality of space and time. However, Marcus is here just referring to one aspect of that: the realization that things don’t last forever. This too shall pass, as the saying goes. Likewise, cognitive therapists often ask clients “What next?”, “And then what?” over and over, to encourage them to get beyond the worst part of an upsetting event and think also about how it will de-escalate and things will inevitably move on, eventually. That tends to make us less upset but, once again, it’s just the truth – it’s just being honest with ourselves, and looking at things more objectively and in a more complete manner. Anger is selective attention, which ignores the transience of events. Marcus even reminds himself that one day he will be dead, and long forgotten, as will the person with whom he’s angry, so there’s no point dwelling on it and aggravating himself further. Remember that everything is transient.

5. Anger does us more harm than good

Anger is temporary madness. It skews our thinking and makes us stupid. Seneca actually began his therapy for anger by drawing attention to the ugliness of anger, how unnatural it looks when someone grimaces, scowls, their temples throb, and their face turns purple. How their voice becomes ugly and it’s very unpleasant to listen to an angry person speaking because their voice grates. Anger makes monsters of us, they might say. It harms our thinking and our character more than the very things we’re angry with ever could. Other people’s vices are their problem, not ours, ultimately. However, when we get angry, we’re committing a vice ourselves, and then it becomes our problem because we make it so.

If every morning someone told me I was an idiot, would that in itself do me any harm as long as I learn to view them with indifference? Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never harm me, right? But if I go along with my first impression that I’ve been insulted or harmed in some way, and get angrier and angrier, how much harm will I be doing to myself? Anger does us more harm than the thing we’re angry about. It makes our soul shrink. Marcus says that people think anger is a show of strength, but they’re wrong. Anger is every bit as much a form of weakness as weeping and cowering in self-pity. Marcus says true strength consists in overcoming our anger, and employing the antidote to it, by having the courage to treat other people with kindness and understanding, even when they appear to be our enemies. Marcus says that’s what he admires: the strength to forgive others and exhibit goodwill toward them unconditionally, rather than being angry with them.

Now, I should say that the Aristotelians had a different view. They believed that moderate anger could be healthy and it could motivate us to do certain important things in life. The Stoics dispute this, though. They argued that anger isn’t just a feeling, it’s also a value judgement that underlies the feeling. The judgement is that something intrinsically bad has happened but the Stoics argue that’s an error, it’s a mistaken judgement because the badness is merely projected onto things by us – it doesn’t really exist independently of our minds. So all anger is fundamentally misguided in that respect – it places too much value on things outside of our control. Moreover, the Stoics point out that anger distorts our thinking, as we’ve seen, so love and reason are much healthier attitudes that better motivate us to make sound decisions in life. The Stoic soldier doesn’t fight because he hates the enemy, and wants to destroy them, but because he loves his family and his country, and wants to protect them – and those are two very different things. So remember that anger does us more harm than good.

Conclusion

So those are just five of the ten gifts from Apollo that Marcus described, and just one small part of the Stoic therapy of the passions. Let me recap them briefly:

  1. We’re naturally social creatures
  2. Bad people inevitably do bad things
  3. It’s our own judgements that upset us
  4. Everything is transient
  5. Anger does us more harm than goodSo I hope you’ve found that helpful, please post your comments and questions and I’ll try to respond to them in the thread as soon as we’ve finished.