Did Marcus Aurelius Persecute the Christians?

Article surveying some of the evidence for and against the claim that Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians.

It’s often said on the Internet, and occasionally in books, that Marcus Aurelius somehow or other persecuted Christians. ¬†I find that specific details are often lacking, though. ¬†In fact, there are two questions worth considering here:

  1. Did the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius actively persecute Christians himself?
    Most modern scholars think that he almost certainly did not.
  2. Did Marcus allow others to persecute Christians?
    This is harder to answer, although the weight of evidence suggests Marcus actually tried to prevent others from persecuting Christians. ¬†Some persecution of Christians undoubtedly took place during his reign, but it’s unclear how much, to what extent he was aware of it, and what¬†opportunity he would have had to stop it.

After reviewing the accounts of Christian persecution during the reign of Marcus, H.D. Sedgewick observed:

The only evidence there is that Marcus Aurelius had any direct relation with any of these cases is this statement in Eusebius that during the trial at Lyons the governor wrote to ask him for instructions.

So let’s look at the main pieces of evidence, starting with this statement from Eusebius about the alleged events at Lyon…

Eusebius

The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul in 177 AD.  The one and only piece of evidence for this incident comes from the Christian historian Eusebius, who quotes a rather odd letter in his Ecclesiastical History, describing the events as follows:

The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded.  For with all his might the adversary [Satan] fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever.  But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.

And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury; and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.’ Romans 8:18 7. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace; clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch [garrison commander?] and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.

The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that can appear somewhat excessive and colourful.  Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.

Moreover, there are several very striking problems faced by those who want to try to use this letter as evidence for the claim that Marcus persecuted Christians:

  1. Eusebius finished writing¬†the Ecclesiastical History in roughly¬†300¬†AD, over a hundred and twenty years after the alleged incident¬†took place. ¬†There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was actually written. ¬†However, he is claiming¬†that the events described in it happened long before he was even born. ¬†He therefore had no first-hand knowledge of them but depended entirely on the account given in the dubious letter cited.
  2. Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and dramatic nature. ¬†It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident. ¬†Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.
  3. The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution. ¬†And yet, he makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of¬†this incredible¬†event having happened in his city. ¬†In fact, on the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).
  4. The church father¬†Tertullian, was aged around twenty¬†at the¬†time¬†the incident at Lyon supposedly¬†happened. ¬†As we’ll see, although he was actually alive at the time, he also makes no mention of the persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians.
  5. The letter quoted by Eusebius begins by blaming the actions of the mob on “the adversary” or “Evil One”, by which the authors clearly meant Satan. It¬†goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched¬†on the rack, and even raised from the dead.¬† This adds a supernatural¬†or implausible element to the account, which many modern readers may¬†find indicative of fabrication or embellishment.
  6. The letter actually concludes by blaming the mob and city of Lyon authorities¬†– it does not attribute responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to Rome. ¬†When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
  7. We have the surviving text of an Imperial edict from Marcus that provides evidence he actually tried to prevent the persecution of Christians by provincial authorities (see below).
  8. Finally, and bizarrely, Eusebius himself several times admitted that his church history¬†contained deliberate “falsehoods” or pious fraud. ¬†He’s often therefore seen as a very unreliable source for this kind of information.

Edward Gibbon, for instance, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,¬†liked to point out that Eusebius admitted employing deliberate misinformation to promote the Christian message. ¬†One of Eusebius’ chapter headings was: “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.” ¬†The historian¬†Jacob Burckhardt therefore described¬†Eusebius as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”. ¬†It would, in fact, be more appropriate to refer to Eusebius as a Christian propagandist rather than historian.

In summary, for these and other reasons, Eusebius is considered an extremely unreliable source by many modern scholars. ¬†His accounts of Christian martyrdom refer to¬†events several generations before he was even born, as we’ve seen, and are embellished¬†with extravagant details that have the air of fiction about them. ¬†For example, persecution is not portrayed as sporadic but inflicted by Satan on myriads of Christians throughout the empire. ¬†The scale and severity of this persecution¬†is totally out of keeping with the testimony of other Christians alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the paucity of evidence from other authors. ¬†Moreover, he includes many supernatural claims that undermine the credibility of his accounts in the eyes of modern readers. ¬†For example, he elsewhere states as fact miracles such as that Christian martyrs survived inside the stomachs of lions after being eaten or levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, by the grace of God. ¬†As noted above, the letter itself¬†also describes the miraculous healing of grievously wounded martyrs at Lyon, and even their resurrection from death. ¬†If we question these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter to take seriously.

Eusebius is¬†also proven to be particularly unreliable with regard to this era of Roman history because, remarkably, at various points he actually confuses Marcus Aurelius both with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, and with his adoptive father Antoninus Pius. ¬†Moreover, it is often the case that the documents (letters, etc.) quoted in ancient sources are found unreliable by scholarship because many forgeries circulated then and ancient authors often lacked the resources¬†to authenticate them. ¬†Scholars have, in fact, already identified numerous documents quoted in the writings of Eusebius as definite forgeries. ¬†In this particular letter, unusually, no date is given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis¬†Eusebius could have arrived at the conclusion that it was intended to refer to events during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. ¬†The letter itself only employs the generic title Caesar, for the Emperor. ¬†Eusebius may just be guessing the date, and that the Caesar in question is Marcus Aurelius, although frankly it seems likely that the whole letter¬†is a forgery. ¬†As noted above, however, this document is the¬†one and only piece of alleged¬†evidence for the persecution¬†at Lyon.

Tertullian

Indeed, the only sources which describe persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius come from later generations of Christian authors, who were not witness to the events they describe.  None of them actually attribute responsibility to Marcus.  The most famous account is the persecution of Lyon, which, as we have seen, is of highly questionable authenticity.

By contrast, the church father Tertullian was actually a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius and his testimony is that Marcus was emphatically a “protector” of Christians.

But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. (Apology, 5)

This appears to¬†create an internal contradiction in the Christian literature, at least for those who (dubiously) wish to read other Christian accounts as somehow blaming Marcus for the persecution of Christians. ¬†(As we’ve seen, the letter quoted by Eusebius doesn’t actually appear to blame Marcus himself.) ¬†Indeed, not a single author, Christian or¬†pagan, appears to quote any edict by Marcus condemning Christians. ¬†This is noteworthy¬†because if he had actually issued one, they would certainly have mentioned it.

Marcus’ Letter to the Asian¬†Provinces

We do, however, have a surviving edict attributed to Marcus and entitled Letter of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia, which appears to provide evidence that he actively intervened to prevent the persecution of Christians.  It is dated 161 AD, and issued from Marcus as Emperor, which suggests it was one of his first actions shortly after being acclaimed to the throne.

He explicitly refers¬†to the problem of Christians¬†who are¬†regarded by Romans as atheists because they do not worship the conventional pagan gods. ¬†Marcus warns the provincial authorities: “you harass these men, and harden them in their convictions, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists”. ¬†He states that provincial governors had many times written to his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose response was always “not to molest such persons“, unless they were actually making attempts to undermine the Roman government. ¬†Marcus says he has also frequently repeated this non-harassment policy to them himself, as Emperor. ¬†He actually goes so far as to say: “And if any one persist in bringing any such [Christian] person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.” ¬†In other words, he suggests¬†that provincial authorities may¬†be punished by Rome for persecuting Christians solely on the basis of their religion.

C.R. Haines, who published this edict as an appendix to his Loeb translation of The Meditations, included an essay entitled “Note on the Attitude of Marcus Toward the Christians.” ¬†He begins “Nothing has done the good name of Marcus so much harm as his supposed uncompromising attitude toward Christians” and concludes:

As a matter of fact, Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds.  The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition.  So is the known character of Marcus.

He goes on to argue that the retrospective claim of Eusebius about¬†myriads of Christians being¬†persecuted and horribly tortured to death throughout the Roman Empire two centuries earlier is also inconsistent with numerous historical¬†facts – often cited by Eusebius himself and other Christian authors. ¬†For example, the presence of a bishop at the head of a community of Christians was tolerated in Rome itself,¬†there were multiple Christians serving in Marcus’ own household, and probably¬†even Christians in the Roman Senate. ¬†According to Eusebius and three other Christian sources, for instance, the Senator¬†Apollonius¬†of Rome was condemned to death, under Commodus. ¬†However, that implies that during Marcus‘ reign¬†Apollonius¬†was permitted to serve on the Senate, despite being a Christian. ¬†Several sources, including Tertullian, attest that the¬†Thunderbolt Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) commanded by Marcus on the northern frontier was composed largely of Christian soldiers.

Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout¬†The Meditations. ¬†However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors. ¬†Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation. ¬†Latin authors typically used the word humanitas¬†(kindness) to describe his character; in Greek the word philanthropia¬†(love of mankind) was favoured.

Haines therefore also finds it implausible¬†that someone so universally regarded as a man of exceptional kindness and clemency would have “encouraged mob-violence against unoffending persons, ordered the torture of innocent women and boys, and violated the rights of citizenship”. ¬†Indeed, as we’ve seen, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Marcus was actually responsible for the persecution of Christians. ¬†The weight of evidence, rather, suggests that he was, as Tertullian claims, a “protector” of Christians, and tried to prevent provincial authorities from persecuting them.

Indeed, we can also look to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Marcus’ adoptive father and predecessor as emperor for evidence. ¬†From the time Marcus was appointed Caesar in 140 AD until Antoninus Pius’ death in 161 AD, for over twenty years, Marcus was his right-hand man and virtually co-ruler alongside him. ¬†Indeed, Marcus helped Antoninus Pius rule for longer than he reigned himself, as he died in 180 AD, after only nineteen years on the throne. ¬†They were in agreement on all matters, as far as we know, and about a decade after his death, in The Meditations, Marcus still reminds himself to live like a “disciple of Antoninus”.

According to the epitome of Cassius Dio’s Roman History made by¬†Xiphilinus:

Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects; instead, he showed the Christians great respect and added to the honour in which Hadrian had been wont to hold them. (Historia Romana)

It would seem remarkable, therefore, if Marcus, who had been the right-hand man in this administration of Antoninus, had suddenly performed a policy u-turn and decided to persecute the Christians instead.

The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Short vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using¬†an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world¬†itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori ‚ÄĒ‚Äúremember thou must die.‚ÄĚ Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, ‚Äúendure and renounce.‚ÄĚ With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out¬†his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair. ¬†His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to¬†relax¬†away… ¬†He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while… ¬†he waits… ¬†he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention… ¬†He imagines looking at his body from the outside… ¬†at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing… ¬†He pauses for a few moments¬†to adjust to this new perspective… ¬†Then he imagines floating serenely¬†upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed… ¬†He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body… ¬†He looks down on the camp around him… ¬†He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests… ¬†He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers… ¬†He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there… ¬†going about their lives…¬†interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways‚Ķ ¬†Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them… ¬†He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers… ¬†where one country ends and another begins… ¬†and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive‚Ķ You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our¬†world‚Ķ So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars‚Ķ You look toward our world below¬†and see it suspended in space before you… ¬†silently turning‚Ķ ¬†majestic and beautiful‚Ķ

You see the whole world‚Ķ the blue of the great oceans‚Ķ and the brown and green of the continents‚Ķ You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south‚Ķ You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth‚Ķ Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole‚Ķ

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today‚Ķ You remember¬†that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the¬†world‚Ķ You think of the rich diversity of human life… ¬†The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries‚Ķ people of all different ages‚Ķ newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life‚Ķ You think of the enormous variety of human experiences‚Ķ some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy‚Ķ and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below¬†and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality‚Ķ You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind‚Ķ Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you‚Ķ many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone‚Ķ Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages‚Ķ and your own civilisation as one in a series‚Ķ perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life‚Ķ

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants‚Ķ the mere blink of an eye‚Ķ the turn of a screw‚Ķ a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time‚Ķ Yet the ‚Äúhere and now‚ÄĚ is important‚Ķ standing as the centre point of all human experience‚Ķ Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time‚Ķ Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe‚Ķ bigger than the universe‚Ķ enveloping everything that can be conceived‚Ķ From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast‚Ķ

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective. ¬†Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth… ¬†toward the real world, and the present moment… ¬†toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes… ¬†He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

Marcus Aurelius in Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952)

The novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck mentions The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the narrative.

East of EdenThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is mentioned in East of Eden (1952), the novel by John Steinbeck. ¬†Brian Bannon discusses the literary and philosophical relationship between Marcus’ Stoicism and Steinbeck’s narrative¬†in the article ‘A Tiny Volume Bound in Leather: The Influence of Marcus Aurelius on‚ÄāEast Of Eden‘. ¬†Steinbeck once¬†said that The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were the two books that had most profoundly influenced his own outlook on life. ¬†Some literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout¬†the novel. ¬†We can also find the following direct reference:

[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away‚ÄĒThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation.

Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance.

He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

‚ÄúObserve constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.‚ÄĚ

Lee glanced down the page. ‚ÄúThou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.‚ÄĚ

Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. ‚ÄúThat is true,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs very hard. I‚Äôm sorry. But don‚Äôt forget that you also say, ‚ÄėAlways run the short way and the short way is the natural‚Äô‚ÄĒdon‚Äôt forget that.‚ÄĚ He let the pages slip past his fingers to the fly leaf where was written with a broad carpenter‚Äôs pencil, ‚ÄúSam‚Äôl Hamilton.‚ÄĚ

Suddenly Lee felt good. He wondered whether Sam‚Äôl Hamilton had ever missed his book or known who stole it. It had seemed to Lee the only clean pure way was to steal it. And he still felt good about it. His fingers caressed the smooth leather of the binding as he took it back and slipped it under the breadbox. He said to himself, ‚ÄúBut of course he knew who took it. Who else would have stolen Marcus Aurelius?‚ÄĚ ¬†He went into the sitting room and pulled a chair near to the sleeping Adam.

Marcus Aurelius and Junius Rusticus

Some notes on the relationship between Marcus Aurelius and his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

The Roman statesman¬†Quintus Junius Rusticus¬†(100 ‚Äď c. 170 AD) was one of the pre-eminent Stoic philosophers¬†of his day, and the main philosophical¬†teacher¬†of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 ‚Äst180 AD). ¬†He was a powerful member of the Roman political elite, and¬†served twice as consul, the highest elected position in the Empire. ¬†In fact Rusticus was first appointed consul in 162 AD, the year¬†after his student Marcus Aurelius became Emperor.

The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio says of Marcus:

His education was of great assistance to him, for he had been trained both in rhetoric and in philosophical disputation. In the former he had Cornelius Fronto and Claudius Herodes for teachers, and, in the latter, Junius Rusticus and Apollonius of Nicomedeia, both of whom professed [the founder of Stoicism] Zeno’s doctrines. ¬†As a result, great numbers pretended to pursue philosophy, hoping that they might be enriched by the emperor. ¬†Most of all, however, he owed his advancement to his own natural gifts; for even before he associated with those teachers he had a strong impulse towards virtue.(Epitome of Book LXXII)

The biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta says that as a youth his enthusiasm for philosophy was so great that he insisted on attending the lectures of several Stoic philosophers after being adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius.

He received most instruction from Junius Rusticus, whom he ever revered and whose disciple he became, a man esteemed in both private and public life, and exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system, with whom Marcus shared all his counsels both public and private, whom he greeted with a kiss prior to the prefects of the guard, whom he even appointed consul for a second term, and whom after his death he asked the senate to honour with statues. (Historia Augusta)

It was customary for the Emperor to bestow a ceremonial kiss upon the highest-ranking members of the senate.  The author goes on to say that Marcus held his teachers in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

This reverential attitude¬†is likewise reflected in Marcus’¬†Meditations, where it’s implied that Rusticus was honoured in his household shrine,¬†along with members of his own family. ¬†In the opening chapter of the Meditations,¬†Marcus recalls, in a contemplative manner,¬†the virtues of his family, teachers, etc., and what he’s learned from their example. ¬†The seventh passage summarizes the main virtues he observed in his main Stoic teacher:

From Rusticus [I learned] to become aware of the fact that my character needed improvement¬†and training; and not to be led aside into an argumentative sophistry; nor compose treatises on speculative subjects, or deliver pretentious¬†sermons, or show-off with ostentatious displays of self-discipline or generosity; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and refined¬†language; and not to lounge¬†about the house in my toga, or to let myself go in this sort of way; and to write letters simply, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to show oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as ever they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial bird’s-eye view; nor to be too quick to go along¬†with¬†smooth-talkers; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of¬†Epictetus, which he supplied me without of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

The advice to refrain from over-indulgence in abstract philosophical debate, or sophistry, and to keep the focus on the practical application of philosophical principles, was¬†characteristic of Stoicism. ¬†So also the notion that a wise mentor can help us first of all by raising our awareness of our own flaws or, as we’d say today, our “blind-spots.” ¬†Overall, Rusticus seems to have urged Marcus to adopt simplicity in his lifestyle and speech, something which, as Hadot notes, seems to have clashed with his training with the rhetorician¬†Fronto. ¬†The first chapter of the Meditations concludes with a long passage in which Marcus thanks the gods for having such good teachers and for the opportunity to know Rusticus and the others. ¬†Marcus also thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17). ¬†These and other comments throughout the Meditations suggest that Marcus¬†struggled with¬†occasional feelings of anger and frustration, perhaps in response to the plain-spoken criticisms of his Stoic tutor.

It’s not certain but seems very likely that in the passage above Marcus is referring¬†to the Discourses of Epictetus (55 -135 AD), as we know them today. ¬†Throughout the Meditations, he appears very acquainted with that text and arguably bases his own philosophical position mainly on his reading of it. ¬†Marcus was about thirteen years old when Epictetus died, so it’s perhaps unlikely that they met in¬†person. ¬†However, Rusticus may well¬†have¬†studied under¬†Epictetus,¬†so it’s also possible that in the passage above Marcus is referring to personal notes made by Rusticus at these lectures.

Marcus was certainly greatly influenced by the teachings of Epictetus and the influence of Rusticus may help to explain the link between the two men.

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction to Stoicism: The Three Disciplines

An introduction to Stoicism, or applied Stoic philosophy, focusing on the “Three Discplines” found in the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as explained by the modern French scholar Pierre Hadot.

An Introduction to Stoic Practice:
The Three Disciplines of Stoicism

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster[Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved. Based on material from the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism (Hodder, 2013).  See also A Simplified Approach to Modern Stoicism for a brief introduction to Stoic daily exercises.]

From its origin Stoicism placed considerable emphasis on the division of philosophical discourse into three topics called ‚ÄúEthics‚ÄĚ, ‚ÄúPhysics‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúLogic‚ÄĚ.¬† Philosophy itself was unified but theoretical discussions could be broadly distinguished in this way and the Stoics were particularly known for their threefold curriculum.¬† Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in significant amounts, we have four volumes of his Discourses, recorded from his public lectures by his student Arrian, although another four volumes have apparently been lost.¬† We also have a condensed version of his teachings compiled in the famous Stoic ‚ÄúHandbook‚ÄĚ or Enchiridion.¬† Although Epictetus lived about four centuries after Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and by his time the formal institution of the Stoic school had apparently ceased to exist, he appears to have been particularly faithful to the early teachings of the school‚Äôs main founders: Zeno and Chrysippus.

However, Epictetus also describes a threefold division between aspects of lived philosophical practice, which scholars can find no trace of in previous Stoic literature.¬† (Hence, another famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, won’t come into this discussion because he basically lived before Epictetus and never mentioned these three disciplines.)

  1. “The Discipline of Desire”, which has to do with acceptance of our fate
  2. “The Discipline of Action”, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind
  3. “The Discipline of Assent”, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgements

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic best-known to modern readers, was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself.¬† One of Marcus‚Äô teachers gave him a copy of notes from Epictetus‚Äô lectures, almost certainly the Discourses recorded by Arrian.¬† Indeed, Marcus refers to the teachings of Epictetus repeatedly throughout The Meditations and it‚Äôs clear that he‚Äôs primarily influenced by this particular form of Stoicism.¬† He also makes extensive use of the Three Disciplines described in the Discourses, which provide one of the main ‚Äúkeys‚ÄĚ to interpreting his own writings.

So how are we to interpret these Stoic practical disciplines?¬† The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote a very thorough analysis of Marcus Aurelius‚Äô Meditations called The Inner Citadel (1998), in which he explores the Three Disciplines in detail, employing them as a framework for his exposition.¬† If we follow Hadot‚Äôs interpretation, it actually provides a fairly clear and simple model for understanding the teachings of Stoicism.¬† The way of Stoic philosophy was traditionally described as ‚Äúliving according to nature‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúliving harmoniously‚ÄĚ and Hadot suggests that all three disciplines are intended to help us live in harmony in different regards, and that they combine together to provide the secret to a serene and harmonious way of life, practical philosophy as the art of living wisely.

1. The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)

According to Hadot, the discipline of ‚Äúdesire‚ÄĚ (orexis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of ‚Äúphysics‚ÄĚ, which includes the Stoic study of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology.¬† The discipline of desire, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with the Nature of the universe as a whole, or in the language of Stoic theology, with Zeus or God.¬† This entails having a ‚Äúphilosophical attitude‚ÄĚ toward a life and acceptance of our Fate as necessary and inevitable.¬† It‚Äôs tempting to see this discipline as particularly entailing the cardinal virtues associated with self-control over the irrational passions, which are¬†‚Äúcourage‚ÄĚ, or endurance in the face of fear and suffering, and ‚Äúself-discipline‚ÄĚ (temperance), or the ability to renounce desire and abstain from false or unhealthy pleasures.¬† (Hence, Epictetus’ famous slogan: “endure and renounce”.)¬† Hadot calls the goal of this discipline ‚Äúamor fati‚ÄĚ or the loving acceptance of one‚Äôs fate.¬† This discipline is summed up in one of the most striking passages from the Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.”¬† But Stoics are not “doormats”.¬† The Stoic hero Cato of Utica famously marched the shattered remnants of the Republican army through the deserts of Africa to make a desperate last stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar, who sought to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator of Rome.¬† Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend and the Stoics dubbed him “the invincible Cato” because his will was completely unconquered – he tore his own guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited by the dictator for his propaganda.¬† Centuries later, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes.¬† He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory.¬† If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed.¬† As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action in the name of justice?¬† I‚Äôve described this discipline simply as ‚ÄúStoic Acceptance‚ÄĚ, meaning amor fati.

2. The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)

According to Hadot, the discipline of ‚Äúaction‚ÄĚ (horm√™, which really means the inception or initial ‚Äúimpulse‚ÄĚ to action) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of ‚Äúethics‚ÄĚ.¬† Stoic “ethics”¬†which includes the definition of what is good, bad, and indifferent.¬† It also deals with the goal of life as ‚Äúhappiness‚ÄĚ or fulfilment (eudaimonia).¬† It includes the definition of the cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline).¬† According to the central doctrine of Stoicism, virtue is the only true good and sufficient by itself for the good life and fulfilment (eudaimonia).¬† Likewise, Stoic ethics covers the vices, opposing virtue, and the irrational and unhealthy ‚Äúpassions‚ÄĚ, classified as: fear, craving, emotional pain, and false or unhealthy pleasures.¬† The discipline of action, according to Hadot‚Äôs view, is the essentially virtue of living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve ‚Äúhappiness‚ÄĚ (eudaimonia) the goal of life.¬† However, as other people’s wellbeing is outside of our direct control, we must always wish them well in accord with the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis), which basically means adding the caveat: “Fate permitting” or “God willing.”¬† (This is one way in which the philosophical attitude toward life reconciles vigorous action with emotional acceptance.)¬† In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether success or failure.¬† Moreover, Stoics must act according to their rational appraisal of which external outcomes are naturally to be preferred.¬† Hence, Marcus Aurelius appears to refer to three clauses that Stoics should be continually mindful to attach to all of their actions:

  1. That they are undertaken “with a reserve clause” (hupexairesis)
  2. That they are “for the common welfare” of mankind (koin√īnikai)
  3. That they “accord with value” (kat’ axian)

It‚Äôs tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal virtue of ‚Äújustice‚ÄĚ, which the Stoics defined as including both fairness to others and benevolence.¬† Hadot calls this discipline ‚Äúaction in the service of mankind‚ÄĚ, because it involves extending the same natural affection or care that we are born feeling for our own body and physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental wellbeing of all mankind, through a process known as ‚Äúappropriation‚ÄĚ (oikeiosis) or widening the circle of our natural ‚Äúself-love‚ÄĚ to include all mankind.¬† I‚Äôve described this as ‚ÄúStoic Philanthropy‚ÄĚ, or love of mankind, a term they employed themselves.

3. The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)

According to Hadot, the discipline of ‚Äúassent‚ÄĚ (sunkatathesis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of ‚Äúlogic‚ÄĚ.¬† Stoic “logic”¬†actually includes elements of what we would now call ‚Äúpsychology‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúepistemology‚ÄĚ.¬† The discipline of assent, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with our own essential nature as rational beings, which means living in accord with reason and truthfulness in both our thoughts and speech.¬† It‚Äôs tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal Stoic virtue of ‚Äúwisdom‚ÄĚ or truthfulness.¬† Hadot calls the goal of this discipline the ‚Äúinner citadel‚ÄĚ because it involves continual awareness of the true self, the faculty of the mind responsible for judgement and action, where our freedom and virtue reside, the chief good in life.¬† According to Hadot‚Äôs analysis, although the Stoics refer to ‚Äújudgement‚ÄĚ in general (hypol√™psis), they‚Äôre primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements.¬† These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome.¬† By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their ‚Äúassent‚ÄĚ or agreement, rather than being ‚Äúcarried away‚ÄĚ into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices.¬† The Stoics call this prosoch√™ or ‚Äúattention‚ÄĚ to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions.¬†¬† I‚Äôve described this as ‚ÄúStoic Mindfulness‚ÄĚ, a term that can be taken to translate prosoch√™.

The Goal of Life (Follow Nature)

As you can probably see, these three disciplines overlap considerably and are intertwined, just like the three traditional topics of Stoic philosophy, which Hadot claims they‚Äôre based upon: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.¬† However, in unison, they allow the Stoic to work toward a harmonious and consistent way of life, in accord with nature.¬† By this, the Stoics meant a life in the service of the natural goal of human nature, the attainment of fulfilment ‚Äúeudaimonia‚ÄĚ, the good life, achieved by perfecting moral reasoning and excelling in terms of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.