Enrolling Now: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

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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

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Warm regards,

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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

Notes on Stoic Ethics in Cicero’s De Finibus

These are my rough notes summarizing the discussion of Stoic Ethics in Cicero’s De Finibus.  Cicero puts these words in the mouth of his deceased friend, the Stoic republican hero Cato of Utica.  It’s very interesting to compare this to the similar discussion in Diogenes Laertius, our other major source for Stoic Ethics.  The main text paraphrases De Finibus and my interpolated comments are in [square brackets].

Cato begins by denying that the apparent differences between Stoic Ethics and Platonism are merely terminological. He vigorously rejects the notion that anything except virtue is good, and argues bluntly that recognising other things as good would destroy morality. Cicero responds by saying that this position, that everything except virtue is indifferent, was also held by Pyrrho of Elis and Aristo of Chios. Cato accepts that they were good, brave, just, and temperate men in public life because nature guided them to virtue better than their philosophy could. Moreover, their position differs from the Stoics who claim that although virtue is the only true good, “It is of the essence of virtue that one makes choices among the things that are in accordance with nature.” If, like Aristo or Pyrrho, we make all externals equally indifferent, we make it impossible to select virtuously between them, and therefore virtue becomes inconceivable.

[For example, being just means treating other people fairly and with kindness, but we have to place some kind of “selective value” (axia) on different benefits we may seek to bestow on other people (such as wealth or property) in order to exercise the virtue of justice at all.  Many modern readers of Stoicism misunderstand this point, view all externals as totally indifferent, and thereby confuse Stoic Ethics with the position Cato is here explicitly rejecting.  Incidentally, praising a philosopher while rejecting his philosophy was a common rhetorical device in ancient literature and a good way of steering clear of the ad hominem fallacy – Seneca likewise heaps praise on Epicurus while condemning his philosophy as unethical.]

Cato then begins his systematic account by saying that he’s going to expound “the whole system of Zeno and the Stoics”, although in reality he  focuses almost entirely on their Ethics. This account starts with the Stoic claim that all animals are, by nature, self-interested. From birth, animals seek to preserve their own lives and protect their bodies, first and foremost, and other things such as food and shelter insofar as they serve this fundamental goal of survival. Against the hedonists and Epicureans, Cato argues that newborn animals instinctively seek out what is good for them and avoid what is harmful before they ever feel pleasure or pain. [He perhaps means that newborn animals instinctively seek to feed before even having tasted food, etc.] He takes this as evidence that they instinctively value their own survival and fear destruction, but that this also requires a kind of primitive self-awareness of their survival needs and their bodies. Cato describes this survival instinct as a form of “self-love” and the Stoics argue that this is the primary motivation of other animals but also of human infants.  [The belief that we can learn something about what humans naturally value by observing the instinctive behaviour of infants is known is the “cradle argument”.]

Cato says that most Stoics do not believe that pleasure should be ranked among the “natural principles”, by which I take him to mean the preferred indifferents. [Does this imply that some Stoics did?] He believes that many problematic consequences would follow for animals and humans if obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain were our primary motivation. He argues instead that animals want first and foremost to preserve the constitution or health of their bodies, and to do so requires a kind of instinctive self-awareness of what’s natural and healthy for them. [For example, a dog instinctively knows that losing an eye or a leg is to be feared and avoided, before it’s even experienced the pain of doing so; animals fear the touch of a flame without having had the experience of being burned – we have an innate sense of what it means to be injured that does not require the sensation of pain.  Why is this so important to the Stoics?  They want to argue that we are born with an innate preconception of our goal in life, what it means for us to flourish, and that we can be guided by reflecting on this rather than by feelings of pain and pleasure.  This preconception of our fundamental goal is presumably clouded by false impressions somehow but can be uncovered through Socratic questioning and philosophical reflection.]

Cato refers to “cognitions”, “graspings” or “perceivings” – the firmly-grasped knowledge of something – as worth attaining in their own right because they contain something that enfolds and embraces the truth. [He seems to imply that the knowledge of truth, or wisdom, is an end in itself, and therefore individual pieces of firmly-grasped knowledge are constituents of that supreme goal, and ends-in-themselves.  This is the Stoic phantasia kataleptike or “Objective Representation” and Hadot argues, I think rightly, that the Stoics were particularly concerned to emphasis that to grasp reality objectively in this way our perception of it must be purified of judgements that externals are intrinsically good or bad.] Cato again points to young children and says they instinctively delight in having worked out the truth in some matter, regardless of other motives. Grasping truth is naturally experienced as an end-in-itself. [Cato could have said that reason is an inherently goal-directed process and that to think at all is to implicitly value the goal of grasping the truth – nobody thinks in order to arrive at the wrong answer.] The systematic study of truth, the sciences, are valued for their own sake. Cato reinforces how central this grasping of truth is to Stoic Ethics by saying emphatically that: “As for assenting to what is false, the Stoics hold that of all things that are against nature, this is the most repugnant to us.”  [Philosophy means “love of wisdom” and wisdom is the supreme virtue for Stoics; virtue is wisdom applied to our actions, and to our desires and emotions.  The goal of life for Stoics can be understood as achieving wisdom and living rationally, grasping the truth objectively, and so this is an end in itself, and other things are valued instrumentally insofar as they help us to arrive at wisdom and live in accord with reason.]

After this slight digression into discussion of the value of knowledge, Cato returns to the primary value of self-preservation for animals and human infants. (In this context, when referring to the “primary” things valued, I believe Cicero can perhaps be read as meaning things naturally desired by us in our infancy and childhood.)  He says that the Stoics call “valuable” (as opposed to “good”) anything which is either in accord with nature itself, or brings something about that is. These are the preferred indifferents, in other words, or things having “selective value” (axia). Cato says that the starting point of Stoic Ethics is the observation that things in accord with nature, i.e., things that constitute our physical survival and health, are ends-in-themselves, and contrary things are to be avoided. Following from this definition of what is natural, the initial “appropriate action” (kathekon) or duty is to preserve one’s life and natural constitution, i.e., to protect one’s health and bodily functioning. The next appropriate action is to do what accords with this and to reject its opposite, by which I take it Cato means to pursue what’s of instrumental value in relation to the primary goal of survival.

When such selection between things in life becomes continuous, stable, and in agreement with nature, Cato says the true good first appears. [I take it he means that as we mature and learn to use reason to properly co-ordinate our behaviour in accord with the value of things for self-preservation and health, we begin to glimpse wisdom, which is what the Stoics consider the only true good. What he says here sounds like the old Stoic concept of the goal of life as “living in agreement” or living consistently.]

Cicero says that human infants gradually develop an understanding or “conception” (ennoia) of order among the things that should be done in relation to the things is in accord with nature, such as food, shelter, etc. Over time, we learn that concordance or ordering is more valuable than the “first objects” themselves, the things we instinctively seek. Indeed, this is the location of the supreme good, or virtue. There appears to be a shift from valuing reason as a means to the end of achieving naturally desired things, things that serve our initial goal of self-preservation, to valuing reason as an end in itself. Virtue or wisdom is grounded in what the Stoics call homologia, which Cicero translates as “consistency”. [This appears to be an allusion to Zeno’s original definition of the goal of life as homologoumenos te phusei zen (ὁμολογουμένως τῇ φύσει ζῆν) or living in agreement with nature.]

“Appropriate actions” derive from nature’s “starting points”, according to Cato, which we might take to mean that all of our moral duties are ultimately derived from our natural instincts, particularly our self-preservation instinct. However, he stresses that attaining these things is not our supreme good, as virtue itself is not one of the things we instinctively desire at birth, it comes as a later development. However, virtue is also described as being “in accord with nature”, in a different sense, because it is the goal implicit in our rational nature.  [Nature gave us a self-preservation instinct like other animals and it is generally reasonable and appropriate to pursue this in life and so other things such as wealth and property are of value in the service of this, as means to the end of survival.  We have a duty to take care of the body we’ve been given, and to live a healthy life.  However, the goal of wisdom becomes the priority of the wise man: not merely to live but to live well, in accord with wisdom and virtue.   Life (self-preservation) is a preferred indifferent, it only becomes good insofar as we use it wisely.  It’s natural and reasonable to prefer life over death insofar as it provides us with an opportunity for living in accord with wisdom.]

At this point, Cato introduces the well-known Stoic analogy of the spear-thrower or archer. He says one must immediately avoid the error of thinking that Stoicism is committed to there being two ultimate goods. [This is interesting because one of the renegade Stoics mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, Herillus of Carthage, fell out with Zeno because he did argue that there were at least two goals in life, although one was “subordinate” and pursued by those who lacked wisdom.] Cato imagines the archer shooting at a target. His true goal is to do everything within his power to shoot the arrow well. Although he aims at the target, once the arrow has flown, it is outside of his control, so the target is merely something he uses to direct his behaviour. The same applies to virtue, it is all we can really do to act virtuously and wisely, and yet to make sense of that we do need external goals to direct our behaviour, nevertheless whether we achieve them or not is partly in the hands of fate, and so not ultimately our moral responsibility or concern. All that matters is that we try our best to move in the right direction, not whether we succeed in hitting the target or not. [This passage obviously recalls the Greek word for sin (hamartia), which literally means “missing the mark”, as in archery.] However, the Stoics might say that even a foolish and vicious person could hit the target by accident, whereas a wise and virtuous person may fail despite doing the best they can, because external forces intervene (like a gust of wind or someone moving the target). People do the right things for the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t make them good. People can do the wrong things for the right reasons, but that doesn’t make them bad. Hitting the target and firing the arrow well are not two competing outcomes but rather they’re extremely closely connected with one another. Nevertheless the distinction is crucial. [If virtue wasn’t the supreme goal, though, we’d be tempted to hit the target by other means, to cheat ourselves, sell out, and sacrifice virtue for the sake of self-preservation, and other external things that have merely selective value.]

Cato uses the analogy of being introduced to someone, and coming to value the second person more highly than the one who made the introduction. The starting-points of our natural values lead us, as we develop reason, to perceive the virtue of wisdom, which we come to value more highly as an end-in-itself. [This contrasts with another Stoic metaphor whereby the ruling faculty, the seat of reason, is like a king, who assigns positions to people at court – their importance is conferred by the king but his own importance is absolute precisely because he is the one with the authority to assign rank to everyone else.] The body we have, our limbs and organs, has been designed for a particular way of life – it has particular survival needs. The Stoics say that in the same way nature has designed our mental desires for a particular way of life. [Cicero says horme, impulses toward action – does he mean instincts?] Likewise, reason has been designed to function in a particular way. Just as actors and dancers are assigned specific roles and steps in a production, so too the human being in general is assigned a particular way of living, and particular goals or virtues, in the universe.  [We’re born placing instinctive value on self-preservation, including the healthy functioning of our body, e.g., protecting our eyes or limbs from injury, and from that a whole hierarchy of values develops insofar as food, shelter, property, friends, etc., help or hinder our pursuit of health and survival.  However, as we develop reason, a radical transformation occurs.  Reason allows us to reflect on our instincts and values, and decide whether they’re good or bad.  We develop self-awareness, and a capacity for reflection and self-criticism, e.g., through Socratic questioning of our values.  The wise man therefore comes to value reason itself as the supreme good in life and self-preservation and other externals continue to be of value insofar as they provide the opportunity to live wisely.]

This is what Cicero calls the goal of being “consistent” and “concordant”. Wisdom is more like acting or dancing than navigation or medicine, because it’s goal is contained within the performance of the art itself, not external to it, although the correct way it is to be performed may be specified by the author of the production. Other arts like acting and dancing differ from wisdom, though, insofar as they are incomplete at any given moment, whereas right actions (katorthomata) “contain all the measures of virtue”, and are perfect in isolation.

Wisdom “embraces magnanimity and justice and judges itself superior to anything that might befall a person”. Magnanimity is greatness of soul, the part of all other virtues that specifically allows us to see external things as inferior or indifferent. Cicero says this is not a feature of other arts.  [Other arts seek to achieve externals, in other words.  Wisdom, like the Stoic archer, aims primarily to do what is within its power well.]

The final aim (telos) is “to live consistently and harmoniously with nature”. The wise are therefore happy (fulfilled) perfect and blessed lives, with no impediment or obstacle (because they desire nothing external), lacking nothing. The “controlling idea” behind human nature and the Stoic philosophy is therefore “that what is moral is the only good”. [The only good is moral good, or virtue, and the only evil moral evil, or vice.  As often the case, living in agreement with nature is closely linked to living in accord with virtue.] Living in accord with nature would mean self-preservation for animals, but for adult humans it means reasoning well, and consistently, about the various things we naturally desire, and prizing wisdom above all, which is synonymous with Stoic virtue.

Cato prefers the “brief and pointed way” the Stoics express what are potentially complex theories. He quotes the following syllogism (from Zeno?):

Whatever is good is praiseworthy.
Whatever is praiseworthy is moral.
Therefore whatever is good is moral.

We might say that everything genuinely good in life deserves praise, everything that deserves praise is virtuous, therefore everything that is genuinely good is virtuous. [That syllogism does not prove that, conversely, everything virtuous or moral is good – nevertheless the Stoics believe these terms are synonymous. This argument seems odd to modern readers because in the ancient world it was generally assumed that what is good (agathon) is healthy or beneficial for us, but not necessarily that it is honourable or morally praiseworthy. What the Stoics were arguing for, we now take for granted. For example, the Epicureans argue that pleasure or ataraxia is supremely good but not that it is virtuous – virtue is merely a means to the end of the good life. Cato actually specifies that it is the first premise (the good is praiseworthy) that most people try to dispute, whereas everyone agrees that what is praiseworthy is moral or honourable.  It was an important part of Stoicism that they argued that the goal of life is both healthy (or beneficial) and honourable (or virtuous) – simultaneously good for us and morally good.  Compare:

What is healthy (good for us) is praiseworthy.
What is praiseworthy is virtuous.
Therefore what is healthy is virtuous.]

He elaborates on the argument as:

What is good is to be sought.
What is to be sought is pleasing.
What is pleasing is worthy of choice.
What is worthy of choice is commendable.
What is commendable is praiseworthy.
What is praiseworthy is moral.
Therefore what is good is moral.

[What is judged truly good deserves to be sought out in life, and therefore attaining it is praiseworthy; and what we praise in others we must also consider to be honourable or morally right. We have a duty to seek what is genuinely good, and so fulfilling that duty must be praiseworthy and honorable.]

He follows with this syllogism:

A happy (fulfilled) life deserves to be taken pride in.
We can only take pride in a moral life.
So a happy life must be a moral life.

He elaborates that nobody takes pride in an unhappy (happy meaning fulfilled) life, and that someone who is praiseworthy deserves to be proud and to have honour. If a happy life is marked out by morality, he concludes, then morality alone must be called good.

[He who is fulfilled is deserving of pride (praises himself); He who is deserving of pride is moral; therefore he who is fulfilled is moral.]

He adds that to conquer fear of death, and become truly brave, we must judge it to not be an evil, and pain or misfortune not to be an evil – courage depends on these judgements being refuted. Courage is honourable; therefore (he leaps to the conclusion) there is no evil except what is immoral.  [Courage requires judging things not to be evil; courage is praiseworthy and honourable; the virtuous must be right; therefore nothing external is bad; but the contrary of courage is bad; so only the contrary of courage, or vice, is bad.  Put another way, Cato is simply arguing that we naturally admire those who are courageous precisely because they view death, pain, and other external “catastrophes” as risks worth taking.  The courageous person acts as if these are not the most important things in life but instead they place more importance on honour, or doing the right thing.  We admire them precisely because they view death and other externals with relative indifference.]

He also tries to argue from the definition of the Sage as someone who takes pride in himself and believes nothing bad can befall him, that what is moral is the only good, and that to live happily (fulfilled) is to live with virtue. [The ideal Sage, the most praiseworthy person, takes pride in himself and views misfortune as indifferent, if he is right then there is no good except his own character, which is praiseworthy and virtuous, therefore virtue is the only true good.]

[The ideal person recognises his own goodness, and takes pride in it, and is therefore simultaneously indifferent to external setbacks or misfortune, he  necessarily loves his own magnanimity or aloofness from externals. Magnanimity is therefore praiseworthy, and what is praiseworthy is honourable and a virtue. Virtue is therefore the only true good.]

These arguments actually follow-on from the discussion of self-interest in animals because they revolve around the implications of the Sage’s self-love, which relates to the perception of the supreme good in himself. If he is genuinely self-interested he must be able to perceive the good in himself and he must love it above everything else, so he must regard it as worthy of praise and admiration, but what is praiseworthy is virtue and our duty.

The term “good” can is defined by Stoics in several complementary ways. Cato prefers Diogenes of Babylon’s definition of it as “what is complete by nature.” He also defines what is “beneficial” (ophelema) as movement or rest which originates from what is complete by nature. Although we know the primary things in accord with nature from experience, we have to employ “rational inference” to identify the nature of the supreme good. [In a sense, the good, or virtue, is an abstract concept, which has to be derived from reflection on our experiences and natural values.]

The good, and virtue, are qualitatively different from things of secondary “value” (axia). No matter how much you accumulate things of this secondary “value”, they will not equal or surpass the good.

Cicero suggests that in many cases pathe, or emotional disturbances, could be translated as “illness”, although this would not fit all cases. It’s the root of our word “passion” but also “pathology”. He says the Romans would not call anger or pity “illnesses”, but the Greeks call them pathos. He chooses the term “disturbance”, which makes more sense in terms of the concept of vice.

The passions (“disturbances”) take many forms but are grouped by the Stoics under four categories: sorrow (pain), fear, lust (desire), and pleasure (hedone). (The language here is slightly stronger/more negative than the normal translation from Greek to English.) Cicero notes that hedone can mean bodily or mental pleasures. [Only mental pleasure is a “passion”, bodily pleasure is an “indifferent”.] He says he prefers to speak not of pleasure but of “elation”, meaning “the sensuous delight of the exultant mind”. There is nothing natural about the passions, the wise man is free of them. They are merely beliefs, and “frivolous judgements”.

Cato repeatedly notes that the view that the moral (virtue) is to be sought for its own sake is one shared by the Stoics with many other schools of philosophy. [Except the Epicureans, and two other unnamed schools, who do not include virtue in the definition of the supreme good.]

He elaborates that the desire to study the nature and causes of the movements of heavenly bodies, for example, must be seeking knowledge for its own sake, and not merely for some ulterior purpose or pleasure. (Again, knowledge is naturally seen as an end-in-itself, and this leads to wisdom.) We cannot help but contemplate with delight the good deeds of great families, such as those of Maximus and Africanus. [Nature has predisposed us to value the sight of virtue in others, and to praise and admire wise and good men.] Likewise, immorality is naturally despised and shunned. Cato adds that we must condemn immorality in itself otherwise there is nothing to say against those who do it in secret, or under cover of darkness. [A recurring criticism of Epicurus, for whom vice is only shunned because of its risk of painful consequences.]  Vices are shunned not only because they are bad in themselves but because of the vicious acts that follow from them. [These are not consequences or outcomes of vice that are judged bad for another reason, but rather acts that “participate” in vice itself.]

Carneades, whom Cicero admires, tirelessly and eloquently argued that there is no difference between the Stoics and the Peripatetics on “the problem of good and evil”, except a terminological one. Cato disagrees strongly. He argues that the Peripatetics treat other things as constitutive of the good life, whereas for Stoics only virtue can be.

The theory that regards (bodily) pain as evil means that the wise and good person cannot be “happy” (=fulfilled) on the rack, which Cato rejects. Cato argues that pain is borne more easily when it’s for the sake of one’s country. [We might say that pain is endured more easily if it’s for the sake of protecting our children, or for undergoing necessary surgery, or as part of physical exercise – the Stoics elsewhere use similar examples.] This proves that the sensation of pain in itself is not unendurable but how we respond to it depends on our value judgements and attitude.

Aristotelians must say that a virtuous act that is painless is more worthwhile seeking than a virtuous act accompanied with pain, but the Stoics deny that the presence of pain or pleasure makes any difference because the value of pain and pleasure are incommensurate with that of virtue.

The Stoics refer to virtue as “ripeness” (eukairia) and this does not increase over time. Right conduct, goodness, consistency, and being in harmony with nature, “do not admit of cumulative enlargement”. [There is perhaps a difficulty for Stoicism here in that we would have to value “indifferent” things such as bodily health more highly than a single act of virtue as it provides a means to allowing us to engage in many acts of virtue in the future – that kind of instrumental value would threaten to undermine their strict division between “indifferent” and “good” things. So many virtuous acts cannot be more valuable than a single one.] “For Stoics a happy life is no more desirable or worth seeking if long than if short.” Cato says that good health may be more valuable the longer it lasts but this analogy with virtue does not hold because the value of virtue is judged not by duration but by “ripeness” (completion?).

A corollary of this view that virtue cannot be increased in value, is that one person cannot be more wise than another. Cato uses the analogy of a man drowning just below the surface of water, or a puppy opening its eyes, to claim that virtue is all-or-nothing. We can get closer to it, but virtue itself is only of (absolute, intrinsic) value when it is complete. Someone who has made progress toward wisdom is as unfulfilled (incomplete) as someone who has made no progress at all.

Diogenes of Babylon says that material wealth is not merely conducive but essential to developing pleasure and good health in life. However, it does not have this value in relation to virtue. It may be conducive to virtue but it is not essential. So if pleasure or health are classed as goods then wealth would also have to be called instrumentally good (which presumably other philosophers denied), but if wisdom is the only good then wealth is not necessarily even instrumentally good. Only what is part of the good is essential to it, i.e., things that are of instrumental value are not essential, because there are always other ways to achieve the same good.

Stoic Ranking of Values.  Cato says if nothing (external) is ranked above anything else then life (decision-making) would be thrown into chaos, as it is by Aristo of Chios, who held all externals to be absolutely indifferent. Prudence or wisdom would have no role in choosing between things, or making decisions, because every outcome is equivalent. For the Stoics it is well-established that virtue (or the moral) is the only good and vice the only evil. However, there must also be a ranking of value between external things, or primary natural desires: some positive, some negative, and some totally neutral.

We have good reason to prefer some, but not all, of the things we naturally value from birth: health, well-functioning senses, freedom from pain, honour, wealth, etc. And their opposites are dispreferred. [What does he leave off this list?] Zeno coined the technical terms proegmenon and apoproegmenon for these: preferred and dispreferred. Zeno said that at court nobody speaks of the king as being “preferred” with regard to rank (proegmenon). This term is applied to those who hold office, just below the king in rank: they are “promoted” or “advantageous”, but in a sense clearly subordinate to the king.

We define as “indifferent” (adiaphoron) anything that is of this secondary rank or value, and it has a merely “moderate” value, unlike the good. The analogy is given of the game of knucklebones. Our goal is to throw a knucklebone so it stays upright. One thrown so it happens to land in that position will have some advantage but it doesn’t guarantee that it will remain upright, which is the real goal.  [This is an incomplete example.  I suspect it’s lifted from a familiar analogy in a previous author who argued that skill in the game of knucklebones is like wisdom in life.  As with the archery example, no matter how skillfully the bones are thrown, we might be unlucky.  The game combines skill and chance, like life in general.  A good player accepts that the outcome is partly down to chance but he still develops his throwing ability (virtue).  Someone foolish or a bad player could also just get lucky with a throw.  The good player consistently aims well but doesn’t necessarily win.] Likewise, “advantageous” things are relevant to achieving the goal but “do not constitute its essence and nature.”

Goods that are constitutive of the supreme goal are called telika, whereas those that are merely productive of it are called poetika. The only constitutive goods are moral (virtuous) acts. The only productive good is a (wise and good) friend. Wisdom (virtue), though, is both productive and constitutive. Wisdom is “harmonious action”, which makes it constitutive of the good, but it also occasions and produces moral acts, making it productive.  [So here he appears to be saying that externals cannot be productive of the good.  They do, however, seem to provide an opportunity for it to be exercised, e.g., we need to be alive (have life) to exercise justice, courage, moderation, and other virtues.  These are perhaps two different types of instrumental value.  Wise friends and teachers actually produce wisdom and virtue in us, whereas physical health and life merely provide the opportunity for us to develop and exercise virtue.  Presumably the Stoics would concede that we need a minimum of physical health (to be alive) to be virtuous and that good teachers and role models are helpful in learning virtue.  However, these are still externals, and not actually constituents of virtue in itself – they’re means to an end and not the end itself.]

Some things are advantageous in their own right, and others instrumentally so, and a third class are both advantageous themselves and instrumentally so. Things that are advantageous or disadvantageous might be “a certain quality of countenance and expression, a certain bearing, a certain way of moving”. [It’s unclear whether these are advantageous in their own right or can be either advantageous or disadvantageous.] Money is advantageous instrumentally. [It does not constitute virtue and is not directly helpful in relation to it, but can potentially bring about other things that are helpful relative to virtue.] Well-functioning senses, good health, etc., are both advantageous in themselves and instrumentally so. [Basically this is our supreme primary goal: good health and functioning?]

Chrysippus and Diogenes said that good reputation (eudoxia) is not worth lifting a finger for, aside from whatever instrumental benefits it may have. Later Roman authors found this harder to accept, and argued that even if our posthumous reputation (being honoured by friends and descendants, etc.) has no instrumental value to us, we should still value it as an end-in-itself. They were partly encouraged to adopt this position based on criticisms from the Skeptic Carneades.

“Appropriate actions” (specific duties) are neither good nor evil, but we should engage in them. An appropriate action is defined as any action of which a reasonable explanation can be given. They may be between virtue and vice, neither good nor bad, but nevertheless of some value. We all love ourselves (are self-interested) so the wise and foolish both engage in appropriate actions, although the wise do so for different reasons, and virtuously.

“It is the appropriate action to live when most of what one has is in accord with nature.” [Perhaps implying physical health, strength, and functioning eyesight, limbs, etc.] When the opposite is the case and most of what one has is against nature, then it is appropriate to depart life. [To commit suicide by euthanasia?] That means that it is sometimes appropriate for the wise person to depart from life, though happy (virtuous and fulfilled), and appropriate for the fool to live on, though wretched (vicious and unfulfilled).

The primary objects of nature (health, etc.) are “the subject and material of wisdom”, although the Stoic concepts of “good and bad” develop later, from reflection on the way these selections are being made.  “The Stoics hold that living happily – that is living in harmony with nature – is a matter of timeliness (ripeness).” [Doing what is opportune.] He then says that the wise person is to relinquish life when it is opportune.

Social Oikeiosis.  The Stoics consider it important to emphasise that a parent’s love for their children arises naturally. From this starting point, all human society is derived. The constitution of the human body makes it clear that we are designed to procreate, and it therefore seems natural that we should not be indifferent to our offspring. [But animals who procreate sometimes are!] Our instinct to love our offspring is as natural as our aversion to pain. [But the Stoics say our aversion to pain is not our natural instinct, but merely supervenes on it.] This is the basis of the bond between all humans, and that we should not see any other human as a stranger to us. We are fitted by nature to be social beings, like ants or bees.

The Stoics see the universe as a single city shared by humans and gods. From this it follows that we should value the common good more than our own. In the same way that the laws of a city value the welfare of all above the individual, the wise value the welfare of all above their own. [Cicero talks about Stoic conceptions of natural law in On Laws.] We praise those who risk their lives in battle for their country, and those who make wills to take care of their children after their death. Nobody would choose to live in isolation regardless of the pleasures they may have available.  [Compare Cicero’s On Friendship, which portrays the Stoic Laelius the Wise.] We are naturally inclined to help as many people as possible, especially by passing on our wisdom, through speech and writing. We are as much inclined toward teaching, or passing on our knowledge, as we are to learning.

Stoics call Zeus: “Greatest”, “Highest”, “Saviour”, “Shelter”, “Defender”. That’s because human existence depends on the care or love of Zeus. However, it would be hypocritical to praise Zeus for loving humanity, like a father, but not to have parental love ourselves. If we did not live in societies there would be no opportunity for the Stoic virtues of justice or benevolence. [Being part of a society is of instrumental value, a preffered indifferent, as it is a requirement of exercising the social virtues such as justice.]  Although there is a code of law binding humans, there is none between humans and other animals. Chrysippus said that humans and gods were created for their own sake but that everything else, including other animals, were created for our sake, so we can use them with impunity.

It is natural for the wise man to “want to take part in the business of government, and, in living by nature, to take a spouse and to wish to have children.” Not even sexual passion, so long as it is pure, is considered to be incompatible with being wise. “Some Stoics say that the Cynics’ philosophy and way of life is suitable for the wise person, should circumstances arise conducive to its practice. But others rule this out altogether.”

Friendship.  Friends are “helpful” because they are (the only thing) productive of the good and fulfilment, but they should nevertheless be loved for their own sake. [Problematic: If friends are good insofar as they are productive of virtue and the supreme good in us, then how can we avoid loving them as instrumentally good rather than as ends in themselves?] Stoics disagree as to whether the interests of a friend are treated as equal to one’s own or not. There can be absolutely no justice or friendship where these are treated as of instrumental value, rather than ends in themselves. [Which constitutes a criticism of Epicureanism.  Friends have a special status in Stoic ethics – they are not constitutive of our good but they are productive of it, and so they appear to rank above even the things “indifferent” but “advantageous” in themselves.]

To the virtues of justice (benevolence, Oiekeiosis, friendship, etc.) they add those of physics and logic. Logic is a virtue because it protects what we have learned, and removes rashness and ignorance [or error]. Cicero says it stops us assenting to what is false or “being deceived by the captiousness [confusing, entangling nature] of probability”. [He appears to mean rashly taking uncertain but probable things as if they were certain – externals are the domain of uncertainty but the Stoics believe we can grasp the nature of the good (virtue) with certainty.]

Physics is a virtue because “the starting point for anyone who is to live in accordance with nature is the universe as a whole and its governance.” We cannot make a correct judgement about what is good or evil without knowledge of the life of the gods, and whole system of nature, and how human nature is in harmony with the universe. We need to understand physics to grasp the meaning of the ancient maxims: “respect the right moment”, “follow god”, “know oneself”, “do nothing to excess”. Only physics can reveal the role of nature in justice and friendship. We must study nature also to understand the virtue of piety toward the gods.

The Stoic wise man is the true king and the richest of men. He who knows how to use all things, owns all things. He will also be the only truly beautiful person. Whereas Solon said you can judge no man happy until after he is dead, the Stoics totally reject this view and argue that someone can be happy in the moment.

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.

What do the Stoic Virtues Mean?

Stoic Virtue Infographic by Rocio de TorresThe Stoics often refer to the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  (Or if you prefer: wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation.)

We don’t know where this classification originated.  It appears to go back as far as Plato or Socrates, although probably even further.  This was a very ancient, conventional schema for understanding virtue.  The Stoics don’t appear to have assumed it was the only or the best way to conceptualize the virtues.  They often prefer to think of virtue, from a slightly different perspective, as living in harmony with Nature at three different levels.  In some ways these models overlap.

However, the cardinal virtues have remained popular as a way of interpreting ancient philosophical ethics throughout the ages.  One of my hesitations about introducing newcomers to Stoicism through this model is that the Greek words are difficult to translate into modern English and the meanings were probably also somewhat stretched by the Stoics to fit their philosophy.  It’s a slightly ill-fitting classification, although it’s simple and appealing, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on taking it literally, as if these words provide the only way to describe virtue.

People often wrangle over the definitions of Greek philosophical terms, which can lead to some rather speculative translations.  Believe it or not, though, we actually have a Greek philosophical dictionary that survives from the time of Plato.  It’s called Definitions, and is believed to have probably been written by one of Plato’s followers at the Academy.  So there’s are not Stoic definitions of the virtues but knowing how Platonists defined them certainly helps us a lot.  For instance, this is how the Academy defined the word “virtue” itself:

aretê (virtue/excellence).  The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

It’s also worth mentioning the notoriously tricky eudaimonia, which is conventionally rendered as “happiness”, although most scholars agree that’s a misleading translation.  Its meaning is closer to the archaic sense of the word “happiness”, which was the opposite of hapless, wretched or unfortunate.  A better translation would be “fulfillment” or “flourishing”, as you can see from the Academic definition.

eudaimonia (happiness/fulfilment).  The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

This will be a slightly more scholarly blog post than some.  I’ve listed the four cardinal virtues below with the definitions from the Academy and also some notes on what the early Stoic fragments say in Diogenes Laertius, Stobaeus, etc.  I’ve not referenced everything extensively here, though, for the sake of brevity.  (It’s just a quick blog post.)  You’ll find most of this information in the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and Stobaeus, though, and in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and A.A. Long’s Epictetus.

The Cardinal Virtues

phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

In a sense, all of the virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions, or moral wisdom.  Prudence is the most important and most general of the Stoic virtues because it refers, as here, to the firmly-grasped knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent in life.  In other words, understanding the most important things in life or grasping the value of things rationally.  It’s opposite is the vice of ignorance.  Most crucially for Stoics it means firmly grasping the nature of the good: understanding that virtue or wisdom itself is the only true good, and living accordingly.  Prudence is therefore closely related to the very meaning of the word “philosophy”: love of wisdom.

However, it can also refer to our ability to discern the value (axia) of different external things rationally, i.e., distinguishing wisely between different “preferred indifferents”.  (A point discussed in detail by the Stoic Cato of Utica in Cicero’s De Finibus.)  Marcus refers to this as acting and responding to things “in accord with value”.  Stobaeus likewise says the early Stoics defined it as knowing the nature of the good and bad, understanding indifferent things, and knowing what would be “appropriate action” under different circumstances.  Diogenes Laertius says that Chrysippus and others sub-divided prudence into good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis).  That’s intriguing because it links prudence to Stoic Rhetoric, and the ability to communicate the truth appropriately to other people, honestly but tactfully, such as the way Marcus described his wise Stoic teachers expressing their doctrines.  It’s also clear that the Stoics believed the wise man is able to offer himself good counsel.

The Stoics divided their curriculum into three: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.  They may have linked Prudence with the topic of Stoic Logic, which encompassed epistemology and psychology, and appears related to the practices that Epictetus called the Discipline of Assent.

dikaiosunê (justice/morality)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

This is perhaps the most problematic translation.  Our modern word “justice” seems too formal or narrow for what the Stoics meant.  The Stoics don’t just mean what’s just in the legal sense but what would be moral in our dealings with others more generally.  For instance, they take it to encompass a mother’s attitude toward her children or our sense of piety toward the gods.  In the past it was therefore often translated more broadly as “righteousness”, or some modern authors simply refer to it as social virtue or morality.  It’s opposing vice occurs when we are unjust or do wrong by another person morally.

We’re told that it was composed mainly of the subordinate virtues of kindness and fairness.  So although it may not be apparent from the word “justice” this is a much broader concept of social virtue, which encompasses the numerous references to kindness, benevolence, or goodwill toward others found in Stoic writings, particularly throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.   Indeed, Marcus actually says that justice is the most important of the virtues.

You can view justice largely as moral wisdom applied to our actions, particularly in relation to other people individually or society as a whole.  Stobaeus says that it is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person or fair “distributions”, i.e., in relation to preferred indifferents (external things).  Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics divided justice mainly into impartiality (isotês) and kindness/courtesy (eugnômosunê).  It may have correlated with the Stoic topic of Ethics, including politics, and what Epictetus calls the applied Discipline of Action (or Impulse to Act, referring to our voluntary intentions).

sôphrosunê (temperance/moderation)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

This is also a slightly difficult term in some ways.  It refers to moderation or self-discipline/self-control but also to self-awareness or being self-possessed.  We could even view it as closely related to what many people today mean by “mindfulness”.    It’s the opposite of the vice called “wantonness” or “licentiousness”.  The many references to appropriate feelings of “shame” in Epictetus are related to this virtue and we could view it as (very) loosely related to the Christian idea of moral conscience.  Stobaeus says that it entails knowledge of “what is to be chosen, avoided, and neither” in the domain of “impulses”, i.e., it guides our intentions to act on certain desires.   Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics defined moderation mainly as good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês).

Surprisingly, some academics, most notably Pierre Hadot, view this and fortitude as being the virtues corresponding with the topic of Stoic Physics and Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire, which we could also call the Stoic Therapy of the Passions.  That’s easier to understand when we observe many of the Stoic exercises related to Physics and cosmology.  By viewing events in a detached manner, like a natural philosopher or a physician, the Stoics aimed to achieve an “Objective Representation” of them, suspending any judgements of good or bad, and therefore eliminating fear and desire.  Think of the modern notion of scientific detachment and objectivity.   Likewise, Hadot refers to the Stoic practice of imagining the whole of space and time as the View from Above or cosmic perspective.  This is obviously related to cosmology and Physics but the Stoics employed it to rise above their fears and desires and achieve apatheia or freedom from unhealthy passions and attachment to external things.

andreia (fortitude/courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

This is one of the simpler virtues.  It clearly means courage, although the Stoics also extend it to include endurance of pain and discomfort more generally.  It’s the opposite of the vice of “cowardice”.  It appears to form a pair with the virtue of moderation.  Both refer to the master of passions: moderation to desires and courage to fears.  Hence, they probably correlate also with Epictetus’ famous slogan: endure and renounce.  The virtue of courage allows us to endure fear and the virtue of moderation to renounce unhealthy desires.

As Seneca observed, paradoxically, these virtues cannot exist without at least some trace of fear and desire for us to master, and the Stoics insist that even the perfect Sage requires moderation and courage because he is still subject to the first movements of passion or “proto-passions” (propatheiai).  Seneca explains this in detail in On Anger and elsewhere but it’s also very vividly described by Epictetus, as recounted by Aulus Gellius’ story of the Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea.

Stobaeus says the Stoics defined courage as knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither or “standing firm”, i.e., endurance guided by wisdom.  Diogenes Laertius says they divided courage primarily into constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia).  This final virtue may correspond, alongside courage, with Stoic Physics, as described above, and also with Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire.

Free Download of New Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF)

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I’m very pleased to announce that after months in preparation my new Stoic Therapy Toolkit has been published.  This is a five-page summary of core Stoic psychological practices.  People have been asking me for something like this since I started writing about Stoicism and teaching workshops on it about twenty years ago.

If you’re completely new to Stoicism, it’s a good place to start. However, we can’t compress the whole philosophy into a few pages, it’s just a summary, so you will need to read the Stoics to gain a more complete understanding of their concepts and techniques.

Very useful summary, I will carry it in my work bag! – Camelia Vasilov

Excellent! Thank you for your tireless work in making this valuable philosophy so accessible in our busy world. – Deborah L Gariepy

This printable PDF document will give you a good overview of Stoicism, and a reminder of daily practices. Many people contributed to the wording and Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer, has given it a new look.  So we’re confident you’ll appreciate the end result and find it valuable as a guide to living like a Stoic.  I’d love to know what you think.  People have already started leaving feedback online.

Thanks, looks beautiful. Can’t spare a tip but bought one of your books. 🙂 – Vince

Thank you! Clear, concise, practical and actionable. No matter how busy or preoccupied one is (or has to be) during the day, store this kit in your memory, incorporate these quick contemplations, and the tools will adapt to any occasion! – Gaelle1947

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Goal of Virtue
  3. Daily Routine
  4. Four Stoic Meditations
  5. Therapy of the Passions

You can download your free copy today from my e-learning site by clicking the button below or following this link:

Free Mini-Course on Stoicism

Donald! This is a wonderful and wonderfully compact introduction to Stoic philosophy… Thank you for making this available to people free of charge. I will be recommending this to friends of mine who are curious to see what this is all about. – Ronald William Brady

If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism, check out my my free Crash Course in Stoicism.  I specifically designed it for newcomers to the subject.  It will  teach you everything you need to know to get started learning about Stoic philosophy, in less then ten minutes.  I’ve tried to answer the most common questions people ask.  Update: Over, 2,800 people have already enrolled on this course so far. Just click the button below…

Enlightening, lucid, to the point and life affirming. – Lorne Stormont Darling

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You’ll also find my current blog posts here and an archive of the old ones.

Warm regards,

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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)

Epictetus: The Stoic in a Storm at Sea

Greek Boat StormThe following passage from Aulus Gellius‘ The Attic Nights describes the Stoic doctrine concerning involuntary emotional reactions or “proto-passions” (propatheiai).   See also Seneca’s On Anger, for a detailed discussion with some different examples, relating to anger rather than fear.  The concept is also mentioned in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – all three of our main surviving sources for Stoicism.  Grasping the role of “proto-passions”, which are accepted by Stoics as natural and indifferent, is absolutely essential to an accurate understanding of Stoicism particularly in terms of the distinction between Stoicism (capital S), the Greek philosophy, and stoicism (small s), the “stiff upper lip” personality trait.

Regarding the anecdote below…  It concerns a Stoic teacher who was caught at sea in a very severe storm, where the boat was clearly in danger of sinking and the crew of drowning.  He turned pale and was frozen with fear, just like everyone else, but unlike the rest he wasn’t crying aloud and lamenting their situation.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any indication who the famous Stoic that Aulus Gellius encountered on his sea journey may have been.  He says the Stoic possessed a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses and was an important and well-respected teacher in Athens.  They were apparently both sailing from Cassiopa, a town in the region of Korkyra, on Corfu, to Brundisium, in southern Italy, possibly en route to Rome.   The only famous Stoic we hear much about who was teaching in Athens around the middle of the 2nd century AD is Apollonius of Chalcedon, a tutor of Marcus Aurelius – but there’s no reason to assume he’s actually the man in question.  Although, from what we know about Apollonius, he was perhaps slightly haughty like the character being described in this vignette.  (We can rule out Arrian, incidentally, as he’s mentioned here in passing, and doesn’t seem to have taught Stoicism anyway.)

It’s believed the Discourses of Epictetus originally spanned eight volumes, only four of which survive today.  The Stoic teacher mentioned here appears to have shown Aulus Gellius a passage from one of the volumes now lost to us, the fifth book of the Discourses.  However, Aulus Gellius also remarks that the doctrine of proto-passions described by Epictetus “undoubtedly” agrees with the original Stoic teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus.  (Incidentally, this could be read as implying that Epictetus was typically known for following early Greek Stoic teachings very closely.)   The Attic Nights were written in Latin, so Aulus Gellius sometimes comments on the fact he is quoting from the Greek language.

The proto-passions are here described as “brief but inevitable and natural”, precursors of full-blown emotions and desires.  They are classed as morally indifferent by Stoics.  I would add that the Stoics perhaps viewed them as comparable to the primitive feelings experienced by other animals, as a sort of reflex-like antecedent of full-blown human emotion.  Aulus Gellius concludes it would be a mistake to interpret the Stoics as teaching that feeling fear for a brief time, and turning pale, is the sign of a foolish and weak person.  Rather even Stoics yield to natural human (physiological) weakness in this regard  but they do not continue to go along with their initial feelings by giving conscious assent to the impression and believing that events are as terrible as they seem.

For instance, a Stoic who unexpectedly glimpses someone wearing a frightening mask out of the corner of his eye might be startled and automatically become tense and pale, his heart beating suddenly faster.  However, if we suppose it’s just a costume, when he realizes this he will no longer go along with the initial impression that something bad is going to happen.  He will no longer give assent to the idea that he’s in danger, and his feelings will naturally abate, although he may take a few minutes to regain his composure.  The Stoic Sage views all external events as indifferent but he probably has to remind himself of this as his body will automatically create troubling impressions in response to certain typical threats.  Rather than trying to suppress these feelings, or feeling ashamed about them, Stoics merely accept them with indifference, and shrug them off, which is a very different response to what people often mean by “stoicism” or having a stiff upper lip.


The reply of a certain philosopher, when he was asked why he turned pale in a storm at sea.

We were sailing from Cassiopa to Brundisium over the Ionian sea, violent, vast and storm-tossed. During almost the whole of the night which followed our first day a fierce side-wind blew, which had filled our ship with water. Then afterwards, while we were all still lamenting, and working hard at the pumps, day at last dawned. But there was no less danger and no slackening of the violence of the wind; on the contrary, more frequent whirlwinds, a black sky, masses of fog, and a kind of fearful cloud-forms, which they called typhones, or “typhoons,” seemed to hang over and threaten us, ready to overwhelm the ship.

In our company was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic sect, whom I had known at Athens as a man of no slight importance, holding the young men who were his pupils under very good control.  In the midst of the great dangers of that time and that tumult of sea and sky I looked for him, desiring to know in what state of mind he was and whether he was unterrified and courageous. And then I beheld the man frightened and ghastly pale, not indeed uttering any lamentations, as all the rest were doing, nor any outcries of that kind, but in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others. But when the sky cleared, the sea grew calm, and the heat of danger cooled, then the Stoic was approached by a rich Greek from Asia, a man of elegant apparel, as we saw, and with an abundance of baggage and many attendants, while he himself showed signs of a luxurious person and disposition. This man, in a bantering tone, said: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” And the philosopher, after hesitating for a moment about the propriety of answering him, said: “If in such a terrible storm I did show a little fear, you are not worthy to be told the reason for it. But, if you please, the famous Aristippus [the Cyrenaic], the pupil of Socrates, shall answer for me, who on being asked on a similar occasion by a man much like you why he feared, though a philosopher, while his questioner on the contrary had no fear, replied that they had not the same motives, for his questioner need not be very anxious about the life of a worthless coxcomb, but he himself feared for the life of an Aristippus.”

With these words then the Stoic rid himself of the rich Asiatic. But later, when we were approaching Brundisium and sea and sky were calm, I asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he had refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. And he quietly and courteously replied: “Since you are desirous of knowing, hear what our forefathers, the founders of the Stoic sect, thought about that brief but inevitable and natural fear, or rather,” said he, “read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.” Thereupon before my eyes he drew from his little bag the fifth book of the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus, which, as arranged by Arrian, undoubtedly agree with the writings of Zeno and Chrysippus.

In that book I read this statement, which of course was written in Greek:

“The mental visions, which the philosophers call φαντασίαι [impressions] or ‘phantasies,’ by which the mind of man on the very first appearance of an object is impelled to the perception of the object, are neither voluntary nor controlled by the will, but through a certain power of their own they force their recognition upon men; but the expressions of assent, which they call συγκαταθέσεις, by which these visions are recognized, are voluntary and subject to man’s will. Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm, not from a preconceived idea of any danger, but from certain swift and unexpected attacks which forestall the power of the mind and of reason. Presently, however, the wise man does not approve ‘such phantasies’, that is to say, such terrifying mental visions (to quote the Greek, ‘he does not consent to them nor confirm them’), but he rejects and scorns them, nor does he see in them anything that ought to excite fear. And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them; for προσεπιδοξάζει is the word which the Stoics use in their discourses on the subject. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms.”

That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness than because we believe that those things are what they seem.


In addition to his comments about proto-passions in On Anger, Seneca also wrote:

There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)

In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius appears to be referring to the proto-passions when he writes that although he tells troubling impressions “Go away”, because they have come according to their “ancient manner”, i.e., in the way basic feelings also arise in animals, he is not angry with the feeling, presumably meaning that he does not judge it to be an evil (7.17).

In the following passage, Marcus tells himself to view rough or smooth sensations that impose themselves on his mind with detachment.  He notes that unpleasant sensations are bound to impinge upon our awareness because of the natural sympathy between body and mind but we should not try to resist these natural feelings and we should refrain from calling them either good or bad.  Rather we should accept the presence even of these “rough” sensations with total indifference.

Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)

In passages like these Marcus appears to be referring to bodily sensations of pleasure and pain.  However, he also seems to recognize that sometimes these sensations will naturally communicate themselves from the body deeper into the mind, and this too is natural and indifferent.  He may be referring here to the anxious reactions we naturally have to pain and discomfort, etc., as in the anecdote from Aulus Gellius above.