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

Rocio Epictetus Wallpaper

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

Warm regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

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.


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)


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.


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.

Thrasea and the Stoic Opposition

Article describing the Stoic circle of Thrasea and their importance to us in terms of understanding later Roman Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Thrasea[Draft – I haven’t finished this but I’m publishing it to help provide inspiration for a Wikipedia draft article on the Stoic Opposition.]

Thrasea, or Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, was a Stoic Roman Senator, executed by the Emperor Nero in 66 AD.  We know a reasonable amount about the circle of Stoics associated with him because they formed an important political faction opposing the tyrannical rule of emperors they considered tyrannical and autocratic, particularly Nero and later Domitian.  For convenience, scholars today refer to them as the Stoic Opposition of the 1st century AD but they also appear to have been inspired by earlier Stoics and other philosophers of the Roman Republic who shared similar political ideals, particularly Cato of Utica and his nephew and son-in-law Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.

Thrasea and his circle are also of interest because of their importance to the late Roman Stoics whose philosophical writings survive.

Rubellius Plautus

Gaius Rubellius Plautus (33 – 62 AD) was a wealthy Roman nobleman and a rival contender for the imperial throne during the reign of Nero, as grandson of the Emperor Tiberius and therefore part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  As early as 55 AD, Nero’s mother Agrippina was accused of plotting to replace him as emperor with Plautus.  His critics claimed that he had become a follower of Stoicism and he was associated with the Stoic opposition to Nero.  Indeed, Musonius Rufus accompanied him into exile when he was banished by Nero in 60 AD.  In 62 AD, in response to rumours that Plautus’ was plotting a rebellion in the eastern empire, Nero had him beheaded.  Later, in 66 AD, Nero had Plautus’ widow, children, and father-in-law executed as well.

Thrasea – TBD

Thrasea, or Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, came from a wealthy and highly-regarded family.  Thrasea was hated and feared by the Emperor Nero.  Thrasea was related by marriage to the Stoic poet Persius, who was a member of Seneca’s circle.  We don’t know very much about his initial rise to prominence under Nero but he distinguished himself enough to succeed Seneca, in 56 AD, in the temporary post of suffect consul.  He earned a reputation for someone prepared to oppose the emperor and to defend the freedom of the senate.  By 58 AD, he was openly opposing Nero’s tyrannical behaviour, and the collusion of the senate.  Nero had his own mother brutally murdered.  Seneca wrote a speech justifying this, which was been read in the senate.  All senators were required to respond and pressured into congratulating Nero on this heinous crime.  However, Thrasea refused, walking out of the senate in protest, ‘since he could not say what he would, and would not say what he could’, according to Cassius Dio.  For the next four years, until 62 AD, Seneca continued to act as Nero’s advisor, while Thrasea began to build the Stoic opposition to his regime.  From roughly 63 AD onward, Thrasea refused to attend senate meetings, which was widely seen as a political protest against Nero’s regime.

Thrasea clearly admired Cato of Utica as another Stoic who defended the freedom of the Senate and Republican values.  He wrote a famous Life of Cato, which though lost was one of the main sources for Plutarch’s surviving Life of Cato.

When Nero had Thrasea executed the others, including Helvidius and Agrippinus received lesser penalties.

…the infamous Nero, a little before he put Thrasea to death, whom he hated and feared intensely, nevertheless when someone accused him of a bad and unjust decision in court, said: “I wish Thrasea were as good a friend to me as he is a most excellent judge.” (Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft)


Helvidius Priscus, was the son-in-law of Thrasea, and another highly-regarded member of the Stoic opposition.  He was married to Thrasea’s daughter Fannia, who is also portrayed as a Stoic.  He lived through the reign of Nero, and was eventually executed by the Emperor Vespasian.  Helvidius greatly admired Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.  Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both mention holding him in high regard.


Fannia was the daughter of Thrasea, and wife of Helvidius Priscus.  She also seems to have been an important member of the Stoic opposition faction.

Paconius Agrippinus

Paconius Agrippinus, was another Roman senator and Stoic philosopher, accused alongside Thrasea and sent into exile.  He was held in very high regard by Epictetus.

Arulenus Rusticus

Arulenus Rusticus, c. 35 – 95 AD, another senator and Stoic follower of Thrasea.   He was executed by the emperor Domitian for writing a public speech praising Thrasea.  He was the ancestor of Junius Rusticus, the main Stoic tutor of Marcus Aurelius, creating a direct link between Marcus and the circle of Thrasea.

In 66 AD, the young Arulenus Rusticus offered to use his tribunal veto to save the life of Thrasea, who was being tried before the Senate on a completely trumped up charge, so that Nero could have him executed.  Thrasea refused, saying that this would merely place the life of the tribune in danger without saving him.  The implication was that Arulenus was courageously offering to risk his own life, in open defiance of Nero, to buy Thrasea a temporary reprieve.

Herennius Senecio

Herennius Senecio, who died in 93 AD, was another member of the Stoic opposition to Domitian, who wrote a book praising Helvidius Priscus.

Barea Soranus

He was accused by Celer of, among other things, being a friend and sympathizer of Plautus, and inciting rebellion against Nero in Asia.


Publius Egnatius Celer was a Stoic teacher, who taught and then was paid off to make false accusations against Barea Soranus.  He was later accused by Musonius Rufus.  He was perceived as someone who assumed the role of a philosopher, but was vicious at heart.

Place was then given to the witnesses, and the appearance among them of Publius Egnatius [Celer] provoked as much indignation as the cruelty of the prosecution had excited pity. A client of [Barea] Soranus, and now hired to ruin his friend, he professed the dignified character of a Stoic, and had trained himself in demeanour and language to exhibit an ideal of virtue. In his heart, however, treacherous and cunning, he concealed greed and sensuality. As soon as money had brought these vices to light, he became an example, warning us to beware just as much of those who under the guise of virtuous tastes are false and deceitful in friendship, as of men wholly entangled in falsehoods and stained with every infamy. (Tac. Ann. 16.32)

Epictetus is believed to be referring to Celer, as a hypocrite, when he warns his students not to say one thing in their Stoic school and do another outside it, in the courts or the senate:

Thus a friend is overpowered by the testimony of a philosopher: thus a philosopher becomes a parasite; thus he lets himself for hire for money: thus in the senate a man does not say what he thinks; in private (in the school) he proclaims his opinions. (Discourses, 4.1)

Musonius Rufus

The Roman knight, Gaius Musonius Rufus, was said to the most important philosopher at Rome during his lifetime.  He was a contemporary of Thrasea, with links to his circle.  He is best known today as the teacher of Epictetus, and the texts of several of his lectures, and some isolated sayings attributed to him, survive.

Musonius was sent into exile by Nero along with Rubellius Plautus in 60 AD.  He returned to Rome two years later but was exiled a second time by Nero in 65 AD as part of his purge following the Pisonian Conspiracy.  He was again able to return to Rome in 68 AD under the Emperor Galba.  The Emperor Vespasian banished philosophers from Rome in 71 AD but this time Musonius was allowed to remain, as he was held in such exceptionally high regard.  However, in 75 AD he was eventually exiled by Vespasian, returning after his death in 79 AD.  The date of his death is unknown, although it must have been at some point between this and 101 AD.


Epictetus refers to Helvidius, when discussing “How a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character” by acting in accord with reason, and viewing pain and pleasure as indifferent.

Priscus Helvidius also saw this, and acted conformably. For when [the Emperor] Vespasian sent and commanded him not to go into the senate, he replied, “It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.” Well, go in then, says the emperor, but say nothing. Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent. But I must ask your opinion. And I must say what I think right. But if you do, I shall put you to death. When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.

What good then did Priscus do, who was only a single person? And what good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else than this, that it is conspicuous in the toga as purple, and is displayed also as a fine example to all other things? But in such circumstances another would have replied to Caesar who forbade him to enter the senate, I thank you for sparing me. But such a man Vespasian would not even have forbidden to enter the senate, for he knew that he would either sit there like an earthen vessel, or, if he spoke, he would say what Caesar wished, and add even more.  (Discourses, 1.2)

Epictetus also praises Paconius Agrippinus for showing a typical Stoic attitude toward justice.

When Agrippinus was governor, he used to try to persuade the persons whom he sentenced that it was proper for them to be sentenced.  “For,” he would say, “it is not as an enemy or as a brigand that I record my vote against them, but as curator and guardian; just as also the physician encourages the man upon whom he is operating, and persuades him to submit to the operation.” (Epictetus, fr. 22)

Epictetus also describes Agrippinus’ use of what sounds like a standard Stoic consolation technique, except that it’s applied to his own problems.

For this reason it is right to praise Agrippinus, because, although he was a man of the very highest worth, he never praised himself, but used to blush even if someone else praised him.  His character was such, said Epictetus, that when any hardship befell him he would compose a eulogy upon it; on fever, if he had a fever; on disrepute; on exile, if he went into exile.  And once, he said, when Agrippinus was preparing to take lunch, a man brought him word that Nero ordered him into exile; “Very well,” said he, “we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” (Epictetus, fr. 21)

The town of Aricia was apparently the first stop outside of Rome, for those travelling south and east.  Epictetus likewise concludes the first of his Discourses, ‘On what is under our control and what is not’, with the following anecdote:

Wherefore, what was it that Agrippinus used to remark?  “I am not standing in my own way.”  Word was brought him,

“Your case is being tried in the Senate.”

“Good luck betide! But it is the fifth hour now” (he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then a cold bath at that hour); “let us be off and take our exercise.”

After he had finished his exercise someone came and told him,

“You have been condemned.”

“To exile,” says he, “or to death?”

“To exile.”

“What about my property?”

“It has not been confiscated.”

“Well then, let us go to Aricia and take our lunch there.”

This is what it means to have rehearsed the lessons one ought to rehearse, to have set desire and aversion free from every hindrance and made them proof against chance.  I must die.  If forthwith, I die; and if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time.  How?  As becomes the man who is giving back that which was another’s. (Discourses, 1.1.28-30)

Epictetus also tells a story about Agrippinus giving advice to another Roman politician, who was undecided about whether to contribute to a festival in honour of Nero, by performing some part in a tragedy.  (Possibly Gessius Florus, the notoriously unpopular procurator of Judea.)

Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it Agrippinus said to him, “Enter.”  And when Florus asked, “Why do you not enter yourself?” he replied, “I? why, I do not even raise the question.”  For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their proper character.

Come, what is this you ask me?  “Is death or life preferable?”  I answer, life.  “Pain or pleasure?”  I answer, pleasure.  “But unless I take a part in the tragedy I shall be beheaded.”  Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part.  “Why not?”  Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment.  What follows, then?  This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads.  But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?”  And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?  (Discourses, 1.2.12-13)

Epictetus’ Handbook concludes with the saying attributed to Socrates: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.”  However, according to Cassius Dio, Thrasea was well known for paraphrasing this as: “Nero can kill me but he cannot harm me.”  Knowing this, young Stoics reading the Handbook perhaps took its final sentence as a subtle nod to Thrasea.

Junius Rusticus – TBD

Junius Rusticus was a Stoic philosopher who became the main tutor of the young Marcus Aurelius.  He was a direct descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, a prominent member of the Stoic Opposition.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus appears to be familiar with and an admirer of Thrasea and his circle.  He must have read Epictetus’ comments about them in The Discourses, but he had presumably also heard stories about them in person from his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus.  However, in The Meditations, he says of the Aristotelian philosopher Severus, from whom he learned love of truth and justice,

…that through him I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject. (Meditations, 1.14)

He appears to be referring to Thrasea and his associate Helvidius, opponents of Nero, alongside the great Stoic hero of the civil war, Cato of Utica, and his Stoic-influenced nephew Brutus, who was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.  The Dio he had in mind was possibly Dio Chrysostom, a contemporary of Epictetus who also studied under Musonius Rufus and combined Stoicism, Cynicism, Platonism and an interest in rhetoric.

Elsewhere, by contrast, Nero is mentioned as a tyrant.

Marcus’ Latin tutor, Fronto, despised Seneca and several time writes of him in a dismissive or sarcastic way in their correspondence, e.g.,

There are certainly some acute and weighty sayings in his books but little pieces of silver are sometimes found in sewers; and is that a reason for us to undertake the cleaning of the sewers?

We don’t know if or how Marcus responded to these criticisms but it doesn’t appear that they openly argued over this, so he may either have agreed or said nothing.

Free Crash Course in Stoicism

Below is the transcript of the main video from my Crash Course in Stoicism.

You can watch the video online at my e-learning site by following the link below, where you will find a quiz, Stoic quotes, reading list, and lots of other resources for people new to the subject who want to learn more about Stoicism.

Click the button below or this link to access the rest of the free course:

This is both fun and beneficial. Can we put it in every congressman’s mailbox?tpetrocci

Thank you for this course. It really piqued my interest in Stoicism and provides great resources for learning more.Paul LaFleur

This is a great introduction to Stoicism by Donald Robertson. I recommend reading his books Stoicism and The Art of Happiness and The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Both of these books have helped me develop Stoicism as a philosophy for a better way of living and have inspired me to study CBT as a career path.Mark Husher

Thank you Donald for this free course which is a short but very comprehensive introduction to Stoicism. Familiarising myself with The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and focusing on meaningful passages was the start of my Stoic journey a few years ago. Having experience of your SMRT course on two previous occasions I can highly recommend them.Alison McCone

I found this course an interesting and easy to understand introduction to the study of Stoicism. It has given me a taste to learn more. Thanks.Colin Conway

Amazing! I always wondered what Stoicism was all about. This is a crash course! Thanks a lot, Donald! Stay blessed.Nuruddin Abjani

Transcript of Video

Hello and welcome. My name is Donald Robertson and this is my five-minute introduction to Stoic philosophy. I first became interested in Stoicism myself in 1996, after doing my philosophy degree. Later, as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, I found it helpful to incorporate Stoicism into my work with clients. In 2005, I published an article on Stoicism in a British counseling journal. Then a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, comparing all the psychological strategies found in ancient Stoicism to ones used in modern psychotherapy. I also wrote a self-help book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, explaining in plain English how ancient Stoicism can be applied to modern living. In the video you’re watching I’m going to try to explain who the Stoics were, what Stoicism is, and to describe two of Stoicism’s most beneficial psychological exercises.

Where does Stoicism come from?

Today the word “stoicism” (with a small s) denotes a personality trait that involves remaining calm in the face of adversity, or having a stiff upper lip. That’s not the same thing as capital S “Stoicism”, the ancient Greek school of philosophy, which teaches a whole way of life and set of ethical values. Stoicism was founded at Athens, in 301 BC, by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, who was influenced mainly by Socrates and the Cynic philosophers. The early Stoics wrote over a thousand books but only fragments survive today. Interest in Stoicism later spread from Greece to Rome. Most of the writings we have come from three Stoics who lived under the Roman Empire: Seneca, who was speechwriter to Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a freed slave who became a famous teacher; and Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors. After his death we hear virtually nothing more about Stoicism; Christianity gradually eclipsed pagan philosophy. However, the ancient Stoic school was therefore active for nearly 500 years.

What is Stoicism?

The central doctrine of Stoicism is that the goal of life is virtue, and that virtue is the only true good. “Virtue” is the conventional translation of the Greek arete, which actually means “excellence of character”. The Stoics argued that, understood correctly, what’s healthy or in our self-interest as rational beings coincides perfectly with what’s honourable or genuinely praiseworthy. They also expressed the goal as “living in agreement with nature”, by fulfilling our natural potential, much as a seed does by growing into a tree and bearing fruit. For Stoics, virtue applies to three main areas of life. 1. Our own mind: as animals with the capacity for reason, we should try to fulfil our potential by living rationally and wisely. 2. Other people: as social beings, who naturally care about each other, we should try to live in harmony with other people, in a way that’s conducive to the common welfare of mankind. And 3. The Universe: as citizens of the vast cosmos, we should live in harmony with Nature, calmly accepting the external events that befall us and responding to them wisely.

The Handbook of Epictetus contains a simplified guide, to living in accord with Stoic philosophy. It opens with the words: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” This mindfulness of our sphere of control is the cornerstone of Stoic resilience. It’s often compared to the famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.” Another well-known quote from the Handbook has long been taught to clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgements about events.”

What do Stoics do?

The Stoics also used many contemplative exercises. One involves picturing events from high overhead, like the gods atop Mount Olympus. Modern scholars call it “The View From Above.” This helps people to see distressing events as temporary or to place them within a broader context, in a way that can moderate strong emotions. For the Stoics this is also a more realistic perspective because it’s more complete. Psychologists know that when people are anxious their field of attention automatically narrows down. We focus on perceived threats, taking things out of their wider context, and that tends to amplify our feelings. When we pause and encourage ourselves to look at the bigger picture, in terms of both time and space, it can help us remain more composed.

The Stoics also advised us frequently to imagine the worst things that could happen in life as if they were already happening, to practice mentally preparing for them. Therapists today call this “De-catastrophising”. The ancient Stoics would imagine poverty, famine, exile, and plague befalling them. Every day they’d rehearse ways of coping with them, responding with courage, self-discipline, and wisdom. Psychological research has now shown that the modern fad for “positive thinking” can easily turn into an unhealthy form of avoidance. Cognitive therapists therefore encourage clients to visualize upsetting events, and practice building resilience through emotional fire-drills. Negative is the new positive. Or rather it can be healthy to confront negative thoughts patiently, in the right way.


To sum up, what I think appeals most to people about Stoicism is the fact that it provides a guide to life that’s rational, and based on philosophical reasoning rather than one resting on faith or tradition. It’s down-to-earth philosophy, for the man or woman in the street. And it gives us a powerful toolbox of psychological techniques, which are similar to ones now proven to be effective by modern research in psychology. People are also drawn to the beauty of the writings. Indeed, Seneca is one of the finest writers of antiquity; it’s almost as if we could read a cognitive therapy or self-help book that was written by Shakespeare. For example, Seneca once said: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” So what next? Well, I’ve put some extra bonus resources on the following pages to help you learn more about Stoicism… I hope you find them helpful, and please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions…

Webinar: Marcus Aurelius on Anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, three others are also particularly emphasized by him.

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

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

1. We’re naturally social creatures

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

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

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

2. Bad people inevitably do bad things

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

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

3. It’s our own judgements that upset us

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

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

4. Everything is transient

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

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

5. Anger does us more harm than good

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

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

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


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

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

The Metaphor of the Sun in Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Fire MemeWhen Marcus Aurelius lay dying he turned to the guard of the night watch and said, cryptically, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”  We can only speculate as to the meaning he intended.  For instance, it may have sounded to Romans as if he were alluding to the mystery religion of Mithraism or some other solar cult.  However, it’s fair to say, though, that consistent with his approach throughout The Meditations, he appears to be portraying death as a process both natural and inevitable, just like the setting of the sun.

As I reflected on the meaning of this remark, it struck me that there are several passages in The Meditations which refer to the mind of the wise man using the metaphor of sunlight and, apparently related to these, several additional references to the mind as a lamp or blazing fire, casting light on the objects of the world.  Indeed, according to their Physics, the Stoics believed that the intellect of man was composed of a subtle fiery substance, pneuma or spirit, the same substance from which the sun, the stars, and the other gods are made.  The human mind, indeed, is a divine spark, a fragment of the Logos or cosmic fire that constitutes the Mind of Zeus.

Marcus continually reminds himself that the human mind has a duty to fulfil its own true nature, to become rational and wise, and not to be distracted or swayed from its path, something he likes to compare to the simplicity and purity with which the sun and stars shine forth in the sky.  He says the sun does not undertake the work of the rain but fulfills its own nature.  Each particular star is different from the others and yet they are all working together toward the same end (6.43).  We should strive to do the same by cultivating the divine spark within us, fulfilling our human potential for wisdom and virtue.  Everything in nature has come into being for a purpose.  According to Marcus, the Sun himself would say, ‘I was born to perform a function’, and so would the rest of the gods (8.19).  So it’s likewise our duty to know what our own true purpose is in life, something we try to discover through philosophy, the love of wisdom.

Marcus likes to refer to the stars as natural models of purity and simplicity.  We should meditate, he says, on the the stars above as though accompanying them on their course through the night sky because thoughts such as these purify us from the defilements of our earthly existence (7.47).  Even though the stars are separate and distinct they also form a natural unity together in the constellations of the night sky (9.9).

Marcus particularly attributes this idea of contemplating the orderliness and purity of the stars to the Pythagoreans, about whom Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had long ago written a book.

The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans believed that the stars and other heavenly bodies were divine.  (They appear to move all by themselves, which to many ancient thinkers was a sign of life.)  For Stoics they were gods but also merely fragmentary aspects of a greater divine Nature, or Zeus.

The Mind as the Sun

However, the nature of sunlight in particular becomes an important metaphor for the Stoic concept of mind throughout The Meditations.  Marcus repeatedly stresses to himself that the light of the sun pours down in every direction and yet it is not exhausted.  Its beams of light are merely an extension of its being.  Sunlight is something very familiar to us.  We see its beams entering a darkened room through a narrow window.  It stretches out in a straight line and comes to rest on any solid body that intercepts it, cutting it off from  whatever lies beyond.  Sunlight appears to our eyes to rest exactly where its rays fall, without being deflected by its objects, like the wind, or being absorbed by them like water.  It touches upon things lightly and illuminates them, without being contaminated by them.  The pouring forth and spreading abroad of our mind should follow a similar pattern, extending itself without being exhausted or diminished.  It should, like sunlight, not land with the force of a violent blow on the obstacles that it encounters nor dissipate, but steadily illuminate the objects before it.  For what doesn’t welcome the light condemns itself to darkness (8.57).

Put very simply, I think Marcus would say today that we should think of our judgements, particularly our value judgements, as beams of light shining forth from our mind onto objects in the world.  Values don’t exist in the world, we project them onto things.  For the Stoics it’s therefore important to be aware of this and suspend these judgements or make them only lightly.  Marcus consistently refers to this as the purification of the mind from being blended with externals, or its separation from things that belong to the world, or to the body.

From a more metaphysical perspective, Marcus reminds himself that sunlight is, in a sense, a single thing even though it is obstructed by walls, and mountains, and countless other obstacles.  Likewise, for Stoic Physics, there is one common substance, though divided into countless individual bodies. There is one mind, even though it appears to be divided among countless creatures, each with its own characteristics. Material objects are senseless and have no affinity of this kind.  But mind alone is naturally social, it tends towards what is akin to it and forms friendships and communities with others, and apparent divisions are overcome by the sense of common fellowship (12.30).

Likewise, he elsewhere says that one animal soul is distributed among irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided among rational creatures; just as there is one earth for all things formed from earth, and there is one light by which we all see and one air from which we all breathe (9.8).  Fire tends to rise toward the heavens, with which it has an affinity, consuming whatever kindling is thrown upon it.  So likewise, the mind naturally strives with even greater eagerness towards what is akin to itself, through the grasping of philosophical truths (9.9).  The mind naturally loves virtue, and as social beings we aspire to make friends and form communities with other human beings, who share our capacity for reason.  This is the bond of natural affection that Stoics believe exists between all rational beings, and which it’s our duty to cultivate into a sense of being at one with the rest of mankind, viewing them as our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens of the cosmic city.

Virtue as Sunlight or a Blazing Fire

Marcus also likes to describe virtue as a light blazing forth.  A good, straightforward, and kindly person, he says, reveals these qualities in his eyes, they shine forth unmistakably in his gaze (11.15).  In the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified, perhaps by Stoic mentoring and therapy, there nothing he says which would not bear examination or which hides away from the light (3.8).

Hence, there is nothing more wholesome and delightful, he says, than the sight of virtue shining forth in the characters of those around us.  So we should be sure to keep these images ever at hand (6.48).  Indeed, virtue is just like the light of a lamp which shines forth until it is extinguished, light extends itself afar without losing its radiance.  In the same way, the cardinal virtues of truth, justice and self-control should shine forth without being exhausted (12.15).

Moreover, the mind of the wise man is like a blazing fire.  All things human are mere smoke and nothingness, they continually change and then are gone forever. Don’t be troubled about them, Marcus says, but view life as a training ground for reason to examine things truthfully and objectively.  The mind is naturally capable of assimilating the truth about everything that befalls you just as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light (10.31).

The preconceptions Nature planted within our souls are like sparks of wisdom, which need to be given fuel and fanned into a blazing fire.  Hence, Marcus says the sparks of his Stoic principles need to be constantly fanned into new flames, such as that things that lie outside our intellect have no hold whatever over us.  Once you renew these principles, which once you knew, then you will cease to be troubled, he says (7.2).

People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills –a theme he returns to several times.  You can retreat into yourself wherever you are and remember your Stoic principles, though.  When your mind is in harmony with nature, it adapts itself readily to whatever befalls it.  It’s not attached to any specific thing but rather prefers whatever is reasonable, and with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  If it encounters an obstacle, it simply converts that into more material for the exercise of reason and virtue, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it.  Piling up too much wood often extinguishes a little flame, but a blazing fire engulfs it all in an instant, and consumes it, making its flames burn even higher (4.1).

The Empedoclean Sphere

Marcus also makes very similar remarks about the mystical “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empdocles, who was closely associated with the Pythagoreans.  This sphere represents the divine in perfect harmony but the mind of the wise man possesses similar qualities.

For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man’s true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Fr. 110)

Marcus likewise says that we have a body and feelings that our ours to take care of but only our intellect is truly our own.  You will live a pure and unrestricted life if you will let go of everything that falls outside your own true nature, doing what is just, desiring what befalls you, and speaking the truth.  If, that is, you will purify your ruling centre from everything external that becomes attached to it from the body, and everything in the past or future.  Make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, as Marcus puts it, “a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it”, striving to live only the life that belongs to you here and now, then you will live out the rest of your days with peace and kindness, at peace with the divine spark within you (12.3).

Marcus appears to refer to this image of the Empedoclean sphere three times altogether.  Elsewhere, he notes that neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way when it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, and it is capable of always remaining so (8.41).

Finally, he says that the sphere of the soul remains true to its natural form  when neither stretching itself out towards anything outside itself nor contracting itself inwards, and when it is neither dispersed abroad nor shrinks back into itself, but shines forth with a steady light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth within itself (11.12).  Here, the image of the Empedoclean sphere appears to merge with that of the sun shining its pure light onto objects without being defiled by them.

The poet Horace, in Satires (2.7), employs the same image of the perfect sphere in relation to Stoicism.  He describes a speech delivered to him during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.

Who then is free?  The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.