Politics Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius, Politics, and Freedom

Some quotes about Marcus Aurelius’ reign and his attitude toward political freedom.

Just a few quotes worth putting side-by-side…

In the first, Marcus gives thanks that he learned to love his family, truth, and justice from the Aristotelian Claudius Severus.  He learned from him the concept of a republic in which the same law applies to all, administered with equal rights and freedom of speech, where the sovereign’s primary value is the freedom of his subjects.

From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. (Meditations, 1.14)

Surprisingly, from an Aristotelian, Marcus learned of the Stoic opposition to Nero, two of the leading figures being Thrasea and Helvidius.  (Notably Marcus mentions these famous Stoics but not Seneca, whose collaboration with Nero they criticized.)  The other figures he has in mind are thought to be as follows…  Cato of Utica, the famous Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship.  Brutus, his nephew, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, who was the leading assassin of Caesar.  And the Dio he mentions is most likely Dio Chrysostom, a student of Epictetus, who opposed the Emperor Domitian, and was influenced by a mixture of Cynicism, Platonism, and Stoicism.  The overall theme is one of political opposition by philosophers against the tyrannical Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, and the dictator Julius Caesar.  Marcus employed similar language in an imperial rescript quoted by C.R. Haines: “Let those who have charge of our interests know that the cause of liberty is to be set before any pecuniary advantage to ourselves.”

In the following passage Marcus refers to the fact that it’s rational to know one’s limits and accept help from others who are more knowledgeable or skilled.  Compare this to what’s said below, in the histories, about his willingness to share power with the Senate and take advice from experts.

Is my understanding equal to this or not? If it is, I apply it to the task in hand as an instrument granted to me by universal nature; but if it is not, I either relinquish the task to someone who is better able to accomplish it, if that accords with my duty in every other respect, or else I perform it myself as best I can, calling on the assistance of one who is able, with the aid of my own ruling centre, to effect what is presently opportune and advantageous to the community. For all that I do, whether on my own or assisted by another, should be directed to this single end, the common benefit and harmony. (7.5)

Marcus also mentions, also surprisingly, that his Latin rhetoric tutor Fronto mainly taught him: “to have some conception of the malice, caprice, and hypocrisy that accompany absolute rule; and that, on the whole, those whom we rank as patricians are somewhat lacking in natural affection” (Meditations, 1.11).  This arguably shows how important it was to Marcus that he should take pains to avoid the malice, caprice and hypocrisy of absolute rule himself, as emperor.

The Historia Augusta

The following come from the Historia Augusta and describe Marcus’ rule in terms that echo his remarks about freedom in The Meditations.  First of all, it was at the insistence of the Senate that he assumed power although he insisted that, for the first time in Rome’s history, there should be two emperors, and he would rule jointly with his adopted brother Lucius Verus.  Marcus, though, was clearly the senior party in this joint rule.

Being forced by the senate to assume the government of the state after the death of the Deified Pius, Marcus made his brother his colleague in the empire, giving him the name Lucius Aurelius Verus Commodus and bestowing on him the titles Caesar and Augustus. Then they began to rule the state on equal terms, and then it was that the Roman Empire first had two emperors, when Marcus shared with another the empire he had inherited.

Marcus often confirmed appointments and ratified important decisions through the Senate.  For example, at the very start of his reign, we’re told Marcus sought Senate approval before placing Lucius in command of the Parthian war.

But to the Parthian war, with the consent of the senate, Marcus despatched his brother Verus, while he himself remained at Rome, where conditions demanded the presence of an emperor.

Indeed, the Historia Augusta states quite bluntly that Marcus extended the powers of the Senate and even allocated to them many matters previously under his own jurisdiction as emperor.  It then proceeds to give several specific examples in the ways in which Marcus extended the powers of the Senate:

He made the senate the judge in many inquiries and even in those which belonged to his own jurisdiction. With regard to the status of deceased persons, he ordered that any investigations must be made [by the Senate?] within five years. Nor did any of the emperors show more respect to the senate than he. To do the senate honour, moreover, he entrusted the settling of disputes to many men of praetorian and consular rank [high-ranking senators] who then held no magistracy, in order that their prestige might be enhanced through their administration of law. He enrolled in the senate many of his friends, giving them the rank of aedile or praetor; and on a number of poor but honest senators he bestowed the rank of tribune or aedile. Nor did he ever appoint anyone to senatorial rank whom he did not know well personally. He granted senators the further privilege that whenever any of them was to be tried on a capital charge, he would examine the evidence behind closed doors and only after so doing would bring the case to public trial; nor would he allow members of the equestrian order [i.e., ranking lower than senators] to attend such investigations. He always attended the meetings of the senate if he was in Rome, even though no measure was to be proposed, and if he wished to propose anything himself, he came in person even from Campania. More than this, when elections were held he often remained even until night, never leaving the senate-chamber until the consul announced, “We detain you no longer, Conscript Fathers”. Further, he appointed the senate judge in appeals made from the consul.

We’re also told:

In the matter of public expenditures he was exceedingly careful, and he forbade all libels on the part of false informers, putting the mark of infamy on such as made false accusations. He scorned such accusations as would swell the privy-purse. He devised many wise measures for the support of the state-poor, and, that he might give a wider range to the senatorial functions, he appointed supervisors for many communities from the senate.

Following these and other measures, six years into his reign, at the end of the Parthian War, the Senate honoured Marcus for his good conduct toward them and the citizens of Rome:

After his brother had returned victorious from Syria, the title “Father of his Country” was decreed to both, inasmuch as Marcus in the absence of Verus had conducted himself with great consideration toward both senators and commons.   Furthermore, the civic crown was offered to both…

It’s implied that Marcus then sought approval from the Senate for both himself and Lucius to leave Rome for the northern frontier at the start of the First Marcomannic War:

While the Parthian war was still in progress, the Marcomannic war broke out, after having been postponed for a long time by the diplomacy of the men who were in charge there, in order that the Marcomannic war might not be waged until Rome was done with the war in the East. Even at the time of the famine the Emperor had hinted at this war to the people, and when his brother returned after five years’ service, he brought the matter up in the senate, saying that both emperors were needed for the German war.

Regarding the nature of his politics, we’re also told that from the outset he ruled in a democratic and lenient manner:

And now, after they had assumed the imperial power, the two emperors [Marcus and Lucius] acted in so democratic a manner that no one missed the lenient ways of [Antononius] Pius; for though Marullus, a writer of farces of the time, irritated them by his jests, he yet went unpunished. (Historia Augusta)

The following is particularly striking when compared to Marcus’ remarks above:

Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state.  He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few.

When Marcus died, we’re told that for the first time the Senate and the public mourned and deified him together:

Finally, before his funeral was held, so many say, the senate and people, not in separate places but sitting together, as was never done before or after, hailed him as a gracious god.

Elsewhere we’re told that during the civil war of Avidius Cassius, Marcus repeated his vow that no Senators should be executed during his reign, even those who apparently sided with the rebellion.

Marcus then forbade the senate to impose any heavy punishment upon those who had conspired in this revolt; and at the same time, in order that his reign might escape such a stain, he requested that during his rule no senator should be executed. Those who had been exiled, moreover, he ordered to be recalled; and there were only a very few of the centurions who suffered the death-penalty.

Likewise, after Avidius Cassius was assassinated by his own officers:

And further than this, he grieved at Cassius’ death, saying that he had wished to complete his reign without shedding the blood of a single senator.

We’re also told:

Previous to his death, and before he returned to the Marcomannic war, he swore in the Capitol that no senator had been executed with his knowledge and consent, and said that had he known he would have spared even the insurgents.

Again, in another chapter we’re told:

[Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus himself, moreover, asked the senate to refrain from inflicting severe punishment on those men who were implicated in the rebellion [of Avidius Cassius]; he made this request at the very same time in which he requested that during his reign no senator be punished with capital punishment – an act which won him the greatest affection. Finally, after he had punished a very few centurions, he gave orders that those who had been exiled should be recalled.

Cassius Dio

Cassius Dio echoes many of these general sentiments.  In a remarkable speech, Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as suggesting to his troops that he would be willing to testify before a Senate hearing alongside Avidius Cassius and allow the Senate to decide whether he should continue as Emperor or stand down:

Now if the danger [of the civil war] were mine alone, I should have regarded the matter as of no moment (for I presume I was not born to be immortal!), but since there has been a public secession, or rather rebellion, and the war touches us all alike, I could have wished, had it been possible, to invite Cassius here and to argue before you or the senate the matter at issue between us; and I would gladly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle, if this had seemed to be for the good of the State.

Cassius Dio, like the Historia Augusta, states:

This same emperor neither slew nor imprisoned nor put under guard at all any of the senators who had been associated with Cassius. Indeed, he did not so much as bring them before his own court, but merely sent them before the senate, as though charged with some other offence, and set a definite day for their trial.


In his great grief over the death of Faustina he wrote to the senate asking that no one of those who had co-operated with Cassius should be put to death, as if in this fact alone he could find some consolation for her loss. “May it never happen,” he continued, “that any one of you should be slain during my reign either by my vote or by yours.” And in concluding he said, “If I do not obtain this request, I shall hasten to my death.” So pure and excellent and god-fearing did he show himself from first to last; and nothing could force him to do anything inconsistent with his character, neither the wickedness of their rash course nor the expectation of similar uprisings as the result of his pardoning these rebels. So far, indeed, was he from inventing any imaginary conspiracy or concocting any tragedy that had not really occurred, that he actually released those who had in the most open manner risen against him and taken up arms both against him and against his son, whether they were generals or heads of states or kings; and he put none of them to death either by his own action or by that of the senate or on any other pretext whatever. Hence I verily believe that if he had captured Cassius himself alive, he would certainly have spared his life. For he actually conferred benefits upon many who had been the murderers, so far as lay in their power, of both himself and his son.

At the start of the Second Marcomannic War we’re told he requested funds from the Senate, and that he typically did this because he regarded the public treasury as belonging to the people not the emperor:

Marcus also asked the senate for money from the public treasury, not because such funds were not already at the emperor’s disposal, but because he was wont to declare that all the funds, both these and others, belonged to the senate and to the people. “As for us,” he said, in addressing the senate, “we are so far from possessing anything of our own that even the house in which we live is yours.”


To these we can add the voice of Herodian who writes:

He [Marcus] was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us. To his subjects he revealed himself as a mild and moderate emperor; he gave audience to those who asked for it and forbade his bodyguard to drive off those who happened to meet him. Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life. His reign thus produced a very large number of intelligent men, for subjects like to imitate the example set by their ruler.

We’re told Marcus was concerned about the future reign of Commodus but in terms that make it clear he viewed the reigns of Nero and Domitian as despotic:

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

Herodian depicts him giving the following political advice on his deathbed:

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

He concludes:

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

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