Stoicism for Mothers

What Marcus Aurelius learned from Domitia Lucilla

What Marcus Aurelius Learned from Domitia Lucilla

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was the last famous Stoic of antiquity. His personal reflections on applying Stoic philosophy to daily life, The Meditations, begin with a chapter contemplating the virtues of his family members and most cherished tutors, including his mother, Domitia Lucilla.

His father died when Marcus was only a small child, aged around three, leaving him to be raised in the care of his paternal grandfather and his widowed mother.

Domitia Lucilla was a wealthy and cultured Roman noblewoman, the daughter of the statesman Calvisius Tullus, who had served twice as consul. She died while Marcus was Caesar, before having a chance to see him acclaimed emperor. We can see from Marcus’ private letters to his rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, that he loved her very dearly. In The Meditations, he thanks the gods that “although my mother was destined to die at an early age, she at least spent her last years with me” (1.17).

She was a woman of considerable means and influence, who owned an important tile and brick factory outside Rome, near the banks of the River Tiber. However, Marcus describes her generosity and the simplicity of her lifestyle, “far removed from that of the rich” (1.17). These qualities perhaps inspired his own love of simplicity and moderation, paving the way for his later education in Stoic philosophy.

Nevertheless, at first, Lucilla perhaps felt Marcus went too far in his embrace of the traditional Cynic-Stoic attire and lifestyle.

He studied philosophy with ardour, even as a youth. For when he was twelve years old he adopted the dress and, a little later, the hardiness of a philosopher, pursuing his studies clad in a rough Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground; at his mother’s solicitation, however, he reluctantly consented to sleep on a couch strewn with skins. (Historia Augusta)

A few years later, Marcus began formal study of Stoic philosophy and his main tutor was to be a Roman statesman called Junius Rusticus. Marcus also mentions that he learned from Rusticus, “to write letters in an unaffected style, as he did when he wrote to my mother from Sinuessa”, a city on the Italian coast south of Rome (1.7). Rusticus and Lucilla would have been around the same age. He and Marcus’ mother were clearly friends and it’s tempting to wonder whether she may have had some hand in the appointment of Rusticus as one of her son’s main tutors in Stoic philosophy.

Marcus lists the qualities he most admired in Lucilla and sought to emulate as follows:

From my mother, piety and generosity, and to abstain not only from doing wrong but even from contemplating such an act; and the simplicity, too, of her way of life, far removed from that of the rich. (Meditations, 1.3)

Lucilla’s notable generosity and love of simple living, despite her immense wealth, perhaps influenced Marcus’ decision to give away much of his own family inheritance.

Later, when his mother asked him to give his sister part of the fortune left him by his father, he replied that he was content with the fortune of his grandfather and relinquished all of it, further declaring that if she wished, his mother might leave her own estate to his sister in its entirety, in order that she might not be poorer than her husband. (Historia Augusta)

Later, the historian adds that Marcus gave away part of the fortune he inherited from his mother to his sister’s son, after her death.

Finally, he mentions in the passage above that his mother’s example instilled in him a sense of piety and a moral conscience that warned him against entertaining evil thoughts even in the privacy of his own mind, a theme that he returns to several times throughout The Meditations. For example,

I have often marvelled at how everyone loves himself above all others, yet places less value on his own opinion of himself than that of everyone else. At all events, if a god or some wise teacher presented himself and told him not to entertain any thought or idea in his mind without stating it aloud as soon as he had conceived it, he would not abide it for even a single day. So much greater is our respect for what our neighbours think of us than what we think of ourselves! (12.4)

Although The Meditations was probably written at least a decade after her death, Marcus is still reflecting on the lessons he learned from his mother and how the example she set in her own life shaped his character. Whether or not she played some role in introducing him, as a child, to Stoic philosophy, she certainly helped lay the foundation upon which his later training would be built by instilling old-fashioned Roman values in her son compatible with those of Stoic ethics.

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