Book Summary: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is published by St. Martin’s Press in hardback, ebook, and audiobook formats. This is a brief summary of the contents. At the end you’ll find a special bonus video, featuring an interview about Marcus Aurelius filmed at Carnuntum.


The introduction explains how I came to write the book, drawing on my background in academic philosophy and training as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, after nearly twenty years of writing and teaching Stoicism. It discusses the modern growth of interest in Stoicism, including the activities of the Modern Stoicism organization. It also explains how the idea for the book came from my experience of telling my young daughter, Poppy, stories about ancient philosophy.

1. The Dead Emperor

The first chapter opens with the death of Marcus Aurelius. I wanted to start the book with something dramatic. Each chapter begins with a story about some major event in Marcus’ life, based on the information we have from the various Roman histories of his reign.

In most of the chapters that leads into a discussion of Stoic philosophy and psychology and the concepts and techniques he used to cope with various problems such as anger, anxiety, pain, and so on. Then there’s a detailed discussion of how Stoic techniques can actually be applied today, drawing on my experience as a cognitive-behavioural therapist and the relevant scientific research. However, the first chapter is slightly different because after describing the events surrounding Marcus’ death in some detail, it proceeds to give the reader a short introduction to Stoic philosophy.

The story of Stoicism begins with Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, and so you’ll be introduced to various anecdotes about him and other famous Stoics. Then we focus on what the Stoics actually believed: the core doctrines of the philosophy followed by Marcus throughout his entire adult life. And we’ll address some common misconceptions about Stoicism, such as the idea that Stoics were unemotional or joyless, which is false. I tried to keep the explanation of Stoicism in this chapter as simple as possible but after reading it you should have a pretty clear idea of who the Stoics were and what they believed. Then you’ll be well prepared to begin delving into the application of Stoicism to different areas of life. For example, in the next chapter we’ll be looking at how Stoics used language and in subsequent chapters you’ll learn how they overcame unhealthy desires and bad habits, conquered anxiety, managed anger, coped with pain and illness, came to terms with loss, and even faced their own mortality.

2. The Most Truthful Child in Rome

This chapter tells the story of Marcus’ youth and his studies in rhetoric and philosophy. He gradually shifted his attention away from the typical education offered by Sophists, and expected of a Roman noble. Instead he began pursuing the more demanding training offered by Stoic philosophers. We focus on Marcus’ Stoic teacher Apollonius of Chalcedon and explain some of the basic principles of Stoic psychology in this chapter.

There’s a common misconception that Stoics are unemotional so we correct that by explaining that the Stoics believed we should accept certain involuntary emotional reactions as natural and inevitable, rather than trying to suppress them. And they also actively encouraged certain healthy or positive emotions, which conformed to reason. The Stoic concept of emotion is illustrated with a remarkable anecdote about a Stoic teacher who was caught in a dangerous storm while sailing from Greece to Italy.

We look in detail at how the Stoics trained themselves to use language objectively avoiding strong value judgements and emotive rhetoric that might cause unnecessary distress. One of the basic psychological principles of Stoicism is that it’s not events that upset us but our judgements about them. So we explore specific ways in which we can learn to suspend distressing value judgements and view things more calmly and rationally, in a detached manner. We’ll look at how these psychological strategies were practised by the ancient Stoics and compare them to concepts and techniques used in modern cognitive psychotherapy.

3. Contemplating the Sage

This chapter focuses on Marcus’ relationship with his close friend and Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus. Marcus says that Rusticus made him aware that he could benefit from Stoic psychological therapy or therapeia. The ancient Stoics actually wrote books on psychological therapy. Although they’re now lost, we do have a book by Galen, Marcus’ famous court physician, called On the Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul’s Passions, which draws inspiration from the Therapeutics of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.

Galen describes a process of moral correction and psychological therapy which may have resembled the sort of Stoic philosophical therapy that Marcus experienced as a youth, under the guidance of Junius Rusticus. This chapter tries to reconstruct that therapeutic approach by comparing Galen’s account with some remarks made by Marcus in The Meditations. It focuses on the way in which Stoics identified role models, such as Junius Rusticus, and how they learned to emulate their behaviour and assimilate the character traits they most admired in their heroes.

We also relate this to the advice found in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, mentioned by Galen but also by Seneca and Epictetus. There we’re told to review our actions three times at the end of each day and ask ourselves three questions: What we did badly, What we did well, and what we omitted that could be done better in the future.

4. The Choice of Hercules

This chapter tells the story of Marcus’ adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus. The two boys grew up together in the household of the Emperor Antoninus Pius and they both studied Stoic philosophy but over time their characters developed in quite different ways. Lucius abandoned philosophy and became known as a drunk and a poor leader. Marcus strove for excellence and continued to develop his character throughout his life by training himself rigorously in Stoic philosophy as a way of life.

We compare their paths in life to a famous allegory called The Choice of Hercules originating with the Sophist Prodicus, which was retold by Socrates, and inspired Zeno the founder of Stoicism to become a philosopher. This simple allegory was contained in a powerful speech designed to inspire young men to embrace virtue, and study philosophy, rather than giving in to easy living and vice. We also relate this to one of Aesop’s fables, which Marcus alludes to in The Meditations, about the town mouse and the country mouse. (Lucius reminds me of the town mouse and Marcus of the country mouse.)

The rest of the chapter is about how to develop awareness of our desires, evaluate them, and change bad habits where necessary, by combining ancient Stoic therapeutic strategies with concepts and techniques from modern cognitive-behavioural therapy. We do that in part by training ourselves to become more aware of the earliest signs of a desire or habit and also by carefully picturing the consequences to ourselves. That allows us to contrast the outcome if we indulge in the habit with the outcome if we exercise self-discipline and reason.

I also talk about the positive role of emotion in Stoicism and three different areas of life in which Marcus says Stoics can experience healthy feelings of joy and happiness.

5. Grasping the Nettle

This chapter begins with the story of Marcus’ chronic health problems. In the nineteenth century a cache of letters between Marcus and his rhetoric teacher Fronto was discovered and this give us glimpses of his personal life, including some complaints about health issues from both parties. These letters contrast sharply with Marcus’ later attitude toward coping with pain, as demonstrated in The Meditations. There he also happens to quote a letter by Epicurus that talks about avoiding complaints and responding wisely when suffering from an illness. It’s fascinating to compare this letter of Epicurus with the letters Marcus received from Fronto, which exhibit a much less resilient attitude toward pain.

The point I wanted to make is that Marcus’ rhetoric teacher was perhaps bound to be more expressive in complaining about his condition. Over time, though, as Marcus progressed in his studies of Stoicism he learned to adopt a much more philosophical attitude toward his own experience of physical pain and suffering.

Marcus doesn’t provide a neat list of Stoic strategies for coping with pain but by closely reviewing the text of The Meditations we can identify roughly seven different methods he employed. This chapter explores those in detail and discusses how they can be applied by us today, in a way that’s more informed by modern research on psychological coping skills.

The Stoics were also influenced by the Cynic concept of “voluntary hardship” and learning to endure pain, through repeated exposure to coping with discomfort. We explore that idea and some very striking metaphors the Cynics used to explain their concept of radical acceptance of unpleasant sensations. For instance, they said that if we try to grab a snake by the tail we’re likely to get bitten but the person who has the courage to seize it behind its head will actually be safer. These ideas about facing discomfort and radically accepting it, in order to cope better, are very similar to strategies used in modern-day mindfulness and acceptance based psychotherapy. So although they seem paradoxical at first, we have evidence that they can be very effective.

6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations

This chapter opens with the story of an exceptionally dramatic battle described by the Roman historian Cassius Dio, apparently a turning point in the war on the northern frontier. He explains that Marcus’ legionaries actually clashed with the Sarmatian cavalry on the frozen surface of the River Danube, fighting them on the ice. I once heard that this scene was considered for inclusion in the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which features Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius. It wasn’t used in the end but it seems the ice battle scene was later recycled for a movie set in Roman Britain called King Arthur.

We explore Stoic techniques that help reduce anxiety, beginning with the so-called “reserve clause”, a mental strategy that involved adding a caveat like “Fate permitting” to every intended action. That leads naturally into the famous Stoic technique called premeditation of adversity, through which Marcus and other Stoics would mentally rehearse potential misfortunes each day in order to rehearse viewing them with philosophical indifference.

This chapter reviews seven different ways in which psychological techniques like premeditation can bring about beneficial psychological changes and help us overcome anxiety. We know that there are many different processes that mental imagery can potentially activate in our minds, for therapeutic change. We also compare Marcus’ life on the northern frontier to his memories of pleasant holidays in his family villas in Italy. He refers several times to the notion that the peacefulness of these idyllic retreats can be recaptured wherever he is, even in the mud and chaos of battle, if he knows how to detach his mind from externals, like the Stoics taught him.

This chapter reviews the connection between Stoic techniques described by Marcus and others and similar methods found in modern evidence-based psychotherapy, such as cognitive distancing, worry postponement and decatastrophizing. We know a lot more about how these techniques work now so with that research at our disposal we can be more specific about the best way to actually apply Stoic practices in modern life, in order to deal with worry and anxiety.

7. Temporary Madness

This chapter begins with the dramatic story of the civil war between Marcus Aurelius and one of his own generals, called Avidius Cassius. Although Marcus was almost universally remembered by Romans as an exceptionally wise and benevolent emperor, he clearly had some enemies. In The Meditations he mentions being surrounded by those who don’t share his values and would rather see him dead. There are other hints of conflict as well but the historical fact of the civil war provides conclusive evidence that Marcus faced political opposition from other powerful Romans during his reign. Marcus and Avidius Cassius were very contrasting characters. I think it’s fair to say that Marcus was more of a military dove and Cassius more of a hawk. Cassius seems to have thought Marcus was too weak and not aggressive enough against Rome’s enemies.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this incident is the speech that Cassius Dio says Marcus delivered to his gathered troops as they were preparing to march southeast and face the usurper’s rebel army in battle. Astoundingly, Marcus is shown pardoning everyone involved in the uprising against him. If that’s true it would undoubtedly have shocked his troops and was clearly a reflection of his Stoic principles regarding forgiveness and the folly of seeking revenge. Ironically, with a pardon on the table, and facing a superior army, the legions of Avidius Cassius lost their desire to fight. He was assassinated by his own officers bringing the civil war to an end only a few months after it had started. Marcus earned the trust of the men under his command through his wisdom and compassion. Cassius forced his will on others through violence, and his men were afraid of him but apparently not very loyal.

In this chapter we therefore explore the Stoic approach to empathy and forgiveness and look at how these provide remedies for anger. We know Marcus struggled with his own temper at first because he says so in The Meditations. He actually provides a neat list of ten therapeutic strategies for managing anger, which he calls ten “gifts from Apollo”, the god of healing. We go through this in detail in this chapter and compare them to similar methods used for anger management in modern cognitive-behavioural therapy.

The chapter concludes by returning to the story and the aftermath of the civil war. Marcus stood by his word and not only forgave most of those involved in the civil war but actually protected the family of Avidius Cassius from persecution. However, after Marcus’ death, his son Commodus, who was no philosopher and somewhat less forgiving, had them hunted down and burned alive as traitors.

8. Death and the View from Above

[This is an excerpt from the final chapter.]

Vindobona, March 17, 180 AD. The emperor beckons his guard to come close and whispers: Go to the rising sun, for I am already setting. He barely has enough strength to pronounce these words. Marcus glimpses fear in the young officer’s eyes. The guard hesitates for a moment before nodding awkwardly and returning to his post at the entrance to the imperial quarters. Marcus pulls the sheet above his head and rolls over uncomfortably, as if to go to sleep for the last time. He can feel death beckoning him on all sides. How easy it would be to slip into oblivion and be free from the pain and discomfort once and for all. The pestilence is devouring his frail old body from within.

He hasn’t eaten for days, weakening himself by fasting. Now, as the sun goes down outside everything is very quiet. His eyelids flutter, although the pain keeps him awake. The emperor slips in and out of consciousness. But he doesn’t die.

He thinks to himself, “Your eyes feel so heavy now — it’s time to let them close.” The sweet sensation of consciousness dissolving begins to creep over him . . .

I must have fallen asleep, or lost consciousness again. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed. Everything is dark. Soon it will be daybreak outside and the sparrows will sing their morning song. Spring has broken and the streams have thawed. Their waters flow into the mighty river passing by the camp outside.

The soldiers picture the spirit of the Danube as an ancient river god. He silently offers us all a lesson if only we pause to listen: all things change, and before long they are gone. You cannot step into the same river twice, Heraclitus once said, because new waters are constantly flowing through it. Nature herself is a rushing torrent, just like the Danube, sweeping along all things in her stream. No sooner has something come into existence than the great river of time washes it away again, only to carry something else into view. The long-forgotten past lies upstream from me now, and downstream waits the immeasurable darkness of the future, vanishing from sight.

I won’t be needing my medicines or physicians again. I’m relieved the fuss is over. The time has come to let the river wash me away too. Change is both life and death. We can try to stall the inevitable, but we never escape it. It’s a fool’s game,

With meats and drinks and magic spells To turn aside the stream and hold death at bay.

Looking back, it seems more obvious to me now than ever before that the lives of most men are tragedies of their own making. Men let themselves either get puffed up with pride or tormented by grievances. Everything they concern themselves with is fragile, trivial, and fleeting. We’re left with nowhere to stand firm. Amidst the torrent of things rushing past, there’s nothing secure in which we can invest our hopes.

You may as well lose your heart to one of the little sparrows who nest by the riverbank — that’s what I used to say. As soon as it’s charmed you, it will flit away, vanishing from sight. I once set my heart on my own little sparrows. I called them my chicks in their nest: thirteen boys and girls, given to me by Faustina. Now only Commodus and four of the girls are left, wearing grave faces and weeping for me. The rest were taken before their time, long ago now. At first I grieved terribly, but the Stoics taught me how to both love my children and endure when Nature reclaimed them. When I was mourning my little twin boys, Apollonius patiently consoled me and helped me slowly regain my composure. It’s natural to mourn — even some animals grieve the loss of their young. But there are those who go beyond the natural bounds of grief and let themselves be swept away entirely by melancholy thoughts and passions. The wise man accepts his pain, endures it, but does not add to it.

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