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Stoicism in the Time of Plague

This is a dramatized account of the events surrounding the Antoninue Plague, which spread across Europe in the late 2nd century AD. It inspired the discussion of these events in relation to Stoic philosophy found in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

A horrific plague has been ravaging the Roman empire for nearly a decade, as the First Marcomannic War begins to draw to a close. Emperor Marcus Aurelius is putting the finishing touches to the journal we call The Meditations. The odor of death still lingers in every corner of the land, albeit less now than during the initial outbreaks, and the air in towns and cities was often thick with smoke and incense. Marcus regularly casts his mind back to the time when the pestilence first appeared… The co-emperor Lucius, his adoptive brother, had persuaded Marcus to accompany him as he rode through the streets of Rome in triumph after his victory in the Parthian War. Behind them followed a train of carts displaying all the treasures seized from conquered cities, including a beautiful statue of Apollo, stolen from a Parthian temple.

To help curb the victorious emperors’ pride two trusted gladiators stood behind them in the imperial chariot, holding laurel wreaths above their heads, whispering: “Remember thou must die.” That particular Roman tradition had become associated with Stoic philosophy. The Romans embraced Greek Stoicism because it seemed to echo the sober-minded values of the old Republic. From the time of Socrates onward, philosophers had meticulously contemplated their own death, as a way of purifying their character, and focusing their attention on the here and now. It was said that when Socrates’ student Xenophon was told that his son had been killed in battle he calmly replied: “I knew that he was mortal.” Five hundred years later, the most famous philosopher in Rome, Epictetus, advised his Stoic students to say to themselves: “I knew that I was mortal”. He taught them that death in itself is neither good nor bad; it’s merely something that happens to us, not something we do. The fear of death does more harm than death itself.

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