The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was extremely well-read. Indeed, he urges himself several times in The Meditations, his personal notebook of philosophical reflections, to set aside his reading and focus on improving his character instead. He was clearly a bit of a bookworm. So what exactly did he like to read?
We have several Roman histories which discuss Marcus Aurelius’ life. These contain a few references to his literary interests. Indeed, one historian, Herodian, writes:
He 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. — History of the Empire
The Historia Augusta portrays Marcus quoting the Roman poet Ennius:
The state of Rome is rooted in the men and manners of the olden time. — Ennius, Annales
We also have a cache of letters between his Latin rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, and several friends, mainly Marcus Aurelius himself. In it they mention in passing several Latin writers that Marcus has read, such as Cato the Elder, Cicero, Lucretius, and even Seneca. However, there are also several prominent references to literature in The Meditations, mainly to Greek tragedies. Marcus actually prefaces some of these quotations with the following explanation of their significance to him:
At first tragedies were brought on the stage as means of reminding men of the things which happen to them, and that it is according to nature for things to happen so, and that, if you are delighted with what is shown on the stage, you should not be troubled with that which takes place on the larger stage. For you see that these things must be accomplished thus, and that even they bear them who cry out, “O Cithaeron.” And, indeed, some things are said well by the dramatic writers, of which kind is the following especially… — Meditations, 11.6
‘Ah Cithaeron!’ is from Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. As we’ll see, though, by far the majority of the quotes Marcus incorporates in The Meditations are from the Greek tragedian Euripides.
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