What did the Stoic emperor actually read?
What did the Stoic emperor actually read?
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?
In his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek…
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.
Euripides in The Meditations
The tragic poets have also provided some helpful sayings. This, for instance, is particularly good: ‘If the gods have neglected me and my two sons, this too has its reason,’ and again: ‘Do not be angry with outward events,’ and this: ‘Our life must be reaped like a ripe ear of corn,’ and many another like them. — Meditations, 11.6
These quotes come from three lost plays by Euripides. They appear to have been of special importance to Marcus because they are also found, quoted more fully, in an earlier chapter of The Meditations.
The first is a quote from Euripides’ Bellerophon, of which only fragments survive.
‘Be not angry with outward events,
For they care nothing for it.’ — Meditations, 7.38
It tells the story of the eponymous Greek hero. Bellerophon appears to have lost everything, and lives in despair in a barren land. At some point, he tries to fly to Olympus on his winged horse Pegasus but falls to earth. Finally, wounded by his fall, he repents of his blasphemy against the gods.
The second is from another lost tragedy of Euripides, Hypsipyle, of which only excerpts remain.
‘Our lives must be reaped like a ripe ear of corn,
And as one comes to be, another is no more.’ — Meditations, 7.40
It tells the story of Hypsipyle, former queen of Lemnos, and lover of the hero Jason.
She is captured by pirates and sold into slavery, thereby becoming the nursemaid of Opheltes, the infant son of a Nemean priest called Lycurgus, and his wife Eurydice. Hypsipyle brings Opheltes with her to a spring, where she intends to obtain water for a sacrifice. In a terrible accident, though, the child placed in her care, Opheltes, is ensnared and killed by a monstrous serpent.
The child’s mother, Eurydice, wishes to have her put to death for neglect but is persuaded by a famous seer that her son’s death was ordained by the gods.
The third is from Euripides’ Antiope, which was lost, although many fragments have now been recovered.
‘If the gods have neglected me and my two sons,
This too has its reason.’ — Meditations, 7.41
Antiope of Thebes was a beautiful princess who was raped by Zeus, in the form of a satyr, and became pregnant. Her father, the king, committed suicide as a result.
Antiope then fled her home in disgrace and was taken far away to the city of Sicyon, in the south of Greece, by a king called Epopeus who made her his wife. Her deceased father’s brother, her uncle Lycus, pursued her, and seized her, though, taking her back to Thebes. Along the way, she gave birth to twins near Mount Cithaeron in central Greece. One the son of Epopeus and one the son of Zeus. She was forced to abandon both to the care of an elderly herdsman. Back at Thebes she was treated as a slave, and suffered terrible persecution for many years.
However, eventually she escaped and ended up taking shelter in a house in the city of Eleutherae, near Mount Cithaeron. Her two sons, who are now full-grown adults working as herdsmen, turn out to be living there. They eventually recognize their long-lost mother and save her from persecution.
Those are not the only passages Marcus quotes from Euripides, though.
‘For fortune is with me and the right.’ — Meditations, 7.42
Another fragment from an unknown Euripidean tragedy. It can also be translated as the good (to eu) is with me and the just (to dikaion). It directly follows the quote from Antiope, so it’s possible that Marcus saw the two as related. For example, it could be read: If the gods have neglected me and my two sons, this too has its reason, for the good is with me and the just. In other words, perhaps someone like Antiope doesn’t deserve to be abandoned, or punished, by the gods because she was acting virtuously, not viciously, so she consoles herself by thinking there must be another meaning to what’s befallen her.
‘The earth loves showers, and the holy ether loves [to fall in showers].’ And the universe loves to create whatever is to be; so I will say to the universe, ‘Your love is my love too.’ Is that not also implied in the expression, ‘This loves to come about’? — Meditations, 10.21
This is another fragment of Euripides, from an unknown tragedy. Marcus seems to be interpreting it here in relation to the Stoic concept of divine Providence. “Your love is my love too”, sounds like an expression of what the early Greek Stoics called “living in agreement with Nature”, or what we call today, following Nietzsche, amor fati, love of one’s fate.
‘What springs from the earth to earth returns,
But that which springs from a heavenly seed
Returns again to the heavens above.’ — Meditations, 7.50
This fragment comes from a lost tragedy by Euripides called Chrysippus, about the death of a legendary Greek hero from the region of Elis. (Not to be confused with the Stoic philosopher of the same name.) This quote could easily be in reference to the death of the main character, Chrysippus, who reputedly committed suicide out of shame after being abducted and raped by his male tutor, the legendary King Laius. It may be a reflection on the separation between his body, which has been violated, and his soul, which remains pure and returns to the heavens.
‘With meats and drinks and magic spells
To turn aside the stream and hold death at bay.’ — Meditations, 7.51
This quote is from Euripides’ Suppliants, or The Suppliant Women. This play actually survives today. It tells the story of women whose sons King Creon of Thebes has denied burial after they died in battle trying to seize control of his city. The women plead with the Athenian hero Theseus to attack Thebes and recover the corpses of their sons for burial. Eventually the remains of the dead warriors are recovered and returned to their families by Theseus.
Toward the end of the play, one of the characters, an old man called Iphis, wishes in frustration that we could live our lives twice over as the second time we would have learned from our mistakes, and would live more wisely. He then concludes by lamenting the inevitability of old age and the folly of those who desperately seek to avoid their inevitable demise by (enchanted) meats and drinks, and magic spells meant to prolong life.
It’s striking that Marcus quotes so often from Euripides because he appears also to have been of great interest to the early Greek Stoics. Euripides was a (slightly older) contemporary of Socrates. The two were viewed as connected in some way by other Athenians, e.g., as part of related cultural movements, or with Euripides actually learning philosophy from Socrates. There were even rumours that Socrates had contributed to writing of some of Euripides’ tragedies. Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, and its most prolific author, wrote many lengthy treatises and was known for citing his favourite authors very frequently.
So much so that in one of his treatises he copied out nearly the whole of Euripides’ Medea, and some one who had taken up the volume, being asked what he was reading, replied, “The Medea of Chrysippus.” — Diogenes Laertius
It’s quite possible, therefore, that Marcus became familiar with some of these passages from earlier Stoic writings, which quoted Euripides in the context of philosophical analysis of his tragedies.
Homer in The Meditations
Homer, the most influential of all Greek poets, unsurprisingly, was another favourite of the Stoics. Indeed, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, wrote a (lost) book titled Homeric Problems, spanning five volumes, and other early Stoics also wrote books concerning Homer’s texts. Nevertheless, Marcus only seems to quote Homer twice in The Meditations, a fact that perhaps serves to further highlight Euripides’ unique importance for him.
The first Homeric quote is rather cryptic:
‘ — and my heart laughed within me.’ — Meditations, 11.31
It is from The Odyssey, where Odysseus is delighted at his victory over the Cyclops. It’s impossible to tell why Marcus thought this particular phrase was so important.
The second is a shortened version of a famous passage from The Iliad. By contrast, Marcus explains exactly what it means to him, so it’s worth quoting the surrounding passage in full.
To him who is penetrated by true principles even the briefest precept is sufficient, and any common precept, to remind him that he should be free from grief and fear. For example:
“Leaves, some the wind scatters on the ground
So is the race of men.”
Leaves, also, are your children. And leaves, too, are they who cry out as if they were worthy of credit and bestow their praise, or on the contrary curse, or secretly blame and sneer. And leaves, in like manner, are those who shall receive and transmit a man’s fame to after-times. For all such things as these “are produced in the season of spring,” as the poet says. Then the wind casts them down and the forest produces other leaves in their places. But a brief existence is common to all things, and yet you avoid and pursue all things as if they would be eternal. A little time, and you shall close your eyes and soon another will lament him who has attended you to your grave. — Meditations, 10.34
Hesiod in The Meditations
Hesiod, another early Greek poet, is also quoted by Marcus.
And Faith, Modesty, Justice, and Truth have fled ‘away from the broad-pathed earth up to high Olympus’. — Meditations, 5.33
This is from Hesiod’s Work and Days.
‘They will heap reproaches on virtue, uttering wounding words.’ — Meditations, 11.32
This is also from Work and Days, although the word “virtue” has been inserted.
These passages seem to allude to the Stoic notion that the virtues are ideals, and although their “seeds” exist within all of us, everyone is tainted by folly and vice. So the Stoics believe wisdom, ironically, consists in firmly grasping the fact that none of us are wise, and that it’s therefore inevitable that men will act foolishly and even condemn virtue. Compare this to perhaps the most famous passage in The Meditations (2.1) where Marcus says that each morning he prepares himself mentally for the day ahead by anticipating that he will meet all manner of foolish and vicious people.
Unknown Poets in The Mediations
There are also several quotations from unknown sources.
‘To the immortal gods and to ourselves may you bring joy.’ — Meditations, 7.39
This implies that we should view the same thing, virtue, as bringing joy both to ourselves and to the good — it is both good for us and praiseworthy, both healthy and pious, according to the Stoics.
‘Join them not in their laments and feel no agitation.’ — Meditations, 7.43
This simply echoes the familiar view of the Stoics that we should avoid becoming “carried away” by the complaints of others, and although we may listen to them we should not “groan along with them” as Epictetus put it.
‘When a storm from the gods blows down upon us,
Man must toil and endure and not complain.’ — Meditations, 7.51
This last quotation is also quite striking and it beautifully expresses the Stoic view that we should be prepared for adversity and do our best to endure, in accord with wisdom and justice, and without lamentation or grief.
Marcus does refer to other books in The Meditations, mostly insofar as he quotes or refers to the writings of philosophers, particularly Epictetus, Heraclitus, and Plato’s dialogues portraying Socrates. Marcus was a conscientious student of the law and was definitely well-read in the literature of Roman jurisprudence, much of which was influenced by Stoic philosophy. He also appears to have enjoyed reading satires, histories, and at one point even mentions Aesop’s fable of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.
However, the quotes above from Greek epics and tragedies, though often overlooked, potentially help to amplify some of the key philosophical ideas of The Meditations. It’s striking, on closer inspection, how often Marcus quotes Euripides, and from how many of his plays. It could be that Euripides was simply one of Marcus’ favourite authors. However, as noted earlier, it’s also quite plausible that these quotes were found in earlier Stoic texts, where the provided material for philosophical discussion about their meaning.
For instance, there’s also a reference to Pindar, the Greek lyric poet, in The Meditations.
There is nothing more pitiable than the person who makes the circuit of everything and, as the poet says, ‘searches into the depths of the earth’, and tries to read the secrets of his neighbour’s soul, yet fails to perceive that it is enough to hold fast to the guardian-spirit within him and serve it single-mindedly. — Meditations, 2.13
This is a fragment of Pindar, cited by Plato in the Theaetetus, which lends support to the theory that some of Marcus’ other quotes from poetry throughout The Meditations may be second-hand and derived from earlier philosophical texts discussing them.