How to Think like a Roman Emperor

Three Easy Steps to Wisdom in the Face of Adversity

Three Easy Steps to Wisdom in the Face of Adversity

Let me tell you one of my favourite stories… Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Socrates remarked that society will never flourish until kings become philosophers, or philosophers become kings. However, there had never actually been a king who was a Socratic-style philosopher. In fact, about five hundred years elapsed before a man appeared on the world-stage whom historians would confidently call a philosopher-king. Or rather, not just a king but an emperor. His name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Emperor of Rome in the late 2nd century AD.

Marcus followed a Hellenistic philosophy called Stoicism, which was inspired by Socrates. And he left behind a record of his private philosophical contemplations, which is known today as The Meditations. Some of you may know it. Former US president Bill Clinton said it was his favourite book. The former US Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, carried a copy with him on deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My belief is that Marcus’ inner life, in The Meditations, helps us to understand his outer life, as the Emperor of Rome. I’m going to divide that into three Stoic philosophical themes, illustrated by three historical events: The Antonine Plague, The Marcomannic Wars, and The Civil War of Avidius Cassius.

1. The Antonine Plague

No sooner than Marcus had been acclaimed emperor, the Parthians invaded Rome’s ally Armenia, starting a war in the middle east. After five years, the Roman armies led by the co-emperor Lucius Verus were finally victorious and plundered the defeated Parthian cities. Marcus and Lucius rode through the streets in triumph, with the loot brought home by their legions.

As part of this ceremony, a slave accompanied them whispering the words memento mori, in their ears, “remember thou must die”. The Stoics made this into a slogan of their philosophy, which encourages us to contemplate our own mortality and focus on living in the here and now. As the poet Horace, who dabbled in Stoicism, said: carpe diem, seize the day, do not put your faith in tomorrow.

Ironically, the legions also brought back death from Parthia… in the form of smallpox, or the Antonine Plague. Over the next fifteen years, about five million people died. Yet Marcus’ only reference to the plague in The Meditations is to say that terrible though it was, it paled in comparison to the moral plague of ignorance and vice that infects many people’s minds. However, he frequently refers to the contemplation of his own mortality, and uses it as a way to focus his mind on his genuine priorities in life, and his duty as emperor.

2. The Marcomannic Wars

A few years after the Parthian War ended, another war began on the far side of the empire, the northern frontier. Millions of barbarian tribesmen from Germania and surrounding areas — the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians — started invading nearby Roman provinces, sacking their towns. Rome was thrown into crisis because in the middle of the Antonine Plague, the army was barely fit to respond.

This time, Marcus donned the military cape himself and rode forth with the legions. Unusually for a Roman emperor, he had no military training or experience whatsoever. In their initial battles, the Romans were badly defeated. However, they persevered and studied their enemy very carefully.

One of the most dramatic battles of the war was fought on the frozen surface of the river Danube. The Romans pretended to fall into a trap set by the barbarians but used a cunning new tactic to defeat them. To resist the Sarmatian cavalry charge, the legionaries would form a defensive hollow square in the midst of the frozen river. However, this time they braced their feet against a line of shields laid down behind them to secure their footing. With thousands of tribal warriors attacking them on all four sides, Marcus’ legionaries held their defensive formation and fought them on the ice, awash with blood. It was an incredibly dangerous tactic, but the Romans won, and they began to turn the tide of the war.

The empire would typically enslave captured warriors. However, in The Meditations, Marcus says that someone who takes pride in capturing barbarians is no better than a robber. Stoics are cosmopolitans, who believe that all humans are brothers and sisters, even if they don’t speak the same language. And we’re told Marcus actually resettled a great number of defeated tribesmen in the outlying regions of Italy, recruiting others into the Roman army. He actually formed an elite cavalry unit composed entirely of Sarmatian horsemen and sent them to fight my ancestors, in Britain. He was a pragmatist, who said “It’s impossible to make men exactly as we wish, rather our duty is to use them as they are.”

3. Avidius Cassius

Then another crisis rocked the empire. Marcus had to abandon the northern frontier just as he was winning when the shocking news reached him that one of his most senior generals, Avidius Cassius, had been acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion. “Fake news” had been circulated throughout the eastern provinces proclaiming that Marcus had died from the plague. The Senate immediately declared Cassius a public enemy, which threw the Roman people into a panic because they expected him to respond by marching on the capital. Suddenly Marcus was facing a civil war, three weeks’ march away. And yet, miraculously, it ended without any real bloodshed.

Every morning, Marcus used a Stoic contemplation that involved imagining himself encountering betrayal and all manner of setbacks throughout the day ahead. Stoicism requires facing all types of misfortune, in our imaginations, while retaining our equanimity, and having a “philosophical attitude” toward adversity. To the Senate’s surprise, Marcus calmly announced that he was going to forgive everyone involved in the rebellion. But Cassius didn’t back down. The legion in Egypt knew they were hopelessly outmatched when they heard that Marcus was marching against them with a massive army of veterans from the northern frontier. Knowing that he’d sworn to pardon them, they had no more reason to risk fighting. Cassius was assassinated by his own officers, who delivered his head to Marcus, and said sorry. So, ironically, Cassius was killed by kindness. Marcus kept his word and pardoned the rest of the conspirators.


These three examples are situations in which Marcus Aurelius’ inner life as Stoic philosopher can help us understand his handling of events in his outer life as Roman emperor. I believe he thought of himself as philosopher first and emperor second. As I mentioned in my introduction, politicians today still read The Meditations but I’ll leave you to ponder whether any of them actually have the wisdom of a philosopher-king.

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