What the Stoic Emperor Learned from the Athenian Philosopher
In 175 AD, probably for the first time in his life, in his mid-fifties, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, set foot in Athens. It was in fact a pilgrimage for him. During of the “War of Many Nations” he’d been fighting along the Danube frontier, he had taken a sacred oath that he would travel to Athens, if victorious, and be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Although these rites ended with initiation at the Temple of Demeter in nearby Eleusis, they began in the centre of Athens, outside the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, the ancient home of Stoic philosophy.
As Marcus stood upon the Stoa Poikile, he would have gazed across the Agora where Socrates once discussed philosophy, and where he was later put on trial, imprisoned, and executed. Beyond the Agora, Marcus would have seen the Temple of Athena known as the Parthenon. At that time a colossal statue of the goddess of wisdom looked down on Athens, from atop the Acropolis. Most of the drama of Socrates’ life had unfolded within the bounds of the Agora, under the gaze of Athena.
It must have been a humbling experience for Marcus to know that he was walking in Socrates’ footsteps. According to the Historia Augusta, the emperor had “ever on his lips” the saying attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Republic that “those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.”