What my research told me about the Stoic Roman Emperor
What my research told me about the Stoic Roman Emperor
I have spent a lot of time researching Marcus Aurelius. I first read his notes about applying Stoic philosophy to daily life, the Meditations, one of the most cherished philosophical and self-help classics of all time, over 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve written six books on Stoicism — three in a row have been about the life of Marcus Aurelius! The first was a self-help book, based on vignettes from his life, called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, the most recent was a prose biography of him for Yale University Press, and between them came a graphic novel called Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, from which the illustrations in this article are borrowed. Here are some of the most interesting things I learned during my research…
1 Marcus led a dance troupe
As a young boy, Marcus was appointed to several important positions due to the influence of the Emperor Hadrian. One of them was the College of the Salii or leaping priests, a Roman religious order supposedly founded by the legendary King Numa, from whom Marcus’ family claimed descent. The Salii recited obscure chants and performed an athletic military dance, bearing archaic shields and spears, in honour of Mars, the god of war. These rituals were meant to train youths for the physical exertions of battle.
When Marcus refers to dancing in the Meditations, therefore, he’s drawing on a wealth of experience, which makes his comments much more personally meaningful. For example, being well-acquainted with both wrestling and dancing, he wrote:
The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected. — Meditations, 7.61
Marcus appears to have relished his training in dance, though, and eventually went on to become the leader of the Salii.
2 Marcus enjoyed toilet humour
In the Meditations, Marcus reflects on the evolution of Greek tragedy into Old Comedy, with its “magisterial freedom of speech,” which he says inspired Diogenes the Cynic. Marcus felt the art of comedy had gradually declined, though, into something trivial (Meditations, 11.6). In other words, he believed that old-fashioned cynical humour could serve a moral purpose.
Elsewhere, for instance, he illustrates a series of philosophical musings about the superficial nature of material wealth by quoting a scatalogical joke from the poet Menander, a representative of New Comedy, who nevertheless appeals to Marcus. It concerns a rich man who has so many possessions that there’s nowhere left for him to empty his bowels (Meditations, 5.12).
3 Marcus may have read lost books by Epictetus
The philosopher Marcus quotes most frequently is the Stoic Epictetus, who died in Greece when Marcus was still a boy at Rome, so they appear to have narrowly missed the opportunity to meet one another. Marcus tells us that his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus, gave him a set of notes from Epictetus’ lectures from his own private collection (Meditations, 1.7). As Marcus quotes several times from the Discourses of Epictetus that survive today, it’s very likely those are the texts to which he’s referring.
One ancient source tells us there were originally eight volumes of Epictetus’ Discourses whereas only four survive today…
One ancient source tells us there were originally eight volumes of Epictetus’ Discourses whereas only four survive today — half of them, in other words, are lost. Marcus, however, also quotes sayings of Epictetus that are otherwise unknown to us today, so it’s possible he had actually read the four missing volumes of Epictetus’ Discourses. Moreover, Arrian, the student who transcribed and edited the Discourses, says that originally they were circulated in private, and were not known to the public until a later date. When Marcus stresses that Rusticus gave him a copy from his private collection he may be referring to the fact that, at the time, the very existence of these scrolls was still a closely-guarded secret!
4 Marcus had reservations about Seneca
None of the surviving writings from the Stoics who came after Seneca mention his name. Marcus never mentions Seneca in the Meditations, although Seneca was very famous as Emperor Nero’s Latin rhetoric tutor, who later became his speechwriter and most senior advisor. This could be because Roman authors who write in Greek, like Marcus, tend not to cite those who wrote in Latin, like Seneca. However, we know that Marcus had read Seneca’s writings because of a cache of letters between Marcus and his own rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto.
Fronto mentions Seneca several times. Although they had much in common, as Latin rhetoric tutors to emperors, Fronto seems to despise Seneca’s writings. At one point he goes so far as to say that searching for wise sayings in Seneca’s writings would be like grubbing around in the filth at the bottom of a sewer, just to retrieve a few silver coins! Frustratingly, we do not possess the letters in which Marcus responds to these comments but it’s clear from Fronto’s letters that Marcus had read Seneca, and was perhaps defending him, at least to some extent. It’s possible that they were more familiar with Seneca’s political speeches, rather than the Moral Letters he is best known for today. See, for example, Seneca’s On Clemency, where he portrays Nero as a virtual philosopher king, insisting, somewhat brazenly, that the hands of the emperor, who had recently murdered his younger brother, Britannicus, were free from any stain of blood.
There’s a passage in the Roman historian Cassius Dio suggesting that Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition against Emperor Nero, made it known that Seneca should be subjected to damnatio memoriae, the Roman practice of eliminating someone’s name from history. While these men risked their lives opposing Nero’s tyranny, Seneca was assisting him, and defending his actions in the Senate. Epictetus, who was originally the slave of Nero’s Greek secretary had a ringside seat for the scandal that engulfed Seneca. He viewed Thrasea’s circle of Stoics as moral examplars, and may therefore have omitted mention of Seneca out of respect for them. Marcus mentions that he views Nero as a tyrant ruled by animal-like passions, so he may have followed Epictetus in distancing himself from Seneca for that reason.
5 Marcus was opposed by a faction of enemies at Rome
This is clear from the fact that he faced a civil war in 176 CE, led by his most senior general in the east, Avidius Cassius. However, Cassius did not act alone. He commanded seven legions, each of which was led by officers, including generals who would normally be of the senatorial class. He appointed his own praetorian prefects and cohorts, or personal bodyguard. He was also supported by the prefect of Egypt, the most important province in the empire. Our sources make it clear that a number of senators and other officials were involved in the faction supporting Cassius’ rebellion against Marcus.
The reasons for the civil war are unclear but the faction opposing Marcus appear to have been military hawks who felt that his handling of the protracted war along the Danube frontier had placed too much emphasis on diplomacy — Marcus was too much of a military dove or peacemaker for their liking. However, the rebellion only lasted a few months and Cassius was eventually assassinated by his own officers.
There are also several pieces of gossip critical of Marcus and his family reported in the Roman histories. Several of them, on close inspection, seem designed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his son Commodus. For example, it was rumoured that the Empress Faustina was unfaithful, and slept with sailors and gladiators. One obvious explanation was that these rumours originated in propaganda spread by the faction who instigated the civil war against Marcus and Commodus. They may have wanted to portray Commodus as an illegitimate heir to the throne, so that it would be easier for Avidius Cassius to seize power instead. As it happens, the surviving statues make it apparent that Commodus bore a striking physical resemblance to his father, casting doubt on the claim that he was someone else’s son!
6 Marcus’ mother was a highly educated woman
Marcus’ father died when he was about four years old, so other men in his family took responsibility for his upbringing, but his mother, Domitia Lucilla, also appears to have taken him back into her own care eventually. Marcus loved her dearly and she spent her final years living with him in the imperial palace of Emperor Antoninus Pius. She was a physically small but otherwise quite imposing woman. She had inherited a brick and tile factory, and clay fields, from her side of the family, making her one of the leading figures in the Roman construction industry, and probably one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Rome. Many bricks have been unearthed with her name stamped on them.
She was also an intellectual, and appears to have had a reputation as a philhellene or lover of Greek culture. Herodes Atticus, the leading figure of the Second Sophistic, and the most prominent Greek intellectual and orator of the time, was raised in the same household as her, and they seem to have remained family friends. She also seems to have been friends with Marcus’ main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus, and with his Latin rhetoric tutor, Fronto. Indeed, Fronto writes to her in Greek, addressing her as “the Mother of Caesar”, but he nervously asks young Marcus in one letter to check the grammar of his Greek because he doesn’t want to appear foolish or uncivilized. The fact that the leading Latin rhetorician of the time is intimidated when writing in Greek to Lucilla, shows that she was held in high regard as an intelligent and cultured woman.
She also appears to have taken Fronto’s young wife under her wing, as a kind of student. It’s likely that she was the patron of a salon, or circle of intellectuals, who visited their household, to discuss Greek literature, when Marcus was growing up. She probably had considerable influence over the selection of Marcus’ tutors. As it happens, in addition to the leading Greek and Latin rhetoricians of the time, there seem to be an unusual number of Stoic philosophers among Marcus’ teachers. We’re also told that he was introduced to the study of philosophy at the exceptionally young age of twelve. This may, perhaps, be evidence of his mother’s influence.
7 Marcus throws shade on two very important people
Romans often show their disapproval by omitting or removing mention of someone’s name— a practice known as damnatio memoriae, which could be viewed as an ancient precursor of “cancelling” someone! There are two very striking examples of this in the Meditations. (Not including Seneca!)
The first is the Emperor Hadrian, Marcus’ adoptive grandfather. Hadrian groomed Marcus for power, and effectively had him placed in line to the throne, after Antoninus Pius. Marcus knew Hadrian pretty well, having been brought to live in his villa for the last six months or so of his life, when his mental and physical health rapidly deteriorated, and he engaged in political purges, including against members of Marcus’ own family. Marcus absolutely heaps praise on Antoninus Pius, in Book One of the Meditations, when listing the family members and tutors he most admires. He says nothing about Hadrian. In fact, he does mention Hadrian a few times later in the book but only to use him as an example of someone once powerful, who is now long dead, and will one day be forgotten. Worse, several of the qualities Marcus praises in Antoninus appear to be implicit criticisms of Hadrian. For instance, when Marcus says things about Antoninus like “nobody could ever accuse him of being a Sophist”, it often comes across as though he wants to add the words: unlike Hadrian!
The second is Herodes Atticus, Marcus’ main Greek rhetoric tutor. Herodes was a family friend, and the leading figure of the Second Sophistic movement. He was the most celebrated intellectual in the Roman empire at that time. However, we know he was very critical of Stoic philosophy. Marcus makes no mention of him whatsoever anywhere in the Meditations. He literally has nothing positive to say about him. Instead, he praises all of his Stoic tutors, and even an unnamed tropheus, or nanny-tutor, probably a slave or freedman, who cared for him when he was a small child. The notoriously pompous Herodes would have been utterly aghast at being ignored in this way, especially when Marcus makes a point of expressing gratitude for what a nameless slave taught him.
8 Marcus may have been a budding historian
In a letter to Marcus, Fronto says in passing “I gave you advice on what you should do to prepare yourself for writing a work of history, since that is what you wished.” Moreover, Marcus seems to allude in the Meditations to having been compiling notes for a history of ancient Greeks and Romans.
Don’t be sidetracked anymore! You’re not going to read your notebooks, or your accounts of ancient Roman and Greek history, or the commonplace books you were saving for your old age. — Meditations, 3.14
We can actually glimpse clues throughout the Meditations of Marcus’ attitude toward famous Greeks and Romans, and they would have been somewhat controversial. For instance, he writes:
Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, what are they in comparison with Diogenes the Cynic and Heraclitus and Socrates? — Meditations, 8.3
He clearly prefers the philosophers and thinks the great military leaders are overrated, and somewhat morally compromised individuals, enslaved by the desire for power and glory.
9 Marcus introduced safety nets for tightrope walkers
In the ancient world, children were often trained to perform acrobatic feats for the entertainment of paying audiences. The crowds often wanted these to be as sensational and therefore dangerous as possible. One of our sources claims that Marcus Aurelius put a stop to this at Rome.
Among other illustrations of his unfailing consideration towards others this act of kindness is to be told: After one lad, a rope-dancer, had fallen, he ordered mattresses spread under all rope-dancers. This is the reason why a net is stretched them to-day. — Historia Augusta
An earlier historian, Cassius Dio, says that Marcus was famously opposed to bloodshed and therefore required the gladiators at Rome to “contend, like athletes, without risking their lives”, by fighting with blunted weapons. It’s believed that this specifically meant fighting with weapons that were able to cut but not pierce, so they would still cause superficial wounds but were less to kill and opponent.
10 Marcus was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries
The Sophist Philostratus quotes a letter which Marcus Aurelius reputedly wrote to Herodes Atticus, saying:
Do not, I say, feel resentment against me on this account, but if I have annoyed you in aught, or am still annoying you, demand reparation from me in the temple of Athena in your city at the time of the Mysteries. For I made a vow, when the war began to blaze highest, that I too would be initiated, and I could wish that you yourself should initiate me into those rites. — Lives of the Sophists
This was probably a widely-publicized event, as Marcus paid for rebuilding of the temple complex, which had been damaged during the war. The fact that he was initiated was mentioned by three different historians of the period. A bust of Marcus was placed above the main gate to the temple precinct and it still remains there as part of the ruins at modern-day Elefsina, just outside Athens.
The mysteries of Eleusis concerned the myth of the goddess Demeter, the earth mother, associated with agriculture. Several passages in the Meditations clearly evoke Eleusinian symbolism relating to ears of corn, and natural cycles of birth and death.
Life must be reaped like the ripe ears of corn. One man is born; another dies. — Meditations, 7.40
There was always an association between the Eleusinian mysteries and Stoicism as the ceremony, which lasted several days, actually began before the Stoa Poikile, the home of the Stoic school at Athens, before proceeding to nearby Eleusis.
We included most of these and many more anecdotes in our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Some of these less well-known details add richness to our understanding of Marcus’ character, and that can allow us to feel his presence more when reading the Meditations, allowing him to become a three-dimensional human being.
Enter into every man’s mind and also let every other man enter into yours. — Meditations, 8.61
By really trying to picture the events of his life, and imagine ourselves in his shoes, we can immerse ourselves more fully in his use of Stoic philosophy, as a guide to living wisely.